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Taking the plunge in Cambodia

Discovering the Kingdom’s underwater world may be easier than you think

Perhaps Cambodia's best-kept secret is the underwater world  around Sihanoukville. Whether you are an experienced diver eager to clock in additional dives or a beginner interested in checking the sport out, the Kingdom has a number of dive shops to help you organise your date with diving.

Most of the dive operators in Cambodia have set up shop in Sihanoukville because of its proximity to dive sites, which are about two to five hours away by boat from the port of Sihanoukville depending on the weather and water conditions.

Koh Rong Samloem (two hours from Sihanoukville) offers visibility of 7 to 10 metres, while Koh Tang (five hours away from Sihanoukville) offers visibility of up to 10 to 15 metres on a good day.

Scuba Nation, which opened its doors in 2002 with offices in both Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, is the pioneer of Cambodia's diving industry.

Partners Vicky Leah and Gerard Leenan have 32 years of diving experience between them and, after surveying what Cambodia has to offer, decided to open their own dive shop in Sihanoukville.

"We came to Cambodia on holiday and saw there was no organised diving. We spent six months checking out the reefs before deciding to open Scuba Nation," said Leah.

New kid on the block The Dive Shop Cambodia opened in Sihanoukville in December 2007.

The Dive Shop is owned by two Germans, Rudy Schmittlein and Irfan Arndt, who have dived in numerous exotic locations around the world before stumbling upon Cambodia. Taken by the beauty of the country, they both decided to settle down in Sihanoukville and capitalise on the surrounding islands' virtually untouched dive sites.

Eco-Sea Dive and a smaller operator Frogman Dive Center also operate out of Sihanoukville.

Both Scuba Nation and The Dive Shop Cambodia have been accredited by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and have been awarded National Geographic Dive Centre status.

Those interested in diving in Cambodia's southwestern-most province close to the Thai-Cambodian border can venture out to Koh Kong.

Initially operating out of a small dive centre in Koh Tao, Thailand, Alan Andrew and Robert Rhemrev opened Impian Divers in Koh Kong in December 2008. Both have certifications from PADI.

Challenges

As Cambodia's diving industry is not even a decade old, many dive operators face numerous challenges.

Leah admits her frustration over the lack of skilled personnel but is hopeful that with training and encouragement this will change.

The crew of Scuba Nation's two dive boats are local, and the operation's owner Leenan is quite pleased with their performance.

The Dive Shop Cambodia is proud to have trained Cambodia's first dive instructor.

Schmittlein and Arndt encouraged a local from Koh Rong Samloem to take advanced courses in diving to enable him to move from the dive master  level to the dive instructor level. They now hope that this will inspire more locals to pursue the sport and realise what career opportunities diving can offer.

Proper conservation and responsible diving are two causes that bigger operators such as Scuba Nation and The Dive Shop Cambodia are trying to champion by being Go-Eco Operators and active members of Project Aware, an environmental project of PADI.

"In everything we do, we always look for the environmentally friendly option," said Leah.

After research trips to Indonesia and Malaysia to study methods of reef restoration, Scuba Nation has recently anchored the first trial artificial reef close to the islands off the southwestern coast of Cambodia.

"Although the reefs in Cambodia are generally healthy, there is some cause for concern due to rising sea temperatures, pollution and the residual effects of dynamite fishing. Our trial artificial reefs are situated in different areas and depths and use supports of different heights to ascertain the optimum height, current and depth for growth of coral," Leah said, estimating that in three months the trial  should provide her with enough data to successfully create larger permanent artificial reefs.

One of the projects initiated by Schmittlein and Arndt from The Dive Shop include beach and marine clean-up days.

They are also  raising funds for a school near Koh Rong Samloem, the area where they do most of their diving.  

The Dive Shop Cambodia hopes to establish a long-term relationship with the school so the students develop an appreciation for the unique environment they are in and learn about sustainable livelihood.

"We hope to be able to demonstrate to local people and to the government the benefits that tourism can bring, and encourage them to fish in ways that will help retain as much of Cambodia's wonderful marine life as possible," said Schmittlein.


Nudibranch (sea slug). PHOTO SUPPLIED

Underwater coral. PHOTO SUPPLIED

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