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Buddy diving

Buddy diving is the use of the buddy system by scuba divers and is a set of safety procedures that are intended to improve divers' chances of avoiding or surviving accidents in or under water by diving in a group of two or three divers. When using the buddy system, the group dives together and co-operate with each other, so that they can help or rescue each other in the event of an emergency.[1]

In recreational diving, a pair of divers is the best combination in buddy diving; with threesomes, one of the divers can easily lose the attention of the other two. Groups with more than three divers are not using the buddy system. The system is likely to be effective in mitigating out-of-air emergencies, non-diving medical emergencies and entrapment in ropes or nets. When used with the buddy check it can help avoid the omission, misuse and failure of diving equipment.

The buddy system is the situation which occurs when two divers of similar interest and equal experience and ability share a dive, continuously monitoring each other throughout the entry, the dive and the exit, and remaining within such distance that they could render immediate assistance to each other if required.[1]
Bob HalsteadLine dancing and the buddy system

In technical diving activities such as cave diving, threesomes are considered an acceptable practice.[2]


The sport of scuba diving had its roots among the multitude of small enthusiastic snorkelling and spearfishing clubs in the decades just before and after the Second World War.[3] After the invention of the "aqualung" by Cousteau and Gagnan, the first commercially underwater breathing apparatus became available for sale for sporting purposes in the late 1940s. As the new sport of scuba diving rapidly expanded through the 1950s, several sporting organisations – notably the YMCA – began programmes to train swimming enthusiasts in this new aquatic pastime and began to codify what were believed to be the proper practises needed for this expanding amateur sport.[4] The buddy system had been thought to be a useful corollary to the "never swim alone" edicts of the YMCA swimming and lifesaving programmes. Cousteau himself independently implemented a buddy system from the earliest days of exploratory diving after a number of harrowing diving incidents.[5] The buddy system did indeed have some very useful aspects: the cross checking of equipment before dives, the facilitating of assistance for possible entanglement problems or equipment failures, and the enhancement of the social nature of diving. The YMCA continued as a major force in the development of diver certification during the first 50 years of this new sport. When these programmes were adopted by the emerging scuba certification agencies such as NAUI, PADI and BS-AC the practise of buddy diving solidified into one of the two main mantras of the sport: "never hold your breath" and "never dive alone".[6]


With buddy diving, each of the divers is presumed to have a responsibility to the other.[7] The "buddies" are expected to monitor each other, to stay close enough together to be able to help in an emergency, to behave safely and to follow the plan agreed by the group before the dive.[1] When the system fails, it is generally because one of the divers does not fulfill his or her responsibilities as a buddy.[8] If one of the divers is incapable of providing the expected assistance the buddy system has already failed.

The responsibilities of each buddy during a dive are:[9][10]

  • Forming an agreed dive plan (dive objective, course to follow, depth limits and distance from exit point), agreeing on air pressure at which the dive will be terminated and ascent started, who leads and who follows, and reviewing emergency measures to be taken
  • Helping a buddy to get in and out of their equipment, particularly in assisting donning of heavier items of diving equipment and adjusting hard to reach items
  • Checking the buddy’s equipment setup before the dive to assure that it is complete, in proper working order and configuration prior to the dive
  • Keeping track of the other buddy and staying together for the entire dive – maintaining a separation that can be closed up within only a couple of seconds.
  • Maintaining active communication throughout the dive by means of hand signals and regular monitoring of each other's gauges during the dive. Also, checking that the buddy is OK with the conditions and progress of the dive via such hand signals.
  • Managing the dive duration by following the most limiting conditions indicated by the gauges and dive computers of the buddy partners
  • If separation does occur, searching to reestablish contact with the buddy for one minute, and if that fails safely returning to the surface to re-establish contact in this way
  • In the case of a dive emergency, assisting a buddy to extricate himself/herself from the danger. This particularly applies to the dangers of entanglement and for out of air situations, and includes providing rescue assistance for an immobilized or unresponsive buddy should this prove necessary.

