10 Tips for Safe SCUBA Diving

So, you’ve decided to go SCUBA diving! SCUBA diving is an amazing way to explore underwater and have fun. Divers get to see reefs and wildlife close up and learn more about the ocean and all its life. Here are some tips that all prospective divers should know before taking the plunge.

1.  If it's your first time diving go with a dive instructor.

They'll take some time before the dive begins to show you what equipment you’ll be using, how to signal, and what to expect.  You can- and should- ask questions before the dive begins: it’s much easier that way!

Be honest about any medical conditions before you dive, as these may put you at risk. If you’d like to dive regularly you can look into becoming a qualified diver so you don’t need an instructor with you. 

2.  The bends.

It’s also called decompression sickness or diver’s disease, because it usually affects divers.

You know how when you're climbing a mountain you can experience elevation sickness because "the air is thinner?" 

No, really, the air IS thinner at higher elevations, and this is because at lower pressure (like the top of the mountain), molecules of oxygen and nitrogen that compose the air we breathe are further apart, so the same inhale you take at sea level introduces less oxygen into your lungs when you're on Pike's Peak.

How much less?

Well, pressure at sea level is 14.7 psi (pounds per square inch).  Pressure in Denver (the Mile High City) is 12 psi.  Pressure at the top of Pike's Peak?  8.7 psi. 

Now, back to diving.

woman diver looking at underwater statue of a woman with a bed of sea anemones growing in her lap

For every 30 feet deep you drop, you add about an atmosphere (that's 14.7 psi) worth of pressure on your body.  Gas compresses at these depths, and below about 45 feet, you'll want to factor in decompression time on the way up.

What does it mean when gas compresses?  The air we breathe is composed of oxygen and nitrogen.  Both nitrogen and oxygen solubilize in our blood stream and are carried around in our blood.  When our body is placed in a high atmospheric pressure environment, more of these gases dissolve in our blood stream.

With too rapid an ascent, these gases, specifically nitrogen, diffuse out of our blood stream into the organs of our body rather than how the gases are supposed to diffuse (out of our blood stream into our LUNGS where we can exhale those gases).

Symptoms of "the bends" include joint pain, problems with vision, headaches, and potentially skin rash.  Very severe decompression sickness can even cause death.

The way to avoid decompression sickness is to stop and hang out at shallower levels (roughly every 15 to 30 feet depending on how deep you were diving and for how long) for a few minutes during ascension to allow time for the gases in your blood to diffuse back out into your lungs and be exhaled.

The amount of time spent at each decompression level varies depending on how long you were diving, the depth, and if you'd been diving (or flying) within the past 48 hours.

For most shallow dives (especially those less than 30 feet), you don't have to worry about decompressing during the ascent.  Even at 45 feet, most dives don't quite last long enough to worry about decompressing.  Below 45 feet, however, you should factor some decompression time into your dive and be sure you've got enough oxygen for it.

Speaking of flying...

3.  It's a good idea not to fly within 24 hours of diving.

Why?  See #1.

If you don't dive deep enough to need decompression time on the way up, that 24 hour window shrinks.  DAN (Divers' Alert Network) has a guidance for how long you should wait to fly after diving and also why you should wait at least 12 hours after flying before diving.

SCUBA Divers and a sea turtle with sea coral

4.  Skip the dive bar the night before! 

Why?  See #1.

It’s recommended that divers don’t drink for at least 12 hours before a dive. A hangover while diving will sap the fun right out of the experience.  Your blood saturation level of oxygen is impacted by diving (see #1).  Mixing alcohol into that equation can be dangerous.  Plus, alcohol has a tendency to dilate blood vessels and reduce the shivering effect of the body.  Dilated blood vessels cause more rapid loss of body heat, and reduction in shivering can hide the effects of hypothermia.

You should also avoid alcohol for several hours after a dive.  This again goes back to #1.  Your body needs time to re-equilibrate to atmospheric conditions, and you've usually exerted yourself more than you realize while diving.

