Con, by Chris Parsons: Dive-training agencies should teach people how to use surface marker buoys, not mandate it
When I was asked to be the “con” on this topic, I almost said no — I rarely dive without a surface-marker buoy. After some thought, though, I realized that while there are definitely times when an SMB — or other type of surface marker — should be considered essential, mandating its use doesn’t really solve the problem.
One easy argument against mandating surface markers is that some dives simply don’t need them, and they might, in fact, get in the way — ice diving in a Minnesota lake comes to mind.
So who should mandate surface markers? Government? No, thank you. Training agencies? They don’t teach SMB use in the basic classes; it would be a huge jump for them to suddenly mandate them.
That really just leaves dive operators.
Operators can and sometimes do require surface marker buoys. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that a diver is able or even willing to use an SMB properly. I’ve seen many divers in situations that clearly indicated a surface marker ought to be deployed, but the SMB often remained clipped to their BC. When I asked later why they didn’t inflate it, despite being a mile away from the boat, I generally got a puzzled look rather than an answer.
There is a larger point here, and it is that divers simply need to be better prepared, and moreover, to take responsibility for their own safety. If conditions or a location prescribe that a diver should have a surface marker, it should be incumbent upon the diver to have one. Mandating a piece of gear doesn’t train the diver, nor does it prepare them.
I’ve been on boats where SMBs are required and seen divers show up without one. The dive operator will typically loan the diver one, and often the diver needs a quick lesson in how to use it. Note that this represents two strikes against the diver already — they showed up without an SMB, and they don’t know how to inflate it. Worse, they don’t understand when to deploy it — if the boat is a mile away, it might be too late. Strike three.
When there is boat traffic or significant current, the prudent diver might deploy the SMB from depth using a reel or spool. Once on the surface, the diver should be focused on boat traffic, not fumbling to inflate a surface marker. To do this, divers need to be trained and able to practice the skill. To my knowledge, SMB deployment from depth is not taught in Open Water or Advanced classes. Rather than mandating its use, perhaps the training agencies should teach its use — and its importance.
I understand why dive operators feel compelled to require SMBs. Ideally, they shouldn’t have to, but too many divers show up unprepared. That shouldn’t happen. Divers who show up at a dive operation should take the time to get trained, understand the consequences of diving in that area, and arrive with the gear needed for the dive.
This one should be on the diver.
Pro, by Alice Darwent: You never really know when you might need it
Ending your dive safely and getting back on board the boat are undoubtedly the most important aspects of diving, especially if you’re drift diving. This is why every diver should carry a surface-marker buoy and be shown how to use it safely.
In Tobago, where the majority of dives are done as drift, guides carry an SMB so the boat captain can monitor where they are at all times. The currents around the island can be strong, which is why the Association of Tobago Dive Operators recommends that you dive with a guide and not on your own. All ATDO member dive shops make sure their guides dive with an SMB. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors even runs a specialist course to teach divers the knowledge and techniques required for the safe use of SMBs.
There have been well-documented cases of divers going missing; happily, most of those divers are found. Inves- tigations into what went wrong usually reveal that the dive leader was either not carrying an SMB or that the SMB was not large enough to be seen by the boat captain. In cases where divers do go missing, having more than one SMB to blow up and wave around on the surface of the water will greatly increase their chances of being found. This is why every diver should have an SMB in his BCD pocket when he dives — to use in case of an emergency. You can be the world’s most safety-conscious diver, but sometimes Mother Nature throws you a curve ball, and you find yourself in an emergency situation. Carefully planning every dive you do will minimize risk, and that careful planning should include what you do if you get lost and what equipment you need — an SMB is part of that equipment.
SMBs also identify you to other marine traffic. Underwater, it's hard to determine the direction of sound, such as the noise of a boat propeller. Bear in mind too that the captain of the vessel will not know you are close to him. He might see bubbles, but by then it could be too late. Carrying an SMB, which is usually bright orange or yellow, clearly identifies where you are and warns marine traffic to stay away.
Personally I never dive without an SMB, even if it’s a shore dive. You never know when you might need it.
Chris Parsons is an underwater photographer, boat captain, rebreather diver and former PADI instructor. He is the rep for Nuticam and Zen Underwater photo gear.
Alice Darwent has been affiliated with the dive industry for 25 years. President of the Tobago Dive Association, she is owner of AquaMarine Dive, Speyside, Tobago.