The diver down flag plays a very important role in diver safety, helping to protect us from the most dangerous creature on or under the water – Man. Unless we are surfacing on the boat anchor line, a diver has the risk of surfacing in front of a moving vessel. That vessel operator may not be able to see you and even if they can be moving too fast or are too close to avoid you. A quick search of the news will often reveal another case where a diver was seriously injured or even killed being hit by a boat or jet ski. To help lower our risk we use dive flags both on boats and floats as well as SMB/DSMB. There are two flags associated with scuba diving, the international “A” flag and the red and white “Divers” flag. No flames please, however, scuba diving is American centric. As such the red flag with the white stripe that American based accreditation agencies favor is widely used. For clarity, we will call it the American diver down flag. How these items are used is not always clear.

Alpha (Alfa) Flag

The International Code of Signals is an agreement under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and currently maintained by the International Maritime Organization. Its use is mandated by any ship that is flagged under any country that is a signatory of the SOLAS agreement. Under the agreement, each flag has a meaning for its use alone or when used with others. Each country produces a guide to the meaning of each flag in their own language. When we talk about a diver down flag, the international “A” signaling flag is the one with the most legal force for its use. While not as well known in many locations, the “A” flag means “I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed”. In the United States where the American dive flag is most widely used, the alpha flag is the required flag in Federally controlled waters, those being beyond two miles from shore and certain waterways under control of the US Army Corp of Engineers.

The Alpha flag is also the required flag in other countries, for example, the UK requires that this flag is used. Still, in many places, boat operators who are not international merchant ships do not understand the use of the flag. The BSAC website tells of a case where three dive clubs were diving together and a large yacht pass right through the group. The yacht almost struck two divers who were surfacing and did hit their DSMB.

Another area for confusion is diver floats. The Alpha flag is to be flown by vessels, a diver float can hardly be considered a vessel.

Scuba diver down flag
Scuba diver down flag

The American Diver Down Flag

The red with a white stripe American diver down flag is almost synonymous with scuba diving. I would wager that each diver knows what it is. The design is found on all manner of items dive related items. My first log book had a cover with the dive flag design, as did my first log book with removable pages. Bumper stickers, t-shirts, patches, key chains and a host of other items to show our commitment to diving. Some locations around the world have passed laws requiring its use. Some of these locations require the use of floats with flags.

The American Diver Down flag is used in the same manner as an Alpha Flag on a boat. It should be shown at the boats highest point and so that it can be seen from all directions. The flag must be stiff so that it is always visible and at least 24 inches by 20 inches in size. When used on a float the size must be at least 12 inches by 12 inches.

While I am for using a diver down flag, sometimes a float might not be necessary. I remember a dive off from Fort Lauderdale. Each dive team is required to have their own float. We were going to dive a shipwreck. As we approached the dive site and the other boat ties up there, I could see seven diver floats mostly grouped together. We entered the water, moved to the down line and descended playing out our line to the float as we went. When we reached the wreck, we moved towards the entry point we were going to use and tied off our float so that we could enter the wreck. In a situation like this, the value of a float is questionable. Having a DSMB should provide the protection you would need in a situation like this.

It Marks a Race Course

I have heard many diver states that they feel a diver down flag on a float is a greater danger to them compared to using a DSMB when they are nearing the surface.

I remember the first dive I did where we pulled a diver down float. My dive buddy and I were taking our Nitrox course. The first dive was off the boat and we used the anchor line. The second dive was a drift dive. The dive plan was to go out on the boat about 150 meters, enter the water and after we submerged the boat would move away. We would drop to the reef 5 meters below, swim away from shore a short distance and out over a wall. We would drop to 20 meters and drift along the wall. The instructor would be leading and pull a float with a diver down flag. When we hit 75 bar, we would go back up the wall and back on the reef at about 5 meters depth. We would continue our dive at that depth. The instructor gave very clear and detailed instructions on how we would surface. He said he would use a weight on the line for the float and he would surface first. The next diver would wait until he signaled before they surfaced. The ascent was to be slow, fingers in an “O” around the line without touching it, and always looking up and around. When the second diver was up, they were to inflate their SMB and move a few feet away. Then the third diver would follow the same procedures. We both thought he was taking it to an extreme until he pointed out a scar on his scalp which he said was getting hit by a jet ski. 14 stitches and two days in the hospital for treatment and observation. Our dive went great, however, while we were enjoying the top of the reef two jet skies raced by and used our float as a turning around point.

The dive operators in the area had been working with the jet ski rentals outlets to get them to have renters read a page that told them what the diver down flag was and that they needed to stay 100 meters away. The renters just glanced at it and signed not really paying attention.

If you look at diving news you will frequently hear of cases where a diver is seriously injured even killed being struck by a surface vessel.

diver down flag
Fly Both and Cover Your Bases photo by Eli Duke

Let’s do something

Using a diver down flag on a boat, a diver down flag on a float or an SMB/DSMB with diver down lettering helps to keep us safe in many different situations. However, all of these items are useless if the boat operators do not know what they mean. We can get involved by helping inform boat and personal watercraft operators what the flags and the SMB/DSMB mean. The BSAC has a set of flyers and posters that can be used to educate operators. The BSAC Alpha flag flyer is primarily about the alpha flag but does include a float with the American Diver Down flag and DSMB. The Dan Safe Boating brochure includes both flags and SMB. The brochure also gives guidance on how far away a boater should stay and how close to the marker the diver should stay.

Let’s reduce the number of mishaps.

2 COMMENTS

  1. What do people recommend for freedivers? Most of the time is spent at the surface and the visibility of the diver is better. I’ve dived with a marker bouy before, but not a flag.

  2. For the USA (and possibly neighbouring countries?) I would use the American red & white diver-down flag on my market buoy. But for all other countries, worldwide, (inc. UK, EU, Oz, NZ, ZA, etc.) I believe the blue and white Alpha flag is the appropriate one. The BSA (British Spearfishing Association) require competitors to fly the Alpha-flag from their float.

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