Dive Voluntourism

DiVo is based in Australia. Its aim is to bring more recreational divers to active marine conservation and research participation.

DiVo also collaborates with marine conservation and research groups to originate projects where divers can participate hands-on in marine conservation and studies and have a dive with a difference to make a difference.

May Cat at Eng Neo

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Dreaming the dream…

Recognise this? You’re back from a beautiful dive trip, wistfully recalling the simple life of thatched huts, bare feet and just diving. You know you should be clicking down the tottering email inbox. Instead, the mouse hovers over Google.

In my case, I searched “dive+volunteer”. Part of it was Robinson Crusoe escapism—life after the corporate world where I could pursue my passion for diving, saving the oceans of the world in the process. But part of it was also that I was looking for a different type of dive from the usual recreational dive, short of becoming a marine biologist or commercial diver.

Google didn’t throw up anyone in Asia or Australia doing this sort of thing, so I thought, I’d just start one.

So, what does a corporate warrior do to turn into an eco-warrior?

Living the dream…

First, set your own expectations and targets. If it is a passion, don’t expect to make money. But you can’t keep throwing money at it either, so I keep an eye on a stop-loss dollar threshold.

Not many understand why I do this if I don’t make money. When potential collaborators ask me— what do I get out of this—I know exactly where they are coming from. They don’t want entrepreneurial sharks latching onto their non-profit cause and making money out of it.

Yet, answering this question involves going into personal detail about where I am financially, which I don’t usually explain to friends let alone strangers! Getting DiVo’s registration as a non-profit environmental organisation is an important step in establishing DiVo’s credibility.

Second, buy a camper-van. If you are on the road 120 days out of 365 traversing the Australian coastline looking up conservation groups and causes, multiply that by $80 per motel night, and you get the economics of buying a camper-van. I spent A$3,888 (lucky Chinese number) buying one from a nice Canadian couple, gave Ivan the Van a sex change to Ivana the Tramp, and since last August, notched up 22,000km with Ivana. In order to contextualise 22,000km: Sydney to London is around 17,000km. I sleep in Ivana while on the road, and every morning, I run and swim on a different beach.

Third, look up strangers and say, hello, I want to do this, will you work with me? I started from scratch looking up individuals who were involved in the pioneering early days of dive voluntourism. I was surprised by the kindness of strangers.

Pete Faulkner, the current chairman of Coral Cay Conservation (a UK-based organisation pioneering reef research by volunteers for 20 years), happened to live in Queensland, so I went up to see him. He also turned out to be my Reef Check Australia trainer. Through Pete, I got to learn about Tony Fontes, a PADI instructor trainer who also co-founded the Order of the Underwater Heroes or OUCH, a dive volunteer group in Queensland, and as a result I am a graduate of Tony’s instructor boot camp.

A nice dive agent in Cairns, Dirk Werner-Lutrop of Diversion Travel, introduced me to John and Linda Rumney who are pioneers in marine research tourism through the famous liveaboard, Undersea Explorer. Through them, I learnt a lot about operating in the eco-diving world of funding science and documentary-making through tourism.

The young manager of a marine research station on Orpheus Island, Haley Burgess, put me in touch with her PhD supervisor, Pete Woods, an authority on marine research tourism who fortuitously turned out to be a good friend of the Rumneys.

When I looked up SURG in Coffs Harbour, the president, Bob Edgar, was embarking on a project on the standardisation of volunteer data collection protocols in New South Wales (NSW), and through Bob, I got to learn about community watch groups in NSW.

But the best way to get to know people in dive volunteering is to be a dive volunteer. I am involved in many dive volunteer groups: Reef Check Australia based in Queensland, URG Sydney, SURG in Coffs Harbour NSW, Reef Life Survey a pan-national network, BURG in Byron Bay NSW, PURG in Port MacQuarie NSW—URG, by the way, stands for underwater research group, a moniker unique to New South Wales dive clubs who also do research and conservation. This is only way to build up contacts and trust. You cannot desktop these things.

By the way, just trawling the net—like I did in the beginning—will be an inefficient exercise. A dive volunteer group may not have a website, or if it does have one, it probably would have been set up for its members in-the-know and not be search engine-optimised. Still, search engine-optimisation (or SEO, for those who have been there and done it) is an art, not a science.

Just when you thought it all sussed by capturing keywords relating to “dive”, “Australia”, “Great Barrier Reef”, “marine conservation” and whatever else that the SEO mining experts tell you, you start to learn that maybe, your target audience responds better to “eco”.

There were a fair number of no-email replies, too. Generally, environmental and community groups were responsive. But bigger institutions operating within more formal parameters probably could not engage on volunteer initiatives for various reasons.

The reality of dive volunteering

When I started DiVo, I hadn’t done any dive volunteering before. I just thought I would be pretty good at it. Good buoyancy, able to multi-task, frog kicker with reef friendly dive technique, PADI pro. What else would be needed? Actually, the reality is this—the actual diving.

My first impression of volunteer diving was that you spent a lot of time hovering upside down. My initiation into the world of volunteer diving was at a Reef Check Australia training camp at the James Cook University Research Station at Orpheus Island off Townsville. There, we first learnt reef-friendly diving practices.

The classic underwater posture was fins up to avoid contact with the coral, while writing on a slate upside down. Given that surveys can be in the shallows of five meters or less, try doing this while combatting a surge.

Reef Check Australia usually does two transects. One buddy team would do a substrate survey, where a diver would move a plumbline along the transect while the other diver notes the type of substrate underneath. The other buddy pair would do a count of specific invertebrates (such as sea cucumbers, banded coral shrimp, lobster, urchins, starfish, giant clams, triton and trochus shells) swimming along the transect in an S-curve.

Some dive volunteer groups—such as ....



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