Diving with a buddy

During your Open Water course you are conditioned to dive with a buddy, and a part of the training is doing a buddy check. There are many benefits to a buddy check, but a quick once over of your buddy who does the same to you is not enough. A decent buddy check covering all of the elements of BWARF ensures you and your buddy are ready, have air, have no dangly bits and have all the required items (a mask is not part of a check but try and dive without one and see how little you see).


You both have octos. It’s important to test yours, but equally important is that you test your buddy’s – after all there is a good chance it’s you that will need it in an emergency. Equally important is that you know where everything is on your buddy’s gear. It is unlikely that everyone knows just how to ditch their buddy’s weights if they have an integrated weight system.

Often you will be allocated a buddy on the boat, on the way to the dive site, and you have no idea what kind of gear they are using or even what it looks like. Try and make sure you buddy is next to you on the boat. Once in the water find them on the surface first, and descend together; looking for a total stranger at depth can be a little difficult.

Agree beforehand what the plan is when the first one of you reach the stipulated low on air pressure. Decide who is going to lead, discuss who will navigate, what your dive time will be, your dive profile and so on.

Few people realise just how enjoyable diving is when you have the same buddy dive after dive. Clare and I have done close to 100 dives together and we are so set in our ways that we know exactly what the other is thinking , planning and how each of us will react in a given set of circumstances. For example, when we found a horsefish at Long Beach, I displayed an animated action of a horse being ridden. Clare understood what I was doing but the other six divers in our group thought I was a lunatic.

Know your buddy, plan your dive and dive your plan.

A near miss at 26 metres

Diving accidents are rare, yet in almost every case stupidity features highly and Saturday’s dive was no exception. We were a group of seven. Three were former students with various qualifications (minimum Advanced), all having done between 20 and 100 dives. All regular divers with me, they were just tagging along for a fun dive. I had three students doing a deep dive for their Advanced diver qualification. All three had completed most of the dives for this course and deep was one of the last dives. I had assessed all three during previous dives and did not anticipate any problems. Cecil, very capable, excellent dive skills and safety concious; Mark, very capable, good dive skills and Diver X, also capable and on two previous deep dives had displayed good watermanship.

So what went wrong?

We descended in a strong current, staying reasonably close together and doing a nice safe slow descent. (I am not a fan of dropping like a brick.) I paused at 20 metres to make sure there were no signs of stress from anyone. Tami was a little slow in getting down but her buddy was watching and of all the group Tami rates high up on the best of the rest list so I was not concerned. The visibility was good, 10 – 12 metres and I could see from everyone’s bubbles that they were all breathing in a relaxed manner.

We dropped to the bottom, and I handed slates to the three Advanced students, slates with a few questions, a bit of maths, and a simple puzzle. This task is a good indication of nitrogen narcosis and a diver’s state. Some of the questions on these slates are ‘”How much air do you have?” and “What is your depth and who is your buddy?”

I time this exercise, so I check my dive computer during the process. This tells me if the depth answer is right, and at the end of the exercise I ask each diver to signal their air supply. Diver X got most of the answers wrong, and more to the point his air pressure answer was 10 bar. I asked him to look at his gauge as everyone else had close to 200 bar. He indicated he did not understand his gauge so I looked at his gauge and it was ZERO.

He then turned and swam away from me towards Cecil, pointing at Cecil’s body. Having someone point at your torso tends to make a person look down to see what he is pointing at. At this point I had caught him up and started to turn him around. He then spat out his regulator and at this Cecil realised there was some problem and perfectly executed the raised arms so his octo was in clear view.

I shoved my regulator in Diver X’s mouth and looked at his eyes – he had no idea of what was going on. I then gathered the group and we started to ascend with Diver X on my octo. At one point I had to bang him on the chest to get him to understand he should hold onto my BCD as he refused to do so and twice drifted off and lost the regulator. We did a short safety stop and ascended. He did not orally inflate his BCD on the surface so I did it for him.

I am extremely grateful to Grant for racing the boat over and getting us out of the water quickly, as we surfaced far from the buoy line (owing to the howling current) and the unexpectedly rapid ascent (and the fact that my hands were occupied holding onto Diver X) meant that we hadn’t deployed our SMBs. The dive site we were at, the wreck of the  SS Cape Matapan, is very close to the shipping lane into Table Bay harbour and very exposed. The southeaster was strong and the sea was choppy with fairly large waves making divers on the surface without SMBs very hard to spot.

