If there is a scuba diver out there who has a better collection of passport stamps than Karin Sinniger, they have yet to make themselves known.
With recent dives carried out in the unlikely locations of Eritrea, Afghanistan, Libya, Tajikistan and Somalia, the underwater explorer has added a further 78 nations to her tally since claiming a world record for number of countries scuba-dived 10 years ago.
At 59, the corporate lawyer says she has logged more than 1,500 dives in 193 different countries. “I really like the hard-to-get-to places where it is logistically challenging to arrange dives,” she has said. “You never know when you might find that awesome dive that will live in your memory forever.”
Born in Hong Kong to Swiss parents, Sinniger has Swiss, US and British citizenship. She grew up in Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines, often near the sea where she snorkelled as much as she could, though she was not allowed by her parents to learn to scuba dive.
She studied law at Oxford and George Washington and, by the time she had embarked on her professional career on Wall Street, found that time to study diving was at a premium.
“New York being the city that never sleeps, there was a dive-shop offering classes from 11pm to 1 am,” she explained years later to PADI. “And because the pool-rental fees during those hours were so low, they charged only $99 to get certified!” This was in 1992, and she went on to become a PADI Divemaster.
It was another 13 years before Sinninger decided to embark on her record-breaking quest, but in February 2013 she claimed the record for countries scuba-dived in territory belonging to her 115th diving destination, India, where she joined an ocean-swimming elephant under water in the Andaman Islands.
Her globe-trotting achievement was recognised by a Florida-based body called the World Record Academy, set up in 2007 as “the world‘s first major competitor of Guinness World Records”.
Sinniger’s destination tally includes 118 “ UN-recognised nations” but also many disputed countries and other territories among the 330 recognised by the Travelers’ Century Club.
‘Guard went ballistic'
London-based adventure-travel company Untamed Borders says it guided the diver on her most recent exploits this year to ensure that “she could travel and dive safely, from the pre-planning stage, all the way through to on-the-ground logistics.” She was also accompanied by a friend, Cathryn Riley.
“Scuba diving in the likes of Afghanistan, Libya, Tajikistan and Somalia poses a number of challenges, with many hard-to-reach countries not having commercial diving-centres or dive-tourism facilities,” says Untamed Borders. “These hurdles are an extra slice of adventure for Karin.
“Customs often have no clue what they’re looking at,” says Sinniger. “In Afghanistan, a border guard went ballistic when she saw my floating compressor and tiny GoPro, thinking it was a drone. With help from the Untamed Borders guide, we were able to explain that I had a ‘swimming machine’, not a drone, allowing us to continue on our journey.
“In Libya we couldn’t see our hand in front of our faces under water, due to the weather. It was like being in a desert in a dust-storm.”
In Somalia she had no choice but to dive using a hookah system. “It was literally a garden hose, held to a diesel-fuelled compressor with a piece of string. You could taste petrol as you breathed and it was hard going. I quick developed a headache from the lack of oxygen.
“I admired the local lobster and turtle divers, who would do that for a living, with no training or computers to avoid getting the bends.” Next on her list with Untamed Borders is Eritrea.
The demands of Sinniger’s diving travels match those of her professional career: “I use my multi-cultural background and ability to find creative legal solutions to pressing business issues in countries that are difficult to operate in,” she says, and specialises in building legal teams staffed by national lawyers to deal with anti-bribery and corruption issues. Much of her work up to 2015 was with oil company BP.
Asked for stand-out diving locations, she has named the remote Indian Ocean islands of Chagos “because nobody is allowed there”; the Blue Hole on Andros in the Bahamas; Switzerland for its altitude-diving opportunities; the Coolidge wreck in Vanuatu for its scale, depth and artefacts; and South Africa, where locking eyes with humpback whales proved unforgettable.
At one point she named the Solomon Islands as her favourite destination: “They have it all: wrecks, pelagics, small critters, lovely scenery and interesting villages you can visit during your deco stops. Combine that with one of the top liveaboard operators [Bilikiki Cruises] – they don’t cancel a trip even if only one diver is booked on it – and you have heaven.”
Sinniger hopes on her travels to raise awareness of deteriorating conditions in the underwater world, and has been involved for some years with UK-based reef conservation organisation Blue Ventures. She also believes that scuba divers can help with conservation efforts by taking photos and videos of the underwater world to share with non-divers.
“I’ve been shot at by African border guards; dogged by crocodiles, hippos and great white sharks; dived under the ice with Santa Claus, in volcano craters, in caves, trains and submarines, but diving with a retired logging elephant was a unique experience,” said Sinninger after her Andamans dive.
A Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, London and a member of New York’s Explorer’s Club, her motto is: “You have only one life, dive it well.”
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