Almost all new divers coming into our sport are eager to prove to themselves, and to their friends, that they are good divers – that they measure up to the highest standards of the sport. Quite often they will seek ways to test their mettle – perhaps some sort of underwater competition or accomplishment that will prove beyond a doubt their personal abilities and skills for diving.
In the early days of skin diving, a man proved his worth by the size and number of fish he speared. Look back through the old-time pages of skin diving magazines printed in the ’50s and you’ll find many photographs depicting beaming divers holding up strings of dead fish.
Breath holding and prolonged free diving were other early day measures of dive skill. They went hand in hand with spearfishing and many a practitioner spent hours clinging to the bottom of a swimming pool ladder in an effort to improve his breath holding time. That was until the medical people blew the whistle and showed us how hyperventilation and overextension could easily result (and often did) in underwater blackout.
An equally insane yardstick of the hero diver is deep diving with compressed air. An astonishing number of misguided people have met with tragic endings during scuba dives to 270, 300 and even 320 feet! In the eyes of most veteran divers and instructors, these deep diving fatalities were senseless, needless affairs because depth is certainly no measure of a person’s diving ability.
If it is not fish speared or depth dived, what then is the criteria for a good diver? Or, more important, how do you spot a bad diver?
The qualities and characteristics which help to make a good diver are generally more subtle than a string of fish and one has to be a sharp observer to spot them. For example, it is not the magnitude of a diver’s sea stories nor the high grade on a final scuba course exam that proves an ability to dive. Instead, it is the diver’s actions in and around the water that provide the clues: How he/she prepares for a dive, how he/she conducts himself/herself underwater, and how accident situations are avoided. Here are a few of the signs to look for:
Physical condition – Good divers keep in good physical condition so that they can enjoy their dives and avoid panic situations. If they plan to make an unusually strenuous dive or go on a lengthy dive vacation, they prepare by working out at the pool prior to the trip. Good divers also know when to quit for the day. They know the limit of their own physical endurance and will not push themselves beyond this regardless of how good the diving.
Proper equipment – Good divers show up for a dive properly equipped. If it happens to be a cave dive, then they have the special tools for the job – such as safety lines and reels, underwater lights and pony bottles. There are a few basic pieces of dive gear that indicate the mark of a good diver: a submersible pressure gauge, a buoyancy compensator, a reliable depth gauge and an octopus rig.
Good divers also maintain and repair their equipment on a regular basis: Washing it at the end of a day’s diving and doing a pre-check of all their gear at least two days prior to the next dive. This provides sufficient time to repair or replace damaged equipment.
Underwater orientation – Good divers know exactly where they are during every moment of their dives, taking careful mental notes of underwater landmarks, current direction and velocity and the time spent. They can always find the way back to the boat or beach and seldom surface more than 50 yards from their mark. Good divers also keep a careful check on tank pressure and turn around before the air is half gone. Their goal for every dive is to return to the boat or beach with at least 300 psi remaining in the tank.
Buddy contact – “Never dive alone’ is the cardinal rule of diving, but there is much more to the buddy system than being in the same ocean with another diver. Good divers maintain continuous contact with their buddies throughout the dive, either by visual or audio means. In some cases they have pre-arranged rendezvous points underwater, such as meeting a partner at the bottom of the anchor line before starting off across the ocean floor. Most important, good divers have a definite plan of action should they become separated from their partners.
Awareness – Good divers develop a “sixth sense’ about impending trouble. They do this by maintaining a constant vigilance on those environmental factors which can contribute to a bad scene, for example: increasing surf, increasing current, signs of fatigue in a buddy, heavy surge, bad surface chop or the onslaught of nitrogen narcosis. Good divers, like good chess players, think ahead and when recognizing the signs of a problem, will generally avoid the situation by aborting the dive.
Pre-dive judgment – Knowing when not to dive is just as important as knowing how to dive. Good divers evaluate the dive site and water conditions long before making an entry. If the situation appears too hazardous because of storm surf, bad surge or other weather condition they abort the dive. The same holds true for their personal condition. If they have a bad cold, clogged sinuses or just don’t feel quite right, then they cancel out rather than burdening fellow divers with the possibility of a rescue problem.
Final definition – If you had to sum it up in one sentence, I think the definition might be: “A good diver is a careful diver’ (one who avoids trouble rather than one who is always struggling out of a tight squeeze). The next time you’re out on a dive, take a look around you and see if you can pick out the good divers. Better yet, check yourself out on this test.