Solo diving really is one of the ‘last taboos’ of diving, letting divers venture off on their own even with the correct training and certifications is not something many dive shops will let you do.
The concept that "safe" diving only happens within the "buddy" system is ingrained right from the start; the idea that help is an arm’s length away is reassuring to the new diver. With time the flaws of the system become more evident, can the diver you have just met be trusted to actually help should your worst fears become a reality? When was the last time they or you for that matter practice air sharing and have you ever practiced this neutrally buoyant?
So the SDI solo course is not just about becoming a solo diver and roaming alone, it’s about making you a better diver, a better buddy and that’s good for everyone.
We recently had four divers all from different diving backgrounds and different skill levels, who wanted to explore the world of diving solo. Throughout this blog we have a Q & A with questions from present and past students about what is involved in their solo diving course and got our current tech manager to answer these questions. The purpose for this blog is to give people a clearer understanding of Solo Diving. Finally we have our Big Blue Tech students write us up their personal feedback following their course about their experience.
Let’s be honest we have all gone diving and wanted to wonder off and explore the reef or spend a little more time with different marine life without the pressure to keep moving on; this is why we have certifications and courses at Big Blue Tech under SDI to allow you to go solo on some of the best dive sites in the world.
SDI says “Being one of SDI’s most popular courses, the Solo Diver course stresses proper dive planning, personal limitations, and accident prevention, as well as the benefits, hazards, and proper procedures for diving solo. You will also learn the additional equipment that is required for solo diving including its proper usage and assembly. This is the perfect course for underwater photography and underwater video divers as well as those diving with their children or buddies that may not very experienced in scuba diving.”
Q&A - With Andy Campbell on an introduction Solo Diver SDI course
1. What is the objective of the solo diver course?
“The objective of a solo diver course is to make you a better buddy as well as a solo diver”
“There are flaws in the buddy system and those flaws are identified during the theory of the solo course… for example you may end up diving with a buddy that is very inexperienced or with a buddy that possibly won’t be able to help you should a problem occur”
“When you become a solo diver you become what we call completely independent / self-reliant you are carrying a redundant air supply with you, so if you were to have a problem with your primary tanks or your primary scuba system you’re carrying a backup”
“The best person to save you is you! It won’t involve any panic because you are already accustomed to that equipment you are using and you just switch tanks/ mask etc and then you ‘call the dive’”
2. What are the minimum requirements you need for a solo diver speciality course?
“For the solo diver course with SDI the pre-requisite is 100 logged dives prior to starting the course, but also the confidence and comfort level in diving that would make you a competent solo diver”
3. What is the structure of the solo diver speciality i.e. skills / tasks that would need to be carried out and performed?
“So for the solo speciality the skills range from being able to cope with an out of air scenario, a loss of buoyancy, free flowing LPI, replacement of the mask all of which are covered in skills dives prior to letting a student adventure into the open water on their own and the bottom line is that you need to become self-reliant.”
“We talk about flight and flight, we talk about equipment failures that you could encounter and we talk about the responsibility a diver has not only to themselves but to their buddies when they are recreational diving.”
"Planning a dive is one area that is normally a shock to the student, they are used to just jumping in and following a dive master and that won't work anymore. Gas planning and management is almost alien to most divers with an SPG being there to tell you when to go up.. Not anymore, it all changes and for most students this is a real eye opener and in some cases a shock about how little they really knew even with those 100 dives"
4. Is their course training material provided?
“YES! and for all the courses we offer we provide all the materials you need for the lectures and exams”
5. What happens if something goes wrong? Do you plan a backup procedure?
“This is basically the foundation of the solo course. You become more aware of your own environment, plan dives with a lot more detail than the average diver, check your equipment to a higher level and of course you have an added piece of equipment which is a total game changer and it is your redundant air supply. This could be sidemount / twin set or a pony tank / stage tank”
6. When would you use a solo specialty?
“In my case every time I don’t want to dive with the wife, no seriously I dive solo on parts of the dives sites few people are interested in, the sand for instance and on some dives i see nothing at all.."
“In addition to that if you are a videographer or photographer and you want that time on your own but the group wants to move on then you feel under pressure to keep moving.”
“Solo diving is one of the last taboo’s in diving to an extent, and it doesn’t need to be. As long as you plan the dives, dive within ‘your comfort zone’, you backup equipment that you need to take and the training”
“There is no reason why people can’t execute solo dives. People that want to go and look at very particular things, marine life for example or when videographers / photographers that want to spend a long time with a single subject then there is no reason why this certification isn’t perfect for them”
“At Big Blue all the videographers are solo divers, it’s a huge safety feature for them, they can take a pony tank to be able to work separately from other divers.”
