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In July I was fortunate enough to yet again venture along the Great Barrier Reef north of Cairns and out into the Coral Sea. I’ve made this cruise several times on various boats including Mike Ball’s Spoilsport, the private Super Yacht Bullish, the now sadly missed Nimrod and Underwater Explorer, and this time on Taka. I have had a wonderful time on all these vessels.

Professional crew, seaworthy and comfortable boats, fine food and company and extraordinary diving, with useful DIVE briefings, are standard.

But on all except Bullish I had to endure SAFETY briefings, and they are often too long, tedious and worse still, sometimes inaccurate. I have a feeling that many divers at dive destinations and on dive boats around the world get as frustrated as I do. Are safety briefings necessary? Well yes, some things do need to be said, such as the particular emergency and diving procedures on individual vessels. I have just read the guidelines from Queensland Health and Safety in the Workplace, and amazingly they do NOT require many of the restrictions or rules proclaimed.

Buddy diving is recommended but Solo Diving CAN take place. Not everyone wants to solo dive but if someone does there should be a simple procedure whereby a diver is able to. It is not convincing to be told it is forbidden, only to see the crew solo diving when their dive guide duties are over. So make it legitimate – it is NOT “against the law”. Spoilsport, for example, has a Solo Diving option for Experienced Divers who have their own pony bottle. Many underwater photographers prefer to solo dive – I do when not using a model – and frankly it is much safer for me to be alone with my pony bottle than buddy with a less experienced diver – who is more likely to get me into trouble than rescue me.

The “Lost Buddy” procedure is another nonsense I still hear that can actually increase the risk of a dive. If you are buddy diving and lose your buddy the best response, after looking around, is not to surface but to return to the planned exit point – usually the boat. If your buddy does the same thing you will probably meet without doing multiple ascents and if not, you are safely back at the boat and alert the lookouts, and not floating around on the surface in the middle of the ocean – where most diving accidents occur!

The buddy everyone needs, and these boats provide sterling examples of them, is the crew buddy looking out for you from the boat, with a pick-up tender available at the ready.

The most common crime in briefings is still to insist on NO Reverse Profile Dives. Reverse profile dives have been given the green light since Oct. 1999, mentioning them in a briefing is out of date myth, and could lead to less-safe diving by forcing divers to go deeper than they wish on early dives in order to make, say, a 30 m dive in the afternoon. The important point is to make the right ascent from EVERY dive including ESSENTIAL (others call them “safety”) stops. QH&SW do not ban reverse profile dives.

{Proceedings of the Reverse Dive Profile Workshop, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC October 29/30 1999 – Conclusion “We find no reason for the diving communities to prohibit reverse dive profiles for no-decompression dives less than 40 msw and depth differentials less than 12 msw.”}

Which brings me to the notion of being back on the boat with 50 bar remaining in your tank. This is nonsense. So answer this question. You return to the boat with 50 bar, should you now ascend the ladder or should you hang around the boat, preferably on a decompression bar or shot line and breathe up the gas? I know which is safer – it is obvious.

So what I suggest is be back NEAR the boat, say within 5-10 m depending on conditions, with 50 bar, then spend time in the shallow water de-gassing and enjoying the scenery. Most of the dive sites have fish congregating under the boat that make for entertaining viewing. I also think that he term “no-decompression diving” should be dropped. I had better explain. No-decompression diving was invented to get Navy divers out of the water as soon as possible. One of the great mistakes in the evolution of sport diving was the adoption of this procedure.

In the old US Navy air tables, 60 ft. for 50 minutes was a no-decompression dive. Divers could come directly to the surface at 60 ft per minute and most (Navy) divers would not get bent. 60 ft for 60 min was the no-decompression limit. You could still return directly to the surface but actually more divers would get bent. 60 ft for 70 min was a decompression dive and required a stop of 2 min at 10 ft before surfacing. This is what we are told to avoid – yet this dive was safer than the other two – even a short stop cured a multitude of sins! I learned very early on, before safety stops were invented, that every dive should be considered a decompression dive and requires a stop. I have actually heard divers being told in a briefing only to make no-decompression dives so that they can return directly to the surface: this is dangerous advice!

There is one important exception – if divers are drifting away in a current they need to get to the surface and get seen as soon as possible. A long “safety stop” could have you drifting too far from the boat to be seen, even with a safety sausage. Better still, listen to the site briefing, start the right way – into any current, and dive back to the boat! Years ago I used to charge divers if they surfaced away from the boat and required a pick up. The money went to the crewmember doing the rescuing. I had the best lookouts in the world! Incompetent divers these days think they can pop up anywhere, and get a ride back to the boat. Not smart.

Unfortunately dive boats are often noisy places and I have many times had to struggle to hear briefings that were barely audible to me. My ears are partly to blame – but there are plenty like me. I want to hear the important stuff – but I do not want to hear a rerun of a basic dive course. Beginning divers are usually escorted and can have their own private briefing if necessary, so can foreign divers who do not speak English. Attention spans have their limits. Briefings have to be short to have any chance of digestion. Having a short list of the most important procedures on permanent display instead of in the briefing could save time, much as they do on aircraft safety cards and QWH&S is working on a suggested dive display right now.

My suggestion for either method is simple.

Make a list RANKING information in the briefing from most important to least important. This will get you thinking about what the briefing should contain. For me the most important function of the dive boat is to ensure that every passenger is aboard before the boat departs so explaining how that is controlled should be number one on the list. You will find that much of the content at the end of the list is trivial and may be safely deleted. Less is more.


There is a perception among experienced International divers that diving the GBR is not very good and too restricted. But from my own experience I can state that there is excellent diving. The Great Barrier Reef is Great again, there are many large animals that invite close approach including Dwarf Minke Whales, Turtles, Cod, Sea Snakes, Maori Wrasse, Sharks and a multitude of smaller fishes and invertebrates just waiting to have their photos taken. In fact the GBR is one of the best places in the world for fish photography as fish have learned to be unafraid of divers.

We can go a long way to attracting tourist divers to the GBR by letting the world know that the reef is in excellent shape and not on its way to oblivion, and that experienced divers are rewarded for their competence with an express lane into the water.

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2 comments for “Be-Brief

  1. John Bantin
    October 19, 2009 at 6:33 am

    There is no substitute for experience and as usual very experienced Bob is spot on!

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  2. November 18, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Since being introduced to Bob Halstead’s insightful, reasoned, and articulate writings about 20 years ago, I have gone out of my way to chase them down and read them. Then share them with others as part of my own crusade to emancipate divers from the neo-con morons dead set on advancing their own absurd agendas designed to forever set diving’s bar to the lowest common denominator and skill level. Neither Bob nor John Bantin suffer fools gladly and I have reveled in the Triangle of Truth the three of us have advocated from Australia, England, and the U.S. Together, I’d like to think we helped to move the sport along since all the policies and practices we advocated became mainstream… much to the consternation of the knuckleheads who’d like everyone to wear black wet suits, use dive tables instead of computers, never place their masks on the foreheads, dive below 130 feet, or (god forbid!) return to the boat with less than 25% of your air supply remaining.

    Everything Bob notes in this piece is dead-on! Especially the part about “brief” being the key word in “briefing”. Keep telling it like it is, Bob!

    Bret Gilliam

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