Is the risk explained clearly enough in Basic OW training?
Recent events in the national and international news are the inspiration for this essay. On Christmas day 2013 a father and son, neither of which had proper cave training, entered a sink in Florida known as Eagles Nest. It is known that this was not the first time they had done this. It has also come out that in addition to lack of cave training, neither had any formal certification beyond Open Water. Even more unbelievable is that fact that the son had no formal certification at all. It appears that all of his training came from books, the internet, and his father. As a result both pushed their luck too far one time too many. And they paid the ultimate price. Both died and had to be retrieved from the cave by other divers. The recovery divers lives were put at risk by the actions of these two.
When I first heard of this my initial reaction was to place all the blame on the father. Then it became apparent that the son also knew that what he was doing was dangerous and yet still followed his father in the endeavor. There is a tendency to give him some leeway due to his age (15 yrs old) but I cannot do that. Given the amount of time and postings on a message board that he made, he had to have been aware of the danger and yet made a conscious decision to continue his path to destruction. He bragged about going to depths and places that no responsible instructor or even other diver would say was ok. So I do give him equal share in the blame. Now there is at least one family member calling for the closure of the site to divers. I can only see this as an attempt to cover up the poor decision making demonstrated by his now dead family members. And for those who care to read some new reports we can see that poor decision making was more or less a family tradition with these two.
But another area where I can see some responsibility is in the diving community itself. We have allowed certain entities to make diving appear to be some benign activity that anyone can do and not highlight the very real risks involved. SCUBA diving has the potential to kill even shallow, clear, open water divers very quickly and in some very nasty ways. Yet little is made of these risks in the name of not scaring people away from the sport. I have had instructors tell me that I can't talk about the risks in graphic detail with new divers. That I can't show pictures of dead divers. That I need to focus on the positive aspects and downplay the risks. To them I say, NO! I will not down play those risks and will continue to be blunt and open about how things can go bad in an alien environment. (click title to expand)
Sugar coating has never been a strong suit of mine. As many who know me understand and have seen demonstrated clearly. So I am not now going to start and placate those who cannot handle the truth.
So let's take a look at the part the industry plays in some of these ideas that may in fact be contributing to death and injury in the activity. Specifically when it comes to diving in overhead environments. Perhaps by shedding some light on this we can convince the industry or at least some conscientious individual instructors to move away from the practice of minimizing the risks and produce divers who are aware, informed, and safer to themselves and everyone around them. Because let's be clear, when a diver engages in risky behavior he or she puts the lives of those who have respond to the negative consequences of that behavior at risk. Unfortunately they have to recover or rescue the irresponsible diver at risk of serious injury or death themselves. In addition they also tie up valuable resources that someone who has a genuine accident may need. Therefore this behavior is not only foolhardy but also incredibly selfish.
In my opinion the industry needs to first acknowledge the part they play. The majority of advertising that the general public and, by extrapolation, new divers see is that of people enjoying clear warm water and looking like it is as easy as walking on the beach. Very rarely do we see divers in dry suits diving cold water. We do not see divers lugging a hundred or so pounds of gear to drop into a local quarry or lake. We do not see mention of the time it takes to produce a truly competent, safe, and knowledgeable diver that does not require the assistance of a professional to safely plan, execute, and return from a dive. And we certainly never see mention of the injury and death than can occur as a result of diving.With this in mind we need to ask why aren't the risks of overheads talked about more in basic diver training? And why are they not done in a manner that would truly have an impact on new divers? I looked at several Basic OW course student manuals and one has a single page talking about overheads and how they can be dangerous. Two have no mention of it at all. I am trying to locate some from other agencies just to see if they do or do not address the issue. Based on what I have seen so far I am not hopeful and this to me is a serious problem. In my own training I remember reading the page about overheads but not about discussing them specifically in classroom sessions. But I also remember hearing about how great swim thru's are! Really?
As I continue to learn, as well as teach, I am amazed at the level of risk overheads pose for divers, and as a result my own definition of them has changed over the years. Some of the biggest items that have affected my own views are taking a class in Ice Diving, doing a traverse with a cave instructor and another full cave diver between two limestone quarries, teaching wreck classes, and doing my own limited wreck penetration and planned decompression dives.
I have to say that out of all of them it would be Ice that changed the way I look at overheads the most. Being literally inches from people on the surface who would have been absolutely no help to me had things gone bad and be able to see them had a profound effect on my. It changed the way I view every overhead, whether actual or theoretical. I now have the opinion that many of the so called swim thru's that divers are taken into in all corners of the globe are indeed overhead environments and as such are potentially lethal. Especially to the average diver we see coming out of many OW classes in the last few years. They have been led to believe that as long as they follow the DM or guide they'll be fine. They can't even plan their own dive, in many cases have no rescue skills, and even think that following a DM or guide single file without a proper dive buddy is acceptable.
In my opinion a physical overhead is any overhead more than a body length that two divers cannot swim through abreast. If they need to go through single file they should not go through unless they have had some type of overhead training. Now there are those who will take exception and perhaps even offense to this. That is your right. I do not apologize for my views. They are mine and they are how I teach my students. Overhead dives should never be taken lightly. They have the potential to cause very serious problems for the untrained and inexperienced diver. As such my feeling is that more needs to be made of the danger in training materials and more graphic descriptions of the consequences discussed. As previously stated I have looked at the Basic Open Water training materials for several agencies and one has a single page discussing overheads and two others have none. I find this remarkable given what we know about them and the practices that some shops, instructors, and resorts have when it comes to leading untrained divers into overhead environments. They will say that it is dangerous on one hand and then proceed to lead them through and into places where a simple mistake could result in tragedy. How they reconcile this is beyond me. I believe that simple economics is the answer to some of it. More exciting equals more profit. But I do not believe it is the only answer.
I have seen a number of dive professionals that have no technical diving experience at all. In fact I'd guess it's more the norm than the exception. Technical diving is expensive, time consuming, gear intensive, and certainly not for everyone. But I feel that some level of it is essential for the dive professional who wants to understand the risks and consequences of diving into these environments. Even if they never do it they should realize that new divers may be tempted by irresponsible guides and be led into a lethal situation. This practice is more common in some areas than others. Those locations are fairly well known to the dive community and yet they are not as publicized as they could be regarding the dangers they pose. And why is that? The agencies certainly are aware of shops and operations affiliated with them that do this yet say nothing until an incident occurs. The recent actions taken by PADI regarding operations in Belize that take divers to the Blue Hole are telling in how weak they are. Instead of saying stop it or we will cancel your affiliation they suggest that dive ops modify the way they do things so that the government does not take serious actions. Why are they not taking a stronger stance? Why are no agencies with shops and operations that fly their banner around the globe saying you absolutely cannot do this? If you do we will not support you in any way and your insurance is void if you do? How many deaths will it take before they wake up and do something serious to put an end to these practices?
Perhaps it will involve changing the way dive professionals are created. Right now there are OW Instructors with an card in their hand that says they can teach yet if asked feel they need to intern or be guided by a more experienced instructor for their first class or two. Why then do they even have an Instructor card? To me this makes no sense. It says you can teach. You say you can't. What part of the IDC or whatever your agency calls it did you fail or did it fail you?
So what training is required for overhead diving? In my opinion the answer is that it depends. It depends on the type of overheads the diver wishes to take on, where, and to what extent. And I will get into that in the next post.
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