I didn’t think it would happen to me but I got lost underwater and got separated from my dive buddies. I had been taught in my my PADI rescue Course and been reminded several times during dive briefings to search for 1 minute and reunite on the surface when this happens.
But despite the training and reminders, it was still a nerve-wracking experience for me.
What happens in a lost dive buddy situation?
There are many reasons why you could get separated from a dive buddy during a dive. It could be the visibility was bad and you simply lost sight of each other. Perhaps you got distracted by a marine creature and failed to notice your buddy had left. Maybe you are dealing with a dive issue and couldn’t communicate this with your dive buddy.
Whatever the reason may be, it can happen from time to time and it is something you need to prepare for.
In my case, it was the first two situations. The site we went to was in Malatapay in Zamboanguita. There was current on the surface and swimming out was a bit tough. It was, by my standards, what I consider bad visibility for Philippine diving. I could only see maybe 5-10 meters in front of me. There were lots of sediments in the water probably from the current or changing tides.
Laura, Maire, and I were around 15 meters underwater when Laura pointed out a giant clam. Maire took some photos and when she was done, I had my turn with it. I was admiring its beautiful mantel and when I looked up my buddies were nowhere in sight.
I had lost my dive group.
What should you do if you lose your dive buddy underwater?
I calmly swam towards the direction I thought we were headed, hoping to bump into them. I watched out for any diver silhouette or diver bubbles in all 360-degree directions. Looking not just from left to right, but also up and down.
I knew that my buddy, Maire carried a torch, and she would have turned on her lights to serve as a beacon for me underwater. So I also kept my video lights on for the same reason.
So I searched for 1 minute. Looking at all directions and headed towards where I thought they would be.
What was it like to be lost underwater?
I felt my heartbeat racing and my breathing going faster. I had to constantly remind myself to keep calm and to follow what we were trained to do in case you lose your dive buddy underwater.
There were so many emotions going on in my head as I was trying to find my way back to my group.
I felt ashamed that I wasn’t paying attention enough that I actually lost them. I felt embarrassed that I caused this situation and that I was putting my buddies through this ordeal. I also felt annoyed and disappointed at myself that I put myself in this situation.
While all these emotions were going through me, I made my way towards the shallower portion of the reef and slowly unclipped my dSMB (Delayed Surface Marker Buoy). Earlier that day we had practiced deploying our dSMB, and at that moment, I felt grateful that we did a refresher exercise for it.
As I was about to deploy my dSMB, I saw the faint glow of Maire’s underwater light from a distance. Thank God! At that moment, I have never felt more relieved.
I quickly swam towards them with my deflated orange dSMB trailing behind me so they can spot me more easily.
I think at that moment, we all did a little dance underwater and it all turned out okay. *cue song Reunited and it feels so good…*
We exchanged smiles and okay hand signals and continued on with our dive while remaining in shallower waters.
Of course, this time I made sure to pay more attention to my buddies, rather than search for more giant clams!
On the surface, I found out that while I was looking at the clam, Laura had spotted a sea turtle and they followed it. I apologized for what had happened and my buddies were very kind and understanding. They assured me that it was okay and what is important is we all found each other and ended the dive safely.
We had a good laugh about it at the end.
Tips on what to do if you lose your dive buddy underwater
In theory, I knew what I had to do if I lost my dive buddy underwater, but when you’re actually in that situation, swimming alone, it’s really not what you’d expect.
I can now understand why some divers easily panic underwater. There were so many times I had to gather myself and remind myself not to panic.
So if you too find yourself in a lost buddy situation, here’s what you need to remember:
- Do not panic. Do not let your emotions over take you.
- Always go back to your training and remember to keep yourself safe first. If you’re lost or you lost your buddy, it doesn’t mean you lose your training too.
- Search for 1 minute by looking in all directions while maintaining proper breathing, buoyancy and safe ascend. Watch out for diver signs like bubbles, dark silhouettes, sounds from tank bangers or light from underwater torches.
- Check your air and make sure you have enough. You could be breathing harder after all, due to the stressful situation.
- If you have a dSMB (which you really should have), deploy it.
- Slowly and safely ascend to the surface and reunite with your buddy there. You may skip the safety stop as it could be a life and death situation. This is of course with the assumption that you are on a no-decompression limit (NDL) dive.
- If you do not find them on the surface, do not attempt to go back down to look for them. You might end up missing each other.
- Get out of the water or find a better vantage point to look for your missing buddy. Continue looking in all directions. If there are other boats nearby, even if its not yours, ask for help. Let them know that you are lost or you are missing a dive buddy.
- In the worst-case scenario, if you do not find your missing buddy on the surface, seek help and notify the authorities for the missing diver.
- Do a properly coordinated search and rescue.
Here’s what else you can do before you dive:
- Remind your buddy or your dive group what the safety procedures are if you lose each other underwater. In some cases, you can modify the protocols above depending on who you are diving with and the environment. Just make sure that you and your buddy are on the same page.
- Invest in a dSMB and take it with you during dives. Do not rely on your DM or your buddy to have one for your group. In a lost diver situation, you could be left at sea alone and you will be glad you have a brightly colored Delayed Surface Marker Buoy to help spot you.
- Take extra courses to build confidence underwater. My PADI rescue diver course really did come in handy in this situation. There’s also a PADI self-reliant course you can take.
- Exchange emergency contact details prior to the dive. After our dives, Maire confessed that she got worried that she didn’t even know who to call in case something happened to me. Yes, she was thinking that far ahead!
- Get dive insurance. My buddy and I have DAN and we’ve exchanged our member numbers in the past for emergency situations. While we haven’t had the need to use it, it still gives us peace of mind that we have it in case something goes wrong.
I hope you learn something from my lost dive buddy situation and you’d never have to go through the same ordeal. However, in case you do, at least now you know what to do if you or your buddy gets separated underwater.
Have you ever had a lost dive buddy situation? Have you ever experienced being separated underwater from your dive group? Leave a comment below!