Buddy pair, group dive -or chain-gang
Group-diving, especially on holidays overseas, is a convenient way round the difficulty of buddying up divers of uneven ability. But is it a satisfactory solution asks John Bantin. As one case history underlines, its fine as long as certified divers accept responsibility for their own safety - and dont stray

TO DIVE AS BUDDY PAIRS. The low visibility affords little choice unless we go solo. When we find ourselves in waters with better clarity, we will most likely be on holiday and diving under the auspices of a commercial dive centre.
     So how does the operator of such a centre or liveaboard judge your ability to dive safely Certifications are not a fool-proof way of making a judgment. A diver with many impressive dives logged and an armful of badges may be a complete liability. Chances are you know someone just like that. Yet a diver with basic certification and only a few dives logged could be a natural under water.
     Dive centres often test newly arrived divers by asking them to remove their mask and regulator and replace them while under water during their first dive. Though all too many find this to be traumatic, it is still not a test of a sudden circumstance leading to crisis.
     Should dive-guides swim up behind their newly arrived clients and rip off their masks and turn off their air, just to test their ability to cope I think not, although that action was prescribed not so long ago by at least one foreign training agency.
     So, lets face it, dive guides and their employers have no real way of knowing with what sort of person they are dealing.
     Then there is the question of buddy-pairs. You might turn up with your partner as a ready-made buddy-pair, but how do they know how you are likely to conduct yourselves under water There are hand-holding buddies and diving-in-the-same-ocean buddies. There are cautious buddies and those inclined to take big risks. Into which category do you fall
     The dive-guide might well be inclined to invite you to dive as part of a buddy-pair, but what do you do if you have no ready-made and trusted buddy to hand
     Do you offer to pair up with someone you might have met only moments previously Do you insist on being paired with someone of similar interests, levels of fitness and competence
     If you are not entirely confident, you might well ask to join a more experienced diver. If you are an experienced diver, you might well be paired with someone who needs looking after. Either way, the principle of the buddy-pair is lost.
     Buddy-diving presupposes that both members of a pair are competent divers with the skills needed to effect a rescue of the other should the need arise. Can you rely on that so-called experienced diver to rescue you, or will your dive be spoiled by the limitations of diving with someone you need to nanny
     The easy answer is to say that every diver should be competent and have sufficient skill to rescue themselves, should the need arise. This means that every diver should be competent enough to dive alone.
     A few operators are willing to let divers who want to do so dive alone. They should usually be equipped with an alternative air source and a surface signalling device of some kind, and demonstrate beforehand that they are competent to use them.
     The depth to the bottom may be so shallow, and conditions so benign, that the operator is confident that no certified diver is likely to get into big trouble, even with basic kit. Such operators may be few and far between.
     The security of the buddy-system has been so heavily sold by the training agencies that solo-diving is frowned upon by many. So what do you do if you dont like the idea of diving with the buddy assigned to you
     Most commercial diving centres get round this problem by inviting their guest divers to tag along with the dive-guide. The dive-guide becomes everyones buddy, there to provide assistance should it be needed.
     For want of a better description, it becomes a group dive.
     The group dive presupposes that everyone stays in touch with the dive-guide during the dive. If someone has a problem that needs to be dealt with, the rest of the group must wait patiently until that problem is solved. It requires each diver to subscribe to the simple discipline of staying together.
     The responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the visiting diver. He or she must stay close to the dive-guide and alert them to any potential problem. Only in that way can the dive guide be expected to be of help. No-one can expect a single person to keep an eye on everyone else, especially in the vision-limiting conditions of the underwater world, anticipating a problem that any one of them might have, or be about to have.
     John Weinberg of London-based diving school Scuba Training often takes newly qualified divers away on overseas diving trips. It all depends on the circumstances of the dive, he told me. The PADI Open Water Diver certification is equivalent to just passing your driving test.
     You shouldnt go on a motorway alone, nor should a newly certified diver go off alone, or in a buddy-pair, unless the conditions are totally benign. On typical dive trips abroad, I dive my less experienced clients as buddy-pairs but within a led group. Most people can see the benefit of that, but it is down to them to stay with the group. I would be anxious if any went off on their own or lagged behind to wait for a fish to come out of a hole to be photographed, for example.
     There are those who think they should be allowed to dive unsupervised but some will certainly use that as an opportunity to do inappropriate dives.
     Jim Breakell, of bespoke diving-holiday operator Scuba-Safaris, has been on countless dive trips overseas. The wrong buddy can be a problem in itself, he says My paying guests would certainly not want to be stuck with someone they needed to look after.
     If you have a problem under water, you should go to the dive-guide rather than the unknown quantity which your buddy might be. The dive-guide has a difficult job, as it is not possible to both lead a dive watching where youre going and keep an eye at all times on those following behind you.
     David Jones, of Triton Scuba in Portsmouth, often accompanies groups diving abroad. When its not a training situation and a group of individual divers go diving under the auspices of a commercial diving centre, each diver is expected routinely to manage their air-supply and deco requirements, even if that only means keeping within no-stop times and ascending at less than the maximum prescribed rate.
     The dive-guide cannot be expected to hold everyones hand at all times. If I take money as a dive-guide, I clearly have a responsibility to take care of my clients. On the other hand, if they dont follow the plan, that could make life very difficult.
     So what of the plan The dive can be planned meticulously but the divers must be prepared to stick to it. Rob Palmer was a famously competent diver, but the dive-guide of the day did not expect him to go off to 120m deep, breathing ordinary air, particularly as she had specified a depth-limit of 30m in each of her briefings. Rob got away with it for several days running, until he paid the price for his folly and died.
     If the plan is that everyone dives in a group, its important that everyone observes that requirement.
     Should you choose to swim off alone, or as part of a buddy pair, you must be aware that there is little a dive-guide can do to help you. Youre on your own.
     The grim consequences of ignoring the plan are highlighted below...

