I’m going to preface this article by making an assumption that most of the readers have watched at least one of the Harry Potter movies and as a result will be familiar with the term ‘he who must not be named’. It’s a strange concept where an idea (or a villain in the case of the Harry Potter movies) is considered taboo to the point of even preventing open discussion on the subject. It should be pretty clear that this practice is actually counter-productive, particularly as much can be learnt in the arena of debate. Nevertheless, in the real world I can think of a few good examples where sub-divisions of society exhibit the same behaviour, discouraging the discussion of certain subjects which they deem controversial. Unfortunately this also extends to the sport of scuba diving. Yes, we have something nearly as taboo as bringing up ‘Lord Voldemort’ and it goes by the name of ‘Solo Diving’!
What is Solo Diving? I think the most commonly held perception is the one similar to what you would find on Wikipedia which simply states: “Solo diving is the practice of scuba diving alone without a dive buddy.” Interestingly enough you will also find this passage following it: “Solo diving, once discouraged, is now (since the late 1990’s) beginning to gain acceptance among experienced divers who have skills in self-sufficiency and redundant backup equipment.” This sort of sets the scene for the tone of this article in which I will further bring to light some of the division on this subject and in the face of adversity, some of the arguments that actually support solo diving. I will also speak to some of the weaknesses of the buddy system. In fact many of us in the diving community think that in addition to the above, a more comprehensive definition would also include something similar to the following: “One should consider solo diving risk management even when diving with a buddy if there is any part of the dive in which your buddy would not be able to render effective assistance.”
If you are anything like me and are totally unapologetic and outspoken in supporting solo diving (assuming certain provisos are met), then you’ve probably met with some conflict from time to time. In fact I think it’s fair to say that there is a small proportion of the diving community who are pretty quick to condemn anyone who so much as suggests that solo diving is an acceptable practice. The responses can sometimes be so out of proportion to the subject matter in question, that I have occasionally thought it a metaphor for the kind of mass hysteria that took place in the 1600’s. You might even imagine the screams. “They’re witches. Burn them!”
Ok, so that may sound a bit melodramatic (admittedly I did write it with a wry smile). But when I heard the ‘witch’ analogy used (again somewhat in jest) by well known British Technical Diving Instructor, Mark Powell, whilst presenting on this contentious subject, it struck a chord I could relate to. When it comes to the diving community it is no exaggeration to say it is massively divided on solo diving. In my own experiences I’ve found a plethora of different views that fall anywhere on a sliding scale. At one end are people like myself who openly support it, or explorers that endorse it (generally because they require it). Then as you progress towards the middle of the scale there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily oppose it but are nonetheless rather uncomfortable about admitting their support for it in public. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those that totally oppose it and this includes some that will go so far as to publicly criticise the individuals making a case for it (no matter how well defended their argument may be). This article is not intended to make such divisions wider but rather encourage more open discussion on the subject. I strongly feel that no subject should be off limits and that everyone should feel able to openly express their views without the fear of being on the receiving end of vitriol for daring to have a different opinion.
I first started diving in 1996 and since then have gained broad experience in different areas of the sport. I was once an instructor but let that lapse after moving out of the industry. In fact I actually spent several years completely out of the water during this time. Just before I left, one of the hot topics of discussion was that Scuba Diving International (SDI) had just released the first solo diver course for recreational divers. There was talk of other training organisations following suit and people were starting to accept that solo diving had a place providing the following considerations were adhered to:
- Undertake the specific training or gain the relevant experience necessary.
- Carry a totally independent redundant source of air capable of getting you to the surface with a margin of conservatism.
- Avoid ‘Pinnacle Dives’ (dives where you push beyond your experience and training).
- As with all diving, be extra disciplined to properly plan your dive in advance and stick to the plan.
Other considerations that were highly recommended included: Carrying redundancy on other items too (ie 2 masks, 2 cutting devices, 2 dive computers etc), being extra vigilant with equipment maintenance and staying fit and healthy. If one was diving only within the recreational SDI framework there were also a few other areas not recommended, as those required technical training. It was a work in progress but to my relief people were finally openly discussing the subject.
