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Posted on March 14, 2019 .

Motor Skills and Situational Awareness

Diving students can be overwhelmed by the number of complex motor skills that they need to learn and develop - all at the same time- as they progress through the Open Water course. It takes time and practice to get the hang of it. The course manual and DVD only get you started. The in-water course training involves a lot of demonstration-imitation activity, with the student learning to imitate the skills demonstrated by the instructor.

One of my roles as your mentor is to help you develop a higher level of skill right from the start of your diving life, by giving you more information beyond the narrow limits of the course manual, so that you don’t have to think through the motor skill mechanics of diving all by yourself. For example, no PADI course will teach you the finning techniques and skills you need to propel yourself effectively and efficiently in 3-dimensional liquid space.

This blog discusses a wide range of motor skills and awareness skills that you need to think about while working through the training.

One way to learn is to break down a complex series of actions into their individual components, then think it through and visualize yourself performing each discrete step. As you practice in your mind, gradually increase your speed until you achieve a fluid motion.

Mask Clearing

There are four discrete steps to take to clear water out of a flooded mask. With practice, these will all flow together.

  1. Look upwards to pool the water at the bottom of the mask.

  2. Press your fingers against the top rim of the mask to hold the seal against your forehead.

  3. Inhale deeply through your regulator.

  4. Exhale with gentle force out your nose...snort!

Repeat as many times as necessary.

To visualize this process, imagine that you're blowing your nose into a kleenex tissue.  When you blow your nose, you position your fingers to press against your cheek bones. So when clearing a mask, imagine you're blowing your nose…. but press your fingers against your eyebrows.

What happens when you perform this skill is that when you exhale out your nose, the increased air pressure inside the mask will break the seal against your skin just above your mouth and the air pressure will force the water out the bottom of the mask where the seal has been broken. Too easy!

Mouth breathing

Your nose has only two functions inside a scuba mask: to equalize mask pressure and to blow out any water that has leaked in. Both involve exhalation only. Your nose serves no other purposes, so you need to practice to become a mouth-only breather. Many new divers have some difficulty adapting to this, so I recommend that they practice mouth-breathing at home. Plug or pinch your nose, relax and breathe deeply into your diaphragm. Exhale fully. Wait for the breathing reflex to kick in, then inhale fully once again. Do this exercise for a couple of minutes every day. 


There are several equalization techniques, but the Open Water course only covers the Valsalva maneuver, which doesn’t work for everyone. See this blog for more information about this critical skill:

Vertical Buoyancy Control -keeping forces in balance by managing three balloons

Buoyancy control is clearly the most critical dive skill. It's all about developing a situational awareness and skill to control your body position, depth and movement in three-dimensional liquid space, so that you can multitask. Some very serious and life-altering injuries, including death, can result from an inability to control your buoyancy.

Rapid ascents can result in decompression sickness, lung over expansion injuries, an arterial gas embolism, blackout and drowning. Uncontrolled or rapid descents can result in serious ear injuries if the diver isn’t able to equalize fast enough.

Since your total weight (body weight + gear weight) remains basically constant during a dive (minus the weight of the tank air consumed), you manage your vertical buoyancy by adjusting the volume of air contained in three air vessels, or balloons: The BCD, which contains an air bladder, your drysuit, which is a sealed air vessel, and your lungs (breath control). A diver must effectively manage the relative positions and volumes of these three separate air bubbles to remain stable and neutrally buoyant at any depth throughout a dive.

Incidentally, most drysuit divers around Vancouver will need 20-25% of their body weight in lead weights in order to sink and be properly weighted. The total weight of the equipment can easily reach 40kg for an average sized adult.

Once you’re underwater, the biggest balloon is the BCD which is your main tool for establishing and maintaining the balance between the forces to sink and to float. Its’ low-pressure inflator/deflator hose is the equivalent of a cars’ steering wheel. You need to be holding onto it in your left hand at all times (except when checking your gauges) and making lots of small adjustments just like you would driving your car on city streets. This is how to hold the low pressure inflator: thumb on the inflation button, index finger on the exhaust valve, and your three other fingers grasping the module. With this grip, you will always be in a position to inflate the BCD orally if necessary because the air intake/exhaust hose is facing your mouth.


As you dive deeper, air in the BCD will be compressed by  the increasing pressure, so you need to add air to maintain neutral buoyancy and prevent sinking. Conversely, as you move up from deeper water to shallower water, pressure decreases so the air in your BCD will expand. You will need to exhaust air from the BCD to maintain neutral buoyancy and prevent an out-of-control ascent. 

The drysuit is connected to the tank by a low-pressure hose on the regulator. You control the volume of air inside the drysuit with an inflator button and an exhaust valve, like with the BCD.  To maintain neutral buoyancy and prevent a suit-squeeze, add air when you're descending and exhaust air when ascending.  Use your right hand to deploy both the inflator and deflator buttons.

If you're wearing a drysuit and you let your arms go weak/limp and fill up with air, you'll create bulging balloons of air at your shoulders, with little air around your lower body. This will throw you off-balance, and will often cause you to become positively buoyant. And it can cause the air bubble to escape through your neck or wrist seals, which will let water in to the drysuit. Keep your elbows down and arms tucked in close to your body!

Drysuit divers will purge excess air and set the exhaust valve to the closed position to get ready for a vertical descent, then add air to the drysuit during the descent to prevent a suit squeeze, and open up the valve when they get into a horizontal position at depth. Once the exhaust valve is opened, the drysuit will automatically exhaust excess air. This means that anytime the diver feels positively buoyant, all they have to do is rotate/roll their left shoulder upward for a couple of seconds to let the excess air exhaust itself, then rotate back to down to level their shoulders.

Propulsion and maneuvering techniques

All your underwater propulsion comes from the action of finning. It's a waste of energy and tank air to use your arms for propulsion. And multitasking is impossible if you're doing the breaststroke underwater. Proper, effective and efficient finning techniques involve converting power into thrust…it takes time and practice to develop this complex motor skill. At first, you’ll need to consciously think about and manage your finning technique. After a while, it’ll become second nature. 

The three main finning techniques are the flutter kick, scissor kick, and the frog kick, which are used primarily for straight-ahead forward propulsion. The basic Open Water course introduces students only to the flutter kick (without actually teaching the proper skills) and completely ignoring the scissor kick, frog kick and other, more advanced finning and maneuvering skills that you should be aware of and consciously practice as you develop your skills.

For more information on finning techniques, see this Wikipedia entry, which includes some links to demonstration videos.

Flutter kick mechanics 

Efficient finning involves moving your legs and feet like an oar in a repetitive cycle to deploy the blades of your fins as paddles. These paddles push against water to generate the forward thrust that moves you through the dense water medium. Your hips, knees and ankles operate as hinges on a long oar that extends from your hips to the blade of your fins. Your various upper and lower leg muscles manipulate and power these paddles through the water.

The kick cycle begins with one leg bent at the knee (1) and the other leg fully extended (3), as shown in the pic and graphic below. The left leg is extended and nearing the end of the down stroke, and the right leg is being bent at the knee on the upstroke.

flutter kick.jpeg
flutter kick stroke.jpeg

For the next cycle the diver should plantar flex the right foot (2) and flatten the left foot (4).

Next, straighten the the right leg in a sweeping motion (3), which will power the fin downward in an arc; bend the left knee back up to the starting position.

In the example above, almost all of the leg movement is from below the knees, so it’s a finning technique best used when you’re moving along slowly. It doesn’t generate a lot of thrust.

For more power and thrust, the upper leg muscles -hip, thigh and hamstring- are used. Legs stay straight below the knees. The knee itself is stiff but not locked. Power is generated from the upper leg muscles and hips on the down stroke.

Using different muscle groups 

When swimming at a moderate speed using the flutter kick, keep your knees flexible, and ankles loose to flex on the linear plane, but stiff laterally. This is because if weak ankles allow the fin to wobble or cut diagonally though the water, you’re in effect kicking with a fin that’s no wider than your foot.  Propulsion is best when you follow through and not cut the fin-kick cycle short. Glide between fin kicks, until your forward movement loses momentum. Kick, kick and glide, kick, kick and glide. This will keep your heart rate down, improve your air consumption, and give your legs some resting time. This is analogous to skateboarding, or ice skating.

Alternating occasionally between the flutter, scissor and frog kicks while swimming along will allow you to work different muscle groups, spread the fatigue, and reduce the risk of cramps.

When swimming into a current, use the flutter kick with stiff knees, thrusting from the hips and upper leg muscles. Shorten the kick cycle. Currents will reduce or completely offset the forward momentum between kicks. There’s no gliding, so the diver has to kick constantly to make forward progress. Pro tip: if swimming close to a rocky bottom, grab hold of the rock and use your arms to pull yourself along, so that you can rest your legs and get your heart rate down. 

When ascending vertically straight up, like at the end of a dive, keep your legs straight, your toes pointed downward and your ankles loose linearly but stiff laterally, thrusting from the hips and upper leg muscles.

Many new divers become fatigued by water resistance against their fins as they swim around. To avoid thigh muscle burn, these divers swim like they’re riding a bicycle or climbing a ladder. This involves bending the knee up towards the torso, then straightening it. It kinda looks like a flutter kick, but it’s more like a pumping action that generates almost no forward thrust. In fact, the upstroke action of lifting the knee toward the chest serves to push water backwards, which slows you down! And the down stroke results in pushing the fin blade through the water rather than sweeping it, which generates little thrust. These divers compensate for the lack of thrust by kicking their legs at two or three times the speed of a diver who is using a slower but more powerful sweeping motion.

Most 40 minute dives cover a distance of 500m or less. Some of this bottom time will be spent hovering in one spot, some time swimming slowly and some time swimming faster between points of interest. Different finning techniques can be used for each situation. 

It’s a waste of energy to use your arms for propulsion, so the proper swimming position is with both arms folded across your torso to minimize drag and support your balance. Arm movements are really only useful for close-in maneuvers and sharp turns. Keep your elbows down to avoid large air bubbles at the shoulders.



To optimize propulsion potential as you’re swimming along, you need to align your body hydrodynamically to the direction of travel, to minimize water resistance/drag. This means that your body should have a 0-30 degree upward angle from a level horizontal position, with your shoulders higher than your knees, so that you can look forward without craning your neck. Keep your back moderately stiff/arched. Knees are half bent, so your feet and fins are higher than your knees. Don’t let your feet drag you down into a steep angle…that’s bad hydrodynamically and will force you to swim harder alongside your more-hydrodynamic dive buddy.

arms tucked in.jpeg

And don’t let your knees and fins get higher than your shoulders, because air in the drysuit will migrate to your lower legs and will force your body into an inverted position. Control your angle of attack by stiffening your back and using your core muscles to maintain an upward-sloping body position.

Situational awareness when inflating or deflating the BCD or drysuit: estimating volume changes by proxy (sound)

It's not possible to estimate the physical volume of air that's being pumped into or exhausted from the BCD or drysuit at any given moment during a dive. You keep track of this net volume by proxy: by estimating the number of seconds that you've pressed the inflator button or exhausted air. The only way to do this is by listening to the hissing sound that's made by the inflator valve, and the bubbling sound made when air is exhausted.

It’s important to add or exhaust air in small increments - one second bursts - to avoid overcompensating and flinging yourself in the opposite direction.

If you're adding air to the BCD to offset negative buoyancy, do it in one-second increments and listen to the hissing sound to estimate this duration. Use your inner voice to count "one thousand and one". Wait a few seconds to determine how much this additional air has changed your buoyancy. If you're still negative, press the inflator and count "one thousand and two". 

If you need to exhaust air, lift your left arm (holding the low pressure inflator and exhaust hoses) as high as you can as you press the exhaust button, to make sure that air is efficiently exhausted from the BCD. Watch the bubbles as you exhaust the air, to see how much you have dumped. And listen to the bubbling sound this air makes as it exits the BCD, to estimate the number of seconds of air that you've exhausted. You can also watch the bubbles.

Similarly, add air to a drysuit to offset a squeeze in one-second increments. Exhaust air from the drysuit by lifting your left shoulder to the highest point of your body, raising your arm up and bending the arm down at the elbow. The bent arm will prevent air from rising all the way up your arm, which would risk blowing through the wrist seal.

While some new divers tend to positive buoyancy, others tend to keep sinking. Resist the temptation to swish your arms when you’re sinking or off balance. It’s too little compensation and a waste of energy. Instead, squeeze the inflator button for one second, wait a moment to see if you've added enough air, and if you need to add more then add air in one-second bursts.

Body positioning, centre of gravity, and centre of buoyancy

Most body weight and lead weight are located around a diver's mid-section, with lead weights positioned close to the belly. This is the diver's centre of gravity (your core), and it acts like ballast. The diver's centre of buoyancy is located above the centre of gravity, around the lungs and the BCD's air bladder.


In general, the greater the vertical distance between your centre of gravity and your centre of buoyancy, the more stable you will be and the easier it will be to stay balanced. This is one of the reasons why wing-style BCD’s are generally preferred over jacket style BCD’s by serious divers. In a wing style, the air bladder is totally behind you, while in a jacket style, the air is distributed mostly around your sides, closer to the centre of gravity.

When a diver is swimming along, it's helpful to use a visual "spotting" technique to support proper body positioning and to provide a visual destination to swim towards. This involves looking ahead in your direction of travel, seeking to visually spot and fix something in the distance that you can swim towards. This technique helps to maintain situational awareness of your depth, speed of travel, visibility conditions, navigation, etc. 

Breath Control

Breath control is a critical dive skill that can only be mastered over time. While the course manual suggests that you should breathe normally underwater, it’s a different kind of normal than the way we breathe on the surface. The skill involves consciously managing your respiration to oxygenate your body efficiently, and effectively .

The basic breathing pattern while swimming along involves saturating your lungs effectively with oxygen, so you should :

1.     Inhale slowly and deeply for 3 to 4 seconds, fill your lungs

2.     Hold the air in your lungs a for couple of seconds, to maximize oxygen absorption

3.     Exhale slowly and fully for 3 to 4 seconds, empty your lungs

4.     Wait for the breathing reflex to kick in…

The breathing reflex is controlled unconsciously by the body’s need to keep the partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide in arterial blood at a constant level. Your body will tell you when it’s time to inhale. Don’t over-breathe, it’s inefficient management of your air supply.

