Maximise Your Surface Safety
IN THE PREVIOUS ARTICLE in this series I discussed drift-diving techniques. Because drift-dives can carry divers over long distances, loss at sea is a real risk, and it is essential that you be prepared and equipped in case this happens to you.
First of all, the most effective strategy for protecting yourself against loss at sea when drift-diving is to choose to dive with an operator that has expert knowledge of the waters in which you are diving, an excellent safety record, experienced guides, a low guide-to-diver ratio and, importantly, as you will see below, staff deployed on board the boat solely as surface supervisors to track the dive while you are under water.
WHEN IT GOES WRONG
This advance research is required, as not all operators can be trusted. Last year
a dive centre in Bali, Indonesia, chartered a boat to take five divers and two instructors out to some islands off the coast.
It was wet season and, behind the rainclouds gathering overhead, there would be a full moon that night in an area where, even at the best of times, currents are notoriously strong and unpredictable.
After about 10 minutes under water, they found the current was so strong that it was difficult to keep the group together, so they ascended early to find that a storm had swept in, surface conditions were now very rough and the rain had reduced visibility to a few metres only.
The only people left on board the boat were the captain and crew, who were not working for the dive centre. Their job was just to run the boat.
Having been told by the instructors that the dive would last an hour or so, once the divers had left the boat-crew just sat at anchor, sheltered from the storm, and dozed.
After 45 minutes or so they roused themselves and moved off to look for the divers in the area in which they were originally expected to ascend. They searched but did not find them. Then night fell, and the divers were gone.
A little over 72 hours later, searchers found four of the divers perched on rocks some 12 miles away from their original entry-point and one of the instructors in the water nearby.
The bodies of the remaining diver and the other instructor washed up on shore in the following days.
NOT A ONE-OFF
This is not a bizarre one-in-a-million accident. Indeed, it is just the latest in a depressingly similar series of such incidents that have taken place in the same area.
Just before midnight on 7 July, 2012, a fishing-boat picked up eight divers adrift in 3m seas off southern Bali.
The divers had begun the dive late in the afternoon as part of a group of 12, had become separated from their guide and surfaced out of sight of the dive boat, which was then forced to return to port after a very brief search because it did not have night-running lights.
The recovery of the divers was completely fortuitous. The fishing-boat was not looking for them. In fact, nobody was. A search had been planned, but was not due to begin until dawn.
TECHNIQUE 1: JUST SAY NO!
As these stories demonstrate, you cannot just leave your fate in the hands of a dive operation. Some do not take safety seriously enough, and even with good dive operations accidents can happen, a boat engine can fail or someone can make a mistake.
You have to share the responsibility for your own safety on a drift-dive and be armed with equipment, self-rescue techniques and strategies to help you be recovered if something goes wrong.
An excellent survival strategy, especially when diving with an operator you don’t know, is just to say “No!”
If the briefing, water conditions, demeanour of the boat crew or any other factor just seems wrong to you, exercise your right to refuse and sit the dive out.
You don’t have to give a reason, you don’t have to make a big deal out of it, just say: “This one’s not for me.”
TECHNIQUE 2: SHOW THEM WHERE YOU ARE
Carry a delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) or safety sausage on every dive. Choose long and thin rather than short and fat, and go for either fluorescent yellow or fluorescent orange for maximum visibility, although one commercial diving survey reported that the easiest colour to pick out at sea was bright pink!
Some models have white reflective tape sewn on the top; this is a really useful addition, as a flash of sunlight will draw a watcher’s attention.
Attach 6m of line to the bottom of the DSMB so that you can deploy it from your safety stop to give the boat-crew advance notice of where you are.
Or use a reel and line if you want to send it up from depth and use the line as an emergency ascent platform.
Deploying a DSMB under water is something you will need to practise a few times but it is a useful skill to have (see panel below).
Another very important reason for using a DSMB is to mark the place where divers will be ascending so that boat traffic can steer clear.
Especially in choppy seas, it’s difficult for a boat-crew to see divers’ bubbles, and you don’t want the boat right on top of you as you come up.
For the same reason, it’s a good idea for the whole team to make the final ascent to the surface close to the DSMB at the same time.
On occasions when your drift-dive might take you into areas of shallow water where there is a lot of boat traffic, you might even consider putting the DSMB up right at the start of the dive.
This can complicate matters however, as the diver dragging the buoy may find it hard to stay with the group, especially if the direction of the wind at the surface doesn’t match that of the current.
