A look at Solo Diving

A LOOK AT SOLO DIVING

Text and photos by Dave Abbott


Breathing as slowly as possible to avoid bubbles rising into the frame I manoeuvred myself into position slightly below the John Dory I was filming, framing his Roman nose and supercilious eye in the viewfinder.

Quite unconcerned by me drifting quietly alongside him, he had allowed me to spend a good ten minutes accompanying him as he stalked a small cluster of Demoiselles, no doubt hoping they would allow him close enough to gulp a meal.

I was diving alone which allowed me the luxury of spending as much time as I needed with each subject I was filming. There is often a considerable difference in the behaviour and approachability of marine life when solo diving than when diving as a couple or with a group. This is one of the reasons many photographers/videographers chose to solo dive when conditions are suitable.

Now having admitted to occasionally diving without a buddy, I have to say that in general I agree with the status quo that solo diving should be discouraged. This article is not aimed at encouraging the practise of diving alone. Solo diving is more common than most divers will admit, (especially among photographers) and instead of side-stepping the issue I think it is interesting to look at what motivates people to dive without a buddy, and some of the safety considerations involved.


Some viewpoints


Solo diving has always been a controversial subject in diving circles; it is actively discouraged by most training agencies where the buddy system is central to their course philosophy. The widely accepted view is that solo diving is not as safe as diving within the ‘buddy system’. However, there are a number of experienced photographers and researchers who take a more flexible view and believe that solo dives can be accomplished in comparative safety. From a personal perspective I view solo diving somewhat like technical diving in that firstly, it shouldn’t be considered by anyone not having a high level of competency and experience. Secondly, solo dives should only be undertaken in good conditions, with good equipment, good preparation, and good reason. What constitutes a ‘good reason’ is debatable. For many divers there is never sufficient reason to dive alone.

Tech-dive courses are generally the only area of training where preparedness to be ‘self sufficient’ (ie solo) is taught in case of buddy separation. Although the type of solo dives undertaken by photographers are usually less demanding and lower risk, the same principles of self-sufficiency, (ie, carrying a redundant air source) apply equally.


Who’s doing it and Why?

“Why do I solo dive? Because it is a hassle diving with someone of different ability and it restricts what you can do. The reverse is that in a group you may put yourself in a situation that may compromise your own safety, eg; The French Pass accident.

Would those divers be diving there if they were solo divers?

From photographers perspective I don’t think you can obtain the pictures you wont without sometimes diving solo.

Pete Atkinson, one of the world’s top underwater photographers has done thousands of solo dives to capture his award winning images.

For most people a dive shared is a dive doubly enjoyed and very few recreational divers have either good reason or even any interest in diving alone. Solo diving for a photographer usually evolves from a need or a specific goal that the photographer wishes to achieve eg; while in Sulawesi my dive buddy and I were trying to film courtship behaviour of male Mandarin fish. It wasn’t until we split up and found separate spots that we were able to capture the behaviour of these very timid fish.

The same principle can apply equally to scientific behavioural survey. Recently I have been studying cleaner fish behaviour at the Poor Knights. Recording their activities sometimes means staying in one location for extended periods of time making as little disturbance as possible to observe the finer details of their cleaning behaviour. Whether such considerations are sufficient justification for solo diving is a matter of opinion. In general though, the debate for or against solo diving revolves more around the issue of dive safety and whether it is compromised.


Solo diving, How safe?

Neville Coleman, Australian author / photographer has logger over 10,000 solo dives. He commented to me. “Safe Scuba diving has been my life for nearly 40 years since I was (BSAC) trained in 1963. To me staying healthy and alive so I can go on the next dive is of paramount importance and under no circumstances would I jeopardise that. If as a certified Scuba diver you are not adequately prepared to be on your own then the question remains; are you really good enough to be there, author”

While this is a fairly strong view, it is hard to argue with someone who has Neville’s safety record! As with most activities however, diving whether solo or in pairs is only as safe as the individuals involved.

Two careless divers in a ‘buddy pair’ are not automatically going to have a safe dive just because they are together. An experienced and well-prepared solo diver should be able to complete a dive safely if not more safely than an inexperienced or poorly prepared buddy pair.

There is no doubt that the buddy system is the ‘ideal’ way to dive and takes much of the risk out of diving as long as divers are properly trained, conscientious, and continue to practise the procedure they have learnt after completing their courses; -ie dive planning, proper pre-dive equipment checks, close buddy contact during a dive etc.