The basic breathing pattern can be interrupted at any time when necessary to perform maneuvers.

Overexertion will overwhelm a diver’s ability to maintain the basic breathing pattern. This can give a diver the feeling that they’re not getting enough air from the regulator…oxygen starvation. If this happens, then the diver must slow down, or stop and rest to get the heart rate and breathing back under control.

Incidentally, good breath control skills will enable you to fine tune your vertical position in the water column without adjusting the volume of air in your BCD or drysuit. This is an especially important skill for photographers when hovering around a subject.


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Posted on March 14, 2019 .

Buddy Risk

Risk can be defined as the negative consequences to a diver of some undesirable event happening to them.

One of the realities of diving within a buddy system is that you must accept and deal with elevated risks, whichever one of you has a problem. For this reason, buddy risk has two parts, and can be more specifically defined as (1) the negative consequences to you when you have a problem and find that your buddy is unable or unwilling to help; and (2) the negative consequences to you when your buddy has the problem.

Buddy risk is composed of a whole range of measurable and unmeasurable variables including someone’s skill or lack thereof to dive competently, experience or inexperience in dealing with and solving problems, panic, or even a conditional commitment to the buddy system itself.

What makes buddy risk particularly difficult to qualify and quantify is that it’s an uncertainty. You cannot know the probability that your buddy will get you into trouble or fail to help you get out of trouble at any given moment of any given dive.

Buddy Uncertainties

Skill vs experience

Novice divers will naturally have challenges with buoyancy control, finning, situational awareness, air consumption, and more, as they develop their skills.

But even highly experienced divers (meaning those who have logged many dives) can still be remarkably weak-skilled. In other words, don’t confuse experience for skill. I’ve encountered many divers, with years of experience and hundreds or thousands of logged dives (including professional divers!) who, for example, can’t perform a proper equipment safety check on their buddy, have no idea how to use a compass, or don’t own any personal safety accessories.

Quality of a buddy’s training and minimum training standards

Unless you’re diving with someone you trained with, you have no way to know how much skill and knowledge that person acquired during their Open Water course. More than 90% of all certified divers that you will ever meet got their initial training in a large group, sharing one instructor with up to 7 other students.

PADI has established and makes great efforts to maintain minimum training standards that all instructors and students must meet, but large group training sessions severely limit the amount of time and attention that an instructor can dedicate to any one student. During an Open Water course the instructor demonstrates many specific dive skills, and the student must perform them satisfactorily. The instructor assesses whether the student has correctly performed a skill and is likely able to repeat this skill correctly in the future. The student only has to demonstrate the skill one time, not demonstrate any advanced mastery. And most of these skill demonstrations take place while you’re kneeling on the bottom …meaning they’re staged, artificial and controlled. Minimum stress.

The group instructor has no mandate to work with any individual student to raise their skill levels above the minimum standards. The bar for success is set pretty low. The high-volume diver mills that dominate the industry pump out hundreds of accidents-waiting-to-happen on a daily basis.

Dive accident statistics indicate that once a student has earned the Open Water certification, it is very unlikely that they will ever invest in more training, equipment, or safety accessories to significantly raise their level of skill.

Lack of skill or commitment within the buddy system

The PADI Open Water course teaches divers to remain close enough together throughout a dive so that you can reach each other within two seconds. This implies a separation of around 2m/6feet at most! But many, many, many certified divers have a more limited commitment to the buddy system. These attitudes can range from “I’ll check with you from time to time”, to “you can follow me around”, to “same day, same ocean”.

In group situations, dive organizers regularly put together buddy teams based on the divers’ experience - usually measured in terms of the number of logged dives - and not on any assessment of their buddy skills. Or worse, they might make buddy teams up randomly, just because two divers are gearing up beside each other. The underlying assumptions are that everyone is committed to the buddy system, the more experienced divers are higher skilled, and every diver had the option to hire a personal divemaster buddy.

In group situations, the more experienced divers know how to find each other and buddy-up together, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re committed to each other’s safety. Rather, it often means that the buddies are less likely to cause problems for each other requiring action, so each can do their own thing more or less independently. A highly experienced diver can be the worst buddy.

In these group situations, less experienced divers are encouraged to pay for a professional divemaster buddy, or be nominally buddied with another inexperienced diver and told to simply follow the dive leader…if one is provided. Any diver who’s following a dive leader in a group might be only superficially committed to the buddy system, while at the same time that dive leader has no direct personal commitment to any individual diver. Typically, the leader will be swimming out front and only casually looking back at the group of buddies, who are expected to take care of their own safety as a team.


According to Divers Alert Network (DAN), panic is involved in about 30% of all dive accidents and fatalities. Both skilled and unskilled divers can suddenly panic. A panicked diver can’t make rational decisions to deal with a problem safely. A diver in a state of panic will be unresponsive to your verbal instructions or hand signals. A panicked diver on the surface might try to grab hold and climb on top of you to lift themselves out of the water. A panicked diver underwater might grab hold of you, restricting your own freedom of movement, or suddenly bolt to the surface.

All of these buddy uncertainties combine to form a very strong argument for you to develop your knowledge, skill and experience, to become essentially a self-reliant diver.

How to Find the Best Possible Buddy

In the real world, there are three kinds of dive buddies:

casual acquaintances

people you know well, care about and love

complete strangers

On any given dive, you might depend on your buddy to be the higher skilled diver, or you yourself might be the higher skilled diver. So it’s a good idea for you to assess any potential partners’ skills, state of mind, and commitment to the buddy system before you agree to buddy up with that person. Know what you’re getting yourself into.

Prospecting, interviewing and assessing casual acquaintances or strangers

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which you are solo and joining a group of divers for a two-tank dive. Some divers might already have an obvious buddy, so focus your initial search on the other solo divers that you already know casually, if any. You’re looking for a like-minded, safety-oriented prospect, so don’t reflexively buddy up with the first person you interview. Avoid divers with cameras, unless you have one yourself or enjoy frequent stopping for photo ops. You might have a plentiful, or a limited selection of buddy prospects. Your goal is to find the best, like-minded match.

A casual acquaintance is more likely to have at least some personal interest in your safety, whereas a complete stranger will have none. But the stranger might be higher skilled and more committed to the system. While you’re chatting with prospects, show an interest in their diving qualifications and experiences….every diver is a storyteller… and subtly make your inquiries:

-Do they already have a buddy? If yes, move on quickly to other prospects.

-What is their certification level?

-Where did they get their training? Was it group or private training? How did it go? Did they have any specific problems getting through the training? How would they rate their instructor?

-How many dives have they logged? Where? How long ago was their most recent dive?

-Ask them to describe their buoyancy control skills, and typical bottom times.

Are they a fast or a slow swimmer?

-Do they own their gear or are they renting it? If renting, what do they think about the gear quality? Are they carrying any safety or communication accessories, such as an SMB, dive light, knife or writing slate?

-Have they been diving with this tour operator before?

-Have they been diving at this dive site before?

-How do they feel about the upcoming dives? Too excited? Calmly confident? Apprehensive? Nervous? Fearful?

-Do they have any specific objectives on the dive? Safety is always the first objective, and secondary objectives can be just about anything. For example, they might want to dive deeper, or longer than ever before. They might want to look for certain creatures, or shine their light into every little dark recess. They might prefer a wide-angle overview of the site and not look too closely at anything. They might be trying out new equipment never used before. Try to find a buddy whose secondary dive objectives match your own.

-Have they ever been in any serious dive incident? What did they do to manage the situation while it was happening?

At this point you might already disqualify some prospects for any number of reasons, but if they’re a good prospect:

-Let it be known to the prospect… that you aspire to take more training courses and eventually get your Rescue Diver certification, that safety is always your #1 primary objective on every dive, and you’re seriously committed to a thorough equipment testing, a comprehensive pre-dive safety check and holding up your end within the buddy system. You like to stay close to your buddy, in a single shared-diving experience, with a clear dive plan and frequent communication, and not just be one fish in a school of fish following the leader.

These comments will resonate positively with the prospect, or not. If not, move on to another prospect.

When you find a like-minded prospect, invite them to get together to assemble the equipment, or more subtly just bring your gear bag over close to theirs and start assembling it while continuing the casual conversation. This act will narrow your buddy options, but you aren’t committed yet. Casually monitor the prospects’ gear assembly procedures. Are they organized and efficient, or fumbling, distracted, making mistakes, needing help?

If you don’t like what you see or hear, and still have other prospects, stop what you’re doing and go speak privately with the dive leader. Tell the dive leader that you don’t have a buddy, tell them what kind of buddy you’re looking for, and ask if they can help. And if you’re seriously concerned about your options, then consider paying for a professional divemaster buddy, if one is available. I personally always pay up. It’s worth it when your buddy’s #1 responsibility is to your personal safety, and #2 is to your personal secondary dive objectives. (Take me to the octopus den!)

Despite all your efforts, you will certainly end up with your fair share of buddies that you would not have chosen. When this happens, be prepared to lead a thorough pre-dive safety check, have a professional double check the gear, review the dive plan and hand signals, and be mentally prepared to hold up your end of the buddy bargain, with clear personal safety limits.

When your buddy is someone you know well, care for, or love

This can be a complicated situation. There’s an old saying that I’ve adapted to diving (meant jokingly) that “Just because I sleep with you, that doesn't mean I’ll dive with you”. I’ve seen partners and couples swim single file, get separated, be oblivious to each other and get abandoned.

If you’re going to dive with someone you know well, you need to set ground rules for safe diving together.

Buddy Separation and Abandonment

Buddy separation is perhaps the most common adverse event causing elevated buddy risk. And a much more serious adverse event is buddy abandonment. Whether you're diving locally around Vancouver or internationally anywhere in the world, you'd be wise to expect that if you're buddied with a stranger or if you're just one of several divers following a professional dive leader, there's a very real uncertainty that if you experience a problem of some kind, you'll be abandoned by your buddy or group leader just when you need help the most.

As a rule of thumb, you should never consent to buddy with someone that you've never been diving with before.

But don't take my word for's an article below from Diver Magazine that tells a typical abandonment story. 

One of the most frequent causes for buddy separation is the loss of buoyancy control. One diver rises in the water column, and the buddies lose sight of each other.

A good rule of thumb is that the diver who loses buoyancy control has the responsibility to regain control and drop back down. 

If the diver rises all the way to the surface, then the rule is to stay there and establish positive buoyancy. A responsible buddy will meet you there in a minute or two. The Open Water Diver course teaches a policy to search for a separated buddy for no more than a minute, then perform a safe ascent to the surface and get reunited there.

Another common way that divers become separated is when one is swimming faster than the other. The rule there is that the faster swimmer must slow their pace, because the slower swimmer would become overexerted trying to keep up. And the divers can’t communicate easily when swimming single file. The diver in front doesn’t know if the diver behind has a problem.

A third way that divers get separated is that each is following a different subject of interest rather than a single shared experience.  They just swim apart in different directions.

All of these separations can happen on a single dive.

Incidentally, when I was an unskilled novice diver, I was abandoned underwater by my buddies (strangers) in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii, when my low pressure inflator hose started to free flow into my BCD at a depth of 40 feet on the first dive of the day. I didn't know what to do and held onto a coral head until I lost my grip and rocketed to the surface.  My buddies just swam away. (These days, I'd disconnect the hose and continue the dive, inflating the BCD orally as needed. And I'd communicate this situation to my buddy). Luckily I didn't end up in the hospital, but I surfaced down-current from the boat and needed to be rescued. Back on the boat, the captain blamed me for leaving my buddies and having to get in the water to rescue me. He said there would be no refund (I hadn't asked for one!), even though the BCD continually reinflated itself to near bursting as it sat on the dive deck. He finally acknowledged the gear malfunction and encouraged me to take another scuba unit and reenter the water alone, and he reminded me that there would be no refund. Despite my lack of skill and experience with diving solo I put on another BCD, re-entered the water, descended directly into the middle of a large school of small fish... and had my first ever face-to-teeth encounter with a feeding shark. I don't remember my fins touching the the ladder as I breached the surface and launched myself onto the boat deck. The captain looked at me like I was from another planet and insisted that there were no sharks in these waters.  At this point he insisted that I was not going back into the water for the second dive and I wasn't getting a refund.  When my assigned buddies finally returned to the boat, their excuse for leaving me was that they assumed I wanted to dive alone.  This is the reality when diving with strangers at tourist dive sites.

I've witnessed buddy abandonment many, many times as an instructor while teaching group Open Water courses and leading group dives. 

I can't tell you how many times I've signalled a diver to ask where their buddy is only to get a shrug of the shoulders in response or a finger pointed toward the surface. But one day, when leading a group of certified divers who were all strangers, on the descent at a site with a steep slope, the response was a finger pointed downwards. I signalled everyone to resurface and emptied my BCD to chase after the missing diver, a middle aged woman who hadn't been diving in a couple of years. I caught up to her at 25m/90 feet as she was tumbling and rolling down the slope. I stopped her tumble and found that the low pressure inflator hose was disconnected so she was unable to power inflate the BCD. (This failure to properly set up the scuba unit ought to have been discovered during the buddy pre-dive safety check). I reconnected the hose and we made our way safely back to the surface. Whew. She was terribly shaken up, but otherwise ok. And I set a policy to always personally double check everyone's gear before every dive.

Novice and inexperienced divers often don't know what to do when a problem suddenly happens, so I emphasize the development of buddy skills in the courses I teach. Very few certified divers have the skills, knowledge and capacity to properly plan a dive or help another diver in trouble.  Fewer than 1 diver in 100 is trained in rescue skills. So even if that assigned buddy doesn't abandon you, he or she might not be able to help you. Stick with the professional dive leader/Divemaster until you've evaluated a potential buddy's skills. Or pay the extra charge for a professional dive master buddy, whose sole purposes are to keep you safe and show you a good time.

Click on images to expand.


