Wicked Diving on Ethics, Responsible Tourism and Organic Products

Divers may be pleased to know that dive centres are going big on ethics and translating their principles into action. Mallika Naguran travels to Thailand to meet Wicked Diving and plunges into their world.

Khao Lak, 20 May 2011. There are many dive centres that claim to be “eco” and there are those who actually are ecology-orientated. Sadly there aren’t that many of them around as far as I am aware.

To most, being “eco” means being guardians of the sea according to marine conservation policies put out by Green Fins, Project Aware, ECOlogical and the like, with environmental considerations such as proper waste disposal, recycling and water saving initiatives too.

Wicked Diving staff on a normal day.

However some dive centres - such as Wicked Diving in Khao Lak, Thailand and Komodo, Indonesia - take the running of an ethical business in a 360 degree perspective. They embrace the many aspects that come into play in running a business that relies entirely on nature - and what Planet Earth can often ill afford. Obviously stresses on the environment are huge in running scuba diving operations because of the basic mechanics of logistics, travel, transportation (flights, vans, boats) and accommodation.

But Wicked Diving has a comprehensive responsible tourism policy. Something not many dive centres have. And it abides by it.

“It’s not CSR - that’s embarrassing,” exclaims founder Paul Landgraver. “Instead, it’s a morally responsible thing to do.”  He hopes that by also setting an example, others will take a leaf out of Wicked Diving’s book to incorporate them into their own operations. Landgraver started his Khao Lak operations in 2006 and is now setting up a new base to run liveaboard dive trips in Komodo.

The question is, can a small dive centre of around 30 staff in Southeast Asia make a difference, not just a positive difference, but a considerable impact that influences behavioural changes, alters mindsets and improves living conditions for man and beast? It appears possible.

Community Building

GHRE in Khao Lak, Thailand champions human rights, education for the marginalised and poor.

Wicked Diving’s operation in Khao Lak could very well set the tone for what an eco dive centre can or should be. Its responsible tourism policy is broadly categorized in three areas: Environmental, Social and Economic. To get its act pointed in the right direction, Landgraver asked Samantha Tyers of reallysavvy  to develop a sustainable policy framework that was fleshed out into their ethical code of practice, and spelled out on their website. Reallysavvy consults in responsible tourism specialising in the diving industry.

Khao Lak, like a number of rural provinces in Thailand, has fair infrastructure, average or below average living conditions for locals, and in a number of areas, abject poverty. On Boxing Day in 2004, Khao Lak became a victim of the treacherous Tsunami that killed 360,000 people around the world.

Seven years on, lives are picking up for the ones who survived, however a number of them are widows, widowers or orphans. Recognising that these communities can be left behind with lack of funding and resources, Wicked Diving sought to help specific groups of people with the hope of improving their economic conditions. They do this by investing in the local community, not living off it.

Baan San-Fan Orphanage in Khao Lak heads towards a sustainable organic trade.

“Soaps used at the dive shop and on the boats are phosphate-free and handmade by a cottage industry of women, mostly widows who are victims of the Tsunami,” says Landgraver. A cooperative called Andaman Discoveries was formed with help from governmental relief aid and support from local businesses such as this dive company.

Wicked eyes then turned towards supporting the under-resourced Baan San-Fan Orphanage in Khao Lak. There, some 40 children are given educational and welfare support from donations. To steer them towards financial independence and sustainable operations, Wicked Diving shared its knowledge of soap making with the orphanage. The idea grew and grew.

“We told them about our needs and we worked over the season to test different products. Right now we are getting all our jam and honey from them, and we hope to develop new products for our 2011/2012 dive season,” says Landgraver.

Baan San-Fan Orphanage also had land to spare, which sparked more ideas. Landgraver and his team talked to them about expanding their existing free-range chicken farm, which they currently use to supply their own kitchens, to increase the productino of organic and free-range eggs.  “They didn't even understand why we'd pay more for eggs from them, but they seem to finally get it. So now we should have a supply of free-range organic eggs to supply our boats by season start in November,” he grins.

Spreading the Word

Landgraver says that this new initiative has captured the interest of other organisations, like the Grassroots Human Rights, Education & Development (GHRE) which is now keen on supplying tourists with handmade goods. “We are hoping that we can supply them with other product ideas that we can use,” he adds. In fact, word has gone around about the natural produce, creating a new demand.

Wicked Diving dive master trainees take on eco projects as part of their course.

“By making this ‘public’, several dive operators in town have asked us about the source of the things we get and if they can get some as well. So, should this trend continue, the shift to more and more sustainable local sourcing should accelerate,” he tells Gaia Discovery.

Other ecologically safe products purchased by the dive centre are organic unbleached cotton sheets and towels, biodegradable shampoos, conditioners and non-toxic, natural detergents. Wicked Diving’s boats (including the Similan liveaboard) and trucks all use biofuels or mixed biofuels grade. Guests are often invited to take part in environmental projects such as beach and reef cleanups.

Then there’s community work. Community work extends to Summer Camps and to teaching migrant Burmese laborers’ children. The dive centre also sponsored uniforms to the GHRE Youth Outreach School for Burmese Children and educates them about marine life and how they can help to conserve it.

Whale shark and manta research are among a few educational projects supported by Wicked Diving.

In fact part of the dive master training incorporates a community project that revolves around the environment or guest safety.  This goes way beyond PADI requirements of a dive master training.

I asked a dive master trainee (DMT) on what she thought about this. “Our project is to teach the kids to turn waste materials into something useful, which they could use at home or sell to earn some pocketmoney,” says Alix Green, a DMT who was clearly enjoying her unusual task. This project is outside of a typical DMT; challenging norms is something Landgraver sees as the way to break through environmental lethargy.

When I visited the centre, the dive master trainees were showing off their own handmade creations – chandelier made of straws, an arty piggy bank made of used drinking plastic bottles, and a “badminton net” made out of elastic bands – before they set off to the orphanage to share with them the art of making these recycled artifacts.

“Part of our responsibility and ethics is that we hire and develop people who will eventually represent us. We have a responsibility towards our community,” says Landgraver. “So our DMTs learn how to make an impact as dive professionals. They become role models, way beyond strutting about in bikini,” he adds.

Dreams coming True

Wickedest of them all - Paul Landgraver.

Landgraver and wife Karin started dive operations in 2006, right after the tsunami, with just six sets of equipment, but with the idea of helping Khao Lak folks recover their dreams. They started with a clear 10% profit contribution policy. That contribution philosophy has not changed to this day, as funds are channeled towards supporting communities in which they operate such as education, nurturing children who go to gifted school programmes, and summer camps.

It also supports whale shark and manta ray research (the latter with Andrea Marshall of Marine Mega Fauna society). To date, Wicked Diving has spent nearly $25,000 on all its environmental projects and commitments. And that does not include organic or natural product purchases for guests. But Landgraver is quick to highlight, "not all changes need a lot of cash. Some changes can be done very easily and have a positive impact."

“Each time you join us on a tour, you help make a difference. With so many projects to choose from, we narrow our efforts to just a few that have the largest positive impact on the community and ecosystems,” asserts Landgraver.

So next time you travel or dive, ask your tour operator or dive centre if they have a responsible tourism policy. If they don’t, show them this article.

That’s one small contribution you, as a traveller, can do to change our world for the better.

Photos courtesy of Wicked Diving.

For more information, visit The GHRE Youth Outreach Schoolfor Burmese Children (http://www.ghre.org/en/programs/education/328-youth-outreach/)

View Wicked Diving’s Responsible Tourism Policy here:


View Samatha Tyer's services at www.reallysavvy.com.