SCUBA diving during COVID times
Written by Thomas Collins
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced the diving industry to take an unexpected and extended stay of leave. However, with many countries making great progress in containing their respective COVID-19 outbreaks, some places are making a measured and steady return to scuba diving activities.
Advice From: SSI And DAN – On How Divers Can Get Back in The Water Safely.
Scuba divers around the world are eager to get back in the water and get their snorkels wet again. As diving operators reopen globally, they encourage divers to #DiveLocal. To help divers prepare for the new reality of diving during COVID-19, the Divers Alert Network (DAN), recently issued advice to dive operators on how to safely resume operations. SSI have created a tool in the form of their travel restriction map; this is searchable by country and offers a more detailed rundown of the restrictions in that area along with the sources for the information.
While this guidance gives divers a small idea of what they can expect when returning to their dive shop—reduced boat capacity, a possible disappearance of communal rinse barrels and simulated air sharing in training courses—the best practices also include ideas for what divers can do to keep the industry healthy & operating.
Please note: While these actions can reduce the likelihood of coronavirus transmission, the risk cannot be entirely eliminated when interacting with other people.
We are conscious that we are communicating to a global audience of divers, so we urge you to firstly follow the guidelines wherever you’re returning to diving. If local authorities are discouraging diving, be respectful of that – it may be in order to preserve emergency medical services. You should also be following the general safety guidelines outlined by the WHO (World Health Organisation), including maintaining a 1-2m distance from others where possible, frequently washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, nose, eyes and mouth, monitoring yourself for symptoms and quarantining if you exhibit symptoms.
The diver or dive student needs to feel safe before they will go into a store to purchase gear or training, to board a dive charter, or simply to go diving. For the foreseeable future, this is going to mean wearing masks in public, social distancing in dive shops, fewer passengers spread out on dive charters, an emphasis on online training where possible, and smaller class sizes, again to allow students to practice social distancing. Pay by phone or curbside tank drop off could also be effective interventions to reduce the chance of infection.
One positive aspect of this pandemic is it has forced dive shops and training agencies to move towards more online training. E-learning has been growing in popularity for some time and has been embraced by various training agencies and dive centres to greater and lesser degrees. RAID now allows students access to all their training materials from open water diver through cave diving instructor at no cost. Other training agencies have also moved towards offering certain courses at low or no cost to students to keep money flowing into the dive centres during this exceedingly difficult time.
Webinars and Zoom conferences have become the new normal. There have been several outstanding live conferences put on by The Diver Medic, Dirty Dozen Expeditions, Dive Ninjas, Deeper Discussions and Shallow Thoughts, Divesoft Talk Live, and many others these past few weeks. I imagine dive centres will incorporate this mode of education into some aspects of their academic courses in the future.
Unfortunately, many dive centres will not be able to financially weather this storm, but as a community we need to do everything we can to help support our local dive centres. Take this time out of the water to get your gear serviced. For dive centres not located in diving hotspots like Florida or California, it is going to be really tough until travel restrictions are lifted, and their customers feel comfortable getting on an airplane. If you have a trip that is in jeopardy, consider rescheduling rather than cancelling and asking for a refund. Buy gear in preparation for upcoming dive trips in advance of the quarantines and shelter in place orders being lifted. Sign up for continuing education and do the academic portions online or via a conferencing app with your instructor. Every little but helps. We are all in this together.
Where & how to plan a dive trip in COVID-19 Times?
Planning a dive trip during COVID-19 times? With the pandemic dragging on, many scuba divers have had the longest surface interval ever. We cannot wait to put their scuba diving masks on!
Even though it might not be possible to travel right away with lockdowns, and/or family and financial obligations, nothing prevents you from planning your next dive trip right now! Indeed, many trips from 2020 have already been rescheduled to 2021 and 2022, if you would like to dive anytime soon, it’s better to plan ahead.
Are You Still Fit to Dive?
Remember to check-out with yourself before planning a dive trip if you are still fit to dive. You can use DAN Europe Diver Medical questionnaire as a checklist to go through.
If in any doubt, check with your local physician and take the necessary exams to make sure you can dive safely.
Which Safety Protocols Are in Place in Liveaboards & Dive resorts
Most dive operators have now put in place comprehensive safety procedures.
Before departure, a good practice of a liveaboard in Socorro is to ask guests to take their temperature twice a day for one week before departure. If you ever get COVID-19 symptoms or a light fever, you can reschedule your trip with no fee.
Taking temperature every day with a contactless thermometer during the trip is also a common practice.
Some liveaboards keep a cabin without any guest in case they would need to quarantine someone during the trip. Ask about these practices before booking.
