Diving SafetyStruggling against a strong current Steve cuts short his dive and surfaces alone. Neither he or his buddy were equipped with emergency dive flags so they couldn’t see each other amongst the waves and worsening conditions. Suddenly Steve sees a motorboat bearing down on him. Without a signal flag the boat, which could have rescued him, is a deadly threat. Only his quick action of dumping air from his B.C. and going to the bottom saves him.

Meanwhile, only a few hundred yards away Steve’s buddy, James is desperately clinging to a buoy and trying to spot his friend. He can see boats not to far away but, without a flag or Safety Sausage, he has no way of gaining their attention.

Both divers are fairly experienced divers with hundreds of logged dives between them but they have made a number of errors due to complacency and lack of planning.  Because their planed dive charter was cancelled due to bad weather they opted for a nearby shore dive that was unfamiliar to them simply because they had set aside the day for a dive and really didn’t want to cancel. They did not obtain local knowledge and, expecting an easy dive, decided against taking dive flags or other surface signal devices; after all it was going to be an easy dive. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately they had chosen to dive in an area that had unpredictable currents which was also close to heavy boat traffic. Without dive flags they were almost impossible to spot in the deteriorating weather and  were in danger of being seriously injured.

In this instance luck was on James’ side. Three hours later, extremely cold and weary a fisherman happened to spot him clinging to the buoy and picked him up. The fisherman searched for Steve and alerted the coastguard. A full search was made involving various boats and an SAR helicopter yet no sign of Steve was ever found.

This scenario, which was based upon a true incident, highlights the fact that even experienced divers make mistakes and that, at times, they can be very costly. Steve and James should have made some effort to learn about the local diving conditions and weather. They should have made sure that they were visible to boat traffic by using dive flags and S.M.Bs. Once they found themselves in difficulties they should have been able to signal their distress with something like an extendable dive flag.

This tragic dive serves to reiterate certain aspects of dive safety that really cannot be ignored. All divers should gain local knowledge of the intended dive site, ascend with caution in areas where boat traffic is prevalent, check the weather, plan for the unexpected and always carry an emergency dive flag.

Boat Diving SafetyThough boat diving is generally a safe activity there are a number of precautions that a scuba diver would be wise to take we take a look at boat diving safety. An alarming trend seems to have developed amongst the international diving industry as more and more divers are being reported missing. In order to maximize safety divers would be well advised to carry emergency signaling equipment (such as dive flags) with them at all times.

It is also vital that you choose your dive operator wisely. A little bit of research should clue you in to the boat operator’s reputation and qualifications. The Internet is a great tool for finding out about other peoples experiences of using a particular dive school or boat.

Making sure that you get yourself seen by others onboard can also be important. Quiet and unassuming buddy pairs are the likeliest to be left behind. In many cases these divers may be the most experienced and, being self sufficient, staying down longer etc, are often forgotten about. It has even happened to other scuba journalists when they were supposed to be researching an article for a live-aboard (you can imagine what a great review that got!). The best thing seems to be to get chatting with other divers and leave your belongings in such a way that others will know if you have not returned to the boat. Ask what method the crew use to ensure that they have the correct number onboard before upping anchor.

Inform the crew: Explain the type of signaling device you will be using (such as a folding dive flag) and in which situations you plan to use it.

Listen and assess: Listen carefully to the dive briefing. Regardless of how experienced you may be the briefing should include relevant information that can advise of tides, currents, depths and other essential details of local knowledge. Use this information to formulate your dive plan with your buddy.

Know your exit point: Make sure that you know exactly where the dive should terminate and then plan for the eventuality that you are unable to get to it. For example if you are planning to come up by the dive-boat but end up down current how will you deal with it? You would be well advised to equip yourself with an emergency dive flag so that you can signal your position to the boat to enable them to collect you if necessary.

When boat diving in temperate waters it is common to use D.S.M.B.s to signal your location at the start of your ascent to the boat. However, it takes quite a bit of practice to ‘shoot’ a D.S.M.B. and it is not uncommon for divers to get tangled in their lines. An extendable dive flag has the advantage that it can be seen from further away and that it is incredibly simple to use. Using one of these to make yourself visible will make the job of finding you easier for the skipper and mean that you spend less time floating about at the surface (particularly important when there is a bit of a swell or worsening weather conditions).

Though there are many other factors to take into consideration many, if not all of these (such as entry points etc) will be covered by the dive brief. Your main focus for safety should be on ensuring that you will be visible when on the surface, particularly at the end of your dive. With this in mind it is best to take some form of emergency dive flag on every dive.

Diver RescueIt is widely acknowledged that the majority of scuba diving incidents actually occur on or near the surface. As such it is vital that divers carry a signaling device like a safety sausage or dive flag to alert boats and other potential rescuers to their position.

Whilst working in the Red Sea I took a group of students on a dive that we normally avoided due to strong currents. On this day the weather was in our favour so my group dived first followed by three other groups, led by dive guides, at various intervals.

We started our dive into the current and enjoyed a spectacular coral encrusted vertical wall which was great fun to drift back along as we neared the end of our dive. Hanging on the safety line I noticed just how much the current had picked up but we were all soon back on board. However, the other groups did not fare quite so well. We let out a tag line off the stern and some divers were able to get on it but others surfaced quite a distance away. Without dive flags and S.M.B.s they were not easy to spot and keep in sight.

So, you have drifted down current and the boat is a tiny speck on the horizon. What is the best way to get rescued?

Prepare for Rescue
Firstly, don’t attempt to fight the current unless it is fairly weak otherwise you will waste precious energy and if you are using your reg., you will burn air at an alarming rate. If conditions allow you could submerge and pull yourself hand over hand along the bottom where the current is weakest otherwise concentrate on getting buoyant, conserving energy and planning on how to signal the dive boat.

To get rescued you have to get noticed. In such circumstances a pocket B.C. flag such as the H.E.L.P. is ideal to let a boat know where you are. A bright yellow extendable dive flag like the H.E.L.P. has been shown to be seen for up to 3 km and is perfect to enable potential rescuers to both find and keep you in sight. Other items that can also help in diver location are safety sausages and audible devices such as whistles and air horns. Audible devices can be very effective in gaining attention but you cant ‘see’ sound so a dive flag is still imperative to get you seen quickly.

Stay Calm
If you have been seen you will be rescued (particularly if have made yourself easy to find with a dive flag etc). Sometimes you have to be patient, as the boat captain may need to collect other divers first. Remain calm, keep your snorkel/reg and mask in place and be prepared to drop your weights if necessary.

Take a Fix
Keep your eye firmly on the boat and continue signaling with your dive flag, S.M.B. etc. If you are in immediate distress then wave your flag otherwise just let it mark your position and wait for your pickup.

Stay Warm
A few hours in the water can make you pretty cold. Swimming burns energy but doesn’t make you any warmer. Cuddle yourself and conserve energy and heat. Clip you dive flag/S.M.B. to yourself so it will act as a permanent marker.

Prevention is better than cure. Plan your dive, listen to the dive brief, start off against the current, be practiced in navigation skills and always carry an emergency signaling device like a dive flag.