When we think of Safe Diving Practices what comes to mind? Diving with a buddy at all times? Not going beyond your training and experience? Not diving in conditions that could be hazardous? Certainly these are some very good ones, but as we will see in this article safe diving practices start before we even get near the water. Perhaps long before when we have only just decided to take up the sport.
At some point you decided to take up scuba. Hopefully when you made this decision you considered whether you could afford the time and money that it required, and whether it’s something really want. Since you’re reading this, you most likely answered yes. Perhaps without realizing it, you already started using safe dive practices by getting the proper training from a qualified instructor or at least doing the research to find one.
Continuing to have this mindset will go a long way towards making sure your diving is safe and enjoyable for years to come, as you commit yourself to never going beyond your training and experience. Will you be ready to do any dive you wish after your first class? Of course not, but by continuing to get experience and seeking out qualified instruction the limitations as to where, when, and how you dive will be replaced by more options.
I also hope you have asked yourself if you are physically, emotionally, and mentally able to take on the challenges of scuba diving. Ideally you’ve had a physical within the last year or two, are in relatively good shape, use tobacco or alcohol only in moderation if at all, and try to get some type of exercise on a somewhat regular basis. This can be a demanding sport and being in good physical condition, although you don’t need to be a super athlete, can help you avoid injury, reduce the amount of stress symptoms, and insure you have fun as well as be safe.
Diving can be mentally demanding as well. You are about to undertake a sport where you will be using scuba gear to exist in what to most people is a hostile environment. Hostile, in that we cannot breathe water; we must rely on mechanical means to exist there. As such we need to realize that at some point something could- though it is rare- go wrong and we will need to be able to get out of the situation in order to avoid being injured. For some, this can be a little much. The equipment can seem complicated at first and to some, confining. The mask may bring uneasiness in those who tend to be claustrophobic. Poor visibility can do the same. Such people may need to make adjustments as to type of gear and when they will or will not dive, or even consider another sport.
You may also need to consider if any medications or treatments you are taking are not contraindicative to diving. Anything that makes you sleepy, have trouble staying focused or concentrating, or is used to control a condition that may be less than friendly to diving may cause you to reconsider this activity as well. At all times the use of recreational drugs and excessive alcohol consumption should be a clear indication that you and diving do not mix. The object of this is not to take away from your fun but to increase the enjoyment you will get from scuba. Even moderate use of alcohol at the wrong time can present a serious risk to your safety. In addition smoking increases your risk factors for a number of complications. I personally prefer to not train those who smoke but evaluate each person on a case by case basis. If a person cannot get through a 2 hour class or pool session without a cigarette it is best they find someone else to train them.
Once all of these factors have been considered, taken into account, and answered so that there is nothing to preclude you from pursuing this then we can go into the practices that relate directly to going into the water. We have already touched on training, but let’s go into it with a little more detail. In a beginner class you have learned or will learn many new skills, practices, and a lot of information. You should also have learned how to use the gear you’ll be wearing, how it functions, how to adjust and care for it and how to inspect it. You should have learned how to enter and exit the water safely whether from shore or a boat, and move through it efficiently and with seemingly little effort. You also learned how to plan your dive and know when it’s time to end it, or even not go into the water in the first place. There are times when the best plan involves saying no to diving that day.
Let’s take a typical open water dive as an example. As a new diver you’ll need several things. You’ll need gear, of course, water, a plan as to what you are going to do and most importantly a buddy or teammate. The last item mentioned is without a doubt the most important to a new and even experienced diver. Safe diving necessitates that we don’t take chances. Diving with a buddy insures that there is someone there to assist us with planning the dive, gearing up, perhaps entering and exiting the water, and being able to handle any unforeseen situations that may arise. We will get into more detail on buddies in a later chapter.
You will hear of or perhaps even see divers going it alone or diving “solo.” Many times this is not talked about and I’m not going to go into detail here or get in the fight as to whether it is right or wrong. Some consider it a form of technical diving in itself and it should only be undertaken by those with the proper experience, training, equipment, and mindset. As a new Open Water diver you have none of these. So while you may see it, make no mistake, it is not for you.
