The buddy system has been a cornerstone of recreational diving since its inception. And for good reason. Across the globe, new open-water divers learn to make pre-dive safety checks in buddy pairs, practice descents and ascents in buddy pairs and learn their initial air-sharing skills in buddy pairs. This procedure has evolved thusly for many reasons, but are there potential flaws in the buddy system? And how do we mitigate them? First, the three most-often stated reasons for the current system are logistics, safety and fun.
For many divers, particularly novices, having a buddy to help put on or remove your scuba gear is invaluable. If a diver is struggling with a particular clip, release or awkward fin, a buddy can be very useful. Although an experienced diver may not need that assistance, those interactions can help keep a novice diver calm and confident before a dive when they may otherwise become flustered.
The buddy system began in an era of less-reliable scuba equipment. Modern scuba equipment, however, is extremely reliable when well-maintained, which removes some of the ‘safety’ consideration. But even taking that into account, a traditional single-cylinder recreational scuba set-up still has no redundancy. If, for example, a diver’s regulator fails or free-flows at depth, they must be able to rely on their buddy.
Similarly, if the diver has not monitored his gas consumption properly, he must rely on his buddy to share air. Finally, having an extra pair of eyes and ears can help nip a problem in the bud before it’s become something more serious. The buddy may notice problems before the diver himself — an unclipped reel, unsecured alternate-air source, loose fin strap etc. — which may help prevent more serious consequences.
We’re social animals and sharing an experience like scuba diving is part of the sport’s draw. After a great dive on a wreck or reef, the buzz can be palpable. Diving with a buddy allows you to experience something special as part of a group and that spirit of camaraderie is one of the attractions of a great diving trip.
Flaws in the buddy system
As with most organizational systems, the buddy system has benefits and drawbacks. Ironically, the benefits of the buddy system listed above may also, inadvertently, become its flaws:
The unknown quantity
Dive guides, divemasters and instructors at many resorts are employed as guides who simply brief and lead dives. They are not there to retrain divers or act as their buddy. Therefore, if you’re traveling alone, the person who becomes your buddy for the dive is an unknown quantity.
While most resorts, trip leaders, and instructors try to group divers of similar qualification and experience together when possible, there is no guarantee. Sometimes it’s a logistical impossibility. You may find yourself buddied with someone who has vastly different skills, fitness, or experience. It’s impossible to know if your new buddy has the same style of diving as you or how responsible they are. Will they disappear in the other direction with a camera? Are you confident to potentially put your life in this person’s hands? Dive qualification is not a guarantee of skill level. Do they have the same commitment to safety as you do? Will they be able to assist you in an emergency?
If you’re paired with a new buddy, discuss how you prefer to dive and undertake a thorough buddy check before entering the water. Understand their equipment configuration, controls and weight system, and ensure they understand yours. Discuss your alternate-air-source configuration and air-sharing procedures before the dive. Let them know where you prefer to position yourself in-water in relation to them and how fast you move when diving. Point out any peculiarities of your diving style or requirements. For example, if you have sensitive ears and must descend slowly using a descent line, let them know.
Disparity in buddy pairs
When a buddy pair is mismatched in qualification, experience, attentiveness or skill level, it can be a drawback for both people.
The less-experienced diver may feel intimidated by diving with a more-skilled diver, embarrassed to potentially compromise their buddy’s dive, or find themselves diving outside their comfort zone, in terms of physical fitness, depth, or skill level.
Photographers or videographers are often — unknowingly — some of the worst buddies, filming the whole dive with a camera on a stick, as opposed to maintaining spatial and buddy awareness. They can be less likely to pay attention, keep in contact, monitor their own gas consumption and no-decompression limits, or have the free hands to help in the event of a problem.
Experienced divers may feel aggrieved that they’ve paid for a dive trip, only to become an unpaid dive leader to a less-experienced buddy. They may resent the feeling that they must ‘hand-hold’ the novice both above and below the surface. Their dive may also be shorter due to the novice’s increased gas consumption or lack of skills. They may also lack confidence that a less-skilled buddy could assist in the event of an emergency.
This can create a problem even when the divers know each other well on land. Imagine a husband and wife buddy pair in which the wife is highly skilled and predominantly looks after her less-experienced novice diver husband in-water. This is potentially compromising if the wife has a problem, leaving her husband ill-equipped to deal with an emergency. Typical warning signs of this phenomenon are when one member of the buddy team undertakes all the dive planning, navigation and management. This behavior stunts the scuba growth of the passive buddy, turning the dominant buddy into crutch.
The buddy system is most effective when both divers have relatively equal skills and experience. They can share responsibilities and enjoy a mutual trust. If the incongruence is too great, one will become the dominant buddy while the other becomes a burden. Speak with your dive buddy. Share roles and responsibilities. Make sure you feel comfortable with the person you’re diving with. If you’re less experienced, skilled, out-of-practice or lack fitness, book suitable dives. Keep your skills fresh, try to maintain or rebuild fitness and — if you can’t — consider booking a private guide to give you the attention you require.
Overall, the buddy system is hugely positive for recreational divers. And, while there are flaws in the buddy system, it’s presently the best one we have for recreational diving. Is two the optimum number? Should you train to become a solo diver? Some say that three is a better number for a buddy team. This is because it creates a voting platform for decision-making and adds an extra pair of eyes.
Regardless of buddy-team size, train to be a better diver and better buddy. Keep your skills fresh. Maintain your fitness. Improve your skill level and, potentially, train to become more self-reliant diver. The skills you learn on a self-reliant or solo-diver course will serve you well as a dive buddy. Discuss key safety skills and procedures with the people you plan to dive with and share responsibilities. Doing so means that you can focus less on logistics and more on the dive itself.