Warning: By the time you read this – it may already be out of date!
The news from the government that we could return to water sports, and then from the British Diving Safety Group that we can cautiously engage in limited shore diving no deeper than 12m, was naturally met with various reactions, and was the source of no small amount of debate online. Naturally there were concerns around the diving support infrastructure as a whole, this is under constant review.
Diving, at its core, has an element of risk, and so diver training for a large part, is an exercise in risk mitigation. The skills we learn are done so to make it as safe a sport as possible and trust us, behind the scenes there is a lot of ongoing discussion in this with regards to the virus.
So realistically, what does a considered approach to returning to the water look like? There are more than a few things to consider, so where to start? Well, definitely on land! We suggest starting with the kit and the diver in mind, and the readiness of both for the diving ahead.
A check through of your equipment is only sensible. Making a habit to check through equipment is only sensible, and we have produced a series of articles on this, but the check themselves don’t take long and, if done far enough ahead, problems can be fixed before this year’s maiden dive!
A note about kit cleanliness. You probably already do this but it is important, now more than ever, that you properly clean and disinfect your dive gear. This means using a recommended sanitising solution on your equipment, with particular focus on parts which contact the face, head, and hands. Anything that the diver breathes into must be sanitised internally, as droplets from the lungs will reach anywhere the air goes. Regs must be cleaned inside the second stage body, and BCD bladders should receive the same attention. If you are unsure as to what products you can use, check with the manufacturer or your dive centre.
We hear that one a lot, and everybody has a different definition of what it means to be fit to dive. For dive professionals, it’s a little less of a grey area. An annual physical is required, or you simply can’t teach.
The first thing to mention is a little obvious: If you have experienced symptoms of coronavirus recently – DO NOT DIVE! You should have been symptom free for two weeks before you can get in the water. Symptom free doesn’t mean you had it two weeks ago – it means that you have recovered, AND been well for two weeks.
A good place to start is to check over a copy of the RSTC Dive Medical self-assessment form and ensure that you can answer “no” to all of the questions it asks. DAN also released a new form specifically for fitness to dive and COVID-19.
Another good measure would be to ask yourself “Am I fit enough to get my buddy out of trouble in an emergency?” If you feel that your fitness levels have dropped off since the early year, you might want to consider doing something about that before you recommence diving, or at least consider starting with easy non-strenuous dives before pushing old limits.
Then of course, there is the big unknown, the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the human body, particularly on the lungs. Certainly, some early discussion has suggested that those who have had the virus with even minor symptoms, can exhibit lung damage. This in turn raises concerns over various types of decompression illness. This being the case it’s no surprise that many dive centres and instructors are weary of exposure. The current advice is that if you have had the virus, even with mild symptoms, the recovery process should be seen in the order of months rather than weeks.
With international travel being so uncertain right now, there is an expectation that those who normally dive abroad, may well be looking to UK dive sites. This is of course fantastic, as more people will get to see how good the UK can be underwater. However, if you only dive abroad – do be aware that while diving in the UK has a lot to offer, the conditions are different. If you can comfortably dive at 30m in Egypt, it doesn’t follow that you will be equally comfortable on a local dive. Different kit and techniques apply, so always worth doing your research about the dive sites, and if you have not dived there before, local dive centre and diver knowledge is a good idea. Start off easy and get used to the local environment. A proper guided orientation is really the best way to go, and your local dive centre can advise you on this.
With the relaxing of measures, come the re-opening of businesses….and of course, dive centres will be happy to see you! However, don’t expect an immediate return to standard business as normal. Simply dropping in is, for the time being, not a great idea without calling ahead. There is a good deal of work being put into extra controls for cross contamination, and this will take a little while to get used to.
If you need to take equipment in for servicing, expect an area where you can drop off your kit. Remember that the centre receiving your gear won’t know how clean it was. You yourself may have been an asymptomatic carrier and so controlling the movement of outside gear into the premises becomes a priority, along with cleaning and disinfecting it straight away.
This also applies to fills, but it’s not terribly complicated. You should be able to drop off your cylinder in a designated area and move away from it. Expect to see the tank valve, handle and opening sprayed/wiped with a suitable O2 compatible disinfectant/sanitiser and left for a few minutes while it does its work. This means that the risk of the filling station being contaminated by incoming cylinders is much reduced, and so your cylinder will benefit from these measures. There may also be breaks in filling during the day, where the fill whips and other hand contact points are re-sanitised. You can also expect to pick up your tank from a separate section, and possibly see it sprayed a second time.
Trying on kit will be much trickier. Anything that you try on, may well have been tried by someone else, and so sanitising these pieces of equipment becomes important especially around kit that goes on your hands, head, and face.
