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.
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:
people you know well, care about and love
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 it.....here'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.
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