What Should Scuba Divers Do for Their Own Safety?
Is scuba diving safe? This is a question scuba divers are often asked. Most would answer that, ‘yes, it is – as long as you follow the scuba diving rules. However, rules can be broken, forgotten, or overlooked, and of course, accidents do happen. So, what should scuba divers do to ensure their own safety?
Most of the serious injuries associated with scuba diving are caused by diver error. To guard against making a mistake I’ve outlined five key areas for review:
- Review the theory you were taught
- Don’t be complacent with skills and training
- Follow safe diving practices
- Be aware of your environment
- Be ready for emergencies
When you learn how to scuba dive, you are taught some basic scientific principles that govern the effects of breathing underwater. To stay safe in your scuba diver life, you need to make sure these concepts remain fresh in your mind.
Decompression sickness is caused when increasing pressure forces the nitrogen in the air we breathe into our tissues. The problem occurs when divers stay too long, overloading their tissues or when the pressure is reduced too quickly to allow for safe elimination. Nitrogen bubbles form in the tissues, and their number and location determine the type and severity of the injury.
How can divers reduce their risk of decompression sickness?
- Use dive tables or computers conservatively. These tools help you stay within recommended limits, but they are just an algorithm and don’t monitor anything in your body.
- Make slow ascents and include a safety stop.
- Be hydrated, well rested, and fit to dive.
- Don’t smoke or be under the effects of drugs or alcohol before or after diving.
- Refrain from strenuous exercise pre-or-post diving.
The most important diving rule is never to hold your breath. Increasing pressure increases the density of the gas in your tank. When you ascend, the pressure decreases, and the gas expands; if you were to hold your breath the gas in your lungs would expand, causing your lungs to rupture, forcing air into the bloodstream or chest cavity. An air embolism is a very serious injury and can be fatal.
Decompression Illness or DCI
The umbrella term for decompression sickness and air embolism is decompression illness or DCI. Signs and symptoms of both vary and, in some instances, can be hard to distinguish. First aid for both is the same, so rather than waste valuable time, divers complaining of or showing signs of any of the following should be given 100% oxygen immediately and transferred to medical care as quickly as possible;
- Numbness, tingling, favoring one side of the body, joint or limb pain
- Weakness, fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness
- Itchy skin, rash
- Skin that crackles when touched or appears bubbly
- Paralysis, shock
- Difficulty breathing
Scuba Diving Refresher Tips
Unless you take a refresher course, you may not have practiced some skills and techniques since your initial training. Can you:
- Recover your regulator effortlessly
- Put your gear on / take your gear off on the surface
- Remove your gear underwater
- Remove and replace your mask with little fuss
- Explain the options in an out of air scenario
- Calmly respond to an out of air situation whether with a buddy or not
- Remove cramp in yourself or your buddy
- Tow your buddy if they become unable to swim on the surface
- Respond to a free-flowing regulator underwater
- Remember what the best place for me to position an alternate air source is
- Respond to a malfunctioning low-pressure inflator
If you are unfamiliar with any of these skills or techniques either take a refresher or ask an experienced diver for some help and practice and avoid scuba diving danger. As an example, you could practice air sharing on your scuba safety stop.
If you are a certified with rescue and first aid skills, it’s crucial that you review protocols and practice to make sure that your response is efficient and calm if you are faced with an emergency.
Refresh any skills you haven’t used recently in shallow water so that you are ready to put them into practice. This could just be the basics, or it could involve revising higher-end skills like line laying or the use of a lift bag.
Know Your Limits
Your qualification limits are there for your
To go beyond your limits, you need further training; whether this is to go deeper, enter a wreck or cave, dive with a different gas or, in some instances, use new dive equipment. Even if you are qualified to dive; remember that you don’t have to. Don’t succumb to peer or other pressures to dive if you don’t feel comfortable.
Never forget that you can call a dive at any time for any reason. If you want to end the dive; say so.
Take Further Training
Further training always includes a refresher of prior learning and helps re-enforce skills, techniques, and safety protocols.
Further training ensures that any new activity is learned safely and under the supervision of an experienced instructor.
1. Be fit to dive
You don’t have to be a marathoner, but you do need to ensure you are fit and healthy to dive. To dive safely, you need the appropriate strength and stamina to deal with surface swims, currents, and be able to assist your buddy to safety.
2. Have dive insurance
Hyperbaric treatment, rescue services, and evacuation are expensive.
3. Maintain your gear
Service gear regularly and check for wear and tear.
4. Do not dive under the influence
You should refrain from alcohol and drugs before or after diving. This also includes any residual effects from the night before. If you are taking prescription medicine, always consult your doctor before diving.
5. Use reputable operators
Diving with contaminated gas or the wrong mix can be fatal. Choosing an operator with a disregard for safety puts you at risk.
6. Listen to briefings
If you’re diving with a club or dive operator, listen to what you are being told. Briefings include valuable safety information as well as insights that will help you get more enjoyment from the dive.
7. Equalize early and often
Never force equalization. Don’t go diving with a cold or use decongestants; either can cause a reverse block when ascending, which is a painful condition caused by expanding air trapped in the sinus or ears.