I had already developed a view that I was in favour of solo diving, having come from a background in distance open water swimming where a great deal of my training had been by myself. I noted that pilots, sky divers and many other individuals undertaking activities with significant perceived risk were not just permitted to go solo but were actually required to, in order to demonstrate full competency. I also noted that just about every diver that I recognised as a real pioneer, would not have been able to do some of their exploration without being totally independent, due to the tight confines they often found themselves in. In just about everything I’ve done I’ve always worked quite well joining the dots by myself so it was only a matter of time before this became my direction with diving too. It wasn’t long before I started researching the most effective way to do it as safely as possible. It was refreshing that the diving industry seemed to also recognise that it was important to have this discussion with people. We were on our way forward, or so I thought…
So fast forward to 2013. After being sidetracked by other adventure sports for a while, I found myself back in the water. In the process of acquiring new equipment I visited a number of dive shops and wanted to pick up where I left off, developing a set up and philosophy based on being independent and self reliant. However I quickly found that the subject of solo diving was again being frowned upon by many in the industry. Out of curiosity I spent a few hours one afternoon contacting a handful of dive shops located in various locations around the country via social media (shops I was already somewhat familiar with), just to find out their position on the solo diving question. The responses ranged from a minority of shops openly supporting it and permitting it on their boats, to those who were somewhat nervous about it but at a push agreeing that they too would support it for suitably qualified individuals, through to those who did not permit it at all.
Interestingly enough those that fell into the ‘may permit’ category weren’t prepared to state their opinion openly on social media and asked me to ring them up to discuss. Clearly despite recognised training being in existence, there were a lot of external pressures being exerted from other sources too, most of which were generally negative.
From my observations, when solo diving was spoken about in public it was still often in hushed tones and off the record. “Yes, we know it happens but shhh don’t speak about it too publicly because we don’t want new divers to know that.” To say the least, it was an immense source of disappointment to me that the industry had reverted to this way of thinking. This clandestine approach has always been a source of tremendous hypocrisy and in my opinion is part of the problem compared to having an open and properly regulated approach. However back in 2013 I was more perplexed by what could have caused this turnaround in attitude after the promising signs a decade before. Was it the rise of a few major technical training organisations that had sprung up whilst I was away which had stated views opposing solo diving? Perhaps in part. Or was it that we have just become so much of a risk averse society due to the growing fear of litigation, that nobody was prepared to endorse activities deemed to be even slightly more hazardous than the norm? Very likely! Even if the latter has some truth, is it a valid argument? Well… it might be if such activities were in actual fact significantly more hazardous, rather than that being an opinion arrived at with no particular basis.
Out of those of us who support solo diving (and privately there are a great many), nobody I know is condoning or suggesting that anyone should use a standard recreational set up (single tank, single first stage) to do it. In such instances clearly one’s redundancy is their buddy and that is the way they should continue to dive. This is a point lost on some individuals and even organisations that use statistics when such divers have come to grief to support their agenda that solo diving should be banned. Far from an example of the short falls of properly equipped solo diving, when you look at the case studies in more detail it becomes clear that many of these were more accurately examples of buddy diving where the divers had become separated and the buddy system had broken down. Statistics are frequently misused and cherry picking particular aspects of one case study to support ones view, whilst overlooking all the other aspects is rather disingenuous.
Someone who started objectively looking into the statistics in the local South Australian scene earlier than most was well known diving personality Peter ‘Puddles’ Horne. In the book “South Australian Diving Fatalities 1950 – 1985” (which was updated in 2005) he established that most South Australian diving fatalities (and at the time all cave diving ones) involved dive buddies being nearby or present. Only 4 deaths occurred whilst actually solo diving and they all involved people diving beyond their limitations and without the appropriate equipment.
Evidence Based Fact or Opinion?
The buddy system has long been advocated by most training organisations as the best system to use for managing risk. Done properly it is indeed a good system and I have no argument with that. There is also much pleasure to be had by finding good buddies and enjoying diving together. In fact I would go so far as to say the social side of diving is one of the biggest attractions to diving in the first place. But when divers assert that the buddy system is the only system that is acceptable, I think this is demonstrably wrong and has to be challenged. Like so many ideas that have been around for a long time, if they are repeated with conviction often enough by figures of authority, those ideas can be accepted as fact when it reality they are more likely to be opinions passed down in turn from others who have used a similar amount of conviction.
