Purpose-made reflector (DAN signalling mirror, US$5, www.diversalertnetwork.org)…Trouble is, signalling mirrors or reflective CDs can be lost in a bil
SCUBA-DIVING IS A SAFE PASTIME. Yes, incidents occur, some of them serious, but statistically it seems less so than when participating in other adventure pursuits.
That said, there are occasions on which you might find yourself in a difficult situation. When you do, it’s likely that anticipating the event and pre-planning will make the difference between a safe return and a life-threatening episode.
I’ve been a diver for more than 30 years and of course, like many others, I’ve had a few “moments” during that time; perhaps six or seven dives out of thousands on which I’ve been in trouble but managed by luck to escape serious injury or worse.
In hindsight I could have avoided or resolved the problems I encountered by using equipment designed and built specifically to deal with such circumstances.
This feature isn’t about procedures or training – it’s all about kit that’s fit for purpose (or not) in the diving environment. Kit I wished I’d had in my BC pocket or had clipped to a D-ring when I was in trouble.
I’ve learnt a few things over the years with regard to safety gear. There are some items which, when the chips are down, are about as much use as a button on a sock. Other gear I wouldn’t get in the water without.
There is some stuff of which myths are made. I’m not saying don’t use it, only that there may be times or conditions in which it’s not effective. In a risk-critical situation it’s better to have safety gear you know will work regardless of the circumstances.
Mountaineers, trekkers and backpackers off the beaten track often carry reflective signalling devices. By aligning them with the sun and a search team they can signal their location with the resulting flashing light. These devices are compact, light and, in the right conditions, work like a dream.
It’s often recommended that divers carry a compact disc on open-water dives. Divers Alert Network (DAN) also sells signalling mirrors for use at the surface.
Unfortunately, conditions are rarely suitable for these signalling devices to work in a marine environment. The sun needs to be out from behind clouds and your position in relation to the light source and the people you’re signalling must be favourable.
Another major factor not taken into account is that your mirrored signal may be lost in a billion blinking and flashing pinpricks of light, as ripples or waves reflect the sun in the same way as a CD or mirror does!
WHISTLES & AUDIBLE DEVICES
In Victorian England, peelers (the police force) used whistles to summon assistance. They were state of the art. I’m sure they worked so well because in those days there was less ambient noise from people, heavy traffic and industry.
The modern equivalent is a VHF radio so I have to ask: why are divers still relying on whistles to attract attention? I know they’re small, light, unobtrusive and always there when you need them, but will they actually be heard at distance over the ambient noise of marine diesel engines, waves slapping the shore or the dive-boat hull and people conversing loudly about their latest underwater adventure?
Fabrics of all types can be dyed in hi-vis colours; commonly called “fluorescent”, they are used where being conspicuous adds to the wearer’s safety. In diving terms being prominent, especially at the surface, makes sense, so wearing a hi-vis exposure suit or BC would seem a great idea.
What people tend to forget is that the only part of your body likely to be seen at the surface is your head and neck. Also, brightly coloured suits and jackets are hard to find now, with black by far the most popular choice.
I used to dive with the late Alan Dunster. Along with other technical divers from Kingston BSAC, Dunny would wear bright orange cotton mechanic’s overalls over his black drysuit, and could certainly be seen from a distance under water. The overalls also protected his neoprene suit from abrasion when scrabbling about on deep wrecks.
At the surface, however, his bright overalls were as useful as a chocolate teapot. A brightly coloured hood would be a better choice.
Marine flares were once commonplace on offshore marine craft. A crew in trouble could ignite a flare and fire it vertically into the sky. A bright red flame followed by a smoke trail would alert nearby shipping, instigating an emergency response.
For divers, the flares have to be carried in a watertight canister rated to suit the planned maximum dive depths. Unfortunately the flares won’t ignite when damp and they have a short shelf-life, so when they’re needed most they could let you down with a splutter and a puff.
A glow-stick is a one-use light source consisting of a sealed clear tube containing two chemicals and a coloured dye. When the tube is bent the chemicals are released, mix together and the resulting chemical reaction produces light.
Glow-sticks are small, light, water-pressure resistant and require no batteries. They appear ideal for night-dives, but the myth is that these plastic tubes are not biodegradable and seem
to end up discarded, littering the seabed or remain attached to permanent moorings and shot-lines on popular night-dive sites.
A handheld torch with rechargeable batteries is the right way to go for night-diving.
AT THE SURFACE
Being seen and located at the surface is one of the most important factors in diver safety. I’ve been left adrift mid-Channel off the UK’s busy south-east coast and that’s an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat or have happen to anyone else.
