First and foremost, it is important to note that thousands of people, scuba divers and not, travel the world daily in perfect safety. That being said, taking a few precautions while on the move can go a long way. Aside from the obvious (don’t carry all your cash on you, back up your important documents, etc.), here are a few tips we’ve picked up on our travels.
Don’t look like a (wealthy) tourist
Yes, you’re on vacation, and you’re enjoying it. But if you travel to parts of the world where security might be an issue, you might want to tone down the holiday look a bit. Living in the industrialized world and making an average income makes you quite wealthy compared to the locals in many places. This makes you a target for thieves, muggers and panhandlers. Of course, if you’re a 6’2” Caucasian like me, you will never look truly local in Southeast Asia. But there are other options. A little research can help you find out what kind of expats live in a given country — language teachers, travel guides, foreign aid workers, etc. All of these groups live and work in the country, and so are less vulnerable to mugging than a tourist carrying his entire travel budget on his person. So adopt the style of any local groups that you can pull off, and you’ll automatically become much less interesting to potential thieves. I often buy a T-shirt or polo from whatever dive center I’m diving with. Combining this with a bit of local inspiration in your other attire, or simply dressing more like someone who’s going to work, rather than a luxury resort, can help a lot. Dressing like a (penny-pinching) backpacker also works well.
Keep your camera safe
Divers often travel with camera gear that can have substantial value if re-sold, which makes them obvious targets for theft. There are, however, a few things you can do to make your gear less obvious. First of all, don’t carry your camera in a branded bag. A shoulder bag emblazoned with the word Nikon or Canon is a dead giveaway that you’re carrying something expensive. Put your camera in a non-descript bag, and replace the branded neck strap, too. To make your camera less attractive when you take it out in public, make it look less-than-brand-new. Put a few strips of masking tape on it, in places that don’t interfere with controls. A thief will have a harder time re-selling a broken camera, so if they suspect that yours is held together with nothing but hope and tape, they’ll look for another option. And the masking tape comes off easily and with no marks when you get home.
Keep your scuba gear safe
The same general rules go for dive gear. Buying a flashy trolley gear bag, filled with logos, is an easy way to signal that you’re carrying expensive stuff. A more non-descript bag, ideally one that has seen some mileage, is less conspicuous. I’m a big fan of Fourth Element’s travel duffel, which is simple, black, and has a very, very discreet logo. It also carries easily on the back and weighs only about two pounds.
Think about signals
Appearance goes beyond just not looking too wealthy. Quite a few male divers favor buzz cuts, as the military-style haircut is easy to deal with when you spend a lot of time in and out of water. But in some parts of the world, that hairstyle is very much a military thing, which can cause problems with authorities. One former travel companion had such a hairdo, and would often travel in cargo pants and a T-shirt, and with a military-style backpack. And I saw him stopped at border crossings, in airport security and at checkpoints more times than I can count. In countries where police and security personnel might be a bit on edge, you want to look like someone who is not a threat.
Listen to the Brits
Most countries have foreign offices that formulate travel threats and risk assessments for individual countries. While you should always consult these before traveling, I’ve often found the British Foreign Offices to be very useful. The detailed information and its relevance is a notch above most other countries. Combine their cautions with your own government’s service for a complete idea of what you need to be aware of.
Wash your hands
This one is as common sense as they come, but it warrants repeating. The majority of illnesses, in particular of the gastrointestinal kind, that people suffer while traveling can be traced back to poor hand hygiene. So keeping them clean is our first line of defense against any sort of disease transfer, particularly in foreign countries where hygiene may not be that great and our immune system is bombarded by bacteria and viruses that it isn’t accustomed to. In fact, hand washing is so important that the CDC has an entire web page dedicated to teaching us how. So take a few minutes to learn — the dive vacation you save may be your own.