However, none of these things are that difficult to do. Most of the cleaning is only an extension of what all good centres are doing anyway. It’s a little extra that requires a little planning on the part of both the centre, and the diver. It is simply a raising of the bar…
So, if you have checked through you kit and found something that needs attention, or your cylinder needs a fill, CALL AHEAD, and find out what your dive centre’s new protocols are. Dropping in can create crowding, and a lack of distancing may be an issue. You may need to arrange a specific time or appointment with the centre.
When it comes to going for a dive – a prudent diver should be more focused on risk mitigation, understanding and acceptance. If you are diving with someone not from you household, you can dive as a pair, but currently only as a pair and make every effort to respect social distancing.
Select a dive that falls within the current guidance from the government. Right now, this means shore diving. Consider the advice from the BDSG that divers should limit their depths to no more than 12m – It is sensible to start the season shallow anyway. Consider ease of entry/exits, avoid strong currents and night dives and build in extra conservatism around time and gas planning.
Also consider using a rich nitrox mix if you can. The EAD will inherently mean less nitrogen loading, and in an emergency, less loading is better. Also, slow down! Slower ascents from shallow dives are better.
Don’t go to a site which is a large distance from home. Stay local if you can and discover what is on your doorstep! Be aware that many shore dives are also popular tourist attractions, and so be aware of others that may be around.
Check ahead as to what facilities exist and are open. Some shore dive areas may not have toilets open yet! Also please remember to bin or take away any trash you create, and leave only footprints!
Travel arrangements should fall in line with current social distancing measures. If this means taking two vehicles, take this into consideration. It means extra parking will be required, and you may be dropping kit off before you park up, so plan this in advance – it’ll save time on the day. Take into consideration that you might need to move kit a long way from the car park to the shore. How do you achieve this? A well-planned dive starts at home!
Importantly – do you have a sanitiser for your kit? The safest approach is to assume that either you or your buddy are a risk of cross contamination and proceed accordingly. This means making sure your gear is properly cleaned and any equipment that goes on your face is sanitised. Your cylinder valve should also be sanitised, as air from there will be heading into your lungs. If it still wet post-sanitisation, a little blast from the cylinder will take care of it.
We recommend that you carry a spray bottle of an approved sanitiser, to spray down parts of your gear during kitting up. Make sure that it is a product that is compatible with dive equipment! It cannot be one that will degrade your equipment, and alcohol doesn’t mix with higher oxygen concentrations! Check with a supplier if you are not sure. We also recommend that we all stop spitting into their masks to reduce potential vectors of cross contamination. Use a mask defog solution instead, but use one certified as Reef Safe (non-toxic and biodegradable.) We currently use “Stream2Sea.”
How will you put on your dive gear while maintaining a minimum distance? Are benches available, can you float your assembled kit into shallow water and put it on there? Also, how do you zip up a back zipped drysuit from 2 meters away?
There are some points at which you may need to be within 2m of your buddy at the surface, and this is something that you will have to consider. Risk can be lowered by not touching any kit that will go onto your buddy’s face, e.g. regulators, masks, hoods, and snorkels. These should only be touched by the user, and that sanitiser spray bottle will come in handy here!
Remember that one of the regulators is for your buddy if needed! You will both need to plan how that works, and the alternate air sources should be tested and then re-sanitised. After that, it should not be used except in an emergency. On a pre-dive check, the regulator (having already been tested) can be checked using the purge button, but do not breathe the regulator designated to your buddy.
It may be prudent for both divers to wear a surgical/face mask if you need to close the back zip on your buddy’s drysuit. You are, at least, not facing each other, pop your scuba mask on and if you take any wind into account, you can further reduce the risk by standing sideways on, so that neither of you is downwind from the other. Once in the water, distancing becomes less of an issue as you are both wearing a type of PPE.
Most divers know that, when we remove our mask and regulator, that there can be a certain amount of spit and snot which commonly goes into the water during exit, It is now advised that you keep the reg in place along with your mask, until you are out of the water, clear of others, and have a means of catching and binning saliva and mucus.
Are you going somewhere remote or difficult to access? If you are, it might well be worth a rethink! What access to aid would there be should a problem arise?
It has always been recommended that you and your buddy tell someone your plan: when you are leaving, where you are diving, and when you expect to return. This can be as simple as calling a friend to let them know. Make sure that you keep good communication however, so that your friend doesn’t reach your expected return time, hear nothing, and alert the emergency services while you are still de-kitting and chatting about how awesome the dive was!
Do you have adequate equipment for any anticipated problems? A first aid kit is a good part of any diver’s equipment bundle. Consider what unusual emergency equipment you may need and if it’s available at the site. Planning will always serve you well in the long run and thinking of possible outcomes helps you adaptable to change.
Being a responsible diver means being responsible for yourself and your buddy. It means being responsible towards the dive centre that looks after your kit and fills and being respectful of others around you. It’s not a massive change in mindset that is required, and it’s quite possible that you already do much of the above. However, it is a change in your habits of thinking that will make the return to the water a safer one, and we look forward to seeing you out there soon!
Rich Frew, May 2020