Plan Your Dive and Dive Your Plan

The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of SCUBA Diving

In our first SCUBA diving class we were introduced to dive planning and taught to use our tables to calculate the no-decompression limits and avoid decompression sickness. We learned to determine in advance our maximum depth, bottom time, entry and exit points, and equipment requirements. More advanced courses teach us to take our planning to another level with gas management and decompression schedules. Professional level training involves additional planning in a variety of areas. SCUBA diving is a sport where planning is essential at every level and it is extremely important because what you don’t know might hurt you or worse.

As divers become more skilled and experienced dive planning becomes easier. We don’t have to think as much about equipment needs because we’ve learned from experience and acquired the proper equipment. Maximum depths and bottom times become familiar and we come to memorize many of the standard pieces of information. A dive can be planned quickly and easily once we become experienced. An important question we must ask though; is experience causing us to neglect planning?

What is dive planning? Is it as simple as saying I want to do a 60 foot deep dive then grabbing a table or computer, checking the numbers and jumping in the water? We all know the answer is no, but have we fully considered the myriad complexities that make up dive planning? A lot more goes into planning a dive than many of us realize. Most of the time we do it without being aware of the process and most of the time everything works out fine. It’s those rare occasions when things don’t work out fine that we realize that Winston Churchill was correct when he said, “He who fails to plan is planning to fail.” Your planning begins at that moment when the idea pops into your head, “Hey, I’m going diving!” Immediately, your mind begins the checklist. You start answering the standard questions, who, what, where, when, why, and how. Most of those questions are answered casually as you contact your buddy to choose the date time and location but you are indeed in the process of dive planning. The goal of this article is to encourage SCUBA divers to concentrate more on dive planning and to formalize it so important issues aren’t overlooked.

Every dive class you’ve ever taken addresses planning of some type and it is neither necessary nor appropriate to cover those things here. The goal is to have the reader step back and review the process used to plan a dive so as to formalize the steps. We will touch on general topics and encourage a review of some of the procedures taught in classes.

Let’s start our discussion of dive planning with who. What are the attributes, characteristics, and experience of our dive buddy? Is it one of our children, a newly certified diver, a well trained seasoned diver, or even a mixed group? How you dive and what you do will be different depending on who you dive with. Ask yourself; what are the skills and training of my buddies? Consider the answers and plan your dive accordingly. There’s no excuse for taking somebody someplace underwater where they shouldn’t be.

Next we look for the answer to the question of what. What are we doing? Look at the type of dive you want to do, assess the skills of your buddies and plan a dive that’s appropriate for all parties. This will involve being properly trained, equipped, and experienced for the dive you plan. If you plan to spearfish make sure you have the proper license and brush up on fish ID and size limits. If it’s a night dive do you have sufficient lights with backups and chemical light sticks or other beacons? Is everybody in the group trained and equipped for an overhead environment? Assess the type of dive you are planning and make sure you are ready to do it.

Now that you have found a buddy and planned the type of dive you want to do it’s time to choose a location. This is an area of planning where many failures occur. In the “Information Age” details are readily available, but many of us assume and we all know what happens when you assume. Pages could be written about this, but the important advice here is to just do your homework. A vast amount of information is available online and usually local dive shops are happy to share information. Aside from the actual dive, it is also important to plan your travel to the site. Locate it in advance and also determine other considerations like lodging, meals, and availability of dive shops or other services. There are a lot of surprises that could ruin your good time. Next check the conditions like water temperature, current, seas, visibility, marine life, et cetera before you go and build that information into your plan.  If you are planning a wreck dive research the wreck first. You should know the size, depth, layout, and any special considerations about the wreck you are diving. The same questions can be answered for reefs and other natural structures. Springs, rivers, and other freshwater dives also have very important considerations. Just as there are wreck dives that require advanced or greater certifications there are freshwater dives that require very specialized training. Many of these dives are easily accessible with no dive boat captain checking certifications so personal responsibility governs your actions. There are spring and freshwater dives suitable for every level of diver and there is plenty of information available online, in print, or from local sources. A dive into a spring cavern without proper training, equipment, and experience could easily be your last dive. Do the research in advance and be sure the site you choose is appropriate for you and your buddy. Arming yourself with a little knowledge will make your dive safer and more enjoyable.

In diving, as in life, timing is everything. Aside from the fact that the whale shark always seems to make an appearance the day after you made the dive or you always seem to hear, “Wow, you should have seen the viz last week!” The day and time of your dive is very important. A little home work and planning here will certainly pay off. Conditions at some sites may be better at certain times of the year or even on specific days. There may be better times to see certain marine life and diving on the wrong tide can be dangerous. Do the research and ask the questions to determine if the time is right to do the dive you plan.

We’ve all been told goals are important and it’s true in diving. You and your buddies should have a clear understanding of the expectations for the dive. What you are trying to accomplish should be a central part of your dive plan and everybody on the dive should clearly understand it. Too many accidents have happened when divers set off on their own without a clear understanding of what their buddies expect. Make decisions and discuss procedures limits, and goals for wreck penetration, spearfishing, photography, cavern, cave, or any type of diving before you descend. This way everybody understands and there are no surprises.

Finally we come to answering the question of how. How are we going to do this? Along with deciding who drives and where you’ll meet for breakfast you have to do all that dive planning you were taught in class. What breathing gas will you need and how much? How are you going to equip yourself? Pack the necessary items along with your backups and save a dive kit and leave unnecessary gear at home. Make the arrangements with the dive boat, book the hotel, and make any other arrangements necessary for the outing. Work out all the details and be prepared for another safe exciting adventure under water.

After reading this it’s probably clear that most divers are already doing most of the planning outlined but in a casual manner. Your approach is not important, but the content is. Failing to find the answer to even one of the questions we suggest you ask in your dive plan could, at the very least, lead to disappointment or an unpleasant experience. Consider the greater consequences of poor planning and ask yourself if you are preparing for the task at hand.  “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there,” and the final destination may not be what you had in mind.

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