How to Rescue a Distressed diver at the Surface

Many divers never reach the point of qualifying as a rescue diver, let alone rescue a diver in distress. Here we will attempt to provide a reference or a guide as to the steps one should follow to assist a distressed diver at the surface.

- Ensure personal safety at all times.
- Get the victim high in the water with his or her face dry.
- Push or tow the victim to shore or to the boat.
- Get the victim to land or onto the boat.

Handling a diver in distress requires:

  • Recognition of distress
  • Surface action
  • Approach and contact
  • Transport at the surface
  • Exiting from the water

Recognition of distress

Early recognition permits rapid management.

Surface action

This could entail action from the dive boat or shore, by the buddy or by both. Surface action depends on physical ability, available equipment and sea conditions.

Non-swimming boat rescue

  • Throw a line to the victim.
  • Throw a line and buoy.
  • Throw any flotation device.
  • Extend a boat hook if the victim is next to the boat.
  • Move the boat to the diver. Beware of propeller or collision injuries to the diver or other divers in the area.

Swimming boat rescue

  • Notify the shore that a diver is in trouble.
  • Ensure a minimum of masks, snorkels, BCs and fins.
  • Take a spare flotation device with you – BC, rescue buoy or tube.
  • Keep ongoing visual contact with the victim. Use a crawl stroke and keep your head up.
Approach and contact

WARNING! The rescuer is exposed to maximum danger at this time.
A panicky victim may attempt to grab you, cling to you or even climb
onto your head. Your personal safety must come first! It is essential to
determine whether the victim is rational:

  • Stop 1 m to 2 m from the victim.
  • Attempt to visually assess the difficulty.
  • Ask, “Are you OK?”
  • Tell the diver that you have come to help.

If the diver responds rationally:

  • Add positive buoyancy to your BC.
  • Reassure him or her that everything is now under control.
  • Explain that you are going to resolve the difficulty.
  • Give simple, clear instructions, e.g.
    • Inflate your BC.”
    • “Drop your weight belt.”
    • “Hold this buoy.”
  • Explain what you are about to do, e.g.
    • “You are tangled in the float line. I am now going to free you.”
    • “I am going to return your demand valve to your mouth.”
    • “I am going to stretch your leg to relieve the cramp.”
    • “I am going to free the kelp from you.”
  • Ensure that the diver can always see you. If you move out of sight the victim will assume that you have left without assisting.
  • If the victim grabs at you, move away and repeat that everything is under control.

If the diver responds irrationally:

  • Keep a short distance away.
  • Do not allow the victim to grab you.
  • Shout and signal to the boat or shore for help.
  • Add positive pressure to your BC.
  • Ensure that your demand valve is in your mouth. You are in imminent danger of being forced under water!
  • If possible, give the victim something buoyant to clutch on to – push the spare flotation device
  • towards the victim.
  • If the victim does grab you, attempt to power-inflate his or her BC.
    • If unsuccessful and the victim is struggling violently with you, dump air from your BC and allow yourself to submerge. The victim will not continue to hold a sinking rescuer.

Transport at the surface

A fatigued or injured diver may need assistance to return to the boat
or shore.

  • Ensure that the victim is buoyant with his or her face out of the water.
  • Ensure that you can control the victim while swimming.
  • Try to maintain visual and voice contact with the victim.

Several methods may be used, depending on the circumstances:

Underarm push

- Lie the victim horizontally and face up in the water.
- Grasp the victim by the upper arm.
- Push the victim through the water.

Advantage: It allows easy transfer into the do-si-do position and rescue breathing if required.

Cylinder or BC tow

  • Grasp the victim’s cylinder valve or BC collar.
  • Tow the victim through the water.

Advantage: It allows rapid progress through the water.

Disadvantages: Loss of visual contact with the victim. Pulling on the BC can cause it to ride up the victim’s chest and make breathing difficult.

Float and line (rescue line)

Push the float to the victim.
Tow the victim by the line.

Advantage: It allows the victim buoyancy without endangering the rescuer.

Drift (stern) line

Get to the stern line.
Pull yourself and the victim along the line to the boat or let the crew on the boat pull you to safety.

Exiting from the water

At the boat

  • Remove the victim’s heavy equipment (weigh belt and cylinder).
  • Remove the victim’s fins. This makes climbing much easier.
  • Getting aboard depends on:
    • victim’s size
    • rescuer’s strength
    • state of fatigue of both rescuer and victim
    • type of boat and access height above water
    • presence or absence of a ladder
  • available help of others
  • A rope looped around the back and under the arms can help in hauling a heavy victim aboard or assisting the victim to climb the ladder.

