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July 2006 Vol. 32, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Staying Alive until the Boat Finds You

What to do when adrift at sea

from the July, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While 20 years ago a diverís biggest fear was to be attacked by a great white shark, since the film Open Water the biggest fear is to be adrift at sea. Of course itís more likely that a diver will get lost at sea than attacked by a shark, given the number of cases seen.

Usually, a stranded diver is recovered within a couple of hours, either by a rescue team or their dive boat. Still, divers can face a lot in two hours: hypothermia, dehydration, high swells, severe weather conditions and panic, for starters. And it doesnít matter how warm the air temperature is. If you get separated from your dive boat, you can increase your chances of surviving by following some important procedures.

Stay Together

If you surface away from the boat, stay with the other divers. Be cautious in heavy swells when there is a risk of injury from bouncing off one anotherís equipment. Keep your equipment on; divers who have jettisoned gear later say they would not do it again. Their position in the water is more comfortable with the tank, inflated BCD and weight belt in place.

Protect Yourself from the Elements

Survival experts say that a diver should protect himself first before looking for a way out of the situation. The biggest danger divers face is the cold. Dr. Glen Egstrom, former NAUI board member and UCLA professor says, ďRecognize that you are in peril and what you are wearing constitutes a form of shelter.Ē

Mike Bothma, an experienced dive guide at Camel Divers in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, says ďHypothermia is a problem even in waters of 75ļF.Ē Body heat loss is 25 times greater in the water than in the air. Avoid motions that will increase your blood circulation, because they increase your body heat loss. If you can, get into a fetal position: raise your knees, cross your legs, tuck in your elbows, and cover your face with your hands. Huddle with a buddy to keep warm. Face each other and cross arms ó this encourages face-to-face contact, which is good for morale and improves your chances of being spotted by the searchers. If someone is too cold or tired, he can be placed in the middle of this huddle to warm up. Figure out how you might tether yourself to your buddy to stay together.

Sunstroke is a danger. Try to shade your head with a piece of clothing Ė this will also help to protect your eyes from the bright reflection of sun on the water. Donít drink salt water, because it will increase your rate of dehydration. Do not retain urine. Keep calm. Focus on the positive. Remember that the boat knows you are missing and someone will be looking for you. If one of your fellow drifters is panicky, reassure him. Egstrom says that morale can be boosted by telling jokes, praying, enjoying favorite memories or fantasies, and venting anger.


Donít swim for shore unless you are sure you can make it. A woman diver in Belize died last year because she couldnít make it to shore. There are many devices on the market for attracting attention in an emergency. These range from a small CD used to reflect light to an expensive, electronic EPIRB radio beacon. Maintain maximum buoyancy to float high. Use whatever means possible to display your position. If the water is shallow, attach weights to any line you might have and drop it to the bottom to act as an anchor, to avoid drifting further.

Donít Get Lost in the First Place

Dramatic changes in currents or a boat breaking down or becoming untied are main reasons a diver gets separated from his boat. Add to that diver error Ė not remembering how to get back to the boat, for example, running out of air too distant from the boat, or failing to carry any signaling device. To prevent yourself from getting left behind, there a number of steps to consider:

Ask another diver on board to ensure that you are on the boat before it departs. Offer to do the same for him.

If you and your buddy plan to stray from a leader during the dive, let the leader and captain know. Create a directional plan, including a time you expect to be back under the boat and be sure to let them know.

Donít dive if you arenít comfortable with the conditions.

And, carry rescue aides

Signaling flag: This folds up and is usually attached to your tank, where it can be pulled out if needed. Researchers at Englandís Heriot-Watt University studied the visibility of various signaling devices and found that folding flags were by far the most reliable and cost-effective location device tested. Yellow was the most conspicuous color in all sea states, even with breaking waves and deteriorating light. A day-glo yellow pennant was consistently spotted at more than 1.2 miles to 1.8 miles. Red and orange flags were only visible to a mile away. If your dive shop or boating supply store canít order one for you, you might consider making your own.