What do we learn from an incident like this?

  1. Check, check, check your gear. I doubt Diver X checked his equipment before the dive. Second, he did not do a proper buddy check.
  2. Keep your skills sharp. Diver X has forgotten many of the skills he was taught when he did his Open Water course. Refreshers exist for a reason.
  3. Be fit to dive. Get enough sleep and don’t party the night before a dive – SPECIALLY a deep one, where there is no room for error. DON’T come diving if you’re hung over or stoned.
  4. Be alert before and during the dive. Check your pressure gauge before you stow your gear on the boat, when you kit up before rolling into the water, again when you get to the bottom, and frequently during the dive.

And, if you require a dive buddy with exceptional skills, then Cecil is your man.

I know you will all blame nitrogen narcosis for this incident, but on the way up I stopped at 15 metres, again at 10 metres, and again at 5 metres, and there was no change in Diver X’s behaviour. I had to descend from 2 metres back down to the group doing their safety stop and get them all together so we could surface as a group as we were diving on the edge of a shipping lane (I was concerned that we had possibly drifted into the shipping lane in the current) and I had not surfaced with a SMB as I could not release my grip on this diver to deploy the SMB.

What most people don’t realise is that when you don’t take dive safety seriously you almost always put others at risk. I had five other people with me, their safety being my responsibility. We risked surfacing in a shipping lane, without an SMB in less than perfect surface conditions (to put it mildly). All in all other people were put at risk due to the casual disregard for safety by one diver. Don’t dive stoned, hung over or when not serious: not with me and not with anyone else.

I’m left with one cylinder half filled with sea water, one salt-filled pillar valve, and one first stage and two second stages requiring complete rebuilds or servicing. And hopefully some thoughtful divers who all learned something today.

What it takes to be a Divemaster

Many divers dream of becoming a Divemaster or a Open Water scuba instructor. In reality it is a “dream job” as it is made up of 99% good stuff and only 1% of the bad. (More on this shortly.)

The Divemaster role requires hard work
The Divemaster role requires hard work

Sadly not everyone can be a Divemaster. Not because its difficult (it’s not – learning to be a Divemaster is easy and fun with the right mindset, and we can all learn something new if we want it) but something else needs to be there first, an intangible skill or demeanour for want of a better word.

There are lots of good Divemasters, people who scored 90% plus on all the exams, scored highly on their skill sets and have the right gear and proper diving habits. But there are fewer really exceptional Divemasters, who performed as well as the rest while in training but have that elusive ability to be exceptional Divemasters. These are people who you would be happy to trust in any situation. It is only in an emergency situation that this ability in a person shines through.

You need to be calm and authoritative to be a Divemaster
You need to be calm and authoritative to be a Divemaster

Being exceptionally good in the water is not all that is required. An active Divemaster will know the dive site, have exceptional buoyancy, keep divers together and ensure you all see the hidden beauty of the dive site. But will they cope when two people run out of air at the same time, or when half the group gets lost, or two people panic when their masks flood (90% of regular divers have not removed their masks since their Open Water course)? Will they make the right decision if the conditions are unsafe, or will they dive anyway because they need the money? What will they do if you see a shark and some of the group panic and some just freeze?

There is a lot more to being a Divemaster than completing the course. It is only once you have done the course and started working as a Divemaster that you start to learn, and only the right people stick it out. You need to have the ability to feel ”that was a good dive” despite a dive where things happen like an O ring pops on the boat, a regulator free flows, a diver loses a weight belt, someone gets lost , someone runs out of air and yanks your regulator out your mouth dislodging your teeth, the visiblity is lousy and the water is cold, the boat leaks and the weather sucks… Is this you? Yes? Then become a Divemaster and it will change your life… Diving is a way of life.

Bookshelf: Deep Descent

Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria – Kevin F. McMurray

Deep Descent
Deep Descent

I really don’t know if I can recommend this book in good conscience. I devoured it over the space of a day and a half, but it gave me nightmares for several nights running, and when I started thinking about it during the two dives I did just after I finished it, I almost panicked – twice – even though I was in four metres of water at Long Beach.