Equipment Usage and Diving Tasks within the Buddy team

Aside from the general responsibilities outlined above, the buddy system is designed to provide a level of redundancy within the pair of divers, as a safety backup in case of any equipment failure. Within the overall buddy pair almost all equipment can be seen to act as part of a combined "redundant system": two tanks, two depth gauges/ dive computers, two lights, two knives or line-cutters, – even two brains. During the dive the measurement instruments (gauges, dive computers, compass etc.) are available to be used to cross check one another, other life support equipment (e.g. air supply) is there as a backup in case of a failure in one of the divers systems. Sometimes a single special-purpose piece of equipment is shared by the buddy team; this might possibly be a single deployable surface marker buoy on which to ascend as well as mark the team’s position or a single underwater metal detector. The one key thing however, that a buddy team always shares together is a dive plan - and the responsibilities of executing it.[11] A key motto drummed into scuba divers is “plan the dive and dive the plan”. Before a dive a buddy team agree a plan, which aside from the basic parameters of the dive itself – e.g. depth, course, time, who leads and who follows, - also includes the objectives of the dive: is it general sightseeing, is it the way the divers intend to view a wreck, is it photography, is it hunting a type of game. In technical diving these objectives often become much more complex and very specific – penetration of a particular part of a cave to a particular point. Many diving objectives require allocation of specific roles and responsibilities. For example in lobster hunting on the west coast of America, buddy teams often split into the assigned roles of hunter and game-catcher, and stower and catchbag-carrier, and the overall dive success is highly dependent on the teamwork of the buddies carrying out their assigned roles.[12]

Provision of emergency breathing gas

One of the most important aspects of the buddy responsibility is for the provision of an alternative air source in case of out-of-air (OOA) conditions in a buddy partner. This OOA situation can come about if one of the buddies has a regulator failure or has consumed most of his breathing gas and has not noticed this until the supply has been essentially exhausted. In the earlier days of scuba, each diver carried only a single second-stage regulator, and in the case of an OOA emergency the buddy pair had to make an emergency ascent to the surface while the two divers took turns breathing from the one remaining working demand valve ("buddy breathing").[13] Though this system worked effectively enough in a swimming pool or in open water practice sessions, in the midst of an actual emergency situation, with all the stresses that entailed, this system of buddy breathing often failed. To alleviate the dangers inherent in this procedure, the recreational diving industry moved to a regulator configuration that provided each diver an additional second-stage regulator to breathe from, as a backup to the primary one that was normally used; the backup is known as the "octopus stage", sometimes called a "backup", "secondary" or "safe second" (obsolescent). The term octopus came about from the fact that with several regulators and other hoses hanging from the central first stage, the unit started to look like an octopus.[14] Two general systems have evolved for carrying and deploying the backup demand valve – one more prevalent in recreational diving and the other commonly found in technical diving (although some crossover exists). In both systems, each buddy diver carries two demand valves attached to a single tank's first-stage regulator: one for normal breathing during the dive (the "primary" regulator) and a second regulator ("octopus") as a backup for oneself or for the out-of-air buddy.

The Recreational Octopus - note color and placement in "Golden Triangle"
The Octopus in Recreational Diving

The octopus is usually clearly marked, the convention is a yellow hose and yellow second stage (as seen in the above photo) though a luminescent green is sometimes favoured. Many dive equipment manufacturers provide secondary regulators marked exactly to this standard and "tune" them specifically to the role of octopus. (Examples: Apex, Mares,Scubapro, Sherwood) The octopus second stage is usually stowed in an easily located and easily accessible position and is easily detachable from the device or necklace that holds it. Most recreational agencies[citation needed] suggest or even insist[15] that this position be in the "Golden Triangle" drawn between a divers chin and nipples.[16] The regulator hose is usually made long enough (1.2 metres (4 ft)) so that the divers are not inconveniently crowded against one another when the octopus regulator is in use. The procedure to provide the octopus is that the donor diver hands over the octopus[17] – but if he/she does not notice the buddy’s distress the out of air diver has been taught to take the stowed octopus. An advantage with this method is that donor handover is consistent in both octopus handover and for handover of any independent bailout device such as a removable pony bottle or a Spare Air. As part of the pre-dive checks, the procedure of handing-over or accessing the octopus in out-of-air emergency and the octopus location should be reviewed by the team. In recreational diving, if good gas management practise has been followed, either buddy should have sufficient air to allow them both to make a safe ascent to the surface, even if the emergency occurs at the end of the dive. This is not necessarily the case where a decompression obligation exists.[18]

The Long Hose - Note looping about divers neck
Breathing the long hose and donating the primary

