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May 2002 Vol. 17, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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That Solo Diving Certification

is it worth the paper it’s printed on?

from the May, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Having logged more than 700 dives in all sorts of water, Edith Summey of Carbondale, IL figures she’s earned the right to dive alone when she wants to. She’s tired of being paired with divers of unequal skills or experience, and doesn’t like having her dives shortened because her assigned buddy is running low on air. So last year she jumped at a new solo diving certification offered by a fledgling agency called Scuba Diving International (a sister of Technical Diving International). She made arrangements to take the solo diver specialty course at Scuba Tech of Snead’s Ferry, NC, followed by a weekend of wreck diving on the M/V Olympus out of nearby Morehead City. Imagine the letdown when she was told, after driving 900 miles from home, that the boat captain wouldn’t accept her crisp new C-card and that she’d have to dive with an assigned buddy.

The problem is that not every dive operator accepts every C-card, and in this case George Purifoy, who runs Olympus Dive Center, was unfamiliar with the SDI certification and had no idea what the training entailed. Unswayed by Edith’s arguments, Purifoy fell back on his usual practice: only divers who’d been on the boat before and demonstrated their underwater competence would be allowed to dive alone. That’s a common (though not universal) practice among dive boat operators all over the world.

“today’s divers ... often have more gear and
certificates than knowledge ... the dive operator
has to take up the slack of policing his own clientele.”

As always, there’s more to this dispute. For instance, Edith insists she was told, when phoning in her reservations, that her card would be accepted; Purifoy maintains she was told, “Bring your card in and we’ll discuss it.” But leaving the “he said/she saids” aside, the question is whether it’s even worthwhile getting certified for an activity that may not be generally accepted. George Purifoy is a “good ol’ boy” who started in the business in the early 60s and runs his operation based on hard-earned experience. His views on modern divers and their certifications are, no doubt, shared by many.

“A C-card doesn’t mean anything any more,” Purifoy maintains, without commenting specifically on the SDI program. “ We pay more attention to the way divers suit up and the questions they ask than what cards they carry.” Purifoy believes that today’s divers are more affluent and less “hard-core” than they used to be. “They often have more gear and certificates than knowledge,” in his experience. As a result, “the dive operator has to take up the slack” of policing his own clientele.

That’s because, even with insurance, dive operators are still vulnerable in the event of accidents. “Every time we leave the dock, our entire business goes with us,” in Purifoy’s words. “We can be sued over a stubbed toe.” As an example of his cautious approach, he points out that while PADI now provides certifications for ten-year-olds, he won’t honor them.

Part of Purifoy’s concern is legal, he says, but another part is emotional. “It changes your perspective when you bring somebody in dead,” he says, recalling the case of a highly experienced diver who split from his buddy and suffered a fatal embolism. So how’s a new solo certification going to be accepted in the face of attitudes like Purifoy’s? Only time will tell.

Summey left Olympus Dive Center and went back to her Scuba Tech instructor, who found another Morehead City dive operator who would accept her certification: Discovery Diving. She also contacted Brian Camby, the Training Director for SDI, who told her that SDI was developing a list of cooperative dive operators. Although that list has not yet been published, Camby told Undercurrent that the certification is now accepted on all Aggressor and Peter Hughes liveaboards and at Stuart Cove’s in the Bahamas, among other farflung operators. Summey has since had her solo card accepted by the dive operation at the Manta Ray Beach Hotel on Yap as well as on the Odyssey live-aboard in Truk Lagoon.

We’ve heard of a number of other solo-friendly operators who don’t require a certification, including Mexico’s Solmar V, the Nekton Pilot, and Riding Rock Inn in the Bahamas, Southern California dive boats Peace and Spectre, Capt. Don’s Habitat and Divi Flamingo in Bonaire, and Coco View in Roatan.

One reason that dive operators may be more willing to accept SDI’s solo certification is that it comes with the most comprehensive liability release we’ve ever seen. You can read the whole thing at www.tdisdi.com, but as a sample, here’s a statement that must be copied in the diver’s own handwriting before the release is signed:

It is my intention, by signing this instrument, to exempt and release the released parties [everybody from instructors through dive buddies] from all liability or responsibility whatsoever for personal injury, pro pe rty damage or wrongful death however caused, including, but not limited to, the negligence of the released parties, whether passive or active.

How’s that for signing your life away?

Summey and other divers have been told by some dive operators that their liability insurance prohibits solo diving. That’s probably just an easy out used by the operators to justify their own prejudices. Rick Lesser, PADI Board member and a California attorney specializing in diving liability, says, “I’ve never seen an insurance policy from any agency that would specifically prohibit or disallow coverage to a divemaster or instructor who is supervising solo certified divers.” And, since a solo diver has declined superv ision, the liability argument is even more spurious.

SDI’s instructors are insured by New York-based Marsh, Inc., which also provides liability coverage for about thirty percent of the diving industry worldwide, including the YMCA and a handful of smaller certifying agencies. Their policy doesn’t prohibit solo diving, but it does conform to the standards of the agency it insures. So far, SDI is the only agency we’ve found offering the solo certification.

PADI’s Senior Vice President Drew Richardson advocates the use of the buddy system for reasons of practicality, convenience, and enjoyment, as well as safety. He acknowledges that solo diving can be done responsibly, but considers it a form of technical diving requiring experience (100 or more openwater dives) as well as specialized procedures and equipment, such as redundant air sources. Public relations manager Malene Thompson says that PADI does not plan to offer a solo diving course “at this point.”

NAUI seems even less amenable to the idea. Jed Livingstone, Vice President of Training, concedes that there is no conclusive evidence that buddy diving is safer than solo diving. Yet, he concludes, “Some people promote diving alone because they can’t get anyone to dive with them and in some instances this restricts their ability to dive where diving is restricted to buddy pairs. But this is due more to a lack of social skill or just because they are obnoxious or reckless people than a true preference for diving alone. On the other hand, certification of solo divers is a practical challenge. How does one evaluate a solo diver? Does the instructor stand on the beach and give cards to those that survive? Consider also the social implications of receiving a solo diver card. It would be like being branded a jerk who can’t get a partner. I don’t think we will be developing or offering a solo diver certification any time soon.”

Thousands of serious divers— photographers, for example— who prefer to dive unencumbered by a buddy will find Living stone’s ideas ludicrous. We first wrote positively about solo diving in 1978 and for twenty years talked about it as diving’s “best-kept secret.” Anyone who has been on a live-aboard knows that for years many divers on every craft have ventured off on their own, never to be seen until they surface. Solo diving has been receiving increasing media attention in Dive Training, Skin Diver, and particularly Rodale’s Scuba Diving.

Solo diving is mainstream. It’s here to stay. However, while solo diver training is certainly worthwhile, the solo C-card itself may not be worth the paper it’s printed on.

PS: Getting a solo certification might involve some travel. There is a listing of SDI/TDI-affiliated shops on www.tdisdi.com, but not all offer the solo certification. Call 888-778- 9073 to see if there’s an SDI instructor near you or at a destination you’re planning to visit. And remember what they used to say on Hill Street Blues: Be careful out there.

-- Ben Davison

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