Lessons learned from this harrowing experience have given rise to my choice of location devices. I’ve found no substitute for a simple brightly coloured, high-contrast, big and bold delayed surface marker buoy.
I’ve also learned that colour plays a big part in the game of hide-and-seek between skipper and diver, and that on extreme occasions a more hi-tec approach is needed.
There are many SMB models but I prefer a long, fat, self-sealing, two-colour buoy with a dedicated inflation system.
The choice of colour should depend on surface light conditions. I wouldn’t recommend deploying a yellow buoy if the water surface is reflecting an overcast white sky – an all-black version would then be a far more visible option.
Alternatively, I wouldn’t expect a skipper to spot a black marker when the sea surface was reflecting dark clouds – in such conditions a bright red, orange or yellow marker would be appropriate.
To maximise the chance of being located in all lighting situations, my all-round choice is for a bi-colour fluorescent red and black marker, which anyone looking for me can easily spot on the surface, at distance.
Bi-colour DSMBs have been dismissed as fashion items by a minority of writers on social media and online forums. To them I say: think again. Any colour scheme that enhances a diver’s chances of being spotted at the surface is the best colour scheme.
There are various ways of inflating a DSMB during the ascent phase of a dive. For rebreather divers a “crack bottle” charged from decanted gas from a main dive-tank does the job seamlessly, but these are bulky and problematic to take on overseas trips.
Using an alternative regulator to fill the buoy from the base is very popular and, if done correctly, is a safe option. Using exhaled gas from the primary second stage is another popular choice, one I’ve used over the years without incident.
An AP Diving Easifil adaptor on its popular self-sealing DSMBs is my current choice. This simple addition enables the buoy to be filled from a direct-feed medium-pressure hose from a bail-out cylinder, drysuit inflator hose or a spare hose dedicated to the task when fitted to the first stage.
The Easifil adaptor has no locking groove on the stem, so the hose won’t stay attached after the DSMB has been inflated. This makes it a safe, trouble-free operation.
REELS & SPOOLS
A DSMB is of no use unless attached to a line; linking diver to buoy at the surface is essential. Ratchet-reels are among the best tools for this job, as long as they hold enough line to allow deployment from the maximum depth of the dive.
The line needs to be strong enough for the task and the attachment method used at the DSMB end must be secure and foolproof. The reel also has to be tangle- and snag-resistant to be safe to use in any conditions.
Reels can be quite hefty, which causes travelling divers to sacrifice them to meet baggage-weight restrictions. A lightweight compact spool is the answer, leaving no excuses for anyone foolish enough to travel without what I consider the most risk-critical item of safety kit.
An alternative to SMBs are emergency flags, commonly stowed down the side of a tank using shock cord and deployed post-dive at the surface. The model pictured has a folding three-section tubular pole that when extended measures about 2m, with a hi-vis rectangular nylon flag to aid location.
The whole set-up is light and compact when stowed and is suitable for all conditions at home or overseas.
If you should be left adrift in the vast expanse of an ocean, being found as quickly as possible is the priority. Search & rescue services (SARS) base their reaction to emergency calls on “speed of response” and “weight of attack”, which equates to how quickly they can start the search and how many personnel are needed.
If you are lost at the surface with no way of enhancing your visibility, the search will take time and may involve boats, spotter planes or coastguard helicopters. The difficulty for the SARS is immense.
Of course, if you can send a coded emergency signal with your exact GPS location in real time to dedicated satellites, you’re as good as found…
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are used to alert SARS in an emergency. They transmit a coded message on the 406MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations to the nearest rescue co-ordination centre.
Some EPIRBs have built-in GPS, enabling the SARS to locate the beacon to within 100m. EPIRBs are generally installed on boats, registered to a specific craft and so not used by individuals.
Personal Location Beacons (PLBs) have the same alerting and location ability as 406MHz EPIRBs. The signal transmitted has the same power and is effective worldwide, on land, air or at sea.
The main difference is that PLBs are small enough to be carried in a BC pocket. They aren’t generally depth-rated for recreational diving so need to be placed in a dedicated waterproof case, but they are water resistant and can be used at the surface.
Adding a GPS-enabled PLB with depth-rated case to your safety armoury is last-resort stuff, but can be a life-saver.
An alternative to EPIRBs and PLBs is a dedicated location device that incorporates a marine radio. One such product is the Nautilus Lifeline, a VHF marine rescue radio that can transmit a distress message giving its GPS location up to 34 miles across any water surface conditions to in-range marine vessels.
Alternatively the Lifeline’s in-built marine radio can be used to voice-call the wheelhouse radio on your dive-boat.