A system recommended by some organisations, mostly those involved in technical diving, (GUE,[19] CMAS-ISA, other tech and cave diving groups?)[citation needed] is to equip the regulator that is normally used throughout the dive (the "primary") with a long hose, typically Script error: No such module "convert". long. This is the regulator that is donated to a buddy who is out of air. The "secondary" or "backup" regulator is then reserved for the donor diver and is on a short hose, suspended just under the chin by a "necklace" which can break free in an emergency. The principal advantage is that the diver who is in trouble will receive a regulator that is known to be working, and providing breathing gas that is appropriate for the current depth, and quite possibly more quickly than if the clipped off octopus were to be donated. Donation of the long hose is particularly beneficial for cave and wreck penetration diving where the divers sharing air may be obliged to pass through small openings, as the length of the hose allows them to swim in single file where necessary. The length of the hose also allows the divers to swim side-by-side or one above the other in all possible arrangements. Another advantage is that the secondary regulator is stowed in a position where it is out of the way, protected from strong water flow, contamination and snags and where the diver will notice if it leaks, but accessible to the diver without requiring the use of hands, as it is possible to pick up the mouthpiece by dipping the chin.[20][21] This arrangement is controversial, as it is slightly more cumbersome to use and requires greater skill to wear, deploy and recover.[22] The benefits may not outweigh the disadvantages for open water divers in relatively low hazard conditions.[23]

Standardisation of configurations as a safety advantage

It is helpful if divers wear their equipment in a way that follows standardised conventions so that buddy partners will know where to access that equipment if they are called on to assist their buddy. As there are several conventions, and divers who do not follow the locally popular conventions, it is important for divers planning to dive as buddies to familiarise themselves with the configuration used by the other in the pre-dive checks.

Pairing of buddies

There is both confusion and controversy in exactly how best to form up buddy teams among a group of divers. One school of thought is that buddies should always be closely matched in skills and experience so that one diver will not hold back his or her buddy in achieving what would personally be a totally enjoyable dive. This becomes particularly true when a diver is on an especially expensive or unique diving trip or holiday. The problem with this approach is that it also pairs up inexperience – which is a very dangerous situation if a diving emergency arises (fortunately, this is not statistically very often). The alternative is to only buddy-up a more experienced diver with a less experienced buddy to counter this "experience gap". This also helps to advance diving skills by having one buddy essentially act as a "tutor" – indeed, the British Sub Aqua Club strongly encourages and practises such a general scheme.[24] The problem however, aside from perhaps limiting the more experienced diver's chance to do the diving he would have wished, is that the less experienced diver is not what would be considered an ideal buddy in case of any emergency happening to the more experienced diver. These types of problems are magnified when divers who do not know one another (say on an open boat trip) are paired off as buddies.[25] Numerous harrowing stories abound about diving with "the tail-end-Charlie" or the "buddy from hell" out of such practices. The "perfect buddy" is a long term friend or acquaintance, a partner who matches one's own high level of diving skills, who has the same interests, the same stamina and fitness, and who enjoys the companionship in sharing enjoyable diving.[26] Although the principal reason for instituting the buddy system is the mitigation of the possible risks in diving, the sharing of diving experiences and the enjoyment of being paired together with a friend, family member, or keen fellow enthusiast while on a dive ranks very highly in the reasons many divers enjoy the sport of scuba diving.

Communication between buddies

Diving takes place in what Cousteau so poetically labelled "The Silent World". The relative silence of the sea is one of the very enjoyable aspects of scuba diving, but it does not help foster natural means of communication within a buddy team. Unless a significant investment is made in expensive full-face masks that incorporate through-water voice transmission capabilities, the buddy divers must necessarily communicate via some other (and cheaper) non-audible means. Two main approaches exist to provide such communication in recreational diving - standardized hand signals and submersible writing slates.

Hand signals

Further information: Diver communications

In an effort to insure the creation of universal, easily understood signals between divers,[27] the Recreational Scuba Training Council agencies have together defined a set of hand signals intended for universal use, which are taught to diving students early in their entry level diving courses. The more commonly used hand signals provide the following information

Some Typical Diver Hand Signals An Example
  • I’m OK, You OK?

  • Something is wrong

  • Low on air

  • Go that way
  • Take it easy

  • Let’s go under (around)

  • Get with your buddy

  • You lead, I’ll follow
  • I'm cold

File:OK diving signal.png
The OK, You OK? signal"

Underwater slates

Underwater slates are useful when there is more detailed information to communicate or remember. A large variety of designs are available – some that clip to the divers BCD, some that fit into pockets, some integrated with other units such as the compass. The basic parts comprise just an underwater pencil attached to a plastic board and some mechanism to clip them to a convenient point on the dive equipment. Slates are particularly useful if information needs to be written down prior to a dive and referenced during a dive – elements of the dive plan (depths, durations, decompression schedule) or a drawn map of the area to be dived.

