Safety Discussion Thread

Survey planning and reports

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Safety Discussion Thread

Postby dabbott » Wed Apr 13, 2016 1:27 pm

Hi All,

As I mentioned at the Volunteer Party, Reef Check California has now completed 10 years of surveying with no major injuries. This is great, and something to be proud of, but we also don't want to become complacent. One of my goals for this year is to think of things we can do to make or program even safer. Two things that has all ready come out of this is the Rescue Diver Refresher and the Emergency Contact form that you should fill out if you haven't all ready and (

I also just want to open a discussion about safe diving practices, thus this thread. Feel free to post suggestions for making things safer, descriptions of things that have happen in the past that you felt were un-safe, or anything else relating conducting Reef Check surveys and safety.


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Re: Safety Discussion Thread

Postby dshorwich » Thu Apr 14, 2016 12:11 pm

I'll get the discussion started by describing pretty much my biggest diving screw-up ever: the time I went out-of-air on a Reef Check dive. This was entirely my own fault; a combination of factors caused me to run low on air, and then I made some bad decisions. I posted about this recently elsewhere on the internet, so here's an edited version of that post:


This happened back in 2008, during a boat dive at Stillwater Cove in Carmel. As is often the case on Reef Check surveys, I was diving with a new-to-me buddy; an experienced diver, but new to the Reef Check program. In the course of our pre-dive planning conversation, she let me know that she needed to descend super-slowly in order to equalize, and that it would take her several minutes to descend. She suggested that I could wait at the surface several minutes while she began her descent, then follow her bubbles down and meet her at the bottom.

I said, nah, that's OK, I'll just go down and wait for you - I figured I'd get in a few minutes of looking around before starting in on the survey work. So that's what we did, I went down first and poked around for about 5 minutes before she joined up with me.

We were on the deeper end of the site, looking for the 55' contour line to start our survey. However, we descended to about 70', so we needed to get shallower. We swam in the direction we thought would take us shallower, but neither of us was well-acquainted with the somewhat irregular topography of the site, and after a few minutes of swimming we weren't getting any shallower, so we tried a different course.

After a few more minutes we'd reached low 60s depths, and I decided that was going to have to do, as we'd had been swimming around at 65-70' for some time now, and hadn't yet gotten started on our work. So I tied off the tape and started in on the fish survey, with my buddy trailing behind, doing one of the other surveys, I forget which one. We fairly soon became separated, as expected; our plan was to meet up at the reel after we'd both finished our work. There are ways of conducting a core transect to keep the buddies in closer proximity throughout the dive, but we weren't using one of those ways that day.

Anyway, 15-20 minutes I was done with my work, and at the reel, so I began my wait. I checked my gauge, and found that I was significantly lower than I expected or wanted to be - I don't remember the exact number, but it was surely below 1000 psi, perhaps already down to 750 (I was diving an AL 80). My SPG was in the yellow, certainly, but as best I recall not yet in the red. Still too low. "Aw, heck," I said to myself (or words to that effect), "guess I'm going to have to skip a safety stop."

Now, what I certainly should have done at this point was swim up the line, find my buddy, let her know I was getting low. But I didn't; I just hung and waited.

Why didn't I go find her? Well, there was one last factor at work: the water was decently cold that day (50F), and I dive wet. And while wetsuit compression doesn't make much difference in warm-water diving, I most definitely feel the difference between 30' and 60' in California waters.

So by the time I'd finished my survey work, I'd gotten substantially cold, which had two effects: my breathing rate went to hell, and I went into a kind of mental shutdown. I kept thinking, "surely she'll show up soon, I just need to gut it out a little longer." But as mentioned, she was new to survey work, and new surveyors often work slowly (as I did when I was new to it). I don't know exactly how long I waited; no doubt it seemed longer than it actually was.

As best I can remember, and here's a real sign of mental shutdown, I didn't check my gauge again while I was waiting. I didn't keep in mind that I was hanging there at 50', rather than 15-20', and thus burning down my tank faster than usual in the latter stages of a dive. I might've ascended 10-15' to reduce my consumption rate, but I didn't.

I think I was also in a kind of denial. Ego may have played a part - I didn't want to admit to myself that I'd gotten myself into this situation. And when my buddy appeared coming down the line finishing her work, I failed to immediately let her know I was low. Duh.

So I started reeling up the line, and it was about halfway reeled up when I felt that pulllllllll on the reg. "Oh, darn," I said to myself (or words to that effect), "now I've gone and drained my tank." I wasn't panicked - I was pissed at myself, and mortified, in equal measure. I swam over to my buddy and gave her the 'out of air' signal. She hesitated for a split second - later, on the boat, she told me her first thought was, "Why is he giving me the out of air signal? I'm not out of air." - but then quickly gave me the reg in her mouth & switched to her bungeed backup (while I certainly made mistakes on this dive, we did at least have a proper buddy conversation on the boat, so this went smoothly enough). We started heading up immediately (I would've liked to have taken a moment to get neutral & settled before starting the ascent, but that didn't happen; the ascent was under control, in any case). I discarded the reel rather than trying to finish reeling it up.


To summarize, I ended up low on air in the first place due to a combination of factors: descending before my buddy, spending several minutes swimming around at 65-70', getting excessively chilled; and then I got stupid and tried to gut it out rather than finding my buddy and dealing with the situation. Fortunately I didn't go out of air until after we'd met back up, and we handled the situation calmly, but of course we never should have been in that situation in the first place.

