As a certified scuba diver (open water diver and above), we are qualified to plan and execute dive plans with our dive buddy within the scope of our training and skills. Most recreational diving agencies train to International Standards Organization standards (ISO 24801-2 – LEVEL 2 “AUTONOMOUS DIVER”) for full certifications. The ISO standard states that:

A scuba diver at level 2 “Autonomous Diver” shall be trained to have sufficient knowledge, skill, and experience to dive with other scuba divers of at least the same level in open water without the supervision of a scuba instructor.”

While we are able to plan our own dives, how many of us really do so? Many divers only have the opportunity to dive infrequently. When they do, it is often at a resort where everything is taken care of for them. They get to the dive boat, they rent some gear that is carried for them to the boat and assembled, they listen to a dive briefing that is often both a site brief and a dive plan, then head out to the dive site. where does the responsibility rest?

There are some dive destinations that local laws require you to dive with a dive guide. Often they are there to ensure that local historical or environmental preservation laws are followed. Other times the laws wrongly assume that there is a need to reduce risk. Often times situations like these lead to a dive plans that is not much more that follow me and stay in a straight line. Responsibility might be harder to maintain in such circumstances.

scuba dive leader responsibility
Do you always Play Follow the Leader? Photograph by Derek Keats

Do you over-rely on a dive guide?

I accept that many divers who are new to diving or who dive infrequently are more comfortable diving with a dive guide. The dive guide could be a dive master, instructor or other qualified dive leaders. However, we should work to the point that we can dive without a dive guide.

I recently read on a social media page a report from a rescue diver who assisted two divers who did not yet realize they were in trouble. All of the details are not important, however, these points are:

  • The dive site was a reef at 50 feet with a wall that dropped down to about 200 feet.
  • Visibility was excellent both horizontally and vertically.
  • No known current present at any depth
  • A site brief was given prior to the boat’s departure, giving general information about the site and hazards.
  • Divers were told to plan their dives within their certification, experience and skill levels.
  • The two divers that needed the assist were Open Water Divers with limited experience and no experience in excellent visibility.
  • There was an in-water divemaster, however, each set of dive buddies dived their own plan.

The account stated that the diver and his buddy were diving along the wall about 100 feet deep and were preparing to head back up to the reef. He noticed that there were two divers way below them and they seem to be going deeper. The diver motioned to his dive buddy to level out and went down after them. He reached them at 135 feet. It was clear they were not paying attention to their gauges, and they were getting low on air. The three diver returned to 100 feet where the other diver waited. He had a pony bottle which was given to the two divers low on air. They then went towards the surface, making a short stop along the way and then a longer stop at the 15-foot point. Luckily there was a hang-bar with a safety tank. All diver returned safely. The two assisted divers said they lost track of their depth. The great visibility was a factor and likely some nitrogen narcosis.

There were hundreds of comments to the story, some praising the actions of the rescue diver and some criticizing the inexperienced divers. What really surprised me was the hundreds that faulted the non-supervising divemaster and the dive operator/boat operator. That they were the ones to be blamed. One even stated that it is illegal for a dive master to leave the water until all the divers are back on board. This was in a scuba diving group, so I would assume that most of the individuals who commented were in fact divers. Many did even have the number of dives they made shown in their avatar. There were calls for government investigations into the dive master and dive operator. Others suggest contacting the training organizations and getting the professional licenses canceled. Of course, there were dozens of suggestions that the companies should be sued and forced out of business.

I did not want to get into a flaming war, so I kept my comments to myself. I do have certain expectations from a dive boat or a dive operator. One of those being a detailed site briefing which seems to have been done in this case. However, once I enter the water until I resurface I am responsible for myself no one else is. I will have a dive buddy for assistance if needed, but I need to rely on myself first.

As I read the comments about the dive operator being irresponsible, it seems to me that the people making the comments really believed that the dive leader should be controlling the dive. That he alone was responsible for the safety of the divers. I found that scary. It made me feel that all of these people were not able to act at the level of an Autonomous Diver. they would not take responsibility for the dive. Would any of them put me in a situation similar to what that rescue diver faced? How much risk would I take, to go after a diver that was going too deep?

responsibility for equipment
Who Sets Up Your Kit? photograph by Doun

Do you take responsibility for your own equipment?

I recently was in Guam. The dive industry there has two different focus. The majority of the tourist that visit there are from Asia, South Korean, Japanese and Chinese mostly. There are dive shops/ operators that deal solely with one of those nationalities. They offer mostly discover diving and Open Water Diver training. The other focus is on the local and semi-local divers. Guam is a US territory and is the home of two very large US military bases. About 30% of the island’s population is military or military families. Between the locals and the military that are there for a few years, the dive shops are very busy. Because of its isolation from other the United States and Europe, Guam does not get many tourists other than from Asia. So this segment is not really focused on tourist or the resort theme.