Other communication methods

In more advanced diving (particularly penetration diving) additional methods of underwater communication is sometimes employed - among these are these signalling using torches, pulls along connecting lines/ropes, or through on tapping on tanks.

Giving the lack of an auditory communication medium, it is surprising just how easily used and effective these types of underwater communication tools can be for the buddy team when they are fully utilized.


The three alternatives, solo diving, diving in teams of three, and diving as an individual in a large group, have disadvantages when compared to the buddy system especially for the novice:

  1. Although solo diving is practiced by some divers in advanced diving, it is only safe if the diver is totally self-sufficient.[28] This usually entails a completely redundant gas supply, such as a pony bottle or an isolation manifold. Self-rescue is not possible in some cases, such as severe cases of entrapment in ropes and nets and during medical emergencies where the diver loses consciousness or is otherwise severely impaired in his/her ability to help him/herself.
  2. Three diver teams can be very effective for safety and backup, as generally only one diver will have a problem and require assistance, and having two divers to assist can be very helpful in difficult conditions. However, this procedure requires a considerably greater level of attention to group coherence. It is usually used by technical divers in cave and wreck penetration, where the advantages are sufficient to compensate for the added task loading[citation needed]
  3. In group diving, especially in large groups, poor visibility or currents, weak or inexperienced individual divers can easily become detached from the group and lose the protection of stronger or experienced divers in the group. Communication is often difficult in these groups leading to increased risk.[29] This is referred to as "resort-diver syndrome". This system is often practised where a group of tourists are taken on a sightseeing tour of a dive site by a dive leader and "sheepdog" assistant, who brings up the rear and herds the stragglers, and the visibility is sufficient for it to be practicable.

Controversy and the buddy system

With the increased popularity of solo diving as a possible alternative to the buddy system there has been a rising level of debate as to what really constitutes safe diving practise and how divers can best avoid the risks associated with their sport.[30][verification needed] Statistically speaking, scuba is a very safe activity,[31] with incidents of injury far below most other "risk" sports such as football, horse riding or even tennis. Yet unlike these other sports, divers are in a hostile environment for which human beings are not adapted, breathing from what amounts to a life support system. Under these conditions fatality is always a possible outcome, even under the simplest of equipment or procedural problems. In dealing with this reality a number of major concerns about potentially inherent flaws or negative impacts that can exist within the buddy system have been voiced:

A false sense of security

The main charges made against the buddy system practised today is that it has been grossly overrated as a means of risk mitigation. Critics say[32][33] that the buddy system acts as a crutch to give unjustified confidence to divers who individually do not have either the skills or the discipline to adequately deal with any real diving problems. This creates a situation where divers become dependent on the "security blanket" of being with another diver. The reality, critics claim, is that the other diver on which many buddy divers depend is often no better able to handle an emergency than the dependent buddy himself. The fostering of this false security by diving agencies that overemphasise the effectiveness of the buddy system, develops a sense of complacency in divers about their capability to deal with these problems, a capability which they often do not have. This complacency holds divers back from focusing on improving their lifesaving skills and capabilities.

Dangerous buddies

Critics point out[33] that the proponents of the buddy system project the image of a “totally reliable buddy” that does not, in fact, exist in reality. Some buddies lack skills or experience and some are unfit; the “buddy matching problem” has already been discussed under another heading. The major problem is that certain diver personality types are outright dangers; these types have been described as “the high flyer”, “the false confident”,”Mr. Angry”[clarification needed] and several others. The bad buddy problem is compounded by training that compels a diver to “stick with his buddy” no matter what, leading to the situation that the bad buddy sets the criteria of how (badly) the dive is carried out.

Both the solo diving and the buddy diving community have slowly closed ranks on how to best address the issues of safety in both systems – self-sufficiency. In the buddy system this means that both divers are capable of looking after themselves and sorting out almost any problems, but they still dive together as a backup to further enhance their safety as well as to share and enjoy their diving experience.[34]

Liability and buddy diving

It may seem curious, but liability issues strongly affect the structure of the diving industry, its organisation and even the implementation of recommended diving practises – and this is very much the case with buddy diving. Diving is a risky sport, where very serious accidents will occasionally occur. In an increasingly litigious world, accidents trigger a search for “blame”, and aspersions of blame often trigger ensuing litigation. It is a natural thing for those who may face the potential risks of litigation to take measures to mitigate these risks. Diving certification agencies must necessarily insure themselves against liability risks, and must act to minimise the cost of this insurance for both themselves and their operatives. The buddy system, beneficial as it can be in enhancing diver safety, has the legal effect of creating an involved intermediary person between the certifying agency and any injured party, an intermediary who could be easily identified as not having provided “duty of care” if an accident occurs.[35] This may afford a legal cushion for the agency, or trainer, or boat - but it is not exactly good news for someone acting in the role of a buddy. The more skilled the buddy partner, the more these duties of care increase.

