What is the diver responsible for?

I hope to convey to new divers and those considering taking up this activity just what it is you are getting into.  I am giving careful thought to this as I write it in order to not be overly alarmist but still convey the seriousness of dive training and the sport of scuba diving.

I sincerely hope that it makes one think and ask questions of their instructor, dive master, boat operator, resort, and fellow divers.  It can not be overemphasized how easy it is to become so enamored with the idea of diving that things can be overlooked that can result in the diver being injured or worse.  Divers can and have died when they surrendered responsibility for their safety to someone else.

First of all we need to look at where these decisions actually began.  Many times it began before the diver even entered the water.  Perhaps as soon as they chose a shop or instructor to train with.  It could have been because of a friend, relative, ad in the yellow pages etc.  But in any case it is likely that until that time they had not done any research regarding agency, training method, time required, etc.

Everything they know or knew about diving most likely came from that one person or business.  As such it is all too common for a new diver to be astonished to find out just how many agencies, training methods, and programs there are.  I myself had no idea what was available to me, and my instructor was careful to avoid discussing the subject of different methods of training.  I was clueless.  Had I known what I know now my path to instructor would most likely have been very different.

But in any case it came down to, that in my early training, believing that someone other than me was responsible for my own safety.  During training that is somewhat true when undertaking a new course that involves new risks and challenges.  Once that card is received however it is an entirely different story.  At that point it is the diver’s responsibility to look out for their own safety.  As certified divers we should be capable of diving with a buddy of equal skill in conditions similar to or better than what the training was conducted in without the assistance of a DM, A/I, or Instructor.  This is even stated as the goal of the Open Water training course by most if not all agencies.

If this is not the case then that diver should not have received a c card.  The diver should be fully capable of planning the dive, doing all the necessary pre dive checks, executing the dive, and exiting safely from the water.  This is the responsibility of the diver along with being able to make the decision to NOT DIVE should conditions or the dive plan be beyond the skill, training, or comfort level of the diver.  In cases where a Divemaster or other guide is employed it still falls ultimately to the diver to dive or not.  When they choose to follow another persons plan with no input of their own they end up doing what are known as “trust me dives”.  Many times nothing untoward happens on these dives.  But unfortunately the odds are against this being the case every time.  And when something does go wrong it may go as wrong as to result in serious injury or death.  When divers are led in groups on a site as seen below the odds of it becoming a “trust me” dive increase as divers get complacent and allow themselves to be led and start to not keep track of things they should.  Air pressures get ignored, buddies drift apart, and rather than having many persons to assist what often results is no one comes to the aid of the diver as they feel that someone else will.
Now we enter into a realm where the lines of responsibility may become blurred.  Perhaps the DM should not have let the person dive or taken them on the dive? Perhaps the operator should not have let them on the boat? Perhaps the divers buddy should have said something or maybe other divers on the boat who may have known of the lack of training or skill level of the diver? In any case the results do not change.  A diver is hurt or dead.

This sport is fun, exciting, educational, relaxing, and if practiced within the limits of one’s training and experience- SAFE.  BUT to go beyond one’s experience level, training, and even comfort level, too fast or too far is inviting disaster.  Every instructor should impart to their students that this sport can kill and do it in some very nasty ways.

But do you really know how serious these things are?  Do you realize what happens when a lung rips and air rushes into the chest cavity or sack around the heart and bloody froth comes out of the mouth.  Or an air bubble enters the blood stream and travels to the brain resulting in a condition similar to a stroke with all the after affects of a stroke such as paralysis, loss of memory, loss of muscle control, and death.

Who is responsible for an occurrence like this? Unless there is an underlying medical condition, THE DIVER IS! They were told not to hold their breath but did anyway, why? Maybe they panicked.  But if they panicked why did they panic?  Who is responsible for that?  In this instructor’s opinion it falls on the instructor to test the student with tasks that will help to determine the students’ tendency to panic.  What these tasks would be will undoubtedly vary with agency, instructor, and student.  They need not be dangerous or complex.  But simple task loading exercises such as having the student remove and replace a mask several times while swimming if this appears to be an issue with them.  In short what appears to give them difficulty should be repeated until the tendency to react with panic, apprehension, or nervousness is no longer apparent.  It also falls on the instructor to teach the Panic Cycle.  What it is, how it occurs, and how to break it.  This needs to be taught in the Open Water Class.

