Prepare to Get Found

Take part in your own rescue before you get lost.

Midway through their 10-day liveaboard trip, the large, experienced group of underwater photographers had gotten into a good rhythm of diving, resting, eating, editing photos and hitting the water again in search of new subjects.

Late one afternoon a skiff crammed with divers and photo gear set out from the mother ship. It made its way toward an easy shallow site with small bommies and rocks strewn along a sloping sand bar. The site was sheltered from the strong currents and choppy seas common in Palau.

All the divers had undergone an extensive safety briefing and had been issued a surface marker buoy (SMB) and an audible signaling device if they didn't already have their own. The group and two guides split up into small groups and pairs to capture the macro subjects they were after.

Early in the dive, Jim, who had brought along wide-angle gear, decided the conditions weren't favorable for the kind of photography he wanted to do, so he signaled a guide and headed up. The guide watched him reach the surface and then returned his attention to the other divers.

After about an hour, the others ended their dives and began to surface. As the skiff went along picking them up, many began wondering aloud where Jim was.

Jim had surfaced an hour previously. He had seen the skiff a short distance away and waited for the crew to pick him up. There was a light breeze, the skies were relatively clear, and Jim was sure they'd see him in a minute or two. But the crew was not expecting anybody to surface after 20 minutes; typically, if a diver were to have a problem it would occur in the first few minutes of a dive.

Jim drifted in the light wind. He inflated his SMB and blew his whistle. A low, bright sun behind him made him hard to see, however, and the wind blew his whistle blast away. He also had trouble keeping his SMB upright.

Jim watched the skiff pick up the other divers and then begin searching for him. It made pass after pass upwind of him, but no one spotted him. As darkness began to fall, he turned on a small strobe light that he had on his BCD.

After radioing the liveaboard, the crew of the skiff made progressively longer S-sweeps while 20 pairs of eyes looked for Jim in every direction. They cut the engine periodically to listen for Jim's whistle, but no one heard it. They searched the sandbar, too; Jim was a strong swimmer, and he might have tried to swim to shore if he had problems, they thought.

After a while the skiff ran low on fuel and had to return to the liveaboard. The crew alerted the authorities and other nearby liveaboards, which launched boats to assist in the search.

After the crew refueled the skiff, the captain took its helm and returned to the dive site to continue the search. Finally, the searchers saw a very small light in the distance. The boat drove downwind for six minutes at 29 knots before they found Jim and plucked him from the dark water. He was tired but unharmed.
Jim took a strobe light with him, and that act of preparation probably saved his life. An audible signaling device louder than his whistle, such as a DiveAlert, might have gotten him rescued much sooner. Inflating his SMB completely and waving it for attention may have helped, too, and a waterproof marine radio with a GPS, such as the Nautilus Lifeline, would have stacked the odds more heavily in his favor.

Don't dive without a good light, an SMB and a powerful audible signaling device. If you don't carry all the gear you might need to attract attention on every dive — whether it's a no-brainer dive or not — you could be lost at sea. If the boat crew doesn't keep an eye out for divers the whole time there are divers in the water, they risk losing somebody. They should always have a good pair of binoculars on board in case a diver goes missing.

Most offshore dive boats now require divers to carry a large SMB. Even a slight chop or swell can make a diver on the surface very difficult to see. When selecting an SMB for purchase, consider its size and features, which may include lights and/or radar reflectors. Editor's note: DAN ( carries a surface signaling kit that includes a 6-foot orange safety sausage with a radar reflective panel along with a whistle, signaling mirror and safety light.

Be sure you know how to deploy your SMB (see "We're Over Here!"), and practice using it in easy conditions. Pulling the bottom of the SMB underwater (or securing lead weight to it) will help it stand up straighter. Many guides deploy one at the safety stop to signal the dive skiff and minimize the risk of surfacing divers being hit by other boat traffic. Another strategy for alerting people on the surface of your ascent is releasing a big burst of air from your spare second stage just before you surface and surfacing in its wake.

Many divers carry some sort of light, and photographers often have powerful strobes on their cameras. Firing a strobe in a burst of three shots every minute toward a boat should attract attention. If you don't have an SMB, take off your fins and wave them above your head — do whatever you can to be seen. A large group is much easier to spot than a small one, so stick together if you're with other divers. Conserve your strength by ditching your weights and other cumbersome gear if you need to. Relax, and breathe while in the troughs of the waves rather than at the crests where water may break over your head.

Consider that good communication with the boat crew, your guides and your dive buddies is a critical aspect of preparing for a dive. If you think you might come up early, tell the guides and the surface support crew to be on the lookout. Dive with the appropriate safety gear, plan your dive, and dive your plan. Being prepared could save your life.

© Alert Diver — Spring 2014