Posted on January 2, 2019 .

Equipment Risk

This is the fourth blog entry that I’ve written about risk and risk management. It’s a very long, detailed, checklist-filled entry. It can take hours to read it in one session, so I suggest that you take small bites and long breaks. It’s dry and preachy, but very important to your development as a safe diver. I suggest that you grab a copy and read it from time to time, to refresh your memory and sharpen up your preparedness prior to any dive day.

Risk can be defined as the negative consequences of some undesirable event happening to a diver. An equipment malfunction or failure is an adverse event, and it’s an ever-present possibility during every dive. In this blog I’ll discuss the mindset and skills that you need to develop over time to take responsibility for yourself as a diver, for your own safety and for your buddys’ within the buddy system. I’ll offer checklists for inspecting and testing your gear before getting into the water, and offer some step-by-step suggestions for how you can manage risks when some minor and major problems do happen.

Whenever you plan to go diving in the future, I encourage you to spend some time thinking in advance about the decisions and actions you would need to take to manage problems and stay safe. Develop your mental preparedness!

Gear Does Malfunction and Fail

Scuba diving is a gear sport. The gear keeps you alive and enables you to function in an unnatural environment. Most students choose to use rental equipment during their Open Water course and as newly certified divers. This means that the equipment they dive with is unfamiliar, used, abused, much of it is old, mediocre quality, and all of it requires some form of maintenance to keep it in good working condition. 

But it’s a fact of life that some equipment – owned or rented - receives no inspection or maintenance at all until someone reports a problem with its’ functionality, or until it fails completely. This means that there is always some probability and uncertainty of an equipment malfunction or failure during every dive. A dive day with zero gear problems is always a pleasant surprise. You should expect and be prepared for gear problems every dive day.

You - the diver - have legally assumed responsibility for all the risk

If you’re using any rental gear, then you have signed a liability release that absolves the equipment supplier or tour operator of any legal responsibility for damages to you if that equipment malfunctions. You and you alone are responsible for anything that happens to you. 

Think about that…no matter what happens, minor frustration to major injury, they’re not even obliged to refund you the price of admission. So you should never place blind faith trust in rented dive gear.

What accident statistics and real-life experience reveal about equipment-related risks

Divers Alert Network (DAN)is the preeminent source for information and data regarding dive accidents and fatalities. They publish an annual report of their findings, available at their website. 

DAN has estimated that equipment problems were involved in about 25% of all reported dive incidents, accidents and fatalities. And I would personally add to this stat by emphasising that there are many equipment malfunctions that result in injuries/damages/costs but no medical treatment, and no official report.  These minor incidents can include disappointing or aborted dives, spoiled dive days, lost equipment, scary moments, close calls, dramatic rescues, dodged bullets, and so on.

This is a huge problem that could be at least partly mitigated if divers simply exercised greater care and attention to the inspection, assembly and testing of their equipment.

But most certified divers quickly forget their training. In the real world of recreational diving after you’ve been certified, you will find that pre-dive safety checks between buddies tend to be performed poorly and incompletely. Most buddy teams I’ve observed from a distance do little more than check that their tank valves are open, and compare air pressures. They don’t even look at each others’ equipment! I’ve witnessed this hundreds of times, all around the world. Most of the time, there is no professional dive leader supervising the safety checks, and no staff double-checking anyones’ equipment. 

How to take responsibility – equip yourself, familiarize, inspect, test, observe, become self-reliant

The best way to manage this risk of personal injury/loss resulting from equipment malfunction is to own and use your own equipment as much as possible, and dive with the same gear all the time.  Get a computer. Carry a dive light and a tank light, a multi-function knife/hammer tool, and communication devices (underwater noisemaker, writing slate, whistle, submersible marker buoy), and safety accessories. Be sure to maintain, test and service it all regularly.

Better still, equip yourself with redundant backup equipment. Carry a spare mask in your BCD pocket. Attach a pony bottle to your rig, for spare air. Get a computer… an air-integrated computer that gives you a digital reading of your tank air pressure, so that your analog pressure gauge becomes your backup. Same with the depth gauge. Two pressure gauges and two depth gauges. Some divers carry two computers.

Supply yourself with spare parts and tools to perform minor repairs and maintenance on-site, to avoid aborted dives or taking equipment into the water that you’re less than 100% confident about.

THAT is a lot of gear.

And gear is expensive, so you might aspire to becoming that 100% self-reliant diver over the longer term. If you’re not yet ready, or never will be ready, to invest $5,000, then at least you should equip yourself with some basics to minimize some of the worst or most frustrating equipment risks. 

Here’s an incentive: according to DAN accident statistics from recent years, more than half of all reported fatal and non-fatal accidents happened to divers with less than 2 years’ experience from their date of certification.

If you’re going to use rental equipment, then the best way to manage and mitigate the probability and consequences of an equipment malfunction involves (1) a thorough familiarisation and testing of all the gear prior to using it, and (2) a comprehensive pre-dive safety check with your dive buddy. And if there are any professional divers around, ask one to double check your gear.

It’s also important to observe yours and your buddys’ equipment during the dive- looking for things that aren’t right - like loose tank bands, leaking hoses, untied boot laces, dangling equipment, etc., then taking action to fix minor problems before they become significant. 

Proper due diligence: distrust the equipment… scrutinize and test rental gear, piece by piece

If you’re using rented dive equipment, it was picked for you from a rack in the shop’s rental department, and handed to you in a bin or gear bag. This equipment has very likely not been inspected or tested since it was last used. You can inspect this gear now, at the shop, or later at the dive site. I urge you to inspect it immediately, because you probably won’t be able to swap any of it later.  This avoids unpleasant surprises, like being forced to choose between aborting the dive or using equipment that doesn’t fit right, is dodgy, or in need of maintenance. If some piece of equipment doesn’t pass your initial inspection, ask to replace it or have the problem fixed. 

The inspection process could take five minutes or more if you do it properly, so you should always allow yourself enough time.

Very few recreational and professional divers are ever 100% equipped and carrying redundant backup equipment, so you must do all that you can within your constraints to minimize the probability of some adverse event, while knowing that you’ll never completely eliminate the uncertainty. Be anal about it…it’s your health & safety, and your legal responsibility.

Inspection Checklist

1. Mask

I strongly recommend to every student diver that they buy their own mask, to be 100% confident that you’re always wearing one that fits. Nothing sucks the fun out of diving more than an ill-fitting, leaky or foggy mask. And a leaky/foggy mask increases the probability of other undesirable events, such as stress, rapid air consumption, inhaling water up your nose, the inability to focus your eyes and read your gauges, and bad decisions made under stress.

If you do decide to buy a mask, then also get a neoprene strap cover and a supply of anti-fog. New masks tend to fog up, even if you’ve diligently scrubbed to remove the film deposited on the lenses during the manufacturing process.

Dive masks have a range of features, lens and frame shapes and sizes, nose pocket sizes and skirt sizes. They are definitely not a universal fit for every face.

Take the rental mask to a mirror. Inspect the skirt for signs of aging, wear and tear, or warping. Hold it in position on your face without using the strap, and inhale through your nose to suction the mask against your face so that you can see whether the skirt is flat against your skin. Observe the entire perimeter of the skirt, especially around your cheeks and above your lips. If the mask doesn’t stick to your face, then it’s a bad fit. But even if the mask does stick, it can still be the wrong mask for you in other ways. Observe your nose in the pocket to be sure it fits and is not squeezed or scrunched up. Look down to your torso to check whether the mask gives good visibility to your chest area, so that you are sure to see your gauges and BCD effortlessly. Look side to side and assess your peripheral vision. Check the mask strap and the clips that it’s attached to, looking for signs of wear and tear or breakage. Tug and stretch the strap to check for slippage. Tighten and loosen the strap to check the adjustability.

If you have facial hair, then it can be especially difficult to prevent leakage when you’re wearing some random mask picked for you from a bin.

2. Snorkel

Observe the type of snorkel (wet or dry), and its’ attachment to the mask. The proper position for the snorkel is on the left side of the mask, in front of your left ear. Snorkel holders can be hard plastic or soft silicone. If it’s hard plastic, be sure it’s a proper fit with the snorkel, and correctly positioned on the mask strap. Observe the mouthpiece resting position, which shows you where it will hang during the dive. Check a bottom draining snorkel’s drain plug/diaphragm, which can disconnect from the snorkel and get lost, rendering it useless. Test the mouthpiece for integrity and fit in your mouth. Breathe through the snorkel.

3. Fins

Check your fins to identify their type (standard, split), length (short or long), weight (heavy or light), design features (channels, openings) stiffness (stiff or flexible), and proper size/fit for your dive boots. Check the straps and clips, looking for proper attachment to the fins, wear and tear, and test the clips by closing and opening them. Tighten and loosen the straps to check adjustability. Check to see if there’s a clip lock, and learn how to use it.

4. BCD

BCD malfunction is the most common kind of gear failure.

Inspect and test all the releases/clips/velcro cummerbund, looking for wear and tear and breakage. Check the tank band for its’ type and proper strap threading. (More about this later.) Check the weight pockets for match/fit in this BCD, and amount of lead weight in each pocket. Find out what the BCD’s maximum lift capacity is. Check the storage pockets, including non-droppable weight pockets, looking for holes, and test the zippers. Check the condition of the velcro strip that holds the low pressure inflator hose and large-diameter exhaust hose in place on the left shoulder.

Inspect and test the inflator unit. Observe the location of inflator and exhaust buttons. Figure out the proper way to hold the inflator unit when diving. Partially inflate the BCD orally. Connect a low-pressure inflator hose to the unit and inflate the BCD fully up to its’ over-pressure release point. Let it sit full of air for a minute, to check for leakage from the air bladder and leakage from the low pressure hose into the BCD. Test the exhaust button. Test the quick dump exhaust valves, noting their location. Turn the BCD upside down, grasp the dangling hose and press on the exhaust button, to drain any water that’s leaked into the air bladder.

Don the BCD to check for proper size/fit. In most cases, the BCD will be a jacket style. A properly fitting BCD will have a cummerbund that can be velcroed snugly below your rib cage, to prevent it from riding up. The horizontal clip at chin level should hold the BCD shoulder straps snugly. The clip at waist level should be snug as well. It should not be possible to pass a hand between your back and the BCD. Now twist left and right from your waist, to test whether there is an effective transfer of energy. The jacket should move in sync with your body.

5. Regulator

Regulator free flow was the second most common gear malfunction leading to a reported accident.

Remove the dust cap from the first stage and inspect the filter, looking for green signs of oxidation. This is an obvious sign of no recent maintenance. Attach the regulator first stage to a tank. Don’t open the tank valve yet.

Inspect the gauge console, Check the plastic gauge covers, looking for cracks. Note the size of the pressure and depth gauges, the units, printed numbers, coloured warning zones, and readability. On analog depth gauges, reset the maximum depth needle to zero. If there’s a compass, test its’ North reading, bezel rotation and floating disc. 

WARNING: It’s not possible to test whether a depth gauge or air pressure gauge is functioning properly and giving you accurate readings. You can compare two pressure gauges on the same tank prior to diving, to check the initial accuracy of tank pressure. But you cannot know whether the gauge will give accurate reading throughout the dive. I recently had a client who went to Mexico and had the pressure gauge get stuck on 1,000psi, which eventually led her to grab the Divemaster’s alternate air source for an assisted ascent to the surface. When she surfaced, the gauge suddenly read zero air pressure in the tank. Another client of mine went to the Blue Hole in Belize. During the dive, the Divemaster signalled him to ascend to shallower water. His analog depth gauge read 130 feet at the time, and the DM later told him that he was actually at 180 feet! I have seen compasses that function on the surface but not underwater.

Once you’ve inspected the gauge console, open the tank valve, being sure to hold the face of the pressure gauge against the side of the tank. Never look directly at a pressure gauge when opening a tank valve! …there’s 3,000psi of air pressure coming down the hose.

Examine all hoses for signs of wear and tear, fraying, bends, cracks, and possible leakage, especially around the connectors at both ends of the hoses.

Inspect the main 2ndstage demand valve (your primary reg): examine the mouthpiece for chewed-up nibs, check that the tie-strap is secure and positioned within the channel on the mouthpiece. Tug and twist the mouthpiece to be sure it’s secure. Press the purge button to blow out any water, sediment or spiders (I’m half joking!) before ever putting a reg in your mouth. Insert the mouthpiece to test for good fit and comfort. (I recommend that all students buy their own mouthpiece, which can be attached to any rented regulator. This will ensure proper fit, comfort and prevent germ transmission.) Exhale first, and take 3 or 4 full breaths, testing the air flow and ease of the draw when inhaling.

Inspect the alternate air source in the same way.

Test the springiness of the couplings that connect the low-pressure hoses to the BCD and drysuit.. Inspect for sand or sediment in the couplings.

6. Drysuits, accessories and undergarments

Check hoods, gloves, boots and fleece undergarments for proper size/fit. Look for holes in gloves. Check boot laces and zippers.

Check the drysuit for proper size. Check neck and wrist seals for wear and tear, and proper fit. Inspect the zipper, looking for missing or misaligned teeth. Ask for the zipper to be waxed. Inspect inflator and exhaust valve assemblies, checking that they’re screwed in position tightly to prevent leakage. Open and close the exhaust valve, and test the purge button, listening for a clicking sound..

Put the drysuit on, connect the inflator hose, close the exhaust valve and add some air to the drysuit..  Listen for air leaking from the inflator into the suit. Test the exhaust purge button. Open and close the adjustable exhaust valve.

7. Communication/Safety accessories

Check the BCD for a whistle, test it. Check whether an inflatable surface marker buoy (SMB), is supplied. Rental BCD’s usually only come with a safety whistle and no other safety accessories. Buy your own accessories and always bring them on every dive.

