One of my favourite topics is that of solo diving and like most things in diving, there are strong advocates for and against. Before I jump right in let me explain how I define solo diving… being in the water alone, with no other diver or buddy. If something goes wrong on a solo dive (even if it is out of your control) the only person who can get you out of the dive is yourself. With a buddy (the argument goes), when something goes wrong there is someone who can help out and so your chances of survival are improved.
I have always been a strong supporter of solo diving simply because I believe solo diving forces an individual to take full responsibility for their dive. Because on a solo dive when something goes wrong you only have yourself to blame, you tend to be a whole lot more thorough with your planning and preparation and because you are paying more attention you are a far safer diver. In fact, I would argue that diving solo makes you a far more competent diver.
Now you may think that as an advanced or experienced diver you plan properly and take nothing for granted… but I would like you to think about that for a second. Sport diving ingrains in the diver a belief that their buddy will get them out of trouble. As a sport diver you are never alone, nor are you ever fully responsible for the consequences of a dive. Now, if you believe that there is always someone to help you, how thorough is your preparation really going to be ? It is human nature to be slightly sloppy, after all, it does not matter if there is someone there to save the day! And if things go wrong there is also some-one else to blame and take responsibility. With the buddy system it is far to easy to assume that your buddy has thought of everything and knows what to do. Which means you both get into the water unprepared.
The facts are that no single individual is omnipotent (and your buddy certainly isn’t). In fact, there is a good chance that his ability in an emergency is nowhere near your own. Perhaps it is not a good thing, but when it comes to my live I do not trust other people underwater. My thinking goes like this - should I die (or get badly injured) would it be valid to blame my buddy (or instructor or Dive Master) and say that it was not my fault but theirs because they did not plan properly or were not capable ? No! It would not because there was something I could have done but neglected to do because I was lazy and preferred to make it someone else’s responsibility. At the end of the day it is my life and I am the one that should accept responsibility for that life. Besides, you can never tell who will step up and manage a real life crisis. Invariably the person you expect to save you, is the one that crumbles under pressure.
The irony is that whilst I consider myself to be a solo diver, most of the time (and especially on extreme dives) I am not actually alone in the water. On my 220 meter world record dive I was alone for a little over 15 minutes before meeting up with my deep support divers at 120 meters. From then on (5 and a half hours) there was always some-one in the water with me. Not that they did much (I rarely ask for assistance). It is however comforting to know that should I need it, they are there to lend a hand.
You can argue (and quite effectively I might add), that if no single individual is omnipotent, then neither are you as a solo diver. Which is were I think the argument for pure solo diving starts to fall apart. I have had the experience of being stuck at 152 meters in a tunnel, a location that my nearest support diver could not reach. My fin caught on the guideline and I was not able to get reach my foot to get myself unstuck. This was probably the first time on a dive that I was able to justify the existence of a buddy. He would have been easily able to sort the problem out. I almost did not make it out and only did by leaving my fin behind.
This experience and that of Dave Shaw (who also got stuck on line although that was not deemed to be the ultimate cause of his death and was rather believed to be the final straw) has made me question whether or not there is a middle way, neither pure solo nor pure buddy. The thing that I fight for in solo diving is the personal acceptance of responsibility and the fact that each diver has no-one else to blame. This self reliance and self responsibility forces individuals to pay more attention and be more meticulous and seems to only arrive when all other options are exhausted and you are diving alone underwater. In theory it should be possible to arrive at the same result within the buddy system. After all, we dive with full redundancy in everything but the one thing that counts, our minds….and that is what a buddy provides (thanks to Dr Jack Meintjies for this phrase).
No matter how you look at it solo diving will always remain highly dangerous. It is not something that can be taught, being more a lifestyle than a predefined course. But, what we can teach is Self Reliance and that for me is the perfect compromise. I retain all the benefits of solo diving confer with all the benefits of being with a competent buddy. Yes, there are still situations where having a second diver increases the risks (diving deeper than 150 meters is one of them), but for day to day dives incorporating the self responsibility and self reliance into your buddy system will radically improve your safety underwater (and remember, most accidents happen shallower than 50 meters…so you everyday sport dive has a much higher risk than our extreme dives)