A Wake-Up Call: When to Abort a Dive

None of us wants to call a dive, but in order to stay safe (and have fun), it's best to know your limits.

I have been diving for 20 years, and consider myself to be a competent diver, confident in my abilities and comfortable in the water. But as they say, complacency breeds contempt. Like other divers, I’m extremely hesitant to abort a dive for any reason, but I recently got a wake-up call I won’t soon forget. I was diving off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on an absolutely beautiful day and on a deep wreck.

When I jumped in the water, I instantly noticed the ripping current. I cannot do a negative descent, as I always need to grab my camera rig from the divemaster. By the time I had done so, the current had pushed me half the boat length back. I started descending at an angle, trying to get below the current, while making my way to the descent line and maintaining a good visual on my buddy. I soon realized that the current was not letting up and — in fact — worsened the deeper I went.

What happened?

My fantastic buddy, a PADI Instructor whom I’d never dived with before, stayed level with me and kept his eyes on me the entire time. When I got to the bottom, the line was still about 40 feet ahead of me. I was kicking with all my might; my legs were starting to burn, and the line didn’t seem any closer. I weighed my options: I could abort the dive and make my way to the surface, but I knew in this current I would completely miss the boat. There were about 20 divers in the water, on a 45-minute dive. That meant at least an hour of floating on the surface, in a very strong current, about seven miles off shore. And did I mention the 15-foot layer of jellyfish on the surface? I had to get to that line, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

I swam as hard as I could, and used my free arm to try and pull me closer. It took me 12 minutes to get to that line, and when I did, I was exhausted. And I had used up 1000psi during my swim. I held onto the line and signaled to my buddy that I needed to catch my breath. He nodded understandingly and stayed right there with me, maintaining eye contact. In a situation like this, eye contact can be unbelievably reassuring.

When to abort a dive

Once I caught my breath, we went inside the wreck and got a break from the current. After only about 10 minutes, though, I made the call to abort the dive. I’ve been an instructor for 13 years, and this is the first time in my dive career that I called a dive due to my own personal discomfort, but knowing when to abort a dive is a key part of being a competent diver. I was tired; I wasn’t enjoying the dive; and to be honest, I just wanted to get out of the water and relax.

I was the first person out of the water, which shocked the dive crew. I told them exactly what happened and that I just felt I didn’t want to continue with the dive. It’s essential to know your own limits. If you are feeling uncomfortable, you should end the dive and get out of the water. There’s no need to be a hero and continue on with a dive.

This experience also reminded me of the importance of a good dive buddy. It’s essential to be self-reliant underwater, and everyone can benefit from taking the Rescue Diver course, which makes you a better buddy and teaches you to anticipate problems and avoid them before they happen. But the buddy system is used for a reason, and it’s a practice that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you have a buddy who is impatient with you, doesn’t watch you and is unreliable in a potentially dangerous situation, then find a new buddy. I was very grateful to have the buddy I had that day, and I have no doubt that had I decided to come up before making my way to the line, he would have come with me.

I went on the second dive that day, which was closer to shore and out of the current, and it was great — I got to swim alongside a nurse shark for a few minutes, with my wonderful buddy right there beside me.

By guest blogger Laura King