The Andrea Doria was a magnificent Italian cruise liner that sank in 1956 after a collision with another ship in the north Atlantic. The ship itself was enormous, a work of art, and outfitted with great attention to detail. It lies at over 70 metres depth, an 18 hour boat ride from the North American coast (and thus hours from the nearest decompression chamber). The wreck is subject to howling currents, and as you can guess, the water is freezing. All that said, it’s become a sort of Mount Everest to a particular breed of deep wreck diver, even though the factors listed all place it squarely outside the domain of recreational scuba diving.

McMurray describes the sinking of the ship, but his main focus in the book is the diving that has gone on in the decades since the ship sank. The Andrea Doria attracts a particular kind of diver that I am reluctant to characterise (because I will be rude – but I will probably give in after a few more paragraphs), and there have been fifteen diver fatalities on the wreck. McMurray (a diver himself who has dived the Doria several times) describes the circumstances of several of the deaths, and the other characters involved, in some detail.

As the ship lies in international waters, many of the divers – if not all – who visit her are keen to loot the ship of its china, crockery, fittings, and whatever else they can find. This activity was a contributing factor in the deaths of many of them. I was astounded at the chutzpah with which many of the divers penetrated the wreck – all the guidelines we learned in our Wreck Specialty course were flouted with aplomb. Owing to the depth, it’s very dark down there. The interior of the wreck is collapsing, and as it is a modern ship there is a maze of cables and numerous other hazards to entangle the unwary. In general those who died penetrating the wreck got lost (none of them used reels) or trapped in cables inside.

The depth of the wreck necessitates incredibly complex gear configurations, and in more than one case the diver’s gear arrangement meant that he died inside the wreck. A multitude of clips, pony bottles (two different gas mixes for decompression, plus double tanks on one’s back) and a bewildering array of hoses put all but the most experienced divers under pressure. During a moment of stress, accidentally breathing at depth from your cylinder of pure oxygen (for use at the final, shallow decompression stop) will most likely be fatal owing to oxygen toxicity.

Another danger of a dive like the Doria is decompression sickness – because of the depth, but also because the cold water increases the risk of DCS. The actual bottom time in most cases was half an hour or less, and the depth necessitated extensive decompression on the way up. Divers clipped themselves to the anchor line – the currents and remote location of the dive site meant that getting lost at sea carried with it a significant chance of a lonely death. Inexperienced or unprepared divers who shoot to the surface in such circumstances – whether through a failure to control buoyancy, or (more commonly) either a malfunction in their gas setup, an out of air situation, or panic, are likely to suffer an air embolism and die as their lungs explode. Paralysis is the other option.

I was thoroughly freaked out by this book, but peversely enjoyed it a lot – literally could not put it down. If I’d read it before I started diving, I don’t know if I’d have taken up the sport. The point is, though (and I wouldn’t have known two years ago that this isn’t “normal” diving), that the divers who do dives like the Doria – whether on air (can you imagine the nitrogen narcosis at 70 metres?) or on trimix (where a proportion of the nitrogen in ordinary air is replaced by helium) – are fringe operators, lunatics looking for something that recreational scuba cannot and should not provide. There are individuals who are careful, methodical and motivated by things other than proving a point – whether to themselves or their communities – but they seem to be few and far between. This branch of diving is rightly spurned by mainstream scuba diving magazines and operators.

The sport I do is safe, fun, and non-competitive, characterised by a spirit of co-operation. The diving these wreck cowboys engage in is dangerous, motivated by the wrong things (collecting china so that you can one-up the other divers? I think not!) and characterised in many cases by a competitive spirit, aggression, and a LOT of machismo. There is no place for that kind of carelessness or for any element of competition in recreational scuba diving.

You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here on Amazon.com. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. There’s tons more information on the subject on this website, including some pictures that show just how dark and murky it is down there.

(As an aside, there’s a Seinfeld episode called “The Andrea Doria”. The script can be read here.)

Seal Team

PADI has an amazing program for young kids. It is called Seal Team and it is a program in which 8 – 10 year olds can learn to dive.

Abby giving an OK sign
Abby giving an OK sign

My latest junior dive star is nine years old. Abby, on vacation from the UK, wanted to learn to dive with her older brother and sister plus mom and dad. The five of them spent two days in the pool and in these sessions Mom, dad and older brother and sister completed their confined skills for Junior Open Water and for the parents, Open Water diver.

Abby writes on a slate underwater - look at that buoyancy
Abby writes on a slate underwater - look at that buoyancy

Abby completed five dives and five Aqua Missions thus resulting in her being certified as a PADI Seal.
At the age of nine her buoyancy was excellent, she swam through hoops , cleared a flooded mask, recovered her regulator and used an alternate air source.

