“I queried those at the back of the boat about whether Al had gone into the water on purpose, fallen in by accident or something else. No one could say. Confusion threatened to overtake the situation.”

A San Diego SCUBA instructor described the above brief moment on a live-aboard in a recent article he wrote regarding a dive accident where a diver entered the water without his dive buddy, became unconscious and immediately sank to 84’ (25.6 meters). Were it not for a few attentive divers and quick thinking to help the victim, this dive accident could have turned into a tragedy. Lucky for “Al” he lived to dive another day.

Before I was SCUBA certified I had a conversation with an assistant DM who told me about how important being rescue certified was.  After hearing her describe a few scenarios where her rescue certification came into use, I was determined to complete the rescue course as soon as possible. Most divers that I’ve talked with about the rescue diver course agree that it is one of the most fun and rewarding courses to take. Some divers felt that after taking the course, their confidence level skyrocketed and they became better divers because the knowledge they received helped them navigate through scenarios which they previously found daunting. Others were simply happy for the knowledge given during the CPR portion of the class. In the end, the rescue diver course could easily be the most valuable course one can take.

By the time I took the rescue course, I had already spent a lot of time in the ocean and had logged more than 80 dives. I was comfortable in the water and confident in my skills as a diver but still nervous about the class itinerary. Dragging people across the sand? Giving rescue breaths through the surf zone? Am I going to die doing this? My nervousness increased when I realized I was the smallest person in the class with the least amount of body weight and not a lot of upper body strength. I had to get through it! And of course, I did.

But, for me the most important lesson was not learning how to take someone’s BCD off and give him or her rescue breaths at the same time; though I appreciate the knowledge and enjoyed the challenge of it. And despite finding it extremely useful to learn how to protect someone’s airway while bringing them through the surf, I was more nervous about the constant but accidental salt-water sinus flushes when playing the victim (everyone finally did get it right in the end). My arms and legs ached for a few days after dragging a victim across the sand but at least we laughed between the strenuous groaning while accompanied by cheers of “you can do it!” And now I know I can.

At the end of the day, the most significant piece I took away from the course was learning to be alert. We were all told from the start of the course that we should be watching other divers for signs of stress and for improperly assembled gear. One of my favorite classes was when I was instructed to become a stressed diver before we got in the water (mimicking the kinds of stress behavior a diver may exhibit before a dive). I was normally conversational and interacted with fellow student divers, but this time I casually slipped away and sat on the edge of the pool. I wasn’t myself and though it took a while, someone (one of my dive buddies!) finally noticed that I was acting odd.  Another favorite class was when I was asked to strap my tank improperly and my dive buddy had to figure out what was amiss. On another day, we all had something wrong with our gear and had to find and correct it on each other. These moments were for me the moments that changed my perception of my dive environment.

Why was that change in perception important to me? In the open water certification class we learned that a chain of small, seemingly unimportant events may lead to a dive accident. For example, first smashing your toe with your tank, then having to use a borrowed piece of equipment because you forgot yours, added with a new environment and maybe a leaky mask could put you into a panic resulting in a rapid ascent and a trip to the hospital. An attentive dive buddy or group of divers may be able to recognize signs of stress and know how to put their fellow diver at ease, hopefully putting a halt to the sequence before it goes too far. Or you may recognize your own chain of events beginning and do what’s needed to either complete a successful, safe dive or call it if you’re too stressed. It’s important to take note of what you and other divers around you are experiencing and equally important to adhere to buddy checks before each dive. How are the divers around you acting? Where are they at mentally? Were they distracted while gearing up? Are they having trouble with seasickness or are they uncomfortable in waves? What’s going on around you? Are you prepared to exercise the skills you learned in your rescue certification class at any given moment?

Even though I can’t stress enough the importance of practicing underwater skills, through my rescue certification I’ve also learned that it’s equally important to be observant before your dive and practice being alert to what’s going on around you. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the social aspect of the pre-dive that we forget that there are things to look for above and beyond the usual gearing up routine. I think back to the local dive instructor and what happened during his live-aboard trip. The divers who remained calm and were alert to a situation that quickly went bad may have prevented a death. That scenario reinforces my belief that it’s smart to keep one eye on your buddy and another on those around you. And while chatting with fellow divers, keep an ear out for sounds that could cause concern. Without the rescue course, I may not have known to be aware of these things, and so much more! I’m baffled at divers who have yet to take the rescue diver course; it is inarguably the best class I’ve taken and I have no doubt that those who have yet to take the class would feel the same way.