8. Have a dive plan that includes:
- Conservative depth, time, and gas parameters
- Entry and exits
- A clear objective
- The right gear for the dive
- Checking the weather and tides
- Having surface cover, oxygen, first aid, and an emergency plan
9. Use the buddy system
Make a gear safety check, review signals, discuss what to do if you lose each other, ensure you’re both clear on the plan and stick to it, remain in contact.
10. Minimize risk
Stay within your limits. Have a smooth dive profile, don’t sawtooth. Watch your gauges. Ascend slowly. Make a safety stop. Never hold your breath.
The Nautilus Lifeline is a personal locator beacon that transmits a signal allowing you to be found easily. It’s tough and rated to 425ft; all you need to do is maintain the O-ring and batteries. In an emergency, you push one button to emit a distress call. It can also function to advise vessels of your position without signaling an emergency. It has global compatibility and excellent accuracy.
Whether you are underwater or on the surface, being able to mark your position is crucial to being seen and avoiding boat traffic. This Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) is large, tough, easily stored, and made with a vibrant neon red 210D Nylon Fabric with a TPU coating complemented with a reflective strip. You can fill it from your second stage, with your LPI hose or orally. It’s weighted and self-sealing which avoids air spillage and deflation.
The ideal dive knife is a durable, multifunctional tool. The Promate has it all; there’s a smooth and serrated blade with a built-in line cutter ideal for dealing with fishing line. It’s made from titanium, so it’s sharp and comes with a quick release sheath and straps.
Nitrogen narcosis is the narcotic effect nitrogen can have on a diver at depth. Increasing pressure causes nitrogen to be dissolved in the bloodstream, and it interferes with the way the body sends messages.
The effect is likened to drinking alcohol. However, unlike alcohol, there are no residual effects, and the effect itself is not harmful. The problem is that it can cause you to disregard your safety, forget to monitor gauges, and forget vital skills and training. Effects commonly occur around 100ft and will increase with depth.
The key safety factor is to be aware that you can be affected and, with your buddy, take steps to monitor your reaction. If affected, the solution is to ascend to a depth that you feel clear headed. You don’t need to end your dive unless you want to.
Because of increasing pressure, breathing pure oxygen would be toxic at 20ft. Air contains 21% oxygen, and even this would become toxic, but you would have to dive beyond 185 ft for this to occur. The toxicity would cause a sufferer to convulse. It’s not the convulsion that’s dangerous but that it would cause the diver to spit their regulator and inhale water.
100% oxygen will be available on dive boats for emergencies. Nitrox and tech divers use gases with higher percentages of oxygen too. These gases will be toxic at shallower depths. Popular nitrox blends are 32% and 36%, and these can be toxic at 111ft and 95ft respectively.
The key safety point here is not to dive with anything other than air unless you are qualified. If you are qualified, it’s crucial that you verify the contents of your tank before diving and stay within the safe diving depth for the gas that you are breathing. Note that tanks other than air will be clearly marked with green and yellow stickers.
1. Ascension Awareness
Look up and rotate to check the way is clear. Listen for boat traffic. Use a surface marker. Ascend slowly. Make a safety stop. Extend an arm overhead to protect your head.
2. Protect your airway
Keep your mask and regulator or snorkel in place until you are on the boat or shore as this ensures you can see and breathe, both of which are fundamental to your comfort and safety.
3. Positive Buoyancy
Once on the surface, inflate your BCD. In case of emergency, drop your weights.
4. Be Seen
Always have a surface marker to let people on the surface know that there are divers below or surfacing. Some areas always require a marker on the surface. Find out what is required where you dive.
5. Be Found
Have a whistle, a locator beacon, a signaling mirror.
There are a few safety considerations specific to diving from the shore.
Shore Diving Entries
- Do your safety checks and make sure you have air in your BCD, and your mask and regulator or snorkel are in place before you enter the water.
- Take it slowly and shuffle your feet to avoid stepping on anything sharp or poisonous.
- Hold on to your buddy for support.
- If the water is calm, you may be able to put your fins on in the water.
- If you fall, don’t struggle to get back up. Swim calmly through the surf zone and protect your mask as each wave hits.
Shore Diving Exits
- Ensure you have a backup exit point in case you can’t use your first one.
- Make sure you have adequate air supply to get to the shore.
- Assess wave movement and wait for a lull.
1. Listen to Briefings
Pay attention to:
- Entry, exit, and surface marker protocols
- The location of first aid and safety equipment
- Areas that are off-limits
- Areas that should be kept dry
- Surface signals
- Roll calls
2. Stow Gear Correctly
Wave action can move gear, so make sure it’s secure and can’t fall and hurt someone. Make sure walkways are clear to avoid trip hazards.
3. Be conscious of seasickness
Being tired, hungover, or hungry can contribute to seasickness. If you know you’re susceptible find a treatment that’s dive safe and works for you. Other tips include; setting your gear up before you leave; staying in fresher air, looking at the horizon, and staying in the center of the boat where it’s most stable.