7. Why do you carry a pony tank?
“A pony tank is a separate scuba tank which can be mounted on to the primary tank with a separate regulator; so if you were to have a problem with your primary system you have a completely separate system to go on to”
“Generally the tank is small, but has enough air in it to get you back from the deepest part of your dive safely to the surface”
8. What specific equipment would you need to have on you as a solo diver?
“You will be adding equipment such as a backup mask, the redundant air supply but there are other pieces of equipment that you will need to carry – a compass, ideally a backup computer, slates for communication and to carry the dive plan finally and one of the most important things you need is the mind-set and experience”
Student feedback following their SDI Solo Diver course
Solo Evaluation: Becoming a solo diver is one of the greatest courses I have undertaken during my tech internship. What’s better than being taught true self-reliance? Depending on no one but myself and no more wondering where my buddy is or why they decided to spend 10 minutes checking out Shrimp! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy diving with others and beam with pride when I find something unusual and to go ‘BAM! Bet you haven’t seen one of those before’, but the solo diver course takes an in-depth approach in improving all aspects of your diving, making you a confident, independent and safety conscious diver.
My navigation skills were tested to the mas when swimming off alone into the abyss, with poor visibility and slight current I was sure I’d end up in Koh Samui. That wouldn’t have been ideal. Without money I wouldn’t have been able to make the most of the situation by getting a Mc Donald’s, luckily I mapped the dive site out beforehand and used both my compass and visual references to get back to the boat. All of which I was taught during my previous courses and re-examined when doing the solo course.
Most importantly, I have gained the confidence though simulated problems and various skill training. Unexpected out of air situations and equipment failures can be a diver’s worse nightmare. With back-up equipment and a redundant air supply, I no longer fear the worst and can dive comfortably knowing I’ll be alright as long as I don’t upset any of the local wildlife.
The course was great fun and Andy is a brilliant instructor. He made me feel confident and at ease, homing in on the importance of safety and following the fundamental rules of scuba diving. His constant skill testing and problem solving tricks removed the emotion and potential stress I could be faced with and have to manage on my own. I highly recommend this course to anyone who wants to take their diving standards and skill sets to the next level.
Solo Evaluation: I have been diving for 7 years, when I was fun diving with my fellow DMT’s about 8 months ago I never even considered a course in solo diving; I even told my friends I would never go solo due to the safety aspect of the qualification. However, when I moved into tech diving last April I discovered that I could master technical diving and there was actually more safety involved in the planning of the dives and the execution of the dive itself.
I came to realise that my dive buddies were not able to assist me during a dive should a problem have occurred. One time I went fun diving with some DMT’s and we go to the dive site and the tank had come out of the tank strap and my buddy didn’t notice or was able to help me reposition the tank back into my BC, this is a prime example of using ‘save yourself’ skills where I stopped the group and removed my BC to fix the problem myself so we could continue the dive. On the other hand when we compare technical diving to recreational diving we assume everything will go wrong rather than hoping things will just be ‘OK’. With technical diving we do extra pre-dive checks and planning of the dives to ensure we minimise any risk of something going wrong. This to me seemed similar to what I had learned during the solo diving course.
In my opinion it’s not that my buddies are incompetent or they haven’t had as much experience diving, its just based on the fact they don’t have the same mind set to the ‘what if’s’ as I do. From open water onwards you are always taught to rely on your buddy and dive with a buddy, but in reality you generally will want to solve a problem by yourself before going to your buddy in a panic. To me, solo diving teaches you to prepare for that moment when something ‘could’ go wrong and how to maintain calm and deal with the problem yourself. As a dive instructor myself I am teaching my students to be reliant on their buddy but to also be self-reliant. Solo diving isn’t for the less confident minded people, it’s for the divers that want to make their diving the safest it could possibility be, and personally I am likely to only dive solo on dive sites I know while building up my solo dives before I venture out to new places to solo dive.
Solo diving is about learning new ways of dealing with situations and to keep practicing these skills until they become second nature to you. Don’t put yourself into an uncomfortable situation, dive within your limitations but also pride yourself in the fact you can dive alone and enjoy the wonderful marine life we have around us.
Solo diving is an essential course to do, not only does it make you a safer diver it also makes you a better buddy.
This is the story of how I went from an Open Water student to Solo Diver; I promise I'll get to that, but first- a little about me.
I've had the distinct pleasure of diving with Mr. Andy Campbell from that very first Open Water pool session, then on to my Advanced OW. Andy is the first person that said I'd be "epic" as a Divemaster, so came back after some traveling & went on to do that too. Post-DMT, also completed Nitrox & Deep Diving Specialties - and now, Solo Diver. I've learned and grew from him as a diver is truly invaluable. (It's still Andy's voice of reason in my head every time I'm faced with a decision underwater!)
When Andy suggested I do the Solo Diver course, I have to admit I was intimidated (and those that know me, know there isn't much that stands in my way) - but I've JUST gotten comfortable with taking customers out as a DM, and now you want me to throw everything I know about the buddy system and dive... by myself?!?
