Solo Diving in a Technical World

Solo Diving in a Technical World

By Brian Shreve & John Bentley

Scuba Diving International was the first training agency to offer a Solo Diver certification, and it’s become more and more accepted in the dive industry.  I’ve been on several dive charters where holding that certification, and possessing the required equipment, allowed me to enjoy solo excursions without a buddy.  Some recent events, however, have raised the questions of what is the SDI Solo Diver certification for, and does it apply to technical diving?

The Solo Diver Certification

The SDI Solo Diver certification trains a sport diver to execute certain dives independent of a buddy.  Redundant air supply, a spare mask, and other equipment requirements address many of the common problems the solo diver may encounter.  Skills training develops better problem management skills to address the fight-or-flight reflex that oftentimes is a diver’s first instinctive response to a problem.  Planning skills are also developed to address gas use, gas planning, and personal limits on the dive.  Upon certification, the solo diver should be better able to manage those risks present on a dive when solo, and makes a much better buddy when diving in a team.

When We Don’t Dive Solo

There are certain types of diving that are NOT for SDI Solo Divers.  These include any form of overhead diving (wreck, cavern, cave, or the soft overhead of decompression), pinnacle dives, and any form of technical diving.  Even for those trained in technical diving, the level of planning and execution demanded by technical diving makes it impractical for solo divers.  These limits are clearly explained in the SDI course materials and are addressed by instructors during the course.

In technical diving, there’s a saying that two is one, and one is none.  The only thing we can’t back up as a solo diver is our brain.  The biggest advantage of a team in technical diving is that the team can provide that backup brain – the opportunity to double check the planning process during early phases of the dive as well as actual decisions made during the dive.  While each diver in a team should be entirely self-sufficient, working within a team gives the technical diver many more options when things go pear-shaped.  With closed circuit rebreathers (CCRs), the opportunity exists to make many more mistakes than it does with open circuit.   Having a strong team of two or three divers, along with using checklists, helps to manage the increased risks of rebreather diving.  Going solo on such dives negates that advantage.

In technical diving we sometimes see a solo diver on charters or at the dive site.  This diver is typically emulating their favorite explorer, who does their wreck penetrations or cave pushes alone.  While exploration diving is great, and often requires solo technical diving, that fringe aspect of our sport accepts many easily mitigated risks and its protocols aren’t always appropriate for diving recreationally.  Diving alone for fun at the technical level is not only accepting risk at an unacceptable level, it also degrades the validity of protocols and procedures in technical diving.

Being a solo diver, whether diving alone or in a buddy pair, offers many benefits to both safety and recreation but does inherit a higher risk factor when applied in the wrong scenario. The benefit of hunting or photography alone can result in the biggest fish shot (in both scenarios).  All diving situations require patience in progression but solo diving requires a much greater dedication to self control in order to execute dives properly.  If you haven’t already, sign up for a solo course with your local SDI dive center.

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9 replies
  1. Juan Carlos Aguilar
    Juan Carlos Aguilar says:

    Good article, however there are some concepts that I would like to expand upon.

    I am a NAUI Scuba Diving and a TDI Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures Instructor. My highest personal ratings are trimix and full cave. As the years and dives have gone by, the technical diving world you spoke of has been making a stronger impact on the diving community while outpacing the emotional maturity of the divers entering many of these technical specialties. Part of the problem is the non-stop marketing of sub-category upon sub-category of specialties that used to stand alone. Just like in the recreational world, courses have been reduced to the barebones requirements in order to meet a need for divers that need a specialty done by last weekend and then the card goes into their cert card wallet with the 30 others meanwhile their diving experiences in that specialty ending there, too.

    "In technical diving, there’s a saying that two is one, and one is none."

    Yeah, there's a saying for everything… but with technical diving, the only saying that I've come to promote is "plan your dive and dive your plan." With that said, it's a better lessons taken to the beginnings of everyone's training, open water diver. I've decided to not add specialty upon specialty courses to my repitoire of what I can offer as I'm not seeing enough divers that can truly handle a 250 foot dive, the planning and staging involved, let alone the attitude for sticking by their dive buddy on recreational dives. Owning the equipment seems to be the new certification card for some.

    "The biggest advantage of a team in technical diving is that the team can provide that backup brain."

    This is actually funny…!!! I've seen more technical diver failings in the last ten years than recreational ones and if we could have gotten into the heads of those tech divers, two empty spaces aren't better than one, in fact it could even make decisions even worse. Instead of seeing two autonomous technical divers that each give 100%, the idea that if the competence from two overlap and if they get to 100%, they've beaten the odds is the wrong way to do it. Teams only work when everyone is really on board and have the same attitudes, goals, and competency.

    "With closed circuit rebreathers (CCRs), the opportunity exists to make many more mistakes than it does with open circuit."

    This is a terrible thing to teach. I can come up with more failure points on open circuit that most new divers don't even know about let alone have the experience to solve underwater and weren't even taught.  The technology tied to most rebreathers today is foolproof and some systems with integrated computers not even allowing the diver begin a dive prior to a full predive checklist completed. If rebreathers will become even more automated, there will actually be less to do and that is the heart of the problem. Why would a student need to know fundamentals of gas physiology if the computer will do all the work. Basic math skills and dive table utilization is atrocious. I teach dive tables at every open water course.

    "Diving alone for fun at the technical level is not only accepting risk at an unacceptable level, it also degrades the validity of protocols and procedures in technical diving."

