TOP TIPS: Is it safe to get in the water?

Martin Sampson urges divers to do a pre-dive check of the conditions at their chosen dive site before taking the plunge.

UK is unpredictable. This means that you just have to take advantage of calm weather when it arrives. Even quarries are not guaranteed to have consistent conditions, but at least you can access them all year round and the changes are a little more predictable. You can take a shrewd guess that the visibility might deteriorate in the summer as algae blooms in warmer water. Even then, in our local quarry, visibility is seldom less than about four metres. In the winter the visibility might be sparkling, but there's the increased risk of cold water free-flow when temperatures drop well below 10 degrees C. If you arrive at your inland dive site to find that you are the 150th diver that morning who wants to swim around the sunken boat, then you can always plan to be there on a Monday if it's good pictures you're after.

Sadly, in the sea we don't have the luxury of saying that the visibility is always better on a Monday.  Occasionally though we get divers turning up at local dive sites, not only expecting conditions to be better than they are, but patently not checking them before throwing themselves in. This was a significant factor that led to the rescue of an exhausted, near-drowned diver on the beach at Porthdafarch, Anglesey, a few years ago. This isn't restricted to the UK. In Gozo, Malta incidents sometimes take place on the razor-sharp rocks at popular sites such as Reqqa Point and the Blue Hole because although easy to access in a mild swell, the exit proves to be a nightmare. It's easy to forget that when you have been neutrally buoyant for an hour it can be hard to quickly find your feet to exit the water with heavy kit on your back. On one occasion, a whole group of 12 divers couldn't exit the water at Reqqa Point, requiring rescue by a local dive centre who just happened to have their RIB in Marsalforn Harbour about a mile away. I talked to Richard King, owner of Scuba Kings Dive School in Marsalforn, about this. "Most of the incidents that take place here involve independent, unguided groups," he said.

Making use of a local guide means that you have access to someone who knows the area and appreciates the likelihood of conditions quickly changing. It's all very well staring meaningfully at a marginal sea state while thinking: "Yeah, I should be able to cope with that". Will you be able to cope in an hour's time if it worsens?

Assessing the conditions before you commit divers to the water is part of the Approved Codes of Practice that the Health and Safety Executive produces in the UK. All professional diving projects have a dive plan and generic risk assessment that may have been produced in the comfort of an office. On the day, the dive plan is reassessed in the form of a Daily Risk Assessment that takes account of variables such as weather, ease of access and exit, etc.

Divers return from a well-planned dive

As an amateur diver you are not required to produce a written daily risk assessment, however, just like a pre-dive buddy check, it's hard to argue against the sense of doing one. It's not an onerous task as it rarely requires more than one sheet of A4 to run through a check list that could include:

The weather forecast: Be aware that the weather may change sooner than predicted. The early arrival of clouds and a freshening breeze can give you a good clue and lead you to put 'Plan B' into action.

Wind strength and direction: Winds 'come from', which is to say that a south westerly wind will blow onto a south westerly facing shore line. Described as an 'onshore wind', this could easily lead to a hazardous sea state for divers trying to enter or exit the water. A north easterly wind in the same bay would be an 'offshore' wind and more likely to produce calm conditions.

Ease of access and exit: When you look at a potential entry/exit point, try to imagine yourself in the water, stood on one leg trying to slip your fins off. Then try to imagine having to help someone else out as well. On a sandy beach in surf this might be a challenge, in amongst rocks it might be lethal.

Obstructions: Is there evidence of lobster pot buoys in the vicinity? If so there may be rope to contend with. Are you close to a pier or jetty or some other structure that you could unwittingly swim under or in to?

Pollution: Is there an unhealthy looking or smelling scum on the surface? Are you diving close to manmade structures such as occupied buildings (e.g. beach restaurants) or storm drains?

Visibility: This is not impossible to assess from the surface. Seasonal plankton blooms (May/June in the UK) can be expected to reduce the visibility, as can heavy rainfall on some shore dives. I usually try to scramble up to higher ground and look down into the water. If the water looks murky, has sand and debris swirling in it, or even looks the same colour as coffee, I usually find another site.

Currents/time of slack water: This is where local knowledge is invaluable, but like the weather, it's only a prediction. If diving at slack water (no current) is vital, always get to the site early.

Surface cover: Agree a time and point of return and stick to it.

Boat movements: Avoid slipways and reconsider using the site if it is particularly busy with boats.  Otherwise use surface marker buoys throughout the dive.

Mobile phone reception: Also check out the nearest public phone in case your mobile fails.

Depending on the complexity of the dive you might add other points to this list, but this is a good place to start.

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