While diving Islamorada this year we happened to run out of reef and drifted over the sand bottom of the Atlantic. There we were greeted by three remora as well as an abandoned lobster pot. Structures in large areas devoid of places for juvenile fish to hide are typically teaming with life. And that was certainly the case for this lobster pot.
To our surprise, it was the makeshift home for two lionfish. We don’t normally hunt this invasive species with a spear gun, but since we were hunting grouper and hogfish earlier, it was all we had. My dive partner holding the bag has a great deal of experience capturing volitans in the Pacific, hence his indifference to the poisonous spines the lionfish uses to protect itself. However, I can say I have never seen him move so quickly while diving when the lionfish mistook him for a hiding place (starts at 1:30).
When choosing a dive buddy there are several things you should take into consideration to make your dives safer and more enjoyable. A dive buddy who is safety conscious, has a willingness to learn, knows their gear, and has good buoyancy control are just a few things that makes a good partner.
I had made a mistake several years ago when choosing my dive buddy for an ocean drift dive. Several things compounded the issues I ran into such as being unfamiliar with the dive operator and dive sites. But the issue that caused the majority of my frustration for the dives that day was simply the dive buddy I selected. He, let’s call him Flip, was a relatively new diver with limited exposure to drift diving. In fact, I believe Flip had less than 50 dives under his belt when we ventured off the coast of Florida.
It wasn’t until recently that it occurred to me that his lack of experience impacted my dive so negatively. I dove with another individual I have known for over ten years and the experience was very different in some ways, yet similar in others. He held approximately the same level of experience as Flip, but communicated very well before and during our dives and he showed me he was willing to learn from others. It is safe to say it was his personality that made all the difference for me.
Safety is priority number one
Think about your last dive. You spent weeks or months planning the dive trip. You paid the dive shop and are on the boat ready to get underwater when you find your regulator or dive computer isn’t working correctly. You look to your dive buddy and let him know there is a malfunction. What do you do?
Any diver that goes through all this and yet is still willing to call off a dive due to an equipment malfunction is a good dive buddy. As frustrating as it is there is no dive on the planet that would make me unnecessarily risk my own life or my dive buddy’s life.
But when you do get underwater with no issues, check to see if your buddy is pushing the limits of the dive profile at hand. Did they dive too deep on the wall? Did they surface with too little air? All of these are things to keep your eye on when diving with a new buddy and would warrant a conversation back on the dive boat.
Ask “What do you want out of these dives?”
This question was asked of me days before my first dive with my new dive partner. He followed this question with a statement of how silly it sounded, but in all honesty, it was the best question a new dive buddy could ask. As a photographer my response was that I wanted to spend time taking photographs. This meant I would be stopping frequently and focusing in on aquatic life and waiting for the right time to take a shot. This would affect his dive as well since he now knows he may have to stop and wait for me while I shoot.
His response was to work on his fundamental skills like buoyancy, controlled breathing and managing the safety stop. This gave me an idea of his competency underwater and also keyed me in on some things I could help him improve. Having this conversation proved to be helpful to both of us.
One of the most frustrating things you can run into during a dive is a buddy who expends air much quicker than you do. With my new dive buddy this issue came up quickly (pun intended). I found his breathing pattern was much more rapid than mine and he consumed air twice as quickly as I did. While not a deal-breaker as far as buddies go, it is most certainly something we talked about during our surface interval.
Be sure to ask your new dive buddy how quickly they typically burn through a cylinder of air or nitrox. If your dive profile calls for a 60 ft (18 m) depth you should expect to hear your dive buddy say they can stay down for approximately 45 minutes and still have plenty of air for a safety stop.
Gearing up quickly and without incident is a great skill to have. And that goes for your dive buddy as well! I am sure you have seen a diver on the boat who can’t find their fin, screwed their regulator to the tank valve with the tank still strapped to the dive boat, or even forgotten their weights after their giant stride. The ability to gear up quickly is important as it shows the diver is experienced and in some cases courteous to other on the boat. Most divers like to be the ‘first in’ as it affords them the opportunity to descend to the reef and potentially see more marine life. You can’t do this if your buddy is still trying to find his mask!
Know who the diver you plan on spending the next few hours with well. You don’t have to be lifelong friends but you should know who their personality, how many dives they have completed, who to contact if there is a dive accident, and simply enjoy their company. Besides, who will drink a beer with you after the dive if you don’t like your buddy?
Willingness to pair up
According to DAN’s 2010 Fatalities Workshop 40% of fatalities took place during a period of buddy separation. My buddy Flip had one major flaw when we dove together; he decided to dive with someone else. I didn’t find this out until the middle of our first dive which was troublesome for me. Flip mentioned this ‘other guy’ was closer to his age and experience level so he ‘decided to dive with him’. Not only was my ego bruised (not really) but I was left without a dive partner. It was at that moment that I decided I will no longer dive with Flip.
On the other hand my new dive buddy mentioned he wanted to be at an arms length from me during the dive. While I wasn’t comfortable with such a close proximity to my dive partner, we had a small chat about how I prefer to dive and he did stay with me during our dives at a distance of about five meters.