You may scoff at some of the following assertions but remember they were also considered statements of fact once too:
- “The Earth is flat”
- “The speed of sound can’t be broken”
- “Mount Everest can’t be climbed without supplemental oxygen”
This list could be extensive (see what other ones you can think of based on your own subjective experiences).
The same goes for diving. You may remember these if you’ve been diving long enough:
- “Dive Computers are Dangerous”
- “Buoyancy Control Devices are Dangerous”
- “Using Nitrox is Dangerous”
We now regularly accept that the above 3 statements are incorrect. With time and ongoing development the use of dive computers, buoyancy control devices and nitrox have become so accepted by the majority that they are now part of the landscape when one is talking about scuba diving. I would assert that solo diving (providing it is done with correct equipment and training) should be no different when you look at it objectively. It’s not for everyone (it’s certainly not for beginners) but I believe it should be an option for experienced divers. That’s not to say that properly equipped and trained solo divers are bullet proof because they aren’t, but neither are those diving within the buddy system. Any activity done in an environment which we would not be able to survive in without special equipment comes with some risk. You try and mitigate that risk as much as you can but you cannot totally remove it.
Many training organisations are nervous about condoning solo diving but some have gone one step further and actually have a stance against it as one of their core values. Should you wish to fully embrace their methodology there is a certain amount of peer group pressure to accept such views too. You can see how it would be difficult for an individual who has done all their courses with such an organisation to stand up in the face of such group solidarity and state that their own independent research had brought them to a different conclusion!
The Buddy System Done Badly
While I’ve agreed that done properly, the buddy system has merit, it is also important to point out that it can and all too often is done extremely badly. When that is the case, contrary to what many will assert, it actually provides a false sense of security. I’m sure we can all relate to the following examples:
Imagine you are buddied with a complete stranger on a dive charter and you have no idea of the capabilities of that diver or how well maintained their equipment is. Is this the diver you really want to be depending on should you have an emergency?
Imagine you are buddied with a complete stranger on a dive charter that doesn’t speak the same language and you have no idea if they were trained to use the same hand signals. As it happens this diver’s alternate air source is integrated into their inflator which means that you need their cooperation in the event of an emergency (as obtaining air from such an equipped diver involves them donating their primary regulator whilst they go onto the shorter inflator integrated one). The middle of a life threatening out of air situation is a poor time to find out that you have some misunderstandings. Is this the diver you really want to be depending on should you have an emergency?
Imagine you are diving with someone who is more focused on the photography they are doing. They are after the perfect shot to show their friends and families and have little interest in discussing with you the various contingencies should something go wrong with your equipment. Predictably, during the dive your buddy’s focus is seldom on you. Is this the diver you really want to be depending on should you have an emergency?
Imagine a diver, who despite your best efforts, has little interest in waiting for you and in their impatience disappears out of sight, despite signalling them to slow down on several occasions. You end up physically exerting yourself more than you normally would and go through your air quickly. Is this the diver you want to depend on as your only back up in the event of an emergency?
Imagine you are buddied to a diver who is well matched to your ability and experience. You plan your dive together; however during your dive the conditions are so clear that you end up 10 – 15 metres apart. Now imagine you are the diver behind and you have a failure to an upstream first stage (fails in the closed position). Without a separate redundant air supply you need to try and catch up to the diver in front in order to share their air whilst holding your breath. It will probably take at least 25 metres of hard swimming in order to do it (assuming the diver in front remains unaware of your plight and doesn’t turn around to meet you halfway). By diving without a redundant air source close at hand (which is the norm for most recreational diving) you are totally dependent on your buddy should such an emergency occur. Such instances (even if this amount of separation is only for a moment) are buddy diving in name only and yet they are common place. Is this a situation you want to be in?
