As we wrote in a previous article, “Dive Alone – Die Alone,” solo diving is not widely accepted so divers using a commercial dive operator are forced to buddy up. If a diver is fortunate, his best friend is also a diver, works the same schedule, has the same free time, has the same discretionary income, and is ready to go diving at the drop of a hat. Not many divers have that luxury, so finding a dive buddy becomes a major issue. Many of us find ourselves traveling alone on a dive trip having no idea with whom we will be diving.
A bad dive buddy can turn a dream dive trip into a nightmare while a good buddy makes the trip one to be remembered for a lifetime. The question becomes how to find a good buddy amongst strangers.
First, avoid cattle boats (commercial dive boats capable of carrying dozens of divers) that assign dive buddies if one arrives alone. Once and only once, out of pure desperation to get in the water after a few months off, this writer lost her mind and got on a cattle boat where I was assigned a buddy. How bad could it be … one dive?
It was bad, really bad. He was a go-as-fast-as-you-can diver. Eventually he went missing, so I began running a search pattern. Low and behold, from the far side of the reef where he was not supposed to be, I saw bubbles. I’d started in that direction when I noticed he was coming at me like a torpedo with a loaded spear gun and his finger was on the trigger. No matter which way I went or how much I signaled to put the gun down, the little Lone Ranger kept coming with the spear pointed at my chest. There was nowhere to go but behind a very small coral head. As he came around the bend I snatched the gun away, unloaded it and headed back to the cattle boat with the Lone Ranger in tow. He was not happy that his newly found treasure was confiscated and never grasped the idea that he could have killed someone.
Secondly, pay attention to body language and attitude. Is that one’s hand trembling as he sets up his gear? Is that one fumbling and stealing glances at other divers setting up? Is that one proclaiming loudly that he was a SEAL or a Navy diver? Trembling hands likely means the diver is scared. Fumbling with gear while sneaking glances at others’ gear likely means, ‘I don’t have a clue’. As for the former SEALs and Navy divers, well … how come you put your regulator on your tank backwards? Talking rapidly or high-pitched laughing can also be a clue to a stressed diver who won’t make a safe buddy.
Another sign of an unsafe diver is fidgeting with his gear once it is set up. Is he constantly checking his air, adjusting straps and weights, is he isolating from other divers, or talking too much? Most importantly, how is he adjusting his dive mask? A good diver rarely if ever readjusts his mask because he’s found the sweet spot, however, if the diver’s tugging at the mask strap to the point it’s embedded in his skin, then beware. The chances are he will likely panic if water enters his mask. A good diver should be able to dive without a mask in an emergency rather than bolt to the surface in terror.
Once in the water, descend slowly and watch the new buddy. Is he still fidgeting with his mask and gear? Is he bobbing to the surface using the excuse that his gear is faulty or he needs another 20lb of lead? Do his eyes look like the proverbial ‘deer in the headlights’? Is his pressure gauge rapidly dropping because he is huffing air like a freight train? These are all red flags.
Finally, whether on a cattle boat or a smaller vessel, remember who pays the bills. Look for the signs listed above. If at all uncomfortable or wary of an assigned dive buddy, take the captain aside and demand another. Dive operators work for divers, and those divers should never be forced to dive with someone who presents a danger.
Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.