Survive Your Dive

A U.S. Coast Guard perspective


A crew member operates the hoist on an MH-65C Dolphin helicopter during training operations off the coast of Los Angeles.

"Nobody understands the allure of the sea more than the U.S. Coast Guard, but we also see the tragic results when people underestimate the hazards. The adventure and thrill of diving are appealing to many, but the ocean is an unforgiving environment — and even less forgiving to those who recreate beneath the surface."
— Rear Adm. Karl Schultz, commander of the 11th Coast Guard District

Recreational diving is by and large a safe activity, but when accidents occur the outcomes are often frightening and can be fatal. The beautiful blue world below can quickly become hostile for divers who lack adequate training, are in poor physical condition, use improperly maintained equipment or are otherwise unprepared.

Although the U.S. Coast Guard does not have regulatory authority over recreational diving as it does for recreational and commercial boating, Coast Guard search-and-rescue crews are frequently called on to assist when divers are lost or in trouble. In the aftermath of a dive injury or death, the Coast Guard marine casualty investigators work with other public health and safety organizations to identify what went wrong and evaluate how to prevent future accidents.

In 2009 the Coast Guard began to forge strong partnerships with the San Diego Lifeguard Services, the San Diego Harbor Police, the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, the University of California San Diego Health System and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to analyze dive incidents. The committee formed by these groups produced six recommendations based on a comprehensive review of diver fatalities in the San Diego area. The committee encourages divers everywhere to ask themselves the following questions:



1. Is your training adequate for the current and predicted conditions? Will you respect the limitations created by the conditions and stop diving when conditions change or exceed your personal limits?
All the normal hazards of water sports are magnified for those who spend time beneath the surface. Strong currents can occur at any time of year. Cold water temperatures, limited air supply, reliance on equipment for survival and the lack of underwater rescue capabilities make it essential that divers are fully aware of their limits and prepared for all possible problems.

2. Are you prepared to abandon your weights, inflate your buoyancy compensator and signal for help when in distress?
Divers should not be afraid to ditch their weights, end their dives and signal for help at the first signs of distress. Interviews with divers who have experienced distress reveal that many of them did not understand they were in danger because they had not been taught how it would feel; therefore, divers should signal for help if they have any concerns at all.

3. Is your physical fitness adequate for the current and predicted conditions? Have you checked with your primary doctor to ensure that you are in good enough health for intense physical exertion?
Diving is a strenuous physical activity involving physiological demands unlike those of any other sport. Many dive fatalities are caused by heart attacks, and the risk is especially great for divers over the age of 45. Divers who have not dived in more than a year should consult with their primary-care physicians before attempting to return to the sport. They should then reassess their abilities with a simple or less-challenging dive.

4. Are you diving with a buddy? Have you reviewed each other's abilities, equipment and plans?
In addition to planning, health, physical fitness and awareness of weather and sea conditions, dive-safety experts stress the importance of the buddy system. Divers should never dive alone. They should always have detailed plans (which include times and locations) that they share with someone ashore.

5. Do you feel completely comfortable making this dive?
It is essential to prioritize safety and remain realistic about upcoming dives. Any hesitations about any aspect of a dive should be completely resolved prior to commencing the dive. Divers should also clearly understand their experience levels and only attempt to exceed these limits when the conditions are optimal and they are diving with more experienced partners.

6. Do you plan to enter overhead environments? If so, do you have the proper training and equipment, and are you familiar with the necessary procedures?
Diving in caves, wrecks or any overhead environments in which the path to the surface is indirect necessitates additional training, equipment and air supply. In overhead environments, prepare yourself for confined spaces, entanglement and disorientation.

According to the Coast Guard's Tactical and Strategic Statistics, in the past four years (2010-2013) the Coast Guard was called for assistance in 63 fatal dive accidents and 55 diving-related injuries. We hope that publishing these safety tips will lead to fewer dive-related tragedies. "The Coast Guard doesn't regulate recreational diving but is generally called in to assist during diving emergencies," Schultz said. "In many of these dive emergencies, injuries and death are preventable. We want everyone who enjoys the water, including divers (whose sport leaves little room for error), to make safety their top priority. We want you to survive your dive."

© Alert Diver — Summer 2014