It’s a mystery why many divers continue to
purchase black or otherwise dull-colored wet
suits and BCDs that can’t be spotted easily.

Surface marker buoys (SMBs): SMBs or delayed SMBs with reels are the most common signaling devices when diving. Standard SMBs are permanently inflated at the surface throughout the dive. Delayed SMBs such as brightly colored safety sausages can be inflated and deployed underwater. The advantage of standard SMBs is that the boat knows where you are for the entire dive. However, when diving a wreck, a delayed SMB may be used to prevent lines being caught. Safety sausages can be inflated from your tank, sealed shut to stay upright at the surface, and even illuminated from within. The taller and wider they are, the more visible from the boat. The most visible would be same day-glo yellow as the folding diverís flag. For more info see or

RescueStreamer: In the June 2001 Undercurrent, we reported on Navy tests of the RescueStreamer, a bright orange device visible to the naked eye from an altitude of 5000 feet when fully extended on the waterís surface. To improvise, if you hear a search plane overhead, you may be better off deflating your safety sausage and stretching it out on the surface so it can be spotted. (

Strobe and Light: Powerful lights and strobes are vital when it is dark. Lights that produce very bright beams are visible 2.5 miles in daylight and 5.4 miles in darkness. Theyíre most visible when moved slowly and steadily in a horizontal and vertical scan rather than pointed at the search vessel. Carry a spare at night, because the primary light may have lost power Ė the Sunlight D8 from Underwater Kinetics ( has a long burn time. A high-intensity strobe is useful in low light, but it needs to be mounted as high as possible, such as on the top of a folding flag. The submersible Mark-Lite strobe will operate for six hours on one AA alkaline battery or 10 hours on a lithium battery ( A camera strobe is also a helpful signaling device.

Whistle: Several types are marketed by Trident Accessories ( While whistles attached to BCDs are lightweight, cheap and small and will not run out of a power source, their range is extremely limited and may not be heard over the boat engine or wind. Donít count on them.

Air horn: Good for location in fog or at night. Models such as the Dive Alert or Aquatec Sub Alert attach to the BCD inflator hose ( or www.aquatecusa). Theyíre substantially louder than a whistle, but also lose effectiveness in winds and are useless in an air search.

Waterproof flare: Small flares in waterproof canisters often consist of a red candle flare at one end and a smoke flare at the other. PowerFlare ( is battery operated and submersible to 300 fsw.

Reflective disc: Old CDs or compact mirrors make excellent reflective devices. In a pinch, a dive mask or shiny knife blade might suffice.

EPIRB: Emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) are small electronic devices that transmit distress signals to aircraft and ships. They are becoming standard issue at remote dive sites, but the best ones are expensive. A few can be taken underwater, such as the Sea Marshall PLB8-LD Diverís Beacon (, and the Guardian MOB watch with an integrated honing signal (

Brightly colored gear: Itís a mystery why many divers continue to purchase black or dull colored wet suits and BCDs that canít be spotted easily. Buy yellow or orange gear, wear a brightly colored hood. Wave colored fins or mesh bags to attract attention.

PS: Many liveaboards offer rescue equipment for passengers. Bilikiki Cruises (Solomon Islands) gives out free safety sausages. Peter Hughesí Sky Dancer in the Galapagos requires each diver to carry a safety sausage, Dive Alert air horn, plus mini-strobe light on all dives, and highly recommends an EPIRB. If you donít bring your own, they can be provided, but quantities are limited.

Some boats employ a diver recall system, generally an audio alarm that calls all divers back to the boat in an emergency. One Ocean Technology Systems model can transmit voice instructions over a 100-yard range, which can be heard without a special listening device (like a pager in a supermarket). Or it can send out a longer-range tone.

Much of this article is based on a piece that appeared in the British magazine Diver, as well as articles previously published in Undercurrent and stories of divers who have drifted at sea.

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