Scuba Diving Etiquette

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Divers may be tempted to think that, without any rulebook, diving etiquette is for the birds. With how many of instructor Peter’s pet peeves can you relate?

One could say that I have dived quite a bit. I have dived in South Africa (obviously), a little in Europe, the Caribbean and Indian Ocean Islands and of course the Red Sea. I have dived from liveaboards, in caves and from shore. I have dived deep, shallow, long, in warm and cold water and even underneath ice. I have dived in holes, mines, quarries, wrecks and once even in raw sewage! So, one can safely say that I have dived a bit.

At all of these various dive sites, having dived with a variety of weird, different and passionate people, I have noticed a certain diving etiquette and sometimes a certain lack of said etiquette. There is no diving etiquette manual; there should be one, but there is not. This does not mean, however, that you can just forget all that your mother has taught you the minute you encase your buff summer body in sleek neoprene. Allow me to elaborate.

The night before

I know, you are bulletproof. You can party till you drop and still be okay to dive tomorrow morning. I know you can, but do not do it. You are not alone. You reek of alcohol. Your eyes are red. You are the only person that thinks you are cool. It is dangerous. If your divemaster does the same, then change divemasters.

Kitting up

Get there in time. I know, I know, you have done 40 dives, having started diving with Jacques Cousteau, and that you can kit up faster than The Flash, but just humour your divemaster and everyone else on the beach and get there early. Contrary to popular belief, the entire boat will not wait for you just because you have paid. In fact, you might still have to pay and just not dive. Being late for the first launch simply means that all the launches afterwards will now be late as well. Choosing between one tardy diver and upsetting three other boatloads is sometimes a surprisingly easy choice for dive resort owners to make.

Kit up your own gear and check it yourself. Skippers laugh at divers (admittedly on the inside) who complain loudly on the boat that: everything worked on the beach and that “they” did not fill the cylinder, or (my favourite) that “someone” must have damaged, stolen, substituted or modified their O-ring (this normally when kitting up an A-clamp to a DIN cylinder neck).

The briefing

These are simple, all you have to do is listen. If you do not agree with the dive plan, then this is the time to voice your discontent. If you feel that the briefed dive is not up to your normal superior diving skills or that the present company is way below your extremely rigid and self-imposed diving standards, now is the time to change boats. The wrong time to impose your chosen course of action on the others, or to plan your own daring adventure, would be underwater when it is too late.

Briefings have two purposes, namely:

  1. It makes the dive masters look amazingly cool. With bare feet firmly planted in the beach sand whilst staring bravely into the shining orb that is Ra, majestically rising over the hazy ocean, they share the lore of the deep with their exotic black (sometimes pink) clad soon-to-be explorers of the unknown blue waters. This is the ultimate career-changing experience.
  2. It tells you what should happen on the dive and what you should do if “what should happen” does not happen. Concentrate on this bit. Do not talk – listen. This is where most dives go wrong.

The launch

Push. We all have to. That is how the boat gets into the water. When the skipper tells you to stand/sit somewhere other than opposite where you have loaded your precious kit, just do it. The boat is not a democracy. The skipper is the boss, a dictator if you will, the main man, the alpha, the big kahuna. Like the skipper or not, listen to him or her. The skipper is the one who takes you there and brings you back. Skippers only get paid if they bring the boat back with the same divers they left with.

Life jackets are for you too! It is not a choice. Your wetsuit, side-mount BCD, ping pong balls in your pocket or aeroplane blow-up pillow are not legal heads-up flotation devices, but your life jacket is. Tie the front; if you do not and the boat flips you will be found dead (floating yes, but dead) with your face in the water and a flirty vibrant orange skirt around your waist. This is a beautiful but deadly fashion accessory.

When launching: Sit down, keep quiet and hold on. Whilst screaming every time your face gets splashed with water might be considered sexy to certain maladjusted people, it is not. It is irritating and distracting. You do not do it in the shower, so do not do it on the boat. The skipper has enough to worry about getting a two-and-a-half tonne vessel through raging surf to also worry about what specific danger your particular scream might indicate. You are not warning the skipper of any impending doom by screaming, he or she is very well aware of the tsunami bearing down on him or her from the right. Let the skipper handle this in peace and quiet and if he or she dies let it be in peace.

The boat

Sit down. I personally believe that the RMS Titanic only sank when all the people rushed to the starboard side to see the iceberg they had struck. If they all went to the port side, the gash would have been above the waterline as the ship listed to the left and they all would have made it to New York safely. Standing on a wobbly, small inflatable boat is the prerogative of the skipper and when so instructed by said skipper sit down promptly.

When the boat stops, listen to the instructions of the crew. Holding weight belts up and shouting “blue with 20kg” for two minutes is not how dive masters intend to do CrossFit.

Check your gear and check your buddy’s gear, exactly like you were taught, every time (even if you already have 40 dives behind your name).

Check your own air whilst breathing on your regulator and looking at the gauge at the same time. I have had countless divers asking a buddy to “open” their cylinders, only to have the buddy close it accidentally. Your left hand and right hand turn in opposite directions, imagine that. You only realise this silly mistake at about 5m deep when the now half-turned open tank valve just cannot supply enough gas anymore; that is, of course, when you get to blame that famous “someone” for closing your tank. Or you can blame the skipper or the dive master. Or you can just check your own gas, after all, you are the one that needs it most.

