Seatbelts in cars, helmets for motorcyclists, smoke detectors in homes -- none of these have been universally adopted by individuals except in those countries where they have been mandated by law. Why is that? They clearly save lives. Well, frankly, safety precautions are not sexy.
“It’s never going to happen to me.” That’s the ever-optimistic sentiment of most people. You never felt the need to have a fire extinguisher in your home until it was ablaze. The Titanic set sail with insufficient lifeboats for the number of passengers it carried. Well, it was unsinkable, wasn’t it?
Divers might be slightly different, because whenever we break the surface after a serious dive, we have that momentary feeling of being alone in the ocean. In fact, we have abdicated our well being to the efficiency of those who are tasked with coming to find us. The foolhardy expect that task to be easy. They haven’t considered how tiny a diver’s head may look among the vastness of the ocean’s waves.
This scenario was encapsulated many years ago by six Japanese divers who got separated from their boat in Palau. There followed a massive sea search. One woman diver wrote on her slate, “We can see you searching but you can’t see us.” They found the slate attached to her body some days later.
Safety is such a boring subject, but the two separate events concerning lost divers reported in October in the Seychelles and Malpelo plus two more in November in Australia might have made you change your mind .
Many divers carry a bright orange or red safety sausage. Inflated, they can rise about a meter out of the water. In daylight, a boat operator with a high viewpoint and good binoculars can spot one about half a nautical mile away. The driver of an inflatable will be less able. Taller safety sausages are available, but rarely purchased by divers. Some divers carry an emergency flare in a watertight container, but if it works (and you never know until you try), it’s a one hit wonder. Rescue dyes don’t offer a panacea either. Their effect is soon dissipated in anything but a flat, calm sea. As for whistles, the noise generated by a vessel’s engines, plus wind and waves, make them almost impossible to hear. A search party in a small boat would need to cut the engine and listen.
A large bright yellow flag on an extending pole can be seen from a far greater distance than a safety sausage. The pole comes in several sections of plastic tubing that slot together and are held in place by an elastic cord that runs through the middle. Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in the UK, who test many devices, found that bright yellow was the most conspicuous color at sea. Alister Wallbank, leading the team of researchers, reported, “The folding flags were by far the most reliable and cost-effective device we tested, particularly the Day-Glo yellow [flag]. It was consistently spotted at up to two nautical miles. Yellow was the most conspicuous colour, even with breaking wave crests, and could be located in deteriorating light when it was impossible to locate pennants of any other color. Red and orange flags were located at up to one mile. Two of our observers who suffered from degrees of red/green colour-blindness, had difficulty spotting these colors, particularly in intermediate light. Not surprisingly, flags were most easily located when the search heading was abeam to the wind direction so that the pennant presented the greatest visible surface area. Though of no value at night, a flag is a low-tech solution for daytime. A diver can lash a folded flag to his tank and deploy it single-handed.
When a dozen divers went missing at the Elphinstone Reef in the Red Sea, they were finally discovered at night because some had dive lights. The divers lost at Malpelo in September carried no lights, although they went into the water late in the afternoon. They might have been luckier had they done so (two perished). So a fully charged dive light, carried and reserved for emergencies and not used routinely during the dive, should be part of every diver’s kit -- and during a predive check, verifying that it functions properly should be as important as monitoring the air supply.