Helpful on the boat
Don’t just help me gear up, help others as well. Help the crew by staying out of their way. Help new divers by handing them their fins. Help people to their seats after a dive. Help yourself by being attentive to the captain and dive master’s instructions. This type of karma goes a long way and earns you and your buddy respect on the boat.
Shows respect for all marine life and regulations
Inform your buddy to not harass turtles, nurse sharks, or other wildlife while diving. It’s tacky and potentially dangerous. If spearfishing, they should not be ‘shooting tropicals’ such as butterflies or small wrasse for the hell of it. Your dive buddy should be well educated on the area’s fishing regulations and must be able to properly identify the species of fish they plan on harvesting. Nothing frustrates me more than seeing a diver shoot a protected Nassau grouper while mistaking it for a Black or Gag grouper.
Good buoyancy Control
Is your buddy ‘swimming with their hands’? Do they look like they are waving to all the fish as they pass them by? Chances are they still need work on their buoyancy control. Having good buoyancy control limits the amount of air you consume and in general makes the dive more enjoyable. Good buoyancy also will help with safety stops.
Also, inform your buddy to stay off the bottom if you are photographing wildlife. Nothing is more frustrating than back scatter caused by a diver that ruins a nice shot.
While in Islamorada my dive partners and I found that we ran out of reef shortly after our descent. While drifting over a sand bottom looking for hogfish or grouper we were entertained by three rather large ramora. They circled us for about ten minutes as if to be searching for some place to latch on for a free ride.
An interesting fact about ramora is that the ‘sucker’ on the top of their head is actually a modified dorsal fin.
This weekend I went back to Jupiter Dive Center with a friend of mine to try my hand once again at cattle boat diving. To my dismay I found that half of the boat was dedicated to an open water certification class’ check out dives. This meant there were nearly a dozen new divers on the boat. Fortunately Jupiter Dive Center had everything under control.
On board Republic VII, we navigated to our first dive which took us only about twenty minutes. Here at Lee’s Ledges our dive guide was able to put us in 40′ of visibility in slightly chilly water. Here we saw a few loggerhead turtles, tons of macro algae and your usual fare of south Florida aquatic life.
Our second dive was the always entertaining ‘Tunnels’. Aptly named, Tunnels features several arches which experienced divers can swim through . This dive hosts green morays, lemon sharks and the always impressive Goliath Grouper!
Truth be told this was a fairly relaxing pair of dives for a cattle boat. Our dive guide did a very good job at making sure all divers were accounted for. He made sure to stop every ten or twenty feet and wait for us divers bringing up the rear to catch up. Every other stop or so he made an effort to give each diver an ‘OK’ sign to ensure they were comfortable. Truth be told, I haven’t seen an attention to diver safety and comfort this good since Diving Solutions was still operating in West Palm Beach. Good job, guys!
While drift diving in Islamorada this year my dive partners and I happened across an abandoned and dilapidated lobster pot. Since the current carried us away from the reef shortly after beginning our dive we decided to investigate. Inside this pot were several Jackknife drum, juvenile wrasse, Gray triggerfish and two healthy Lionfish. I was able to take these shots before they were culled.
Over the past five years I have been extremely fortunate to not have to climb aboard a dive boat with any more than four other people. The past five years have been comfortable, laid back, accommodating and most importantly, stress free. These incredible accolades can all be attributed to the fact that I have not had to interface with so called ‘cattle boats’. A cattle boat is a relatively large vessel that hosts anywhere from 15 to 25 divers. The namesake comes from the near hilarious image of divers getting on and coming off of the boat as if they were cattle being led to the feed trough. And, in all honesty, that is exactly what you experience on these boats as you are seen as livestock; you are simply another tourist in a revolving door of procedures, dive profiles and maybe even a little stress. Mind you, diving in Mexico, Belize, Cayman or any other spot that thrives on service for divers is almost always exempt from this gross generalization. If you have ever dived on one of these boats you obviously know the difference.
If you find yourself on a dive boat in the United States I would offer the following tips when dealing with the inevitable bumps along the way.
First I suggest you stop, look around and listen to the other divers and crew. You can learn a great deal about the other divers you will be sharing space with if you simply listen to what they are saying, how they say it and their body language. For example, on my last boat dive I had an incredibly bossy lady proceed to tell me how to arrange my gear, where to put it and where to go once I had done as I was told. I honestly wasn’t sure if she was crew or not, but the puffing on the Marlboro cigarette was my first clue that she may not be. My second clue came about when she proceeded to open her dive log book to talk about her last dive. No amount of recommendations coming from this person shall be heeded by this diver.
Another diver, clad in tattoos, gold jewelry and a pony tail crossed my path as we were getting our gear settled. He reached in front of me to grab is gear and apologized for doing so. My response was simply ‘No worries, mate.’ This diver stopped, gave me a quick glance over and said ‘Mate? No Worries? I haven’t heard that kind of talk since I was running crew on my last dive charter.’ This guy knew what he was doing. Checking out his gear you could see it was practical and non obtrusive. The gold he was wearing told me he spent many months in the Caribbean. As it turns out, he is a dive instructor and freelance dive master who just happened upon this trip in the same way I did. We spent several minutes talking about our previous dives in the Caribbean before we parted ways on two separate dive boats.
