Whatever the type of diving and however talented and experienced the individual, proficiency in technique counts for nothing if there’s not a supporting plan to hold the dive together.
Whether it’s a shallow shore dive; a drop onto a deep wreck – or even a quick bounce dive in a few metres of water to recover a dropped item of equipment – each and every dive requires proper forethought and planning.
Overlooking the fact that even the shallowest and easiest dive carries with it the potential for mishap, (risks that increase exponentially with depth, time and the complexity of the ‘mission’) there’s often a tendency to forget everything that was learned in diving 101.
Rather than considering each dive as a unique and self-contained challenge, many divers regard their certification level, experience and past achievements as justification for neglecting the basics. Other than perhaps establishing a few arbitrary parameters like maximum depth, dive duration and turn-around point, they often fail to consider all of diving’s variables.
Although planning a dive should be relatively easy and within most peoples’ capabilities, planning for diving is something that’s often neglected – especially when a diver considers him or her self to be ‘experienced’.
In diving, attitude is king. It’s the platform on which every other aspect of the dive is based and a pattern of behaviour that is readily transmitted to others. While everybody’s personality is different, the approach that a person takes towards a dive is a good indicator of his or her true diving competency.
Although a positive attitude is essential to the success or enjoyment of the dive, it should always be tempered with sound common sense. A diver who is overly confident and ignores all of the fine details is as potentially dangerous to other members of the team as one who has strong reservations and doubts about its viability. In that regard, a little apprehension prior to a dive is a natural safeguard against the dangers of complacency.
Taking nothing for granted a diver should be prepared to check and re-check their equipment, the purpose of the dive, it’s depth and duration, any decompression obligations, communications, emergency procedures, and all other relevant information about the dive. This should also include under what circumstances the dive will be aborted.
An obsessive pre-occupation with these details, however, can also be an indication that the diver has underlying concerns, and possibly lacks the mental confidence to perform the dive safely. In some instances this unease will manifest itself as false bravado or “gallows humour”, a seemingly light-hearted or callous pre-occupation with death and disaster.
Although a diver is expected to take responsibility for his or her own actions and well being, diving is – or should be – a team effort. In that respect the dive should be pitched towards the capabilities of the least experienced person in the team. (‘Experience’ is the Catch-22 of diving. The only way to gain experience is to do the dive; and without it – and the preceding training – it’s often difficult to get acceptance onto a team performing the more extreme type of dives.)
The tendency for divers to over-estimate their experience brings with it its own set of attitudinal problems. Misjudging their own capacity to handle any situation, they sometimes exert subtle pressures on others to carry out a dive that, for whatever reason, is beyond the comfort level of that other person – or the capability of the equipment being used.
An experienced diver with the right attitude is one who can apply the old saying, “Know your limitations and dive within them”, to their own diving procedures, and a person who also encourages others to exercise their right to say ‘No.’ and withdraw from a dive for any reason without fear of ridicule.
Certified or Qualified?
At an objective level, most divers will stress the importance of proper and appropriate training as a prerequisite to any type of diving. But invite them to put those views into effect as far as their own diving practices are concerned and many will claim credentials based on, “lots of previous experience”.
Experience is not always the best – or safest – of teachers. In order to maintain an edge, divers need to constantly apply the knowledge and techniques that they acquired during training. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly helps to reinforce that which has been learned. After any lengthy lay-off – in the case of extreme diving something that can be measured in weeks rather than months – the diver should gradually work back up to the previous skill levels, or even consider taking a refresher course. When skills become second nature, the diver has more time to concentrate on other extraneous issues that may affect the dive’s safe outcome.
There’s an old military adage, “Train hard, fight easy”. It has equal application to all forms of diving. Being certified does not equate to being qualified; and being qualified is only the sum of knowledge, training and recent experience.
Fitness and Health
Possibly one of the most neglected aspects of dive planning concerns the diver’s health and fitness. Even the gentlest of dives will impose higher than normal levels of physical and psychological stress. Unfamiliar surroundings, rough surface conditions, increased depth, low water temperatures and poor visibility will add to the burden placed on the diver.
Because diving is a strenuous activity, its participants are expected to have a certain minimum level of health and fitness. With the passing of the years it’s sometimes easy to forget that a person can still be healthy without necessarily being fit for diving.
