Diving Safety and
Your Dive Skills
The Big Question
One of the most common questions that we get from divers is about the skill level required for diving the Hatteras area. This question is most often from newly certified divers, or those with limited experience in the open ocean environment. It is not as simple as saying all divers must posses an advanced diver certification or some other specialty certificate. It is not the certification that makes a diver safe and competent to handle the conditions but how they apply the training they do have and if they are even comfortable in the water environment to begin with.
Don't misunderstand my statement, I believe in taking advantage of the many training opportunities offered at your local dive shop. Attending the advanced courses and expanding your basic knowledge of diving is very important if you truly wish to have a complete understanding of the sport and become more proficient (as well as safer). However, many factors add up to the competency of an individual diver - not just how many cert cards they carry in their wallet.
Let's take a look at the conditions that may be encountered and some of the personal skills that you may have to bring with you to the dive. After reviewing all of this, you can decide for yourself if you are ready.
Under ideal conditions, Hatteras can be safely dived by almost anyone that has a C Card; The seas will be calm with the ocean as flat as a lake, the boat ride out will be smooth and quick with Dolphins leaping in the wake. At the wreck site there will be no current, the visibility will be top to bottom, and all the fish will be the beautifully colored tropical familiar to every vacation diver in Grand Cayman.
These conditions happen about one in every 20 days or so and even then a diver can get lost on the wreck and come up far from the boat. Worse yet, a diver can get lulled into complacency by the apparently benign ocean and not follow the rules making some critical error that will cost them their life - even the good days can be deadly.
Our normal dive conditions during the summer season is 15 knots of breeze that produces a 2 to 4 foot sea and the boat ride may not be entirely pleasant. There is often some current when we anchor into the wreck. The current can be just at the surface or throughout the water column and then sometimes the current on the bottom is going in a different direction than the top water. Near the Diamond Shoals the surface current can exceed two knots, something an Olympic swimmer would find difficult. Though the visibility often exceeds 100 feet, sometimes it is 20 feet or so if there has been an upwelling or recent big storm. There also may be very large sea creatures prowling about the wreck site. All of these factors add up to make it difficult for an inexperienced diver to have a good time and increases the chance of a mishap.
So the basic question still exists, do you have the skill necessary to handle Hatteras if the conditions are not optimum? Let's review the issues that really make up a diver's skills and then you decide...
Are you a water baby?
A diver should be comfortable in the water environment. The means you need to be comfortable aboard boats. If the thought of being on the boat all day, out of sight of the land, creates stress to you maybe you are not ready yet. You need to be comfortable in the water and fully comfortable with the SCUBA equipment. If you are not totally at ease when using SCUBA, maybe you are not ready yet.
Are you in reasonable physical shape?
Most cert agencies will give you a card if you are breathing at the end of the class. However, a diver should be capable of sustaining periods of exertion under water. The biggest difference in Hatteras diving (as opposed to quarries or the islands) is current and wave conditions. You will need some strength to pull yourself down the anchor line system and endurance to swim the wreck site. At the end of the dive you will need physical strength to get up the dive ladder and back onto the boat. Dealing with this creates physical stress and you need some physical endurance, but technique plays a very big role here as well and a great deal of diving experience can somewhat compensate for whatever you lack in strength and conditioning.
How much physical strength you need is a matter of personal judgment. Most Americans don't seem to have much judgment about this issue so I will venture to say if you can briskly walk a mile or two without having to stop and catch your breath, if you can still do a few pushups and don't mind climbing a few stairs then you are probably OK. One very good thing you can do is go to the pool and swim laps with you snorkel gear until you can knock out 1/2 mile or so and then there is little question. If you have trouble just picking up the dive gear, then maybe there might be a problem.
Do you have the equipment?
Scuba is all about the gear. To safely dive offshore you need to be fully equipped - period. Renting tanks and some other heavy gear all the time is one thing, but if you don't own even the most basic of equipment then that may say something about your level of commitment to diving in general. A dive computer, though not required, really is important to have. We do provide high quality loaner gear for divers on vacation as needed and that is expected. What is required is some basic safety equipment, discussed in another page on this web site. If you don't have that when you show up, we do, but get some for when you dive elsewhere as it may save your life.
Do you have the basic knowledge?
This is a wreck dive that you are about to go on. It isn't the local quarry or drifting along the reef in Cozumel. You will be up to 20 miles off the beach out in the very big Atlantic Ocean. You will have to jump off the boat, immediately get on the anchor line system, pull down to the wreck, navigate the wreck, watch out for dangerous sea life, not run out of air or time, get back to the anchor line, not blow through the safety stop, properly surface and carefully time your exit climbing a bucking dive ladder. Did you learn all of this in your basic class? The basic procedure we use is discussed here in our "dive primer".
Where to get the Knowledge and Skills?
When I did SCUBA instruction, boat diving techniques were taught from the very first pool season and throughout the course. From what I have seen operating a dive boat, many instructors really don't have a clue themselves, so just how many are passing along this knowledge? So just how is one supposed to gain the insight and experience?
What you need to do is go ahead a sign up for an advanced class immediately after your basic. This will keep you diving and expand your skill set. A course on wreck diving would be an excellent choice as well. To get the most out of the cert process you must find an instructor that really knows what they are talking about based upon their personal experience. The "50 quarry dive" dive instructor can barely take care of themselves, let alone pass any usable knowledge along. Don't be afraid to ask about their personal dive experience before your money is spent and the class starts.
Many first time wreck divers show up on the boat with a dive mentor that has gotten them ready for the dive. This method is very good but you must not be counting on them as a total crutch; you are still responsible for your own safety and setting reasonable limits based upon your skill and level of comfort. You can find mentor divers by hanging out at your local dive shop as well as joining a dive club in your area. Either method can also provide a social aspect to the diving that you may find fun as well.
Alternatively, you do develop some dive skills from reading all about it in manuals and magazines or even watching one of those video lessons from a training agency we all know and love. If you are generally able to translate study into action, then this will probably work out fine for you - as long as you get lucky and the initial exposure is fairly benign. Reading the text or watching a video is no substitution for direct experience, but sure beats going in blind.
One more thing - We do two dives a day: the first being the deeper. Deep dives can range from 90’ - 140’ with 105’ being the average. You have done some diving in this depth range before haven't you? The more challenging sites, reserved for only the most experienced, hit 150 to 170+...
You must be self reliant!
Even though you are diving in a buddy pair, you must be self reliant and individually capable of making the basic dive decision for yourself and capable of basic self rescue. Once on the wreck you may as well be on the moon, there is nothing anyone on the surface can do to help you if you get into trouble. No one will be able to help you get the reg back into your mouth when it snags on some wreckage and pulls loose. The boat crew can't help you if you get lost on the wreck or get tired swimming against the current. No one can help you stay calm as a really big shark swims close. A good dive buddy may be able to help you out, but you must be self aware and self reliant. You must be comfortable as a diver and honest with yourself about your dive skills. We can only give you a good briefing and support in getting off the boat safely - in the water you are on your own.
This is open ocean wreck diving - take an advanced class or a shipwreck/ocean diving class if your skills aren’t quite there yet.
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Copyright © 2003 Last modified: February 06, 2013