How will you react in a real life out-of-gas situation?

By Robi Miara

In real life, gas emergencies present themselves in a lot of different ways. Most of them will not be textbook events.

How will you react when out of gas? What will your buddy do? How will you signal it? Will you just grab a regulator? Panic?

From my humble experience, in 100% of the gas emergencies/incidents I’ve encountered, none of the divers involved signaled correctly. In some incidents, a diver was totally out of gas. Others involved not having sufficient gas for a safe ascent. Some were handled great and some didn’t.

Luckily, all ended well. Let me share some stories and my lessons learned:

The Navy SEAL

I was diving the Vandenberg, a 160 m/520 ft long wreck in the Florida Keys. The dive operator teamed me up with a navy guy as a buddy. Tough looking badass with a military-style haircut. I was sure I got a Navy SEAL for a buddy. We exchanged a few words about the dive and off we went.

During the decent, it took me some time to equalize. My buddy waited on the shoot line a bit deeper than me, holding the line and fighting the current. I solved the ear problem and we descended into the greenish, 5 m/15 ft visibility. As soon as we hit the upper deck of the wreck at 27 m/90 ft, ‘Steven Seagal’ showed me his SPG, accompanied with the signal. He appeared calm but, from where I was looking, 10 ft below him, his gauge showed nearly 0!!

At first, I thought, Bad SPG?? Why is he giving the Ok signal? After another second, the guy disappeared in the green. I looked around for a minute, then swam back to the shot line. I couldn’t stop thinking, Is he dead? Is he fine enjoying the wreck by himself with a bad SPG?? And what was that OK signal? Did he switch to gills?

After surfacing I got the good news. The guy was alive on the boat.

We then talked, and he said, “I guess I used to much gas waiting for you in that current, but I didn’t want to blow your dive, so I signaled I’m ok and went up.”

Lesson learned:

Haven’t dived with a buddy? Brief everything, including dive plan, signals and contingencies. Even if you are sure that your buddy is Casey Ryback. Keep in mind an out-of-gas buddy may not give the same signal you would. So don’t assume. If another diver gives you any signal involving a problem with breathing gas, immediately reach and offer the Octo/Long hose.


US flag on the Vandenberg that day, waiving in the current. Great barracuda at the background

Free Flow at Little River

For the first dive on that cave diving trip, my buddies and I met at ‘The Dive Outpost’ to plan a dive at Little River cave. Part of the plan was to use the Rule of Sixths as one of the guys was only certified to the Intro to Cave level. I was very happy with that since it was my first Little River dive. We also decided to place the least experienced diver in the middle as diver #2, and the one with the strongest light, at the back as #3 (me). We did a detailed pre-dive sequence (Briefing, S-drill, V-drill, bubble check, etc.) to get everyone into ‘cave dive mode’.

Ten minutes into the dive, I saw diver #2 light bouncing on the cave wall. I looked at him; he was manipulating his right tank valve and there were bubbles everywhere.

At that moment diver #1 was just about to take a 90-degree right turn. I realized I had one second to signal him before he disappeared. I gave the team leader the Emergency light signal while getting ready to donate my long hose to #2.

After few more seconds diver #2 got his free flow under control, the team leader joined us and we called the dive. A couple of minutes later we were out of the cave.

Lessons learned:

Pre-dive decisions proved themselves. This included putting the least experienced diver in the middle and the one with the strongest light in the back.

Diver #2 never signaled for Emergency. His light bounced on the wall due to the valve manipulation. Diver #1 had a good awareness of diver’s #3 signals. However, had this been a two-person team, this is a good chance #1 would have disappeared behind that turn.

In most cases it is better to get assistance from the diver behind you. He or she is the one most likely to see you and to be ready. Catching up to a diver in front can take more time — especially In high flow caves or strong currents.

Taking a nap on the ‘Deco tree’ at Little River.

The Photographer

In the Red Sea on a wreck at 30m/100ft, during a shore dive I joined a group of three divers as I wanted to work on my leash/bottle rotation technique. I knew one of the three guys. He was with his son and another friend. The friend was a photographer with a huge camera.

They had a single Al80 tank each. I had backmounted doubles and three additional cylinders. On the wreck, I practiced bottle drops while the other divers were enjoying the wreck.

