Even with surface signaling devices, locating a small, floating head amidst uneven chop can be difficult; and without them, it may be impossible. In an ideal world, divers would never be separated from their boats or buddies, but the ocean can be unpredictable, and unexpected conditions or mistakes occur. Hopefully you will never find yourself lost a sea, but it’s still a good idea to carry surface signaling devices on every dive (they’re mandatory on drift dives). Your goal is to make yourself as visible as possible.
Here are five devices that can make finding a diver on the surface easier.
1. Surface Marker Buoys (SMB)
These long, inflatable tubes (sometimes referred to as safety sausages) are typically deployed when a diver is underwater (before ascent) and projects well above the surface of the water. An SMB is usually attached to a reel, inflated underwater, and released to the surface using the reel before the diver completes an ascent. A SMB signals the diver’s intent to surface at the end of a dive, helps the dive boat to locate his precise location underwater, increases the diver’s visibility when floating on the surface, and can even be used to communicate a problem or an emergency to surface support. In a worst-case scenario, a surface marker buoy may even be used as a flotation device. Learning to use a surface marker buoy takes a bit of practice, but the increase in diver safety is well worth the effort.
There is a great deal to consider when purchasing a surface marker buoy:
Size matters so select an SMB that’s going to stick out well above the chop and thick enough to be seen clearly with the naked eye. Purchase an SMB that is at least 6 feet in length. Keep in mind that underwater, the buoy will be rolled-up, so there is really no reason not to go with a large variety.
b. Color/Reflective Tape
A surface marker buoy should be brightly colored. The most common colors are neon yellow or bright orange. Look for a buoy that is very different from the color of the water, and that will stand out. Some surface marker buoys have a reflective strip running lengthwise down the tube which will reflect radar being used by a search party to locate a diver.
Many divers choose to write their names, a symbol, or some other sort of identifying mark on their surface marker buoys. This can be useful at dive sites that see high traffic, where many guides from different boats deploy buoys in the same area, as it will help your surface support team distinguish you from the crowd.
d. Reel/Spool for Deployment
A surface marker buoy without a reel or spool for deployment is nearly pointless. Depending upon the location, releasing a buoy underwater may be important to alert non-diving boat traffic to a diver’s presence or intent to surface in order to avoid collisions. A reel or spool also provides a useful method of holding the buoy at the surface, particularly in scenarios during which a boat or support team is delayed. Keep in mind that you need enough line on the spool or reel to deploy it from the deepest point of your dive, and account for drift/current pulling the buoy line at an angle.
e. Method of Inflation and Deflation
The best surface marker buoys offer various methods of inflation. Methods include a small tube that may be exhaled into underwater (the diver must remove his regulator), a connection that may be attached to a low pressure hose (the diver must temporarily disconnect his inflator hose from his BCD), and open-bottomed buoys that may be inflated by gently purging the alternate air source into the opening or by catching a diver’s exhaled bubbles. At a minimum, consider an SMB that allows for oral inflation should you find yourself on the surface with no air in your tank. For deflation, the air may be squeezed out of a surface marker buoy through the oral inflation valve or open bottom. Many top-of-the-line surface marker buoys offer a second option in the form of an OPV dump valve, similar to the shoulder or rear dump valve on a BCD. This allows the diver to dump the air from the buoy on the surface and roll it up easily before he boards the boat, and is very useful with larger surface marker buoys.
f. Over-Pressure Release System
Not all buoys have an over pressure release system, but consider purchasing a buoy with this feature. The cheaper, oral-inflation-only surface marker buoys are completely sealed once inflated. The consequence is that if the diver accidentally puts too much air into the buoy underwater before releasing it, the buoy can rupture as the air expands on ascent, rendering it limp and useless on the surface. Two types of over pressure release systems are: an open bottom (extra air will just bubble out), and OPV valve (again similar to those found on the rear or shoulder of most BCDs) which will release air if it reaches a certain pressure.
g. Will It Double As a Floatation Device?
