A well-known British underwater photographer and his company have come under heavy fire from divers who say they have been duped over international dive-trip payments, and from workshop presenters and dive-operators who claim to have been left seriously out of pocket.
The accusations against Adam Hanlon of Wetpixel.com are contained in the latest issue of the US subscription-only diving newsletter Undercurrent – though Hanlon has been in touch with Divernet to challenge aspects of the article.
We also hear from another well-known underwater photographer, Dr Alex Mustard MBE, who has not only gone unpaid for workshops he carried out but been affected by the falling-out with an old friend.
Wetpixel originated in the USA as an underwater photography and videography website and, now owned and edited by Hanlon, of Heysham, Lancashire, it claims a community of “over 35,000 underwater image-makers”.
Through the business, which limited its liability when it became Wetpixel Ltd in late 2018, Hanlon also organises overseas group dive-trips for Wetpixel members. He is not a licensed travel agent, or insured under British or EU law with ATOL/ABTA, as the Undercurrent feature points out. Companies House lists Wetpixel Ltd as carrying out “tour operator activities”.
The article also says that Hanlon claimed to hold members' money in trust so that they could get a better group discount on bookings, though he has denied to Divernet ever making such a claim or using those terms.
He further points out that organising travel was not a new undertaking for Wetpixel, and that it had long done so even before he had been involved with or bought the company.
Trips to Indonesia
Last year a group of divers who had paid a “hefty sum” for a Wetpixel trip to Indonesia, including crew tips, arrived to board the liveaboard Damai, where Hanlon was supposed to be running a workshop. But he had neither confirmed the trip with, nor paid, owner Alberto Reija, according to Undercurrent.
Reija went ahead with the trip anyway but told the writer of the article, John Bantin, that he was still waiting to be paid in full. His emails to Hanlon had been ignored, he said, and he had ended up having to tip his own crew. The guests had been informed about what had happened only this April.
Hanlon has told Divernet that the charter was both paid for and confirmed. “Due to several late cancellations by individuals booked on the trip, the charter did not sell through with three spaces (25%) that were not filled,” he says. “Unfortunately, Damai’s owners were unwilling to factor this into the charter fee and insisted on payment for a full charter.
“Due to this, Wetpixel was unable to pay the full amount (there is a balance of less than 10% of the total fee) nor were the monies earmarked for tips available.”
Also in Indonesia, back-to-back photo-workshops at Lembeh Resort by Alex Mustard assisted by Hanlon, marketed through Wetpixel but postponed from 2020 because of Covid, had been rescheduled for March 2023.
Mustard is a doyen of the underwater photography world with a reputation for running world-class seminars, and most of the 28 divers had already paid in full in 2020.
The resort’s owner Danny Charlton told Undercurrent that “innumerable” messages and calls asking Hanlon for prepayment and attendee details had been ignored.
He said he was cautious because Hanlon had been reluctant to pass on pre-paid gratuities on a previous trip in 2018, eventually providing tips amounting to only about 3% of the guests’ costs.
Because Lembeh Resort had still not been paid, when the guests arrived they were required to use their own credit cards, according to the article. Charlton said he was eventually paid “some but not all” of the debt, and Mustard was quoted as saying that he had not been paid for this and other trips he had run on behalf of Wetpixel.
Hanlon has since claimed to Divernet that Lembeh Resort had been paid in full for the workshops, and that taking credit-card imprints from guests was standard procedure at most resorts to cover extras. He said that he could supply bank statements to support his claim over this as well as the Damai liveaboard bookings.
“The trip was originally booked pre-Covid and sold out immediately,” he says. “The small bespoke nature of these trips means that they rely on being full, to not run at a significant loss.”
Mid-way through the first workshop on 14 March, he says that Wetpixel received a message from the Lembeh Resort team stating that it had applied its cancellation policy for some reserved rooms that had remained vacant and could not be filled at short notice, and that the invoice had been adjusted accordingly.
“At this point, Wetpixel was actively refunding individuals,” insists Hanlon. “Wetpixel’s trips factored in a basic tip for staff. However, the above meant that the monies earmarked for tips were not available.”
