Solo Diving Certification, Is it in Your Future?

Just You and Nature photograph by Andrew Skudder

If you listen to the major training agencies, solo diving is pure evil and just a step away from suicide. Well, that might not be exactly what they say but they are strongly against it. We are drilled in our Open Water Diver training as well as Advanced Open Water Diver and most specialty courses that the buddy system is the key to a safe dive. Dive instructors make sure we are paired up with a buddy for our “own safety”, but are they practicing what they preach? There are areas of the word that prohibit solo diving, and many dive operators will flat out refuse to even consider letting someone solo dive. However, are they right?

Mike Ball actually pioneered the practice in 1997 with his safe solo program. If you do not recognize the name, lets me just mention that Mike Ball is considered by many as being the father of the modern scuba diving liveaboards. He made many innovations that are now standard in the dive industry. In 2004, he was inducted into the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. His program at the time allowed experienced divers with appropriate equipment to become recognized as solo divers on his liveaboard fleet.

In 1998, SDI took up the challenge and threw down the gauntlet to those saying solo diving was unsafe, by creating a solo diver certification program. Today the program is still active and open to those that meet the pre-course requirements. Pre-course dive requirements include being an advanced diver, having at least 100 logged dives and being 21 years old (or 18 and a certified dive professional).

PADI at a later date replied with their Self-Reliant Diver course. This is what they say about the program:

“Although most scuba dives are made with a buddy, an experienced diver may want or need to make dives without a partner. During the Self-Reliant Diver course, you learn about potential risks of diving alone and the value of equipment redundancy and necessary back-up gear. During three scuba dives, you develop skills for self-reliance and independence, while becoming a stronger partner in a dive pair or team.”

So PADI sounds like a politician, They offer a “solo” dive certification but say it “true” purpose is to become a better dive buddy.

The British Sub-Aqua Club has often been quoted as defining solo diving as the “Plan to conduct all or part of a dive without a buddy”. This implies that BSAC supports Solo Diving, which they do not. That quote comes from a report that studied solo diving and the summary was that it was too dangerous.

In BSAC current safe diving practices guide, they have this to say about Solo diving.

“There are occasions, e.g. in nil visibility or when working underwater, when the ‘buddy’ system is ineffective. On these occasions a solo dive may be required, with the diver being securely roped and in constant rope communication with a surface ‘tender’, who should be a diver themselves. The rope must be securely fastened to a suitable object on the surface. Communicating signals must be fully understood and a fully kitted, roped, ‘stand-by’ diver must be immediately available to dive in the event of an emergency.”

That does not sound too supportive.

Your Dive Instructor – Do As I say Not As I do

Back in your Open Water Diver training your dive instructor preached to you, Always dive with a dive buddy. The purpose of a dive buddy team is so that one diver can help the other. Can you honestly say that on your first even second open water dive, you would have been able to assist your instructor if something went wrong? No? Then in reality your instructor was diving without a buddy. If that instructor take a vacation and goes diving elsewhere, he will be expected to dive with a buddy. If he did not bring one, then the dive leader will appoint one, and often once they know he is an instructor they will be teamed with a novice. Not a great vacation for the instructor.

Lets look at this just with an experienced diver not an instructor. A dive buddy system means you will rely on your buddy as you dive, it also means you are responsible to a degree for the safety of your buddy. There have been many court cases where a civil suit has been brought against a dive buddy by the estate of a deceased diver. You came to dive, not risk your life or become liable for someone else.

Photographers often like to dive alone- this is a US Navy diver

Also the buddy system requires you do the same thing. If you are a macro photographer and your dive buddy wants to see as much as they can, one of you will be disappointed.

Why you should be a Solo/ Self-Reliant Diver

Generally I believe in the buddy system, and at my home dive center I will often buddy with a novice diver. While I do not do it often, there are times when I will dive solo, or have a same day-same ocean dive buddy. I have had my share of bad dive buddies when I travel. One trip I became certified as a boat diver and a drift diver solely to avoid becoming a dive buddy with any of the other divers on the boat.

One story I often tell deals with dive buddies. On that trip, my assigned dive buddy was newly certified diver. The dive boat out of the Florida Keys had both snorkelers and divers. About 4 minutes into the first dive, my buddy returns to the surface. Being a good buddy, I surfaced also to find out what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, his new wife and his sister were snorkeling and he wanted to point out some thing to them. I explained he should not do that. Four additional times he surfaced and I waited on the bottom. During the surface interval I told him and the dive master if he did that again I would not wait. On the second dive, he did it again and I was doing a solo dive. The great part of the story is that a few minutes later, I got a new dive “buddy”. A black tip reef shark started swimming next to me for the next ten to fifteen minutes. The thing for me was if I had followed the rules, I would have had a wasted dive.

Leaving the buddy system bashing behind for a while, lets look at some other benefits of becoming a Solo/ Self-Reliant Diver. The solo diver has additional equipment to act as a back up. An independent air supply is the primary difference. The course also reinforces the need for proper dive and emergency planning. It introduces the concept of measuring your air consumption rate and incorporating that into your dive plans. This additional equipment and skills are design so that you rely on just yourself. This will help make you a better diver, with or without a dive buddy.

Even if you do not plan on diving alone, it might happen and even if it does not, you will be a better diver.

View Comments

  • Great article Charles. Good to hear someone making the case. I like to dive solo , when it comes to buddies i often think it safer for the novice and more dangerous for the experienced div3rs. not being a risk factor to a more experienced diver or having someone's life in my hands is a big positive.