As most seasoned divers will tell you, Scuba diving is indeed an incredibly safe sport when it’s done properly. Well trained divers who use good judgement and follow the correct procedures have no need to be concerned. In fact, according to most research, diving is really no more dangerous than swimming. Certainly compared to many other adventure sports – and even many every day mundane activities that we do without hesitation! – diving is very safe.
There are of course lots of things you can do to ensure you are well prepared and limit the possibility of running into any dangers or potential problems….
Sounds like a no brainer, and it pretty much is! Those who dive more often will generally have better developed skills sets, more efficient communication and a more up to date base of knowledge – whether through having taken more courses, or simply through regular exposure to other divers with whom they share stories and information. The safest divers are those for whom basic skills have become second nature. For example a regular diver does not need to think too much about buoyancy control. They just naturally adapt their breathing to make small changes. Same goes for basic skills like mask clearing. If you were to ask a Divemaster how many times they cleared their mask during a particular dive for example, chances are they wouldn’t have a clue! They just do it by second nature.
Most divers readily admit that they would like nothing more than to dive more often. However for most people, and especially those living in colder climates, real world work and family responsibilities do tend to get in the way and it is not always possible to dive whenever you want to. Diving clubs do exist in most locations though, so it is always worth checking out a few options in your area. If cold water isn’t your thing, you may find that you’re happy just to jump in the pool every now and again and have a play around with your equipment, trim and basic skills. Even if you don’t physically get in the water at all, many local clubs have meet up evenings where you can share experiences and tips for future dive travel etc.
If you do end up dry for too long though, then it is always recommended to take a proper Scuba Review. Most major dive agencies recommend this after a period of 6 months, but there is no hard and fast rule. You’ll find each dive centre will have its different policies as to when they require divers to make a full scuba review, which will invariably take into account your number and frequency of logged dives, as well as the location of the dive centre itself and the dive conditions that are to be expected during your stay. For example if you are going diving in strong currents or reduced visibility, then a full refresh is definitely the way forward! A thorough refresher consists of some theory, a recap of equipment fitting and set up, as well as some skills practice. The vast majority of divers find it very rewarding, and in many holiday locations you’d be completing it in the sea, so chances are you’d get to see some fish and corals too! It really is a worthwhile experience though, as quite often divers are amazed at the wealth of information they have forgotten!
Alternatives to refreshers include private guiding on a shallow reef for your first couple of dives of your trip, or perhaps a ‘check dive’ on the house reef – if shore diving is a viable option for the location. Our advice is not to skimp on refreshing your skills though. For a few extra bucks, you’ll have a much better experience overall if you spend a little extra time getting the basics sorted before heading out on deeper or more challenge dives.
Dive with a Reputable Operator
Again, sounds like a no brainer yes? But you’d be surprised! There are a whole host of dive centres out there and you’d be shocked how much ethics and morality varies between them. Some will promise top notch quality, service and professionalism and proceed to deliver it, whereas others appear as if they are just out to take your hard earned savings, with seemingly little care for your comfort or safety once you are through their door.
As with all areas of diving, the key is to use good judgement. This is especially true if you are choosing a dive centre not just for yourself, but for friends or family members who are travelling with you. It’s not worth saving a nominal amount to get the best deal if you’ll be using inferior dive gear or ill-equipped dive vessels, diving with inexperienced staff, or not learning in accordance with training agency standards. In this day and age, you’d expect adherence to agency and industry standards to be a given, but unfortunately quite often it’s just not the case.
Try not to be too focussed on price and find a balance of value based on your expectations. After all, if the price seems too good to be true, then it probably is! It’s absolutely worth paying a little extra to know the operation you choose won’t be cutting corners at your expense. The best way to explain it is by equating learning to dive to learning other adventure activities. If you were looking to go sky diving or become a hang glider or try white water rafter for example, you wouldn’t really shop around for the cheapest possible option. You’d choose the centre with the best safety, equipment, standards and reputation. Diving should be no different.
Adopt Good Buddy Team Procedures
Some divers have their own regular buddies, but many others rely on their dive operator to pair them up with a suitable buddy, who hopefully will have a similar skill and experience level to you. Depending on where they’ve trained however, this may not be the case. We’ve all seen instances where an Advanced level diver with all of their own equipment shows up and proceeds to spoil the trip with their bad practices, know-it-all attitude and sub-par skill set. So if you are getting paired up with an ‘Insta-Buddy’, spend a little time chatting with them prior to the dive and gauge for what they’ll be like to dive with.
