Few things make me happier than being underwater with the fishes. I am often asked if diving ever gets old. I swiftly and proudly reply with a smiley, “Nope!” Being underwater especially at this time of year, with constant whale song, treasure hunting for rare sea life, away from my phone, bringing joy and fun to someone’s day; I just can’t think of a better way to spend my days. I find the ultimate calm in even the most challenging of dives. How do you arrive at that feeling? When does your descent become an exhale into peace rather than a moment of reaction ranging from elevated breathing to shear panic? Experience and practice are the obvious answers, but there is one more element that should always be at the forefront of any diver’s mind: Ocean Safety.
It is unfortunate that in just a short month and a half of 2018, Maui has experienced 11 water deaths. Two of these fatalities were scuba related. With this rather dramatic spike in incidents this year, I feel compelled to remind potential visitors and residents about the risks of being in the ocean and how to avoid turning them into reality. While ocean safety precautions often seem like no-brainer statements, complacency can turn a great sunny day into a nightmare in a matter of seconds. Knowing how to be prepared and how to respond in an emergency can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Reminder #1: The Buddy System
What’s the first rule in diving? Well, it’s Always Breathe and NEVER Hold Your Breath, but a close second is adhering to the buddy system. While I do not wish to cause any of the family members of the deceased harm by using their loved ones as examples, both divers were found alone. Diving is not a hobby that is meant to be a solo activity. While the likelihood of an incident is slim with proper training and preparation, the chances of something going wrong exponentially increase when one dives alone.
The buddy system allows us to help each other in and out of our equipment, to notice if something is out of place or tangled, helps us monitor air, and in the event of our own stupidity, provides us with assistance if we run dangerously low on or out of air. Dive and snorkel buddies should always complete an ocean safety check before entering the water. During the dive they should remain close to one another, constantly check in with each other, and help each other.
If for any reason you become separated from your buddy or dive leader during a dive and cannot find them after close to a minute, please please please go to the surface! It is much easier to find you at the surface than underwater with limited visibility. The same goes for the rest of the group. If you notice a diver has gone missing, do not just assume that he or she went back to the boat or shore alone. Go to the surface and look! Recreational or "no-stop" diving means that we are allowed a slow ascent and access to the surface if any part of our dive does not go according to plan. Safely bypass your safety stop and look for your buddy if he our she goes missing.
And let’s be honest. Say you go diving or snorkeling alone, and you see something amazing like a pod of passing dolphins. No one is going to believe you if you come back without a witness.
Reminder #2: Know Your Limits
Whenever I repeat this phrase over and over and over to my Open Water students, I tend to see a general eye roll. Naturally you are not going to do your first post Open Water course dive in ripping current to 100ft. But knowing your limits addresses more than just challenging dive situations.
Divers and snorkelers should first and foremost be in good general health with a fitness level that allows them to enter and exit the ocean without assistance. Ocean conditions and currents can change without warning. Having comfort and confidence in your swimming capabilities is paramount to a successful day in the water. Drowning is not as dramatic as it is depicted in the movies. It happens in silence, and without supervision (buddy system!), a tired swimmer or panicked diver can slip beneath a choppy surface unnoticed.
After the PADI Open Water course which consists of four open water dives as well as extensive practice in a pool or pool-like conditions, divers are technically certified to dive with a buddy to a depth of 60ft. This is also without professional supervision. While the course does make you a proficient diver, Banyan Tree Divers recommends collecting a significant number of dives in varying conditions before diving without a guide. Personally, it was not until my PADI Divemaster course that I finally felt comfortable navigating a dive site without a guide. Diving with a professional operation ensures that your equipment is assembled properly, your underwater safety is supervised, and that your dive is planned and executed as planned. Until you feel comfortable completing each of these tasks together with your buddy unsupervised, DO NOT just rent gear and go.
Reminder #3: Maintain Your Dive Knowledge and Training
A PADI Open Water certification is good for life, however, PADI does recommend that certified divers maintain their training by getting a Scuba Review after several months without diving. While this is not something a dive center can legally require, we see time and time again people wanting to forego spending the extra time and/or money. We get into the water under the assumption that they are comfortable with their dive training. Consequently we spending precious moments at the beginning of the dive calming the diver or correcting inadequate buoyancy while others wait to begin. This is not only unfair to other guests that are ready to begin the dive, it removes the dive leader’s attention from the rest of the group to focus on issues that are easily avoidable with proper training and comfort level. We can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to practice skills beforehand if you have had a break from diving.
Reminder 4: Stop. Think. Act
Imagine you encounter a diver or snorkeler who is face down in the water, seemingly not breathing. What do you do? The Emergency First Response and PADI Rescue courses were by far the most beneficial experiences that developed my confidence in dealing with dive and water related emergencies. We all hope that we will never have to use these skills, but if you find yourself in that dreaded situation, the likelihood of being useful and potentially saving someone’s life is the product of that training.
Even without training, anyone can help save a life by reacting quickly in a controlled manor. Alerting emergency medical services (EMS) is the most important step. The faster the victim is assisted by professionals, the more likely he or she is to survive. Time is crucial. If you are not trained in CPR then you can at least help others that are by controlling the scene, keeping spectators at a distance and allowing an easy path to the victim for EMS.
If you are interested in becoming CPR certified then contact your local dive shop or complete your half day course with Banyan Tree Divers during your Maui visit.
I wish there was a video that played on every airline headed for the Hawaiian Islands about ocean safety and the dangers to consider while on vacation here. Water accidents seem to occur all too often, and can easily be deterred by awareness and preparation. Our hearts and best wishes go out to the recently deceased and their families. Enjoy Hawaii’s natural majesty, have fun, and look after one another.