Maybe the diver was ok until they hit OW and became nervous.  But if they said nothing of their apprehension then that was the divers fault.  If they communicated their nervousness and the instructor did the dive anyway then that falls on the instructor.  Should the student become so nervous that the instructor feels additional time is needed, certification should be withheld until the training is complete.  If this results in the student losing interest or deciding not to dive it may be for the best.  In the long run it would be better for them to lose a little time and money as opposed to getting seriously injured or worse.  But once out of training it is the diver’s responsibility to dive or not dive.

When a diver, for whatever reason, elects to do a dive beyond their level of training and experience and this is known to the operator, DM, boat captain, or instructor who may be guiding but not instructing on the dive, they should not let the diver dive or insist that they be accompanied by a DM or other pro.  But even then, had the diver received proper training in the first place it is likely they would have enough sense to follow that training and not do the dive without making arrangements for further instruction or a guide.

The instructor is responsible for making sure that the diver knows exactly what could happen to him/her regardless if it results in a diver perhaps electing not to continue training.  If the diver does elect to go on then it should be made clear to them that they are responsible for all aspects of their diving from the time they receive their card.

The DM on the boat does not plan your dives.  They give a briefing on the site, emergency procedures, boat etiquette, and times allotted for the dive.  They may even get in the water.  Many times they do not.  In any case no matter what you may hear or assume, THE DM IS NOT RESPONSIBLE for keeping you safe!  Neither is your buddy!  You are.

If you are not comfortable with this stay out of the water!  If you are not comfortable with being responsible for yourself your training was seriously lacking, you were not paying attention in class, or you need more time in the pool and should not be diving in open water.  At this point it is your responsibility to go to the instructor and communicate your concerns.  Or to communicate to your buddy that you are not comfortable with the dive.  Choosing the right dive buddy is also your responsibility.  My buddy below I met the day before our ice dives but I knew by talking to her that we were going to be ok.  We had similar philosophies and were both experienced instructors.

It is my contention that once a diver is certified he/she is responsible for their own safety and then that of their buddy.  Divers look out for themselves so that they can look out for their buddy.  To turn students loose in the water less than capable, with the idea that they will find out they need more training and come back to learn what should be basic skills, is a disgrace and a clear demonstration of greed.  To certify less than capable divers with the idea that they will be diving with a DM/Guide/Instructor anyway is no less a travesty.

Dive ops that allow unqualified divers to do dives beyond their ability are a disgrace to the industry.  It would be better to choose more benign sites or require the divers pay for a personal guide or instructor than risk the headache of a coroner’s inquest or police investigation.  Not to mention the personal injury lawyers that seem to come out of the woodwork looking to make a quick buck from others tragedies.  Being that there really is no governing body that regulates the industry, and should not be, it is up to the industry itself to insure that ONLY properly trained and qualified people are in the water.

It is up to the diver to decide how much training they wish to get.  It is up to them to do some research to find the best fit for them.  They should spend at least as much time as they would choosing a new car.  It really does come down to the potential diver to decide what their life is worth.  And decide just how much training they feel is needed to preserve their safety.

And what are we doing when we dive? Playing in the water? Swimming around underwater without having to surface as often? Seeing cool new stuff? Doing something different than a lot of other people? Yes to all of this.  But we are also doing this.  We are entering an alien environment that is normally hostile to human life without mechanical means.  We cannot breathe underwater.  We rely on a few pieces of metal and plastic to keep us alive by allowing us to breathe a finite amount of air that we must also carry.  Sounds a little more serious that way doesn’t it.  Did your instructor point it out that way to you? Chances are they did not.  Why not? It might have caused you to rethink this whole business.  If so, GOOD!

This is not a game.  Your life depends on the training you receive, the decisions you make based on that training, and the decisions you make after training.  You, the diver are responsible for your own safety regardless of what anyone else says.  Your buddy could get lost, the DM may get hurt, lost, or busy with another diver.  If an issue occurs, no one but you will be there to save your ass! Think about that! You may need to save your own life.  If that does not make you rethink the idea of who is responsible for your safety you might want think about finding another activity.  It is not fair to your buddy, the DM, the captain, the op, or the resort to make them responsible for your life.

