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November 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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No Diver Left Behind: Part II

what works, what doesn’t, to get divers back aboard

from the November, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Some dive boats, even in First World countries, still don't have foolproof systems to count divers before departing dive sites. In Part I, published in the October issue, we shared Undercurrent readers' stories about being left behind and/or near-misses. They also noted dive operators that had good counting systems, and others that needed work. In this issue, it's the dive operators' turn to say what systems work best, which ones don't, and what divers can do on their own to ensure they're not left behind.

So, What Doesn't Work?

Divers Alert Network sells DAN tags, key-chain-like pieces, to individual divers for attaching to their dive gear. It also offers dive operators its Diver ID System free of charge to be used in combination with a diver roll call. Each diver is assigned a numbered tag to attach to his BC, and a dive crew member logs his name and tag number on the roster as each diver enters the water. After the dive, the diver removes his tag and returns it to the board.

Unfortunately, many dive operators don't think the DAN system is adequate. Clay McCardell, president of Explorer Ventures, says, "We've tried systems such as the DAN ID tags, but with limited success, because divers have to remember to take a tag, and then to put it back." He says Explorer boat methods vary from region to region -- log sheets in the Caribbean, head count in the Galapagos -- but it's more based on the diving method used. In the Maldives, a combination of systems is used, since all diving is conducted from the smaller dhoni and we can more effectively count tanks."

Surely, some divers may forget to hang up their tag or to log in (we heard a story where a crew was missing a tag and started a search for a diver, who was asleep on his bunk, tag in his hand), but in any system, the crew must make the final check, as well as the final double check, to ensure everyone is on board. A DAN tag system can work if the crew is vigilant, the boat doesn't move until all tags are accounted for, and the crew then takes a head count. But it can be far slower at identifying missing divers than a system where a crew member hovers at the stern and logs in divers as soon as they exit.

A more advanced system has been implemented by Frank Wasson, who runs Spree Expeditions out of Key West, FL, and says, "I've seen DAN tags (so-called foolproof, but any fool can beat that system), other tag systems, roll call and any number of systems used, but I've seen every one of them fail." His method: You check every diver on the boat as they comes up the ladder. "Then, the captain (because the captain is, after all, the guy or gal whose head will roll if they leave someone behind) takes a separate roster from the check-in board and does a final check. On the Fling and the Spree, we call this the wellness check. We ask every diver (and we do not allow wives to answer for husbands, or buddies to answer for each other), 'How do you feel?' as we look them in the eye. It's amazing how an eye twitch, a slurred word, or any number of visual cues will tell the captain that s/he has an impending problem. If a diver is asleep, we still demand a look in the eye and a mumbled 'OK.' This gives us two opportunities after every dive to make sure everyone is on board and healthy, or at least as healthy as when they got on the boat the day before. Even a fool can't mess up such a simple procedure if they just do it."

Glen Fritzler, who runs Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara, CA, describes his "fail safe" method. "It starts by having a roll call and asking each diver his name, then marking it on our waterproof manifest board. After we are ready to weigh anchor, two crew people count tanks and confirm the number. When you think about it, it is very easy and works flawlessly."

"High-tech signaling solutions are not always the answer, because electronics and batteries can fail."

Reader Harvey Cohen (Middlefield, NJ) likes the system used by Mermaid Liveaboards in Indonesia. "Every diver has a single tank that stays attached to his or her BCD for the entire trip, and the tank/BCD combo has a tag. If there are 16 divers, the boat doesn't move until there are 16 tagged tank/BCD combos in their slots on the dive deck."

Kay Golding, director of Mermaid Liveaboards, says the crew uses a few other checks and balances as well. "While the boat deck crew does monitor tanks back on board, the tour leader, more importantly, monitors every guest's return -- each group dives with a divemaster, who informs the tour leader that all divers are back on board. We also have a checklist of back-on-board guests on a whiteboard on the dive deck. We provide each dive guide with a Nautilus Life Line [the two-way radio/GPS system], and they're also available for rent on board for guests. If they bring their own, we give them our identification code."

Ensure Your Own Safety

While dive operators routinely need to ensure their divers' safety and that they come back alive, it's also up to you, fellow diver, to make sure you're doing all you can to help them out.

Nelson Riollano, assistant manager of operations for the Aggressor and Dancer Fleet, says divers should hold operators accountable for using whatever system they use. "If they're using a verbal roster system, divers should ensure the operator has executed the system as described by the staff during their initial briefing, such as, 'If you say you're going to call my name, then call my name after each dive.'"