Truth be told we’ve all got our nightmare buddy stories and it’s not always due to ability. Even two well intentioned and otherwise well trained divers can make mistakes. We’re all guilty of occasionally misunderstanding the rather crude hand or tactile signals that come with diving. Two brains can be a benefit if they are working together, but it’s not uncommon for two divers to misunderstand each other which can lead to further complicating a situation. As a solo diver you have only your own thought processes to concern yourself with which means that it can often simplify problem resolution. It’s counter intuitive for most divers to think that though, because of the constant reinforcement they have had throughout their diving career that anything other than diving within the buddy system is unsafe.
I couldn’t write an article like this without also bringing up the typical recreational diving professional. It’s very common for an instructor teaching a basic open water course to have up to 8 students by themself, all of which have no prior diving experience. Are these students realistically expected to save the day if the instructor has an emergency? It’s wishful thinking but in practice I doubt it! The reality is that the instructor is effectively solo diving. They are also diving with the extra impediment of looking after 8 students!
I struggle to understand how so many of the outspoken critics of solo diving (even when done with proper training and equipment) are so quick to overlook these situations that are common place in the diving community which carry more apparent objective risk.
Attitudes Towards Solo Diving
In my experiences I believe there are roughly speaking 4 types of divers. When it comes to our dive practices and attitude (particularly when considering solo diving) we can all identify with one category or another (or in some cases more than one category). It’s not uncommon to move between categories in a diver’s career either:
- The Open and Honest Solo Diver – Because of all the stigma that currently exists these are rare, but I believe this is the best category to be in if you advocate solo diving. These divers are generally extremely experienced divers who openly admit they solo dive. They have done appropriate training and have significant experience. They are diving with the correct equipment (in particular redundant air sources, but also back-ups of anything else that could be important). They dive within their training and experience using significant risk management and planning. These divers believe that solo diving is an acceptable practice when done correctly and think it has an important place within exploration. They are happy to engage other less experienced divers in conversation about it and make a point of explaining the proper protocols that are necessary before considering it. These divers don’t tend to encourage others to do it but are not in denial that it takes place.
- The Closet Solo Diver – Due to the stigma that currently exists these divers are quite common. They are generally dishonest about their solo diving exploits to the masses. They will solo dive when they feel like it but tell most others they don’t. Indeed many of them will assert that solo diving is not a safe practice whilst in public in order to be accepted by the masses. Many recreational instructors fit in here and their employment may depend on them staying ‘in the closet’ on this issue. One day they are teaching a course saying, “Never ever dive alone!” but the next day they are out diving alone! They commonly apply a double standard on the subject. While I think it would be massively more productive if they were open about it, the reality is that their attitude needs to be changed from the top down. If diving businesses everywhere accepted solo diving (providing the safety requirements were met) then many of these divers would ‘come out of the closet’.
- The Recreational Buddy Diver – These are the majority of pleasure divers. Those who have always tried to dive within the buddy system as they understand it. They generally use the standard single back mounted tank and single first stage, complete with a primary second stage and octopus (back up) second stage. Nevertheless on closer inspection they will normally admit that they haven’t been as disciplined as possible throughout each and every dive they have ever done. Whether through being distracted by photography, poor conditions or through inadequate diving discipline (not keeping track of where their buddy is), in all likelihood at some stage they have been in a situation when they had sufficient separation from their buddy, that they would not easily have been able to get to them quickly enough in the event of an emergency. Most divers I know would admit that they have been in this situation at some stage even if it was earlier on in their diving career, and without redundancy it’s this group that are most at risk. C’mon people, be honest and think of times when this has applied to you. We’ve all been here!
- The Technical ‘Team’ Diver – This training model really surged while I was on my decade away from the sport. Those divers who have specifically chosen to do most of their technical diving training with an organisation that has a strict ‘team diving’ policy with standardised equipment. The organisations they dive for strongly oppose solo diving and it’s no real surprise to me that many who undertake such training end up adopting the same view. One’s mentors after all, have a profound effect on an individual’s career direction in many sports and diving is no different. These divers usually have excellent dive skills and practice them regularly. Indeed within a good buddy system these are probably the best divers to have with you due to their discipline. They rigorously promote the buddy system and may acknowledge that some Recreational Buddy Divers occasionally do it inadequately, but in my experiences I’ve found that they seldom condemn bad buddy diving nearly as much as they do solo diving (even when it is done properly)! Despite their strong preference for diving in a team of well trained divers, occasionally they still have obstacles to deal with where they don’t have immediate access to their buddy. In such situations they are effectively relying on their own training and equipment.