Writing on the wall
Writing on the wall

We also played games with hoops and slates and she used an underwater camera to take a whole lot of paparazzi photos of her family while they were all diving! The Seal Team crewpack contains a DVD and a manual/logbook with quizzes, puzzles and lots of information. It’s definitely not a Mickey Mouse course – and it’s a lot of fun both to teach and participate in.

Seal Team manual/logbook
Seal Team manual/logbook

FAQ: What can I expect on a deep dive?

I was very nervous before my first deep dive. It actually took a few deep dives before I was comfortable with them, and now I even look forward to them. Mental preparation for deep dives is something you might need to work on – it’s easy for one’s imagination to run wild when it’s an unfamiliar skill.

If you haven’t done a deep dive before, there are some things that you might want to know in advance:

  1. There will be a boat ride. You’ll roll over the side of the boat on the skipper’s count, along with the other divers. Don’t roll over late – rather stay on the boat and let the skipper drop you again when everyone has moved clear. If you land on another diver it’s a good way to ensure you won’t get invited for any more boat dives!
  2. You will probably descend on a shot line. This is a weighted line with a buoy on the end, and the skipper will drop it close to the  reef or wreck you plan to explore. You’ll use the line to make sure that you find your dive site – you’ll be descending through a large water column, and a current can easily carry you away from your destination. Circle the shot line gently with two fingers and use it as a guide while you descend. DO NOT grip it like a monkey!
  3. If you’re diving in Cape Town, it’ll be cold. And it’ll get colder the deeper you go. It might even be dark, too. The first 10-15 metres of water may be very murky and green, but down below that the visibility will probably improve, even if it’s dark.
  4. You will feel stupid. At about 25 metres, nitrogen narcosis becomes a noticeable issue. If you feel weird, ascend a bit, wait for it to dissipate, and then resume your descent – SLOWLY. But even if you don’t get it severely, your mental abilities WILL be limited. This is a fact of deep diving on air. You might find your field of vision narrows a bit, that you obsess over things, or that you are very conscious of only being able to do one thing at a time. All this means you need to take extra care, and don’t be reckless. Stay close to your buddy and watch each other carefully.
  5. You will feel heavy at the bottom – no matter how much or how little weight you are wearing. Don’t wait until you’re at 30 metres to start inflating your BCD. Stop at 10 metres, slow your ascent, and inflate your BCD slowly as you continue going down. This way you won’t rocket into the sand at the bottom (assuming there IS a bottom within the range of scuba – not the case if you’re diving a wall) like a cannonball, the chances of severe nitrogen narcosis are minimised, and you can be in control of your buoyancy all the way down.
  6. Colours will be dim and greyish. Take a torch – you may not think it’ll make a difference, but even at 20 metres the reds and oranges are significantly diminished and by 30 metres you just won’t see them at all without artificial light. One of the joys of deep diving is illuminating a very ordinary object and seeing the colours pop out at you.
  7. Swimming will be more of an effort than usual. The water will feel a bit like molasses – thick and viscous. You’re under tremendous pressure, and you simply won’t be able to dart around like a mosquito. Take it slow, don’t over-exert, and move at the speed of natural creatures.
  8. The dive will be short. This is for two reasons: first, you will use your air up very quickly at depth. If it is your first deep dive, this will be especially true – you’ll be nervous, or excited, and you won’t have the experience that enables you to reduce your air consumption. Second, your no-decompression time decreases the deeper you go. So even if you have lots of air, you will only be able to spend 20 minutes or so at the bottom before you have to ascend. If you can’t remember what no-decompression time is, it’s time to revise your dive tables!
  9. You will do a safety stop. Don’t be slack with this – it is absolutely vital. You’ll ascend slowly, maybe stop at 10 or 15 metres for a little bit, and then do a safety stop of at LEAST 3 minutes at 5 metres. Your cylinder will be quite empty, so you’ll be buoyant. Make sure that you control your buoyancy very carefully. Watch the Divemaster, your computer, or the reel on the DM’s buoy line (he may let it hang in the water next to him) to ensure that you stay at a constant depth. Your depth gauge will respond slowly to changes in depth, so it’s not hugely reliable at this stage of the dive.
  10. You might deploy a surface marker buoy (SMB). Your instructor may get you to do this yourself, for practice. An SMB (or as I like to call it, a safety sausage!) is a long tube on a line, usually orange or yellow, that you inflate with air from your octo (NOT your regulator). One end is closed (the top) and one end is open for you to put your octo into and press the purge button to fill it with air. It stands up straight in the water, and warns passing boats that there are divers about to surface. It also shows the skipper of your boat where you are, so that he can be nearby to fetch you. When inflating the SMB, hold onto the line attached to it – not the tube itself, or you might be pulled out of the water with it when you inflate it. Don’t fill it to capacity if you’re still at the safety stop – just a couple of purges of your octo will be enough. As it ascends the air will expand and when it reaches the surface the SMB will be sufficiently inflated to stand vertically out of the water.
    Gerard demonstrates correct safety stop technique in Sodwana
    Gerard demonstrates correct safety stop technique in Sodwana

