Easy Diving | Leading a Dive
There’s a fine art to leading a dive. Here's some tips on taking the lead…
Of all the aspects of working as a dive instructor, the part I enjoy most is guiding divers underwater. I’m a diver first, and an instructor second. Much as I love teaching, I’m happiest being at the front of a group of experienced divers, because going diving is what I love – and I’m lucky enough to get paid to do it!
On the other hand, there are plenty of times I’ve been supposedly guiding divers, and had to re-teach the entire Open Water course in a single dive: correct use of equipment; weighting; buoyancy control; finning technique; breathing; trim; mental preparation… wait a minute, haven’t I written a series of Easy Diving articles about these things?
Four years of non-stop guiding in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, gave me the experience and knowledge to write this series, because guiding taught me more about diving – and how to teach diving – than being an instructor ever did.
Dive Con, Dive Supervisor, Dive Leader, Dive Master – whatever label your dive agency puts on the role, being a dive guide comes with its own set of challenges. But over the years I’ve learned and developed a few tricks that improve your ability to lead a dive safely, authoritatively and interestingly.
I often joke that being a dive guide is like being a stand-up comic, but it really is. You stand up in front of a group of assorted folk of different nationalities, and if you can capture their attention and imagination, entertain them and make them laugh, then they will follow most anywhere. If, on the other hand, you get up on stage and start mumbling, then yeah, the metaphorical rotten tomatoes are coming your way.
In October’s Easy Diving article, I wrote about how many problems can be prevented in the pre-dive planning session or dive briefing. Your dive briefing should cover all the basic information divers need (see Dive Brief In Brief box below), but it’s also a chance for you to assess the divers you’re leading. Observe the divers while you talk to them. Make eye contact. Ask yourself, does that person seem nervous? Is he listening to what I’m saying? Also, open up the briefing to discussion, within certain limits. Is anybody worried about an aspect of the dive? Are there any questions?
While divers kit up, it’s a good time to do what I call the silent buddy check. I watch teams make their own checks and I cast an eye over individuals to see if anything is amiss. I’m not going to physically check each diver – it’s rather demeaning to treat customers like children who can’t tie their own shoelaces. But there is a minority of divers who behave exactly like children who can’t tie their own shoelaces, or indeed, wipe their own bottoms. And you need to know if there’s one in the group.
If I have concerns, I might make that person my personal buddy. ‘Please look after me!’ I joke. Immediately that person relaxes. They have the personal attention of the dive guide, and know everything will be okay. I safety check them.
At many dive sites it’s a good idea to check the current. Sometimes you can see this at the surface, but the only way to really check is to jump in the water. Do it. It might make the difference between an enjoyable hour’s drift and a thoroughly unpleasant 30 minutes battling the current. If it’s the latter, you are not going to get beers bought for you afterwards!
Always jump in the water first, direct divers into the water and get them following you at the surface. Give the descend signal and be the first to leave the surface. Stop at 5m to make sure everybody can equalize (and has remembered their weight belt!). Keep all divers in sight during the process (in fact, keep them in sight as much as possible) and look for obvious problems: forceful equalization; lots of unnecessary kicking; general flappage; diver/coral interaction.
Underwater, supervise all divers at all times. Even experienced divers can get it wrong at dive sites they’ve never visited before (I know, because I did). If you know them well enough to leave them alone, so be it, but if you’re their guide, then guide them! You know where all the cool stuff is – that’s what they’re paying you for. Don’t repeatedly bash on your tank or rattle your shaker to direct people up or down or ask for air checks unless they’re necessary. If you can wave at them, do that instead and ask them nicely to reposition themselves, or stay behind you, or stop whatever they’re doing incorrectly. Thank them afterwards with a friendly okay signal or a quick salute (I use a Japanese/Thai style ‘wai’ – with the hands pressed together)
I like to goof around underwater. I hover upside down and make Japanese-style peace signs and wave at people. Often my divers laugh a bit. They take photos. Many of them wave back. Sounds daft? It’s not really, because the divers think I’m fooling around, when what I’m actually doing is checking they’re all okay without looking like I’m checking, or acting like a babysitter. I check them every few minutes: I look between my legs as I make a fin kick; I point at something and signal to the divers while also checking they’re still in roughly the same place as before. Somebody having a problem sticks out like a sore thumb.
