Our Open Water diver training gave us a good starting point for our scuba diving adventures. One adventure that training does not frequently address is surfacing without your dive boat near by. It is not an adventure we would like but sadly it does happen and more frequently then you might imagine. Surface safety needs to be a part of your planning.
In recent years, divers have gone missing for many reasons. Some are left behind by dive boats, others are in currents taking them away from the boat or shore dive exit point and in some cases, the boat itself has drifted away. However, it does not automatically mean you will suffer the same fate as Thomas and Eileen Lonergan the two divers lost in 1998 on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia and the focus of the movie “Open Seas”. They were never found.
I can give two personal examples from my own experiences. The first involved a drift dive with a boat crew who seem to not have a clue on what was going on. Myself and my dive buddy were invited to join a weekend getaway with some other divers. While he was not in charge of the group, going with us was the dive instructor who had trained me. The dive leader hired the boat to take us out. The dive plan was to do a negative buoyancy entry to a reef below at 5 meters. We were to work our way against the current about 10 meters to the drop off of the reef. When we were all there we were to drift along the wall. There were two divers with diver down floats and each team had an SMB. The current was stronger than what was expected and the divers were spread out further than expected. Getting to the starting point used a good deal of air. My dive buddy and I were among the last to descend and were further from the wall than most. About half of our allowable air was used getting to the start point on the wall.
The plan was for each dive team to surface when they reached 500 psi. We were the second team to head for the surface. When we reached the surface, the first team was just visible. They were closer to the dive boat then we were, but the boat was not moving towards them. I used my air horn and after a few minutes, the dive boat headed towards us, picking up the first team en-route. After they pick up me and my dive buddy up, they turned around and went back to where they were. Needless to say, we were upset but they did not care. About 20 minutes later another boat passed by and yelled over that our divers were on the surface. It took about 15 minutes before they were on board. They stated they had been on the surface about 30 minutes when the divers were finally aboard.
My second experience was more serious as it involved a group of divers missing in high seas and winds along the Great Barrier Reef. Luckily, I was not one of those in the water. The short version of the story is that the liveaboard braved high winds and seas to get out to one of the barrier reefs. The dive conditions on the reef itself were calm, a stark contrast to the conditions as close as 50 meters away. A group of seven divers: one instructor, one dive master and five open water students, went diving in calm waters on the reef. However, they surfaced unseen behind the liveaboard in high seas and strong currents. When they were past due, the captain took a small boat and look around the reef. Unable to locate them, he assumed they surface behind the boat and was in the currents. We went looking. It took about 2 hours before we sighted their SMBs and another 2 hours to catch up with them. They had latched themselves together so that they did not separate and had dropped their weights to give themselves a higher profile.
While the divers in the barrier reef incident may have been partially at fault for getting into the current, in both examples the crew should have been looking for them. When we dive from a boat, we have to put a certain amount of trust in the surface crew. Sometimes that trust is not warranted. Seven divers went missing off Bali two years ago. Five were able to stay together and found their way to a coral reef that they were able to secure themselves too. They were rescued three days later. The other two were found on a coral outcrop the next day, however, one died before rescuers could reach them. Reports of the incident state that the boat captain left the area to get more fuel and the divers were on the surface at least an hour before he reported them missing.
A few months ago a diver was rescued after 17 hours in the water in Australia. Diving alone from his boat, he surfaced next to his boat but the current carried him away from the boat. Also last summer a diver in Florida surfaced to find his boat gone. His two teen-age daughters had fallen asleep on board and were not aware that the anchor was not holding them in place.
Tools To Help Keep You Safe
The BSAC annual incident report tells of hundreds of cases were help had to be called in to help find divers in the water. Some of these are caused by problems with the boat itself not being able to stay on station. Others are caused when the boat crew loses sight of divers while recovering other divers. And of course, some are because the divers did not return to the boat. If you are the one in the water, The only tools that will help the dive boat or rescuers find you are the ones that you have with you. Having the appropriate tool can help keep a slight inconvenience from becoming a life threatening situation.
In order for the boat crew to see you, they must be looking at you. An audible device can get the crews attention and start them looking for you. The cheapest and still very effective tool you can use is a good quality whistle. If you think about a sporting event such as a football game, the referees use a whistle to stop the play. It can be heard over a good distance. While at a game, you will often hear “jokers” in the crowd with portable air horns. These devices can be heard everywhere in the stadium as the sound really travels. There are diving versions of air horns that attach to your low-pressure hose and can create a sound that can be heard for a mile. To create a sound that loud the diver only needs to push a button and have 140 psi left in their tank. The market leader is Dive Alert which now also has the Dive Alert Plus V2 which operates both above and below the surface.
A diver on the surface shows very little of their body. Most divers will float with just their heads and a small portion of their shoulders out of the water. A bit difficult to see from a distance. Now consider that not everyone dives in conditions where the water is perfectly smooth. A modest one-foot wave could easily block the view of the diver from the boat and the other way around as well. IF a current is moving you away from the boat, every minute makes you harder to see. The most common device to help be seen while on the surface is a Surface Maker Buoy (SMB) or the Delayed Surface Marker Buoy (DSMB). These devices are long tubes that can be inflated so that they stand above the waves. They are made in highly visible colors such as orange. A DSMB differs from the SMB primarily in that it has a line and reel attached so that it can be inflated while at the safety stop giving additional time for the surface support to spot you. The use of these devices are now being included in most open water courses. Many locations now require one of these as mandatory equipment. A surface float with a diver down flag is often used on drift dives.
A reflecting device is also a frequently recommend item. A small mirror or an old CD can be carried to create a reflection of light to increase your visibility. These may have limited use getting the attention of a nearby boat but would be effective to signal aircraft.
The improvement in electronic has also made it way felt in the surface safety arena. An adaptation of man overboard devices now makes it practical for left or lost divers to notify nearby boats to their situation. The Nautilus Marine Radio by Nautiluslifeline allowed divers to contact their dive boat or other boats within 6 miles by voice. It could also send a Digital selective calling (DSC) message on an emergency frequency alerting ships within 34 miles. The company has phased out the original device and now has the Nautilus Marine Rescue GPS. This device is smaller than the original and uses a different set of frequencies. The Rescue GPS can be programmed with the dive boats information so that a DSC can be sent directly to the boat. The Rescue GPS is also an automatic identification system (AIS) device. AIS is a system of traffic control and identification used by commercial shipping and most private yachts. When activated the device will send out a man overboard distress call and the GPS location accurate to 1.5 meters. This signal has a range of 34 miles. Any vessel within range will receive an emergency alarm that will continue until acted on. By international law, any vessel receiving an alarm must log it, relay the message to search and rescue authorities and proceed to the coordinates given until released by proper authorities. You will seldom find a dive boat operating in an area that is not within 34 miles of other vessels or shore based marine facilities. Many liveaboards provide divers with these types of devices.
As divers, we are trained to manage the risk we will encounter underwater. However, many times we forget about the dangers getting back on board a dive boat or making it back to shore for a shore dive. Consider your choices and remember, it is only the devices that are with you that will help you.