Back to the typical OW dive. Before you even consider going in you must first decide if the conditions are right for the dive. Do you have the training and experience for this dive? Does your buddy? If so then you need to start preparing for it. How? By going through a kind of checklist if you will. First of all you’ve decided the dive is within your limits as far as training and experience goes. Now, do you have the gear for the dive? You will need to determine if you need anything beyond the basics: A mask, fins, snorkel, boots, and proper exposure protection are a start. You’ll need a BCD, regulator with an alternate air source or octopus, necessary gauges or computer, weights, and of course, an air supply- your tank sometimes called a cylinder.
You’ll also need to be familiar with how these things function. Now, in order to do the dive safely do you need anything else? Will you need a reel or line? A light? Sometimes even on daylight dives a light is nice for looking under things and can be used for signaling. Do you need a compass? To my way of thinking, compass use should be a core skill of the competent diver. We’ll look at basic navigation skills later. Will you need some type of signaling device for under water or on the surface? Will you need a cutting tool? Here’s a hint, if you dive where people fish it’s a good idea to have a small knife or EMT shears with you.
Now that you’ve determined you have everything you need, before you go into the water, where are you? Is there help available on shore? Is there EMS service available should an accident occur, and do you know how to contact them? This is not to put a damper on your day of fun as these are things you should consider to make your diving safe. Now that all of these items are checked and okay, it’s time to get in the water! But wait…no it’s not! Now you have to decide what kind of dive you are going to do. Is there a purpose for the dive or is it just to have fun and relax, which in itself is a very good purpose for diving. Let’s say that it’s a fun dive from shore to just relax and maybe work on a few skills, which by the way you should try to do on every dive. You need to have a plan before you even think about getting in.
How long is the dive going to last? When will you end it? Where will you be going and how will you get there? How long the dive will last depends on a number of factors: How much air you have, how deep you will be going, the water temp, and how long you want the dive to last. Once you’ve answered these questions, the next step is to plan the dive. At this point you’ll start the formal planning by using either the dive tables you’ll learn (or have learned) to use in the class or by using your computer if predive planning is one of its functions. Even if you use your computer it’s a good idea to also plan the dive using tables as a backup in the event your computer batteries die, it floods, or for some other reason ceases to function. You and your buddy will also agree upon a course, what you’ll do in the event you get separated or one of you has a problem, and what signals you’ll use to communicate. You may also decide to do a surface swim to the area you wish to dive and then descend or just go the whole way under water. All of this is necessary to keep potential surprises to a minimum. Generally, the fewer surprises, the safer the dive is. Dives off of a boat will involve additional details that need to be checked into but that’s another topic.
Safe diving practices dictate that once you plan your dive, then you dive your plan. Major variations in the dive plan once you’re underwater should only occur in exceptional circumstances. Minor ones are to be expected perhaps due to changing currents, visibility being better or worse than expected, water colder or warmer, or perhaps a new feature has been added to the site and requires a little more time. As long as the overall plan is adhered to and the changes are agreed upon by all parties, these may be acceptable. However any questions or doubts as to the change negate that change. If your buddy does not want to change the plan then you have two choices. Continue on the original plan or end the dive. And remember any diver may end a dive at any time with no explanation necessary. Once the decision is made to end it, it ends. Period!
Now that you have a plan agreed upon by all, it’s time to gear up and enter the water. At this point you should have determined the safest entry and exit, agreed upon it, and be ready to go. Next thing is to gear up. Here is where your buddy comes in very handy! Gear can be heavy and having someone help you with putting it on makes it easier while avoiding unnecessary strain and injury. Have your buddy help lift and hold your tank/BC/regulator assembly while you put it on. Then do the same for him/her. Next, go over each other’s gear looking for loose hoses, clips, releases, and other things that may be dangling or not properly fastened or secured. In the event a problem occurs and you or your buddy needs to remove the others gear it is necessary that you each be familiar with the others set up. Check to be sure the air is fully on and that the power inflator is connected and works; your buddy will then do the same for you. The pre-dive or buddy check is perhaps one of the biggest safety precautions you can undertake. An extra set of eyes may prevent a problem from occurring that could result in serious consequences. You’ll then verify each others air supply, be sure it’s on, and that your regulators are functioning as they should. You’ll also check to be sure you each have your weight system on, properly placed, and fastened.