In essence I am asserting that ALL divers at some stage have dived (even if for just a portion of a dive) in a situation where they are wholly and solely dependant on their own skills and equipment should an emergency occur. I am asserting that some people are honest and open about it and others are not. It is my strong opinion that open honest conversation about this subject is always preferential compared to pretending it doesn’t happen.
As things stand Scuba Diving International (SDI) is probably still the most well known organisation that teaches a Solo Diving Course. So shortly after getting back fully into diving, I decided to do it. I wasn’t really under any illusion that this course was designed for extreme diving or exploration, as it is much more basic in nature (which just serves to underline the need for more advanced solo courses focusing on exploration too). The SDI Solo Course can be done in a single day but I felt it would be worthwhile. My main motivation was to start a conversation on the subject with other like minded individuals without being constantly being told that it was unsafe. That being said, I’ve never thought it’s a subject to be taken lightly. There are many considerations that need to be put in place and there’s no room for short cuts.
During the course the most valuable thing was the discussion where we were encouraged to challenge our own view on our dive practices. This was important because in many respects safe solo diving is about attitude and keeping ones ego in check. In addition to the redundant equipment and training, a few other new points came up which I have since adopted. One involved servicing considerations and the realisation that if a regulator is going to fail it’s most likely going to be at one of two different times;
- Just before it’s due for service (having gone the longest time without attention).
- Immediately after service (in the event of human error during the service or faulty parts).
As a result I now offset the servicing of both my primary regulators by at least 3 months so they are done at different times. I also take this one step further (although admittedly this arose by a bit of a happy accident that I’ve decided to keep in place). I have a different make of regulator for both of my primary sidemount tanks. They are both high performing, balanced and environmentally sealed but as they are from different manufacturers they require different service kits. The chances of a faulty kit being installed on both of my primary regulators, is therefore almost non-existent.
Another solo consideration that we discussed was extra levels of conservatism with air management. If a dive site is more complex then consideration should be given to using more conservatism than rule of thirds. For those of you unfamiliar with what the rule of thirds is in the first place, it’s one of the golden rules of overhead environment diving where you penetrate using no more than a third of your air source to allow for a third to exit and an additional third to deal with something unexpected (or in buddy diving to donate to your buddy if they have a problem). Using a quarter for example, is clearly more conservative but if for some reason you lost a tank you would still only have just over double the air that you need for the exit. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds if you are doing a more complex dive, staging your tanks as you go then you are assuming they will be there when you exit. On the way back what will happen if you find that somebody has accidentally taken your tank by mistake (it does happen unfortunately, albeit normally not in Australia). A more likely situation is that one of your first stages fails which may render the tank virtually unusable, or that you haven’t shut your tank valve with just your hoses pressurised (which is recommended) and a free flowing second stage has drained it. Just having the extra air whilst solo will make it more likely for the diver to remain calm, be able to think more clearly and make the correct decisions to safely exit the overhead environment.
Another consideration that I have put in place is to use 300 bar DIN valves for both of my sidemount tanks despite using 232 bar steel tanks. The valves are actually 2 sides of a plugged manifold (a practice that is common in sidemounting in order to have two tanks set up opposite to each other with handles pointing in the same direction. The additional thread coverage gives me some more security if any accidental bumps take place with the environment. This is not the case for 232 bar DIN valves where some of the thread on the first stage is normally exposed. I’m actually considering doing something similar to all my additional stage tanks (although when overseas you have to make do with whatever you can rent, so it pays to practice with a less than ideal set of tanks occasionally, just to work out how to optimise them).
