It’s every diver’s worst nightmare. You surface from the dive and don’t know where you are, and worse — the dive boat is nowhere in sight. Although this situation is quite rare, it’s not unheard of. How can you avoid this situation? And if the dive boat leaves you behind, what should you do?
Dive charters and liveaboard vessels usually have a series of checks in place to make sure they don’t miss anyone. Professional dive vessels also have procedures in place for dropping off and picking up divers. Dive-trip leaders set up dive rosters and take roll calls. They will inform the captain that the vessel can leave the site only when they have confirmed all divers back onboard.
However, sometimes (usually due to diver error) you may surface without the boat in sight. That may be due to poor navigation or adverse conditions such as strong currents. Alternatively, you may have to unexpectedly abort the dive due to a problem such as malfunctioning equipment, equalization issues or buoyancy problems.
The best way to avoid a situation where the dive boat leaves you behind is for it not to happen in the first place. Here are a few tips to ensure your rendezvous with the boat.
Plan the dive; dive the plan
It’s an old adage, but worth repeating. The best way to avoid being left behind is to plan the dive and dive the plan. Make sure that you and your dive buddies attend the dive briefing. Whether you have a guide or not, it’s your responsibility as a qualified diver to find out the key aspects of the dive and adhere to them. During the briefing, the instructor will share valuable information with you. Pay attention. Note any pertinent details on your dive slate and ask questions if you’re unsure.
* Pay attention to compass bearings and directions. Is the reef or wreck to the north, south, east or west? Which direction takes you back to your exit point?
* Note depths at various parts of the dive site. The topography of the site will give you navigational clues and help you find your way around.
* Note any significant landmarks described in the briefing. Pinnacles, outcrops, drop-offs, walls and rock formations all help you navigate to the correct exit point or find your way back to the boat. If you’re diving on an iron or steel wreck your compass will be ineffective, so note down the wreck layout, significant features and the location of the shot line.
* Be aware of any areas the local guide or instructor advises may have strong currents that could push you away from the dive site. If the guide tells you not to go around the corner of the reef wall, don’t. It’s probably because the conditions become more challenging or there are hazards there.
* Heed the expected run time for the dive. If the captain and crew instruct you to surface after a maximum of 60 minutes, do so.
* Some captains use a specific signal for pickup from their vessel, e.g. raising the SMB in a certain position. Find out what it is so you can signal your crew if the area is busy with several dive boats.
* Finally — and most importantly — note how and where you will be entering and exiting the water. Is the crew expecting you to navigate back to a boat moored on a line? Or is it a drift dive, where the main vessel will move to a specific area to pick up divers? Be sure you know before leaving the briefing.
Take the right gear
Make sure you take the right equipment for the dive. No matter how well a dive is planned, separations may occur. Bringing the correct equipment can make the difference between a very bad day and an interesting story for your friends. DSMBs, SMBs, horns, whistles, lifelines, mirrors, rescue streamers, strobes and lights can all help turn a potentially dangerous situation into a minor inconvenience. But what to take?
Delayed Surface Marker Buoys or Surface Marker Buoys (DSMBs/SMBs), also called ‘safety sausages,’ should be standard gear for every diver on every dive. Particularly, do not dive without them where there may be tides, currents or danger of separation from the group. Entry-level open-water courses from both PADI and SSI now include SMB use within their training syllabus. Easy to carry in your BC pocket, SMBs simply unravel. Inflate them via your regulator or orally to create a brightly colored tube that helps your vessel spot you upon pickup.
Not all SMBs are the same. Some are small and designed for easy storage and use in tropical conditions. Extremely large SMBs are better for conditions where you may be disappearing in and out of view in surge.Some SMBs feature strobes for even more visibility. If you are at the surface in fading light, point your torch inside the SMB to light it up.DSMBs, combined with a reel, are an even better safety device. You can deploy these from depth with the correct training. This allows you to signal your position to boat traffic before you complete your ascent and safety stop. Again, not all DSMBs and reels are created equally. Check with your local dive center for equipment recommendations and training on how to deploy them safely.
You can use signal mirrors on the surface to reflect light and catch the eye of passing boat or air traffic in an emergency. You can purchase a dedicated signal mirror. But if you’re on a tight budget, put an old CD in your BC pocket and use it as a makeshift alternative.
To avoid separation on night dives or in challenging visibility, clip a strobe to your equipment. This small, flashing light will also help your boat find you at the surface if you become separated as the sun is setting. Torches, also, are not just for night dives. Many divers also carry a torch in daylight; not just for shining into crevices, but also for signaling the boat if the light is beginning to disappear.
None of the visual devices listed above will be useful if the captain and dive crew are looking in the other direction. Most modern BCs come with a whistle. If yours didn’t, attach one. The sound of a whistle carries through the air much more effectively than human vocal cords. Attach it to your equipment somewhere where you can easily reach it.Squawkers or air horns can also boost your volume in an emergency. Usually fitted to your BC’s low-pressure inflator hose, you can sometimes use these above and below the surface. Certainly loud and effective, their drawback is that they function using the gas from your tank – so if you’re empty, you’re out of luck.
For those with the money and inclination, high-technology solutions such as the Nautilus Lifeline can offer a bit of a security blanket. While not inexpensive, this GPS tracker plots your exact position within 4 feet (1.5 m) in a 30-mile (50 km) radius. Simply press the distress button in an emergency and the dive boat will be able to find you. The Nautilus is becoming more prevalent in areas with strong currents and challenging seas, such as the Galapagos, where the units are often included as part of the liveaboard diving package.
STAY BUOYANT AND PROTECT YOUR AIRWAY
If the worst happens and the boat may not find you for a while or the sea conditions become tougher, don’t be afraid to ditch your weight belt or weight system to stay comfortable at the surface. Protect your vision and airway if the conditions are tough. Keep your mask on at the surface in challenging seas. It’s difficult to signal a vessel if you can’t see. A snorkel that you’ve stowed in your BC or wetsuit pocket can protect your airway as you face waves to signal for assistance.
None of these solutions are 100-percent failsafe. But having a few options at your disposal — with your dive buddies doing likewise — certainly increases your chances of being spotted if your dive boat leaves you behind