Diving Fundamentals: What To Do When Something Goes Wrong

We are unavoidably reliant on our equipment for our survival underwater, and if that equipment malfunctions during a dive, it can trigger a highly stressful situation.

Ask a group of divers to describe their sport and you will undoubtedly hear the word “relaxing” over and over again. For many people, scuba offers the chance to find serenity in the ocean, where quietude reigns and the stresses of the world no longer seem important. But as relaxing as diving can be, it can also be the absolute opposite. We are unavoidably reliant on our equipment for our survival underwater, and if that equipment malfunctions during a dive, it can trigger a highly stressful situation. Here we’ll look at four possible equipment malfunctions, and how to react should something go wrong.

Self-inflating BCD

Unless you are truly a master of buoyancy control, you will periodically add and remove air from your BCD during a dive. We all know that when you add air to your BCD using the inflate button on your power inflator you’re only supposed to add a little bit at a time, but sometimes as you press the button, it jams inward and instead of releasing, allows air to flow uncontrollably into your BCD. This usually happens as the result of a salt buildup or trapped sand particles, which cause the button to stick when pressed. Too much air in your BCD can cause a rapid ascent, which has potentially life threatening consequences such as decompression sickness or an arterial gas embolism. If you find yourself in this situation, your best option is to disconnect the low-pressure hose from your inflator, and then use oral inflation to add air to your BCD for the duration of your dive and on the surface. If you find yourself unable to disconnect this hose, locate the dump valve on the bottom corner of your BCD and hold it open — this should slow your ascent enough for you to reach the surface safely. To prevent this situation from happening in the first place, always make sure to rinse your BCD thoroughly in fresh water after diving to remove salt buildup, and secure it while underwater so that it doesn’t drag through silt or sand.

Regulator free-flow

A regulator is in free-flow if it continuously supplies air rather than only as a diver demands it. This can occur for a number of reasons; the most common is exposure to very cold water, which can freeze open the valves of the regulator first or second stage. Sometimes, a free-flowing regulator can occur in warm water, too, usually as a result of sand particles jamming beneath the second stage valve, or the second-stage purge button sticking when depressed. If a regulator is free flowing for these reasons, it might be possible to dislodge the offending particles by giving the second stage a hard knock against your palm. Generally, however (and always in the case of a regulator that’s free-flowing due to cold) the only appropriate reaction to this situation is to ascend immediately, before your air supply runs out. If possible (depending upon your depth, and the amount of air remaining in your cylinder), maintain a safe ascent rate and then orally inflate your BCD upon reaching the surface. To breathe effectively from a free-flowing regulator, you must sip the escaping air to prevent choking. To do this, tilt your head sideways to prevent the stream of bubbles from displacing your mask, then peel back the corner of your mouthpiece so that the excess air can escape. To prevent a free-flowing regulator from occurring in the first place, make sure to rinse your regulator properly after each dive, get it serviced frequently by a professional technician and ensure that your equipment is rated for cold water if diving in frigid climates.

Malfunctioning computer

These days, most divers rely on a dive computer to keep track of their dive time and depth, and to calculate their no-decompression limits. Computer failures rarely happen, but when they do, divers can find themselves suddenly at risk of exceeding their no-decompression limits. Divers who notice a problem with their computer should terminate their dive immediately. It is not acceptable to continue diving under the guidance of your buddy’s computer, either, as their dive profile and computer algorithm are likely different from yours. Unless you have a backup depth gauge and a watch, it can be difficult to determine a safe ascent rate without your computer; generally you should not ascend faster than your smallest bubble. Upon surfacing, wait 12 hours after a single dive and 18 after repetitive dives before entering the water again. This is true even if you have a fresh computer waiting for you on the surface, as that computer will not have the information from your previous dives needed to calculate your residual nitrogen. Some divers choose to dive with two computers, one of them for backup. This works well, as long as they have compatible algorithms and have both been worn from the beginning of a dive series. You can decrease the likelihood of a computer malfunction by having it serviced regularly, rinsing it thoroughly after diving and changing the batteries often.

Out of air

Out-of-air situations are rarely the result of equipment malfunctions; they usually occur because a diver has poor air-management skills. However, since running out of air for whatever reason is the biggest fear of most new divers, it seems appropriate to include it. If you find yourself in this situation, your best option is to alert your buddy, and commence breathing from their alternate air source. Immediately ascend together at a safe rate. If your buddy is too far away to be of assistance, your next best option is to make a controlled emergency swimming ascent (CESA), in which you swim slowly to the surface while continually exhaling. In the worst-case scenario, in which you are separated from your buddy and too deep to reach the surface by swimming slowly, you will be forced to execute a buoyant ascent. This involves becoming positively buoyant and surfacing rapidly — clearly, this should be an absolute last resort. Avoiding an out-of-air situation is usually as simple as checking your pressure gauge at regular intervals, and making sure to begin your ascent with plenty of air as a reserve. If you experience an equipment malfunction (like a free-flowing regulator) that causes a sudden loss of air, you can usually deal with the problem quite easily by maintaining close contact with your buddy throughout the dive. Underwater, your buddy is your life support system — being near them in an emergency could make all the difference.

When something goes wrong underwater it’s easy to succumb to panic. However, your safety depends on your ability to react quickly and calmly to an emergency, to resolve the problem without allowing your fear to escalate the situation beyond your control. The best way to fight panic if your equipment malfunctions is to be prepared. Practice your scuba problem-solving skills in a risk-free environment, such as your local swimming pool or under the supervision of a dive professional in shallow water. If you know that you can disconnect a pressure inflator hose in your sleep, and if you are so confident in your CESA procedures that they are almost instinctive, you will be able to react effectively should those issues arise in real life. It is also worth making the effort to prevent such problems from happening in the first place by taking good care of your equipment, and by monitoring your air supply at all times. Staying safe underwater is a matter of knowing how to prevent or mitigate dangerous situations; equipped with such knowledge, your diving experience will still be a relaxing one, even if something does go wrong.