I have recently acquired a new buddy. He is always keen to dive, will look after me if required and he enhances my safety, enjoyment and pleasure, like all good buddies should. Since the onset of diver training and recreational SCUBA certifications, the buddy system has been a key and mandatory concept. As a PADI instructor, I instill this very buddy system and all it stands for into my students from the very moment they step inside the classroom. So why am I telling you about my new buddy? Well the catch is that I have gone against the grain of traditional recreational diving as my new buddy comes in the form of a pony bottle and I have completed my SDI Solo Diving certification.
The buddy system
As a dive professional, I am generally one of the most experienced divers in the water at any given time. If anything were to go wrong, I would like to think that I would be at least able to do something to help the situation. Despite preaching about the buddy system, however, as an instructor, I rarely have a buddy. Instead, I’ll be up front, leading my team, swimming backwards to ensure all students are ok, giving assistance as required. If anything were to happen to me, I am not convinced that a student would have the skills, experience or expertise to assist me. I am on my own. I have come to the conclusion that the buddy system works, however, this assumes that both divers in the buddy team are well matched in terms of experience.
For me, finding a buddy that is equally matched in terms of experience is getting increasingly difficult. The result being that I often get buddied up with a newbie diver. My newbie diver buddies, I am sure, have a ball. I navigate, look after them and effectively become an unpaid instructor on my day off! In exchange however, I get to end my dive on 120 bar.
I recently did a week-long live aboard trip alone. I was a little concerned about who I would end up being buddied up with. So, when the Trip Director advised that I had 2 choices, (1) being buddied up with a less experienced diver or, (2) complete my SDI Solo Diving training and certification and go solo, I jumped at the opportunity to go it alone. PADI, the organisation that I have completed all my prior diver training with also offer a similar course. The difference being that the SDI course certifies you to dive solo on successful completion of the course, whilst the PADI course does not mention the word ‘solo’ and is focused on being a self sufficient diver.
Being a self-sufficient scuba diver
The commencement of my course involved meeting with my instructor and setting up my gear including the set up of my pony bottle and spare regulators. There are a number of options for pony bottle placement, I chose to mount the bottle onto my main tank in an inverted position to allow me to reach down with my right hand when diving and easily turn the bottle on. The regulator second stage for the pony bottle was secured using a bungy, the mouthpiece, again being easily accessible with my right hand. We discussed the importance of pre-dive safety and gear checks for solo divers, proper gear maintenance and useful solo diver safety devices including signaling devices, surface marker buoys (SMB’s), dive knives, compass, spare mask, reef hooks and the like. Then it was off to complete my homework, my SDI Solo Diving Manual and knowledge reviews. The manual was simple, succinct and appropriately addressed key solo considerations including gas planning, equipment issues, dealing with emergencies without panic, decompression illness and dive planning. Certainly a good reference manual for the future.
The course is designed for experienced divers and a prerequisite is proof of 100 logged dives, minimum Advanced Open Water certified and 21 years of age. The course includes a check out dive where some key solo diving skills are assessed including navigation, switching to bailout bottle and back, buoyancy control and deployment of SMB. Back on the surface, I calculated my Surface Air Consumption (SAC) rate over a period of 20 minutes for use in future dive gas planning. I also completed 2 planned training dives, which included dive and gas planning and returning to the boat within 5 minutes of planned time. Gas planning and the operational “rule of thirds” where dives are planned to ensure the dive is ended with at least one third of tank air remaining is used extensively by experienced and technical divers. The rule of thirds ensures that sufficient gas remains in the tank for emergency purposes and is a key factor in being a self-sufficient diver.
The solo diving experience
So what is it like going solo? Great! For starters, you tend to see more and be able to get closer to the wildlife – just one set of noisy bubbles and not two or more to scare the critters away. You can go where you want and at your own pace. Great for photography as you can spend as long as you want getting your shot provided you are within your No Decompression Limit (NDL). After a couple of dives, I felt completely confident and self sufficient. The first solo night dive was certainly a test of nerves, but I quickly settled in and had a chat with the little voice in my head!
For sure, I still like diving with a buddy, it is great to share experiences with like minded people, but solo has added a new dynamic to my diving and I know there is no going back. It is certainly not for everyone though and, aside from the minimum course prerequisites, I stress that you need to be 100% comfortable in the water and confident that you will be able to respond appropriately and be self sufficient in the event of stress or diver emergency. If you are thinking about going solo, then, chances are, you are well on the way to being mentally prepared and self sufficient in any case. If that sounds like you, go for it, get the buzz, get the solo DiveBuzz!
[The SDI Solo Diving Course was taught by Julia Sumerling on a Mike Ball Dive Expedition in the Coral Sea. Header image kindly provided by Julia Sumerling of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.]