So, feel free to comment. I still think about this incident fairly often, in order to remind myself how I screwed up, and how not to do so again. Not my proudest moment underwater, to be sure, but at least I learned something from it.

David H

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Re: Safety Discussion Thread

Postby ghenry1102 » Thu Apr 14, 2016 4:56 pm

Thanks for sharing David as with most cases of "emergency" situations above or below it is a collection of small decisions that build into an "emergency" situation.


I'll add one here helping certify a class of students. We went to La Bufadora, The Blowhole, just south of Ensenada, BC. for an open water certification. It is a little tricky getting in/out but here we go. Actually the class did well getting in and during the checkout dive it was on the return that things took a bad turn. All was good all the students passed this was their last open water dive so they are all now certified Open Water SCUBA. So the instructor at the very end of the dive decided to play with some of the currents that flow between the rocks right off shore. He goes shooting through a shoot and low and behold half his class is blindly following him through with very bad results as they were not capable of handling this. So we had half the class being thrown all around on the rocks. I was very busy getting students to safety. I think the main point here is to not just blindly follow your buddy or even an instructor beyond your comfort level - Look - Listen - Feel before you leap.

Gary H

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Re: Safety Discussion Thread

Postby David Chervin » Fri Apr 15, 2016 12:10 pm

I would suggest we examine how we can improve our rescue capability when diving from boats in Monterey and particularly Carmel/Pt Joe.

I have been involved in, or observed, situations where divers surface and have difficulty getting back to the boat. This diver is typically cold, tired and low on air. Several situations can occur. The diver may come up in the kelp and try to kelp crawl back. The diver may be downstream of the boat and need to fight the current to get back. The diver may have an issue with equipment or exhaustion and need help.

Some of the boats out of Southern California seem to have more capabilities than the boats out of Monterey. Several boats have a skiff with an outboard in the water and a boat crew member can immediately motor out to assist someone who is in trouble. In addition, I have seen boats in Southern California with dive masters/rescue divers who quickly jump in with a float and a rope to get to a diver in trouble.

The boats out of Monterey don't have a skiff in the water and the dive master/rescue diver is sometimes slow to provide help. When Phil Sammet ran the boats, he would be on top of these situations, but lately the crews seem less skilled. I have seen situations where other Reefcheck divers have jumped in to help folks while the crew looked on.

As with other things, these situations are best prevented by coming back with sufficient air, diving within your capabilities, proper navigation and staying fit. Even knowing this, I came back downstream of the boat a couple of times last year and had to engage in a vigorous swim to get back on board.

I think it may be helpful to talk to the folks who run the boats about a skiff or improved rescue diver capability. We may also want to work on adding rescue capability among Reefcheck divers.
Dave Chervin

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Re: Safety Discussion Thread

Postby dabbott » Fri Apr 22, 2016 4:40 pm

I just wanted to mention something about doing cores which is you don't need to separate from your buddy to do a core. I'm not going to pretend that it doesn't happen, but I don't think it should be standard practice. I did many cores with my son last year and I promise you, we were never separated. The way we teach cores (see attachment) has divers at roughly the same area at the same time. With a little bit of additional checking, you can make sure you are never very far apart. This is the standard way that I do cores.

(81.9 KiB) Downloaded 153 times

It feels like it wastes time to do it this way since on the first pass the buddy isn't counting anything. But lets say the fish transect takes 5 minutes, that's 5 minutes of wasted time for the buddy, except that:

1) They can be using this time to get ready (i.e. filling out header, getting flashlight out etc.).
2) They can help out with algae transect at the end.
3) They will have to swim the line a third time anyway.

If you add all that up I think you're looking at around 5 minutes. That said, maybe it's less then 5 minutes and maybe the fish transect takes more then 5 minutes. I will conceded that it means you might get a less done, but I think in most cases it won't matter and in any case safety is more important.

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Re: Safety Discussion Thread

Postby kimgglenn » Thu Sep 22, 2016 10:58 am

PADI has had for some time a "Distinctive Specialty" course for Self-Reliant Diving (not to encourage solo diving but to recognize some circumstances where you really don't want to depend on your buddy or are in fact solo). It focuses on equipment (such as redundant gas sources, e.g. Pony Bottle, SMBs, reels, redundant gauges), skills (no mask swim, switching to a pony bottle while simulating a free flowing regulator, advanced navigation) and knowledge (more accurately calculating gas requirements based on actual surface air consumption baseline).

This specialty is becoming a mainstream "standard" specialty and more widely available. It seems some of the training content would be helpful as part of the ReefCheck training, as becoming more self-reliant will increase the safety among the whole team of divers, where we are understandably distracted with the tasks at hand.

I'm an instructor for the Distinctive Specialty course, which requires 100 logged dives and Advanced Open Water certification from PADI or the equivalent. This isn't as helpful as many of our volunteers may not meet those prerequisites. The standard specialty course should be out in the next month or so and I'm hoping they lower those prerequisites, since the training seems to me to be applicable to a broader population of divers.

In any case, I'm happy to discuss this further. In the meantime, just thought it would be helpful to get it on the table, so-to-speak.


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