The unit comes in a waterproof clip-top housing depth rated to 130m and is becoming popular with dive operations and liveaboard operators worldwide. Sometimes it’s supplied to visiting divers as mandatory dive-kit.
Whether you’re under water or on the surface, a good hand-held light is essential safety kit, especially on dusk and night dives. Being able to see and read crucial information on computers and gauges is as risk-critical as it gets.
In daylight hours a bright LED torch can help you find your way in the dark confines of overhead environments, so avoiding hazards such as sharp protrusions, lines and fishing-nets. At the surface it can be used to signal your whereabouts.
Some hand-held lamps boast an internationally recognised Morse Code SOS, dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash flashing strobe mode. I prefer a red-light mode on the lamps I use, because this doesn’t destroy night vision and is instantly recognisable, both at depth and at the surface.
I carry a tiny mask-mounted red light from Exposure Marine whenever I dive. It’s unobtrusive, has a perfect output, can be easily seen but doesn’t interfere with my or my buddy’s night vision.
Battery duration or burntimes are also an important factor. I can’t imagine how frustrating and precarious it would be to have the batteries die just as the situation spiralled out of control.
Small strobe-lights are useful safety aids – they can be attached to a shotline under water in poor visibility to assist in locating a predetermined exit route, be clipped to a BC shoulder for instant surface recognition or be attached to the tip of a DSMB or flag for night-time location.
EXPECT THE WORST
A simple, leisurely dive can quickly turn into something altogether different. Conditions can change unexpectedly under water. Many factors can quickly reduce visibility, including poor buoyancy skills and strong, unpredictable currents that force divers deeper, shallower or further from the exit point or boat than planned.
Wherever there are fish there will be fishermen, whether using rod and line or full-scale netting techniques. Nets and lines get snagged and the anglers have to pull for a break and discard them.
Wrecks are popular fishing grounds, and it’s here that the risk is greatest to the diver. Entanglement can be serious and can quickly become life-threatening.
KNIVES & CUTTERS
Knives come in all shapes and sizes, from massive stainless-steel Bowie knives to small blunt-point titanium models, but are especially useful if the blades carries small serrations for sawing through thick ropes.
Pointed stiletto blades I believe are counter-productive and can easily result in self-injury or puncture essential buoyancy aids such as your BC bladder or drysuit.
For cutting monofilament and braided lines I prefer a dedicated line-cutter with replaceable surgically sharp blades.
An alternative to knives and cutters are scissors, and the trauma shears used in the medical profession are ideal. Dive Rite produces a pair of titanium shears that are tough, light and corrosion-proof.
ALTERNATIVE GAS SUPPLY
Bail-out tanks and pony cylinders can get you out of a serious jam and are rightly mandatory kit for solo divers, but it’s best not to allow a predicament to occur in the first place.
Good gas-management and constant monitoring of gauges and instruments is the cornerstone of safe diving.
A robust stainless-steel hook is a safety measure in strong currents, though it should be deployed on rocks to prevent damage to corals and living structures.
The hook and line combination is a useful addition to anyone’s armoury, especially for underwater photographers with only one hand free for battling a current.
More and more we see gloves banned from use in popular destinations such as the Egyptian Red Sea.
Dive operators see underwater eco-systems being damaged and assume that any guest diver wearing gloves may be tempted to grab hold of delicate corals and marine life.
However shot- and permanent mooring lines in tropical destinations attract marine growth, some of which can sting or cut, leaving injuries that can lead to shock or later infection.
This, I believe, is where the use of gloves needs to be reconsidered, especially in areas prone to current, where getting a firm grip on an ascent line is a sensible option.
I can’t finish the underwater section without mentioning spare masks. Should you find yourself in a situation in which your mask has let you down because of a split skirt, broken strap or buckle, or it just won’t defog, a spare tucked into a BC pocket will prove a godsend.
Reading instruments is an imperative operation and without a mask that can’t happen.
A spare mask should be a well-used model that won’t fog up without a propriety defogging agent and is small enough to slip into a BC pocket.
The safety equipment featured here reflects my preferences and should not be regarded as an alternative to safe dive-planning, diving practices or gaining qualifications through established training agencies.
I would also stress that you shouldn’t have to stuff your BC pockets full, or hang useless items on D-rings.
For me a simple line-cutter, tiny red torch, DSMB with spool and spare mask go wherever I dive, and they take up very little space in my BC pockets or attached to D-rings.
If I was going safari-diving in the wilds of PNG, say, or the Komodo Pass, common sense dictates that I’d include a PLB and a current hook. A pair of lightweight gloves would also be in my dive-bag, just in case.