A Guide to Diving Safety Checks While Social Distancing
Pre-dive safety checks – aka buddy checks – involve two people checking each other's gear, usually while standing in close proximity to one another. They are vital to safe diving because we're not just checking that our buddy is good to go, but also that we know how their gear functions in order to aid them in an emergency, and where their alternate air source is located and how to use it should we, ourselves, be faced with an out-of-air situation.
It is therefore imperative that social distancing rules don't prevent us from making sure we are safe to dive.
Traditionally, safety checks involve poking, prodding and pushing the other person's equipment – but how do we do that if we have to stand 2m apart or not physically touch each other? Here are a few pointers, based around the classic 'BWRAF' style check, and assuming the divers are using rental gear.
B - Buoyancy Control Device
Normally we would check the operation of our buddy's BCD before diving, but since we can't do that any more, have your buddy demonstrate that everything works by tugging on their own low-pressure inflator hose to check it's securely fastened, then inflating and deflating their BCD using the mechanical inflator. They should demonstrate the location and operation of each of the dump valves and ensure the cords are not entangled, all while you carefully observe from a safe distance. If you're not sure something is working properly, ask your buddy to show you again. Drysuit divers can follow the same principles for their suit inflators and exhaust valves.
Orally inflating a BCD which has been used by different people poses an infection risk. It's not just the mouthpiece which needs disinfecting, but the whole interior of the bladder into which people are blowing – orally inflating a BCD often results in 'blowback' from the bladder, which is unhealthy even at the best of times. Most dive centres will flush the interior of the jacket during the regular cleaning process, but you may wish to check. At the very least, the mouthpiece and the internal components of the inflator mechanism should be sterilised as completely as possible before your buddy demonstrates how to orally inflate their own BCD.
W - Weights
Not so different from how a safety check should be conducted in normal times – have your buddy explain their ditchable weight system and clearly show that it is secure. For an integrated weight system, make sure they show clearly how the weights are installed and removed and have them tug on the handles of the weight pockets to check that they are secure. For weight belts, have the diver expose the buckle to show it's correctly fastened, unencumbered by improperly threaded webbing, has the standard right-handed release, and any extra length is neither dangling nor wrapped around the rest of the weight belt.
R - Releases
Similarly to weights, the location and operation (pinch or push release) of most clips and buckles can be easily demonstrated by the wearer, with the buddy observing that everything is fastened correctly and that they are aware of how the clips are released.
The bigger problem is checking the tank strap. Normally we would have the diver turn around while we to wiggle the tank to see if the strap is loose. In this case, the best option is probably for the diver to demonstrate that the tank strap is secure before donning the gear. If you feel that you should check it also, do so carefully and be careful not to touch or breathe over the other diver's regulators, mask or snorkel.
A - Air Supply
Like the tank strap, normally we check that our buddy's air is turned on while they have their back turned towards us, or reach over their shoulder as in the picture above. To maintain separation, however, checking that the tank is completely open and that the SPG (or air integrated computer) reads full can be done by both divers, one at a time, before donning the gear.
The bigger problem is checking the alternate air source. The most complete predive safety check would have the diver breathe from their primary second stage at the same time that their buddy breathes from the octopus, taking several deep breaths while monitoring the SPG and/or air-integrated computer together.
It is not enough to have the diver purge the alternate to demonstrate its function. The alternate is the buddy's lifeline, not the diver's. If there is damage to the regulator body or exhaust valve, it will purge just fine but it will not breathe underwater, and that could prove fatal.
For a standard recreational setup, one solution would be that nobody ever breathes from the octopus except the diver who might need it – ie the buddy, who could check the breathability of the alternate while maintaining social distancing before the diver dons their gear.
Other divers (particularly those who own a personal set of regulators) may prefer to test both second stages themselves and thoroughly disinfect the alternate before diving.
Pony bottles as alternates have been suggested as a solution but this would be impractical for many operators and they would still need to be tested and disinfected in case a diver were to donate the pony to somebody else.
In the event of a real emergency, the likelihood of disease transmission from a second stage underwater is likely to be very small, and standard emergency procedures for the use of an alternate air source should be followed. Nevertheless, in these strange and uncertain times, it's better to be safe than sorry, and hence, disinfecting regulators as often as possible before and after use is probably the best strategy.
F - Final OK
The Final OK, in which we check that everything is where it should be, nothing is dangling and computers are operating and set with the correct gas mixture, should be no problem to do from a couple of metres away, because that's generally how we do it anyway. Just don't forget that you still need to keep your distance now that everything's checked!
The short story is that we need to get around these things, for now, as best we can. Some divers are undoubtedly going to be more concerned than others, as is their right to be. Rules and regulations have varied around the world, from different minimum distance requirements to mandatory mask-wearing. If you don't know the buddy you've been paired with for your holiday, be as polite and as understanding as possible, and be aware that their personal preference may be different to yours – as might the other bunch of divers on the boat. Don't be the same sort of idiot that pushed past you in in the supermarket at the height of the pandemic; be respectful of the regulations in the country which you are visiting.
Remember that underwater, there is no separation required. Stay close to your buddy, as per normal, because you are still each other's lifeline during a dive and should a real emergency occur, you have done your best to minimise the risk of infection.
Finally, don't forget why you went through all this inconvenience in the first place! It's the one time we all want to wear masks without question – underwater. Diving.