    In the photo above, note how Gerard is watching his dive computer for depth and while it counts down his safety stop, hanging onto his SMB while he waits to ascend.

  11. There should be a hang tank for you to breathe off at the safety stop. A hang tank is a spare cylinder of air, with several regulators attached. It allows you to complete your safety stop without worrying about being low on air, if that’s the case. It also provides a useful reference for keeping yourself at a constant depth while you’re degassing!

    Divers breathing from a hang tank in Smitswinkel Bay
    Divers breathing from a hang tank in Smitswinkel Bay

Dive sites (Sodwana): Deep Sponges

I think our dive on Deep Sponges was among my favourites of the five I did in Sodwana. It was to 30 metres, and Tami and Sophie were doing their deep skills for their Advanced course. I descended right on top of a pincushion starfish the size of a birthday cake!

Giant pincushion starfish at Deep Sponges
Giant pincushion starfish at Deep Sponges

There was quite a strong current when we reached the bottom, and the rest of us tried to hang around in one spot while the girls filled in their slates. Once they were done, we set off – swimming into the current! This was exhausting and the water at depth feels like honey… Very hard work. Tony had a word with Divemaster Dean, and we turned around and did a fantastic drift dive in the opposite direction.

Another enormous starfish at Deep Sponges
Another enormous starfish at Deep Sponges - this one had nice green tips on his legs

Deep Sponges is on Two Mile Reef, and characterised by (surprise!) many different sponge formations. Within minutes of starting our dive we spotted a whitetip reef shark swimming past about 20 metres away. This was my first shark sighting (apart from sevengill cowsharks, catsharks, nurse sharks, gully sharks and shysharks!) and I was thrilled. He didn’t seem to care about us at all, and I wanted to chase him so that we could spend more time together. Story of my life… hehe!

Sponge at Deep Sponges
Sponge at Deep Sponges

I also saw two hawksbill turtles (or the same one, passing by twice). They look so relaxed in the water, crusing along in perfect solitude. This dive site is amazing because it is both deep and a reef, so you have the gorgeous detailed reef life as well as a good chance of spotting pelagic species passing by on their journeys through the open ocean. The reef fish were far more curious and confident than those we saw on the shallower dives, possibly because they are bothered by fewer divers.

Soft coral at Deep Sponges
Soft coral at Deep Sponges

My photos from this dive aren’t very good – I think because the current was quite strong, and because I don’t have strobes to illuminate the depths. They just don’t do the experience justice. Because the visibility was so good – almost top to bottom – there was a tremendous sense of space, but also all this magnificent life begging for some macro shots. I haven’t done enough deep dives with the camera (two!) to figure out what works. But I am quite proud of the picture of the soft coral above.

Safety stop at Deep Sponges
Tony (on the right) and the Silver Fox (on the left) help Giraffe and Mariaan, who had descended unexpectedly while arranging some alternate air source breathing

I hardly finned during the dive because we were drifting with the current, which was great, and in all the dive was very relaxing. I had plenty of air – surfaced with the Divemaster and Tony, which was awesome! Felt very proud of myself and got a handshake from Tony at the safety stop. We did a nice long safety stop punctuated by one or two dramatic incidents which were nicely handled by Dean, Tony and the Silver Fox (who is also a Divemaster). Almost everyone seemed to breathe off someone’s octo at one time or another.

Breathing off octos
Tami taking Dean's octo, and Tony telling Justin, who was finishing breathing from (I think) the Silver Fox's octo behind Tami, to continue his ascent

Dive date: 9 October 2010

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 31 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 37 minutes