List of core equipment you should get if your budget is <$750

-mask, defogger, neoprene mask strap cover, snorkel



-a long knife

-surface noisemaker: whistle

-underwater noise maker: a long knife is a good tank banger, and a medium sized wrench fits easily into a BCD pocket (see pic)

-delayed submersible marker buoy (dsmb) or surface marker buoy (smb)

-regulator mouthpiece, tie straps

-retractors and clips to attach hoses securely to the BCD


The five steps to a proper pre-dive safety check

Once you’ve assembled, inspected and tested your equipment at the dive site, donned your drysuit and the scuba unit, the last step before entering the water is the pre-dive safety check. The sad reality is that most certified divers quickly forget how to perform the safety check, and many just become lazy and complacent about it. Don’t trust that your buddy can perform a proper safety check. If they can’t, you should take this as a warning sign of weak buddy skills and elevated buddy risk for yourself. Take the lead and show them how it’s done.

I strongly urge you to burn the five-step PADI safety check routine into your memory….BWRAF

B-W-R-A-F = BCD-Weights-Releases-Air-Final OK

PADI suggests that you use these 5 letters to form an easily-remembered acronym in your mind, and they suggest using Begin-With-Review-And-Friend. Hmmm… if it’s hard for you to remember that one, then use your imagination to create a personally meaningful acronym, so that you’ll be more likely to remember it. Here are some ideas to stimulate your creativity:

Blue Whales Really Are Fantastic

Big White Rabbits Are Fluffy

B________ Women Really Are Fun (pick your favourite B-word!)

Bruce Willis Ruins All Films

The possibilities are endless. 

Performing the B-W-R-A-F with your dive buddy

When you perform a safety check, you are not only checking whether your buddy has correctly assembled and donned their equipment, you’re also familiarising yourself with it in case you need to assist in fixing a problem during the dive, perform some rescue maneuver, or use the buddy’s alternate air source. You should insist that your buddy understands the equipment that you’re wearing, in case you’re the one who needs help, so be prepared to lead that buddy through their half of the safety check, explaining the details of your equipment to them in a way that they’ll remember.

Perform each of the 5 steps systematically and out loud, don’t mumble.

1. BCD

Inspect the BCD for its’ type (wing or jacket style air bladder), proper size and fit. Look for twisted shoulder straps. Try to pass your hand between the BCD and your buddy’s back. It should be a snug fit, so adjust/tighten the cummerbund or belly clip straps as necessary. A Velcro cummerbund should be wrapped snugly below the rib cage. Its’ purpose is to hold the BCD close to your body and prevent it from shifting.

Note that the shoulder straps are adjustable. This adjustability enables the diver to shift the location of integrated weight pockets upward or downward to fine tune their trim underwater. Use your BCD straps like on a backpack to shift weight pockets up or down.

2. Weights

Ask your buddy how much lead weight they’re carrying and where it’s located. Check that integrated weight pockets are correctly installed and secure. Know how to unclip and drop the weight pockets in an emergency. Identify the location of non-droppable weight pockets, and check that they’re closed and securely clipped. Check for other non-droppable weights stored in accessory pockets, and ankle weights.

Check weight belts for amount of weight and proper positioning (tightly around the waist, so that the belt doesn’t slip down over the hips once the buddy is underwater and their drysuit/wetsuit is compressed). Check that the belt buckle is clearly accessible for an emergency weight drop, with a right-hand-release (meaning that the diver pulls the buckle open with their right hand).

3. Releases

A BCD can have seven or more releases, including two shoulder clips, one across the chest, the belly clip, the velcro cummerbund, non-droppable weight pocket clips, and the tank strap. Count them as you’re inspecting them . Look for correct and secure connections, and for any wear and tear or breakage of the clips. Check that the tank strap is correctly threaded, securely closed, and with the loose end velcroed down. 

4. Air

Check that the tank is fully opened by rotating the valve counter-clockwise.

Inspect and test every hose, one at a time, from the top where it connects to the first stage to the bottom where it connects to a device. Scrutinize hoses for signs of wear and tear, fraying, cracking or bending, and possible leakage. Low pressure hoses all eventually get worn down, and will begin to leak air. 

The 2nd stage primary regulator: Press the purge button to check function and air flow. Inspect mouthpiece integrity and tie strap. Ask the buddy to taste and smell the air, checking for flow and possible air contamination.

The alternate air source (a.k.a octopus): This is the reg that you’d be using in an out-of-air situation! Inspect it as if your life depended on it. Note its’ colour and the length of the hose. Purge the reg. Inspect the mouthpiece for integrity. Inspect the tie strap. Insert the mouthpiece, checking for fit and comfort in your mouth, and take 3 or 4 breaths to test air flow and ease of breathing. Secure the alternate air source to your buddy’s BCD in a way that is easiest for you to access if you need it.

The drysuit inflator hose: Check and test the connection by tugging on the hose. Press the inflator button to check for air flow. Test the drysuit exhaust button. Open and close the valve.

The BCD  inflator/deflator assembly: Check that the entire assembly is secured by the Velcro strap at the left shoulder. Tug on the low pressure inflator hose to test the connection. Inflate the BCD partially, then test the exhaust button. 

Quick dumps: Locate and test all quick dumps, checking that their pull-cords are free and accessible.

The gauge console: Examine the high-pressure hose into the tank air pressure gauge. Familiarise yourself with the features and layout of the pressure gauge. Read and compare your buddy’s tank pressure to your own. Examine the analog depth gauge, and reset the red maximum depth needle to zero. Examine the compass, if there is one, testing the North heading, examining the bezel and floating disc.

5. Final OK

Check for dangling hoses. There should be no free-hanging hoses. Check quick dump cords, making sure that they are hanging freely. Check your buddy’s fin straps, so that you know how to clip and unclip each other’s fins. Check that bootlaces are tied and double-knotted. 

Identify and locate all of your buddy’s communication/safety accessories: whistle, SMB, noisemaker, knife, mirror, writing slate.

Activate all computers and check the status of computer batteries.

If you have masks on, check for fog, proper mask strap positioning (horizontal), and make sure the mask skirt is under the hood. If you wait to don your masks in the water, be sure to perform mutual mask checks before the descent. Also check for hair caught under the mask skirt, which creates channels for leakage.

Discuss any potential or anticipated equipment problems, or things to watch out for during the dive.  For example, you might know that one of your hoses has a slow leak, so tell your buddy about it, and warn them that they should expect to see bubbles underwater, but it’s not a serious issue at this time. Or if you know that your mask gets fogged up, give the buddy a heads-up.

Review all your hand signals.

Establish a sound-making signal that alerts each other of an unexpected ascent all the way to the surface, such as a constantly repeated tank bang, or five taps of the knife against the tank. Remember that if you’re wearing hoods, sound can be muffled or you might not hear it at all. So make loud noise.

Reconfirm pertinent details of the dive plan.

A thorough pre-dive safety check can be completed in three minutes. Take the time and do it right.


Managing Equipment Problems in the Water

In this final section, I’ll suggest some principles by which to manage the risks for yourself and your buddy. And I’ll discuss some of the common and uncommon gear problems that I’ve experienced or read about in accident reports.

Dive with heightened situational awareness

The most important way that you can always be mentally prepared for dealing with problems is to maintain a keen situational awareness throughout a dive. Be obsessive about checking your gauges and computers frequently so that you always know your air pressure, your current depth, bottom time, and remaining no-decompression time. 

Be aware of your surroundings: bottom composition, slope, major features, visibility (how far can you see in any direction), and position of the sun (if you can see the surface). Know where your planned exit point is and how to navigate to it underwater. Use your compass on every dive. 

Know where your buddy is, their tank pressure and relative rate of air consumption. Compare your tank pressures every 500 psi, or every couple of minutes. This is especially important during the second half of the dive, when exertion and fatigue can cause a diver to consume air more rapidly than earlier in the dive.

Don’t cramp each other, but don’t let yourselves get too far apart. As much as possible, swim side by side and keep your buddy within your peripheral vision. Set a rule to make eye contact frequently.

Know your dive plan, stick to it, and if your buddy deviates from the plan then signal them to stop, get together to communicate about the situation, and agree on the path forward. Similarly, if you want to change the dive plan, stop your buddy and communicate.

If your buddy is leading and navigating with a compass, be sure to back them up by monitoring your own compass and applying natural navigation techniques to keep track of where you are. Don’t blindly trust anyone elses’ navigation skills.


How to manage risk if an adverse event happens 

For most common gear issues that suddenly occur, there really isn’t any time pressure to fix the problem. There’s no urgency, and no need to get mentally/emotionally stressed. Stress will affect your clarity of thought and your breath control, which can escalate and multiply the risks. Most minor problems will only take a few seconds or a minute to fix. Remember that everything seems to happen in slow motion underwater. It takes much longer to travel short distances or make simple maneuvers.

Stop, get neutrally buoyant, and assess the situation

When you first notice any problem, stop what you’re doing and establish neutral buoyancy to stabilise your depth. This mitigates the risks of injury from a rapid ascent to the surface, or from an uncontrolled sinking and crash on the bottom. Neutral buoyancy gives you time to think about how to fix the problem. Take a few seconds to assess the situation…When there are multiple problems occurring at once, focus on solving one at a time. Fix the problems that pose higher risks first.

1. Refresh your situational awareness – check your gauges for tank air pressure, your depth, bottom time, and remaining no-decompression time. 

2. Determine whether the gear problem is fixable. A loose fin or mask strap is fixable, a broken strap is not.

3. Assuming the problem is fixable, consider the alternative actions and maneuvers you would have to take to address the problem most safely and effectively. Do you need one hand, two hands, or 4 hands to fix the problem? Do you need finesse, or muscle and leverage?  Can it be fixed where you are, while neutrally buoyant, or do you need to move somewhere safer or more stable? Do you need to use a tool?

4. Look around and consider the features of the surrounding area. Are you close to the bottom where you can settle down and fix the problem more easily? Is there some structure nearby that you can hold on to or brace yourself against for leverage.

5. Consider your buddy, who is both a resource to help fix a problem and source of uncertain buddy risk. (Here’s a link to an entire blog entry on buddy risk!)

How far apart are you? What are your relative depths? How much time it would take to get together in physical contact?  Is the buddy looking at you and aware of your problem or looking in another direction and unaware? Assume that your buddy is unaware. Consider what must you do to get their attention. Can you swim to the buddy or do you need to make noise?

Buddy risk is an uncertain risk on every dive, for the novices and experienced divers alike. It’s an uncertain risk because you can’t estimate the probability that your buddy will be skilled, willing and in a position to help you with your problems.

6. If you’re thinking about going to the surface and aborting the dive immediately, consider where you are in relation to a safe exit point.  It might be safer to delay the ascent until you’re in a better position to surface. Consider the conditions and risks that you might face if you were to ascend directly to the surface, such as an unfavourable surface current, choppy seas, or a long and tiring surface swim to the exit. Would you need to be rescued if you surfaced now? Consider how your decision will affect your buddy’s safety, and whether a decision to surface might cause a buddy separation, or be a buddy abandonment. 

All of this can go through your mind in about 5 seconds.

All things considered…decide what to do and take action

If you don’t need your buddy’s help, your highest priority is to dive safely and deal with the problem. Buddy communication can wait, or might not even be necessary.

If you do need your buddy’s help, then get their attention, signal them to stop, signal to get neutrally buoyant, signal them to come to you, signal that there’s a problem, point to the problem, and signal the maneuvers and actions that each of you must take to deal with the problem. Your buddy might have a better solution to the problem, so remain open minded. Agree to a plan with ok signs, then execute that plan.

Recognize that while you might not be able to perfectly resolve a problem, you still might be able to continue with the overall dive plan… or with a modified dive plan with a higher level of alertness and conservatism (for example a shorter, shallower dive).

And if your decision is to surface, then you should communicate this to your buddy and make a safe, normal ascent, close together. However, your buddy might not agree to surface with you, in which case you’re both on your own. More buddy risk.

What if your buddy has the gear problem?

If your buddy has the gear problem, your primary role is to support them as needed. You should always be mentally prepared to physically intervene to maintain neutral buoyancy for both yourself and your struggling or oblivious buddy. Be prepared to take hold of them, guide, maneuver and tow them. Be prepared to fetch things that they’ve dropped. Be prepared to hold onto and lead your buddy in a safe ascent to the surface. And be prepared to deal with a panicked buddy while keeping yourself safe.

If all that responsibility seems like it’s too much to ask of you, or too much to expect from your buddy, and you’re not sure that the buddy would be there for you, then you should consider always hiring a divemaster as your personal buddy.

If a problem happens to your buddy, they might notice it first, or you might notice it first, in which case you would need to alert them.

If you notice that your buddy has a gear problem that they are already working on alone to fix, then maneuver close to the buddy, get neutrally buoyant, watch what they’re doing and get ready to assist. 

If you notice that your buddy has a gear problem that they are not yet aware of, then get the buddy’s attention, signal there’s a problem, point to the problem and be ready to assist. Allow the buddy time to assess the situation and communicate a plan of action.

You should always be mentally prepared to maintain neutral buoyancy for both of you, because your buddy could lose it while fixing the problem. To prepare yourself, you should maneuver into a position where you can intervene quickly and prevent their rapid ascent or sinking. Get ready to grab hold of a fin, the alternate air source hose or the gauge console hose (with your right hand), which would enable you to stabilize their depth and give them time to perform maneuvers.  If your buddy is becoming positively buoyant, you would need to dump air from your BCD (with your left hand) to sink and pull them down. Use the quick dump if you need to dump air fast! Alternatively, if your buddy is sinking, you’d have to add air to your BCD to prevent you from sinking with them….so don’t let go of your buddy’s hose until you’re both neutrally buoyant again.

If your buddy panics and bolts to the surface when you’re holding on to them in some way, then you will be able to slow their ascent. But you’re under no obligation to rocket to the surface (or sink to the bottom) along with them. Let the buddy go if you’re exceeding the maximum safe ascent rate or plunging to the bottom. Make a safe ascent to the surface, establish maximum positive buoyancy and be prepared to assist.

I suggest that you establish two personal safety limits for yourself as a certified diver:

1- Get free of /let go of any buddy who is causing you to exceed the safe ascent rate.

2-Do not chase a buddy into the depths.

