Is It Safe to Scuba Dive Alone?

what to do when separated

After getting your scuba certification, you might be wondering if you can scuba dive alone. After all, you might not always have a dive buddy available. You probably also heard during your scuba courses that you should always dive with a buddy. If you are new to scuba diving, we will also echo the recommendation that you should not dive solo. Once you are more experienced, you can decide whether solo diving is the way for you or not.

Solo diving is a controversial topic among divers. Some believe it’s not feasible to always dive with a buddy, and that with enough redundancies and experience it’s perfectly safe to dive alone. Others believe it’s never worth the risk to dive alone, and recommend against it. At the very least, solo diving is not illegal, so the decision to do it or not is up to you. But before you head into the depths alone, you should learn more about solo diving and its potential risks.

Solo Diving Over the Years

Over a thousand years ago, fishermen would dive alone to spearfish and collect oysters. Back then, there was no international diving association to give out licenses and recommendations like “always dive with a buddy.” People just did it, and they still do to this day. But we know that the mortality rates for humans were horrendous back then, and maybe solo diving contributed to such a high mortality rate.

Fast forward to the 50s and 60s, and divers are now encouraged to dive with at least one other skilled diver (if not a whole group) and that they should dive in pairs. This “buddy” system was intended to reduce the risk of injuries and death. This system caught on so well that it’s one of the first things you are taught in a modern scuba course. The concept is simple: if one diver is incapacitated, then the other can come to the rescue or call for help. Divers can also communicate with each other to prevent accidents from occurring in the first place.

Even though the buddy system provides numerous benefits, over the years people are once again entertaining the question: Is it safe to dive solo? Technically, dive instructors aren’t even practicing what they preach. After all, should something happen to the instructor, there isn’t another skilled diver around to provide assistance. Yet, they successfully teach class after class and have long careers with no issues.

The attitude around solo diving is beginning to shift once again. In 1999, Scuba Diving International (SDI) was the first organization to launch an officially recognized solo diving certification course. PADI followed suit in 2011 with their own version of the solo diving course. With these offerings from the diving authorities, it’s safe to say that the industry is beginning to accept solo diving as a safe activity.

Perhaps it is due to the advancements of modern scuba equipment or humanity’s vast knowledge of diving that we have acquired over the years. Nowadays, you can even get officially certified to be a solo diver by enrolling in the courses offered by PADI and SDI. So should you do it?

Should You Scuba Dive Alone?

One of the major reasons for diving alone is the freedom it provides. You are no longer beholden to someone else’s schedule. If you want to dive but your buddy isn’t available, it’s frustrating having to wait until both your schedules are open. In the meantime, are you just supposed to wait around? With solo diving, you can dive whenever you want, even in the middle of the week if that’s when you happen to be free.

Furthermore, some divers feel uncomfortable diving in a group. When diving in a group, you have to constantly keep an eye out for your fellow divers as if you were a Divemaster. If your buddy is not as skilled of a diver as you are, it can be distracting having to babysit someone. Your partner would also feel burdened knowing that they are holding you back. When solo diving, you just need to worry about yourself. You can also focus more of your attention on exploring and enjoying the underwater views.

In a similar vein, when solo diving, you can explore more freely. You don’t have to worry about straying from the group, or having to signal where you intend on going. You just go. Perhaps you want to take a picture of an exotic coral reef, or you want to check out a submerged structure like a sunken plane. When you are with a buddy, some of your time will be used following your buddy around. If your dive buddy wants to go left but you want to go right, it can be frustrating deciding where to go. All the more reason to dive alone.

Downsides of Solo Diving

With that said, there is plenty of risk involved with solo diving. You have to realize that the section above was written from the point of view of an experienced diver. If you have fewer than 100 dives under your belt, you must dive with a buddy. You certainly do not have the requisite experience to dive solo just yet. In this section, we will discuss some of the counterarguments to solo diving.

Medical Emergencies are Fatal

Perhaps the strongest argument against solo diving is what to do in the event of a medical emergency. According to PADI, nearly half of diving-related deaths were caused by a health event. While diving with a buddy does not magically make you immune to health emergencies, it means you have the possibility of being rescued and brought to a hospital where you might survive. If you suffer a medical emergency a hundred feet underwater, alone, the outcome is certainly fatal.

