Dive planning just isn’t what it used to be in many places… including my home here in Puerto Galera, Philippines. In fact, I walked into a dive center that I used to work for a few weeks back and saw a Divemaster being ridiculed by his colleagues for using a wheel to plan dives.
Using a computer to “plan” dives is one of many aspects of diving that have changed over the last five years. While simple and convenient, it has led many guides and divers to abandon important dive planning considerations. Let’s address a few important issues of dive planning:
Plan your dive and dive your plan
Most have heard this at one time or another, and in my opinion, the plan should start with the group of divers. Assessing what everyone is comfortable with and capable of often gets lost as people seek out the adventure of diving. Issues such as scuba tune-ups after periods of inactivity or diving with someone of lesser experience/ability come to mind. During a busy weekend at my resort it can be difficult to accommodate groups of divers with varying ability/experience levels while keeping everyone happy. But if you don’t dive to the least experienced diver’s level you risk abandoning probably the most important consideration in dive planning… safety. There are, of course, many aspects of dive planning that reflect safety issues. In fact, probably most do, but making sure everyone is comfortable with the location, depth and type of dive is key. It’s not just important to do it, it’s important to talk about it. It’s very often the unspoken issues that lead to problems. So start your dive plan by asking what everyone wants to do.
Find out also what everyone wants from the dive. The desires of an experienced photographer are very different to those of someone on one of their first fun dives. Again, talk through the issues so you know what everyone has in mind.
Further, if you don’t know the divers you are about to dive with… check them out first. Most people are used to checkout dives at a new location. It doesn’t mean having to have a sub-standard dive, but keeping to a reasonable depth (such as 18m/60ft) and to a straightforward dive gives everyone the chance to get to know each other. Check yourself out for the dive too – are you well rested, when was the last time you went diving, do you feel good about the dive?
To guide or not to guide?
Before we go too far, we should also address the question: Who plans or leads the dive? Do you dive with a DM/Instructor (paid guide) or with a friend/group of people? What are the advantages to shore/boat briefings and being left to dive yourself versus actual in-water guiding?
Personally, I’m a fan of paid guides taking small groups from start to finish (i.e. the Divemaster briefs/plans the dive, leads you in the water and debriefs/helps to fill in log books and so forth after the dive). Why? Safety. While far from flawless and, of course, dependent on a capable guide, it does tend to be safe. When a professional does the planning and when the dive is lead in an appropriate manner, you tend to get the most out of the dive including seeing marine life and places you might have otherwise missed. That doesn’t mean I consider diving with friends or having a boat briefing and conducting your own dive to be unsafe or unenjoyable. These, too, can work well when planned and conducted correctly. However, a critical aspect of good dive planning, whether there are two of you or ten, is for someone to assume the lead. Even experienced divers can run into problems if someone is not in control. If the dive is being briefed for you, make sure all your questions are answered.
Choosing a dive site
There are many aspects to consider when choosing the site itself, and most training manuals do a good job of addressing them. But if you’ve considered the things we’ve spoken about already, you should come up with a site that meets everyone’s needs while not exceeding ability/experience levels. Consider factors such as time of day (you may not want to do a strong drift dive at dusk), weather (and how it may change while you are out and how it affects your entry and exit), current (how the boat will find you or you find it), things to see, potential hazards (such as drop-offs or areas of down currents), and even visibility. Of course, don’t forget to have a back-up site in mind if you are doing the planning yourself.
Dive briefings are an excellent opportunity to discuss most dive planning points. Also use them as an opportunity to get to know the people you are diving with a little better. Learn more about your dive buddies by asking casual questions, which helps in assessing comfort/stress levels. Knowing what dives they’ve done that day is also important in determining depth and time for the dive you are considering.
So, what should we include in our dive briefing? Without it becoming longer than the dive – the more the better. So much of dive planning is in talking about what’s going to happen.
- Make introductions – this as an opportunity to meet the people you with whom you are diving.
- Depth and time: Does everyone have a computer? The truth is that it is easy to say “we’ll ascend when the first person has two minutes left to deco time” but does everyone have a computer and is there any sort of contingency? If you leave your dive planning entirely to computers, you are less likely to plan for low air situations. As an example, let’s take a less experienced diver doing a dive to 28m/93ft or so as a square profile. The RDP wheel allows 23minutes, although depending on exactly where you are in the water, a computer may allow you 25+ minutes. However, if you are at 28m/93ft another major concern with a less experienced diver would be air consumption. Unless you are planning technical dives (a whole new ball game) then stay within no decompression limits, dive to the same depth or shallower than previous dives, and consider how many dives you have done that day.
- Naturally, talking about air consumption should probably come next. How deep will you be and what is a sensible pressure at which to begin your ascent? A heavy air user at 28m/93ft should probably leave the bottom with at least 70 bar/1000psi (or maybe not be there in the first place?!) and even a “normal” air user will probably want more than 50bar/750psi. At the same time, if you plan to finish in shallow water somewhere around 50 bar/750psi or even slightly less may be appropriate. Of course, these are my personal rules of thumb – make your own decisions on what is comfortable and safe for you and your group. Make sure you know whom to turn to in an emergency and what type of equipment they have for handling out-of-air emergencies. Never plan a dive purely on air consumption. This is also a good time to review the pre-dive safety check and the concept of knowing your buddy’s equipment configuration before you’re in the water.
- Discuss how and where to make a safety stop.
- What to do if separated. The general rule is usually search for one minute and then surface, but this may change depending on your depth, experience level, and plan. For example, I usually brief a dive that if someone cannot see me, they are “lost”. However, there is nothing wrong with just maintaining buddy contact if that’s what you’ve agreed before. Again, the key thing is talking about it ahead of time.
- Assign buddy teams when you are planning your dive. Manuals and even Divemaster training often direct experienced divers to dive with inexperienced divers. This would be appropriate in many situations. Diving with a guide and/or being with a friend/partner may make the dive more enjoyable.
- You’ll want to discuss and plan how you are going to enter the water and what depth you’ll be in when you do. Does your plan call for a negative entry and for divers to meet on the bottom or is there time to relax and get comfortable?
- Talk about the dive itself from start to finish. Include temperature, visibility and aquatic life, as well as topography and whether or not you expect there to be any current.
- Finish by adding how you are going to ascend (up a reef, a line or in blue water) and how to properly deal with each.
Depending on where you are, dive planning may involve quite a bit more including, getting to the site itself, or carrying spares or repair kits. Even planning an overnight or multi-day trip may be part of the plan. Learning to consult tide tables and assessing conditions are also important.
The bottom line remains the more you understand before you enter the water and the more aspects of the dive that have been thoroughly discussed, the less problems you are likely to have during the dive.
Lastly in dive planning, brief the boatmen or boat/shore staff as to what you are doing… and then dive your plan!
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the individual author and are not necessarily the views, beliefs, or opinions of DeeperBlue.net or its staff. Scuba diving, freediving, and technical diving are inherently risky activities and should not be attempted without thorough professional training with an established and recognized training authority. DeeperBlue.net recommends that each diver take personal responsibility for his/her own safety and minimize risk through education, experience, and training.