    I got a solo diver card early on in my diving career and the course was lacking. Looking back at it, SDI really failed divers because the program was thin in so many areas. Even TDI's educational materials were archaic. I know because I still have those books and they are not what we offer today. Solo diving in recreational is not about the ability to dive without a buddy, rather it's about being your own dive buddy and working as an independent one-person team. When I teach open water, I teach every student to be self-reliant so when diving with a buddy, they are as competent as the "technical dive teams" you spoke of earlier. A solo diving course is a great idea, but I believe that those skills have to be acquired from day one or the diver's attitude will always be trying to catch up.

    • Guilherme Aguiar
      Guilherme Aguiar says:

      Do you really do Tech Dives? Cave Dives? Do you dive rebreathers?
      Do you know the recent programs from SDI and TDI?
      I really can`t believe that your understand that a “team thinks better” them one person alone, means that one in a team can’t make his own decisions…
      Do not evaluate the company by a bad instructor you had…
      And please… learn more about team work… It really doesn’t mean that each part of a team fully depends on the others…

    • Mark Twain
      Mark Twain says:

      Good perspective but I disagree on a couple of your main points. There are certain situations where an “independent one-person team” is just not going to cut it. Recently, an experienced buddy ended up with hypothermia at 170ft. He was staring at the wreck, doing nothing. Without us to help him, he probably would have had serious issues or even died.

      I’ve gotten tangled in wrecks where there would have been almost no chance of escaping easily without a buddy.

      Lastly, I am a CCR 60 diver and can assure you that the technology is not “foolproof”. While diver error often is the underlying issue, I’ve had O2 sensors fail underwater, O2 injection valves fail and start raising the PPO2, diluent valve O rings spring a leak that I never would have seen on my own, etc. The list goes on and on. I obviously would not dive a rebreather if I didn’t believe that the risk/reward tradeoff was worth it, but I would never dive on a rebreather alone.

  2. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    I don’t fully agree and I don’t know why still everybody get crazy when somebody does a technical dive solo dive.
    “Two brains are better than one”. Well it can be true, but it depends what for a brain. Unfortunately most divers, even and especially tech divers lack basics and competence due to the quality of courses and complacency.
    I know some guys, that I really feel safer with, but with most guys I actually feel safer without, bcoz I am not responsible for them.
    Same with rebreather diving. I go solo regularly. It is true that it can go wrong more, but also I have so much more options, when something goes wrong. Also bcoz I dive a fully manual rebreather. I am in charge of my life support and I know every second what’s going on with it. And I doubt that my buddy can help we when I pass out on my rebreather. Chances to bring a CCR diver safe to the surface, especially on a deco dive are very very low.
    Technical diving is about accepting risks and to prepare yourself as good as possible for that. The same it is for solo diving. Prepare yourself for the additional risk. But I am sorry I don’t think that a solo diver course is enough. I did it by myself and I think it is to basic. And the end it is about your mindset and that cannot change any course.

  3. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    I were Solo Certified many years ago, My instructor and mentor ran me through several scenarios as well as DID materials but before I were certified we had a long discussion about Personal Limitations and Dive Philosophy. I believe that Diving that when diving open circuit or car there are always adherent risks but I am comfortable in knowing my personal limitations and experience. I don’t buy I to the”two brains are better than one Even if I’m making a technical gas dive.

  4. Robert Kinder
    Robert Kinder says:

    We speak of solo technical diving, and two brains being better than one. We are taught to plan your dive and dive your plan, (we have HALL WATTS to thank for that), During the planning stage of a technical dive, I will seek advice from others, as to equipment choices, optimizing decompression gas, dive table choices, bailout gas and table considerations, evacuation plans, loss of deco gas, and emergency medical planning for the dive being taken and many other considerations.
    I will lay out the what if’s and ask others if I am missing something. For a true technical dive what goes on before the dive often takes 10 times or more effort and time planning and preparation, than the dive it’s self. And often involves 3 or more people, with equal or greater experience. Many advanced dives today are called Technical Dives, when in the days of old they where just dives that we grew into.
    As a modern technical diver, I always prepare to be totally self sufficient, even when diving with a partner, I never count on a partner for redundancy, but always plan to be my partners backup. I know this sounds a little strange but if we plan for the worst we may just survive when it happens.
    The disconnect is the same as always, a course is not the answer if a diver does not have the proper attitude, and a willingness to learn and perfect their craft, they then become an accident waiting to happen. The way to correct this is at the instructor level, we must be willing to tell a student that this is not for them, unless there is a change in attitude and some will never make a competent technical, cave, wreck, tri-mix, solo diver. They just will never develop the mental fitness for diving at this level.
    The bottom line is with proper planning and experience some dives will be easier and safer with a buddy or buddies, and some will be safer solo. But as you can see a properly planned dive means you are truly never diving alone.

  5. Isaias
    Isaias says:

    I did not dive alone since my basic recreational training, and now during my Technical Dive training and even after, I plan to never dive alone.

    I would recommend diving alone training as a tool for an emergency, or when the diver may have separated from his buddies for any reason, and have to comply with other procedures before being able to return to the surface.

    Technical diving is a world where all the courage and personality are not enough.

    And in the world of Technical Diving we need the best equipment, we need the best training, we need to practice skills constantly, we need to share all this, and we need buddies.

    That’s my novice’s opinion, and because I love diving, I love my diver friends around the world, and I love the life too.


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