SMB

  • Safety Isn't Sexy!

    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 .

    One of the first rules of safety at sea is to stay with your vessel, but we divers habitually jump off into the unknown. What steps do we take to make sure our surface support can find us easily?SafetyMotherBuoy

    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.SafetySurfaceFlag

    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. al1100np_800x600

    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.

  • Getting Back to This World.

    When we scuba dive we enter a different world. We are privileged to see things that ordinary mortals may be totally unaware of. Leaving the shore or the deck of a boat wearing cumbersome kit to be rewarded with that instant feeling of weightlessness is just the start. We swim down and join the undersea domain of fishes and corals, and see shipwrecks and caverns and things that are hidden from those trapped at the surface. It truly is a different world and we can sometimes spend hours down there, it's so fascinating. We can also usually enjoy the tranquility afforded by the watery world below the waves.

    Surface conditions may change while you are diving..
    Alas, the time comes when the reality of decompression time or diminishing air supplies means that this wonderful experience must come to an end (before the next time). We have to rejoin the world to which we really belong - and that is when the cruel reality of life on the cusp between water and air can strike. Where is the boat? The truth is that when we submerge, for all intents and purposes we disappear from those left above. We leave the world we know and those we leave behind have little inkling of where we are. Not only that, but the the surface conditions may be nothing like the tranquility encountered below. It may have been calm when we entered the water but the wind might have strengthened and the sea-state worsened while we were away.
    100-101-2 The deployed surface-marker buoy indicates a diver is waiting below.
    It's important to let those that we depend on to make the transition from the underwater world to the world with which we are more familiar know where we are. A surface-marker buoy is the conventional answer. If you are diving in a strong current you might permanently deploy one at the end of a long line that you can adjust for depth by means of a winder reel. Otherwise you might choose to fill it with air and send it to the surface only when you decide to ascend. In that way it marks where you are while you make a shallow safety stop. Some buoys (DSMB) are open-ended while others come with a constriction at the filling end so that should a tall buoy fall over at the surface, it will not deflate. Of course, such a buoy comes with a dump-valve so that it can be deflated a rolled up after it has been used. Winder reels come in various sizes, each with a ratchet to make handling the line easier. Some divers prefer the simplicity of a spool, which, incidentally is easier to stow in a pocket when carrying it during a dive.
    Diver's Flag Surface-marker flag.
    In some parts of the world that are considered high-voltage diving destinations, places like Cocos or the Galapagos, Komodo or Aldabra, the sea can have large waves as a normal state of affairs so the boat crew will need to be familiar with the route their divers are likely to take. We underwater photographers tend to be an ill-disciplined lot and often end up in less likely spots, especially after being distracted by getting pictures of pelagic species such as whalesharks and cetaceans. We often come up where we are least expected and given that the ocean is a big place, we might need more that a brightly coloured inflatable plastic sausage. This is where the surface-marker flag is a Godsend. The surface-marker flag is deployed on an extending pole made of three sections with an elastic cord running through the centre. It is carried strapped to the diver's tank and can be deployed with one hand when it is needed. (These flags are available to purchase in the Ocean Leisure store on London's Embankment.) Because it can be positioned well above the surface of what might well be a choppy sea and because it is a bright colour in a horizontal shape, it is easily spotted. When I first tested one of these many years ago in the middle of the Pacific, not only did my own dive boat crew easily spot me at the surface, but the crew of another dive boat reported seeing it from many miles away. The other joy is that it is so low-tech. There is nothing to go wrong. Whether you choose a permanent surface-marker buoy, a late deployment surface-marker buoy or a diver's surface-marker flag, a simple brightly coloured device like this will see you safely transitioned from the wonderful underwater world safely back to your boat and the world you left behind. Some British dive boat skippers swear that a black DSMB is more easily seen (also available from the Ocean Leisure store). The choice is yours. Happy diving!Divers with DSMB get into their boat.

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