Solo diving is the practice of scuba diving alone without a "dive buddy". Solo diving, once discouraged, is now (since the late 1990s) beginning to gain acceptance among experienced divers who have skills in self-sufficiency and redundant backup equipment.
Solo diving, once considered technical diving and discouraged by most certification agencies, is now seen by many experienced divers and some certification agencies as an acceptable practice for those divers suitably trained and experienced. Rather than relying on the traditional buddy diving safety system, solo divers should be skilled in self-sufficiency and willing to take responsibility for their own safety while diving. The first training agency to offer a Solo Diving certification was Scuba Diving International (SDI) in 1999. In 2011 the SCUBA training agency PADI started offering a solo speciality called "Self-sufficient Diver," which in many respects (entry requirements for example) is very similar to the course offered by SDI.
Some divers, such as instructors, are effectively acting as self-sufficient solo divers because they dive with students who may not yet be capable of rescuing them. Others, such as underwater photographers and videographers, dive solo as this allows them a greater opportunity to focus on capturing selected images and not having to rely on buddies to remain close at hand. Even those photographers or videographers who do dive with buddies are often effectively "same ocean" buddies, implying they may be far enough apart physically, or sufficiently focused on their camera-related tasks, to be ineffective as a designated dive buddy—just as if they were diving in the same ocean, but not together. This practice has led to many highly-experienced underwater photographers diving solo, since they don't commit to provide timely support to a buddy nor expect such support from a buddy. Underwater hunters also often elect to dive solo in order to focus on their prey. Many solo divers happily will dive in a buddy pair if diving with a known and trusted buddy but otherwise dive solo in preference to being paired up with a potentially unreliable or incompetent partner. In the United States the added danger of becoming a respondent in litigation in the event of a diving accident with such a "dangerous buddy" is a motivation to dive alone.
Safe solo divers must be self-sufficient, well trained, prepared and practised. They should have a completely redundant set of all life support equipment (e.g. a complete, self-contained backup breathing gas supply). In addition, the responsible solo divers adhere to a very conservative dive profile, both in depth and level of difficulty. Unlike the buddy system, which encourages divers to rely on others in the event of an emergency, solo diving encourages divers to prepare themselves to overcome emergencies by their own means. The divers who engage in solo diving are typically those who are experienced and equipped enough to handle problems themselves. Solo divers must feel totally comfortable and relaxed in doing this sort of diving, and nobody should ever think of doing diving solo if they are not both competent and comfortable in doing so.
Qualifications for formal solo diving training as provided by SDI emphasises the need for experience and maturity in diving. In particular the student pre-requisites for the solo diving certification course are:
The student must have an acceptable alternative air configuration, redundant gauges and/or computers, SMB and reel, compass, and (depending on training centre) signaling device and line cutting device. During the course tests are conducted on swimming skills and swimming endurance, scuba skills associated with solo diving (e.g. use of redundant air), navigation skills and dive planning skills (including air management).
While there are potential hazards involved with solo diving, most of these can be planned for and mitigated by the proper use of redundant equipment. In technical diving, where redundancy is standard, self-sufficiency is taught more strongly. In many situations if a diver has a problem, other divers (e.g. their buddy) may not have sufficient gas to complete the dive for both. This is especially true of cave diving where stressful situations can vastly increase gas consumption and where decompression may be required, further pushing the limits of sharing air. A solo diver needs to have a second, independent source of air, a complete second regulator and preferably a submersible pressure gauge for his/her alternate source of air. This redundant air supply typically takes the form of a pony bottle for most recreational solo divers, or the use of a twin tank set equipped with the capability of independent operation of each tank, for more demanding or for technical diving. Additional redundant equipment carried includes a second dive computer, and a spare torch (dive light) and backup dive mask. As with all scuba equipment, the diver must be intimately familiar with this configuration and have the ability to access any of the equipment easily if it should be needed. A solo diver needs to also be especially careful about his/her overall fitness and health. Finally, the solo diver typically dives a much more conservative dive plan than he/she might dive with an equally competent buddy diver.