Fifteen minutes into the dive, as I was retrieving my bottles from the line, I heard someone’s dive computer alarm. My friend approached me and gave the Buddy Up signal, pointing to me and his friend. I understood.

I made contact with the photographer’s harness, switched to my backup regulator and offered my long hose. I could see him struggling to calm himself. He held the second stage I gave him, but he couldn’t get himself calm enough to make the switch. He checked his SPG and signaled not 50 but 5,I understood. He was down to 50 bars or 750 psi. That’s fine; I have enough gas for every diver on this wreck to safely ascend.

Another minute goes by and he shows me 3 — 30 bars or 435 psi. At that point, I started thinking, What if he will never get himself calm enough to make the switch?

On 2 he finally did it. He then gave me the thumb up signal and raised his inflator up as in getting ready for a Vertical ascent.


“No, buddy,” I pointed out. “We are not going straight up into the blue while gas sharing. Look at that beautiful slope right there in front of us” I pointed out

We swam and intercepted the slope at 14 m/45 ft. I handed him a stage bottle and continued a slow ascent. We changed from Emergency mode back to Smooth shallow dive mode. I thought to myself, “Staying in the water for another ten minutes would be a good idea for him, Get back on the horse, buddy.”

Lessons Learned:

The guy was a CCR diver. On that day, however, on a single AL80 with an enormous camera and less than 2,200 liters/80 cubic feet of gas. His 70-bars alarm went off before he knew it.

The OOG signal was never present,the Buddy Up signal was clear.

Having plenty of gas made the difference. What would have happened, though, if he couldn’t get himself to make that switch?

There isn’t such thing as too much gas. (Picture from same wreck, different day).

Some Final Conclusions

Gas-related incidents will catch you in different ways. Most of them will not be ‘textbook’ events. Be mentally ready for that.

  • Assume out-of-gas divers won’t give the correct signals. Look for other signs of distress and be prepared to act. Don’t hesitate
  • Having plenty of gas to share in these situations is a real comfort:
  • You can always choose to take the safe way out in an emergency, which is not necessarily the fast way.
  • Assume out-of-gas emergencies will happen at the worst possible moment. Plan for it, brief for it and know your gas requirements by heart.
  • Practice emergency skills. And then practice them some more

Dive safe.

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3 replies
  1. Ted Reitsma
    Ted Reitsma says:

    On my first dive ever, a hose ruptured (fortunately I was only 3 feet under water). Since then I have been very weary. I have had 2 free flows (one due to first stage diaphragm, one due to second stage issues). On shore I had a bad O-ring on inflator hose and had twice my inflator ‘stick’ where it was self inflating (both in pool training with my students). Having nearly 2 dozen ‘meaningful’ certifications now, I have for some time dove with a pony bottle and am a ‘self-reliant’ diver. My friends I dive with think it is over kill and they never do s-drills in the water as the dive boat (and resorts) do not even suggest/encourage it. I have always been calm when these things occurred and with pony I feel that much safer. As you say, you can never have too much air. I wish all the dive organizations would make pony as mandatory as an octo. When I am in the pool I will come up to un suspecting divers and student divers and give the ‘out of air’ signal. Sadly 80% of the time they do not know at all what to do, or hand me the (short) reg from their mouth (non tech divers, so non tech gear). I know some day I will have to save someone’s life. Until then they just will think I am being overly cautious or a show off. You only have one life to live, no mulligan’s in diving

    • Robi
      Robi says:

      Hi Nathaniel,
      some points I was thinking about that might affect the decision on who will lead:

      A. cave diving in a two person’s team – the one in front going in will be the last one out.
      B. cave diving in a three person’s team – the one in the middle will always be in the middle – on the way in and out.

      So positioning of the least experienced diver should take that into account, but there are more points to think about:

      A. who knows the cave best?
      B. experience in the specific dive conditions, vis, current..
      C. who has the weakest light? (will go in the middle)
      D. the one leading will handle the reel/s – it is an important practice for new guys…

      so i don’t think there is one answer, i guess it is something the team need to talk about.

      for me one thing is clear – if the least experienced guy wants to lead – that’s great! we need to support and mentor him !



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