Example problems, step-by-step risk management solutions

This section discusses 13 different equipment problems, from your own perspective as the diver with a problem, and from the perspective of yourself as a buddy assisting another diver with a problem. You need to understand every problem from both sides. The suggested actions can’t take into account the many variables in any specific diving situation. Rather, these are basic scenarios to guide your own thinking and mental preparedness.

1 Leaky mask

If your mask keeps leaking continuously, it might be a bad fit, which you can’t do much about. Try tightening the strap, or loosening it. Check that the strap is horizontally positioned on your head so that the pressure is balanced equally on the top and the bottom sides of the mask skirt. Check that the mask skirt is resting flat against your skin, not folded over, and that the entire skirt is underneath your hood.

If you can’t get your mask to stop leaking, alert your buddy, signal to stop, signal to get neutrally buoyant, signal to get close together, signal a problem, point to the mask, hold on to the buddy’s BCD, turn your head left and right so that your buddy can visually inspect it. Hopefully the buddy can identify the problem and fix it.

If you can’t stop the leaking, then you’ll have to deal with constantly blowing the water out. In that case, dive with your head up, so that the water pools on the bottom of the mask. This will keep your vision as clear as possible and your eyes dry. This problem will cause you to consume more air than usual. Consider modifying the dive plan to a shallower, shorter dive. And if the distraction and discomfort have sucked all the fun out of the dive, signal to abort and make a safe ascent to the surface with your buddy.

Once at the surface, it might be possible to fix the problem there, test the mask for further leaking, and resume the dive.

2 Foggy mask

There’s always some water inside your mask, either liquid or as vapour in the air. Water vapour will condense against the mask lens. Fog forms because the inside of the mask lens is not perfectly flat, but rather has tiny imperfections that will catch and trap tiny droplets.

The best way to prevent fogging is to apply a coat of anti-fog and let it dry as you are setting up your equipment. When you enter the water, rinse the mask but don’t rub off the anti-fog.

If your mask fogs up underwater, you have to solve the problem alone. Let a small amount of water into the mask, look down, swish it around and purge it. Having to do this every minute or two is an annoyance, but it’s necessary and the only thing you can do under the circumstances. Alert your buddy to the problem.

If you notice that your buddy has a badly fogged mask and is doing nothing about it, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the mask, signal to add a bit of water to the mask and clear it. You can’t dive and communicate normally with a buddy who’s mask is all fogged up and is half blind. If the buddy won’t add water to the mask, this is a sign of someone with weak mask skills. You might decide to alter the dive plan to make it safer….shallower and shorter. Or if it’s safe to surface, then signal the ascent. Once on the surface, the buddy can defog their mask, you can refresh their mask clearing skills for them, and possibly resume the dive.

3 Lost Mask

A lost mask is a minor problem that could escalate quickly into a panic or near-drowning.

You can lose your mask in a number of ways: it can be knocked off by an impact, it can slip/slide off, or the strap could break. While it’s an uncommon event, it’s sudden and dramatic. If you can’t catch the falling mask and get it back on, you’ll lose the ability to focus your eyes. It’s not an emergency situation as long as you keep control of your breathing. But some divers will panic in this situation, risking an out of control ascent.

To prevent your mask (or your reg!) from being knocked out of place, raise an arm in front of your face to protect and block any time you might collide with something or someone, get bumped, or kicked in the head by someone’s fins. Keep at least an arm’s length apart from other divers, and preferably a couple of metres. Push off if somebody is too close to you.

If you lose your mask, keep your eyes open and try to catch it. You won’t be able to focus, but you will still see shapes and colours. If you lose sight of the mask, you could decide to abort the dive rather than try to recover it. You might decide this if it’s a long distance to the bottom. In that case, alert your buddy, point to your face, point down, signal to ascend, grab hold of your buddy’s bcd with your right hand, your exhaust hose raised in your left, and rely on the buddy to manage a safe ascent.

If you decide to try and recover the mask, get your buddy’s attention, point to your face and point to where the mask might be. Your buddy might swim directly to the mask, or stop and visually search for it. Watch your buddy’s movements and focus on trying to stay neutrally buoyant. The buddy should realize that it’s their responsibility to locate the mask, go get it and bring it to you, or guide you to it together. If your buddy doesn’t grab hold and start to guide you, and if you’re close to the bottom, drop down, get balanced and get ready to receive the mask and put it back on. Stay calm and focus on breath control. If your buddy returns without the mask, make a safe ascent together, holding on to each other’s BCDs

This incident can be very stressful, and unless you have good breath control, you might inhale water up your nose. Hold your reg firmly in your mouth with your right hand, in case you aspirate water and start to cough. If you spit out your reg, you could drown. But you can cough your lungs out into a reg, and even vomit into a reg, and when you inhale you get nothing but dry air.

If your buddy is the one to lose a mask, they might suddenly grab hold of you and frantically point to their face and to where the mask might be. If the mask is within easy reach, go get it fast. But if you don’t see the mask or can’t reach it quickly, then grab a firm hold of your buddy’s BCD to stabilize their buoyancy. Look around and If you see the mask, swim to it towing/guiding your buddy along, and recover it. If the mask is below you by no more than a metre or two, signal “ thumbs down” and control the descent down to retrieve it. But don’t chase a sinking mask. If you decide that the mask can’t be safely recovered, then signal “thumbs up” to your buddy’s face and lead a slow, safe ascent to the surface, holding each other’s BCD securely.

If your buddy grabs hold of you and frantically signals to surface, they are in serious distress and could panic. It’s very difficult to calm down or make effective hand signals to someone who can’t focus their eyes. All you can really do is hold their BCD securely with your right hand, keep that arm straight and locked to establish a safe distance between you, and lead a safe ascent to the surface. Establish positive buoyancy there and keep your reg in your mouth. Be prepared to get behind the distressed diver, inflate their BCD, and grab hold of their first stage to stabilize them on the surface. They might be coughing heavily or still semi-panicked.

During the ascent, the buddy could possibly go into full panic mode. This is why you want to keep a safe distance. If the buddy inflates their BCD and you begin to accelerate upwards faster than the safe ascent rate, consider letting them go, and slowing your ascent. You have to keep yourself safe. Two suffering victims at the surface won’t do either of you any good.

Similarly, if your buddy pushes you away and bolts to the surface, let them go. Ascend safely and be prepared to provide positive flotation for the both of you, safely holding their first stage from behind the buddy. Look for signs of decompression sickness or other injury.

4 Boot lace untied

Always be sure to double-knot your dive boots. If your boot lace comes untied, you are at risk of having it fall off and take your fin with it. It’s hard to tie a boot lace with gloves on, so the procedure can take up to a minute. It’s usually best to drop to the bottom, get settled on one knee with the problem boot in front of you, get balanced, then tie up the lace. But if you’re mid-water, get neutrally buoyant before trying to tie it up.

If your buddy is nearby, get their attention, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the boot lace, signal what you need your buddy to do (either support your leg by holding the fin or tie the lace up for you). Alternatively, you could both drop to the bottom, get balanced and tie the lace up there. 

If you tie the lace while neutrally buoyant, be very mindful about keeping yourself neutral. If you lose neutral buoyancy, stop tying the lace and reestablish it before resuming the task.

5 Fin falls off

A fin can fall off if the clip pops open, the strap slips loose or breaks, or if the fin is too big and you kick it off. When a fin falls off it will probably sink and you will need to maneuver to retrieve it.  You should establish neutral buoyancy and get your buddy’s attention immediately. Signal a problem, point to your finless boot, and point to where your fin is. Signal for your buddy to retrieve the fin, unless it’s within easy reach. It’s difficult to maneuver with one fin.

If your buddy retrieves the fin, take it and inspect the strap to determine what went wrong. The clip might have popped open or it might be broken. The strap might have slipped loose. Test close the clip and stretch out the strap. Put the fin back on, secure it and resume the dive. If you’re close to the bottom, signal to drop down, get settled and balanced on one knee, then inspect, test and put the fin back on there. 

If the problem can’t be fixed, abort the dive and ascend safely.

6 Sagging weight belt

A loose weight belt will slide down over your hips and can work its way down to your legs. The shifting of the weight belt will throw you off balance and cause your hips and legs to drop, throwing you out of trim. This problem can be fixed quickly, or it might take a minute or two. Be very careful not to drop the belt.

Get neutrally buoyant and level yourself horizontally so that you are facing the bottom. Keep the lead weights draped over your back side. You could even invert yourself a little and add some air to the drysuit, letting it migrate your legs to add support. Shimmy the belt back up to position above your hips and cinch it tightly. You are performing this maneuver by feel, not by sight.

If you’re close to the bottom, touch down, lie horizontally face down, shimmy up the belt and cinch it tightly.

If your belt is slipping and you need help, alert your buddy, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the weight belt and get horizontal. Signal for your buddy to support your legs and help shimmy the belt into position.

If you’re close to the bottom, signal for the buddy to set down beside you and help shimmy the belt into place above your hips. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to sit on top of a buddy to prevent them from rocketing to the surface.

If you see that your buddy is dealing with a sagging weight belt mid water, you can help them immediately by supporting their legs in a horizontal position and maintaining neutral buoyancy for both of you.

7 Leaking BCD or drysuit inflator hose

All low pressure hoses eventually wear down and start to leak air into the BCD or drysuit. The problem can be with the hose or with the inflator valves. The leak might be slow, or it might be fast. Hose leaks will make you positively buoyant, so you will find yourself having to exhaust air regularly to maintain neutral buoyancy.

When you first notice this problem, get neutrally buoyant, then detach and reattach the hose. This might or might not fix the problem. If air leakage continues and becomes a constant problem, detach the hose. You can re-attach it whenever you need to add air, then detach it again.

For air leaks into the BCD, you can also choose to detach the hose and add air to the BCD by oral inflation.

Alert your buddy to this situation: get their attention, signal problem and point to the detached hose. Continue with the dive plan, monitoring your tank air pressure closely. Consider making the dive plan more conservative (shorter and shallower).

If the leak is bad and you have to exhaust air every 15 seconds, it’s best to abort the dive and surface safely with your buddy.

8 Loose tank band

A tank can slip out of position for a variety of reasons: loose attachment when you set up your scuba unit, slippage due to incorrect threading of the band through the buckle, incorrect cinching of the buckle, or a wet band stretching out during the dive.

Incidentally, no PADI course that I know of actually teaches students how to thread a tank band buckle! I would wager that 95% of all divers do not know how to thread a buckle. This is how it’s done:

tank band threading.jpg

So, what often happens with rented BCD’s is that some diver tries to adjust the tank band, unthreads the band from the buckle and re-threads it incorrectly. This diver could be you, or the guy who rented it yesterday. This is why you should learn and practice the proper way to thread the buckle. 

You cannot rely on your buddy to recognize a problem with your tank band during the pre-dive safety check.

If your tank band comes loose underwater, you’ll probably notice it when the tank slips down and interferes with your legs finning. You might feel off-balance, or notice that your hoses aren’t in their usual positions. You cannot fix this problem alone without removing your BCD, so get your buddy’s attention, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to your tank, turn your back to your buddy and get horizontal. Your buddy will slide the tank into position, then tighten and cinch the buckle. This problem can usually be fixed in 15 seconds while neutrally buoyant.

If it’s easier for you, go to the bottom, land on your knees and lie horizontally face down, so that you both have more stability and leverage. 

If your notice your buddy’s loose tank band, get their attention, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the tank, signal like you’re closing a buckle, signal to get horizontal, help by lifting and supporting your buddy’s legs, slide the tank into position, tighten the band and check the buckle threading as necessary, then cinch it down. Do it on the bottom if easier or safer.

9 Dangling hoses

Prevent your gauge console from dangling by passing the hose under your shoulder strap or under your belly strap when you gear up, or attach it to the BCD with a retractor or length of bungie cord. Don’t let the console dangle loosely.

Always secure the alternate air source to the BCD, with an attachment clip or by bending and tucking the hose into a small pocket in the BCD that is designed for this purpose.

If your alternate air source hose comes detached, establish neutral buoyancy and reattach it. If your buddy’s alternate is detached, alert the buddy, signal problem, point to the alternate and be prepared to help secure it in a way that makes it easily accessible to you.

Have at least two attachment clips in your gear bag: a backup in case your clip breaks, and a spare clip that you can attach to your buddy’s alternate. Remember that your buddy’s alternate is there for you to grab and use, so you want to be sure that it’s secured in the right place and protected from damage.

10 Computer failure

Millions of divers do not use any computers or bottom timers. They’re not even required equipment in the Open Water course! If you dive without a computer, then you have limited situational awareness underwater, from your analog depth and air pressure gauges. You are not keeping track of bottom time, remaining no-decompression time, water temperature, or other situational data. 

If you do use a computer, then you should always check the status of your computer battery before every dive. But this doesn’t guarantee that the battery won’t suddenly die on you in the water. And you should always carry a spare computer battery in your equipment bag.

Dive computers will automatically activate themselves within two or three metres on your descent. However, you should always perform a proper 5-point descent, which includes activating the computer on the surface. Don’t wait for it to turn itself on at depth. 

I have had personal experience with my own computer battery being OK during the predive safety check, followed by my being lazy and complacent about activating it prior to descent, and the computer failing to turn itself on underwater. This forced me to abort the descent, return to the surface and establish a modified dive plan….and feel embarrassed.

If your computer shuts down during a dive, you are losing the main source of data that supports your situational awareness: your depth, bottom time and remaining no-decompression time. You also lose other features, like water temperature, and sophisticated computer features like a digital compass and digital tank air pressure readout. And you also lose the visual and sound warnings that the computer provides to keep you within no-decompression limits. You can still refer to your backup analog depth and air pressure gauges on your console, and an analog compass, but you have lost the ability to measure time. 

If your computer fails underwater, you should stop, establish neutral buoyancy, try to restart the computer, then alert your buddy: signal problem, point to the computer and give an X sign, signifying that it’s not working.

Now you have to consider your situation and decide with your buddy on a course of action.

PADI recommends that the safest and most conservative course of action is to abort the dive and make a safe, normal ascent with your buddy. Do not dive off of your buddy’s computer. You should exit the water, change the battery and start the dive all over again with a functioning computer. This is the best solution if your computer dies at an early stage of the dive. It’s an inconvenient annoyance, but the safest course of action.

