Since the beginning of scuba time, recreational divers have always dived in buddy teams. From your first confined-water dives, buddy checks, descents, ascents and underwater tours are all taught in a team with other student divers. The buddy system’s benefits boil down to essentially three areas: safety, practicality, and fun. When the system is functioning properly — with two or more competent divers diving together — it is an excellent system. Two heads are often better than one and, working together, buddy teams can overcome most minor problems. But with proper training, solo diving is also a viable option.
However, some circumstances may expose potential problems in the buddy system, usually occurring due to a mismatch in diving ability, mental attitudes, objectives, and responsibility sharing between buddies. That’s not to say the we should disregard the buddy system — far from it. However, knowing the system’s potential problems can help you to plan accordingly.
Solo diving: who is it for?
There is an alternative: solo diving. It’s becoming increasingly popular and some liveaboard vessels now allow it with the proper training and equipment. Some of the major training agencies now offer solo and self-reliant diver training courses as well.
But despite increased popularity, solo diving is often controversial among divers. Our buddy system mentality is so deeply engrained that sometimes divers are unable to see the forest for the trees. As with most subjects — scuba diving or otherwise — there is a lot of gray area away from the extremes of the arguments. What are the pros and cons of solo diving? Is it for you?
Solo diving vs. diving alone
The first thing to clear up is that there’s a vast difference between solo diving and simply diving alone. A solo diver trains, plans and executes her dive within carefully planned parameters, with additional resources and a honed skill set. Diving alone is what a recreational diver is doing if he becomes accidentally (or otherwise) separated from the group.
A solo diver plans the dive considering her SAC (Surface Air Consumption) rate, carries a redundant air source, spare cutting tools, timing devices or computers, SMBs and reels, lights and masks. A solo diver carries back-up resources to help deal with potential problems. Someone diving alone has no additional resources if something goes wrong.
A solo diver has undertaken specific training to understand what to do in the event of a problem. A diver alone is simply diving without a safety net.
Why might you want to solo dive?
It seems counterintuitive to solo dive when we’ve learned from the beginning to dive in groups. So, why would you choose to do it? What are the benefits?
- There may be purely logistical reasons for choosing to dive alone — you may not have a buddy. None of your friends or family might dive. Many people drop out of diving as they feel they have no one to go with. Training to become a solo diver and having the corresponding equipment may open a door to diving activities previously closed.
- Some people may feel uncomfortable taking responsibility for another diver underwater, especially someone they’ve barely met or not dived with before. Diving alone leaves you with responsibility only for yourself.
- A trained solo diver, by definition, has achieved a certain level of experience in order to meet course requirements. They may feel that the benefits of diving alone, while carrying increased risks, outweigh the prospect of being paired with an incompetent buddy who may be more of a hindrance than a help in an emergency.
- Solo diving lets you concentrate on the task at hand and be pure in your dive objective. If, for example, you’re an underwater photographer, you can spend the whole dive in one spot taking photos of a clownfish if you wish – you’ve compromised no one else’s dive.
- As an outsider looking in, the thought of diving alone may seem intimidating. But many experienced solo divers find the solitude of the experience relaxing, focusing and an almost zen-like experience.
What are the drawbacks and considerations?
While all of the above points are arguably true, there are also many reasons you may choose — even as a qualified solo diver — to dive with a buddy.
- Scuba diving at any level carries risks, and solo diving increases that level of risk. Much like moving into technical diving, you must embark upon a solo-diving career with your eyes open. Some risks can’t be accounted for. For example, if you become ill or sick underwater, for whatever reason, while solo diving there is no one there to help you.
- As with technical and professional diving, your physical fitness and dive conditioning comes even more sharply into focus. In the event of a problem — for example a sudden increase in the strength of the current, surface surge and waves — or if you’re struggling to get back to the boat or shore due to water movement, there is no one else to rely on. You must be sure of your own physical capabilities.
- The responsibility for the whole dive rests with you. In recreational guided diving, despite there often being no legal responsibility, many novice divers simply rely on the guide, divemaster or instructor to navigate around the dive site, remind them to check their NDL limits and gas consumption and bring them back to the boat at the end of the dive. Solo diving means that you must take responsibility for your own actions. Become disorientated on the dive site? Figure it out with your compass — there is no one to ask which way to go.
- You must have a high level of skill, competence and an honest view of your own abilities. Don’t let the Dunning-Kruger effect get the better of you and lead you into situations you cannot deal with. If, for example, you decide to explore a new wreck on your own and become entangled in rogue fishing line, only you can resolve the problem.
This is by no means a complete list and there are many individual scenarios that may amount to either pros or cons.
Several training agencies offer courses in solo or self-reliant diving. If you’re an experienced diver and you meet the individual agency prerequisites, they’re definitely worth considering, even if you have no immediate urge to go solo diving. The courses and training will help you become more self-sufficient, skilful, risk-aware and — ironically — a better buddy.
The buddy system, key as it is, is not infallible. Similarly, the potentially increased risks of solo diving are not necessarily the answer. The reality of the situation probably lies in the middle — we all must make informed choices and take more responsibility for our actions as divers, whether solo diving or not.