By Brianna Politzer Stevens
The Dive Buddy`s Role
Jim Ernst, a PADI Divemaster from Sacramento, Calif., said the dive buddy`s primary role is to ensure the safety of his or her partner. "It feels good to know that you have a buddy who isn`t going to take off and leave you if you get into trouble or if you need that partner," he said.
Ernst tells the story of a dive buddy who faithfully stayed by him during a frightening situation on one of his first dives. "We dropped down to 57 fsw (17 msw), and my mask started to leak and fill with water," he said. "I kept trying to clear it, and after three or four times, it filled up halfway, and I couldn`t see. I began to panic and then shot for the surface."
Ernst`s buddy stayed by his side, reassured him and let him know he was safe. Concerned about overexpansion injuries, Ernst`s buddy ascended at a slower, safer rate, but got to her friend as quickly as she could. "She came to my aid to be sure I was safe," Ernst recalled.
Jeff Myers, DAN Vice President of Training, echoes the sentiment. "I`d like to know that I`d have a safety net," he said. "A buddy is there to help you properly plan and execute the dive."
Besides the safety considerations, having a good buddy can add to the excitement of diving. "Your buddy is there to share the enjoyment of the experience," he said. "You get back on the boat, and there`s someone to say `Hey, did you see that? That was pretty cool.`
"Diving is a great participatory sport. Many people get into diving because of the social aspect."
Characteristics of a Good Dive Buddy
So what makes for a good buddy? Divers differ in their opinions. While some say that experience and advanced training are the most important factors to consider, others say that some new divers, especially those with the right attitudes, end up being formidable buddies, as well.
Ernst said a diver just out of open-water training needs to get some experience. "That doesn`t mean he can`t be a good buddy," Ernst said. "I don`t make experience my criteria in selecting a buddy. Even if my buddy isn`t rescue-trained, he can, at least, summon help."
Ernst looks for buddies with upbeat personalities, who are attentive and as excited about diving as he is. As a photographer, Ernst often likes to spend time quietly waiting for perfect subjects. For this reason, he prefers a dive buddy who doesn`t mind his slow pace.
Myers agrees that having a common dive objective makes for the best buddy teams. "All professionals preach this," he said. "But sometimes, you`ll need to probe a little deeper. For example, maybe we`re both into photography, but I`m a `macro` photographer, and you like to photograph bigger marine life. You need to have a common goal for the dive."
While acknowledging the safety margin that diving with a buddy provides, Myers cautions divers against over-reliance on their buddies. "We have to be self-sufficient, as well," he said. "Depend on your buddy, but don`t be dependent on your buddy."
What About Rescue Training?
Some instructors advise rescue training for every open-water diver. After all, they say, rescue training is often the diver`s first opportunity to focus on the safety of others, as opposed to just his or her own.
Said Cucculelli: "Everyone should take Stress and Rescue (SSI`s rescue-training course). "This class gives divers the tools they need on their first few dives; it gives them a little bit of confidence. It also makes them better buddies. What if you get into trouble? Open-water training just covers the tired-diver tow - no egresses, no bringing divers to the surface. All we do is teach them buddy assists.
"We can`t teach everything in the open-water course." He likens the course to basic ski class. "You learn how to `snowplow` and get down the hill, not how to do the `black diamond` runs (highest degree of difficulty)," he said.
"Stress and Rescue, on the other hand, makes you a better dive buddy. It works on your buddy skills. That`s what I stress to my students. I say, `to be the best buddy you can, you should take Stress and Rescue, then the DAN Oxygen course.` "
Ernst chooses to prioritize a diver`s personality and attitude above his or her rescue training. "Asking every diver to go from open-water training to rescue training would be too much information at once," he said. "I think new divers should get some experience under their belt first."
Myers wishes that every diver would work toward the rescue certification, also he admits that it`s not his main criteria when selecting a buddy.
Model Good Buddy Skills
So how can you make sure that you are the best buddy you can be? Consider the following tips:
1) Remember the "Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
How would you like it if your buddy was swimming away at top speed and you couldn`t keep up? How about if you were out of air and your buddy signaled you to surface on your own? If you treat your buddies the way you wish they`d treat you, you`ll set the tone for the type of buddy interaction you desire.
2) Maintain your fitness for diving. No one likes having a buddy who quickly runs out of air and forces a premature end to the dive. Improve your air consumption by maintaining your cardiovascular fitness with a program of walking, running, biking, dancing or swimming. Lift weights regularly to ensure that your muscles, bones and joints can handle the stresses of heavy equipment. Observe safety guidelines by showing up for a dive well hydrated, well nourished and with a good night`s sleep. And, of course, don`t drink and dive.
3) Consider taking up yoga or meditation. Although there is no hard evidence to support it, the deep-breathing techniques employed in yoga and meditation may help you learn to slow your air consumption and respond more calmly to stressful situations. Yoga also increases your physical flexibility, making it easier to reach fins, air valves and other gear while in the water.
4) Take a rescue class. Knowing your options in an emergency can raise your confidence level. It also helps to practice the steps involved in surfacing an unconscious diver, performing rescue breathing while swimming and learning the essentials of exits under various conditions. While rescue training may not be mandatory, it will definitely improve your buddy skills.
5) Plan your dive and dive your plan. It may be a cliché, but it`s true: planning is the best way to ensure a safe dive. Communicate with your buddy before every dive. Talk about when you`ll turn around, where you`ll go, and what to do if you become separated. Review hand signals. Explain any limitations you might have to your buddy, and ask about your buddy`s skill level and experience. Take into account the possible differences in your air consumption. Modify your dive plan to suit the information you glean from this conversation, and don`t deviate from your plan once you`re underwater.
6) Avoid overconfidence. Ironically, a little experience may be worse than none - at least when it comes to the risk of dive accidents. "A lot of the accidents don`t happen to beginning divers," Cucculelli said. "They`re more cautious. It`s the folks who have done a few more dives who get cocky, and that`s when they get into trouble."
7) Have proper training and equipment for the conditions you plan to dive in. Having 100 dives under your belt won`t help you if those dives were in radically different conditions than the dive you`re planning next. Make sure you get a briefing from an experienced dive professional when you dive a new location. Also, don`t attempt special environments (such as wrecks, caves, caverns or ice) without proper training.
8) Perform a thorough buddy check on each and every dive