Training Fundamentals: How to Avoid Diving Accidents

Scuba diving is statistically very safe, but as with any adventurous activity, there are risks. What’s the best way to avoid diving accidents?

Scuba diving is a very safe sport. There are millions of certified scuba divers in the world and, thankfully, there are relatively few serious incidents. Nevertheless, each year Divers Alert Network (DAN) compiles a report of diving incidents that, in some cases, could have been avoided. In the 2016 DAN report, which provides data on 2014, there were 146 reported fatalities. Some, a disproportionately high number at 28 cases, were among rebreather divers. In total, divers made 13,189 calls or to DAN medical services with regard to diving-related injuries. What’s the best way to diving accidents? Broadly speaking, the preventative measures fall into three categories: you, your equipment and your actions.

Your responsibilities

Tip No. 1: Stay fit 

You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to be a safe scuba diver. However, most recreational divers grossly overlook diving fitness. Answering ‘no’ to all the questions on the standard RSTC diving medical form when you check in at the dive center is the bare minimum for participation.

Some dives are relaxing — the crew will help you gear up and you’ll spend a leisurely hour in calm, tropical waters. But some dives are more demanding. You may be carrying equipment on a shore dive with a physically challenging entry or exit; there may be currents; or you may be wearing challenging or bulky exposure equipment, such as a drysuit. Being strong enough to lift a tank is not a measure of dive fitness. If you’re unfit, overweight, or inflexible you may struggle to simply make the dive. You certainly won’t be able to deal with an adverse change in circumstances or an emergency situation.

A prerequisite to professional diving is a water-skills assessment, wherein wannabe divemasters must demonstrate excellent fitness. In some places, dive professionals must pass an annual medical exam that assesses their overall fitness and BMI.

If you want to enjoy the dive, be safer and more comfortable, maintain your fitness.

Tip No. 2: Take care of your body

Make sure you’re rested, well-fed and hydrated for diving. Predisposing factors for decompression sickness include lack of sleep, extreme fatigue, alcohol or drug use, extreme heat or cold, and dehydration.

If you’re diving, get plenty of sleep. Diving directly after a long, arduous journey or, alternatively, if you’ve been out partying late the night before, may interfere with the proper absorption and elimination of nitrogen.

Give your body the fuel it needs to dive effectively. Eat a decent breakfast with plenty of slow-burning carbohydrates to provide energy. When possible, avoid rich or greasy foods that will sit heavily in your stomach and ‘repeat’ on you during the dives.

Stay hydrated. Limit coffee and other diuretic drinks and consume plenty of water. If you’re in a tropical area where the onboard water supply is generated by reverse osmosis, take periodic doses of electrolyte or mineral sachets to supplement the water. This helps provide your body with desired minerals and nutrients.

Tip No. 3: Take care of your mental health

So much of diving takes place in the mind. If you’re relaxed, happy and confident prior to entering the water, you’re more likely to have a relaxed happy and enjoyable dive and, crucially, not run into problems.

Ensure your skills are sharp before going on your dive trip. When necessary, take a scuba refresher course or PADI ReActivate session before arrival. Know how to assemble your equipment and review key skills and emergency procedures. Be clear in your mind. It will help your confidence and reduce your anxiety levels before entering the water.

Beware of task loading, which can lead to stress. If it’s your first dive of the trip, maybe leave your camera and any other non-essential equipment on the boat until you get back in the diving groove again.

Your equipment

Tip No. 4: Keep your gear in good working order

Make sure your gear is serviced and in good working order for your dives. For example, if you’re taking your own regulators, make sure they’re serviced in accordance with manufacturer recommendations and adjusted to suit your diving. Similarly, if you have a diving computer, don’t skimp on the service and pressure test. Take it to your local service center before the trip. A failed battery or incorrect depth readings can lead to you sitting out the dives at best and more serious pressure-related issues at worst.

Tip No. 5: Know your equipment

If you have new equipment, test it before your dive trip. Book a session in your local dive center’s pool before your vacation. Be sure your regulator breathes well and that your BC fits properly. Make sure you understand the computer’s functions and display. At depth on the first dive of your trip is not the time to discover problems.

If you’re using rental equipment, get familiar with it before the first dive — don’t wait until the buddy check. Check it’s all functioning correctly and that you understand how to adjust the BCD, weight system and fins and, if you must, remove them quickly in an emergency.

If you’re diving with someone new, familiarize yourself their equipment and give them the opportunity to do likewise.

Tip No. 6: Take what you need

Take everything you’ll need for the dive. Not sure? Take advice from the local dive center when preparing for your dive trip. For example, wear the correct exposure suit for the conditions and make sure you’re properly trained to wear it, in the case of a drysuit.

Take a DSMB and reel and know how to safely deploy the marker buoy to the surface. If it’s a night dive, be sure you have an appropriate light and a back-up. Learn the different communication procedures for night diving.

Always prioritize safety equipment over ‘toys’ such as cameras and selfie-sticks and be mindful not to overload yourself with equipment that may be a distraction. Position your equipment so that you can easily monitor your depth, time and gas consumption while making buoyancy adjustments.

Your actions

Tip No.7: Know your limitations 

Agencies set various training qualifications on the basis of test data and constantly-evolving educational systems. Engage only in diving activities consistent with your training and experience. For example, don’t participate in wreck, cave or technical/decompression dives unless you’re specifically trained to do so. Similarly, solo diving is suitable only for those with the correct equipment, training and experience. If you want to go deeper or penetrate wrecks, get the proper training first. Bravado is no substitute for the proper skill set. 

Likewise, if diving conditions are considerably tougher than those you’re used to, postpone diving or select an alternate site with better conditions. If there’s any doubt or anxiety due to big waves or reports of current, it may be prudent to sit out that particular dive. 

Tip No. 8: Pay attention

Be sure to attend the dive briefing. It’s your responsibility to understand the layout of the dive site, entry and exit procedures, any hazards, points of interest and local dive protocols, including any emergency procedures. Take notes on a slate if you feel they might be relevant on the dive, such as the site topography and any relevant compass bearings.

Be sure to do a comprehensive buddy check before entering the water. Discuss your preferred method of air-sharing in an emergency and where you like to be positioned on a dive. Review hand signals, and don’t make assumptions.

If you’re diving with a local instructor, divemaster or guide, stay behind them on the dive. They’re constantly assessing and modifying the route of the dive based on various factors within the dive group and environment.

Tip No. 9: Don’t forget the basics

Being certified doesn’t mean you can discard your basic training. Plan the dive and dive the plan. Be sure you know your no-stop limits for the dive before entering the water. Check your gas consumption and no-stop time regularly and let the dive leader know at the agreed-upon turn points. Use good buoyancy control, both above and below the surface. Ensure you’re neutrally buoyant during the dive and positively buoyant at the surface. Complete your safety stops and keep your equipment in place until safely back on the shore or boat. For example, many small issues can escalate simply because the diver has not retained their mask and protected their airway.

Diving is a safe and fun sport. Thinking through the dive, preparing yourself, preparing your equipment and paying attention to instructions can help you address small issues and avoid diving accidents.