How safe is your diving?

How safe is your diving? – French Pass – a wake up call

by Dave Moran
Friday 10 March was a black day for diving. Three divers lost their lives in French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, while doing a drift dive which was part of their 14-week NZQA approved Adventure Sports Institute (ASI) programme, Dive Technician II, being conducted by Nelson Dive Centre.

When such an accident happens, many questions need to be asked by Government organisations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Service (OSH), the Department of Labour and the Police.

The training agency involved, PADI Asia Pacific, are conducting their own enquiries regarding whether training standards were maintained during the dive programme. As a matter of company policy, PADI have instructors placed in a non-teaching status when any fatality occurs during a PADI programme. Nelson Dive Centre management have suspended instructor Andrew Stuart who was sub-contracting to them at the time of the accident.

On talking to OSH regarding their involvement, it becomes very clear that a number of issues have come out of this accident. The OSH officers will be looking at this accident under the ‘Health and Safety in Employment Act’ (HSE). Those involved in training should be aware of the duties between employer, employee and customers.

A clarification from OSH says:

‘The objects of the HSE Act include the duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that no-one is harmed from work. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that their employees can work safely, and that their staff’s actions do not harm anyone else. A principal that engages contractors or sub-contractors has a duty to ensure that neither they nor their staff are harmed. Self-employed people and employees have a duty to do all that is reasonable not to harm themselves or other people.’

The definition of ‘place of work’ also comes into play. Dive operators must ensure they are fully aware of their duties when diver training in their ‘place of work’ whether it be a swimming pool, sea, lake or river.

The HSE Act, in summary, defines ‘place of work’ as: a place where any person works for gain or reward. So, if there are people gaining income from an activity, then they are likely to have legal duties to themselves and to others affected by their work such as trainees in a diving school. If it is not a ‘place of work’, such as a non-profit recreational diving club – then the HSE Act does not apply.

Reports by OSH and the Police are due at the end of May, just after we go to press. The Coroner’s report is expected mid-June.

As with most things in life, they are fine until something unexpected happens. How you react and the final repercussions are very much dictated by what preventative measures you have put in place in the event that such an accident should occur.

The French Pass accident is a tragedy for all those involved.

Does this accident bring to the attention of those involved in teaching NZQA approved programmes the need for them to honestly look at who, why and how they are training individuals, in some cases, to be instructors? If the dive industry can openly learn from the accident without having its hands tied by company and individual interest then I’m sure the result would be beneficial for the future health of the diving industry. But maybe that is too much to expect … time will tell.

We hope to bring you the Coroner’s report in the August/September issue.

Is it time to re-evaluate our diving skills?

by Sue Rafferty

With the recent diving fatalities that have occurred in New Zealand it is prudent to go over safety issues that should be taken into account every time you dive, as well as brush up on some of the skills that we may be neglecting.

Our first consideration must be to our skill level. An experienced diver should know his/her limitations and dive within them. A new diver needs to become comfortable in the water before attempting deeper or more difficult dives. It’s common sense, but how often do we see people doing dives that fall outside their skill level?


At each dive site you need to investigate several factors before diving including currents, depth, surge, surf, the possibility of entrapment, visibility, weather etc. Once you have ascertained as much information about the site as you can, you need to evaluate it against your own experience level. If you don’t think you’re up to it, don’t do it. Try to find an alternative site, or determine the risks and the best way you can manage them.

Planning Dives

The PADI Open Water Go Dive manual states that you and your buddy should plan your dive together and dive your plan together. There are nine specific points to agree upon with your buddy to coordinate your efforts and optimise both your safety and enjoyment:

1. Agree on appropriate entry and exit points and techniques.

2. Choose a course to follow.

3. Agree upon time and depth limits.

4. Establish and review communications.

5. Establish a returning air pressure.

6. Discuss the technique you’ll use to stay together.

7. Agree on what to do if separated.

8. Discuss emergency procedures.

9. Agree on your dive objective. ‘Lets just look around,’ is as much of an objective as you need, but check that your buddy has the same objective.