Hanlon's comment on Charlton’s “3% tips” claim was that this had occurred prior to Wetpixel Ltd taking ownership of Wetpixel. While agreeing that Mustard was still owed the workshop fees, he claimed that this was the only money Wetpixel owed him, and that the assertion in Undercurrent that he “wasn’t paid for this and several trips he ran on behalf of Wetpixel” was incorrect.
In the article, Austrian diver Wolfgang Schreibmayer was said to have expressed concern on social media that after paying in full for his wife and himself on a Red Sea VIP One liveaboard trip running this September, he had learnt from the operator that other passengers had been booked in the couple’s place, because Hanlon had not made the due payment.
A number of other customers claiming to have been left high and dry are quoted in the article. Canadian Paul Sambier said he was still owed $10,000 for trips cancelled in 2020 because of Covid but, having trusted Hanlon because he was Mustard’s agent, had left it too late to claim on his travel insurance.
Not all insurers would be of help, in any case. US diver John Davis had paid $8,600 nearly a year ago for a trip this September, not including airfares and transit hotels. When he learnt that the trip had been cancelled, according to the article, his travel insurer had told him that it did not cover cancellation “resulting from fraud by trip organisers”.
“Apart from the financial loss and my ruined family trip, I am astounded that someone I’d known for 16 years would do this,” he told Undercurrent.
“Being in Vanuatu, it is very difficult and costly for me to recover this $5,000 for the trip I paid for in January 2020,” another diver, John Warmington, told Undercurrent. “My only saving grace will be the knowledge that he is removed from the industry and stopped from doing this to anybody else.
“Since March, the only correspondence has been after he replied to a final demand from me with a response that he was too sick to handle it.”
Too sick to respond
Hanlon was stated to have asked many of his disgruntled customers for patience on the grounds that he was seriously unwell. Divernet has seen a document recording that the 56-year-old was admitted to hospital with an anterior myocardial infarction, or heart attack, on 21 July, 2022.
When Bantin called Hanlon recently to get his side of the story, he says he replied that he was too ill for an in-person interview. Bantin wrote that he later dropped into the Capernwray inland site in Lancashire to be told that Hanlon was under water, conducting a training course.
Hanlon has run a diver-training business called The Dive School @ Capernwray since 1998, though in the article the owner of Capernwray Dive Centre was “at pains to point out” that it had no connection with Hanlon other than use of its facilities.
Hanlon told Divernet that Bantin had rung him on 29 August to request an interview two days later, but that he had a scheduled hospital appointment that day.
“I refute that I said that I was ‘too ill’ – he did not offer any alternate dates,” he says. “It seems strange that after driving 262 miles in order to ‘call on me unannounced’, Mr Bantin was unwilling to hang on for an hour or so until I surfaced after any purported dive in order to actually talk to me.
“I can only suggest that the ‘dive-site operative’ was mistaken when he or she said that I was under water, as this was not the case.”
The Wetpixel owner also denies a claim by a former client in the Undercurrent article that after his heart attack he had “published” details of several upcoming trips despite knowing that he would be unable to dive.
“No new trips were or have been advertised, planned, published or organised by Wetpixel subsequent to 21 July, 2022,” he told Divernet. “The Red Sea trips failed due to my ill-health. Wetpixel is working with the individuals concerned to facilitate a satisfactory outcome.”
A planned tiger shark trip to the Bahamas with Epic Diving mentioned in the article had taken no deposits and would not run, he said.
Hanlon is quoted in the article as stating that “Wetpixel Ltd has physical assets that can and will be liquidated to repay creditors”, suggesting that this process was already underway.
Wetpixel had a number of potential purchasers, he told Bantin, and its sale would “alleviate the liquidity problem too, or at least go a significant way towards doing so”.
Asked why he was continuing to accept payments and failing to reimburse clients, he had denied that Wetpixel was in trouble, though he did claim that problems had arisen as the result of making a pre-Covid investment in an unnamed Asian dive-centre.