It’s important to check the air supply of the entire group. All certified divers should be capable of monitoring this themselves, but sometimes they don’t. It’s not just a safety issue; in a mixed group it’s important you know how everybody’s getting on so you can re-profile the dive as you go. You may need to move to a shallower depth, head back to a reef, or turn around to reach an exit point. You want to keep the group together for as long as possible, not have divers surfacing at random intervals. I always brief that I will check air supplies for everybody, regardless of experience, for exactly this reason.
Better still, I do my best to read everybody’s gauges without having to ask. If I see somebody running to just under half a tank, I will make a group air check, and remind them to tell me next time. When I find something interesting, I will call my divers over, and try to read each gauge as they pass by the critter I’m pointing at. You can save yourself many problems by knowing roughly how much air each member of the group has left – and the most important person is the one with the least. Check your own gauge and a rough calculation can give you an estimated remaining dive time. He’s got 80 bar, you think to yourself. I’ve got 120, everybody else has around 100 bar. It’s 40 minutes into the dive. I use 20 bar every 10 minutes, he uses 30 bar every 10 minutes. We have 10 minutes left for him, let’s go shallow and try to eke it out as long as possible.
If you’re drift diving with a large group, don’t be afraid to safety stop individual buddy teams who run low on air early, as opposed to surfacing the entire group; drift diving is handy this way. If you have to return to an exit point, factor that into the profile and time your turn around point so you don’t spend the second half of the dive hanging around by the exit.
When you do a safety stop, put your SMB up before you get to safety stop depth. Be the last to reach that depth and watch out for people dropping below you. This way you can be sure that once your computer has cleared the three minutes, so has everybody else’s.
Ascend, exit, de-kit and debrief. This doesn’t have to be a formal session, but check each diver is okay – ask the group, and then speak individually to people if they had a problem underwater, didn’t do what you asked, or broke regulations. Treat it as if they didn’t know, ask them politely not to do it again, in a tone that reinforces the fact that repeat offenses will not be tolerated. Shouting at people doesn’t make them want to keep diving with you, so use tact and common sense.
The after-dive chat is almost as important as the dive itself. It’s a time to compare notes, head to the pub, swap stories and politely remind people that the 2.5m monster shark they thought they saw was, in fact, a tuna fish. There’s a lot more to guiding a dive than simply being at the front of the group underwater. People need to be able to trust you, and you need to go some way to earning that trust, because, whether they realize it or not, divers are putting their lives in your hands.
Dive Brief in brief
Standard information: Depth, time, signals, air checks (modified as necessary to suit the conditions), deco limits, safety stop location and duration, missing buddy procedures if necessary, don’t forget the critters!
Direction: Common practice is to draw a map on a whiteboard, or have a laminated copy to hand; use visual references at the surface if this is not possible.
Current: Which way is the current going and what do we do if it changes? Is there an abort point if it gets too strong? What is the abort signal?
Diver assessment: Is somebody nervous? Is everybody paying attention? Does anybody have question? Is everybody okay to go? Give people the chance to opt out if they really feel they are not up to it.
- Pay attention to your divers out of the water as well as in it
- Check divers during preparation. A little time beforehand can prevent a lot of problems in the water
- Make sure divers understand that you’re not the boss, but you are in charge of the dive and for safety reasons, there are limits that must not be pushed
- Check every detail to the minutiae; those are certified divers, they will think you are an idiot
- Be a control freak, just be in control
- Forget your sense of humour!