Being properly weighted goes along way towards diving safely. Too much weight can cause overexertion, while too little can leave you unable to control your ascent; the latter risk is also an issue if you lose weights while diving because they were not properly secured. Safe diving practices dictate that you determine the proper amount of weight you’ll be using either through experience or by doing a buoyancy or weight check at the beginning of your dive. It is also a good idea that once you’ve determined this that you make a record of it for future reference. We will look at how to adjust for proper weighting and trim later.
Now you should be ready to don your mask and fins and begin your dive. The first thing you’ll do when you enter the water is to do a bubble check to be sure there are no leaks in your air supply/regulator assembly and your BC. Satisfied that everything is a go, you’ll note the time, your air pressure, your buddy’s air pressure, and begin the dive. If everything goes according to plan you’ll enjoy a safe, fun, and perhaps even exciting experience.
This is just one example of a typical OW dive using safe diving practices. There are many others and the more you dive the more you will need to adjust to varying conditions, new gear, and even new buddies. But as long as the basic practices are adhered to, each dive should result in more enjoyment, a greater appreciation for the underwater world, and you becoming a better diver. Once again the basics are:
- Determine that this is what you want to do
- Make sure you are in good physical, mental, and emotional health. Be sure there are no reasons that would indicate you are not suited for diving
- Be sure that you can devote the time necessary for proper training and instruction
- Get your training from a quality Instructor
- Once trained never dive beyond your training and experience
- Should you wish to extend your dive range get the proper instruction and experience to do so
- Plan your dives and dive your plan
- Be sure you have the necessary gear and that it’s in good condition.
- Avoid overhead environments until trained and equipped to enter.
- Dive with a buddy or teammate at all times and be familiar with his/her gear and skills, check each other’s equipment while gearing up and make any fixes before you get in the water.
11 Don’t let anyone talk you into taking shortcuts in training or into doing dives you may have doubts about. This is a biggie, some dive operations have a reputation for taking open water divers deeper than they should go, into areas they are not trained for, and on dives that are beyond the skills and abilities of their divers. Don’t let peer pressure put you in a situation that you are not ready for. You mom told you this when she said “If Joey Smith jumped off a cliff would you do it too?”
12 Never forget that at any time, for any reason, you may end a dive without going into a long explanation as to why. A simple “It did not feel right to me,” is more than sufficient reason, but if you’re not confident in saying that try, “I couldn’t equalize,” or “My ears started bothering me.” These reasons are usually accepted by others without question.
These are the basics; as you progress in your diving you will need to add to them. Deeper dives, different environments, or an upgrade of equipment may require you to add more, but at no time should you do less. Your confidence will increase as you gain experience, get more certifications, and dive different places. Don’t let any of these things make you complacent, however. Getting so relaxed and confident that you start taking shortcuts or forgetting the basics altogether could have very serious, potentially lethal consequences. That’s a strong statement which is not meant to scare you, but to reinforce what was stated at the beginning of this article: Scuba is a fun, exciting, and safe activity as long as you follow the rules. The fact remains that you are entering an environment that is hostile to human life without life support gear . It is exciting, wonderful, enchanting, new, and different, but it’s been said that the sea is a harsh mistress. Respect her and treat her kindly and she’ll show you wonders you could previously only dream of. Lose that respect, ignore your training, or fail to practice Safe Diving Procedures, however, and she may turn and bite you. Perhaps even cost you your life.
It is essential for Open Water students to keep these ideas in mind so that they can conduct safe dives independently. The message to often is that scuba is all fun, excitement, and relaxation. To a large degree it is, but there are essential issues that need to be considered before we jump into that fun, exciting, and relaxing environment; we will look at a number of these issues in the following chapters. It is my sincere hope that this work will not only make you a safer diver but also one who is more informed. Safety cannot be overemphasized when it comes to scuba. Some of the ideas in the following pages may seem restrictive or even a bit over the top, based on some training programs and the way they are conducted today. The only intent here is to keep you from getting hurt or worse.
This work was inspired by a project in which I evaluated a number of accidents that resulted in fatalities among new and newer divers. The results were sobering. In each case, the cause of the incidents I investigated could be traced directly back to a lack of training or inadequate reinforcement of that training. During this process my late wife observed the disturbing effect these findings had on me. She made me promise to never let an unprepared diver in the water with my name on their certification card. I will keep that promise as long as I teach people to enter the world beneath the waves.
By James Lapenta
Scuba Educators International Instructor # 204