In the USA approximately 1000 divers are treated in a hyperbaric chamber (DAN statistics). Of those, about 41 divers were bent following the guide’s plan. How often do you see divers blindly following a guide on a charter trip? It always pays to check a dive guide’s plan against the tables or your computer before entering the water. So what if the guide is offended. Remember it’s your safety that must be considered. And if you’re not happy with a planned dive, don’t do it!


A fit diver can swim against a current of 1.2 knots, and for a short burst could probably manage 1.5 knots. In general a current of less than half a knot is best. Whenever you are diving in a current always swim into the current for the first half of the dive. Using the ‘Half Tank Rule’ use half your air on the first part of the dive, and then use the other half to drift back with the current and make your safety stop.

Use the anchor line in a current as it is much easier to make headway against a current by pulling along a rope or chain. A current can carry a diver upwards too quickly. Sometimes a diver won’t notice until it’s too late, while others find it difficult to control their ascent.


Case history: A couple who were straight out of their open water course were so excited about diving that they booked themselves on a charter boat for the following weekend. They explained to the skipper that they had only done their open water dives, which were to a depth of 10 metres. They hired their equipment from the operator, and being a bit self conscious about her size, the girl squeezed herself into a wetsuit that was too tight. When it came to their first dive they were put in a group to be led by a dive guide.

The guide took them to a depth of 25 metres whereupon a combination of the pressure of her too-tight wetsuit and being much deeper than she had been before caused the girl to start panicking. Her only thought was that she wanted to get to the surface quickly. It was fortunate for her that her buddy was able to grab her as she started bolting for the surface and calm her down so that they could make a slow, safe ascent.

Panic is one of the most common causes of death in recreational scuba divers. As panic develops, the diver’s ability to think rationally and solve the problem deteriorates. The diver becomes more and more narrow minded and eventually may focus on only one goal, such as reaching the surface, to the exclusion of all other vital factors, such as exhaling during ascent.

A common reaction to anxiety or fear is a rapid, shallow breathing pattern. The SSI Open Water Diver Manual states: ‘To control anxiety and stress, and thereby avoid an erratic breathing pattern, first become aware of your anxiety if some difficulty arises, then stop, breathe normally, and think until you are relaxed and in control.’

Problem Management

You can prevent the majority of problems by staying relaxed and diving within your limits. If you have a problem at the surface establish positive buoyancy and call for help if needed.

– If your regulator starts freeflowing you can still breathe from it by not sealing your lips on the mouthpiece.

– If your gauges or computer fails you can ascend at the correct rate (30 feet / 9 metres per minute or less) by ascending at the same rate as your smallest bubbles.

– If you become entangled you can easily free yourself if you stay calm.

– If your air is very low you should make a normal ascent. Your tank will not be completely empty, so as you ascend the water pressure around you decreases and the remaining air in your tank becomes usable. By breathing lightly, but continuously, you can make a controlled, continous ascent to the surface. If your buddy is handy then your best choice is to use your buddy’s alternate air source, or buddy breathe.

– If your air runs out and your buddy is not available you can make an emergency swimming ascent (where you are prepared to ditch your weightbelt, if necessary, at the surface) or emergency buoyant ascent (where you ditch your weightbelt at depth). When doing either of these ascents exhale continiously while making an ‘aaaahh’ sound into your regulator to release expanding air and prevent lung over expansion injury. Upon reaching the surface, orally inflate your BC.


Make sure all your equipment is in good order and is serviced regularly. If you buy new equipment try it out in the dive store’s pool or in shallow water first so that you are comfortable using it. For safety it is recommended that you carry a safety sausage, whistle and knife with you. And if it doesn’t kill your macho image, a pair of brightly coloured fins could save you in an emergency (especially if you are drifting on the surface), as well as helping your buddy to see you underwater.

Information for this article was taken from: Diving Medicine for Scuba Divers by Dr Carl Edmonds, Dr Bart McKenzie and Dr Robert Thomas, SSI Open Water Diver Manual, PADI Open Water Go Dive manual, DAN Alert Diver magazine, and from discussions with several instructors.

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