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Training Fundamentals: Becoming a Rescue Diver

The rescue diver course is a key step in a diver’s development. How will you know when you’re ready and how can you prepare?

There are multiple levels of diver development. The first step, of course, is generally the open water course. At this initial level, candidates learn foundational concepts. These include buoyancy control, the relationship between pressure and volume, dive planning and, significantly, key control and safety skills such as equalization, mask clearing and regulator recovery. The open water course is the scuba equivalent of taking your driving test.

The advanced open water course is usually the second step. Comfortable that participants have mastery of foundational concepts, instructors begin to introduce an element of task loading. Participants will work on simultaneously maintaining buddy contact while performing navigation tasks for example, assess a wreck, make observations at depth, or learn to communicate at night.

Advanced open water often whets a diver’s appetite for further knowledge, and many subsequently move into specialist areas such as photography, wreck diving or deep diving. Having developed core skills and learned to cope with task loading, divers may then choose to move onto the third step: the rescue diver course.

Taking the next step to becoming a rescue diver

The rescue diver course is a crucial step in a diver’s skill development. For the first time in their diving education, rescue divers learn to look beyond themselves to consider the safety and well-being of other divers, which is why being a competent rescue diver is a prerequisite for all leadership-level training within the structure of most major diving agencies. Even if a diver never intends to pursue a professional diving career, the rescue diver course is still invaluable.

Challenging but also fun, the course, when conducted correctly, should push divers to reassess both their own abilities and give them a greater awareness of how to assess and interact with other divers. Many divers reflect later in their careers that the rescue diver course was their most rewarding training. The course expands the introductory problem prevention and accident management learned during open water courses. It takes key safety skills such as air-sharing, cramp removal and tired-diver tows and builds on those concepts, allowing divers to assist in more complicated diver emergencies.

How will I know when I’m ready to take the course?

Arriving as a candidate for a rescue diver course, you should be comfortable with all the skills that preceded it in your open water and advanced open water courses. Rescue candidates should be competent and confident in their own diving skin; each part of the rescue diver course draws on previously learned key skills. If there are any skills from your previous training you feel uncomfortable with, practice them before beginning the rescue diver course.

Necessary skills

Essential skills and attributes for potential rescue diver candidates include:

  • Solid foundational compass use and natural navigation skills to enable safe conduct of search patterns.
  • Good buoyancy control and spatial awareness for dealing with distressed divers and conducting unresponsive diver lifts.
  • Excellent fitness to facilitate safe and speedy response to diver emergencies, together with the strength to exit an unresponsive diver from the water.
  • The ability to be self-sufficient and comfortable in scuba equipment. Time is of the essence during a rescue scenario and the ability to be able to dress (and undress) yourself efficiently in the scuba equipment available at hand is essential.
  • General comfort in the water. At rescue diver level you should not become flustered if your mask becomes dislodged and needs to be cleared or, alternatively, if a distressed diver knocks out your regulator and you need to recover it.

The minimum entry requirements for the course, within the PADI system of education, are 12 years old with the (Junior) Adventure Diver with Underwater Navigation Adventure Dive certification. If you’re not sure if you’re ready, speak with your instructor and ask their honest opinion. The course is both mentally and physically demanding and your instructors know your ability, the course curriculum, and what skills you’ll need.

What will I learn?

The PADI Rescue Diver course is presently the most popular, and is essentially split into three sections:

  1. Knowledge developmentRescue Diver candidates must complete five knowledge development sections. Each section examines a different area of rescue knowledge, from recognizing stressed diver behaviors and how to address a potential incident before it happens, to assessing different types of pressure-related injuries and administering first aid.There is also a final exam which students must complete with a passing score.

    In addition, candidates must prepare an emergency assistance plan (EAP) that they could realistically use in a real-life scenario. The EAP should include guidance and instructions to steer rescue procedures at a dive site in the event of an emergency.

  2. Rescue exercisesFollowing a self-rescue review, the instructor will introduce and demonstrate key rescue skills as appropriate. Divers then practice procedures until they are comfortable and meet the required performance requirements. Skills include:* Tired diver
    * Panicked diver
    * Response from shore, boat or dock (responsive diver)
    * Distressed diver underwater
    * Missing diver
    * Surfacing the unresponsive diver
    * Unresponsive diver at the surface
    * Exiting the unresponsive diver
    * First aid for pressure-related injuries and oxygen administration
    * Response from shore/boat to unresponsive diver at the surface

    Students repeat each skill until they achieve mastery. All rescue exercises take place in open water, although many instructors introduce skill-training initially in a pool where no visibility, current, waves or temperature issues may hinder learning.

For example, it is much easier to introduce and practice an unresponsive diver lift in the safe confines of a pool before moving into an open-water environment for assessment. Using a pool allows each candidate to clearly observe and repeat skills until they find a degree of comfort.

  1. Rescue scenariosHaving learned and mastered all of the key rescue skills during part two, candidates must successfully respond to at least two rescue scenarios.Within the bounds of what is reasonable and safe in the course environment, the scenarios will be as realistic as possible.

    The scenarios are meant to allow the candidates to piece together all their newly acquired rescue-diver knowledge and respond to a scenario as if it is real, demonstrating their prowess. Instructor and divemaster guidance is minimal.

Helping yourself

If you’re seriously considering a rescue diver course, consider taking these various measures to prepare:

  • Practice your in-water skills and hone them. Your own skills should be polished and instinctive before you can adequately care for an in-water victim.
  • Complete the Emergency First Responder (EFR) primary and secondary care (CPR and First Aid) training. It is a rescue course requirement that you have completed satisfactory first aid and CPR training in the past 24 months prior to rescue diver certification. Undertaking the course (or taking an EFR refresher) will help you get into a rescue mindset and cultivate a methodical and measured approach to emergencies.
  • Work on your fitness. Rescuing divers is physically demanding and the stronger and fitter you are, the better position you’ll be in to deal with emergency scenarios. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete, but if you struggle to get your own fins on or become breathless on surface swims, spend some time improving your fitness before beginning your rescue training.
  • Speak with people who have already taken the course. Understand the demands (and the fun) that goes with it. Listen to advice and tips from trusted sources.
  • Prepare for the classroom sessions. The knowledge development is a step up from preceding courses. Take the time to read your training materials, complete your knowledge reviews or electronic learning well in advance and flag up any issues or difficulties with your instructor.


The rescue diver course will change your perception of divers and diving. It allows successful candidates to gain new insight into diver behavior, diver issues, how to prevent them and how to address emergencies. This essential course, for some, subsequently acts as a springboard to professional levels, such as divemaster or instructor.

On a personal level, many report the Rescue Diver course provides them with an elevated awareness and empathy for their fellow divers; recognizing stress (and distress) in other divers and promoting a more pro-active and sympathetic view of their cohorts on the beach or boat.

If you dive with family and friends, the Rescue Diver course allows you to obtain new skills and knowledge that may help you help them in the event of a problem or, even better, nip a problem in the bud before it even occurs – allowing you a more confident and relaxed day’s diving.