Tips on staying safe when you get lost during your dive
If you think you are lost on a dive, chances are you probably are. Whilst even seasoned pros can sometimes be navigationally challenged, navigation is a key dive skill that comes with practice, experience and perhaps most importantly, thinking about where you are in reference to the boat or shore, constantly.
There are many handy tips, outside the scope of this article, to ensure you return to the boat or your exit point time and time again and not just by fluke! When your navigation does go wrong, and sooner or later I guarantee it will, there are some important considerations to ensure you stay safe and get back.
So, as I said, if you think you are lost, you probably are! If this is the case and you really have no idea where you are, ask yourself, “should I continue to swim?” I have seen many examples where divers have lost the reef, easily done if you end up following a turtle or shark for some distance. More often than not, the divers would end up over sand not reef, getting into deeper and deeper blue water but would keep going, possibly on a bearing, ending up surfacing a long, long way from the boat. If this happens to you, I would strongly suggest ending your dive by doing one of the following:
- Skip your safety stop – if your dive has been shallower than 30metres, you have plenty of No Decompression Limit (NDL) time and your computer is not mandating a safety stop as you have had a conservative dive profile and ascent rate on this and previous dives that day, I would recommend that you and your buddy do not do a safety stop. Instead, slowly, slowly ascend together. The reason behind my recommendation is that in open water with no visual reference, it is easy to drift a fair way in 3 minutes, even with minimum current. This could drag you out of sight of the boat and put you into a potentially dangerous situation. With no stop recreational diving, whilst I would always recommend doing a safety stop to be conservative, this is the exception.
- Do a safety stop – if you need to do a safety stop, then, of course do one. You do not want to end up in a chamber by getting lost. If you cannot see the bottom and have no visual reference, you really cannot do much about ensuring you do not drift. If however, you can see the bottom, try to focus on a feature that serves as a visual reference to avoid drifting away from that point. For instance, if you can see the top of a bommie, make sure you remain directly above it. Always dive with a deployable Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) and make sure you deploy it on your safety stop. You may have no idea where you are, but hopefully your dive boat or others will see you whilst you are on your safety stop, especially important if you are drifting.
Once you have surfaced, if you are boat diving, signal to the boat that you and your buddy are ok. If, at this stage, you and your buddy have plenty air left, there is no significant current, you may choose to take a bearing of the boat and duck back down underwater to swim back to the boat on that bearing. Swimming back at just a few metres below the surface is often easier than on the surface because of less drag. If you are in deep water with no visual reference and even a slight current, then I would certainly think twice about doing this, you may well easily end up lost again.
If your boat is too far away to swim, or either fatigue or a current is preventing you getting back to the boat, leave your SMB up to ensure the boat can see you. Inflate your BCDs, signal for a pick up (fist in the air), relax and wait. Do not take your SMB down at any point until you have been picked up.
The worst case scenario is obviously that after surfacing, you do not see your boat. If this happens, inflate your BCDs, leave your SMBs up and tie yourself to your buddy (you can use the line from your deployable SMB for this). Tying yourself together will prevent you from drifting apart and losing each other. Stay relaxed and wait. The boat will start a search for you as soon as they realise you are missing.
If you can see the boat, but they don’t see you, keep your SMB deployed and try getting their attention with your whistle. Other signalling devices that you may consider keeping in your BCD pocket are a small signalling mirror or a tube of biodegradable water dye.
The sneaky peek
Quite often, you may find yourself not feeling completely lost. You may have an idea of where you are, but may not quite be sure. This may often be the case if you are not familiar with a dive site. When this happens, the infamous “sneaky peek” can be used. This is a useful skill that in certain cases may even make you look like a better diver than you are! So what is it? The sneaky peek is a quick glance at the surface to locate the boat / exit point before descending to navigate back. Before conducting a sneaky peek, bear in mind the same safety stop considerations as previously. If done with stealth, you may find that the boat does not even see you, allowing your group to navigate back as though you never even peeked! A word of warning however, if the boat sees you, you MUST signal that you are ok. There is nothing worse than seeing a diver surface and then sink back down again with no signalling when you are on lookout, so please bear this in mind.
So next time you get lost, consider the above to keep you safe and ensure you continue to get your DiveBuzz.