TOP TIPS: Dive supervision

A few years ago, I was working as a dive supervisor for a scientific project in Holyhead.  In common with all professional diving projects, a dive supervisor is a necessary and required role.  With the exception of recreational projects, the dive supervisor stays on the surface and doesn't dive during the project. There are several reasons for this. For me, the main one is that by remaining one step back from actually getting in the water, I can focus on the needs of the dive team and their ability to complete tasks safely. Whether it's through fatigue or just enthusiasm, divers occasionally come up with 'off-piste' solutions to problems that don't exist. An alert dive supervisor can step in and keep things safe and on track.

In the past 30 years, recreational diving has become increasingly specialised and, in some cases, very complex. Many thousands of people learn to dive each year, but few of them will go on to gain sufficient experience and skill to attain a dive supervision qualification such as PADI Divemaster. Consequently, a lot of unguided or unsupervised private dives are conducted by recreational divers who may not know how to assess diving conditions, or marry the dive plan to the abilities of their friends. These 'blind leading the blind' situations have, and probably will, continue to be significant factors in many diving incidents.

Enthusiastic and experienced dive guides are worth their weight in gold. A relaxed, knowledgeable dive guide can inspire confidence that is so infectious that a dive boat full of dithering divers can become an oasis of calm confidence in no time. It's not exaggerating the case to say that a good dive guide can turn an average dive trip into the holiday of a lifetime.

Apart from trying to make sure that everyone has a good time, an experienced Divemaster will always put safety first. Occasionally this means risking considerable unpopularity. On more than one occasion I have had to stand on a windswept beach and patiently explain why we can't go diving on account of the weather and conditions being worse than forecast. Although less than ideal, this will always be better than being at 30m wishing I was still on a windswept beach!

Professional dive guides are paid to look after divers, and the good ones will always put their own interests and aspirations in second place behind those of their clients. They will consider the abilities of their dive group and make a fundamental decision to either supervise divers directly by being underwater with them, or supervise them indirectly by being on the surface.

On purely recreational dives this may not happen. It has been a discussion point for many dive boat skippers that they already have a considerable amount of responsibility without having to assume the duties of dive supervisor as well, particularly where complex task-orientated or mixed-gas dives are concerned. Clearly, the disadvantage of indirect supervision is that the dive supervisor doesn't get to enjoy a dive with the group. If you choose to supervise on the surface you can enjoy the same considerable advantages that professional dive supervisors have:

  1. You are free of the task-loading of planning and conducting your own dive making it easier to focus on everyone else.
  2. You can brief the divers and make sure that they understand the dive plan.   
  3. You are better-placed to handle more-complex logistics, such as checking that divers have enough of the right gases and that they have been analysed. 
  4. Checking each divers' equipment and providing assistance to fit and adjust it helps to keep stress levels down, because divers hit the water confident that they have been properly checked. 
  5. On the surface you can be alert to other developments, such as changing sea state, currents, or boat traffic.
  6. Similarly, once divers have entered the water you can monitor bubbles and surface marker buoys. A buoy that appears to be taking a different direction to everyone else might indicate a disorientated pair of divers. Pointing this out to the skipper at the earliest opportunity could prevent a missing diver situation.
  7. It is easier to keep a dive log (or roster) and following the dive you can check that divers adhered to the dive plan. You can also work through the data and give divers advice on gas consumption rates, for example.
  8. Following the dive you can lead a debrief, consider feedback from the divers and offer them advice as needed.  

Essentially, by staying on the surface rather than diving, you are providing a safety net for divers by anticipating and minimising problems before divers get in the water. If things do go wrong, you are also well placed to deal with the situation.

Does this mean that as a dive supervisor you can't go diving? No, because you don't have to be the only supervisor or Divemaster on the team.

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