To book a dive at one of these dive operators, you simply go online to your favorite dive operator, look at the schedule showing which boat is planning on going were and you make your reservations.

When it is time to dive, you show up at the boat with all of your gear including tanks, weights and dive buddy. Before the boat departs you will have a safety briefing and a dive site briefing. You then plan your dive and when you arrive at the site, you dive your plan. Each diver is responsible for their own diving. The procedures and expectations are listed on the websites.

One of the dive operators that I was talking to mention that many of the visiting divers are uncomfortable with their boat procedures. They even showed me more than a dozen negative reviews. They all centered around the point that the diver had to do everything for themselves or that if they wanted a dive guide it was an extra cost. One of the reviews had me shaking my head, the diver said: “the boat crew was the laziest I every seen”. She went on to explain when they arrived they were given a number and told to take their gear to the same numbered station. She complained that no one helped them get their gear on board. She said there was a detail description of the dive site but no dive plan. Was only told that the maximum bottom time was 45 minutes. She finished the review by stating that she had “over 50 dives and this was the first time since training that I was forced to set up my own gear”.

Here was a diver that expected everything done for her and her dive buddy. My reaction to her comment about no dive plan was that it should be something the dive team does anyway even if there is a prearranged dive plan. I will admit that I do not always set up my gear between dives. If the boat crew is swapping out tanks after the dive that is fine. However, I always set up my gear before my first dive of the day, even when the boat crew insists that they can do it. But here is a diver that complained that she had to set up her own gear. How can you be responsible for your own safety if you can not be bothered to set up your own equipment?

Boat Crew Responsibility?

There have been a number of lawsuits in recent years that have focused on who did what wrong when a diver has problems or unfortunately dies. There have been a few high-profile cases recently. Is it reasonable to hold a dive instructor responsible for a diver he trained years before? Where do you draw the line between a diver’s responsibility and support crew’s responsibility? This is my view of what I expect the dive boat and crew is responsible for.

  • The dive boat is seaworthy and meets all safety requirements
  • The dive boat will have emergency oxygen and a full first aid kit on board.
  • The captain has the necessary skills and licenses to command the boat being used.
  • The boat will be operated safely, including weather related issues.
  • The boat will have a system to identify when all divers are back on board and when someone has not rejoined the boat.
  • A safety briefing for the boat
  • A member of the boat crew will be on surface watch anytime there are divers in the waters.
  • If a drift dive, the boat will follow the divers.
  • A member of the boat crew will assist the diver to enter the water and to assist in them returning to the boat.
  • The boat WILL be there when I return.
  • There is drinking water available.

Are you Responsible for yourself?

Completing your open water diver certification allows you to dive without professional supervision with a dive buddy. Is it a good idea to go off diving alone with your dive buddy if you are both recently certified? I would say no, there is still a learning curve and it is best to gain some experience before going off by yourself. However, relying on someone else to help you learn does not take the responsibility for your diving from you. You are still responsible for your own safe dive.

3 COMMENTS

  1. It’s inevitable that these occurances happen, and while there is a lot of responsibility that instructors, dive shops, dive boat operators, an dive destination neglect, the one thing they all have in common is the diver that wants the instant gratification of scuba diving without the hard work that it requires.

    The social media post you spoke of is one I use in my open water courses as a learning tool. That video leaves all my students slapping their forehead with unbelief. The part about the video that is incorrect though is, with proper training there are no dive limits. Limits are based on making wise choices. Wise choices come from the independent ability to know when 149 feet is not within your ability, so the dive isn’t done. It doesn’t matter if it’s 30ft or 300ft, planning is the key. If you tell yourself that open water certification is just the price you pay to go diving, then your ability will not be tempered with experience and training. Even open water divers have to be able to say to themselves, this 20ft dive is beyond my comfort zone, my training, and my experience therefore I am sitting out the dive.

    Divers at that level cannot plan adequately. That’s a big problem. So much so, I’ve seen most training doesnt even prepare them for a 60ft dive, typically within everyone’s limits after certification.

    In the end, common sense is a commodity often priced far below market value! If the new diver sees this and wants to make diving a life-long passion, don’t settle for training that was fun, settle for training that teaches you how to be a diver.

    If anyone wants to see the video, I can point them there if you’d like, Charles.

  2. Hello Carlos:
    Thank you for your comments. The social media post I saw did not have a link to the video. If you think that it adds to this article please post the URL. The editor would have to review it to insure it does not personally attack anyone.

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