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Training Fundamentals: Following Recommended Dive Limits

Each qualification has recommended dive limits for depth or activity. Why are the limits there? Why is it wise to follow them?

Each step of the way during your scuba education, dive limits are recommended based on your level of training. At the initial stage, during a ‘try dive,’ the open water section of the experience limits the participant to a maximum depth of 40 feet (12 m) under the direct supervision of an instructor. An open water diver’s maximum depth is 60 feet (18 m). Once certified, instructional agencies regard a diver as qualified to dive autonomously with their buddy in conditions as good as or better than those in which they qualified.

Determining the limit

Individual agencies often determine the training limits. However, in conjunction with each agency, a body called the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC) works to create minimum recreational diving training standards across the globe, based on training data and research. The councils consist of individual training organizations that mutually represent greater than 50 percent of the annual diver certifications in each council’s region.

For example, within the United States council, which is based in Florida, the members are comprised of IANTD, NAUI, PADI, PDIC, RAID, SDI, SNSI, SSI and NASE. The council is transparent in its approach; minimum standards for each level of recreational diving are available to download at the WRSTC website. Closer inspection of these standards reveals that while two students may undertake their training with two different agencies, there will be consistent requirements with regard to participants’ medical history, eligibility, minimum course content and supervision.

Recreational depth limits

When people consider recreational-diving limits, they tend to consider depths first and foremost. Most introductory courses have clearly specified training depth limits.

  • At the open-water diver level (or equivalent) the depth limit is 60 feet (18 m).
  • At the advanced open-water level the depth limit is 100 feet (30 m).
  • With additional deep-diver training, many agencies set a depth limit of recreational diving at 130 feet (40 m).

At first glance, these limits may appear arbitrary. However, usually, these parameters have developed over time and are based on test data from thousands of dives. This creates a consistent education system that equips student divers with the skills they need to safely make dives to the appropriate level.

The importance of depth limits

While some divers — particularly those suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect — will always be tempted to push the envelope of their training, there is a solid argument for continuing education and training to progress in your diving. Logged dive numbers alone are not enough.

For example, during the PADI open-water course, each student diver must master breathing without a mask for a least one minute. Although many students dislike performing the skill, within the PADI system the maximum ascent rate is 60 feet (18 m) per minute. So, mastering this skill — or at least practicing — means the diver is better prepared to ascend safely if they lose their mask.

After passing their OW class, there is obviously no physical barrier preventing the newly qualified diver from going well beyond their 60 feet (18 m) limit. Despite this, most prudently wait to go deeper within the confines of a continuing-education course.

At OW limits, most novice divers reach a gas turning point before hitting their no-decompression limit. Further, most agencies’ planning tables afford 50 to 56 minutes even spending the duration of the dive at maximum depth. However, as divers progress beyond that introductory level, the allowable bottom time disappears quickly. Divers must typically pay closer attention to no-decompression limits, gas consumption and narcosis considerations, since there is less margin for error and a longer journey to the surface in an emergency.

Additionally, as depths approach 100 feet (30 m) and beyond, inexperienced divers may feel some gas narcosis, particularly in a more challenging environment. When things go wrong at depth the stakes are higher and, thusly, divers should complete their initial deep dives under the close supervision of an experienced instructor. The instructor can then introduce appropriate planning considerations — and what to do if it goes wrong — in a controlled setting.

Tricks of the trade

Deeper dives aren’t the only ones that require further training. Diving at night; in overhead environments such as caves or wrecks; in strong currents; or in different equipment configurations, such as sidemount or twin-set, all benefit from bespoke training.

Sometimes, hazards are not obvious and, additionally, can be quite environmentally specific. A YouTube tutorial is not a valid substitute for the correct training and preparation. Here are just two examples.

Night diving 

dive limits
Following dive limits is important when starting new activities like night diving.

Night diving can be a very relaxing and intimate experience. The limited light and the change in the variety and behavior of aquatic life makes it a unique experience. Night dives are also incredibly popular on liveaboards.

Proper night-diver training covers some the idiosyncrasies of night diving, including:

  • Appropriate night-dive sites, equipment and safety considerations
  • Amendments to equipment configurations, light handling and night dive etiquette
  • Entering/exiting the water and navigating in the dark
  • Positive wildlife interactions at night
  • Essential communications and signals with lights and sound
  • Managing your buoyancy and direction in low light

New night divers without the correct training frequently run into problems. Classic mistakes include ‘dazzling’ others in your group with your light, becoming lost or separated due to poor navigation and communication and, sometimes, joining the incorrect dive buddy/group/guide — or even boarding the wrong boat. Getting the right training helps you avoid these problems and learn how to manage the dive safely.

Drysuit diving

Drysuits are a fantastic diving tool. Sealed from the outside environment, they allow for extended dive seasons and dives in more-challenging conditions. Water temperature also becomes less of a driving factor in dive site selection.

Drysuit diving is subtly but crucially different from wetsuit diving: diving in this manner puts much more emphasis on correct positioning and trim in the water.

Drysuit training incorporates:

  • Different suit constructions, suit selection, suit care and suit maintenance and appropriate scuba equipment for colder water environments, undergarments, accessories and equipment configurations
  • Putting on and taking off your drysuit with minimal assistance and minimal stress on the suit
  • Buoyancy, positioning and trim while wearing a drysuit
  • Safety procedures in the event of buoyancy problems, equipment malfunction or drysuit failure

Divers must make subtle adaptations in preparation and technique for safe and successful drysuit diving. Incorrect dressing and seating of neck and wrist seals can lead to leaks. Understanding low-pressure hose connections and the functionality of the suit’s dump valves are key to safety in the event of a mechanical malfunction or loss of control. Crucially, with the whole suit acting like a bladder of air, correct diver positioning and trim is essential.

It’s not uncommon for drysuit divers in training to arrive at the surface feet-first with air trapped in their boots. Consequently, most responsible instructors begin training with supervision in a shallower, confined-water environment; this allows new drysuit divers to explore the limits of the suit (and their skill level) in a safe space.

Before they let me run

Preparation and knowledge are key to a safe dive — whatever your level. Learning to walk before you attempt to run is an old adage that rings true within scuba diving. Bravado and YouTube tutorials are not the same as professional training and staying within recommended limits. Obtain the training to match your diving desires, both for your own safety and the people you’re diving with.