These guys are the ones who have the most to lose if you get hurt or worse. They are responsible for the boat and must be treated with respect. Call them ‘Captain’ and show some professional courtesy. Also, do yourself a favor and give the captain your undivided attention during the safety briefing. This isn’t like the safety briefing us frequent fliers ignore before take off.
Also, stay off his flybridge. Unless you are invited I suggest you stay away from this area. The flybridge is where the captain spends his day driving, watching and when you are under the surface, relaxing. It’s his office and it should be respected.
These guys are my favorite types of divers. Not because they are a source of entertainment (although they are), but because they want to learn. Buddy check them from a distance if you can. Check their air, look for weights, and make sure they have their computer on.
Under the surface I suggest you keep your distance from these guys. Typically they are kicking wildly, swimming with their arms and gear dangles below them like kite tails.
One story from this previous trip I can share is about a diver that was separated from the dive master during a drift dive with myself and another photographer (more on that later). The dive was dark, cold and we just finished a quick photography/videography session with a juvenile reef shark. We kicked back to the spot where the dive master was anchored off to find no divers in site. We were 32 minutes into our second dive with a max bottom time of 40 on air with a computer and 35 on air without a computer when I decided to group up. After confirming that we were the only three divers left I checked to see what type of equipment everybody had. Everybody had a computer, but one diver neglected to turn it on before plunging into the reef. At that point we called the dive off and started to ascend to our safety stop. That’s when things got a little scary. The diver who forgot to turn their computer on could not stabilize at our designated 5 meter safety stop position. I signaled for her to move in close and I pulled her to the required depth. Giving me the OK sign, I let her go only to see her shoot back to the surface, foregoing the full safety stop. The photographer and I watched her from below hoping that a passing boat would see her if it got too close.
These guys are self proclaimed ‘advanced’ divers. They have tons of gear strapped to them, boasting about diving in 100+ feet of water and has a full matching set of PADI certifications to back him up. Although he has only been diving for a couple of years and had around 50 dives under his belt, this guy is the authority. Take these guys with a grain of salt.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a dive reel to dive on a drift dive. Nor do I need two dive lights, two dive knives or a need to go below 80 feet. I have been diving for only 12 years and have logged around 150 dives, but I do not consider myself an advanced diver and I never will.
The same rules for the captain apply here . Be respectful, polite and professional. Listen to the dive profile and ask questions if you need to. They are under the surface to guide you along and show you a few things along the way. But please keep an eye on them as these guys aren’t perfect.
On my second dive (with the photographer and individual who forgot to turn their computer on), we were to hang out on a ledge for ten minutes before continuing with our drift dive. We were about 40 feet away from the dive master photographing a shark when we heard her bang the tank signalling us to continue the dive. Unbeknownst to us, the dive master did not follow the current along the ledge, but instead headed perpendicular to the current. As I previously mentioned above, we called our dive off and surfaced nearly 60 yards from the dive ball. How did this happen? The premise of a drift dive is to let the current push you along the reef. Eventually we learned the group ended up chasing some Goliath grouper and swam perpendicular to the current, blowing the dive profile. There was no head count before the dive master moved on as she would have been three divers short.
Was it her fault? No. This dive master was managing 24 divers on a single dive. Yep, two dozen people. That’s a great deal of responsibility to place on one diver.
The Photography Bucket:
On this dive boat it was nothing more than a 7 gallon Rubbermaid box. Looking into this bucket and I could see nearly $25,000 of photography equipment tangled together like some odd polycarbonate orgy. Needless to say my camera did not make it into this bucket because it was both too crowded and dangerous. No, I wasn’t worried that someone would steal my camera, I was worried about all those strobe arms tangled together scratching my wide-angle lens. So there I was during my safety stop. Cradling my precious camera like a newborn baby. There was no dry area on the boat either so changing batteries, film or lenses would have been a challenge.
If you find yourself in this situation I suggest you put your lens cover on your lenses and find a suitable spot for your camera.With so many people on the deck moving around while trying to stay stabilize themselves, eating pineapple and talking about how cool that last dive was, it would be difficult to assure yourself that no accidents would happen. If that means you look like a dork cradling your housing, then dork it up.
Don’t get me wrong. I have met some really great folks on my last cattle boat dive. But in my opinion, these folks are few and far between. They are knowledgeable, respectful, helpful and most of all willing to learn from each other. And in my opinion, that is what any hobbyist should be.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to dive Jupiter, FL to witness the annual lemon shark migration. While I spotted no lemons on my two tank dive aboard Jupiter Dive Center’s Republic VII, I was able to swim with a few Goliath grouper, some loggerhead turtles and these curious reef sharks.
As a side note, I want to express my thanks to the Lake Mary Scuba Club and the awesome people who invited and welcomed me on this dive.
While photographing a local fish store here in Central Florida for their website I took it upon myself to get up close and personal with some of the clams in their display tank. The tank was a shallow breeding tank that had superb lighting necessary to grow these clams. The result was a neat over-under shot that makes you feel like you are just about to enter their world.