‘Dive alone – die alone’ has long been a ‘fact’ in the dive world. The mere mention of diving alone caused a diver to be shunned and looked upon as a risk-taking moron.
When asked if solo diving was allowed, dive operators and dive resort personnel looked aghast and told the diver that under no circumstance was solo diving permitted and suggested the solo diver look elsewhere for a boat or resort. Likewise, SCUBA certification agencies have historically preached the ‘dive alone – die alone’ philosophy … never dive without a buddy was SCUBA law.
While diving alone was taboo in theory, the reality was then, as it is today, far different. Many divers dove solo and continue to do so although the subject remains controversial and not widely disclosed. As written in a previous article, it is difficult for an underwater photographer to find a dive buddy willing to burn a tank of air while the photographer waits for an octopus to position itself for a photo. In the same vein, if maintenance is necessary while a boat is in the water, where will that diver find a buddy who wants to watch him scrape barnacles off a hull? While this instructor cannot speak for all instructors, it is not unusual to find those who sneak off occasionally for a solo dive as respite from the responsibilities of shepherding students five or six days a week.
Because it became more and more evident the ‘always dive with a buddy’ principle was not necessarily being followed, within the past few years some of the diver certification agencies introduced solo diving courses albeit somewhat reluctantly it seems. Rather than openly acknowledge solo diving occurs, the new solo diver courses are sometimes labeled ‘self-sufficient diver distinct specialties’, thus couching the agencies’ philosophies and long term promotion of the buddy principle and hinting that solo diving is in reality technical diving.
I confess that I have made as many solo dives as I have buddy and instructor dives. That said, I firmly hold to the belief that solo diving is a personal choice made after taking a step back to consider and analyze one’s true diving skills. These skills include the ability to focus on the essentials of air pressure and depth—even if becoming the first person to ever witness Great Whites mating—along with diving experience, and the unfaltering ability to stop, assess and react appropriately in any unusual situation whether on land or in water. Because of this belief, I never have and never will suggest a diver go solo. Again, it must be a personal choice based on several carefully analyzed criteria.
The basic prerequisites for enrolling in a self-sufficient diver course are that the diver is an adult with a minimum of 100 logged dives and an advanced diver certification. The required equipment includes a second mask, second air source, a sausage (aka a delayed surface marker buoy) and 100ft of spooled line. Depending upon the certification agency, a pneumatic surface signaling device is also required as well as redundant gauges. I believe a diver down buoy indicating divers in the water should also be required whether solo or buddy diving.
Is solo diving more dangerous than buddy diving? Statistics do not show solo diving to be any more dangerous than buddy diving. One tangent in the ‘dive alone – die alone’ theory is that diving with a buddy is safer because the buddy will be there if gear fails, a diver gets tangled, suffers a medical emergency, or runs out of air. But, will that be true, especially if forced to buddy with a stranger? Buddies have been known to complicate a dive emergency by panicking and abandoning the distressed diver or not having the experience to know what to do and how to do it. The results are two divers in distress.
Lastly, even though a diver may choose to become a certified self-sufficient diver, he still may not be able to go solo since many dive operators and resorts continue holding fast to the ‘always dive with a buddy’ rule and insist on assigning every diver a buddy.
Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.