“Never dive alone.” From the first night of the scuba course, this time-honored phrase is burned into the mind of every diver, right behind, “Never hold your breath.” Most believe that this admonition to dive with a partner is such a fundamental rule that it must have been carved into the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain. But, as with most things, there is often a great disparity between what’s expected of us and how we actually live our lives. The fact is, many divers only pay lip service to the buddy diving adage. And many others who believe they’re practicing it like a diehard, at times, only deluding themselves.
For others, the risk of diving with a buddy chosen on a dive boat without knowing the diver’s experience is worse than the risks of diving alone. Many divers effectively photograph or spearfish on their own because they are concentrating on their hobby rather than paying attention to their buddy.
The reality of a diving buddy
There are, of course, lots of good reasons to dive with a partner. One popular text says it’s for safety, practicality and enjoyment. Certainly it’s true that in an emergency, two heads are usually better than one. Equally, one can’t deny that it’s easier to stay on task or deal with minor problems when someone’s there to help. Andy many of us believe that a pleasant experience is enhanced when it’s shared with someone else.
I would also add that the buddy system is a good way to increase your knowledge and skill. Albeit not as good as taking a formal course, one way of learning about new dive sites or specialized forms of diving is by tagging along with a more experienced buddy. This not only helps prevent common mistakes, but reduces the stress and anxiety that often comes with doing something for the first time with someone who has no more experience than you. But if this is all true, why is there any dispute over buddy diving?
The reason that there’s far from unanimous agreement about the buddy system is that its advocates often view it only in the context of the ideal. In an ideal world, for example, no diver would enter the water without a competent, attentive and dutiful partner. Unfortunately, to advocates of solo diving, this is the same world where no one exceeds the speed limit and never includes a single deduction on their tax return that’s even slightly questionable. In other words, it’s a world that just doesn’t exist. There are circumstances in which divers inevitably find themselves on their own.
Some divers — most, I hope — believe in the buddy system and make a real attempt to follow its procedures. Yet, though they enter the water with a buddy, they sometimes find they’re diving alone. Lack of attentiveness or distraction are probably the most common reasons. The result is either a miserable dive spent looking for one another, or an ill-prepared and unintended solo experience. This scenario probably explains the great majority of buddyless dives.
In some situations, divers are lulled into a false sense of security by believing they’re safe just because they’re in the water with someone else. The reality, however, is that just because someone is diving with you doesn’t mean he’s a buddy. Unless the divers are attentive, willing and able to help each other, they’re actually solo. In this case, they’re no more prepared to help each other than if they had no buddy at all.
Who does, solo diving suit?
It’s becoming increasingly popular and some liveaboard vessels now allow it with the proper training and equipment. Some of the major training agencies now offer solo and self-reliant diver training courses as well.
But despite increased popularity, solo diving is often controversial among divers. Our buddy system mentality is so deeply ingrained that sometimes divers are unable to see the forest for the trees. As with most subjects — scuba diving or otherwise — there is a lot of gray area away from the extremes of the arguments. What are the pros and cons of solo diving? Is it for you?
Why dive solo?
First, there are the practical reasons. Solo divers contend that there are some diving activities that not only lend themselves to diving alone, but for which solo diving enhances the experience. For example, the last thing in the world an underwater photographer wants—unless, of course, he needs a model—is someone else tagging along scaring the marine life and destroying visibility. Adding credence to this is the fact that virtually all professional underwater photographers dive alone when there is no need for a model. And even in those situations where there’s someone else accompanying him, you can rest assured that for all practical purposes the photographer is solo diving. His attention is devoted completely to getting pictures, not watching another diver.
Like photographers, underwater hunters often prefer to go it alone. Many lobster divers look at buddies as nothing more than competitors for a limited resource. And having a buddy means that they’ll give away the location of their special spots and successful techniques. Spear fisherman, likewise, usually feel the same way about buddies. But they add that it’s a lot safer to dive without a buddy because a partner risks becoming an accidental target, particularly in limited visibility.
Yet another reason for diving buddyless is a practical one—there’s just no one else to dive with. There are lots of places where diving isn’t a popular activity. Not having someone to dive with is, in fact, one of the primary reasons the diving industry points to in explaining why some people drop out of diving. While I can’t endorse the practice of solo diving for that reason alone, it’s also difficult to rebuke those who do.
The final reason for going it alone may be the most compelling—the solitude. While there’s a lot to be said for sharing the experience, solo divers often feel that diving is best appreciated in complete isolation from others. It is, after all, the silent world, and some feel that the accompaniment of another diver is nothing but an intrusion.