Do not give advice to other divers (other than romantic if you have ulterior motives). You are not qualified to. Having 40 dives does not equate to a teaching qualification and neither is knowing an instructor or even owning your own gear. The worst advice you can give anyone is to tell them to use less weights. Your on-the-spot assumption that the other diver is entirely over-weighted is based on what information? Could it be that particular person’s body mass index, wetsuit thickness, water retention, cylinder size and construction material? Are you familiar with the diver’s experience level or are you basing your decision on your own misguided belief that brilliant divers such as yourself should use no weights at all? Weights needed for a dive are based on many factors other than your acute observation skills. One such factor you might want to consider for instance is the Archimedes’ principle. Without having a firm grasp on this principle and also knowing the person’s exact weight, including all their gear, and the exact displacement volume of the person and their gear, bringing the density of the water that they are soon to be immersed in into the equation, you are just plain guessing. If the diver has too much weight, they can always inflate their BCD, if they have too few weights, they end up not being able to do safety stops or have uncontrolled accents.

The dive

You have learnt to dive with a buddy, to do controlled descents, to follow established diving and safety practices and you have paid good money for this. Yet, on your first dive after being qualified, you seem to forget everything. You start listening to the guy across from you, who has five more dives than you, telling you to take off weights (see above), you hit the water and go fins up, racing the others to the bottom with absolutely no regard for your buddy, your safety or the briefing (that moment when the dive master was forlornly staring at Ra rising above the waves).

Unless you have done a drift diving specialty course and unless you have lots of experience (more than 40 dives), do not duck dive. It is unsafe, unnecessary and will only add to your diving woes. Of course you might have to duck dive if you listened to that guy across from you who told you to take off some of your weights.

Do what you were taught: Feet first, look at your buddy, dump air, gently descend and equalise often while looking at your buddy and making sure you both get to the bottom together. If you happen to come across a duck diving dive master, get hold of the buoy line and do the same as above. If the dive master complains that you held onto the line, change dive masters.

Diving is fun, not just for you but for other people too. So do not kick them. It is not nice and is considered bad form in diving circles. In fact, just do not kick at all. It is called mastering buoyancy. This way you will not kick and kill the reef either and in your own small way fight global warming.

Fifty bar, that is the end of your dive. It is not about your amazing air consumption; it is about the gas you will need as well as your buddy in the event that he or she needs to get to the surface safely due to not watching his or her gauges. Get out early and live to dive another day.

This is also the time to cast your mind back to the briefing and remind yourself on the agreed time and depth, so eloquently orated to you by the son (or daughter) of Poseidon on the beach earlier, and ascend. We do preach slow ascents, but spending half of your dive on the ascent is not what is meant by ascending slowly. Roughly 10m per minute is slow enough. This means that two minutes from 18m depth or three minutes from 30m is perfectly adequate.

When safely arriving at the safety stop (not the deco stop as is so often misquoted), stay there. Do not fin. The whole point of the safety stop is for safety, hence this cleverly named stop. You are supposed to be resting at the safety stop, so if you are furiously fining, either up or down to maintain your level, you are not resting. If you pop out, stay out and do not fight to get back down. It is safer and you will not look like a complete upside down idiot.

And then there is the latest craze: The surface marker, which for some inexplicable reason is now deployed from the safety stop. Why? The poor skipper has six orange buoys pop up around the boat which potentially means, to skippers, that there are six divers in danger. It is called a surface marker, meaning that it makes you more visible on the surface and deploying it from 5m depth has absolutely no definable purpose other than annoying the skipper who now has to contend with thousands of metres of floating line just waiting to catch the boat (the same boat you want to go back to the beach with).

Use the correct gear for its designed purpose. Using a delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) when you are separated from the group is a safety measure. But, then you would already have spent five times the money on a proper DSMB and most probably received training in deploying it from depth (because that is where you lost the group). Using a surface marker on the surface is also a safety measure when you find yourself at the surface with no boat in sight, but only then. Doing a safety stop under your surface marker is dangerous. Since you have lost the group initially (which should be the reason you deployed the surface marker originally), now sitting at 5m depth in a current makes you more lost, not more safe. Instead of taking two minutes deploying your surface marker from the safety stop, swim up. It takes thirty seconds, just calculate it. Once at the surface you can wave, shout and blow your whistle while at the same time inflating your surface marker. It is easy, simple, effective, safe and clever.

Once at the surface, it is important to get attention fast. Not from the bedraggled, booger-covered hunk or mascara-smeared honey next to you, but from the skipper, who is the person who will be taking you home (see where the surface marker comes in handy?). Also, watch the boat at all times. Do not snorkel unless you have an extremely compelling reason to do so. Floating on the surface, staring at the cute little remoras mating with your new super black fins below you, while a two tonne behemoth is smashing its way towards your soft, vulnerable, helpless and completely oblivious body is not a compelling enough reason. You have no idea how really, really small you look from a boat.

When you finally catch the boat, hold on to it. You can take your weight belt off with one hand – if you cannot, get your money back from your open water instructor. The boat will either drift away from or over you (depending on the wind direction) while you are trying to rescue a heavy weight belt from drowning with both hands. It is your call if you do not hold onto the boat.

Be nice and ask the skipper if you may haul yourself onto the boat as he/she is busy tying down the cylinders and dodging weight belts. When the skipper has satisfied his or her bondage fetish and all the gear is now tied down firmly, you will be allowed to get onto the vessel. It is called manners. Those things your mother was supposed to have taught you.

You might or might not recognize yourself somewhere in this article and you might disagree or even agree. You might even want to add some of your own pet hates, but ultimately, thinking a little bit logically about how and why you do or not do things in diving might make your dives safer and more enjoyable – including making the lives of those long-suffering skippers and dive buddies a little bit rosier.


Article by Peter Herbst, PADI Course Director