Black Water Search and Recovery Dive Training

by Steven M. Barsky:

“They mostly come at night. Mostly…”
The character “Newt (Rebecca)” in the film Aliens, talking about the aliens that attack and make humans their hosts to grow additional aliens.

Of all the diving performed by professional and commercial divers, black water diving has to be the most challenging on a purely psychological basis. It’s not that it is particularly technically difficult, but it’s the type of diving that gives most people the creeps if you can get them in an honest discussion.

In truly black water, everything must be done by feel. It’s virtually impossible to read a gauge that is not backlit, and you may not locate the dead body you’re searching for until you literally run into it. Not a happy experience.

At our most basic level, most children experience some fear of the dark during childhood. The boogeyman under the bed and the monster hiding in the closet are issues almost every parent knows well. As adults we outgrow these worries, but most people are aware that predators (both human and four legged) hunt in the dark and this issue is one that most people push into the back of their minds. The predator you can’t see is the one that evokes the most worry, even when an attack is unlikely. Psychologists refer to fear of the dark as “nyctophobia.”

Given a choice, most divers would prefer to dive in clear water with unlimited visibility. Unfortunately, especially for the public safety diver, these types of dives are rarely, if ever, encountered. Limited visibility, for example a field of view of one to two feet, is something that most of us can cope with easily. True black water, where the visibility is zero, presents a much greater series of issues.

In a black water dive, there are many real risks that are of much greater concern than the boogeyman. The first question you should be asking, prior to any dive in black water or poor visibility, is why is the water dirty? There’s a very good chance that if the water is not clear, it’s probably polluted.

Other risks that are common during black water dives include the possibility of entanglement, cuts to the hands and body, the possibility of unknowingly swimming into some type of enclosure, and difficulty dealing with out of air emergencies. During a black water dive, all of these dangers are real and it’s possible to encounter all of them during a single dive.

Special Equipment

full face maskDiving in black water requires special equipment. Some of the items you will need include a full-face mask with communications (or a diving helmet), a tether (or umbilical), gloves, side cutters or other tool capable of cutting wire, and a knife.

The full-face mask with communications is vital because you need a way to call for help if you are entangled or have encountered some other type of difficulty. In addition, if you are diving in biologically or other minimally contaminated water, the full-face mask will help to protect your eyes, nose, and mouth from contaminants. Of course, in contaminated water you will need a dry suit and dry gloves, too.

Tethered scuba is an acceptable way to dive with scuba in black water, but it does have its limitations. The chief limitation with open circuit scuba is a finite air supply. The tether can incorporate a communications wire and this may be very desirable in places where wireless communications does not work well. In a best case scenario, the diver is wearing a helmet with an umbilical from the surface. Whatever type of specialized life support gear you use must be mastered before you venture into a black water diving scenario.

Gloves are especially important in black water, not only to protect you from the cold or pollutants, but also to protect the hands from possible cuts due to debris that may be located on the bottom. In harbors or marinas, you may encounter broken glass, barbed wire, razor sharp metal, and other similar items. A crashed small aircraft will likely be broken into numerous razor sharp pieces of metal with cables and wires waiting to snag the diver.

cuttersSide cutters or other tools that are capable of cutting wire are essential for diving in black water. You simply cannot cut wire such as fishing leader or similar materials with most diving knives.

You need a very sharp knife, sharper than most ordinary diving knives, for diving in black water. You absolutely must be able to cut your way out of any potential entanglement.

Training is Key

Training for diving in black water starts with complete familiarization with any specialized gear you select for your dive. If you cannot operate your equipment and perform all the necessary skills to handle an emergency under optimal conditions, you certainly won’t be able to perform these tasks in black water. In addition, you must test any cutting gear you have to ensure that it is sharp and that you can cut wire easily.

Black water training typically starts in a swimming pool with the diver’s mask being blacked out. You need to practice ALL of the skills you may need to be called upon to perform, including, but not limited to:

  • Ability to handle all of your equipment
  • Using a side cutter or other cutting tool to cut wire and remove entanglement from self and another diver
  • Using a knife to remove entanglement from self and another diver
  • Ability to rescue another diver, i.e, towing the diver underwater, through or around obstacles
  • Dealing with out of air emergencies
  • Conducting search patterns

All of these skills must mastered before moving on to the next step, which is practicing these skills in open water under conditions where there is some visibility. The diver playing the diver being rescue should not have his masked blacked out so he can observe the rescuer to make sure he is performing the skills correctly.

Ultimately, all divers on your team should practice these skills under true black water conditions until they have developed both comfort and proficiency. Hovering in black water is nearly an impossible skill, but when you’re diving with tethered scuba or an umbilical, this is a non-issue.

Taking photos or video of an underwater crime scene is pretty much an impossible task in black water. Many years ago, the commercial diving company, Oceaneering, developed a black water photography system, consisting of a camera with a plexiglass box filled with fresh water, through which objects could be photographed. Obviously, this system only worked well with flat objects. People have also experimented with constructing underwater “tents” out of vinyl and using alum to attempt to settle out particulate matter, but to my knowledge, none of these techniques worked particularly well.

Maintaining Proficiency

 Environments where black water may be encountered include just about any location where you might be called to dive. If you dive inside major harbors, there may be decent visibility to start your dive, but as soon as you work on the bottom you may experience zero visibility conditions.

As with all diving, the keys are to have the right equipment, maintenance for your equipment, realistic training, and plenty of practice to maintain proficiency. Failure to ensure that each of these requirements are met can lead a dive team to failure, or even the death of team members.

Steven M. Barsky is a former commercial diver, TDI instructor, diving consultant, underwater photographer and author. He retired to Utah in 2014 and spends most of his days reloading, shooting archery, target shooting, hunting and hiking in the mountains nearby.

Photo captions
All photos copyright Steven M. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Photo #1 © Barsky
There is a big difference between diving in limited visibility conditions and diving in black water.

Photo #2 © Barsky
If you’re going to dive in black water, a full-face mask with communications (or a diving helmet) is essential.

Photo #3 © Barsky
Some type of cutting tool is essential for dealing with wire that may cause entanglement.

Photo #4 © Barsky
If your dives take place inside harbors, you may frequently encounter black water.

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