Less Redundancy

When solo diving, you can only use what you bring. Equipment malfunctions can happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Diving with a buddy gives you even more redundancy if your equipment stops working. For instance, if your air tank fails, you can gesture to your buddy that you need to share theirs until you can safely resurface. Solo divers will probably be diving with a spare air tank and backup dive computer, but who knows what else might fail. With a dive buddy, you know you always have a backup on hand.

It Can Get Lonely

While being alone is kind of the point of solo diving, sometimes you witness something so amazing you just wish someone else were there to see it. This way, when you surface, you and your buddy will have so much to discuss. You’ll be making unforgettable memories together.

Perhaps even years later, you can reminisce with your buddy about that awesome dive you had. It’s not the same if you’re telling the story and the other person wasn’t there, so they have to use their limited imagination and force out an “Oh yeah, that sounds cool.” Sometimes sharing the experience is much more fun than experiencing it alone.

Lack of Dive Records

When you dive alone, there’s no one around to sign or stamp your dive log. Of course, you can track your own dives in your personal log. However, these dives cannot be verified by a third party, which means they don’t count towards the number of dives toward a diving certification. If your goal is to log the requisite number of dives to achieve a certification, solo dives cannot be verified and will not help you to this end.

Getting Ready to Solo Dive Safely

It feels like an oxymoron to use the words “solo scuba diving” and “safe” in the same sentence, but the attitudes are shifting and you can certainly solo dive safer. There are a few things you need to prepare before you decide to embark on a solo diving adventure. The first thing is that you should build up enough experience working with other divers and diving in general so that you can handle going it alone.

Even if you are a veteran diver, you should consider obtaining an official solo diving scuba certification before attempting a solo dive. As we mentioned, there are two courses being offered: the SDI Solo Diver course or the PADI Self-Reliant Diver course. By completing either one of these courses, you will have the knowledge to safely dive alone.

In order to enroll in the PADI Self-Reliant Diver course, you must meet the following requirements:

  • Be 18 or older.
  • Have 100 or more logged dives.
  • Already certified with PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification or higher.
  • Successfully complete a skill assessment.

The requirements for enrolling in the SDI Solo Diver course are as follows:

  • Be 21 or older.
  • Have 100 or more logged dives.
  • Already certified with SDI Advanced Diver certification or higher.

Solo Diving Tips

Solo diving is enough of a risk already, so it’s better to stick to recreational depths. While it sounds like deep diving alone is not so different, there are significantly more risks to diving deeper.

When diving at depths of 130 ft (40 m) or greater, you’ll be at an increased risk of experiencing decompression sickness. You will need to make regular decompression stops to let the nitrogen in your tissues safely exit, otherwise you may experience some life-threatening side effects. By staying in shallow water, the chances of getting DCS is lower. Furthermore, you have a greater chance of making it back to shore or the boat if you are sticking to shallower waters.

You should also have a clear plan on how you want your dive to go and to stick to that plan. By setting a maximum dive and depth time, you will be able to safely stay within your limits and not get in over your head.

In a similar vein, you should stick to diving at dive sites that you are already familiar with. Since you know specific details about that location, you can plan your dive more effectively. You will be able to explore that area more fully because you already know about the major attractions and how to navigate around them. If you’re exploring an overhead environment, always attach a line to the outside so you can find your way out even if you are disoriented.

Furthermore, always bring backups of the most crucial pieces of equipment. That means a spare air tank, a backup dive computer, replacement batteries, and a spare mask. Without any of these pieces of equipment, your dive session is effectively over. Furthermore, they are small enough that you can bring spares, whereas you won’t be able to bring a second BCD for example.

Hopefully you are in excellent diving shape before attempting a solo dive. You should also double check with your doctor that you do not have any health conditions that can get exacerbated by diving. If you are obese, have poor cardiovascular health, have high blood pressure, or are not a strong swimmer, then what are you doing even thinking about solo diving? Even having a mild cold or allergies can compromise your safety because you want complete focus on what you are doing during a dive.

Lastly, if nothing else, at least get officially certified by taking either of the two solo diving courses offered. They have strict requirements to even allow enrollment, so if you meet them and successfully complete the course, you already have the skills to dive without a buddy. You will get much more comprehensive training and tips than we can impart in this article so you can decide for yourself what to do to prepare for a solo dive. After getting certified, you can test your solo diving skills in shallow waters and enjoy all of the freedom it offers.

If you’re just getting started with scuba diving, solo diving is not yet for you. We recommend you check out this beginner tips article to help you get started.