4. Stay away from exhaust fumes
These can make you feel sick and adversely affect you while scuba diving.
5. Moving Around
Boats move with the ocean making it easy to fall over. Most dive boats have ladders and not stairs for moving around decks. This means you should face the rungs when moving up and down. Use two hands and pass gear up or down; don’t try and carry it. Decks get wet, which means they can be slippery; be careful.
6. Dive Flag
To signal the boat has divers onboard a flag needs to be flown. Check what is required for the location you are diving in.
Whenever you go out, have a float plan and leave it with someone at the marina or a friend or relative who can alert rescue services in case of an emergency. The leading cause of fatal accidents for paddlers using kayaks, canoe, or rafts is a lack of understanding of proper techniques. Make sure you understand;
- Your vessels balance and stability and how to get in and out safely
- Proper paddling techniques
- Basic self-rescue techniques
It’s important too that you know what markers and buoys are telling you. For example, you see a white marker with red vertical stripes. What type of marker is this? It marks safe water. There are many other types, find out what they mean to ensure your safety.
Low Head Dams. Try to avoid low-head dams if you’re in a canoe or kayak by checking out maps before you travel. If you do encounter one, get to the shore quickly. You may need to paddle upstream to allow for maneuverability. Once at the shore, get out of your vessel and walk it around the dam, making sure you have enough distance from the dam before getting back in.
Capsizing. Firstly, don’t panic. Get yourself free of the vessel; remember that restraints have quick releases. Hold onto your craft on the upstream side to avoid getting crushed. Take a moment to assess your situation and, when you are ready, flip the boat, keeping your feet downstream to protect your head. If you can get back in and paddle; great. If not, head for the shore. Be aware of hyperthermia and get warm and dry as soon as you can.
To reduce your risk of capsizing
- Don’t overload your vessel
- Evenly distribute weight
- Move carefully
- Monitor your speed and slow down for greater control
- Anchor from the bow
- Consider the conditions; waves and swell increase your risk
When diving somewhere new and unfamiliar, always get an orientation. Diving with someone who has experience of the site will give you a safe introduction to the best dive practices for the location’s conditions and environment.
If a current is present and your dive plan requires you to end the dive where it started, best practice is to head into the current first. This advice ensures that you make the hardest part of your dive first, which will also use the most gas.
Current is often strongest on the surface, so it may be easier to swim against the current underwater. If you decide to do this, consider your gas supply and your safety from surface traffic.
Underwater current is weaker closer to the reef or bottom, so if it is safe to do so, altering your position can make swimming against current easier. Staying streamlined, taking breaks, sheltering behind boulders or reefs, and holding on to rest also help. Don’t over-exert yourself.
Current can change in strength and direction. Be aware of visual cues; fish swim into the current, and exhaled bubbles drift with the current.
Drift diving means that you dive with the current. If you are diving from a boat, there will be protocols in place; be clear on what they are. If you are diving from the shore; have a clear plan for exiting the water and a back-up just in case.
Rip currents take you out to sea, swimming against them will tire you easily. Swim across the flow, and you will swim out of it and be able to make your way back to shore. Don’t panic, maintain buoyancy, and signal for help.
At depth, waves have little impact, but observing them will give you clues as to surface conditions. Waves can have a considerable impact on how you end and exit from your dive, so remain vigilant to changing conditions.
On shallow dives, waves cause surge which is a to-and-fro movement underwater. It’s best not to fight the movement and not dive too close to anything you could be pushed into.
There is no marine life that is out to get you, but there are species and behaviors to be aware of. Particular attention should be paid to:
- Species of sharks and behaviors
- Venomous creatures like stonefish, scorpionfish, and jellyfish
- Territorial species like triggerfish
Remember to check weather reports, tides, and assess the condition before you dive; if there is any doubt, there is no doubt, don’t dive.
What is the most dangerous, and most common, emergency in scuba diving?
This is a tough one to answer. Accidents happen, how they’re dealt with is crucial to a successful outcome, and this means having plans in place.
When faced with any scenario underwater you should:
Stop. Breath. Think. Act.
Panic will cause you to react instinctively, and our instinctive reaction would be to hold our breath and bolt for the surface, which is the last thing you want to do. Visualization or mental rehearsal allows you to consider different scenarios safely. Thinking about the steps you would take should you, or your buddy have a reverse block means that you already have a plan to respond should that situation arise. Think about other ‘what ifs’ and discuss these with your fellow divers. The more prepared you are, the better you can respond.
Make Sure You Carry Personal Safety Gear
- Underwater noisemaker; tank banger, rattle, horn, etc…
- Signaling device; SMB, dive flag, float, mirror, dye, whistle, torch, locator beacon
Safety and First Aid That Should Be Available
- Phone, radio, means of contacting emergency services
- 1st aid kit and emergency oxygen
- Action plan to include
- Phone numbers
Response protocols for DCI, missing diver, etc…
As always, we create our content with you, fellow divers, in mind. So, how’d we do? Did you find this informative? Did it help you make a decision? Did we miss anything? We’d love to hear from you below. Thanks for reading and we hope your next dive is a great one!