The PADI Open Water course provides us with the knowledge, skills and practical application to enjoy scuba diving safely. It also teaches us about the potential for different types of diving accidents and how to deal with them, but more importantly teaches us how to avoid them in the first place.
A good dive briefing should include information about how to avoid dangerous and risky situations, and emergency procedures for coping with them should they arise. With sufficient training and preparation, we can easily avoid most diving accidents.
Nonetheless, every diver should have at least a basic understanding of what to do if things go wrong.
Although the potential for incidents and accidents may seem high, scuba diving is actually a safe sport when conducted properly. As you progress through PADI Diver training, you learn how to become both self-sufficient AND how to be a great dive buddy.
The following list offers basic rules to minimise the likelihood of a dive accident.
The Most Important Rule of Scuba Diving
Holding your breath underwater can result in serious injury and even death. But, by following the correct diving procedures it is super easy to avoid. Injury to the lungs due to over-pressurization is known as lung over-expansion injury or more scientifically – pulmonary barotrauma.
In the most extreme cases, it can cause air bubbles to escape into the chest cavity and bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, these air bubbles can lead to an arterial gas embolism, which is often fatal.
Depth changes of just a few feet are enough to cause lung over-expansion injuries. This makes holding one’s breath dangerous at all times while diving, not only when ascending. Avoiding pulmonary barotrauma is easy; simply continue to breathe at all times. It’s one of the very first things you learn in diver training, and for good reason.
As every good scuba diver knows, the most important rule of scuba diving is never never hold your breath underwater and always breathe as normal. It really is as simple as it sounds.
Control Your Rate of Ascent – Come Up Slowly
Just as important as breathing continuously is making sure to ascend slowly and safely at all times. If divers exceed a safe ascent rate, the nitrogen absorbed into the bloodstream at depth does not have enough time to dissolve back into solution as the pressure decreases on the way back up to the surface.
Bubbles can form in the bloodstream that could lead to decompression sickness. To avoid this, simply maintain a rate of ascent no faster than 18 meters (30 Feet) per minute.
Those diving with a computer will often ascend even slower than this and will be warned if they are ascending too fast. Always remember to fully deflate your BCD before starting your ascent and never, ever use your inflator button to get to the surface.
Always Check Your Equipment
It’s very important to maintain your equipment and keep it in good working order. Servicing your gear yearly or around every 100 dives is a general rule. Don’t be lazy when it comes to checking your equipment before a dive.
Conduct your buddy-check thoroughly – if you or your buddies equipment malfunctions it can cause problems for both of you. Make sure that you are familiar with your scuba gear and know how to use it.
Equipment can vary slightly in different countries and dive centers, so if you are unsure about something – Always Ask! The majority of equipment-related accidents occur not because the equipment breaks but because of diver uncertainty as to how it works. For example if you are familiar with using a weight belt, integrated weights can take some getting used to and they are released in a different way.
Making sure you have the right specialised equipment for a dive is also important. For instance, when getting ready for a night dive you should have a primary torch and a backup; are they both fully charged? If preparing for a nitrox enriched air dive, have you made sure to calibrate your computer to your new air mix?
Being sufficiently prepared is the key to safe diving.
Ensure You Dive Within Your Limits
Above all, remember that diving should be fun. Never put yourself in a situation that you are uncomfortable with. If you aren’t physically or mentally capable of a dive, say so. It’s easy to succumb to peer pressure, but only you can make the decision to dive.
Don’t be afraid to cancel a dive or change a location if you feel that the conditions are unsafe that day. The same dive site may be within your capabilities one day and not the next, depending on fluctuations in surface conditions, temperature and current.
Never attempt a dive that is beyond your current level of training or certification level – wreck penetrations, deep dives, diving in overhead environments and diving with enriched air all require specific skill-sets and training.
Stay Healthy and Physically Fit
Diving is deceptively physically demanding; although most of our time underwater is relaxing, long surface swims, diving in a strong current, carrying scuba gear and exposure to extreme weather all combine to make diving a strenuous activity.
Maintaining an acceptable level of personal fitness is key to diving safely. Lack of fitness leads to overexertion, which can in turn lead to faster air consumption, panic and any number of resulting accidents.
Obesity, alcohol, tobacco use and tiredness all increase an individual’s susceptibility to decompression sickness, while 25 percent of diver deaths are caused by pre-existing diseases that should have excluded the person from diving in the first place.
Always be honest on medical questionnaires and seek the advice of a qualified diving medical practitioner as to whether or not you can dive. Be mindful of temporary ailments to physical fitness – while a cold may not be dangerous on land, it can cause problems when underwater. Recover fully from any illness or surgery before getting back in the water.
Plan Your Dive and Use the Buddy System
Taking the time to properly plan your dive is an important part of ensuring your safety underwater. It does not matter who your diving buddies are, make sure that you have agreed on a maximum time and depth before submerging.
Be aware of emergency and lost-diver procedures. These may differ slightly from location to location and depend upon the specifics of the dive. If you are diving without a guide, make sure you know how you navigate the site beforehand. Make sure you are equipped to find your way back to your exit point.
Staying with, and communicating with your buddy frequently makes diving practical, safe and of course fun! Be sure to run through and agree on signals that you will use underwater as these can differ depending on where a diver has done their training. Check everyone is OK and ask for air and No Decompression limitsfrequently, and this will help prevent getting caught short later in the dive.
Although several training organisations now offer solo diving certifications, diving alone remains an absolute no-no unless you are properly trained with the procedures on how to do so.
Practice Your Diving Skills Regularly
Over time, divers can allow their basic skills learnt in their PADI Open Water course to lapse. It is important to keep your skills, especially those used in emergency situations, fresh. Knowing what to do if your buddy runs out of air, or, what to do if there is an equipment malfunction can mean the difference between a dive ending safely or dangerously.
Other skills are important in a preventative rather than a reactionary sense. Good buoyancy control is key to avoiding dangerous uncontrolled ascents or aquatic life injuries. Mastering mask clearing could one day be the difference between calmly addressing a problem and succumbing to panic.
Rescue-certified or equivalent divers are in a position of responsibility. At any moment, they may need to perform CPR, remove a diver from the water, or give emergency oxygen. Practice and refresh your skill-set frequently. Make sure that you are confident you know how to act if something goes wrong.
Establish Positive Buoyancy at the Surface
We usually think of dangerous diving situations occurring underwater. But in reality, 25 percent of diver fatalities stem from problems that arise on the surface. Fatigue is a factor in 28 percent of diver deaths.
This is most commonly due to a diver attempting to remain on the surface while over-weighted. Establishing positive buoyancy at the surface conserves energy, preventing exhaustion and drowning. You should establish positive buoyancy at the end of every dive. Doing so is the first step in providing assistance to a tired, panicked or unconscious diver at the surface. Inflate your BCD fully, and if necessary, drop your weights.
Stay Safe and Have Lots of Fun!
Staying safe while diving is simple. With careful preparation, common sense and skill confidence, the potential risks are effectively minimised. Following these rules and the other guidelines of your training not only keeps you safe, but also allows you to relax and have fun. And that, after all, is why you go diving in the first place.
Author: Neil Davidson (PADI MSDT #294100)