Solo diving vs diving alone
The first thing to clear up is that there’s a vast difference between solo diving and simply diving alone. A solo diver trains, plans and executes her dive within carefully planned parameters, with additional resources and a honed skill set. Diving alone is what a recreational diver is doing if he becomes accidentally (or otherwise) separated from the group.
A solo diver plans the dive considering her SAC (Surface Air Consumption) rate, carries a redundant air source, spare cutting tools, timing devices or computers, SMBs and reels, lights and masks. A solo diver carries back-up resources to help deal with potential problems. Someone diving alone has no additional resources if something goes wrong.
A solo diver has undertaken specific training to understand what to do in the event of a problem. A diver alone is simply diving without a safety net.
Solo Diving isn’t for Everyone
it’s all about equipment and preparation. “I think if you are going to dive solo, you should have certain things in place: top-notch basic scuba skills (mask flooding/replacement, regulator retrieval, etc.), spare mask, pony bottle or extra tank with enough gas to get to the surface safely from the deepest part of the dive planned, as well as other equipment like a surface-marker buoy with signaling abilities. I have done solo diving, though I prefer to share the dive with others.”
Some basic guidelines
Perhaps the most important rule for solo diving is that the diver have past experience in similar diving conditions. In other words the dive isn’t beyond his level of experience and his personal comfort zone. This applies not only to the conditions present at the time he enters the water, but also consideration for how those conditions might change during the course of the dive. It’s one thing to enter the water on a bright, calm day with no current, but if the weather or tide changes, there won’t be anyone around to help. If in the planning process the diver determines that he can handle the dive only if conditions remain stable, that’s a good indication that he should abandon his solo plan and make that dive with an experienced buddy. This is an excellent illustration of the need for self-honesty we discussed previously.
Once in the water, perhaps the most important consideration is air management. Some suggest that the solo diver take the time to meticulously calculate his air requirements and probable air usage. My experience tells me that, except for the mission-oriented technical divers, divers rarely are willing to do this. A simpler and more practical planning guideline is to use something I’ve talked about in previous articles—the “rule of thirds.” This simple rule says that you should plan only one-third of you air supply for the trip out. Then, use another third for the trip back. The final third is a reserve for unforeseen circumstances which, when diving without a buddy, can be a particulary vital consideration.
The next consideration is, what if you screw up your air management plan and run out of air? There will, of course, be no one around to give you an octopus or alternate inflation regulator (although a solo diver should still carry such a device if, for no other reason, in case he encounters a second-stage malfunction). The only out-of-air contingency that will work for a solo divers is a completely redundant air supply, such as Spare Air or pony bottle. When making deeper divers, larger-capacity pony bottles or dual tanks with independent valves or separate regulators are essential.
SDI Solo Diving
Let’s take a look at the SDI solo diving program. To qualify for the course, one must meet the following requirements:
Must be at least 21 years of age.
Must have logged at least 100 dives.
Must have a signed medical release to guarantee that a diver is in excellent physical condition at the time of the course.
Must be a certified Advanced Diver.
The SDI solo diving course includes 8 hours of class and 2 dives. Among other things that are comprehensively covered in the class are the advantages and practical use of backup systems along with the use of other specialized sets of equipment which are regarded as “must haves” in solo diving.
We are often told in almost every non-SDI diving class not to dive alone, as we are posed to hazards when diving without a buddy.
But for solo divers, the technological advances in specialized equipment and backup systems should be enough to guarantee a diver’s safety along with the skills needed to solo dive.
Speaking of safety: Diving is truly unsafe IF you dive untrained; that is why we attend scuba classes and learn the ABCs of diving. Diving without a buddy is even more unsafe if you are untrained to do solo dives.
Whatever reasons you may have, venturing into solo diving still rests on your individual decision. Make sure, however, that you are prepared if you consider to dive solo.
Scuba diving is a social, buddy-driven sport. It makes sense on many levels for divers to dive with a buddy. It’s more fun, and usually safer, to dive with others around. We are all fully aware of what can happen when a diver ventures out on his own, and the ending often is not a happy one.
Solo diving has a purpose and many advocates, and there are times of crisis when divers have no one to help them. “Aren’t all instructors solo diving when teaching anyway? No student can save you in an open-water course.
Solo diving is not something to begin willfully and without preparation. For divers thinking about going solo, there is necessary training to take and additional equipment to purchase to be prepared for a potentially bad situation. After all, there won’t be a buddy close by to ask for help if it’s needed.