Maintaining a high level of fitness should be every diver’s goal. Quite apart from the obvious benefits of being physically more capable of handling a demanding situation, it also encourages mental confidence in one’s ability to do so; reduces the potential for panic, and helps the diver stay in control if things go awry.
Diet and exercise, (including the exercise of common sense.) should play a strong role in every diver’s fitness programme. Regular medical checks carried out by an M.D. suitably qualified in hyperbaric medicine are also desirable, as is an “all-clear” after any prolonged or serious illness – particularly those that affect the lungs.
But even the fittest of divers will come unstuck when they forget that, “Today’s dive starts the night before.” Excessive consumption of alcohol and a lack of proper sleep and rest is a poor way to start the diving day.
Diving, it’s often said, is an, ‘equipment intensive activity’. It is. But look beyond the cliché and it soon becomes apparent that technology is only a tool, one that requires human intervention – and intelligence – if it’s to be used properly: It then follows that the finest diving equipment in the world is only as good as the skill level and knowledge of the user.
In that respect, equipment is only a means to an end. Its selection should be based on – and reflect – the nature of the dive. (For some people, of course, technology has become an end in itself, with the dive being planned around the equipment.)
Taking life support equipment for granted and assuming that the apparatus appropriate to one type of dive will serve for all dives, is both foolish and dangerous. Cost should never be an issue. Regrettably, it often is. Always use the equipment that’s best suited to the task. Safe diving practice may not come with a price tag attached – but equipment quality usually does.
Although most dive gear is ruggedly constructed, failure points can and do occur. Regular inspections and preventative maintenance are necessary if an equipment item is to retain its peak performance characteristics.
Despite it’s importance, “equipment – like the ability to dive – is not a panacea for the skills one lacks.”
The diving medium (water) may always be the same, but the environment certainly isn’t. Drawing a distinction between, say, cold- and warm-water, or fresh and salt-water is, at best, arbitrary and seldom reflects the peculiarities of a given dive site. Whether the dive takes place in a cave, a wreck, or in the open ocean, numerous factors have to be considered. It might be tidal flows, currents, prevailing weather and sea-state conditions, overhead obstructions, visibility, dangerous and venomous marine life – or even local variations in the conduct of diving operations: In short, all of the external factors that could affect the outcome of the dive.
It’s a situation that’s aggravated when those with an over-inflated opinion of their experience would rather ignore good advice that’s given to them by a comparative novice, (a person who may well have a better understanding of the dive site) than admit to gaps in their knowledge.
Some dives might be less fraught with risk than others, but there’s no such thing as an easy dive. Prior knowledge of a new environment gained through research, by talking to those people familiar with the site, and – if deemed necessary – by taking part in an accompanied orientation dive, will only add to the safety and enjoyment of subsequent dives, and mark the diver as somebody who is truly experienced.
Most divers who’ve given any thought to the matter believe that they know how to handle an underwater emergency. But having a good theoretical understanding of what to do in any life-threatening situation is not the same as being able to apply that knowledge quickly and effectively in a practical way.
Motor skills that are not reinforced through constant practice quickly deteriorate. Worse still, a half-remembered response may not always be the most appropriate one. No matter how well intentioned the motives, a badly conceived and ill-considered reaction always has the potential to make a problem situation worse.
How to deal with an emergency should play a prominent part in every dive plan. Ensuring that every diver on the team has all of the necessary knowledge, training and skills to deal with a ‘gone-to-hell’ situation is of equal importance.
Acquiring the necessary training and skills to deal appropriately with something that may never happen is an investment in peace of mind. As in all aspects of diving, “Act. Don’t get caught reacting.”
A good plan is one that takes into consideration every aspect of the dive; the more complex the dive – especially with regard to depth, duration and the breathing medium – the more detailed it must be. Which sounds fine in theory, until it’s remembered that complicated dive plans serve no useful purpose unless they’re easily committed to memory, or – and particularly in the case of decompression dives – written on a single slate.
Always bear in mind that changing or unforeseen conditions may require changes to the original plan. In order to meet this possibility, have one or more alternate plans available.
Rather than sticking rigidly to the old maxim, ‘Plan your dive, and then dive your plan’, a successful dive plan must be flexibile. It should not, however, be fluid.
Some of the most regrettable and avoidable tragedies in diving have occurred when otherwise experienced divers have become blasé about seemingly simple dives: Regarding them as mere routine, (and something that they had performed successfully countless times before) they neglected the importance of planning and paid with their lives.