TECHNIQUE 3: SHINE A LIGHT
Carry a light on every dive, even daytime dives, not only so that you can look inside holes for shy marine life, but so that you can use it as a signalling device in an emergency. You can even beam it up through your DSMB to create a highly visible light sabre.
The only reason that the fishing-boat found the drifting divers in the earlier story was because one of the divers was carrying a light.
A length of cord is useful to keep the dive-team together. The line on your buoy or your reel will do the trick nicely. It’s all too easy to drift apart on the surface, and a group of divers makes a bigger target for searchers to spot.
Share safety devices, take turns to rest and keep each other’s spirits up.
TECHNIQUE 4: CARRY-ON SIGNALLING DEVICES & SURVIVAL EQUIPMENT
A piece of unbreakable mirrored card, (the stuff they use in aircraft bathrooms), makes an excellent daytime signalling device.
Point the card in the direction of a vessel in the distance and move it from side to side to catch the sun. If you can’t find this type of card, use a DVD.
Traditionally whistles have been standard dive-gear, but these are not very effective except over short distances, and even then only if the wind is in your favour.
A power horn attached to your BC inflator hose is much more effective.
Two major threats to your survival on a long surface drift are exposure and dehydration. A hood is not only useful for keeping you warm but will protect your head and neck from the sun on the surface. Adding reflective flashes to the hood will increase your visibility.
TECHNIQUE 5: MAKE USE OF TECHNOLOGY
In remote back-country skiing, where avalanches are a risk, everyone is equipped with an avalanche beacon, a device that emits a signal to help searchers find a skier buried in snow.
Wonderful as it might be to imagine a world in which every diver is required to carry a similar device in case they become lost at sea, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
However, there is a practical alternative available right now.
A technical diving instructor friend of mine recently found himself drifting alone in the South China Sea after a series of unusual events.
He looked around, saw where he was in relation to the land, pulled out the hand-held marine rescue radio with GPS that he carries on every dive and called the boat to come and pick him up. No drama!
These radios represent the most significant advance in safety at sea in recent years, benefitting not only divers but surfers, paddlers, fishermen and sailors too.
They cost under £200 each so, for the average dive operator, an investment of £1000 or so is all that is required to arm every surface dive-supervisor and in-water guide with a unit, and eliminate the risk of losing divers at sea almost completely.
Isn’t that the sort of approach divers should reasonably expect from the people they pay to take them diving?
HOW TO DEPLOY A DSMB
STEP 1: GET IT READY
Well before you arrive at your safety-stop depth, take out your DSMB and unclip your reel.
Attach the end of the line to the DSMB and unfurl the DSMB so that it drifts away from you. Keep hold of the reel.
Look at it carefully; make sure neither the DSMB nor the line is snagged on you or your dive gear.
Pull the DSMB back towards you. Unlock the reel.
STEP 2: CHOOSE INFLATION OPTION
Tilt your head, raise the open bottom of the DSMB above the exhaust of your regulator second stage and exhale into the bag, gently at first.
Watch out! Make sure the line does not get snagged as you do this.
Take your octopus, hold it under the open bottom of the DSMB and press the purge button gently and briefly.
Watch out! If you purge too hard or if the regulator starts to freeflow, your DSMB will fly out of control.
Take your BC inflator hose, hold it under the open bottom of the DSMB and press both inflate and dump buttons simultaneously.
Watch out! Make sure you press BOTH buttons so you don’t inflate your BC instead.
STEP 3: SEND IT UP
Only put a little puff of air into the DSMB at first, just enough to make it stand up.
Check where the line is at all times so that it does not catch on you or your equipment.
Position yourself in the water underneath the SMB and the line and look up at it.
Make sure you are not under a boat or platform.
Make yourself a little negatively buoyant.
Add one or two more little puffs of air until you feel the DSMB wants to get going.
Add a final larger puff of air and then release it.
Keep hold of the end of the line.
Watch the DSMB and the line as it rises.
When the DSMB is at the surface, pull the line tight so the DSMB stands up straight.
Check your depth, then do your safety stop, keeping the line tight and looking up to make sure that everything is still OK on the surface, ie that the DSMB has not collapsed and you have not drifted onto an obstacle.
Read more from Simon Pridmore in Scuba Confidential – An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver and Scuba Professional – Insights into Sport Diver Training & Operations, both available on Amazon in a variety of formats