“It seems, at first, Hanlon failed to pass on the money he had collected in advance for dive-staff gratuities,” concludes Undercurrent. “He upped his game by failing to pay resorts and liveaboards and finally descended into keeping his clients’ money and not booking them.”
The newsletter estimates that Hanlon now owes more than US $100,000 to creditors, though Alex Mustard believes the amount could be considerably higher.
Mustard, understood to be personally more than US $12,000 out of pocket as a result of non-payment by Hanlon, said in the article: “Many of us considered him a close friend and feel very sad and shocked by this. If he were in financial problems, most of us would have happily given him credit until he could repay. But he just totally stopped responding to communications.”
Asked for his take on the situation by Divernet, Mustard said: “I am well-known – so have been a focus – but I am really not that typical in all this, as it is mostly guests and dive-staff who have lost the most.”
He said it was Wolfgang Schreibmayer, the loyal Wetpixel customer who learnt that Wetpixel had not booked his places on VIP One, who had then “done some digging” and “discovered that Adam was not ill, but back working daily, teaching diving to students at Capernwray”, said Mustard.
Schreibmayer also discovered that Hanlon had made no contact with VIP One, and he had no idea how many bookings had been taken for the trip – “possibly more than there would be spaces, given these trips are usually very popular.
“When Wolfgang shared this it got people talking, and everyone quickly realised that their individual issues with Adam were not one-offs because he was ill. As is often the case, people feel foolish and don’t want to talk.”
Of the 2023 Lembeh Resort photo workshops, he reiterated that Hanlon had ignored repeated requests from Danny Charlton requesting numbers attending, rooms required and prepayment, and said that when the guests showed up, Lembeh had yet to be paid in full.
But Mustard added that it was only when he was already on his way to the airport that Hanlon had messaged him to say that he was too ill to travel – leaving him to run the two nine-day workshops on his own.
“When I arrived at Lembeh Resort without Adam, Danny asked me to check in with him about the gratuities because, Danny told me, he had been slow to pay them in 2018 and, with him suddenly not attending, they wanted to raise the matter.
“This was a surprise, as I had assumed that Adam usually paid this gratuity while in the resort – as he always reminded the guests that they had already paid and he was taking care of it.” Wetpixel said it did this to save guests having to carry large amounts of cash, he says.
“I don’t know the amount that Adam billed the guests for this but, since Wetpixel was loyal to a small number of resorts and liveaboards and most of the guests were regulars, I assumed it was generous – 10% of the resort and diving costs as a minimum, which adds up to a lot of money across a big group.”
Mustard says he reminded Hanlon about the tips issue while still in Lembeh, and was assured that he would be sending the money.
“They remain unpaid,” he says, adding that despite Hanlon not showing up he had also failed to refund his own flight and teaching costs to the guests “and didn’t pay me for my flight costs or teaching fees, which was another substantial amount.” These payments for the two nine-day courses were, he confirmed, the totality of what he was owed by Hanlon.
It was from this point on that a “black-out” had occurred, says Mustard, Hanlon having “totally stopped communicating with anyone, even deleting his Facebook profile”.
“Adam had told everyone that he was seriously unwell and everyone believed him. He hadn’t been online since March/April, which made sense if he was ill. He couldn’t reply to emails or speak on the phone; couldn’t go to the bank to pay people he owed. He was a friend; we were all worried he had had a stroke or something.
“There were lots of people having problems with Wetpixel, but everyone was keeping it to themselves until mid-August, thinking themselves an isolated incident. Once we compared notes, it was clear Adam was keeping lots and lots of money from Wetpixel trips, and it seems to have been going on for about a year, and is escalating.
“On top of this, there are quite a lot of people on these trips who booked and then cancelled. He resold their spots and then never refunded them as agreed. When people posted about this on Wetpixel, he would delete the threads and ban them as members.”
Hanlon maintains that he is taking steps to remunerate his creditors. “Despite the social media furore, I am working to ensure that those that are owed monies are being repaid,” he has told Divernet.
Any divers with serious concerns about international travel bookings are encouraged to contact Action Fraud, which is not restricted to those based in the UK.