If you have not invested in your own dive gear yet this might be a good time to do so. Even if it’s possible to disinfect the equipment, you’ll reduce your level of anxiety if you have your own mask, snorkel and regulator. Ask about who sets up the dive equipment on board, and once all geared, remember to do your buddy check without touching each other’s equipment.
When choosing a liveaboard, ensure there is plenty of space inside and outside so that you can social distance easily. If you prefer to social distance even more, an eco-resort is an ideal place to do so. Choose a small, responsible operation that supports local communities, they need it even more now!
How Flexible Are Booking and Cancellation Conditions?
Ask about the Special COVID-19 booking conditions. For instance, many liveaboards and eco-resorts accept a very small deposit at booking to secure your place, sometimes as low as 10%.
Conditions are also very flexible to get a refund or change dates in case of COVID-19 related causes, such as illness, borders lockdown, or cancellations of flights between the two countries.
In these times of great uncertainty, it is a good idea to ask a dive travel agent to help you out figure out which options are best for you. It might save you some headaches, and it will support small businesses you share the same passion with!
Advocate for yourself
Divers who are concerned about COVID-19 must take the correct precautions to protect themselves and others. If you’re thinking about booking a trip, call the dive operator and ask what disinfection procedures they’ve put in place. If they don’t seem adequate to you, book elsewhere. This is especially important if you plan to rent equipment.
If your dive destination is close to home or otherwise convenient, bring your own equipment, or at least the equipment that will come into contact with your eyes, nose and mouth. You should also consider cleaning your gear by yourself, away from other people or communal rinse tanks.
Make the rules & enforce them!
If you work at a dive shop, create a clear plan and let customers know ahead of time about any special procedures they will have to follow. Consistency is key, so even divers who bring their own equipment should follow relevant procedures, such as disinfecting equipment before rinsing.
Some top-notch examples of dive centres taking disinfection seriously have surfaced. This video of Mares Ecuador’s infection control procedure is a fantastic example of steps that dive operations can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Stay distant at the surface!
Stay six feet away from other divers until you are underwater, such as when riding a boat out to the drop, checking your buddy’s kit or renting equipment. This means, for example, you should inspect your buddy’s equipment visually before getting in the water, but not reach out to adjust any of their straps. Keep at least six feet between you and other divers when in the water as well until you are securely below the surface. Once submerged, “breathing from scuba substantially reduces respiratory transmission concerns,” in the best practices document posted on the SSI website. “This is obviously important underwater because close contact is important for safety control, skill conduct and maintaining buddy contact.
Breathe through regulators in close quarters.
Some situations require proximity to other divers when at the surface, like dealing with a panicked diver or doing a tired diver exercise. While a regulator does not protect those around you from your exhalations, warns SSI, breathing through your regulator allows you to pull from your tank air, reducing the chance of inhaling respiratory particles floating around you.
Wash or sanitize hands while topside.
“Divers should avoid touching each other’s gear, but sometimes it is necessary before, during or after a dive,” says SSI. “The best practice is for divers to wash/sanitize hands before and after touching their own and someone else’s gear, meaning before and after the dive in most instances.”
Exercise caution with sanitizer around canister fills
Frequent disinfection of hands and equipment is key to limiting transmission. But DAN warns divers to keep alcohol away from canister fills in order to avoid accidentally igniting a fire.
“Note that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are incompatible with compressed gas,” DAN says in its online FAQ. If you are filling your own tank, “alcohol-based substances should not come into contact with…cylinders and fill whips that are used with any compressed gas but especially oxygen-enriched gas. This would increase the risk of fire and explosion due to the high volatility of alcohol and its ability to ignite at relatively low temperatures.”
Washing hands with soap and water is a far preferable route. If hand sanitizer must be used, DAN urges divers to make sure their hands are “completely dry and all alcohol has evaporated.”
Smear defog, not saliva.
Some divers swear spit clears a mask better than any defog. That debate will have to wait. Spitting nearby other people—especially into a rented mask—could increase the risk of transmitting coronavirus. Rely on defog for the foreseeable future to get a clear view underwater.
With a somewhat uncertain future, it’s hard to know what diving will look like this time next year, but we do know that COVID-19 will change the diving community’s practices for the better. Greater attention to infection control can only serve our community well.
For more information, check out Divers Alert Network’s COVID-19 page. If you have additional questions, email DAN at mailto:RiskMitigation@DAN.org.
Thomas Collins, Contributor
Thomas is the diver behind activescuba.com and loves everything about snorkelling & scuba diving as he feels it presents a great sense of freedom while experiencing some of the amazing sites nature has to offer. He wants everyone to get the most out of their experience so he reviews equipment that you will need & help you to choose the best. While also providing useful information about this wonderful pastime.
You can visit him at https://activescuba.com/