When a group is not a group
What can a dive-guide do if a member of a group he is escorting decides to split from the group What if your recently designated buddy splits from you What if that diver swims off alone and is later found dead
     If its in the Bahamas, it seems that someone might need to prepare to defend themselves against a manslaughter charge - at least, if the man who presides over Andros Coroners Court is to be heeded.
     In July 2002 David Graves, a senior reporter from the Daily Telegraph, lost his life on a scuba-diving press trip to the Bahamas. He died on the first day of the trip during a very ordinary leisure dive in clear, still water to a depth of no more than 17m. It shouldnt have happened.
     A number of national British publications had been invited to send representatives to dive the undersea cave systems known as the Blue Holes of Andros. The invitation had specified certified divers only as it involved cave-diving, but David Graves was a PADI Open Water Diver with fewer than a dozen non-training dives under his belt.
     Jane Ridley from the Daily Mirror, in a subsequent article in the Guardian, wrote that her trip was to be taken out of holiday time and that David Graves had been sent by his paper not on assignment but as a 50th birthday present.
     So while on the one hand the dive centre, Small Hope Bay Lodge, imagined that it was receiving a group of experienced divers intent on writing serious features about diving, at least some of its guests regarded the trip as a freebie in the sun.
     I was there. I had dived independently of the group and left the water at the end of my dive after watching the group shepherded safely back together on the seabed below me, close to the anchorline of our boat. Gin-clear water gives visibility of some 30m. On land, that would be heavy mist and someone purposeful could easily swim away and out of sight. Im sure none of the divers saw me looking down at them.
     For whatever reason, during that final part of the dive, Graves appears to have left the safety of the group. I can only guess what happened from a cursory examination of both his contents gauge and the dive-profile on his computer as he later lay dead on the deck.
     It appears that he ran out of air, went to or near the surface and failed to maintain his buoyancy by either dropping his weights or breathing air into his BC, skills I believe to be page one of a divers training. I assume he must have dropped back down and drowned.
     His body was later found on the seabed beyond the range of underwater vision from that point where I had last seen him near the anchor line. There was no current, so it can be safely supposed that he originally swam off in that direction.
     He had a camera which he had been excited about using with a recently purchased underwater housing, and might have been intent on getting more pictures.
     We will never know. The dive guides and I did our best to resuscitate him on the boat, but to no avail.

little confidence
What of the young woman who had been buddied up with David Graves on the earlier morning dive, the first dive of the trip Immediately before the fateful afternoon dive, she had privately told me that she had little confidence in him. She felt he would not be there should she need him, so she planned to stay close to the dive-guides.
     Had she been with him, what would have happened when he had taken that last breath from his tank Would they both have drowned, or could she have rescued him I fear it might have been the former.
     Its true that the dive guides should have noticed when Graves set off on what was to be his last swim, but any diver knows that the tunnel-vision effects caused by the refraction of light through air and water limit peripheral vision.
     Ironically, the woman who might have been his buddy had a problem with her weightbelt during the ascent up the anchor line, and that probably distracted them, too.
     The Telegraph said that there was no-one there to help him, but Graves had left the security of the group. Were the dive-guides to blame The Coroner felt they should have been more vigilant, but a majority of the jurors thought otherwise, so he returned an open verdict.
     What have we learned from the experience I always write on any disclaimer I might be asked to sign prior to diving that in no way do I accept responsibility for any other person in the water. I dont want to be responsible for their actions.
     It would be understandable if dive-guides in the Bahamas no longer wanted to be in the water with any diver, however certified and in buddy pairs or not, if they felt liable for manslaughter charges should things go wrong. They might be more inclined to stay in the boat and say: Theres the water. Get in it only if you think you can survive.

The gang passes time on the chain
Divers all in a row - a typical dive group strung out along a reef brings no problems as long as divers stay in touch with each other

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