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Lost or Missing Diver Procedure
Buddy separation underwater is stressful and dangerous. But, following some simple steps and practical guidelines can make it almost completely avoidable.
This guide explains the recommended procedure for finding a missing diver, such as in the unlikely event that they do not resurface as expected.
5 Reasons Why Dive Buddies Get Separated
To begin with, knowing what makes a good diving buddy is a significant part of the entire process.
You may even need to find a new dive partner, to make the experience safer and more enjoyable.
Here's the thing:
Students learn about the dive buddy system in entry-level courses, But buddying up isn't only for scuba.
Swimming with at least one snorkel buddy is an extra safety protocol.
Pro Tip: Another section explains how to get the PADI® Solo Diver Certification if scuba diving without a buddy is important to you.
How Do Scuba Divers Get Lost?
First of all, getting separated underwater is not a regular occurrence for dive groups. Nonetheless, it happens. So, what causes it?
- You lose sight of your buddy in low visibility. Or, you're focusing on compass navigation and when you look up your buddy's gone (maybe in the opposite direction).
- The dive crew failed to follow the proper procedures and they left some divers behind. The dive boat had some technical issue and had to leave the dive site? All the more reason to carry audible and visible Surface Marker Buoys (SMB and whistle) - especially when it starts to get dark.
- Maybe the surface current was too strong, or you were carrying too much weight, and you found it difficult to swim back to the exit point.
- What if there was a scuba emergency, such as running out of air? Did your buddy lag behind taking photos of marine life or did they need to end the dive sooner than planned?
Staying together as a buddy pair is much easier if you agree on a course to follow. So, always conduct your buddy check procedures before entering the water.
Sure, getting lost or getting left behind at sea would be a scary situation. Even the recent scuba news reports have stories about some diver drifting at the surface - all alone in the middle of an ocean.
Pro Tip: What if you are looking for a missing diver who you do not believe has gone far from where the diver was seen last. Only you and your buddy are available to search, and you do not have a line and reel. Most likely you would use the expanding square search pattern.
Missing Diver Procedure
If you are unable to see your buddy underwater, you should stop swimming and stay exactly where you are. Then, after establishing neutral buoyancy, make a slow 360° visual.
Remember to look above and below in case they ascended or needed to descend. Also, spotting the bubbles from a scuba regulator is often easier to identify than someone in a dark coloured wetsuit.
Make a Noise
Rattlers and tank banger rods are useful devices for diver communications and getting heard underwater. Following the direction of the sound may get you reunited.
Furthermore, using a dive light in low visibility while you do the slow spin could do the trick (e.g. if they're behind a large underwater structure).
When to Ascend?
Once the agreed search time is over (no longer than one minute), you should start your ascent. After deploying a DSMB at five metres, you can repeat the previous steps during the safety stop.
While at your safety stop, deploy your delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) or so that your buddy can easily spot you if he is searching for you at the surface.
But wait - there's more:
You should continue looking for the missing diver while you are at the surface waiting for the boat to spot you and pick you up (usually within three minutes).
There is no need to wait at the surface for your buddy and you should not go back down. Instead, exit the water in a safe manner and inform the boat crew, dive centre, or the local emergency services without delay. Tell them your dive buddy is missing.
Searching for a Lost Diver
- Assess the degree of urgency; Consider time overdue, planned dive profile (max depth, total dive time) and possible decompression and breathing gas status.
- Question the dive buddy if available to determine:
- Were there any obvious problems?
- Where and when the missing diver was last seen.
- What the diver was doing and the direction they were swimming (including maximum depth reached, last known tank contents, likely air consumption, diving experience, and condition of the missing diver).
- What would be the diver's likely action in the event of separation and/or emergency.
- Where did the buddy surface in relation to the separation point.
- Reassess the degree of urgency in light of the information gathered and buoy the area where the diver was last seen.
- Place a lookout at the highest possible vantage point and scan the surface and shoreline for other divers and exhalation bubbles.
- Check to make sure the diver has not boarded any neighbouring boats and consider whether it is necessary to conduct an underwater search, a surface search, or both.
- If it appears a search is necessary, recall all divers. If an underwater search is to be conducted, prepare the standby divers. Determine who can participate in a search without compromising anyone's safety.
- If bubbles are visible, send in a pair of standby divers to investigate
- Phone or radio for help (you can use the PAN-PAN urgency call on the radio) and you may need to notify the Coast Guard. Use any available boats and divers and prepare an appropriate search of the immediate area.
- Consider the movement water and any impending tide change. Concentrate the search down-current from where the diver was last seen, but also check up-current as well.
- Do not endanger the lives of any search team members.
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