But you and your buddy might decide to continue the dive anyway, with a modified dive plan. If your dive buddy has a functioning computer, then your buddy team still has the ability to measure time. If you continue the dive, establish a more conservative dive plan (shorter and shallower), and stay shallower than your buddy. This is no guarantee that you will remain within your personal no-decompression limits. Uncertainty is increased, but it still might be your safest option, all things considered.

After the dive, you can replace the dead battery. But your computer will have not recorded your previous dive, so you won’t have an accurate assessment of your decompression status. In this case, you can refer to your printed RDP tables to determine your pressure group for planning purposes. Take an extra long 3-hour surface interval before your next dive. Or cancel your next dive altogether.

11 Weight pocket falls out

If you lose a weight pocket from an integrated BCD, or if your weight belt falls off, you will likely become positively buoyant and rise all the way to the surface. If an out-of-control ascent can’t be avoided, you must dump air from the BCD and drysuit to slow down the ascent, get horizontal and flare your body to maximize drag. Breathe normally and keep your airway open. You only have a few seconds before rising out of your buddy’s visibility range, so do your best to alert them to your situation by making noise. (for example, use a tank banger, tap your knife repeatedly against your tank, shake a rattle.) 

If you do go all the way to the surface, establish positive buoyancy, get your bearings and be alert for any signs or symptoms of decompression sickness.  Continue to make noise. A responsible buddy will ascend to meet you there in a minute or two.

Take visual note of your position on the surface using a triangulation technique, and try to stay in this position, because the weight pocket is likely directly below you on the bottom. 

When your buddy surfaces, explain what happened and consider your options. Consider the depth at the bottom, the amount of time it would take to complete a search and recovery operation, your air supply and decompression status.

Determine whether the buddy has the skills and willingness to safely perform the operation. The buddy might or might not agree to the search. If the roles were reversed, would you go search for your buddy’s weights?

If your buddy declines to go search, then you have two options: abandon the pocket or borrow lead weight from your buddy to make the search yourself. Any decision to descend to the bottom alone, perform a search, and lift a 10-15lb weight by hand to the surface should not be taken lightly. This maneuver takes skill. There are risks to be managed, like being severely overweighted or dropping the pocket on the way up. You could take the buddy’s loose weights and put them in your BCD accessory pocket, descend, find the lost pocket, re-attach it, and surface very slowly, with a lot more air in the BCD. Unless the bottom below you is fairly shallow, it might be best to note the location, exit the water and return later fully re-equipped and carrying a proper lift bag. Look on the bright side: if all you lose from this incident is a weight pouch, consider yourself lucky.

There is a PADI Search & Recovery course that trains divers to plan and execute searches and lift heavy items to the surface safely.

12 Leaking drysuit

There are three kinds of drysuit leaks: minor, major, and catastrophic.

1. Minor leak

You will never be bone-dry inside a drysuit. At the very least, there will be some condensation that makes your undergarment damp on the outside, but still dry inside. There’s nothing you can do about that.

Minor leaks are most common at your neck and wrist seals. You’ll get minor leaks just by turning your head, or by moving your wrists, which will create little channel openings. You will notice a wet ring around the neck of your undergarment, or at the wrists. Worse, but still minor leaks will also happen if the seals are too loose against your skin. If you have a thin neck and wrists, consider getting a Velcro strap (20 inches long and 1 inch wide) to wrap around your neck over top of the neck seal. Use elastic bands over top of wrist seals. Consider getting dry gloves, which will keep all water away from the wrist seals, but take note that dry glove systems are also prone to leak.

You can also get minor leaks at the inflator or exhaust valves, which will happen when the valves are old and failing, or if the valves start to unscrew and become loose. Valves have two parts that screw together, one part on the inside of the suit and another part on the outside. Be sure to test and tighten your drysuit valve assemblies before every dive day!  Leaky valves will show up as wet spots in the middle of your chest or at the left shoulder and upper arm. You might not even notice this kind of leak during a dive. But if you feel wetness or soaking during a dive, abort that dive, surface safely and get out of the water.

Don’t use that drysuit again before the valves are checked or replaced. Consider keeping a set of spare valves in your equipment bag.

2. Major leak

On drysuits that have manually removable/replaceable wrist seals, these seals can be installed incorrectly, or come unseated from their proper positions when being installed, causing water to leak through the attachment assemblies. If this happens, you could get soaked up to your elbow, or worse.

You can get leaks from small/micro holes and punctures in the body of the drysuit. I once had a leaky fabric drysuit with thousands of micro holes.

A major leak is also possible from an incompletely closed zipper. When you gear up, visually check that it’s closed all the way, and tug on the pull cord to be sure….especially if your buddy has zipped it for you. And be extra careful to avoid catching threads or your undergarment in the zipper as it’s being closed.

In a major flood, you will feel wetness against your skin as the water soaks through the undergarments. I recommend that you abort the dive, as this kind of problem can only become worse.

3. Catastrophic flood

A catastrophic flood can happen in several ways, including from a torn/shredded neck or wrist seal, a zipper popping open, a hole/puncture in the suit body, or a valve coming unscrewed.

I’ve experienced two catastrophic floods while performing a giant stride entry from a platform: a shredded neck seal and a total zipper failure. I’ve also experienced a complete flooding of my left arm due to a loose exhaust valve.

A catastrophic flood is a life-threatening situation. Within a few seconds, a full flood will overwhelm your thermal protection and likely throw you into shock. For the next minute, your breath rate can go up to 1,000% faster than normal. After the shock has passed, you’ll have 10 minutes or less before losing the use of your limbs. You must get out of the water in that time.

I have spoken with other divers and have read stories about what to do if you’re in this situation. These are my thoughts:

3.1  Catastrophic flood at the surface

For any giant stride entry from a platform (boat or dock) in a drysuit, prepare yourself by purging and burping the suit so that it has as little air inside it as possible. Open the exhaust valve too. Inflate your BCD fully for maximun flotation, so that you won’t sink as much when you hit the water. Check around the entry area and note the location of ladders, ropes, floats and other divers. Plan to drop into the water as close as you can to something that can keep you afloat in an emergency. If there’s nothing available, ask the boat crew to set up a rope, or preferably a ladder, which would enable you to climb out of the water promptly.

When you stride into the water, land with your fins flat, which will also help minimize how far you sink. As you sink, the air in the suit will rush up to your neck and can blow right out the neck seal. The more air in the suit and the deeper you sink, then the more forceful the blast. A neck seal can be instantly shredded, before you’re even chest deep. Or a zipper could burst open.

If this happens to you and you can’t climb right back up a ladder, grab hold of anything that will prevent you from sinking, with your left hand: a rope, a surface float or another diver. Scream “FLOOD” or “EMERGENCY”.  Put your reg back in your mouth. Use your right hand to drop your weights if necessary to stay high in the water. Make yourself as buoyant as possible, and prepare to be shocked. Hold on to your reg so you don’t spit it out, or to pull it out if you start hyperventilating and feel air-starved. 

If you keep yourself positively buoyant, you can still pull yourself along a rope or swim and maneuver to safety, and rescuers can reach you in a few seconds.

If the flood happens to your buddy, make yourself as positively buoyant as possible, put your reg in your mouth, maneuver to get behind them, grab hold of the regulator first stage and wrap your knees securely around their tank. Inflate your drysuit. Provide flotation, and be prepared to tow the buddy to an exit. In this position behind the victim, you can control them and keep yourself safe in case of a panic.

3.2  Catastrophic flood underwater

A catastrophic flood underwater could make it impossible to become positively buoyant, but still able swim and maneuver around. If you sink to the bottom, you can crawl and pull yourself along. 

Alert your buddy immediately, signal them to swim to you, signal problem, signal that you’re cold, signal X for abort, signal up. Signal to hold each other’s BCD’s. Try to ascend.  If you are able to ascend normally, then make a safe ascent to the surface, establish positive buoyancy and exit as fast as you can.

If you are unable to ascend normally, add air to the BCDs to get you going, and if necessary drop your weights. If you still can’t get positively buoyant, invert yourself and add air to the drysuit so that an air bubble goes to your legs and displaces the water. This creates the risk of injury from an out-of-control ascent, but it’s better than going hypothermic and drowning on the bottom.

If the flood happens to your buddy, prepare to assist while keeping yourself safe. Grasp their BCD and provide both lift and buoyancy control for the ascent.

If the zipper has opened, and the buddy can’t get positively buoyant, and the situation is desperate, a final alternative is make the drysuit into a lift bag. Get the victim into a horizontal position, slightly inverted and add air to the drysuit in small amounts until positive buoyancy is established. You’d be in effect using the suit as an open lift bag and controlling the ascent to the surface.

The buddy might panic at any time, so be prepared to maneuver behind them, hold the first stage and squeeze the tank between your legs to protect yourself. How you get behind them is by reaching across them with your right hand grasping their right hand, then pulling and spinning them around counter-clockwise to face away from you. You can now also control a safe ascent.

At the surface, establish maximum buoyancy and tow the buddy to the exit.

A fully flooded drysuit will be very heavy and it might be difficult to stand or exit the water. In this situation, you can use your knife to puncture holes in both legs, to drain the water.

A few years ago, during a group Open Water course being taught by an instructor and a divemaster that I knew personally, a student experienced a zipper failure and catastrophic flood. It took dropping weights and both professionals to lift the victim to the surface. Emergency medical services were called and the victim was taken to hospital with hypothermia. He was released a few hours later, but this story is an example of what can happen and what it might take to rescue a diver with a catastrophic flood.

13 Free-flowing regulator

A free-flowing regulator will empty a full tank in about a minute or two. While it’s actually quite easy to breathe off one, it’s almost impossible to do anything else, as it occupies your full attention.

Establish neutral buoyancy, take a full breath, take hold of your alternate air source, remove the free-flowing reg and breathe off the alternate. Hold the malfunctioning reg with the mouthpiece facing down.  Press the purge button and stick your finger into the hole in the mouthpiece. Shake and bang the reg against your left hand. All of this will take about 10 seconds.

If none of this works, alert your buddy, check your gauges, especially your air pressure, signal X to abort, signal up and ascend safely to the surface.

Establish positive buoyancy and shut off the tank valve. Inflate the bcd orally as needed.

If you successfully stop the free-flow, check your air pressure to see how much you’ve lost, compare air pressures with your buddy, and modify the dive plan if necessary.


Closing Thoughts

There are many ways to get into minor or major trouble underwater. If you know what the equipment risks are, if you’re equipped with thoroughly inspected and tested gear, if you carry the appropriate personal gear and safety accessories, if you always prepare in advance to dive with well thought out action and contingency plans, and if you dive within your training limits, then you’ll not only be a lot safer diver than average, you’ll have a lot more fun.

My suggested responses to equipment problems might or might not be the best course of action for you to take in any specific situation. But if you have thought through these hypothetical situations in advance, you’re more likely to stay calm and make good decisions when a problem does happen.

Posted on December 29, 2018 .

Drysuits vs Wetsuits

Drysuit vs Wetsuit Diving in BC

Many people think that scuba diving in BC is a summertime sport, when in fact it’s a four-season sport, with a fascinating variety and cycle of life across the seasons.  Drysuits make it possible to dive comfortably all-year round.

A drysuit is a technical piece of equipment that a diver must operate and manage actively, unlike a wetsuit, which is worn passively for exposure protection.  Drysuits have advantages over wetsuits, but they introduce additional risks. A drysuit diver must develop a higher situational awareness and new motor skills to operate their drysuit effectively & safely.

A drysuit is a sealed air-vessel, with the seals being at your neck and wrists.  The suit is connected to the regulator’s first stage and to the air cylinder by a low-pressure hose, just like the inflator hose on the BCD.  The inflator button is located in the middle of the chest. The drysuit also has an exhaust valve, usually located below the left shoulder. The inflator and exhaust valves are both deployed using your right hand. This is because you need your left hand to operate the BCD.

A drysuit diver must actively add air to, and exhaust air from their drysuit throughout a dive, much like they do with their BCD. However, a drysuit is not a substitute for the BCD and should not be used as the primary vessel for buoyancy control underwater. There are several reasons for this, the first one being that a drysuit is not designed or constructed to act as a primary buoyancy control device. It has multiple possible failure points that could result in a catastrophic flood. It exhausts air more slowly than a BCD. A too-large air bubble inside a drysuit can shift quickly and dramatically, throwing a diver off-balance and risking an inverted, out-of-control rapid ascent. And it’s impossible to exhaust air from a drysuit when the diver is in an upside-down position. Therefore the safest way to operate a drysuit is with a minimum amount of air inside it to offset a squeeze and allow the diver to feel comfortable, with free movement of arms and legs.

At VSds, we train clients to dive in a shell-style drysuit, which itself provides no thermal protection. The diver wears layers of long underwear, fleece and socks. These undergarments plus the air in the suit provide the insulation.

The PADI Drysuit Specialty course will introduce you to drysuits in general, and train you to operate a drysuit while adapting your buoyancy control technique. It’s a one day, two-tank dive, with a brief course manual to read prior to dive day. If you want to rent a drysuit in the future as a certified diver, then you will need to present this C-card as proof of training.


Prospective divers often wonder what the water temperature is around Vancouver, and whether they should train and be certified to dive in a drysuit. The simple answer is that the water’s always cold and that a drysuit will keep you warm much longer than a wetsuit can. So you should learn to dive in a drysuit and wear one all year round.

The water temperature at depth doesn’t fluctuate very much thoughout the year, with a minimum temperature of around 7-8C in February and the maximum around 13C in August. In the summertime, there’s a thermocline with a surface layer of warmer water reaching about 16C. But divers pass through the thermocline on descent, down into the deeper, colder water.

Wetsuit divers will usually only dive comfortably in the July-September time frame, when the water temperature is warmest and, most importantly, when they can warm up in the sun between dives. For the rest of the year, wetsuit divers can’t warm up between dives, so they get cold faster on the second dive.  This results in a higher risk profile and short second dives. Often the wetsuit diver cancels the second dive .

