Whether you remember all the details of your first open-water class, you undoubtedly remember being told the importance of the dive-buddy system from the get go. Since this is ingrained in us from the very beginning, it’s logical to think that always diving with buddy is better, and therefore safer. However, the dive-buddy system as an absolute rule is a flawed logic.
To start — why two divers? The dive-buddy system started in the early days of diving when equipment was unreliable. It was not uncommon for equipment to fail, and to need a backup regulator or your buddy’s. As equipment has become more sophisticated, buddy rescues due to equipment failures have gradually decreased. Of course this is a positive, but the end result seems to be complacency. After all, when did you last rescue your buddy due to an equipment failure? Because this rarely happens, dive buddies seldom achieve true preparedness for an emergency underwater.
Another obvious dilemma: what if your go-to dive buddy is unavailable? Does this mean you can’t dive? Are you willing to pair up with someone you just met on the dock? Are you really prepared to potentially put your life in this person’s hands? You have no idea how much training they have, or if they have the same commitment to safety as you do. Will they really be able to assist you in an emergency situation? Wouldn’t you prefer to have a dive buddy who has a higher level of training? Of course you would, but the question is: would they want to dive with you?
Another inherent flaw in the buddy system is the experience (or inexperience) mismatch; there will always be divers who have more or less experience and training than you do. This is inevitable, but it is usually to the benefit of the less-experienced diver rather than the other way around. The more-experienced diver often ends up being a dive guide for the day, and does not get to truly enjoy their dive because they’re making sure you don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk. Even worse in these scenarios, the less-experienced diver expects to be supervised and instructed by the superior diver. These roles are typically revealed in the dive pairing and planning stages.
The buddy system does not necessarily encourage these dominant or passive roles, but they’re hard to prevent in some situations. Studies show passive/inexperienced divers do not provide adequate support or assistance in a real emergency, which is a product of dependency. An improperly executed buddy system can stifle a diver’s skill development and journey to becoming a self-sufficient diver, and divers who are truly self-sufficient are actually the best dive buddies. A true sign that one party in a buddy team is dependent happens when one diver always performs the more difficult tasks, such as the pre-dive check call out or deploying a surface marker buoy. The buddy system then becomes a crutch for the less-experienced diver.
What if the two divers are equally trained, and self-sufficient? Is the buddy system then perfect? Two is thought to be the optimal team number in sport-diving activities but in reality, three-person teams are much more efficient. In a three-person team, there are more people watching out for you; there is a voting platform for decision-making, and there’s more gas in an emergency. The concept of a three-person team is the preferred standard in technical diving as well.
I would argue the solution to these buddy problems is neither solo diving nor the almighty team of three — it’s actually a combination of both. The ultimate dive-team would be a small group of divers who have successfully completed the Solo Diver course. The SDI Solo diver program prepares you to be self-sufficient and ready to handle some of the major risks associated with diving: out-of-air situations, equipment failure, rapid ascent, staying within your NDL, what to do if you get lost, and diving within your ability limits. Divers with these skills who can effectively communicate with each other will truly be great dive buddies.