There is a multitude of scuba safety equipment available to divers, from the humble whistle all the way to shark shields. In my years as a diver, I have spent a lot of money on gadgets that are now gathering dust and sitting on a shelf. In my first year, I purchased a device that you can connect to your low-pressure inflator that would make a loud audible sound above and below the water. I ended up giving that one away.
There is one concept that recreational divers can borrow from the more technically orientated and that is the concept of DIR or Doing It Right. One of DIR’s principles is to streamline and maintain minimalistic equipment configurations. The idea is that in an emergency the most simplistic and un-convoluted set-ups will serve your the best in times of stress. There is a whole philosophy regarding DIR for which we won’t get into here.
When it comes to safety gear we will consider five essential pieces of equipment that you shouldn’t leave home without:
Surface marker buoy (SMB)
Bailout bottle (Redundant air source)
Slate or Wetnotes
Surface marker buoy (SMB)
An SMB is probably one of the most essential safety items you should always have with you when you are diving and in some countries is mandatory by law. It primary function if to alert boating traffic that a diver is surfacing and it can usually be purchased in two colours orange or yellow. Orange is the one you need as yellow is generally used by technical divers to deploy when there is an issue at depth.
I would recommend that you purchase an SMB with reel and at least 30 meters of line. It is a good habit to deploy your SMB at depth and slowly reel yourself up to your safety stop. I do this for two reasons, one to give ample of warning to any boat traffic and two because it assists with managing slow ascents. Up until recently the use of an SMB wasn’t even taught during the open water course, which I never quite understood. When I started out I watched multiple videos of deployment on YouTube to teach myself.
Depending on the type of SMB you buy will often dictate how you inflate it. My favourite is one that has a one way valve at the bottom, I simply unwind the SMB, prepare the spool ready for release, and purge my alternative air source into the bottom to fill it about 1/3. It will want to go fast so you have to be ready to release and let the line go whilst the spool spins on your finger. Before trying this at depth, I suggest practising in the shallows first, and remember if the line fowls, just let it go you don’t want to risk an uncontrolled ascent.
Another use of an SMB is a redundant buoyancy device. If you every find yourself with a malfunctioning BCD you could theoretically use it to provide some lift.
Bailout bottle or redundant air source
On par with your SMB I would always suggest carrying a redundant air source when feasible. This is not a practice maintained by all, although It is something with which I adhere to. In my local area, it is required on any dives below 30 meters and within overhead environments. I know that good buddy contact should alleviate the need for a pony, but the reality is unless you trust the other person with your life, always be your own buddy first. On multiple occasions, insta-buddies have left me at depth and not followed lost buddy procedures.
If you do choose to use a bailout, pay special attention to the tank capacity, those spare air devices are a joke at best and will do little to save you in an out of air emergency. To illustrate this point have a play with the gas calculator, and you will see just how long a small tank will last at 30 meters. My first pony was 2.9 litres, after a while of use I went through the exercise of calculating just how long it may last at 40 meters and according to my calculations I would have been lucky to get 3 minutes out of it. I now sling a 7 litre, which may be overkill but I know that I have plenty of gas for a slow ascent and a safety stop if ever needed.
All divers should carry some basic form of cutting tool, whether they are caught in fishing wire or you need to cut a cable tie and it’s the sharpest instrument at hand. That being said don’t think you need to be Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee with a big 7inch blade strapped to your leg ready to do battle with Jaws. If anything you will probably just end up hurting yourself. I have a small blade that’s attached to my alternative air source hose and to be honest I have never unsheathed it underwater.
What is probably more important than knives is a slate or wet-notes. They are extremely handy for planning and if you need to communicate underwater with your buddy. I must admit most of the time, I end up writing, where the hell are we, or no much here to see. In seriousness, sometimes you may want to communicate something a little more complex that is easier written than using hand signals, especially if they are not your regular dive buddy.
You can spend some serious money on a dive torch, and over the past couple of years with LED technology the options have dramatically changed. They come in many different shapes and sizes but for simplicity, let’s describe them as follows:
You may ask why do I need a torch anyway? Well, if you like seeing night critters then you will need one, also some dive sites have overhangs and ledges, where without a torch you miss on all the sea creatures that live within. You will definitely want two if you intend to penetrate wrecks, and if you plan on being a Picasso with you camera it will help with the perfect shot.
The last type of torch we will consider are strobes that are used for signalling. If you dive at night or in low light conditions one of these may come in handy. You would most likely use these for signaling on the surface to attract the attention of your boat.
The above is not a definitive list of safety gear that you should consider and when making your choices I would recommend that you speak to your local dive shop or a dive professional.