Meanwhile, drysuit divers must deal with the opposite problem. They can stay toasty inside the drysuit between dives when there’s snow on the beach in winter, but risk sweating and overheating when the air temperature is above 15C. They enter the water to cool off, and get chilled by the perspiration evaporating on their skin.

In the wintertime, I recommend that divers wear a base layer of warm, perspiration-wicking thermals, with two pairs of the thickest, warmest Arctic socks. I also recommend wearing a lower-back heat wrap that will keep your core warm all day. A double layer of fleece is worn over top of this base layer. 

In the summertime, a diver can wear shorts and a t-shirt, or a light base layer, under the fleece.

Serious divers will tend to use dry-glove systems rather than neoprene gloves. Hands will stay warmer, longer.

Drysuits are much more expensive to buy than wetsuits. A good quality drysuit, with accessories including a hood, boots and dry gloves will cost $2,000-3,000. Most dive shops will rent drysuits for around $50-75/day, marginally more costly than renting a wetsuit.

Posted on June 10, 2018 .

The Traveling Diver

If you're a traveler, then you probably already carry some kind of  travel insurance. And if you intend to dive when traveling, then you should find out whether your insurance covers you for diving incidents, accidents and trip cancellation.

I strongly recommend that you check out Divers Alert Network. DAN not only offers dive travel insurance, it's a major source of medical information and dive accident statistics.

Click on the link to visit Divers Alert Network


Posted on November 24, 2017 .

Announcing 20% discounted pricing on equipment purchases at partner dive shops

Scuba diving is a gear sport. The investment required to fully equip yourself for diving in BC can easily reach $5,000.

Vancouver Scuba diving school is not a retail dive shop and we don't sell dive equipment. But we know that diving is an expensive sport and we're pleased to announce that VSds clients will now get a 20% discount off everyday retail prices on all their gear purchases at partner dive shops, when you're enrolled in any of our courses.

Typical retail price ranges for core diving equipment are as follows:

  • Exposure protection: $2,500+ for drysuit, spare wrist and neck seals, zipper wax, booties, hood, dry gloves, fleece undergarment, base layers of long underwear, heavy arctic socks.

  • Buoyancy Control Device (BCD): $400-700

  • Regulator: $1,000-1,500+

  • Critical accessories group: $1,000+ for compass, dive computer, knife tool, dive light and backup light, safety/signalling devices.

  • Personal gear group: $300+ for mask, snorkel, fins, spare straps.

  • Incidentals: $300+ for gear bags, bins, tool box and tools, spare parts, spare hoses, etc.

The money you can save as you equip yourself for diving can offset much, if not all, of your course fees when you sign up with Vancouver Scuba diving school.

Posted on November 1, 2016 .

Understanding Risk

This is the first of four blogs that I’ve written about risk and risk management. This entry is a general introduction to the topic for anyone who’s thinking about taking their first scuba course. The other three entries are required reading for all my students: Equipment Risk, Equalization Risk and Buddy Risk.

PADI policy states that SAFETY is the #1 objective on every dive. To meet this safety objective, a diver must competently manage and balance a wide range of risks every moment of every dive.

Risk is defined as the negative consequences to a diver of some undesirable event happening to them. These consequences might be minor, or they might be very, very severe. The probability of any such undesirable event occurring might be knowable, or it might be uncertain and unpredictable. The choices and decisions you make from moment to moment will determine both the probability and the severity of negative consequences.

In my research for this lengthy blog, I've come across some useful concepts and statistics that will help to identify and quantify the variety of risks that you'll face as a novice scuba diver.  A competent, skilled diver will be aware of the major and minor knowable risks on every dive, will plan and execute their dives accordingly, and will be mentally prepared with contingency plans to balance and manage known risks actively throughout a dive.  Unknowable, uncertain and random risks must be dealt with as they occur.

Diving also exposes you to medical risks, which are influenced by your personal physiology and state of health.

Psychological and emotional factors can also have a major influence on a divers’ risk profile.  I've encountered risk-takers, risk-avoiders, thrill-seekers and the risk-oblivious. And I’ve had to rescue many panicked divers.

My goal here at VSds is to inform and guide clients to become proficient risk managers. To manage risks competently, a diver needs first to understand them.

Risk = The Cost of an Undesirable Event

Some of the risks in diving are insignificant in the grand scheme of things: losing or breaking some piece of equipment, a dive cut short in order to honour your commitment to the buddy system….minor inconveniences, spoiled dive days and financial costs.

On the other hand, some risks have seriously undesirable consequences that every new diver needs to be aware of and understand: the risk of sudden death and the risk of a serious injury causing long term disability. Consequences can be acute or chronic. Let’s honestly examine some relevant risk concepts and accident statistics, then draw some conclusions.

Measuring the risk of dying today

Have you ever heard of a micromort? It’s a unit of measurement, and it measures the risk/probability of dying today as you go about living your life. Everyone alive today is facing a baseline risk of 1 micromort. In simple terms, there’s a one-in-a-million chance that any individual will die today. It’s a very low probability, but it’s not zero. And the risks you take start to increase when you get out of bed in the morning.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

Here's a link:


The wiki entry is fairly short and the stats are not current, but it contains some fascinating and (in)credible insights, comparing the risk of sudden death that we all face every day when participating in various activities. So let's have some fun with numbers.

Here is a short list of some activities that add 1 micromort to the baseline risk,  or approximately doubling the risk of dying today if you decide not to spend it in bed:

walking 27km

riding your bicycle 16km

driving your car 370km

traveling 1600km by jet

going skiing

taking 2 tablets of the drug ecstacy. (that's a wtf statistic!)

Now let's look at some extreme sports :

riding a motorcycle 50km: add 5 micromorts

running a marathon: add 7 micromorts

hang gliding: add 8 micromorts per flight

skydiving: add 8-9 micromorts per jump

And finally (drum roll), if you go on a two-tank dive, add 5-10 micromorts per dive, or 10-20 total micromorts per day, depending on your skill level. Novice divers and inadequately-trained divers are at the high end, facing 20 times the baseline risk of death.

We each have our own unique set of risk preferences. We pick our poisons, so to speak, depending partly on what exhilarates us or taps into our fears. Scuba diving offers plenty of both. So if you want to take up diving, you need to inform yourself and decide in advance on what quality and level of training you will need to keep yourself safe... as well as exhilarated.

How much would you pay to avoid a 1-in-a-million risk of dying today?

Now that we've quantified the relative risk of death by scuba, the question is... How much would you be willing to pay to avoid a 10-in-a-million (10 micromort) chance of death?

The wiki article argues that, generally speaking, when someone makes an initial decision to spend some dollar amount of money on their safety, they are very unlikely to spend significantly more money at a later date to further enhance that level of safety. People get comfortable, or complacent with their perception of risk. 

The implication for scuba diving is that a typical novice student who enrolls in a cheaply-priced group dive course, offering minimal safety training and skill development, is unlikely to invest later in higher levels of personal training and safety equipment. In other words, if someone is willing to spend a maximum of $500 on an entry-level group diving course, which subjects him or her to a 20 times increase in the baseline risk of injury or death every dive day, then he or she will probably not be willing to spend another $1,000 later for fuller training and safety equipment to cut that risk in half.

This is certainly true in the world of diving.  Almost nobody comes back for more training after the Open Water course.  And it's not because they don't need any more training. Most divers remain marginally-skilled or choose to drop the sport entirely rather than invest in the additional training that would raise their skills, confidence, safety and quality of experience. Fewer than 10% of all Open Water divers ever take an Advanced course. And an even tinier percentage of divers ever take a Rescue course.

In short, your initial personal and financial investment in diver training is probably all you will ever make. And this initial investment in training will essentially lock you into a lower or higher risk category that you'll not significantly improve on in future years.

Dive Accident Statistics

Introducing DAN

The authoritative source of data on dive injuries and fatalities in North America is Divers Alert Network, or DAN. Their 2013, 2015, and 2017 reports were the sources for this blog entry. 

The data that DAN have collected are not complete. North American (US and Canadian) statistics are fairly extensive and detailed, while foreign and tropical dive incident statistics are more limited. Incidentally, in many parts of the world diving accidents are deliberately suppressed from public knowledge, for reasons including the protection of local tourist industries. So we don’t often hear about diving accidents, even though they happen every day.

It’s reasonable to assume that the North American dive industry (dive shops, professional instructors/divemasters and tour operators) adhere to higher standards of safety than in many tropical countries, for a variety of reasons including massive litigation risk and the enforcement of minimum safety standards by the industry’s leading training organization: PADI. But in 2nd and 3rd world countries, the safety risks that divers are exposed to are likely much higher. There’s no data to support that assertion, but personal experience tells me that this is true.

DAN stresses that their data should not be used to draw specific conclusions and inferences about the risks involved in diving or the frequency of accidents, but rather as a general indication of the types of injuries and fatalities that do get reported.

DAN’s dive injury and fatality statistics

Here are some notable statistics and factoids drawn from various sections of the DAN report.

DAN estimates that there are 3 million divers in the U.S., and that there are about 2 deaths per 100,000 divers per year, with 20 ER admissions per death and many more primary care visits. That's converts to 60 deaths, 1,200 ER admissions, and thousands of primary care visits every year for those 3 million divers.

In 2013, 68% of all reported dive incidents (fatal and non-fatal) involved a victim with less than 2 years experience from their date of certification.

64% of all reported deaths were during a pleasure dive, and 8% were during a training dive.

59% of incidents were on the first dive of the day.

When depth of dive was known, 25% of fatalities were in water less than 10m deep and 28% of fatalities were in water 10-18m deep. This means that more than half of fatalities occurred on shallow dives within the limits of a basic Open Water certification.

81% of fatalities involved circumstances that began to go wrong either at the deepest part of the dive (49%), during the ascent phase (9%) or at the surface after the dive (23%). Incidentally, a high percentage of victims found dead on the bottom still had their lead weights in position.

In 2013, 78% of male fatalities and 90% of female fatalities were over the age of 40. (2015- 91% of males and 93% of females were over 40; and 75% of males and 71% of females were over 50). It’s not the wild kids getting themselves killed scuba diving. According to PADI, the average age of novice scuba divers is in the late 30’s.

The medical histories of most victims were not available, but of those that were, 12% had a history of high blood pressure and 5% heart disease.

Body Mass Index (BMI) data were available for about half of all fatalities in 2013. Of these, 47% were overweight (BMI 25-29.9) and 35% were obese (BMI 30-39.9). In 2014, 51% of victims were obese and in 2015, 37% were obese.

Panic, running out of gas to breathe, and rapid ascent were the three most common mechanisms leading to injury and death, each at about 30-31% of the total. I've had personal experience with client panic, low or out of air situations, and ear injuries. Yes, they're pretty common.

The main causes of death were cardiovascular disease, drowning and arterial gas embolism. Interestingly, decompression sickness (ie. the bends) ranked very low, the 6th most common cause of death.  DCS doesn’t always kill, but was involved in 39% of reported non-fatal injuries, the most common of all non-fatal injuries. It can be a gruesome way to die.

Ear injuries were in second place, at 17% of the total reported injuries. 

Of all deaths where underwater visibility conditions were reported, 22% were in low viz (<3m) and 48% were in moderate viz (3-15m) environments, or 70% of the total. Unfortunately, this statistic isn’t very useful because the range of moderate viz is too broad. Three meter viz is a very different risk environment compared to 15m viz. In local Howe Sound waters, viz for most of the year is 7m or less. During the summertime the viz is often zero down to the bottom, and dive shops send large groups into this soup every weekend.

Equipment problems were frequently associated with dive incidents, with 25% of all reported incidents happening in conjunction with equipment failure. The most common equipment problems were with regulator free-flow and BCD (buoyancy control device) malfunction.

The local ocean environment itself presents sudden, unexpected risks. There are no seriously threatening animals in BC waters (except maybe sea lions), but there are stinging lions mane jellyfish, curious biting seals, and defensive ling cod mothers protecting their eggs. 

I've done a lot of tropical diving too, where the risks from aggressive or dangerous animals are much higher than in BC. And tourist dive guides don't necessarily explain all the knowable and random risks in their pre-dive briefings. In many countries the diving industry is essentially self-regulated, or faces little to no litigation risk.

All of these problems and dangers require competent risk management strategies and responses for a diver to remain safe.

Analysis and conclusions

It seems clear from the data that individual fitness, dive training and skills, equipment maintenance and prevailing diving conditions can and do explain differences in diving outcomes between safe diving and injury or death.

If you're thinking about taking your first scuba course, the dollar amount of your initial investment in training and equipment will largely determine the amount of risk (in micromorts) that you’ll be taking on as a certified scuba diver for the rest of your diving days. Competent divers face half the risk that a problem will turn into a fatality, compared to weak-skilled divers. When dealing with problems, well-trained divers are much more likely to take appropriate actions. On the other hand, bad decisions often lead to more bad decisions and to dive accidents.

Expressed in hypothetical micromorts, an unskilled novice diver who’s paid a rock bottom $500 price - for a typical large-group Open Water course with minimal training time and minimal direct instructor interaction - is 20 times more likely to die when diving today than if they spent the day in bed. And they’re much more likely to suffer a serious injury that could result in a long term physical impairment.

Would you pay an extra $1,000 for private personal diver training to cut that life-long risk of sudden death or serious injury in half?  99.9% of risk-oblivious novices just say no. 

Posted on January 26, 2016 .

Dive Planning: Tides and currents in Howe Sound

Shore diving in Howe Sound offers several dive site options. Some sites are suitable for casual divers and large groups, with nearby bathroom and change facilities, while some other sites are harder to reach and offer no nearby services or facilities. Most local dive operators will take clients primarily to Whytecliff Park and Porteau Cove, while others such as Vancouver Scuba diving school will also take qualified divers off the beaten path.

When planning our dives, we always refer to the tide tables to try and estimate when underwater conditions will be at their best. In Howe Sound, the best diving is generally around high tide.

