10 Essential Safety Tips All Scuba Divers Should Know

Scuba diver diving through a Brazilian cenote

Giordano Cipriani / Getty Images

In a society that’s increasingly loud, scuba diving offers a rare chance to disconnect and immerse yourself in a world with no distractions except for the beauty of the aquatic flora and fauna around you. Breathing underwater does not come naturally to humans, though, so diving also involves an element of risk that can be easily mitigated by taking the necessary safety precautions. During your PADI Open Water Diver (or equivalent entry-level course), you will learn all of the basic skills required to stay safe while diving. Here are a few of the essentials every diver should keep in mind each time they kit up.

Plan Your Dive, Dive Your Plan

This is one of the first mantras drummed into beginner scuba divers by their instructor, and no matter how many dives you have under your weight belt, it still holds true. Before every outing, you should agree with your partner on the essential elements of your dive: where you are going, the maximum depth, maximum bottom time, and the air level at which you’ll either return to your entry point or begin your ascent. Always be sure to plan for a safety stop, and to ascend with enough air not only for you, but for your partner in case of an emergency out-of-air situation. Be sure to stick to your plan once you have it, and remember to tell someone else where you’re diving and when you expect to be back. Researching the details of your nearest emergency room and/or hyperbaric chamber is also a good idea.

Never Exceed Your Limits

There are two ways to interpret this rule, and both are equally important. The first is that you shouldn’t exceed the physiological limits associated with breathing compressed air at depth; i.e., don’t exceed your maximum bottom time and never intentionally go into decompression (deco). You should also respect the limits of your qualification: if you’re only certified to dive to 60 feet/18 meters, don’t go deeper. Night diving, diving in overhead environments, nitrox or mixed air diving all require specialty qualifications for a reason: if you’re not adequately prepared, they can be fatally dangerous. Additionally, be sure not to stretch your mental limits. If you’re feeling unusually anxious or overwhelmed before a dive, take the time to figure out why and address your concerns. If you still feel uncomfortable, postpone the dive or change to a less challenging site. Diving is meant to be fun. 

Make Gear Checks and Maintenance a Priority

When you’re underwater, your scuba gear is quite literally your lifeline. Make sure you have all the equipment you need and that all of your gear is in good working condition. Check in with your partner before entering the water. If you’re renting gear, check the condition of your buoyancy compensator device (BCD) and regulators carefully, and familiarize yourself with the location of safety features such as your dump valves and integrated weight releases. Bring essential spares (mask straps, o-rings) on every dive, as well as back-ups for specialty dives (e.g. a spare torch when night diving, or a spare surface marker buoy when drift diving). If you own your own gear, make maintenance a religious affair. Whether you’re shore diving or boat diving, independent or with a professional guide, be sure you know where the emergency oxygen and first aid kit is at all times.

Invest in a Personal Dive Computer

We all know that it’s possible to dive without a computer. You can plan your dive using a traditional Recreational Dive Planner (RDP), and you can monitor your depth and time using a standard wrist watch and the depth gauge attached to your regulators. However, investing in your own dive computer is one of the smartest decisions you can make for your underwater safety. Even the most affordable versions will gage your depth and time and automatically calculate how long you have left until deco. They will also alert you if you ascend too quickly and will remind you to take your safety stop at 15 feet/5 meters. Having your own computer gives you the freedom to dive without a professional dive guide; even if you plan never to do so, it’s valuable backup in case you get separated from the group. Last tip? Once you buy yours, make sure you know how to use it.

Perfect Your Buoyancy Control 

Great buoyancy control is essential for many reasons. It improves your air consumption, reduces fatigue, and prevents unintentional harming of delicate organisms on the reef floor or wall. Most importantly, the ability to perfectly control your position in the water column is vital to your safety, preventing you from descending too quickly—or worse, ascending too rapidly. Establishing positive buoyancy on the surface is also the difference between a comfortable wait for a boat pick-up and a struggle to save yourself from drowning. If you feel that the buoyancy control tactics you learned in your entry level scuba course could be improved, consider signing up for PADI’s Peak Performance Buoyancy course or the equivalent with another training organization. Leave underwater cameras and other distractions at home until neutral buoyancy comes as naturally to you as, well, breathing. 

Be Considerate of Aquatic Life

When it comes to interactions with the denizens of your local reef, lake, or river, the first rule of thumb is simple: Don’t touch. The reason for this is two-fold. Touching can damage aquatic life, whether you’re accidentally breaking off a coral branch that has taken hundreds of years to grow, or rubbing off the protective coating that defends most fish species from disease. Even if contact doesn’t cause physical harm, it can be extremely stressful for animals (this goes for chasing, teasing, and all other forms of negative interaction too). Additionally, the natural response for many animals when frightened is to bite or sting—making the no-touch rule an essential one for your own safety as well. Even inanimate objects like fire coral, anemones, urchins, and clamshells can cause injury if not left well alone. 

Don’t Drink and Dive 

Predictably, diving under the influence is a bad idea. Some of the reasons why are obvious: intoxication leads to slower reaction times and poor co-ordination, both of which are dangerous in an underwater environment. Those under the influence are also less able to deal with multiple tasks simultaneously (like clearing a mask while controlling buoyancy). Less obvious reasons why you should avoid drinking and diving include increased heat loss and subsequent risk of hypothermia due to alcohol intake, as well as the risk of dehydration, which in turn increases your susceptibility to decompression sickness. Symptoms of drunkenness, including poor coordination, nausea, and headaches, are also very similar to those of decompression sickness and could potentially delay diagnosis of this life-threatening illness.

Consider Temporary Medical Conditions

For many of the same reasons as one shouldn’t drink and dive, recreational drugs should also be avoided—prescription drugs included. If you are taking medication to alleviate symptoms of a cold, for example, you shouldn’t be diving. If the medication wears off while you’re underwater, sudden congestion at depth could leave you with a reverse block, the result of which is often serious damage to your eardrums. Before diving while taking any other prescription medication, it’s best to consult your physician to make sure it’s safe to do so. Other temporary conditions that automatically preclude your ability to dive safely include post-op recovery and pregnancy. Not much is known about the potential risk to pregnant mothers and their unborn babies as a result of the pressure experienced underwater, but both the Divers Alert Network (DAN) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advise against it. 

Practice Breathing and Mindfulness Techniques

Although serious underwater incidents are often triggered by a gear malfunction or other unexpected events, it’s usually the way a diver reacts that makes the difference between a good story and a tragic accident. Being able to control instinctive panic through good breathing and mindfulness techniques can quite literally be a lifesaver; in less drastic circumstances, it can simply improve your air consumption and/or your overall enjoyment of a dive. Many divers also practice yoga for this reason, although whatever technique or process works for you is fine. Exercise (like yoga) also has the added benefit of improving your overall fitness—great for air consumption and for reducing your susceptibility to decompression sickness. If you’re not ready to break out the leggings and yoga mat just yet, consider researching basic meditation techniques and practicing them in your own time.

Keep Diving, Keep Learning

Finally, one of the best ways to stay safe while diving is simply to keep doing it. The more experience you have, the better you’ll understand how to react in an emergency situation. This can be as easy as diving wherever and whenever you have the chance; it can also be more formal, i.e. signing up for further education courses to improve your practical and theoretical knowledge. PADI’s Rescue Diver course is one of the best investments for divers who take both their safety and the safety of those around them seriously. If you find that life gets in the way and it’s been a while since your last dive, be sure to take a refresher course in a controlled environment before plunging back into the water. This way, you will be able to recall life-saving skills such as mask clearing, buddy breathing, and regulator recovery whenever you need them.