Doing Solo makes you a better diver; more aware, more prepared, even diving with a buddy it will make you a better buddy, and not have to rely on someone who may not be able to help in an emergency. Also the fact that I want to go on to do Videography, it makes a lot of sense to have Solo under my roster as well.
So first day was homework & lectures as per usual. We learned all about the importance of safety in Solo Diving. Safety in your gear (full redundancy is key, including carrying an extra gas supply/regs, mask, SMB & reel) and even more importantly, safety in yourself- having the self awareness and understanding to abort a dive where necessary, stop if you're not comfortable, ability to fix emergency situations before they become fatal, or even just being able to admit when you're lost. As a solo diver, the only thing you can rely on is your own gear & abilities; without it, well, you can easily become fish food.
The next day I swallowed my fears, pulled the ol' 'fake it till you make it' confidence trick, and did a skills dive first (mask removal, gas/reg exchange to my pony bottle & back, fixing a free flowing LPI hose, etc). I was nervous, since even as a DM I still hate taking my mask off, and I had never dove with more than one tank before (no Sidemount for me) - let alone turn my own tank off underwater - oh ye, and because its Tech - do all of that with perfect buoyancy in trim, ok thanks.
There were a lot of firsts for me, but I did them no problem. Even keeping my mask off while switching gases - no problem. Diving with a pony bottle was surprisingly an easy transition from the single back mount tank. It felt comfortable, I could reach everything; the only thing that got me was the reg hose is shorter so its the one time it goes UNDER your arm not over! (Found that out while struggling to reach my mouth to it and losing air by the second underwater- whoops!)
All in all, I felt like my work as a DM had paid off, I had nailed the skills without any issue, and was ready for my very first solo dive.
2nd dive of the day, we each prepped our own individual full dive plan before hand; including drawing the dive site on my slate, deciding when/where & which depths I'd be diving for and how long at each depth, calculating how much gas I would use at each depth, and based on my SAC rate (which is high - anyone who knows my laugh know I have big lungs!) how much air I would use. As a solo diver, I need to come up with a third of my tank unused, NOT including the emergency pony bottle.
I took my time making all of these calculations, presented the plan to Andy, and he said "you have max 45 minutes dive time. Off you go."
And that was it. Slate in hand, I was off to get in my own gear, do my own checks, and jump off the boat. On my own, no one to tell me when it’s time to go, or where to start, just my own plan to follow. So off I went bit of a surface swim to the buoy line I knew best, and down I went. The strangest part was deflating my BC and heading down underwater by myself; not even customers to give the "OK, Let's go down" hand signal to.
Once under & equalized, I did all my regular checks and descended down to the dive site. The first few minutes were the strangest but also the most eye-opening. I was really doing this, on my own! A few glances at my slate to triple-quadruple check my plan, and I was off to explore whatever the heck I wanted. I found that more creatures came out to play when I'm on my own, and closer. I spotted a big blue-spotted ray under a rock and instinctively banged my tank to show.... (after a look around)... oh right, no one! I got to just enjoy and experience this all on my own. SO RAD! Another highlight of the dive was sitting in a big school of barracuda for about 5 minutes - just because I could.
It was actually really nice to have a detailed dive plan written out on my wrist slate for reference, easy to keep an eye on how long I should be at each depth, when to shallow up, where to do the safety stop, etc. When it was time to come up, I used my tech SMB & reel for the first time and came up directly in front of our boat Enzo. I came up to see Andy sitting on the top deck, I waved and with a hug grin let out a big "Wahoo! And that's it. I knew I could do this.
Solo Diving is definitely a very different beast; but there is nothing quite like being under the water, in the quiet blue all by yourself, with this magical playground in front of you, and the freedom to explore it how YOU want to, with the only limit being yourself (and well, gas consumption). It's truly an incredible experience, and I'm so glad I pushed myself to do this "scary" tech course. I would no longer describe Solo as scary at all - just simply incredible. The confidence you gain after completing your very first solo dive, to plan, on time, and without getting lost - is an extremely proud, awesome moment. Once again, when I thought I've already learned so much, I've fallen head over fins in love with diving in a brand new way. :)
Agreed there is a lot to read but when completing a dive plan or procedure for a solo dive you must understand fully the expectations/ limitations/ safety and enjoyment of solo diving.
Should you want to open up your world of diving or even open up the opportunities of videography / photography in solo diving, get in touch and ask questions and be ‘that confident explorer’
Credit to everyone involved for this blog. Thanks to Andy Campbell for his astonishing teaching at Big Blue Tech and the newest SDI Solo Divers for their personal input and participation in the course – Nikki / Simone / Tony & Chloe. Finally Big Blue Movies for some of the pictures.
Remember to give Big Blue Tech a follow and see what course could interest you in speciality or technical diving next ‘Because it’s always more fun to join the dark side’
Congratulations again to all of Big Blue Tech’s new SDI Solo Divers