This is probably one of the worst feelings a diver can have. What would you do if you are actually separated from your dive buddy? We all think about this. Even the most experienced diver can have this happen and it can sometimes be a scary and lonely feeling.
You learned everything from your entry level Open Water Diver course but sometimes things happen. What if you just finished ascending to the surface of the water and your buddy is not beside you. Maybe you were observing some interesting little sea creature and when you looked over your shoulders, your buddy is nowhere to be found.
In this article, I have an excellent step-by-step procedure on what to do if you are separated from your buddy, what to have in your contingency emergency plan and a great video for you to watch.
What happened to me
In the summer of 2007, I was diving in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands with my buddy diving a good distance away from the cruise ship dock. The weather was beautiful and the water was crystal clear.
About halfway into the dive, we heard engine sounds and all of a sudden our clear visibility turned into a murky cloud . A cruise ship had arrived and about to dock. The distant shapes were no longer colourful. I looked at my compass to see what direction I was facing and when I looked to my right and left, my buddy was out of sight. I couldn’t see past my arms.
The last time I checked on him, we were diving close together. I decided to stop and what seemed like eternity, was seconds. I heard some clicking sounds but had no idea where it was coming from. I used my tank banger to acknowledge back and did not see him until he suddenly appeared pretty much almost in front of me. We used our agreed upon hand signal to abort the dive and head back to the dive boat.
Of course by then all the coral formation shapes were gone and feeling like we were blinded by a wintery blizzard (I’m from Canada) we held hands while keeping track of our time and depth. Thank God we had our compass. I was thinking we should just start our ascent but I had no idea where the cruise ship was and didn’t want to run the risk of being hit by it. We kept swimming for another 10 minutes and to this day, I always think it was a miracle when we spotted the boat anchor.
Step by Step Buddy Diver Separation Procedure
Here is a great video I think you will enjoy watching.
The key thing to remember is never panic when you and your buddy are separated. Remember to always keep breathing. Keep in mind, this is the basic procedure of what you would have already learned and sometimes depending on the situation like if you are low on air, different steps will have to be taken.
1) Stop, Think and Act.
Stop swimming and think of what dive accessories you can use to get your buddy’s attention. Then act on it.
2) Use Your Dive Light.
Use your dive light if you have it and slowly do a 360 degree turn while looking upward, around you and downward. When doing this you are looking for your buddy’s bubbles and the dive light may help your buddy locate you.
3) Create Sounds.
Use whatever equipment you have to get your buddy’s attention, for example, an underwater whistle and a tank banger can create noise underwater.
Avoid consistently making noise because sound can get distorted making the origin much harder to determine.
4) Ascend, Safety Stop, Surface.
Your plan here is to surface.
After you spend a minute of looking for your buddy, your next step is to ascend slowly to the depth of about 15 feet. When you reach the 15 feet, deploy your surface marker buoy (SMB) to help your buddy who may already be at the surface know where you are.
Even though you may want to surface right away, you can’t because you still need to do your safety stop. Spend your safety stop of 3 to 5 minutes (depending on your type of dive – deep dive for example) looking around for your buddy by doing your 360 slow turn around.
5) Surface – Bubbles
When you reach the surface, look for nearby bubbles and look below you. Call out to your buddy several times. It would be a natural instinct to descend underwater again but DO NOT go back down. If you and your buddy had a dive plan, your buddy will be doing the same procedure as you and will appear at the surface close to where you are.
If water conditions are not favorable return to the dive boat and report your missing buddy.
6) Return to the dive boat.
In your dive plan with your buddy, you would know how long to wait at the surface, if the time exceeds that limit (it should only be a couple of minutes), make your way back to the dive boat and report your buddy as missing.
Contingency Plan Before You Begin Your Dive
Before you begin your contingency plan, here are some things to take into consideration:
1) There are always natural causes like currents and rough weather churning the underwater bottom loosening the sandy silt.
2) Even ocean water that is heavy with plankton soup can make visibility not the best but hey, we like this because the larger pelagic sea creatures like whale sharks and manta rays can sometimes be seen.
3) A diver close to the bottom can stir up the sediments when not paying attention. Improper kick techniques, especially during cave or wreck diving, can be deadly.
4) While you’re still on the dive boat and doing your buddy checks on each other, it would be a good idea to observe the weather conditions. Pay close attention to what your tour guide is telling you on the type of diving you can expect. If there are strong currents, for example, visibility may not be good.
5) Part of your buddy check before you and your dive buddy begin your entrance into the water, is to have a contingency emergency plan which includes diver separation. Both you and your buddy have already been taught how to surface safely in the event of diver separation but let’s think about this.
In your contingency planning, you would want to include the following:
1) Dive Accessories.
Always have a dive light, an underwater whistle, and a surface marker buoy.
2) Stay Together.
Agree to stay close to your buddy and go over your hand signals as it is your means of communication. If your buddy is into underwater photography, then you must be patient while still observing the whereabouts of your dive group assuming you both want to remain with them.
This may not always be easy, but always try to stay in each other’s vision. It’s much easier to help each other out if complications occur. Besides, staying close together means you can see more things.
3) Diver Separation Procedure.
Both you and your buddy discuss the buddy diver separation procedure as described above and agree to follow them. You will also want to come up with a time limit as in wait time at the surface of a minute or two and what to do if water conditions or other situations like out of the air that doesn’t permit you to follow the plan.
It’s also important to agree that when you create any noise it is specifically for the purpose of getting your buddy’s attention when separated. Having continuous noise is very disruptive to the sea creatures.
If the water is murky, you can both agree to leave your dive lights on making it easier to see your buddy’s dive gear and a way to follow the light when separated.
You can also agree to hold hands if visibility or current is strong.
Neither one of you should be expected to remain underwater until you find your buddy. This would not be wise as you use up your remaining air, plus you are losing time to get help at the surface. Remember too, you still need to have enough time to do your safety stop(s), an obligation that needs to be done.
I hope you don’t have to go through this, but I always say, it’s better to be prepared than not.
Remember, If you cannot find your buddy at the surface after about a minute, signal to the boat for assistance or other divers nearby at the surface. At this point, time is crucial and the faster you can get help to your buddy in trouble, the better.
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