The thought of scuba diving can induce anxiety in many people. The idea of being 20+ meters under the surface of the ocean, surrounded by unknown flora and fauna and in an environment that is inimical to surface life, would lead many people to conclude that it’s obvious that scuba diving is inherently dangerous, and therefore something to be avoided. But is scuba diving actually dangerous, or should we consider scuba diving safe?
The truth is it’s not that simple. Scuba diving can be dangerous if proper safety protocols and best practices are not observed, yes. But when practiced safely, by correctly trained divers who know how to look out for themselves and each other, scuba diving is an extremely safe and enjoyable activity. Much like anything, it’s about doing it properly and not taking unnecessary risks. After all, tens of millions of people drive cars daily, despite the inherent risks involved in operating a motor vehicle. Scuba diving is not so different. And, much like driving, scuba diving can be endlessly rewarding!
To recapitulate whether scuba diving is safe, then: yes, scuba diving can be dangerous. But, provided you do it right, it’s actually very safe. Let’s take a look, then, at both sides of the coin.
Is Scuba Diving Dangerous?
As we’ve said: yes, scuba diving can be dangerous. Let’s take a look at what can be dangerous about it, and how we can mitigate these dangers.
Running out of air
When scuba diving, you obviously have a finite amount of air in the tank on your back, and eventually, this will run out. Naturally, it would be pretty bad if you were to run out while you were, say, 20 meters below surface level and unable to get back up quickly.
In practice, this is very unlikely to happen. You have a gauge that, at a glance, will tell you how much air you have left, and you, your dive master and your buddy will be keeping an eye on the time to make sure everybody has enough air to make it safely back to the boat. One of the basic rules of scuba diving is to plan your dive conservatively and then regularly monitor your air, so you should never even be close to running out of air! In addition, even if you did run out of air, your dive buddy has a secondary regulator from which you can breathe until you make it back to the surface. Simply put: you’d have to work very hard to manage to run out of air below the surface!
Decompression Sickness (AKA the Bends)
Decompression Sickness occurs when a scuba diver ascends too fast, causing nitrogen absorbed into the blood stream to form bubbles. If not promptly treated, the symptoms of DCS can be catastrophic, and so it’s important to recognize the symptoms and get treatment as soon as possible. All divers should have enough basic knowledge to recognize the illness (also one of the reasons you should never dive without certification), so that they can spot the symptoms in their fellow divers and get medical assistance as quickly as possible.
DCS can be easily avoided by following conservative diving practices, in particular applying dive tables which are based on a decompression model. These give you guidance on how long you can stay at a certain depth before having to conduct decompression stops on the way up (which would not be a disaster either – but let’s leave that for technical divers for now). Most divers nowadays actually have a dive computer to do the same.
Some secondary factors can be important when avoiding DCS, such as overall level of health (the healthier you are, the less likely it is to happen), how many dives you’ve had recently (if you’ve been doing a lot of dives, it’s a good idea to take a break for a day), whether or not you’ve been drinking alcohol (don’t), and what sort of gas mixture is in your tank (it’s possible to get a Nitrox mix with lower levels of nitrogen, provided you are properly trained for Nitrox or “Enriched Air”).
As you can see, although DCS is a risk when scuba diving, it is easily mitigated with the right amount of preparation and caution.
This scary-sounding word simply means ‘an injury resulting from changes in pressure’, and it’s likely you’ve experienced barotrauma if you’ve ever flown on a plane. The pain and unpleasant pressure you feel in your ears when descending is a result of this, and though it’s not nice, it’s not fatal either.
An ear barotrauma is a risk of scuba diving, too, and may result in ruptured eardrums or even a permanent loss of hearing. It’s caused by the increase in pressure on your inner ear as you descend, and any sharp pain in your ears that cannot be alleviated is cause to immediately abort your dive, and not dive again until you have sought medical attention.
The second type of barotrauma – and one that’s much more serious – is a pulmonary (or lung) barotrauma. This one is usually caused if you hold your breath underwater and then ascend – the gas held in your lungs will expand as you ascend, causing your lungs to collapse or gas to expand in your arteries. Both of these, needless to say, can be very dangerous and even fatal.
As terrifying as these two phenomena sound, they are actually fairly easy to avoid. Ear barotraumas can be averted simply by equalizing the pressure in your middle ear as you descend, usually by using the Valsava Maneuver. This one will likely be familiar to you if you’re a veteran of flying – simply pinch your nostrils shut and try to exhale through your nose, forcing air through your ears and causing equalization.
In addition, if you’re nasally congested (due to having a cold or otherwise) then you should not go diving, as it can interfere with your ability to equalize your ears.
As for pulmonary barotraumas, it’s really as simple as never holding your breath underwater. Always take slow, deep breaths and always be sure to exhale immediately rather than holding it. If you follow this simple rule, you quite simply will not experience pulmonary barotrauma.
One of the most oft-cited fears of scuba diving is also one of those least likely to ever happen. Since a certain 1977 summer movie terrified cinema-goers across the world, the ‘killer shark’ has captivated the public imagination and led many to assume that you’ll be savaged and eaten the moment you so much as set foot in the water.