In a worst-case scenario, having an additional flotation device could become very useful. Divers have many methods of establishing positive buoyancy on the surface, including dropping their weights, or even completely removing their scuba unit if the buoyancy cell is ruptured. However, if you don’t use a wetsuit or end up being on the surface for an extended period of time, floating on your back or treading water becomes less appealing and it is useful to have a little extra lift. In addition, a surface marker buoy that can double as a floatation device can be helpful when dealing with a panicked diver at the surface. Simply handing someone a floating object to hold onto can greatly diminish panic and prevent a stressful situation from becoming an emergency.
h. You Must Be Proficient in the Surface Marker Buoy’s Use
Divers carrying a surface marker buoy should practice deploying it underwater (and on the surface) until they are comfortable and proficient. You should do this in shallow water first, under the watchful eye of an instructor or mentor. There is a lot to think about when deploying a buoy. Firstly, inflating something underwater will cause you to become positively buoyant as long as you hold onto it, so you must account for the buoyancy shift when you inflate the buoy, and again when you release it. Managing reels without becoming entangled may also be tricky the first few times, and becoming entangled in a buoy line could cause injury or an uncontrolled ascent to the surface. Maintaining the correct amount of pull on the line to keep the buoy vertical also takes some practice. Finally, even with the buoy deployed, consider that surface conditions may yank on the line, pull the diver around, and even disrupt safety/decompression stops.
i. How Many Surface Marker Buoys Should You Carry?
The answer will depend upon what type of diving you do, but at a bare minimum each diver should have his own buoy and reel. Diving is a team sport, but in the event that you are separated from your buddy and he has the buoy, it won’t do you any good. Buddy separation is already a stressful situation that would be needlessly exacerbated if each diver does not have his own buoy. Technical divers, scuba instructors, or divers in situations in which deploying a buoy is essential to the dive plan may choose to carry two buoys per diver for redundancy in case one is lost. In this case, a diver should carry his buoys in different places (one in a pocket and one on a d-ring, for example) so that if an event causes one buoy to be lost, the other is still likely to be in place. Finally, divers who use the colored buoy system to indicate status, will of course, require more than one buoy per a diver.
j. Communicate Your Plans with Surface Support and the Group
Discuss your buoy release plan with the surface support team (boat crew, divemaster, etc.) and your dive buddy to ensure that everyone knows when and why you’re deploying an SMB and what it looks like on the surface.
k. Final Thoughts About Surface Marker Buoys
Get one. Get one now and learn how to use it. In open water diving, a surface marker buoy may be a life saver – conditions change and mistakes happen, even with the most experienced crews and buddies.
2. Light Source
Surface marker buoys are one of the best methods of visually signaling a boat or rescue team in nearly every dive scenario except for one: a diver on the surface at night. During a night dive or when searching far a lost diver at night, carrying a source of illumination may be key to the diver’s survival. For this reason, many surface signaling kits include a light or chemical stick – even a small light may aid a search team. Some surface marker buoys have a sleeve or attachment point for the light source, which helps to get the light up above the surface of the water where it is most visible.
3. Whistle or Audible Signaling Device
As well as a visual signaling device, divers should consider carrying a least one audible signaling device, such as a whistle. These are useful to quickly call a surface support team’s attention to a diver on the surface and can even be helpful in pinpointing divers in rough conditions. Simple whistles will usually do the trick, but for an even louder sound, consider a DiveAlert – a device that attaches to a BCD’s inflation device and emits a loud shrill sound. If you do elect to purchase a DiveAlert, be sure to carry an additional whistle, as the DivAlert only functions with pressure in the tank, and would therefore be useless if a diver surfaces in an out-of-air situation.
Many surface signaling kits include rescue mirrors. Mirrors can be used to reflect sunlight at a rescuing party, and are particularly useful when signaling across long distances, such as to a helicopter or plane. Learning to use a mirror to signal can take a bit of work, and it would be worth the effort to practice with your mirror a bit to learn to direct light as desired. Signaling mirrors are quite small, so there really is no reason not to carry one.
5. GPS Locator (Nautilus Lifeline)
A relatively new innovation, waterproof GPS locators/radio combos are an excellent safety tool in regions where strong currents can drag a diver miles before rescue. The Nautilus Lifeline device is submersible to 425 feet, and includes a 2-way radio that can be used to speak to dive buddies and boats, and most importantly, to issue an emergency distress call. The GPS functionality allows emergency crew to pinpoint a diver’s location on the surface.