What makes a good Rescue Diver?

Recovering an unresponsive diver underwater

Recovering an unresponsive diver

This is a question I was asked by one of my students on a recent rescue course. It’s a good question. Looking back on my rescue course, I feel I was let down by my instructors. PADI’s website says the following:

Scuba divers describe the PADI Rescue Diver course as the most challenging, yet most rewarding course they’ve ever taken.

I didn’t find it challenging at all. This could be for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had had a lot of training, prior to doing the course, reacting to stressful situations where triaging options was drilled into me. And secondly the course had not been set at a level that would have stressed me.

So what makes a good rescue diver?

I’ve thought long and hard about this and I feel that it boils down into two distinct areas. Skills and situational awareness.


There are many skills that make up the rescue diver course. From self-rescue to rescuing an unresponsive diver at the surface. The nice thing about skills is that they can easily be practised ad nauseam and in a short space of time you can be come very proficient in doing them.

When I was teaching exercise 7 – unresponsive diver at the surface – the techniques on how to do it came so naturally to me that I actually questioned if they were correct. I had to check my notes to make sure that I was doing everything in the correct order – I was. This experience taught me how valuable repetition was and that practice makes permanent.

Situational Awareness

Something that takes longer to develop is situational awareness. It doesn’t develop over a day of intense practice but over time and many many dives. By looking at other divers and analysing how they are reacting to their situations can help you to spot problems before they happen. This awareness doesn’t start when you are in the water but it starts as soon as you plan to go diving. Subtle cues will let you know if everything is all right with the divers around you. If you discover something that seems amiss, check it out. It’s better to find out if there could be a problem on the surface than at 30m.

A good rescue course will not just include the skills but practice and demonstrations of situational awareness. On the final checkout dive for the rescue course I had members of our group present with different problems ranging from an un-tucked octopus , loss of equipment, and panicked divers doing things when you were distracted by something else. I wouldn’t expect a new rescue diver to catch all of the problems on the “dive from hell”, but I would hope that they would get most. These exercises help the prospective rescue divers realize the importance of situational awareness and to start thinking about the possible problems that could arise from the most innocuous things. Take for example the octopus that has been come loose and is not secured. It could become damaged rendering it inoperable, it could become snagged either on a reef/wreck causing a diver to become entangled, or it could even become lodged under the diver’s tank making it impossible to find in an out of air situation. Fixing this problem by either notifying the diver of it, or fixing it yourself can “rescue” a diver from a much more serious problem later on.

Being a good rescue diver just doesn’t happen over night, the same way that a PPB course doesn’t make you a master of buoyancy. The rescue diver course puts you on the right path. It should give you the confidence and skills to react if the need should arise but as with everything these skills need to be practised regularly. Although situational awareness is harder to get it is easier to practice due to the fact you can do it on every dive. The skills, are harder to practice on your own, require actual dedicated sessions, often your local dive club or shop will offer these. If they don’t, why don’t you suggest them to do it. It’s in their interest to have more experienced divers on their dives.

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