Perhaps one of the deepest fears a diver has is being left behind. That near-perfect tropical dive holiday can suddenly turn to disaster with a down-current or a heavy storm. After all, the liberty that diving gives us is also a compromise, sometimes, of our safety.

Being left behind is a reality that some unfortunate divers have faced. Whether it is your fault or not, you’ll need to know how to get through it. We bring you six tips on what to do if you’re left behind in open water:

"Make certain that your entry into the water is properly noted by the people aboard the boat"

“Make certain that your entry into the water is properly noted by the people aboard the boat”

Plan ahead

No matter how many checks and procedures you go through, separations can still occur. However, there are ways in which you can mitigate them:

  • Make certain that your entry into the water is properly noted by the people aboard the boat, and understand how the boat crew monitors divers
  • Have another diver who is not your buddy double-check that you’re back on board before the boat leaves. It’s always good to dive with friends who will look out for you
  • If conditions are dangerous, don’t dive – the ocean will always be there

Get the gear

Just you in your wetsuit is difficult to spot from the deck of a boat, and in a deep-blue ocean, you’re almost impossible to pick out. Bright surface marker buoys (SMB) should be a standard in your dive kit, and there are other gadgets you can use to maximise safety:

  • Bigger is better. For top visibility, an SMB should be at least 1.8 metres tall, 15 centimetres in diameter and incredibly bright. It’s no use waving your stealth-black fins
  • A compact and affordable additional signal device is the signal mirror. Set for sunny conditions, when properly used it can attract the attention of boats – and even aircraft – at great distances. An old CD can be a good substitute with the same effects
  • If it’s getting serious, and the operator calls in air support, deploying a rescue streamer will make it easier for you to be discovered from above
  • The Nautilus LifeLine, one of the most effective devices designed for exactly these situations, will help locate you through its GPS tracker and could save your life
  • To catch the attention of the boat crew, use a horn or whistle. For greater range, use an air horn instead of blowing on a plastic whistle
  • In the situation where daylight turns to night, it is imperative that you bring a dive strobe or light – preferably an LED light source for greater reliability
  • Consider diving with a brightly coloured hood. If lost at sea, this hood will make you more visible and protect your head against sunburn

Gather your bearings

When you come up and find the boat is not where you thought, or completely gone, it is important to go through the procedure of gathering your bearings:

  • Spin full circle to scan the horizon for land, other boats or anything that you could cling to
  • If you can see something that will get you to safety, then drop your weights to swim on the surface – but keep your mask and regulator/snorkel, as this will help keep you buoyant
  • Still with your buddy? Latch yourselves together to stop you from drifting apart
"Still with your buddy? Latch yourselves together to stop you from drifting apart"

“Still with your buddy? Latch yourselves together to stop you from drifting apart”

Conserve energy

As soon as you realise that you have been left behind, you need to begin to conserve energy:

  • If you are latched to your buddy, this will reduce the swimming that you need to do to keep together
  • Keeping streamlined will help conserve energy
  • If you have to swim for shore against the current, don’t swim directly into it as fighting a current will burn out your energy fast – if you must swim against the current, travel diagonally or perpendicular
"If it’s getting serious, and the operator calls in air support, deploying a rescue streamer will make it easier for you to be discovered from above"

“If it’s getting serious, and the operator calls in air support, deploying a rescue streamer will make it easier for you to be discovered from above”

Stay warm

Staying warm is integral, as even in tropical waters you can get hypothermia. There are many ways in which you can try and stay warm:

  • If you start to feel cold, move your arms and legs to generate heat – but do so in a controlled manner so that your energy is not wasted
  • To keep energy expenditure to a minimum, hug your knees to your chest and cross your feet to trap body heat and conserve your warmth
  • If you’re with a dive buddy, you can share body heat by staying close
  • Keep your head out of the water

Don’t panic

As in all situations, especially in diving, the best way to help avoid a situation is to stay calm and focused:

  • Thrashing around can lead to drowning and a wasting of energy; stay calm
  • Yelling and screaming can cause you to hyperventilate; go through the procedure
  • Take deep breaths and make intentional movements and decisions to keep your mind active

Of course, your boat leaving you is a rare occurrence. But we hope that by following these tips, if one day it happens then you will better your chances of staying safe.