5.  Stay warm whilst diving!

Nobody likes being cold: it’s uncomfortable and makes people grumpy and distracted. But when you’re SCUBA diving it can also make you more likely to get decompression sickness. Why?

When we're cold, our blood vessels contract and it takes longer for excess nitrogen gas that builds up in our blood at depths of more than 30 feet to release back out into your exhalation when you decompress on the way up from a deep dive.

To stay warm you’ll need either a wetsuit, a semi-drysuit or a drysuit. The collective term is ‘exposure suit’. Which one you end up with will depend on where you’re diving: drysuits are best for cold water, and there are different thicknesses of wetsuits for different people and temperatures.

If this is your first time diving you should be able to rent a wetsuit/drysuit. Try to arrive early and find one that properly fits. If you haven’t worn an exposure suit before, be aware that it may feel a bit strange at first, and wetsuits are often really cold for the first few minutes. They warm up soon and you’ll get along swimmingly.

If you're prone to Raynaud's phenomenon, grab a pair of gloves for your hands.  And, wear socks or water shoes for your feet - flippers on bare feet are uncomfortable anyways.

6.  Stay warm after diving!

Make sure you pack a towel and a hoodie for the trip, so when you’re back on the boat you don’t get too cold. If you wear bikini bottoms/trunks under your wetsuit then you can take those off, dry yourself and put something warm on quickly. You could also put a beanie hat on as lots of heat is lost through the head.

7.  Never Dive Alone

Even if you’ve gone SCUBA diving before, you should take a buddy with you. The majority of fatalities occur when people go alone, which is why divers say ‘dive alone, die alone’.

Plus, it’s much more fun to have someone with you, as they can help you spot things you might otherwise miss (like the sea turtle off to the right or the stingray below the coral you're looking at). It’s also nice to have another person to share the experience with!

sealion pulling on man's SCUBA gear

8. Communicating Underwater

If you have a SCUBA buddy that you haven't been diving with before, talk to them beforehand to make sure they don’t have any medical problems that might affect the dive.

And, be sure to check the signals that they use: divers have a range of hand motions to convey information about equipment and the dive itself, but these can vary around the world. Run over your hand signals together before you get into the water.

SCUBA underwater hand signal for okay

9. Honesty is the best policy

If you start getting tired while underwater, be honest with yourself and your companions. It’s much better to end a dive early than stay underwater when you’re exhausted, as this can lead to all kinds of dangerous situations.

Pay attention to your buddy, too: if they seem like they’re struggling check with them and stay close together. Keep an eye on your depth, too, as at 30 meters (roughly 90 feet) nitrogen narcosis sets in. This has been referred to as ‘diver’s drunkenness’ and can impair diver’s abilities.

10.  Don’t hold your breath.

No, really- although breathing with your equipment on might feel strange at first it’s imperative to keep breathing normally. However, if you try to stop breathing you can rupture the alveoli in your lungs, which is really bad. The scientific term is pulmonary barotrauma, and in the worst cases air bubbles can get into your blood, leading to arterial gas embolisms and death. So, breathe normally and relax!

Bonus.  Make sure you’re eating and drinking enough.

Yes, this does sound a little like your mother… but it’s true!

Between the energy you use swimming around and the energy you use warming up when you’re finished your caloric requirements will rise compared to a normal day.

You can’t take food or water down with you, so have something with slow-release energy before you go, and consider a hot drink or some soup when you come back up, which will also help you warm up after your dive.

So, are you ready to dive in? Keep this information in mind, stay close to your buddy and communicate clearly (even grab an underwater whiteboard if needed to make you feel more comfortable with communicating underwater) and, most importantly, have fun! Diving is an amazing sport enjoyed all around the world, and you’ll see some truly incredible sights in the underwater world.

AUTHOR BIO: Edward is an adventure seeker who enjoys watersports, travel and good food. He runs a blog called watersportingadventure.com to help promote and teach others the wonderful world of water sports. His favorite water sports are diving and kayaking, although he's dipped his toes into pretty much everything!

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