There’s an old adage in scuba diving that “it’s better to be on the boat wishing you were 30 meters (100 feet) underwater than 30 meters underwater wishing you were on the boat.” It’s a truism that instructors have passed down to students for decades and is a succinct way of saying that, as a diver, you must accept responsibility for your own well-being on every dive. Ignoring peer pressure and deciding when not to dive by reading the warning signs correctly is a crucial diving skill. Making a dive in poor circumstances can, at best, be unpleasant and, at worst, potentially dangerous to you and your dive group. What are the signs that you should skip a dive? And why should you heed these red flags? Here’s how to tell if you should stay topside and sit one out.
Logistics and time constraints
Sometimes you’d really like to dive but the logistics and time constraints of the dive mean that realistically it’s best to skip the dive.
Wind, waves, tides, current and travel times may be forecast or estimated but sometimes don’t occur exactly as planned. You simply may not have time to make the dive and carry out the rest of your plans for the day. Don’t let others pressure, cajole or rush you when diving, and if you don’t have time to prepare to your satisfaction, you probably shouldn’t dive.
Alternatively, the hindrance might be something potentially detrimental to your health, such as nitrogen absorption or flying-after diving-constraints. You cannot alter the laws of physics to suit your circumstances and sometimes it’s best to skip the dive rather than risk your health. For example, you may really want to make the third dive that day, but your computer says your residual nitrogen level will be right on the safety borderline. If there is any question over whether the dive falls within a safe time frame, skip it.
You must also consider safety when it comes to flying after diving or traveling to altitude. If the end of your dive trip is looming and it’s questionable if you’ll have sufficient time to off-gas before flying, why take that risk for another 45-60 minutes underwater? Be conservative and skip that final dive. Similarly, getting to your next land destination may involve traveling over a mountainous region. Build in some time after your final dive to off-gas before going to altitude of any kind. If it means skipping the final dive that day to add an extra few hours of surface interval, do so.
Each level of diver training qualifies you to dive in conditions as good as — or better than — those in which you learned.
Dive conditions vary widely across the globe. Sixty feet (18 m) in the Caribbean Sea is not the same as 60 feet in the North Sea. Surf, surge, waves, tides, currents, light, temperature, aquatic life and visibility all play significant factors as to your comfort and safety at any given depth, regardless of what your certification card says. Adverse or challenging environmental conditions may include:
- High winds can cause waves, surf and surge. This makes surface conditions difficult and entry or — more likely — exiting the water difficult.
- Strong currents make swift descents and excellent control, buoyancy and buddy contact critical.
- Low visibility due to poor light and turbidity can cause disorientation and difficulty maintaining buddy contact.
- A significantly lower water temperature may warrant a thicker wetsuit, hood and gloves to avoid hypothermia symptoms, together with amended weighting. You may need a drysuit, which requires additional training. Both the temperature and the associated equipment changes may act as stressors.
- The perceived hazard of certain types of aquatic life may cause stress. Sharks, jellyfish, eels, stonefish and sea snakes may make some divers anxious and thus more likely to act erratically.
If you’re planning a dive in a challenging environment, build up to it in increments and with the correct training. Evaluate the conditions before every dive and make sure they fit your personal capabilities. If you feel uncomfortable or stressed about the dive ahead, don’t do it.
Skills and equipment
Ensure you have the skills and equipment to dive safely. There are no scuba police and there is no safety net. There is no physical barrier stopping an unqualified diver from doing deeper, more complex or more challenging dives than he should. Sometimes, divers can also succumb to peer pressure or Dunning-Kruger effect. However, there is no shortcut to training and experience.
There are valid reasons why additional training is necessary for deeper dives, wreck penetration, drysuit diving or any number of other diving specialties. You must have crucial knowledge to safely make those dives, so if you don’t have the training, don’t make them.
Similarly, if you don’t have the right equipment, skip the dive. For example, if you’re diving at a site with current and boat traffic and you’re without a DSMB and reel, skip the dive. Although you could conceivably dive with a DSMB and reel per buddy team, if you become separated, one of the pair faces increased risk. And, as with skill training, don’t dive if you don’t know how to use the computer, DSMB and reel, or compass.
Get your equipment serviced and make sure it’s working properly. If you’re using ill-fitting rental equipment, address the problem and fix it before the dive.
Fitness and health
All divers require basic physical fitness in order to safely dive. The most popular introductory courses require passing a 200 meter/yard swim test as evidence of that. The level of physical fitness you’ll need then correlates directly with the rising level and challenges of the dives you’ll undertake.
Some simple dives require minimal physical effort. Falling off a liveaboard boat into a secluded bay with minimal current and gently finning around a reef for an hour is a restful and relaxing experience. However, some dives involve a long walk along a shoreline with all your gear. You may need to complete a surface swim to or from the descent/ascent point or kick against the current during part of the dive. If your fitness isn’t up to the task, or you would be unable to assist your buddy if things went awry, skip the dive.
Pre-dive, divers must usually complete an RSTC medical form confirming that they do not have any pre-existing conditions that may be a barrier to diving. In addition, there are transient health factors to consider too. If you have a cold, illness or injury, you’re less likely to equalize safely, which could lead to ear barotrauma. Diving in this situation may compromise the dive and, additionally, ear barotrauma can be very painful and have long-term consequences in extreme circumstances. Although it’s tempting to push the envelope and try to dive anyway — particularly if you’ve traveled thousands of miles — discretion is often the better part of valor. Sit the dive out if there is a question mark over safety.
Vacations also often involved self-inflicted illnesses due to alcohol, drugs and exhaustion. Drinking and diving are poor bedfellows. And diving when hungover carries increased risks of DCS due to dehydration and impaired judgement. If you’ve had a late night with friends, use some discretion and skip the dive.
Your mental health is also key. Pre-dive stress can lead to poor judgement or panic in the water. This, in turn, can lead to diving incidents and injuries. If you’re suffering from severe pre-dive stress for whatever reason and you can’t allay it, consider skipping the dive. Diving safely requires a calm and clear state of mind.
Don’t dive if you have an unaddressed pre-existing mental-health condition such as severe anxiety or depression. Underwater is not the place to address such an issue or be in a poor state of mind. Here, you’re more likely to be a hazard to yourself and your buddy. See your doctor and resolve the problem to a safe and manageable level before diving.
Alternatively, you may be suffering from pre-dive stress and anxiety caused by the dive itself. Environmental, skill, experiential and equipment issues detailed above may be playing on your mind. Speak to your buddy or the dive leader in good time before the dive and air your concerns. You may be able to resolve the issue with discussion, advice and an amended dive plan. However, if you can’t resolve the issue you’re more likely to panic underwater, so skip the dive.
It’s always tempting to go for a dive and very difficult to turn down a chance to get in the water. Ultimately, however, knowing when to skip a dive is an exceedingly important skill. Making the correct decision means that you’re putting your safety, as well as everyone else’s, ahead of less-worthy concerns. There are always other days and other dives.