Liability waivers are signed whenever a diver interacts with an operative of the diving industry e.g. the training agent or dive boat. No such waiver is commonplace for the buddy in a buddy team. As case law develops, more precedents becomes established for situations where buddy action may cause them to be particularly liable.[35] It is recommended[by whom?] now that buddy divers carry insurance that provides coverage of themselves against legal actions by buddies, particularly if diving takes place in those countries where a culture of litigation may exist. This is particularly necessary for scuba diving professionals who earn a living in the diving industry, when they "buddy up" More experienced/more qualified divers are also considered to bear a higher duty of care for their less qualified buddies,[citation needed] and therefore a serious burden can be placed on a vacationing diver asked to buddy up with a stranger, especially in litigious jurisdictions.

Dependent buddies

Given the emphasis placed on the necessity of all buddy divers to be fully able to aid their buddy in case of an emergency, over the last decade there have been some agency-approved diving practices established where certain types of buddies do not actually meet this criteria. Nowhere is this more evident than in the practice of scuba diving for children. Initiated by PADI, in an effort to expand scuba diving into the realm of becoming a “family activity” like skiing, the certification of children has been adopted by most other recreational diving agencies with their own diving programmes for children. These typically include two levels, depending of the child's age. PADI has six courses/levels for children, in which a child from the age of 10 can become a buddy diver in open water situations. The other buddy in this team can either be a certified parent or alternatively a dive professional. Serious concerns have been expressed about this general policy of having child buddies,[36] among the concerns is the mental anguish and psychological damage that may be caused to a child who fails to rescue a buddy parent.[37] The first child buddy death in British waters occurred in 2008. The first incident where both buddies in a buddy team died (one being a minor) occurred with a British father an son in Gozo in 2006. Proponents of dive training for children point to the great enjoyment and sense of wonderment the children feel when introduced to the underwater world and point out that other family sporting activities also have unfortunate incidents of serious injury to children.

See also


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  2. Sheck Exley (1977). Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival. National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section. ISBN 99946-633-7-2. 
  3. Dugan, James; "Man Under the Sea", Collier Books, 1965, Chapter 12, Library of Congress Number: 64-18390
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  12. Barsky, Kristine; “California Lobster Diving”, Hammerhead Press, 2000, p. 45-50, ISBN 0-9674305-2-6
  13. Brennan, Michael;"Underwater Swimming", Mayflower Press, 1970, p. 68
  14. Graver, Dennis; “Padi Diving Manual,PADI Publishing, 1985, p.58
  15. PADI Open Water Diver Manual, PADI, 2010, p. 97, ISBN 978-1-878663-16-0
  16. Orr, Dan; "Scuba Diving Safety",Human Kinetics Publishing, 2007, ISBN 0-7360-5251-8, p. 83-84
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  21. Jablonski, Jarrod (21 March 1997). "Hogarthian Gear Configuration". Retrieved 2009-06-15.  - originally posted to rec.scuba by Carl Heinzl on 21 March 1997
  22. British Sub-Aqua Club; "Hogarthian rigging" and "Primary take",
  23. Rowley, Mike; Teaching "Hogarthian rigging" and "Primary take" within BSAC courses, BSAC Directives, Dec 2009,
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  28. Carney, Brian; "Solo Diving Manual", Published by SDI, 2007, p. 4-15, ASIN: 1931451508
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  32. Coutanche, Andrew Philip (2006). "Does the buddy system really make recreational scuba diving any safer?" (PDF). Chilterns University College Thesis: 40–45. Retrieved 2011-08-14. 
  33. 33.0 33.1 Halstead, Bob; "On Your Own: The Buddy System Rebutted",
  34. Wade, Nigel; "PADI goes Solo", Diver Magazine, August 2011,
  35. 35.0 35.1 Coleman, Phyllis; "SCUBA DIVING BUDDIES: RIGHTS, OBLIGATIONS, AND LIABILITIES", Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center, 2007, link:
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