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Solo Diving: The Sequel – How to be a Good Dive Buddy

by John Flanders. Instructor Trainer/Master Instructor

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article about Solo Diving that sparked a small rain storm of emails and commentary.  Split down the middle, readers discussed the pros and cons of Solo Diving. One group supporting properly trained and equipped divers that should dive solo, and a large advocacy group touting, proudly, how they would always dive with a buddy.  Knowing the current state of world, it seems like everyone likes a good controversial subject to debate over, and that article lived up to the expectation for discussion. To my knowledge, this was one of the most “responded to” and “popular” articles published on DiverWire to-date.

The biggest divide surrounded those who were correctly trained, relatively experienced, properly equipped, capable and in some cases safer when they Solo Dive.  These ‘lone wolf’ divers believed that most dive buddies, even when present, during an emergency probably could not be of any assistance.  The Pro-Solo contingency firmly believed that they were entirely self sufficient and that they are more comfortable diving alone than diving with someone who may involve them in an incident, robbing them of their redundant resources.  

The other side of the debate held steadfastly to (mostly subjective) data that diving without a buddy was tantamount to walking a tight-rope without a net.  Eventually, you will fall and when you do, it will be devastating. No matter how well trained, well equipped or experienced, the only way to ensure a possible rescue was through the assistance of a dive buddy.

Both sides were entertaining and developed solid arguments.  The logic was sincere and rational.  Is Solo Diving dangerous? The answer was a definite maybe!

Doing a little research, I came across an abstract, published by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Inc, in 2003. In this abstract, they discuss 866 diving fatalities between 1992 and 2001.  During that time, approximately 93% of the diving fatalities occurred while the diver was alone.  Meaning, they either entered the water by themself or they were separated from their buddy during the dive.  At first glance, the opponents to Solo Diving seem to have their silver bullet. However, the question begs an answer.  Were they – the folks in this abstract – properly trained, equipped and diving within their limitations? This question demonstrates the difference from diving “solo” and diving “alone”. It also suggests that these same people who suffered diving’s greatest tragedy may have been separated.  Is this just poor buddy diving practices and support the solo diver’s premise that the buddy system has an inherent flaw — relying on someone else.

SOLO DIVING – Fact, Trend; Dangerous???

In any event, both sides of this debate will continue to pontificate their position and beliefs. However, mainstream divers will continue to dive with a buddy.  And, since most mainstream divers are absent the proper self sufficient training, this is undoubtedly a sound and safer practice.  However, with that being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t focus your efforts on choosing and becoming a “good dive buddy”.

The Traits of a Good Dive Buddy

By agreeing to be a buddy, you take on a moral (and sometimes legal) obligations; to stay together, to help each other, to provide asistance in an emergency and to follow generally accepted safe diving practices to the best of your ability.  Following are a number of traits and practices used by “good dive buddies”:

Keep physically fit and well practiced:
If you are not “fit to dive” and you do not spend time honing your dive skills and staying practiced, you won’t be able to call on your training to assist you or your buddy in a dive emergency.  In fact, your lack of practice and staying in shape may cause a dive emergency.  A good dive buddy is keeping fit to dive and “blowing bubbles” on a regular basis. As I tell my students, skills rust when they don’t get wet.

Define your comfort zone and training limits:
When selecting a dive buddy, it is important to communicate your level of ‘current’ experience, your level of ‘current’ training, and what your comfort level in the water is specific to the upcoming dives. A dive buddy is honest with himself and his buddy and voices that honesty.  Equally as important, with surface communication, is coming up with an underwater sign to communicate discomfort when reaching a comfort-zone limit.  This sign would be an argument free pass to abort the dive or mission. As I tell my students, you should feel no intimidation when telling your dive buddy you are not comfortable.

Select compatible activities: Good dive buddies agree on their underwater activity or as I like to call it mission.  It makes no sense to team up an open water diver, with a maximum training limit of 60 feet with a deep diver who’s plan may bring him significantly deeper than that.   Outside of training compatability, teaming up two people with different objectives like photography and underwater hunting, might make for a bad marriage.  Compatability also applies to diving skills.  It’s not a bad idea to buddy up with someone who complements not only your strengths, but also your weaknesses.  If one of your strengths is Marine Life identification, but you have poor navigation skills.  You can certainly add a lot of value to the underwater compass whiz who is still learning the difference between a coral and a sponge. As I tell my students, a good dive buddy knows his strengths and weaknesses.

Pre dive checks: During your first Scuba class, you were taught pre dive planning.  It bugs me to see most divers forget this very important skill.  Good dive buddies familiarize themselves with each other’s equipment, air supply and configuration prior to EVERY dive.  Checking (and double checking) is the only effective way to learn about each other’s equipment.  As I tell my students, figuring out gear configuration during a dive emergency is not the time or place to start learning about your buddy.  

Pre dive planning: Every dive should have a plan.  A plan should be clear, concise and agreed upon by both buddies.  Pre dive planning includes the purpose of the dive, the general direction, cut-off points for depth, time, and air, emergency procedures, buddy separation rules, equipment failure and contingencies. As I tell my students, Plan every dive and dive your plan.  A great dive is a product of a great plan!

Keep Together: Probably the most important trait a good dive buddy can have is the ability to stay together and stay (appropriately) close.  Divers joke about “same ocean buddies”, but this practice is an accident waiting to happen is tantamount to a roll at the craps table. This trait is most often abused on ascents and descents.  It’s during these times that good dive buddies take extra diligence to stay together.  As I tell my students, during ascents and descents your should be able to see the eyes of your dive buddy. If you can’t then you are too far away.

Communication and Cooperation: Buddy diving is a team event, not a you lead and I will follow activity.  Communication is important above and below the water.  Working together cooperatively and actively communicating ensures that both buddies will be on the same page at all times.   It is a great idea that you and your buddy develop an extensive underwater vocabulary to ensure precise communication.  As I tell my students, the best way to grow your underwater vocabulary is to take a course like SeaSigns and review the signs with your buddy often.

Air Consumption: Dive buddies should monitor each other’s air consumption.  As a part of the dive plan, noted above, it should be agreed upon at which point you should turn, be back at the ascent line and back on the boat.  Part of your air consumption plan should be planning your dive to allow for enough of a reserve for you and your dive buddy to get back to the surface, safely.  As I tell my students, that is my spare air you are carrying on your back.

Diving with a buddy should reduce stress and increase safety.  Diving with a known and trusted buddy reduces stress and increases comfort.  If you have a buddy who makes you feel uncomfortable or anxious, get another one.  Ideally buddy teams should know each other well, know each other’s limits and comfort level, likes and dislikes and can be trusted enough to take care of each other.  

Dive Safe – Be a good dive buddy!

John Flanders. Instructor Trainer/Master Instructror
Academy of Scuba –
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