Common Errors

Scuba Mistakes Beginners Make

It is widely accepted that the cause for most common scuba diving accidents and incidents is - Diver Error.

This analogy is particularly appropriate for new divers as they learn to develop their comfort zone and diving skills under water.

Although there are common mistakes that beginners make on a regular basis, and some experienced ones too, usually the consequences affect only the general enjoyment and execution of the dives.

However, some diver errors can progress from mere frustration and embarrassment, to costly mistakes financially, or even worse.

Though our guide to the most common mistakes is in no particular order, it may help to relieve your suffering by covering some of the potential health dangers and problematic diving situations.

These are our 'top ten' dive problems - mistakes.

Top Ten Diver Errors

  1. Wearing Too Much or not Enough Lead Weight
  2. Incorrect or Inappropriate Equalization Techniques
  3. Rapid and Uncontrolled Ascents
  4. Damaging Scuba Gear or Harming Marine Life
  5. Not Checking Air Consumption and Gauges
  6. Diving Beyond Your Experience Level
  7. Diving While Sick or Unhealthy
  8. Walking Around Wearing Dive Fins
  9. Not Logging the Dive Information
  10. Omitting or Forgetting BWRAF - the Pre-dive Safety Check

Lead Weight

1. Wearing too much or not enough lead!

As a PADI Master Instructor of many years, this is one of the most common misjudgments that I see made regularly by students and ‘especially’ by their instructors. In an attempt to avoid buoyancy problems, divers are often over loaded with far too much lead weight around their waist and inside their BCD (buoyancy control device).

A common misconception is that if you carry lots of excess weight, then you won’t struggle on the surface and will sink with more ease. Ironically, this is more likely to create buoyancy problems and cause unnecessary struggling and frustration, particularly with ascents and descents.

The main problem with being over laden with lead during a dive is that air is usually added to the jacket to keep the diver off the bottom and above the corals, which means that as the diver ascends he needs to compensate for the increased buoyancy by deflating the expanding air.

If the diver forgets or does not act soon enough, this could cause an uncontrolled ascent which very often leads to buddy separation.

Although many factors influence how much weight a diver should use, such as the type of equipment being worn and the water salinity content, there is a surface weight check skill that offers a true guide on the correct amount needed to achieve neutral buoyancy underwater.

If this weight check is performed at the beginning of a dive then it may be appropriate to add a little extra lead (approx 2kg) to avoid excess buoyancy during your safety stop.

This is especially true if you’re using aluminium cylinders which tend to cause additional positive buoyancy when the remaining air inside the tank runs low.

When a diver is correctly weighted for neutral buoyancy, the increased underwater control and comfort has numerous benefits which include conserving energy and air consumption, allowing great underwater photography, offering an enjoyable relaxed diving experience and making an unrestricted safety stop before exiting the water.

Equalization Techniques

2. Trying too hard to equalise your ears - or not at all!

When scuba divers descend below the surface they need to equalize their body’s air spaces, in particular the air filled parts of the ears. New divers often have problems mastering equalization techniques and tend to make the mistake of trying too hard and too late.

The Valsalva maneuver of the Eustachian tubes is the primary method used to equalize the ears and sinuses when descending, by attempting to exhale through the nose against pinched nostrils.

However, this method should not be overdone forcefully as it can cause damage inside the ears. If the ambient pressure is greater than the pressure inside the middle ear and the diver continues to go down, a rupture of the round window is likely.

The process of equalizing should begin at the surface and continued regularly before the pressure increases, especially as you descend through the first 6 meters. This is where the biggest pressure change happens, from low pressure air above sea level to higher pressure under water and can result in a ‘squeeze’.

If pain or discomfort is felt during the descent it indicates that the air spaces have not been equalized and the descent should stop. If you then ascend to a point where the discomfort disappears and slowly try again more often, you may find that this will clear the problem.

Other air spaces that also need equalizing, though from different techniques, include the air inside the mask and the lungs. A mask squeeze (facial barotrauma) can be avoided by gently introducing air into the pocket through the nose, though generally this isn’t always necessary in shallow water.

The most important air space to equalize is the air filled lungs by a simple process called – breathing. Lung ruptures can be avoided by continuously breathing and NEVER hold your breath, especially while ascending.

Equalization techniques tend to become easier if they are used regularly and correctly. If you have repeated equalization problems during descents and ascents, we would recommend that you seek professional advice from a diving instructor and/or medical physician.

Uncontrolled Ascents

3. Ascending to the surface too quickly!

There is a common saying in scuba – you should ascend slower than your slowest bubble. Although this has very little technical application, an ascent that is slower than your bubbles indicates that you’re avoiding a rapid ascent.

Ascending too quickly is a major concern for new divers and one which has serious consequences if it happens. Once a rapid ascent has started, it’s extremely difficult for a novice to control it and/or slow it down.

Shooting to the surface is very often a reaction by beginners to a stressful situation under water or a result of panic. A recommended ascent rate of 18 meters per minute, about one meter every three seconds, should perhaps be considered the maximum and slower is even better.

Problems arise from two main areas which are grouped by the blanket term of DCI (decompression illness);

Assuming that the fast ascent is not panic induced, the other common reason that new divers surface too quickly is one that puzzles many of them. They often assume that you need to inflate to go up – wrong.

Excess air inside the buoyancy controller will expand as the pressure decreases at shallower depths, so the correct method is to deflate the BCD and use your fin kicks to slowly ascend. Inflating as you reach the surface will allow you to float effortlessly and relax.

Harming Marine Life

4. Harming underwater marine life and damaging scuba equipment!

The damage caused by divers to fragile underwater marine life is a contentious issue and although I personally feel that it’s not the most destructive action to our delicate ecosystems, any extra damage is bad for our industry and more importantly, the aquatic environment.