However if a diver misses out any of those steps or has a casual approach to ‘buddy responsibility’, then they (or their buddy) effectively become a solo diver without the ‘back-up insurance’ a solo diver carries in the form of a redundant air supply and planing.

While not so prevalent among new divers, the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to dive preparation and ‘same day, same ocean’ approach to buddy contact is still fairly common. In an ‘out of air situation’ a buddy who ‘gets into the water at the same time as you’ but is now out of sight 40m away is about as much use as a drysuit with no zip; -certainly less safe than a redundant air supply only 20cm away.

This is not finding fault with the buddy system but rather pointing out that evaluating solo diving safety reinforces the importance of the procedures involved in buddy diving -the same safety considerations apply to both, and it is up to the individuals involved to make it a safe dive. A solo dive can be undertaken safely if dealt with responsibly, this implies good preparation, taking the necessary ‘extra’ equipment required, and the prerequisites of a high level of competence and experience, ie, good navigation skills, familiarity with air consumption, ability to objectively assess conditions, and a methodical approach.


Added considerations

Because a solo diver can no longer be reliant on someone else to take care of problems, diving alone usually encourages a more safety-conscious and conservative approach, with greater than usual attention being paid to any potential risks.

Pre-dive equipment checks need to be extra thorough, and if I am diving alone with my camera, I do a second quick check over my gear and gauges while descending to make sure everything is functioning properly. Mentally going over what could possibly go wrong and how it could be dealt with is also good practise. Knowledge of the dive site and prevalent conditions is recommended. If conditions involve above-normal risks; ie strong currents, excessive depth, bad visibility, overhead environments etc, then a solo dive should be aborted.


Equipment


The most important addition to standard dive equipment that a safe solo diver should take on a dive is a pony cylinder and regulator, his / her’s redundant air source. This to be of sufficient size to allow an ascent from whatever depth the dive is planned to -including a safety stop. (I use a 3 litre pony cylinder strapped onto my main tank where it is out of the way). This is pretty really the only extra piece of gear necessary beside your standard dive-kit. Having accurate gauges and computer and checking / servicing of your equipment, regulator etc.

Fairly obviously all the safety considerations discussed here, whether relating to equipment, attitude or procedure applies equally to any kind of diving. At the end of the day whether diving solo or with a buddy, safety is still the top priority.

When viewed outside the context of dive training, solo diving is usually undertaken by experienced divers/photographers and probably does not deserve the negative comments it gets. Statistics show that multiple ascents and missed safety stops, poor equipment care, inexperience, or just lax attitudes are far greater causes of accident and injury than solo diving.

There are certainly plenty of ‘older divers’ out there who have done their share of solo dives over many years and are still happily diving now!


TRAINING AGENCYS’ POSITION ON SOLO DIVING

SDI / TDI

Early in 2001 SDI released the world’s first Solo Diver certification. SDI is not saying the all divers should start solo diving, but rather that for experienced and responsible divers Solo Diving is a practical and safe alternative. As in flying or driving a car, at some point you will do it on your own. SDI has built the Solo Diver Programme based upon divers’ demands; a course for responsible self reliance, something we should strive for in our diving.


PADI

Solo diving can be done responsibly, but let’s be clear about what responsible solo diving is and what it is not. It requires experienced scuba divers willing to make the necessary commitment to train and equip themselves to accept the added risks involved. That is to say, a person with the required attitude and aptitude to pursue responsible solo diving. This is true in other adventure sport activities such as solo rock climbing.

To responsibly engage in solo scuba diving, a diver must first be highly experienced, have a hundred or so buddy accompanied scuba dives, be absolutely self-reliant and apply the specialized procedures and equipment needed to engage in the activity.

This includes, but is not limited to redundant air sources, specialized equipment configurations, specific dive planning, and management of solo diving problems and emergencies. When solo diving is performed within this description, we see a place for it. Responsible solo diving is not diving alone without the mental discipline, attitude or equipment. That said, no amount of redundant equipment can effectively back up a diver’s brain better than another individual.


NAUI

For decades the responsible community practice of the large training organisations such as NAUI, has been to promote and encourage buddy diving. While there may be some very experienced and capable divers out there, nothing increases your chance of survival in a critical situation, than when you have your buddy alongside you. It is NAUI’s view that solo diving is not within the realm of recreational diving.

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