Where’s My Buddy?!

Lost buddy procedure

Twelve meters deep, fifteen minutes into a dive and you lose your dive buddy. What do you do?
The lost buddy procedure is something that we all learnt as Open Water Divers but does everyone understand what, why, when and how this is done? Wellington’s conditions can be tough, and with limited visibility we all owe it to our potential dive buddies to know exactly what to do in this situation.

When we learnt to dive we all no doubt got the same information about the lost buddy procedure. The PADI Open Water Diver Manual says “Buddy separation occurs when buddies can’t see each other … The general procedure is to look for each other for not more than one minute, then if unable to relocate each other, carefully ascend and reunite on the surface.” This is exactly what we all need to be doing, but how do we look for each other effectively? In large this will come down to your dive planning, if both buddies know the planned direction of travel and have a good understanding of the dive site it is easy to search along that planned direction of travel. If you don’t know where to search exactly we recommend swimming a large circle around a point, but never losing sight of the centre. Like this hopefully you will cross each other’s path almost like a venn diagram. But the most important element of trying to reunite underwater is to remember to search for no more than one minute and do not exceed your no-decompression limit!

Hopefully this is all you ever need to do to reunite with your buddy. But if this doesn’t work for you what should you do next? Standard procedure is to ascend to the surface and reunite there. Assuming your buddy has also only searched for one minute you should both arrive at the surface with a minute or so of each other. Something that has popped up as a point of confusion for some divers is if they should still do a safety stop in this situation. The answer is simply – No. Remember that safety stops are optional when diving within your no-decompression limits; they give your body the opportunity to expel large amounts excess nitrogen before reaching the surface, in turn making our dives safer. However while we recommend you complete a safety stop on every dive, in an emergency situation (like buddy separation) you should ascend to the surface without completing a safety stop. Once you reach the surface we recommend inflating a Safety Sausage or SMB (surface marker buoy) particularly if there is even a small amount of waves or chop at the surface to. This will help your buddy spot you as well as people who are looking for you from shore.

If none of this works and you are still unable to find your buddy at the surface wait for no more than three minutes then head back to shore or the boat and contact the police immediately. That gives you roughly five minutes to reunite with your buddy; 1 minute searching underwater, 1 minute to ascend (assuming you are shallower than 18m), and 3 minutes waiting at the surface, plus however long it takes for you to swim back to shore. It may not seem like a lot of time before calling the police but remember it takes time for them to reach wherever you may be and if your buddy is unable to reach the surface on their own – time is critical.

If you do find the missing diver before the police arrive you will need to call them again and let them know. I spoke with a constable from the Wellington Police Maritime Unit to find out what we can all do as divers to help them in this situation. Use channel 16 on a VHF radio if available otherwise a cell phone is fine, and provide the following;

  • Position of diver (Latitude and longitude if known)
  • Number of missing / overdue divers
  • Time diver was last seen,
  • Full description of the diver(s)
  • What signalling equipment diver has (SMB, Whistle, etc),
  • Conditions (tide, current, swell),
  • Any known medical conditions
  • Any other relevant info you may have

The Maritime Unit also suggest dropping an anchored buoy on the last known position, and a weighted buoy which you could allow to drift with the tide/current to give an idea of potential direction.

In the PADI Rescue diver course we explore scenarios around searching for missing divers underwater so if you have the appropriately trained people, equipment and no-deco time you may decide to conduct a short search while waiting for police to arrive. I cannot stress enough how conducting a search without proper training could potentially endanger yourself, your buddy and anyone involved – DO NOT RUSH INTO THIS BEFORE THINKING IT THROUGH!

It’s fair to say that not all situations are going to be the same so depending on how you dive you might decide to change elements of this procedure. If you are doing shallow dives you may decide to continue the dive after reuniting on the surface or abort the dive completely if it’s a deeper dive.

One thing that I feel is a great idea, is to let a non diver know what time you will be out of the water and stick to it. That way if you’re not out diving with a club there is someone waiting to hear from you, and they can contact the police if needed. You may also decide to change how long you wait at the surface depending on if you know there is a strong current present. I will stress that you should not change the fact that once you are waiting at the surface for your buddy; you do not descend again until you find them at the surface. Even if you a sure you have found their bubbles stick to your plan. It is all too easy to follow the wrong group of bubbles / divers down and create a delay in getting emergency services to the scene.

As a final thought our practice at Dive HQ is:

  • Search underwater for no more than one minute
  • After one minute ascend to the surface (omit your safety stop)
  • At the surface inflate your SMB/Safety Sausage and wait for a further 3 minutes
  • If after 3 minutes you have not reunited, return to the shore/boat and call the police (111)
  • Inform the police you have a missing diver and follow their instructions
  • Assign spotters to look for bubbles or a diver at the surface

Whatever you decide you are going to do as part of your lost buddy procedure make sure it is 100% clear to everyone you are diving with. The more we talk about what to do with our buddies the more likely it is that we will find each other and continue diving.


Paddy Keenan

Leave a Reply