Don’t skip the buddy check! No matter how familiar you are with your gear and your buddies gear, or how excited you are to get off the boat and into the water. Safety protocols in scuba – and indeed every other industry too – have been developed and are in place for a reason. That reason generally being that if they are not followed, things can go wrong.
Before the dive, make sure you are comfortable with the hand signals and communication techniques you’ll be using before the dive. Once you are underwater it is too late to ask questions! During the dive, maintain regular communication to ensure comfort and safety.
Stay close to your buddy, and maintain an awareness at all times as to where they are in relation to you. If you were to need their help in an out of air emergency for example, you need to be close enough to reach them. If you are checking your gauges frequently of course this shouldn’t need to happen. But still, they need to be within reach for your safety – and visa versa. If you are on a training course, remain close to your instructor and follow their directions when requested. Their role is to train you in good practices, as well as ensure your safety throughout your dives, so they generally don’t appreciate you drifting too far from them.
Maintain Good Health and Fitness for Diving
The healthier you are in general, the lower your risk of suffering from a dive related illness. If you are unfit, overweight, badly rested, dehydrated or have any residual alcohol or drugs in your system for example, then you are already more likely to suffer from Decompression Sickness (DCS) than if none of these factors apply. So to make the most of your dives, maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle. When diving on vacation, make sure you drink adequate water (especially in hotter climates where becoming dehydrated is more likely) and are well rested before morning dives. It’s also a good idea to lay off the alcohol the night before. It’s a small price to pay for enjoying some amazing dives.
Don’t dive if you are not feeling well, or if you have a cold or are congested. This can be frustrating if you are on holiday and only have a set number of diving days, but it’s just not worth the risk. A blockage one day can turn into a full blown ear or sinus infection the next day if you push it – and any diver who’s ever suffered from reverse block will tell you it’s not an experience they’d ever want to repeat. Many illnesses have signs and symptoms which mimic those of DCS, so if you have been ill and feel better but are still not completely recovered, wait until all signs and symptoms have disappeared. An example of this would be Dengue fever which is a viral infection spread by mosquitos, and is common around Asia. When the fever breaks and normal health returns, a skin rash is common – just as it is with DCS. So if you were to suffer from a suspected case of DCS, physicians would not know whether your symptoms were fever related or dive related, making diagnosis and resulting treatment much more difficult.
If you sign up to take any kind of dive course, you’ll be required to fill in a medical form. Certain medical conditions may prevent you from diving, such as active asthma and heart conditions for example. Whereas other conditions will require you to have a sign off from a Dive Medical Officer (DMO) or General Practitioner (GP) prior to getting started. If you take a diving holiday to a more remote diving areas, full medical services and consultations may not be available, so it’s worth doing the leg work prior to setting off on any conditions that need a physician’s sign off. In some areas the dive centre may be required by local regulations in terms of where you get your medical sign off, and who conducts it. This can sometimes eat into both your time and your savings to get organised properly, but it is imperative that you have the relevant consult. Be understanding that your dive operator is not trying to make the process more difficult for you by insisting on a proper medical, they are simply doing their due diligence to ensure the safety of you and other divers in their care. The golden rule is never to lie on the medical form! Not only is it a legally binding document, but if you lie on the form and then have an accident it’s unlikely your insurance will cover you – whether it’s related to the medical issue or not.
Dive Within Your Limits
Another seemingly fairly obvious one, but always something to keep at the forefront of your mind when planning dives. Your limits can be defined in many ways, first and foremost in terms of certification level as not only will different depth limits apply, but skill and experience levels would be expected to differ too. Whatever certification level you have, don’t be tempted to dive deeper than your licence allows, and stick to what you are qualified to do. If you don’t have a wreck or cave diving qualification for instance, then you should not be entering into any overhead environments. Bear in mind that if you stray beyond the limits of your current level and something were to go wrong, your insurance would not cover you.
