As you become a qualified scuba diver, you learn the basics of an essential scuba system. A cylinder, weights, an exposure suit, regulators, BCD gauge and timing device, mask and fins are the bare essentials. But what other equipment is worth adding to make your dive trip safer and, consequently, more comfortable, relaxed and stress-free? All divers should consider carrying these top five pieces of dive safety equipment.
Once seen as a luxury item, the dive computer is now rightly regarded as an essential piece of scuba gear. Professional guides can’t safely do their job without a dive computer. Multiple recreational dives with traditional dive tables on a square profile become extremely compromising experiences on sloping reefs or drift dives. In fact, many dive operations insist that each diver has his own computer. Both PADI and SSI now put additional focus on dive-computer usage in their Open Water Diver training courses.
In simple terms, the dive computer tracks your personal exposure to breathing gases on recreational dives — both nitrogen and oxygen. This allows you to easily plan and execute your dives on a multi-level basis. This, in turn, allows you to maximize your bottom time. The dive computer will monitor your individual movements in the water, re-sampling your depth every few seconds. It tracks your ascent rate, warning if you’ve exceeded safety standards and prompting safety stops, or extending stops if necessary. Most recreational dive computers also provide ‘emergency decompression’ instructions for getting you back to dry land should you erroneously overstay your welcome at depth.
Learn how to use your computer’s functions. Mount it somewhere where you can read it while both inflating and deflating your BCD on descents and ascents. Don’t share it with other divers; each member of a dive team must have their own computer.
A cutting tool is a must-have piece of dive safety equipment. You can use it for cutting, prying, or communication by tapping on your cylinder. Historically, the tool would take the form of a knife. Early recreational divers carried large knives strapped to their legs. These days, however, a range of smaller, lighter, less-threatening cutting tools are available. Choose from small knives, line cutters, shears and scissors, depending on preference and environment.
Most cutting tools are made of stainless steel. Many top-end tools are made of titanium to make them corrosion-resistant and super-light for transport. It’s easy to mount them as well, since many modern BDCs have an attachment or mounting point for a cutting tool. Failing that, you can mount the sheath of many cutting tools on one of the regulator hoses.
Needing no more maintenance than a rinse in fresh water at the end of your dive, a cutting tool can save the day. You’ll be able to cut yourself free from an errant fishing line, slice through kelp, or tap on your cylinder to get your buddy’s attention if you have a problem.
We often associate lights only with night dives or wreck penetration. But carrying a light — either a hand-held lamp or strobe on your shoulder — can make your dive more enjoyable and offer safety benefits even during daylight.
Modern LED lamps are small, light and powerful, offering high output and long battery life in comparison with the diving torches of even just 10 or 20 years ago. During daylight, a good dive light can bring color back to coral and illuminate cracks and crevices on the hunt for macro life. You can also use a dive light like an underwater laser-pointer to encircle smaller wildlife. This way you can show your discoveries to your buddy without blinding the animal.
Most importantly, you can use your light as a signaling device if the visibility suddenly drops. Also, depending on the construction of your lamp, you can use it as a makeshift tank-banger. At the surface, you can flash your torch at the boat in lower light to get the crew’s attention.
If you’re diving in low-visibility conditions, a shoulder or cylinder mounted strobe or beacon is often useful as well, to help buddy teams stay in contact.
An SMB or DSMB and reel are key pieces of diving equipment, and not only when diving in strong currents. The latest Open Water Diver training from both PADI and SSI reflect this change and introduce SMB use in the introductory course.
Each member of the buddy team should have a DSMB and reel. Both of you must learn how to safely deploy one from depth. This way, each diver can safely ascend and signal the boat, even if they become separated from the group.
You can deploy your DSMB on the ascent for your safety stop to ensure that passing boat traffic knows your location. You can also deploy it mid-dive if the current changes direction unexpectedly or becomes stronger or, alternatively, if you’re drifting away from the dive site. Doing so lets you send an early signal to surface support that you may not be surfacing in the expected location. This way, the boat crew can track you from the surface.
Finally, deploying an SMB at the surface allows you to signal to your boat. Sometimes boat skippers even have unique SMB signals at busy dive sites so that you can notify the proper boat that you’re ready for pickup if there are a few around.
As with computers, each member of the buddy team should have his or her own DSMB and reel in case of separation, although some dive operators will accept this.
With a range of DSMB/SMBs and reels on the market, pick the one that works best for you in your environment. Larger, easier-to-handle reels and marker buoys are recommended in tougher conditions where there’s bigger surge and you may be wearing thick gloves. In tropical conditions a finger spool and smaller, oral-inflation DSMB may be more suitable.
In remote locations, particularly those with stronger currents, modern technology has helped diver safety leap forward. In such places, Marine Rescue GPS is now commonplace, meaning your boat or another nearby can track your location to within a few feet in case of emergency.
Usually weighing less than 5 ounces (150 g) and measuring only 4 inches (10 cm) long, you can clip GPS marine rescue beacons to your jacket or stow them in your BCD pocket. If you’ve surfaced away from the dive boat or there is an emergency, you simply press a button. The distress signal will go to all AIS-equipped vessels in a 30-mile (50 km) radius, pinpointing your location information to within 3 to 4 feet (1.5 m).
Marine Rescue GPS is not cheap, often costing around the same amount as a dive computer. But in the worst-case scenario or a remote environment, it can mean the difference between life and death. In some locations, liveaboards insist that all guests carry their own GPS for the entire trip, leaving a deposit upon return.
Dive safety equipment is always evolving. But adding some key accessories to your standard diving kit can help keep you safer on your next dive trip.