Occasionally, on social media and in courts of law, you hear about people blaming dive guides for mishaps during dives. The story usually involves a diver or divers who have experienced a diving incident or accident, and who feel that the dive guide failed to keep them safe. But the proper role of a dive guide is not to keep tour participants safe.
I often talk to my novice dive students about basic certification, which qualifies them for independent diving. They sometimes state that “I only plan to dive with guides when I travel, so that’s not that important for me.” The “that” they’re referring to are essential dive skills such as safety evaluations, self-assessment of fitness to dive, dive planning, navigation, and equipment choice. And I’ve dived with more than one long-qualified “insta-buddy” who has displayed much the same sentiment: I’m just following the guide, and the guide will keep me safe. This attitude, however, is a gross misunderstanding of the guide’s role. So, then, let’s talk about the proper role of a dive guide.
A dive guide is not there to keep you alive
That may be a bit of harsh statement because, of course, any dive guide — or another diver —will likely try to help you in an emergency. But it is not their formal responsibility. This is a description of a standard Divemaster responsibilities in relation to conducting guided dives:
- assessing the hazards of a dive site and informing the divers of the hazards
- briefing divers on the layout and points of interest of a dive site
- suggesting routes for a dive at a specific site for autonomous divers
- checking divers into and out of the water from a boat or shore entry point
- leading a group of divers in the water as a tour guide
Note that it does not say “keep divers safe by making sure their equipment works, and by making sure they dive within their limits.” Rules don’t even require dive guides to make sure everyone sticks with them during the dive. A certified diver, with a buddy, can break off from a group for whatever reason, and conduct the rest of the dive on their own. Maybe the group is heading into a current, and the buddy pair isn’t comfortable with that. Maybe the group is heading for deeper water, and one of the divers is having trouble equalizing. These and many other reasons are valid for taking your own route in most situations.
What is a dive guide’s role?
The dive guide’s proper role is to assess the dive site’s conditions, safety and suitability for the group. The guide must make sure the divers are informed, and, if he or she deems it necessary, cancel the dive. The dive guide is also supposed to give a thorough briefing on how the dive will take place, hazards and interesting stuff, and to make sure that everyone gets into and out of the water okay. They can also set the dive’s recommended or required limits (depth, air consumption, and/or time).
It is not their job to monitor you underwater or to make sure that you’re diving safely. Ideally, you should stick to the briefing in terms of depth, where it is safe to go, and so on, but if you don’t, it certainly isn’t the dive guide’s fault.
The dive guide is responsible for making sure the dive is safe. You are responsible for making sure you are safe on the dive.
You are in charge of your safety
As a certified diver, you should be able to plan and conduct your own dives, with a buddy, in conditions within the limits of your certification. A dive guide can help you get the most out of your dives in an unfamiliar location and avoid obvious risks. But ultimately, you are in charge of your own dive from start to finish. You must determine your own fitness to dive on any given day and decide if you’re comfortable with the dive conditions and location. Your safety underwater is ultimately your own responsibility, including checking your equipment, even if you’ve rented it. The dive shop must maintain and the equipment and have it inspected, but you have a responsibility to double-check and to assemble and use it correctly. If you receive faulty gear or you don’t know how to operate it, you must let the dive guide know.
Approach even guided dives like independent dives. Pay attention to the dive guide’s information follow the guide if you choose — they often know the site’s highlights —but mentally prepare for the dive as if you were on your own. Know your exit points, make emergency plans and note where you are navigationally as you dive, keeping the dive plan in mind. That way, if something goes wrong, you can complete or end the dive on your own and return safely to the surface with your buddy.
The real risk of the follow-the-leader mentality is troublesome, not just because it can lead to frivolous lawsuits, but also because it, in itself, can cause dangerous situations. A diver who is absentmindedly following a guide and not paying attention, expecting the guide to do that for them, can be in trouble if they have a sudden equipment problem or if they become separated from the rest of the group.
By understanding the division of responsibility between you and the dive guide, you will have come a long way toward keeping yourself safe underwater. And you will take major steps toward becoming a truly independent diver, able to plan and conduct dives that match your certification, as well as your experience and comfort levels.