In researching this topic I wanted to touch a bit deeper on the subject of solo diving within overhead environments, which can be an even more divisive topic. I made contact with a number of underwater explorers that have needed at times to dive solo in complex cave systems and wrecks. One of those was Dr Peter Buzzacott who was kind enough to send me some great information regarding some of his travels. In one of his articles, that was released to a local cave diving newsletter, he described a course he had done which focussed on solo sump diving (a term for caves with a series of water filled chambers and air chambers in between). As a point of amusement I have to include a picture he sent me from an Italian cave. In it a sign states “No Diving With Other People”. Apart from an inner desire to get a T-Shirt made of this particular sign, I thought the whole attitude espoused in that particular story by the training organisation and local authorities (French and Italian in this case) was a breath of fresh air. It was a good illustration that its not just a small group of isolated divers or noted explorers that feel solo diving has its place in cave diving. A number of organisations around the world also endorse it as being the more practical (and sometimes less risky) option due to the unique nature of some of the caves. This is a point lost on some people who will claim otherwise and that a blanket approach of non-allowance should apply to all sites.
Some of the most valued insights I received whilst doing the research for this project was from the well known Australian cave explorer, Chris Brown. Brown is a bit of an icon of the sport and amongst his many achievements was a dive he did in the mid 1990’s. He was a member of one of the first teams to properly explore the elusive third sump of a cave system on the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia called Cocklebiddy. This sump extends to over 6 kilometres from the entrance making it one of the longest in the world. When the cave got too tight to continue in the normal method, he proceeded by himself, pushing his air supply in front of him (a practice known as ‘no mounting’). It should be apparent to most that trying to squeeze a second diver into such a place would have only added to the risk, potentially blocking the path out or at the least having the potential to cause complications. In any case when you are that far extended as an explorer, if a catastrophic problem occurs what is the more likely outcome? That a second diver saves the day, or that there is a double fatality? This same point comes up time and time again when considering any number of fatalities involving solo exploration. Thankfully it’s been rare but when it does happen it becomes highly emotive and those who don’t support solo diving can be quick to point the finger of causation in that direction. In the sober light of day it always needs to be raised (morbid as it may sound), that the even worse consequence of a double fatality would often have been a very real likelihood.
There is no doubt that many discoveries (in cave diving in particular) would not have been possible without solo diving. This makes it all the more unusual to me that for the most part the main cave diving authorities in Australia don’t permit it at this time. Underwater explorers who break new ground, understand that they only have their own equipment and training to depend on. Some have used terms like ‘temporary buddy separation’ when describing how multiple divers can get past tight restrictions, but in my opinion that’s just a way of avoiding bringing up the dreaded ‘S’ word. I believe it’s more useful to call a spade a spade and spell it out for what it is – solo diving masquerading as something that sounds a bit less controversial!
Diving is for enjoyment and while I have acknowledged that there is definitely enjoyment to be had by finding like minded buddies to share the experience with, sometimes there is also much enjoyment to be had by diving solo. Once an experienced diver has put into place the various safety and planning considerations necessary, it is my firm opinion that they should be permitted to dive by themself if they so desire. The attraction is similar to going for a walk in solitude for peace and quiet. It’s not for everyone, it’s not to be taken lightly but solo diving has its place and done properly I don’t see any real evidence that it’s any more hazardous that buddy diving. It is my stated hope that diving businesses and charters will follow in the footsteps of the well known ‘Mike Ball Diving’ boat, ‘Spoilsport’ which has permitted it for some years. It is also my hope that the authorities that oversee cave diving within Australia eventually re-evaluate their position on solo diving. Of interest to me is that the highest current certification currently offered by the dominant cave diving organisation in the region, was derived from a previous course, initially written around the demands of solo exploration. Somewhere along the way it would seem that its purpose took a different path. I live in hope that will change someday, with an advanced course around solo cave diving exploration being offered. Privately I know I’m in good company with this desire…
Many thanks to the following people for their assistance in researching this article:
Dr Peter Buzzacott ‘Solo Cave Diving – Just How Safe is it?’
http://techdivingmag.com (Issue 8)
Bob Halstead ‘On Your Own – The Buddy System Rebutted’
Peter Horne ‘South Australian Diving Fatalities 1950 – 1985′
Mark Powell ‘Solo Diving – Coming Out of the Closet’Share on Facebook