Simply put: this is nonsense. Although shark attacks can happen during scuba dives, the reality is that they’re vanishingly rare. You’re more likely to be killed by dogs, hippos, cows and even horses than you are a shark – even if you’re a frequent diver. And in fact, scuba divers in particular are very unlikely to be attacked; their noisy regulator and startling presence on the bottom of the ocean makes them more a curiosity than anything resembling prey.
Other Marine Life Hazards
Sharks may predominate in the imagination when thinking about potential marine-life dangers, but they are not the only hazard under the surface (or even the most likely one).
It’s far more likely that you’ll encounter something venomous, whether an innocuous-looking cone snail or the scarily-monikered fire coral. Jellyfish are similarly a danger, particularly because they move around much more and can easily drift into a diver unnoticed. There are also non-toxic hazards, like the moray eel, which may deliver a nasty bite if disturbed by an unwitting diver.
Almost all of these are very easily avoided by following one of most basic mantras of the diver: look, but don’t touch. You are very unlikely to be attacked (or receive a dose of toxin) provided you keep your hands to yourself!
It goes without saying that it would be terrifying – and potentially fatal – if part of your scuba diving gear were to fail while you were deep underwater. Even something relatively non-essential suddenly failing – say, if your mask strap snapped and left you unable to see clearly – could cause you to panic and do something rash.
Equipment failure is actually exceedingly rare when scuba diving, assuming that the equipment is properly maintained and checked. And in the event that something should fail, it’s usually mitigated by your dive buddy or dive master being close by, or else by redundant gear. You have a secondary regulator in case your primary fails, and in the extremely unlikely event both failed, you could simply use a fellow diver’s secondary one.
Almost everything else can be handled by staying calm and letting your dive master know. Avoiding panic is the most important factor, as this is far more likely to cause you lasting harm than equipment failure. Whether hurriedly ascending or failing to take into account your surroundings as a result of panic, you could do yourself some serious damage. Simply stop, let your dive master and/or buddy know you’re in distress, and take things slow. The problem is almost always fixable.
How Do I Stay Safe While Scuba Diving?
As we’ve said many times, scuba diving is perfectly safe – provided you observe basic diving precepts and don’t take unnecessary risks. We’ve already outlined a few of those, but let’s take a fuller look for those still wondering: is scuba diving safe?
Plan your dive well
It will likely be your dive master doing this, but as with any risky activity, it’s important to go in with a good plan. Weather, visibility and other relevant factors must be taken into account when planning the dive. How long is the dive going to be? Which particular spot are you going to? What contingencies do you have in place in the event of unforeseen circumstances, such as a sudden storm?
The better planned a dive is, the less likely it is that anything is going to go wrong.
Check Your Gear Thoroughly
We touched upon equipment failure earlier; what we didn’t touch upon is just how preventable a lot of equipment failure is with a rigorous pre-dive inspection. Check that your air tank is full, that your regulator (and backup regulator) is functioning correctly, that all straps are tight and secure, that your weight belt has the correct number of weights, and that your BCD is able to inflate and deflate properly. The importance of this pre-dive inspection cannot be overstated; it could well save your life.
Make sure to do a buddy check so both you and your buddy are fully prepared for the dive! During the buddy check, you go through your BCD, weights, releases, air supply (regulators) and a final check again. Some acronyms you can use to remember the important steps of the buddy check are: Begin With Review And Friend, Big White Rabbits Are Fluffy, Beer Wine Rum Always Fun, … whatever you use, make sure you check everything properly.
Don’t Dive Beyond Your Limits
Scuba diving can quickly get more dangerous if you put yourself in a position that you’re not ready for. Advanced certification is required for such things as night- or cave-diving, or even going beyond 18 meters. If you have not done the appropriate courses, then you should not be putting yourself in those positions. It’s much easier to panic if you find yourself in a situation you haven’t been trained for, and as we’ve said, panic can make a bad situation much worse. Don’t get yourself into situations you’re not ready for.
Make Sure You’re Physically and Mentally Prepared for Your Dive
Prior to diving, you should be in good health (i.e. not sick in any way) and mentally in the right space for the dive. If you’re feeling nervous, anxious or depressed, it may not be worth diving that day. Similarly, if you’re sick – even with something relatively mild, that you think you can ignore for the sake of the dive – then don’t dive.
Similarly, don’t get drunk the night before the dive. A hangover not only impedes your judgment, but it may put you at greater risk of DCS. Dive with a clear head and a clean bill of health.
Follow the Rules of Thirds
If you have a dive master, this is taken care of for you. If not, remember this simple rule regarding your air: use a third for descent, a third for ascent, and a third for emergencies. That way, if there are any complications below the surface, you can rest assured that you have plenty of air conserved for such things as providing air to a second diver or ensuring you have plenty of time to make it back to the surface.
Conclusion: How Safe is Scuba Diving?
As we’ve seen, scuba diving is like any activity that involves a measure of risk: yes, it can be dangerous, but most of those dangers can be mitigated or outright negated simply by being careful, not taking unnecessary risks, and following rules and regulations. Nobody ever died by being too prepared or hewing too closely to best practices, and scuba diving is no different. Check your gear, only dive when it’s safe to do so, and always – always – dive with a buddy. If you can do these simple things, you’re almost certain of a safe and enjoyable dive!