Anyone who has ever scuba dived should know that there are some basic safety guidelines to follow to ensure every dive is fun rather than frightening. Scuba diving is not about who gets from A to B first. The whole scuba experience is intended to be enjoyed safely, and at a relaxed pace. And that starts and finishes with a suitably slow, controlled descent and ascent.
“Scuba diving is not considered a good exercise for aerobic conditioning. If scuba divers do everything ‘right’, by maintaining neutral buoyancy, drifting with currents, and breathing slowly and deeply while underwater, they should expend less energy than when resting on land.”
(Michael Strauss, Diving Science).
On the way down, a slow descent gives time to address any buoyancy issues and trim niggles with kit, make sure you and your dive buddy are comfortable in the water, and ensure sufficient time for ears to equalise to the increasing pressure of the water.
On the way up a slow, controlled ascent, with appropriate safety stops for the depth and duration of dive, is even more essential. It allows our body the time to off-gas the nitrogen accumulated during the dive, which if not eliminated from the body, can lead to decompression sickness or nitrogen narcosis. And it prevents divers from getting lung injuries and potentially very serious complications, caused by ascending with too much air expanding too rapidly inside our bodies.
Diving is a hugely enjoyable sport and a lifelong passion for thousands of people around the world. But I think sometimes people overlook that it is also known as an extreme sport for a reason. The safety rules and guidelines come from years of testing and proven experience. You ignore them at your own peril.
Yet so many people seem disinclined to bother with safety stops at the end of a dive. Have they become blasé about the risks they are taking, like drivers who drink and then drive? Do they think they look cooler by skipping the safety stop? Do they feel pressurised by others they dive with, to adopt their bad habits? Have they not dived with enough consideration of their air supply to enable them to take the extra time?
If you are a recreational scuba diver because you like diving (and if you don’t like it – well, really, why do it?!) then safety stops should be part of every dive. The final cherry on the cake. An extra added bonus.
Safety stops are done at shallow depths. That is usually where the water is warmest, there’s often lots of life to look at, and coral reefs, kelp forests, even the vast deep blue look at their sparkling sunlight best. Air consumption is slower here than at greater depths, so you can take your time to look around you. Just enjoy the sensation of floating, weightless in the water, before you have to get back on dry land or the boat, and start the de-kitting process. What’s the rush?
That’s not to say that every safety stop is a gently relaxing end to a dive. I have spent more than one, swept into a horizontal position, clinging with white knuckles to a descent line dropped by the boat. Divers above and below me, all of us looking like flags fluttering in the wind as the ripping currents surged past us, trying to pull the regulators out of our mouths. Exhilarating and wild. Certainly memorable!
I have never skipped a safety stop. Ever. Even after hundreds of dives I’d rather take the slow road. If I’m up on deck five minutes after everyone else, so what?! Plus, I have seen some incredible things on safety stops that feel like a pay-off for playing it safe. Some of the most memorable ones? Eagle rays skimming past in the blue and then hanging around to give us a five minute acrobatics display, turtles swimming right up to check me out, being mobbed by a swirling silvery mass of curious trout.
A handful of minutes, some potentially unforgettable moments to experience, that final chance in a dive to connect with the ocean. And that safety stop just might save your life. Slow and steady really does win the race when it comes to scuba diving.