As part of mitigating risks in solo diving the following specific practises have been adopted by SDI for solo diving or are key recommendations by Robert Von Maier—author of the 1991 book Solo Diving: The Art of Underwater Self-Sufficiency:
There has been much controversy over the relative safety and merits of solo diving. In 2003, very few statistics existed regarding the impact of solo diving on safety. A 2006 report from the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) concluded that "BSAC currently takes the view that based on evidence from available statistics and risk assessment, the increased risk attendant to allowing planned solo diving is unacceptable". The data underlying the statistics which are used to point to the dangers of solo diving are dubious however. For example, divers who end up dying alone but originally had started out as part of a buddy pair are often considered to be "diving solo" in such statistics.
In actuality, studies show that with buddy diving death incidents, 57% of deaths happened after the buddy pair had separated from one another during the emergency. Again, these cases should be more rightly attributed to failure of the buddy system rather than failure of any solo diving/self sufficient diving system. A further complication in such statistics is that certain more dangerous diving practices (e.g. cave diving) are frequently carried out solo. Therefore it is a question whether a death in such a dive should be attributed at all to solo diving, instead of just to cave diving. Going back to the figures used by BSAC to categorise solo diving as dangerous it turns out that during 2001–2008 all but one of these "solo diving deaths" were in actuality paired buddy divers that became separated in the fatal incident (75%) or else were divers diving far outside of the limits set by both SDI and PADI for the practise of solo diving (20%) (i.e. actually deep divers, rebreather tech-divers, cave divers). Two further "solo-diving deaths" were in actuality not scuba divers at all, but snorkelers.
Without a doubt, two highly competent totally self-sufficient divers diving a specific dive profile as a buddy pair are at lower risk than those same two divers diving exactly the same profile separately, but this raises the question "how often do normal buddy divers both really fit into this particular description?" When considering the risks in solo diving the alternative risks found predominantly in buddy diving need also be considered. The greatest danger to sports divers is inexperience – 60% of all diving fatalities involve divers having less than 20 completed dives. The buddy system itself can be a source of risk – a 2006 survey showed that 52% of buddy divers were at some time actually endangered by a buddy's behaviors or actions.
The core objective in training to be a solo diver is to become as self-sufficient/self-reliant as possible—under all circumstances and fully able to deal with any potential problems and difficulties and to have the competence, fitness, discipline, skills and equipment that will achieve this result. It requires a sharpened sense of risk-assessment and the ability to plan dives that mitigate these risks. One of the practical benefits of these disciplines is that they will also improve the calibre of buddy diving whenever the trained solo diver pairs up with another diver in a buddy team. If, for example the other buddy partner has lesser skills or experience, a divers own self-sufficiency skills diminishes the need for that less experienced partner to become engaged in some procedure for which they are not fully capable, thereby providing a situation of improved safety for both diving partners. Agencies training solo divers also recommend the self-sufficiency training in their courses for all divers as their diving experience grows, so as to achieve greater safety in all diving—buddy and solo.
The possible impression that solo divers are unsociable is quite wrong. Most solo divers are quite gregarious and very much want to share their enjoyment of diving with others – they just want to do it when they get to the surface. The solitude they want to enjoy is during the dive. Solo divers take pleasure in this solitude – the emotive rewards in solo diving are akin to those of someone walking alone across some beautiful mountain scenery and enjoying the thoughts that such isolation and reflection provokes. There is also an enjoyment in the feeling of self-sufficiency for this style of diving, that one is not dependent on others, but is relying solely on ones own skills and capabilities. Finally, there is the sense of freedom, of not being impeded by the need to look after anyone but oneself and therefore being able to achieve ones own goal in the dive without compromising.
There are also divers who enjoy specific underwater activities but are unable to find anyone who shares the specific interest sufficiently to dive with them regularly, and where the activity is incompatible with a less than dedicated buddy. Falling back on Option #1 - don't dive is not acceptable, as the diver is then almost permanently prevented from pursuing the interest. Diving with buddies who get bored or tired quickly also does not lead to enhanced enjoyment for either party. In short, when the underwater activity is of interest only to oneself, solo is the only option.
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