We use a couple of data sources to determine the tides for any particular dive day:

Fisheries and Oceans Canada's website:

Here is some basic information about tides: High and low tides, and spring and neap tides

As for currents in Howe Sound, it appears that there is no published source of information. I've been advised by a publisher of nautical maps used by sail boat operators that the basic assumption is for a maximum 1.0 knot current in Howe Sound. I have found in my experience that Howe Sound weather reports, especially wind forecasts, are a useful reference for surface currents and chop.

It's important to note that the area around Porteau Cove and northwards to Squamish is a microclimate, where conditions can be very different from the Southern end of Howe Sound closer to Lions Bay and Whytecliff Park. 


Posted on September 29, 2014 .

Pavilion Lake dive trip - July 2014

My buddy Eduardo and me returned to Pavilion Lake for 2 days and 4 tanks on July 10-11. One of my goals was to pinpoint the location for a dive float/descent line directly to the massive microbialite structures sitting on the bottom in 23m of fresh water.

So, for your future reference, you can navigate to the descent point by following a South heading along a line that starts from the "No Camping" sign and passes tangentially by the eastern edge of the island. See the pics below:

Diver entry point into the lake is to the right in this photo.

Arrow marks the diver's float and descent line to the microbialite structures. The float is close to the middle of the lake

Arrow marks the diver's float and descent line to the microbialite structures. The float is close to the middle of the lake

Arrow marks the diver's float. It's a southerly heading from this vantage point.

The air temperature was about 37C, people were swimming in 20C surface waters, and bather's were a little amazed to see us put on long underwear, fleecy snowsuits and then climb into drysuits before entering the lake to cool off. But the water temperature at depth was 8C, which is about the same as it is in the ocean around Vancouver in the winter time.

Here's a link to the video.


Posted on July 14, 2014 .

Ear injuries.....a must read before you go underwater

Vertical buoyancy control is perhaps the most critical dive skill. An inability to control your depth will magnify the risks and probability of a serious injury. Rapid sinking risks an ear injury, while rapid ascent risks decompression sickness or an arterial gas embolism. 

 These kinds of injuries can be minor, with 100% recovery, but they can also be seriously life altering. Divers Alert Network (DAN) accident statistics show that these two types of injuries account for more than 50% of all non-fatal diving accidents that get reported. 

An ear injury due to a failure to equalize is an unavoidable and continuous risk on every dive you will ever make.  I refer to this as Equalization Risk.

 A diver can injure their ears during the initial descent (when pressure changes are greatest), or at any other time during the dive. Effective management of this risk requires that you develop keen ear-monitoring skills (situational awareness) and good equalization technique.

Over the course of my diving life (30+ years) I've experienced and witnessed many ear injuries, both in the ocean and during the confined water segment of the Open Water course, in pools where the bottom was less than 5m/15feet deep.

It's a painful experience for the unfortunate victim of an ear injury, with outcomes ranging from a mildly annoying weeklong feeling of fullness and dull hearing, through to punctured ear drums, bleeding ears, vertigo, vomiting, near drowning, and permanent damage.

PADI Open Water course materials highlight and emphasize the importance of  full and proper equalization of your ears on descent and what to do in the event of a reverse block on ascent. At VSds, we think that every novice diver ought to have a full medical and physiological understanding of what's going on in your ears when you go underwater, and the various equalization techniques.


The following article is taken from the Divers Alert Network (DAN) website. We urge you to read it closely and practice the various techniques at home. And we urge you to check out DAN.  Click on images to expand.




Posted on October 5, 2013 .

Buy gear or rent gear?

Every new diver faces the issue of whether to buy new equipment immediately to use during their lessons, or to use the shop's rental gear. There's no single answer, as the issue depends on your budget and risk tolerance. So let's explore your alternatives.

Whether you are gearing up for diving in BC or in tropical warm water, there are four categories of gear that you will be needing and using: 

  • Personal gear - mask, snorkel, fins.

  • Scuba unit - regulator, BCD, lead weights, air cylinders.

  • Exposure protection - wetsuit, drysuit, undergarments, hood, gloves, booties.

  • Accessories - tools, safety equipment, communication aids, hobbies and spare parts including: computer, compass, dive light, knife, slate, signalling sausage, marine radio/GPS locator, gear bags, tool box, etc.

The cost of fully equipping yourself for diving in BC can easily reach $5,000 for middle-of-the-road quality, so you will likely prefer to budget and accumulate your gear incrementally. What factors should you consider and what should your priorities be?

  • Firstly, you must understand that whether you own or rent the gear you carry into the ocean there will always be some risk of equipment malfunction. Dive shop rental gear is by definition used gear, much of which needs regular maintenance and repair. Some rental gear is very old and all of it gets mistreated. We strongly urge you to fully inspect and test all rental gear before you take it into the ocean. Don't trust blindly. If you don't like some piece of equipment you've been given, ask for a different one. And if you decide to buy some gear, recognize that you are taking on the responsibility to service and maintain it to manufacturer standards.

  • Secondly, whether you own or rent your gear, dive gear can and does break down, and it does malfunction. Busy dive shops all over the world often fail to notice or consciously ignore deteriorating or malfunctioning equipment. Scary but true. Often, no repairs or maintenance are performed before the equipment experiences a failure. Believe me.....I have many stories about rental gear failures from my own experiences as an instructor and international traveler, including gear failures underwater. But you can mitigate a lot of risk and disappointment by using your own gear and servicing it regularly.

  • Pricing is important, but buying from the internet costs you more over the full lifecycle of the equipment. It's smart to establish an ongoing relationship with a dive shop operator. Buy your gear and get it serviced at the same place. You will not only be better informed, you will get better, faster service and pay lower gear maintenance costs than if you buy your gear from the internet and then try to find someone qualified and licensed to service it.

Equipment Priorities

1     Buy a premium, well-fitting mask and spare mask strap. $100-150. It will last you 10 years or more. It fits easily into luggage. You can also use it for snorkelling. Nothing sucks the fun out of diving more than an ill-fitting leaky mask.  Every diver has a unique facial profile, nose shape and size and visual acuity. It's imperative that you wear a mask that fits, feels comfortable and allows you to see everything that you need and want to see. Some models will accept prescription lenses, which usually cost an extra $200.

Snorkels cost $30 to $80.Unless you plan to do a lot of snorkelling, buy the cheapest snorkel you can find and a spare snorkel holder made of soft rubber/silicone, not hard plastic. Plastic snorkel holders break. The retail markup on snorkels is crazy, and for most divers it's not worth the expense to buy a premium dry snorkel. You can buy a snorkel directly from Chinese manufacturers, on Ebay, for $15 or less, delivered.

2     Buy premium fins, preferably split fins, and a spare fin strap. $200+. Bungie straps and spring straps are worth the extra expense. Diving with split fins will give you a consistent, predictable, soft ride, will minimize overexertion and thigh burn and will therefore maximize your swimming comfort and bottom times. Some fins come with a lifetime replacement warranty on both the fins and the fin straps. You'll never have to buy another pair or pay for maintenance. And you can avoid the spare straps if you get fins with spring or bungie straps.

3       If you decide to take the plunge and invest,  buy the gear that you need to be 100% confident in its functionality and reliability, and can take traveling with you anywhere: a regulator with depth and pressure gauges, a compass and a computer. Total $1500-$2000. You'll also need some spare parts and tools for minor maintenance jobs, spare mouthpiece, low pressure hoses and computer battery.

The annual maintenance cost for a regulator is about $100. The regulator delivers air from the cylinder to your lungs for breathing, to your BCD and dry suit for buoyancy control and to your gauge console for monitoring tank pressure. It is imperative that this critical piece of equipment be in tip-top working condition at all times, so if you buy one, be sure to get it serviced annually, whether you're diving actively or only occasionally. If you haven't been diving in 6 months or more, get the regulator inspected before using it.

Most gauge consoles come equipped with an air pressure gauge and a depth gauge. These two gauges can lose their accuracy over time and might eventually need to be replaced. Air pressure gauges can be inaccurate by up to 10% and I know a diver who inadvertently descended to 180 feet although his (rented) depth gauge indicated that he was at 130 feet. The gauge console might or might not contain an integrated compass.  If it doesn't, then buy a large, wrist-mounted or retractor-mounted compass. It's standard equipment for anyone who takes the Advanced Open Water course, but everyone ought to develop superior navigation skills right from the start. Recently, I was taking a client on a navigation dive. Their rented gauge console held a compass that was 180 degrees out of whack. So I repeat: if you are renting gear, test all of it before taking it into the ocean.

The highest priority accessory is a dive computer, which gives you real-time data on your depth, bottom time, remaining no-decompression time, surface interval nitrogen desaturation, and much more.  Good computers can be purchased for under $400. Before you buy a computer, be sure to learn the details about it's dive table algorithm. Some computers have extremely conservative dive tables that might unnecessarily restrict your bottom times and safe ascent rates.  Your dive computer will become your primary depth gauge, with the console's depth gauge becoming your backup in the event of a computer failure.


4     Buy a main dive light, a small backup light, a knife tool and a writing slate next, to see true colours, keep track of dive plan details, carry a useful tool underwater and support better buddy communication. $500-$700 total.

5     It's not critical to have your own BCD, but rentals should be thoroughly inspected and tested before use.  Most dive shops offer regulator/BCD package deals that offer some savings over buying them separately, but if your budget forces you to choose between a BCD and a computer, buy the computer first.  BCD's cost $500-700, with annual maintenance cost of $100. The two main styles of BCD are the jacket and the harness/wing styles. Jackets will have the air bladder positioned mostly around your torso area, whereas harness styles have the bladder in the back, behind you. Harness styles are less constricting on your chest, whereas fully-inflated jackets can feel tight and constrict your breathing. The two styles can have different characteristics in the water. Harnesses might tend to make you face-plant on the surface while keeping you more horizontal when underwater. There are advantages and disadvantages to each style, but serious divers tend to prefer the harness.

6      Lastly, exposure protection can be rented in BC waters until you commit to being an active diver. For tropical diving, I recommend that you buy your own wetsuit, to ensure proper fit and function as well as for hygienic reasons. Most dive shops never sterilize or disinfect their rental wetsuits between uses, which I find gross because of the dead skin and urine. But, hey, that's my hangup.

Ocean temperatures can vary from around 30C near the equator to 6C at depth in BC during the Winter season. As an international diver, I have two drysuits and two wetsuits in my gear chest, along with several pairs of booties, hoods and an entire bag devoted exclusively to gloves. It can sometimes be difficult to find a rental exposure suit that fits you properly unless you are very close to a standard size. Improperly-fitting exposure protection won't keep you warm, and loose dry suit seals will result in leaks and flooding.

Dry suits require regular maintenance and repairs. Neck and wrist seals wear out and fail in about 100 dives. Inflator and deflator valves eventually start to leak. Zippers wear out and break. If you buy a dry suit, expect to spend $1500-3000 for suit, booties, hood and neoprene gloves, and an average of $200 per year on maintenance. I recommend dry glove systems, especially in the Winter.

If you buy a shell style suit, you will need to wear base layers and heavy undergarments. Most people will already own some of these items, but it's definitely worth spending $500 on a good quality undergarment.

Very few active divers wear a wetsuit in BC, but the best time of year to wear one is in the Summer. A heavy integrated wetsuit (suit + hood), or semi-dry suit, booties and neoprene gloves will be about $1000. The problem with wearing a wetsuit in BC is that for most of the year it's difficult to warm up between dives. So a diver gets cold much faster on the second dive.

7     Cylinders and weights are virtually identical everywhere and there is no need to own them before becoming a serious and independent diver. Cylinders cost about $250 to buy and $10 per fill. They require an annual inspection  as well as hydrostatic testing every 5 years. Most shops will rent full cylinders for about $20 each.

Lead is basically sold by weight, at about 3-5 times the price of the metal. Beware of huge retail markups.

8     Dive shops will typically offer full gear rental for about $100-120 per day. So do your math and weigh all the various factors including your risk tolerance and the number of days per year that you hope to dive.



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Posted on February 2, 2013 .

My Open Water course and first dives

I took up diving in 1986 on a dare from my best buddy Gary, who was a commercial diver. I had never learned to swim properly and had already been carrying (for 10 years) a nightmarish Jaws-inspired terror of being half-swallowed alive. I sweated about the decision for a few months and ultimately decided to face my fears. I signed up for a group open water course offered for $49 with the mandatory purchase of mask/snorkel/fins. 

I quit that course when I was required to flood and clear my mask for the first time. Kneeling in shallow water in the pool, I pulled the mask from my face,  snorted water up my nose, coughed out the regulator, swallowed more water, stood up, coughed my guts out, wiped the snot from my face and left the pool without looking back. The instructor never stood up to see how I was doing. I told the front desk on the way out that this sport just wasn't for me. I can't do this.

Gary harassed and shamed me until I eventually went back and learned enough skill to pass the course.  I never completed the swim test. 

I only ever went diving with Gary twice. On my first dive as a certified Open Water diver, he took me into a 5 knot current at Active Pass and planned a 30m/100 foot free descent without dive lights from a live 16 foot aluminum boat, seeking to land on a seamount and gather scallops for dinner. Yikes! Woohoo! We missed the first time, dropping to 35m/120 feet and drifting for a few minutes into the Georgia Strait before he finally decided that we'd been carried past the seamount and gave me the ascent signal.  The boat picked us up a mile from the point of entry. We swapped tanks and Gary nailed it the second time. There were thousands of scallops resting on the dimly lit seamount and as we landed they started to swim off like a vast flock of video Pac-Men. This was the moment that I learned how to laugh into a regulator. Swimming and crawling along into the still-strong current, my ill-fitting mask half flooded, we filled our goodie bags and I had my first close encounter with a huge Giant Pacific Octopus swimming in open water.  A totally awesome, terrifying and overwhelming first two dives! And a great feast with stories to still tell 30 years later.

I know now that I never should have agreed to do that dive and that Gary was irresponsible for taking me there. It was way off-the-charts beyond my skill level. But I'm very glad to have done it. I eventually lost touch with Gary and have never been able to thank him. 30 years later, scuba diving is very much a core pursuit and value in my life.


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Posted on February 1, 2013 .