Unregulated for 13 years, Pattaya’s sea-walker diving companies again under scrutiny following tourist death

Friday, 11 April 2014 From Issue Vol. XXII No. 15 By  Warunya Thongrod

Pattaya officials are again promising to crack down on Koh Larn “sea walker” tour companies after yet another underwater death of a foreign tourist.

Koh Larn officials say an unnamed Indian tourist went out on sea walking tour and died of heart failure on the morning of February 27.

Deputy Mayor Ronakit Ekasingh and Watchara Jiemanukul of the Pattaya Marine Department met with operators of all 12 sea-walker companies March 12 at city hall. The companies offer tourists opportunities to walk on the ocean bottom using helmets and surface-supplied air.

Deputy Mayor Ronakit Ekasingh (left) presides over a safety meeting with local sea walker operators.Deputy Mayor Ronakit Ekasingh (left) presides over a safety meeting with local sea walker operators.

The meeting was ordered by Chonburi Gov. Khomsan Ekachai after reports an Indian tourist died on a recent tour, again casting a harsh light on Pattaya’s marine-safety record. Despite more than a decade of occasional scrutiny and promises of reform, the city’s sea-walker business remains unregulated with firms operating without any government oversight.

“The governor has become increasingly worried since now implemented zoning models to increase safety for swimmers and jet skis, but safety in sea-walker diving has not been mentioned and no regulations have been implemented,” Ekasingh said. “This meeting was to invite businesses to reach an understanding regarding safety standards, prices, service quality and inspection of the number of operating businesses.”

He said various agencies also were invited to discuss measures, issue regulations and guidelines to handle accidents, control the number of service providers by setting up a committee, and establish a sea-walker club to self-regulate the industry.

The recent death certainly was not the first by a sea-walking tourist in Pattaya. In 2010, another Indian tourist also died during an excursion. In both the 2010 and 2014 cases, the operator told customers and authorities the diver died of heart failure, not due to any equipment failure.

“Before he entered the water we asked the tourist whether he suffered from any disease. The dead man and his wife confirmed they did not,” said Thanwat Thittirattasaj, a representative from Jack & Joy Co., the sea-walker tour company on which the tourist died.

Local, regional and national officials have been aware of the risks posed by unregulated sea-walking businesses since 2002, when the Science and Technology Institute and Tourism Authority of Thailand met in Pattaya to say that sea-walker companies could operate, but must coordinate with the standards set by the authorities.

The Pattaya Mail reported in 2002 that authorities a year earlier had introduced restrictions on sea-walking activities due to the dangers involved. They also sued some sea-walker companies that were operating without regard to safety standards, saying that some companies were providing extremely low standards of service. Operators used equipment that did not come up to specifications and were risking human lives. The matter was brought to the attention of the TAT.

The controversy flared again in 2006 when Bangkok scientists urged authorities to set up a working committee to oversee sea-walking businesses at Koh Larn following a report that they were killing coral and marine life. After permission from TAT was given to the operators, no one bothered to monitor what the companies were doing under water, a Kasetsart University professor claimed.

Eight years later, little has changed. Ekasingh confirmed that “sea-walker diving is still an activity that that has not been approved by any agency. Hence, there has to be a safety inspection conducted plus the Marine Department has to study the boat-registration guidelines.”

The deputy mayor said he was saddened by the tourist’s death, but pledged - as officials have done for 12 years - that the most-recent death will be used as an incentive to ensure it will never happen again.

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