Scuba Instructors and Dive masters have a tough responsibility to emphasize the natural wonders of our marine life, yet at the same time we are constantly trying to protect and conserve what we affectionately call – Our Office.

Divers need to become comfortable with the scuba gear and the first few dives can be cumbersome and a challenge. It makes sense to conduct these trial dives over an insensitive area such as sand and a safe distance away from the coral reef.

Fins are usually made from plastic and rubber, but an unintentional kick in the wrong direction can immediately destroy many years of coral growth. Dive gauges and hoses can be easily clipped to the scuba unit and should be streamlined to avoid dragging and further damage to regulators.

Role model, conscientious dive guides will not encourage divers to touch, tease or harass underwater organisms since you may harm them and/or they may harm you.

Air Consumption and Gauges

5. Not checking air consumption and dive gauges often enough!

It sounds inconceivable that a diver would run out of air without even knowing it, especially since all divers carry dive gauges that inform us of air consumption, depth and general direction. But actually they don’t – we have to monitor them.

The pressure gauge does not give you a 15 minute warning that you’re about to run out of air unless you look at it and the standard depth gauge doesn't alert you if you descend below your recommended limit, though I do accept that modern dive computers do have an audible alert system for this situation if it’s set up correctly.

So, the important thing for all divers to learn is that most gauges need to be constantly monitored and a good rule of thumb is that even new and modern scuba gear has a plus or minus 5% inaccuracy reading. Dive limits should not be tested unnecessarily but used as absolute parameters.

Experience Level

6. Diving beyond your current experience level!

Having the necessary skills and experience to make advanced dives takes extra training and practice. Additional care should be taken if you’re tempted to try specialized diving such as at night, on a shipwreck or in a cave without the proper equipment and training.

The dangers associated with diving beyond your current experience level (or without professional supervision) are the cause of most severe diving accidents and incidents (including some fatalities).

However, after basic level certification, the advanced and specialty scuba courses are extremely exciting and rewarding but should always be part of sanctioned scuba certification course. Learn About PADI Specialty Courses.

Sick or Unhealthy

7. Diving when you feel sick or unhealthy!

Diving is supposed to be ‘fun and safe’ and very few divers are willing to cancel a planned dive because of a minor illness. However the risk of diving while you’re sick or in an unhealthy condition can be very dangerous and even fatal. The most commonly suffered illnesses include diving with a cold and diving whilst still influenced by alcohol.

Head colds may interfere with your balance and inability to equalize, whereas diving with amounts of alcohol still active inside the body can easily cause dehydration, which happens to be one of the a contributing factors for recorded cases of DCS (decompression sickness).

I feel it’s also appropriate here to mention a topic that seems to be disregarded by almost every scuba diver that I meet, including professional dive instructors. The truth is “Smoking and Diving is Dangerous”.

Unfortunately, many of today’s Dive Masters and Instructors (I estimate more than 75%) regularly smoke immediately before and after their dives. I’ve even witnesses an instructor to request a cigarette while he was still in the water waiting for his turn to enter the boat.

This poor ‘role model’ behavior does not discourage new divers to abstain from smoking during their diving activities and the increased risks of lung injuries and its associated health problems continue to plague our cherished sport.

If you anticipate that there may be days when you’re not quite 100% fit and healthy for diving and you would like to increase the recovery chances from a bad day, I strongly recommend diving insurance for anyone who is concerned about the safety and treatment for diving accidents. Another section explains the importance of scuba diving insurance in more detail.

Wearing Dive Fins

8. Walking around while wearing scuba fins!

It constantly surprises me how many new and experienced divers struggle around a dive boat wearing fins while trying to get to the dive deck.

It’s just common sense that diving fins should be applied and worn at the water’s edge, whether that’s a diving boat or the shoreline. If it’s absolutely necessary to walk in dive fins, the best method is to carefully walk backwards to minimize tripping over.

Dive Information

9. Do you always log your dives?

Although not bothering to log your dives is extremely unlikely to cause an accident, you may find it very useful to record the information from your diving experiences for several important reasons.

During your early training you probably logged each dive to verify that you met the requirements for the course, but as you progress it’s a great way to store memories of your different destinations and certifications.

Whilst not a life threatening mistake, I feel that it is important enough to mention here. Other common details you can enter in a dive log are;

Pre-dive Safety Check

10. Omitting or forgetting to make the pre-dive safety check - BWRAF

My Personal Favourite! The previous nine common problems tend to be isolated incidents among new divers, but the pre-dive safety check – Buddy Check – is omitted regularly, yet it’s one of the simplest ways to avoid a potential diving catastrophe.

For those who’re not familiar with the PADI Pre Dive Buddy Check, it goes like this - BWRAF;

  1. BCD – manual and oral inflation and deflation check, low pressure inflator secure, quick dump valves working
  2. WEIGHTS – securely attached with a right hand release, correct position and how many, belt not twisted
  3. RELEASES – all securely fastened, tank band, quick release connectors, snap connectors, familiar with their function
  4. AIR – full tank, regulator valve fully open and one turn bank, breathing properly with air that tastes and smells good
  5. FINAL CHECK – no twisted hoses and all streamlined, mask, fins, snorkel, BCD inflated ready for entrance

A simple and effective 'save a dive checklist' takes less than minute to perform just before entering the water.

Ideally you would check your own gear and your buddy’s so that you’re also familiar with his equipment configuration should it become necessary to adjust it for him or remove it from him.

This safety check is taught in the entry level diver course and is one that forms the foundation of dive safety and problem prevention.

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