Each individual diver will also have limits in terms of comfort levels when it comes to visibility, water temperature, surge and surf, currents etc. Remember that every diver has the right to call off a dive at any time if they do not feel comfortable. So never allow yourself to be pressured to dive, or feel rushed to get into the water if you are not ready. Even during the dive it is absolutely acceptable to call it off if you feel out of your comfort zone and do not wish to continue. Equally, never put pressure on another diver to dive outside of their comfort zone either, and try to be understanding and supportive if they back out of a dive.
Dive in familiar equipment that you are confident using. Obviously it is not always feasible to take a full set of your own gear away with you on every trip. Plus if you are an infrequent or holiday diver, you may not have invested in larger items like a BCD or Regulator yet. However the main configuration should be the same, so if you are used to diving in a jacket style BCD for example, then switching to a backplate set up without the relevant instruction or advice would probably cause you discomfort in the water.
Take Continuing Education Courses
There’s no better way to stay current than investing in a continuing education course. After entry level certification the most popular course is the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course, which allows you to explore different underwater environments – like diving deeper, on ship wrecks or at night. Advanced courses are great for developing your confidence and building on your scuba skills so you can become more comfortable in the water. And despite the name, you don’t have to be “advanced” to enroll. Most of the time you can sign up as soon as you get certified. This is a great way to get more dives under your belt while continuing to learn under the supervision of an instructor.
PADI Rescue Diver courses are also popular, and most divers who get Rescue certified say it was their favourite and the most rewarding course they have ever taken. A good Rescue course will make you far more aware of yourself and your dive buddy, maximizing safety and enjoyment, and gives you both the skills to avoid emergency situations before they arise, and the confidence to manage a real emergency situation should it occur.
There is a pretty endless list of Specialty Courses with the most popular being PADI Deep Diver, PADI Enriched Air Nitrox Diver and PADI Wreck Diver. Specialties are a fantastic way to gain more skills, confidence and experience, and from the extensive menu available, there is always something to suit everyone.
Respect the Marine Environment
Abide by your parents favourite words “look but don’t touch”, or for a more Scuba applicable mantra “leave only bubbles, take only pictures”!
It is never OK to touch, pick up, harass or manipulate marine life. It’s as simple as that. Many of our favourite underwater inhabitants such as sharks, rays and turtles can become more susceptible to disease if we touch them. This is because their scales/shells/skins are covered in a thin protective layer of what scientists call biofilm. Once removed, they are at much greater risk of infection.
Corals are unfortunately very easy to damage too. Some corals are incredibly slow growing, and one careless fin kick can destroy up to ten years of growth. So it is imperative that you have good trim and buoyancy control, and don’t do any accidental harm.
Not only can you cause harm to marine life by touching or moving things, but the reef can also harm you. From sharp corals and spikey urchins to scorpion fish and stone fish spines, jelly fish stings and everything in between, coming into contact with marine life is just not a good idea. So do be aware of your surroundings, and if you do not feel you are in complete control of your movements, keep your distance.
Use Good Quality and Well Maintained Equipment
Another glaringly obvious one at first glance. Make sure you check the equipment you’ll be using thoroughly before it’s packed for the trip, and again during set up. If you are not happy with the quality of any of the rental gear, don’t be afraid to speak up. The better quality the equipment you use, the less chance their is of experiencing a malfunction. The regulator and BCD are generally the most important pieces of equipment your’ll need to check, as these provide your life support and control underwater. Don’t forget to check the tanks for visual and hydrostatic test dates too though.
The best way to retail control when it comes to equipment is to have your own. If you are using your own gear make sure it is up to date for service and maintenance. Each manufacturer’s guide will recommend a time frame, but for example with regulators the widely accepted consensus is to service once a year or every 100 dives, whichever is reached first. If you know that some of the parts for your set up are not common, then make sure you take spares with you. Many more experienced divers carry their own ‘save a dive kit’, with items such as fin straps, mask straps, mouth pieces, o-rings and cable ties for those little wear and tear replacements. If you dive regularly in hot locations, be wary of prolonged sun exposure, which can weaken or damage your equipment over time.
By following all of these recommendations you can minimise your risks and stay safe on any of your local dives or Scuba holidays. As you can see, most of it comes down to common sense and good judgement. Divers who treat both the sport and the ocean with respect, and dive with a healthy minds, bodies and attitudes, will experience no problems, and indeed nothing but pleasure in our amazing underwater world!