The boat is a taxi to get you to and from the site safely.  The driver is no more responsible for you when you step off than the taxi driver who drops you at a hotel.  You would not sue the taxi company if you exited the cab, walked into your destination, and fell down a flight of steps.

The op has no way of determining your comfort level in the water if they did not train you.  They assume since you have a card or a referral that you are ready to dive or do your checkouts.  If they want to take you to 100 feet on your first dives and you say ok and then die who is at fault? Did they hold a gun to your head and force you to dive? Did you exercise the option to say no that you can do at anytime? And the resort is a place to eat, sleep, and relax.  They have only your word that you are a qualified diver.

The cave community has rule that any diver can end a dive at any time with no explanation given.  Once the signal is given the dive is over.  Period.  End of discussion.  Too bad this is not passed on in many OW classes.  Peer pressure, money, wishing to not look bad, all seem to take the place of intelligence and common sense.  Divers seem to not realize how a new environment or type of dive can change things.  It has not been adequately instilled in them that this is serious business and not as easy as many of us make it appear.  Years of training and experience have taught us that nothing should be taken for granted.  Experienced divers know that no matter how many dives they have done, how many times they have been to the same site, or how many times they have made it home safe, there is always that one time where a small error in judgment, lack of attention to a particular detail, or a change in conditions may result in them being seriously injured or killed.

Good instructors make sure that this is part of the training of new divers.  Skills are done over and over until they become as much instinct as anything else.  My greatest reward as an instructor is to task a student and see them react to a distraction or outside stimulus as a minor inconvenience instead of a big problem to the skill they are doing.  I had a student go from being unable to breathe from a reg with their mask off, without water going up their nose, to doing a no mask swim two lengths of the pool and then do a scuba bailout with absolutely no issues at all.  This did not happen overnight and was the result of much hard work on their part, patience on mine, a clear understanding of the skill to be done and WHAT COULD HAPPEN if they were to have their mask kicked off at 50 feet and they freaked.  The last had the biggest effect in them working through the urge to freak and finding out it’s not that bad.  Once a break through such as this occurs the student inevitably makes progress at a faster rate.  Why? They have shown themselves that problems can be worked through when they have received the proper training, worked through an actual issue, and as a result have more confidence and are more comfortable in the water.

This is another diver responsibility.  Developing a sense of confidence and comfort.  These two items are essential to diver safety.  They are not usually immediate but developed over time through not only training but experience.  The diver has a responsibility to themselves to keep their skills current and their knowledge up to date.  Not only as regards diving, but their knowledge of dive sites, resorts, and operations should not be left to a third party.  Questions about safety, practices, procedures, and even staff should be the norm.  Management changes, staff rotations, new dive sites, and sometimes boats change from one year to the next.  Never take for granted that XYZ op is the same as it was last year.

To do so and then find out upon arrival that nothing is the same is not the resorts fault if it presents an inconvenience or challenge to the diver.  Dive planning, when taught properly, is not only about getting in the water.  It may involve the flight, the transportation to the resort, the hotel arrangements, etc.  You need to be aware of this and plan accordingly.

Confidence is gained by working thru task loading scenarios or situations by degree.  It is not to be confused with bravado.  One who does all the necessary checks, has the right equipment, and does a 100 foot dive right out of open water class is not confident- he is a fool.  This type of person has little regard for rules, recommended procedures and safety, and is a danger to himself and every diver in the area.  The diver who does all the same things BUT does the 100 foot after further training, making a number of dives to ever increasing depths over a period of time, and taking time to learn from those dives demonstrates true confidence based on training, experience, and knowledge of their abilities.  This is the kind of diver who other divers benefit from.  They also have gained the knowledge that gives them a sense of comfort and allows them to dive relaxed and in control.  As a result, by them taking responsibility for themselves they are more relaxed, more knowledgeable, and ultimately the kind of safe diver that others look to as examples of what to do right.

Taking responsibility for yourself therefore not only makes you safer but someone other divers enjoy diving with results in a true sense of accomplishment. For more on responsibility and buddy skills see my book: SCUBA: A Practical Guide for the New Diver which will be released in March of 2011 and be available from www.udmaquatics.com

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