The Explorer Venture fleet requires all divers to carry a surface marker buoy of some sort, which they provide to those who don't have one. McCardell says, "The main thing is to never go into the water -- not on a dive, a snorkel, a swim or for any other reason -- without letting one of the dive staff know."

Peter Hughes says divers should listen to the dive briefing -- carefully. Too many divers do not. Also, have your own air horn such as a Dive Alert (make sure it is working) and, nowadays, your own Nautilus Life Line, but be sure you know all of its available features before you use it on a dive." The Galapagos Sky provides mandatory surface marker buoys and air horns for free, and it also offers Nautilus Life Lines free of charge (a charge only applies if the diver can't return it at the end of the trip).

Even if you're using the latest, greatest high-tech safety equipment, you might still be left behind, as our regular contributor John Bantin knows from many experiences. "In 1992, as the dive guide, I was abandoned with a full complement of passengers in the waters of Southern Sudan for three hours after our main vessel had a technical problem and the dive tender was used to keep it away from the reefs as it drifted. This happened during the dive, and the boat's crew had no way of telling me what had happened. High-tech signaling solutions are not always the answer because electronics and batteries can fail, and you don't know that they have unless you use them on a regular basis. I always carry a large yellow flag on an extending pole (strapped to my tank) and would feel very vulnerable if I did not have it with me. It has resulted in me being picked up reliably on a number of occasions when diving in strong currents and surfacing a long way from where I hoped I might have been. Divers should take responsibility for themselves and employ the necessary precautions."

Jon Weirick (San Diego, CA) says his dive club takes safety into their own hands when on dive trips. "When we charter boats, there are a number of things we do ourselves and try to have the boats do. One is a roll call after each dive. Most boats are fine doing this, but it amazes me that there are some that won't, even those that have historically left divers behind -- they rely on counting tanks and other methods, or do nothing at all. Getting a vocal affirmative directly from each person seems good to me. Our club has never left anyone behind."

And practice safe sense. If dive conditions don't look good, don't risk it. Skip the dive instead of jumping in and hoping for the best. Ross Goldbaum (Hillsborough, NC) is sheepish when remembering how he and fellow divers put everyone in danger during a stormy dive off Wrightsville Beach, N.C. "Conditions steadily deteriorated on the way to a wreck 15 miles offshore. Halfway there, the skipper asked if we wanted to continue. Foolishly, we all voted to stick it out. At the wreck, there was heavier current than I had ever experienced, and I had to pull myself down the anchor line to the wreck. My son was my partner, and we ascended halfway up the anchor of the wrong charter boat at the end of the dive, then had to re-descend and find the right anchor because I doubted we could make a surface swim in that current to our boat.

"Once we made it back on board (by now, the waves were six feet), the worried-looking crew alerted us we were a diver short after the final head count. The mate jumped back in and quickly surveyed the wreck without finding her. She had partnered up with another couple, but they lost contact with her and ascended without her. She had drifted off the wreck and discovered the current was too stiff to swim against, so she came up well astern of the boat, missing the trailing lines. She tried to swim for the wreck buoy but missed that, too. At that point, she had no choice but to inflate her BC and float down-current, trusting the skipper would miss her and go looking. That is exactly what happened. It took us almost 30 minutes before we caught up to her. She did not have a safety sausage, but the skipper had evidently been precise in his course down-current because we motored right up to her. She was surprisingly calm when she came on board. Nevertheless, it was a pretty near thing. Without a bag or sausage, she was hard to see in that chop, and we easily could have missed her.

"The experience certainly reinforced an important lessons for me: You are always responsible for your own well-being. The conditions on that dive exceeded my skills. I should have called the dive -- and now, at age 62, I frankly don't trust my physical ability if I'm placed in difficult conditions, and it would be irresponsible to put my buddy or fellow divers at risk."

Sure, divers should be responsible for themselves, but when dive conditions are averse, the captain and crew need to shut down a dive that looks like it's leaning toward being a bad one. Goldbaum agrees now. "At the time, I didn't think it was unreasonable to leave the choice up to us. But if no one is ultimately responsible for themselves, activities that entail some degree of risk will cease to be financially accessible due to the liability costs."

Unfortunately, there are still dive crews, both here in the U.S. and abroad, who don't follow such a procedure, or maybe any procedure. Based on the responses we received, missing divers are still not a thing of the past. Dive operators need to create stringent diver-check methods, and stick to them. We divers need to hold them accountable by checking their methods before going diving with them. And we can help them do their job better by diving safely and responsibly.

Before you jump into the water with any operator, review their system and abide by it. If it falls short, there are many things you can do, which we will review in our next issue.

--Vanessa Richardson

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