Leaving your comfort zone when scuba diving can be a good thing if it leads to a larger skill set and higher competence levels. But how much stress is too much on a dive? Although you want to improve as a diver, you must recognize the limits of your comfort zone when scuba diving. Finding yourself overworked or overwhelmed in everyday life can lead to mistakes, but these are usually not life-and-death decisions. Underwater, though, mistakes can be unforgiving.
From time to time, divers must reassess and reevaluate our comfort levels, experience, and abilities for certain diving environments, sites and tasks. Here we’ll examine four common scenarios wherein a diver might compromise his comfort level and safety by taking on a situation without the right training and experience.
Diving deeper than your training or experience allows
Recreational Open Water divers may descend to 60 feet (18 m), and Advanced Open Water divers may descend to 130 feet (40 m). Divers with deep-specialty training may go to 130 feet (40 m). When newly certified divers advance beyond 60 feet, they risk suffering from gas narcosis. This can affect their decision-making skills and situational awareness. This is particularly true in environments that can increase susceptibility to narcosis, such as cold or low-visibility water.
When divers advance beyond 100 feet, no-decompression time falls significantly. The PADI recreational dive planner allows for a bottom time of 20 minutes at 100 feet or 10 minutes at 130 feet. Extra diligence and time awareness is more critical at these depths to stay within NDLs. At 130 feet, a diver will breathe through his air supply 2.5 times faster than they will at 30 feet (10 m), so it’s imperative to check air frequently and maintain a relaxed breathing rate.
Most resorts, guides and instructors are quite conscious of safety in popular scuba destinations, as tourism is an important part of the local economy. Ultimately, though, it is each diver’s own responsibility to know their depth/training limits and stay within them. If you’ve signed on for a dive that exceeds your training, sit it out or sign up instead for more advanced depth training.
Caves, caverns and wrecks present unique hazards to scuba divers. All dive-training agencies mandate special training to safely enter and exit these overhead environments. With no direct access to the surface, navigation becomes more complex, especially inside a wreck or cave with many passageways. There may only be one safe exit. Inside a cave or wreck can be other hazards as well, such as entrapment, falling debris, rapid loss of visibility due to a silt-out, and disorientation or vertigo. Cave/wreck/tec training teaches all divers that they can call a dive and abort at any time without question.
Recreational divers should adopt this tactic as well if they are uncomfortable with any type of dive. Local guides may sometimes take untrained divers into overhead environments such as caverns or wrecks, which can result in tragedy. There is nothing inside a cave or wreck worth dying for. If you are untrained, do not participate in these dives. Period.
With so much to see underwater, it’s no surprise many divers can’t wait to get their first underwater camera. With so many affordable underwater cameras, underwater photography is no longer exclusive to experienced divers and committed underwater photographers. Cameras are accessible to entry-level divers, who may still need to work on fundamental dive skills. Taking pictures underwater can also distract divers from checking in with their buddy, which can cause further complications. A new photographer might also neglect to check his air as often as he should. Distracted divers with minimal situational awareness may not realize they’re diving deeper than they should, or that currents have carried them away from the site or group.
In short, divers should not carry cameras or other unnecessary equipment until they’ve dialed in basic skills. Wait until you are comfortable with your buoyancy and trim, and have good air consumption and situational awareness. Don’t let taking photos underwater distract you from checking your air supply or with your buddy. It’s also smart for photographers to carry a pony bottle as a redundant air supply.
Diving in strong currents
Some of the world’s best dive spots are subject to strong currents. The Galapagos, Indonesia and Cozumel in Mexico are good examples. Currents are a challenge even for experienced divers. In these situations, it’s vitally important to dive with a reputable dive center and boat captain. Good operators and locally knowledgeable captains can read currents and know the local patterns. They will typically not drop you into a bad situation, but if a search response becomes necessary, the best topside professionals will be involved.
You must also have a level of comfort with currents in general. Most current dives are drift dives, so you’ll go with the flow of the water and not against it. This should keep exertion levels to a minimum.
However, currents can change direction underwater, especially in places such as Indonesia and the Galapagos. Divers may suddenly need to work hard against a current or fight cross current. In some places, downcurrents and upcurrents are relatively common. You should be healthy and fit to dive in currents. You should have good situational awareness so you can tell if the current is changing direction or recognize if you are caught. Carry and know how to deploy an SMB on a reel from underwater in a current. Finally, especially if you’re diving in notoriously current-heavy locales, carry a Nautilus Lifeline, a submersible radio with built in GPS and emergency-distress beacon.
As divers, we need to recognize our own limits and dive at sites that fit within our training, comfort level and experience. While diving on the edge of your comfort zone can advance your skill level, never do so without trained professional supervision. Be wary of guides or operators who will take you to sites that you may not be ready for. Situational awareness and respect for the dive site can go a long way in preventing you becoming a statistic. And finally, never be afraid to call a dive or say no if you’re uncomfortable.