At the shore

  • Remove the victim’s heavy equipment (weight belt and cylinder).
  • Remove the victim’s fins – this makes wading much easier.
  • Tell the victim to roll over and crawl on hands and knees from the water.
  • Help the victim stand and support him or her by the arm, or help the victim stand and sling one of the victim’s arms across your shoulders and hold his or her hand.
  • Assist the victim to the beach and let him or her lie down to recover.

WARNING: Exercise caution when approaching a distressed diver at the surface. A panicky victim may attempt to grab you, cling to you or even climb onto your head!


immersion and bubble formation Accidents Acid reflux Acute ailments After anaesthesia Air Quality Air exchange centre Air hose failure Airway control Alert Diver Magazine Alternative gas mix Altitude changes Altitude sickness Aluminium Oxide Ama divers Amino acids Anaerobic Metabolism Annual renewal Apnea Apnoea Archaeology Arterial gas embolism Arthroscopic surgery Aspirin Aurel hygiene BCD BHP BLS Back adjustment Back pain Back treatment Backextensors Badages Bag valve mask Bahamas Balancing Bandaids Barbell back squat Barometric pressure Barotrauma Basic Life Support Batteries Bench press Benign prostate hyperplasia Beth Neale Black Blood flow Blue Wilderness Blurred vision Boat safety Bone fractures Bouyancy compensators Boyle's Law Boyle\'s Law Bradycardia Brain Breast Cancer Breath Hold Diving Breath hold Breath-hold Breathing Gas Breathing Breathold diving Broken bones Bruising Bubbleformation Buddy Exercise Buoyancy Burnshield CGASA CMAS CO2 COVID-19 COVID CPR Cabin pressure Caissons diseas Camera settings Cancer Remission Cancer treatments Cancer Cannabis and diving Cannabis Cape Town Dive Festival Cape Town CapeTown Carbon dioxide Cardio health Cardiological Cardiomyopathy Chamber Safety Chamber science Charging batteries Charles' Law Charles\' Law Charles\\\' Law Charles\\\\\\\' Law Charles\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\' Law Charlie Warland Chemotherapy Chest compressions Chiropractic Citizen Conservation Cleaning products Coastalexcursion Cold Water Cold care ColdWater Cold Commercial diving Commercial schools Compressed gas Consercation Conservation Contaminants Contaminated air Coral Conservation Coral Reefs Corals Core strength Corona virus Courtactions Crohns disease Crowns Crystal build up Crystallizing hoses Cutaneous decompression DAN Courses DAN Profile DAN Researchers DAN medics DAN members DAN report DCI DCS Decompressions sickness DCS theories DCS DEMP DM training DNA DReams Dalton's Law Dalton\'s Law Dalton\\\'s Law Dalton\\\\\\\'s Law Dalton\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s Law Danel Wenzel Dauin island Deco dives Decompression Illness Decompression Sickness Decompression Stress Decompression illsnes Decompression treatment Decompression Deep diving Deep water exploration Delayed Offgassing Dental Diaphragms Diseases Dive Chamber Dive Computer Dive Destinations Dive H Dive Industry Dive Instruction Dive Instructor Dive Medical Form Dive Pros Dive Research Dive South Africa Dive Training Dive Travel Dive accidents Dive buddies Dive computers Dive excursions Dive fitness Dive gear Dive heallth Dive health Dive medicines Dive medicine Dive operators Dive planning Dive safety Dive safe Dive staff DiveLIVE Diveleader training Diveleaders Diver Health Diver Profile Diver infliencers Diver on surface Divers Alert Diving Divas Diving Kids Diving Trauma Diving career Diving emergencies Diving emergency management Diving fit Diving guidelines Diving injuries Diving suspended Diving Dizziness Dolphins Domestic Donation Dowels Dr Rob Schneider Drysuit diving Drysuit valves Drysuits Dyperbaric medicines EAPs EAP Ear pressure Ear wax Ears injuries Eco friendly Education Electronic Emergency action planning Emergency decompression Emergency plans Emergency underwater Oxygen Recompression Emergency Enviromental Protection Environmental factors Environmental impact Environmental managment Equalisation Equipment care Evacuations Evacuation Evaluations Even Breath Exercise Exhaustion Extended divetime Extinguisher Extreme treatments Eye injuries FAQ Failures Fatigue Faulty equipment Female divers Fillings Fire Coral Fire Safety Firefighting First Aid Equipment First Aid Kit First Aid Training First Aid kits Fish Identification Fish Fitness Training Fitness to dive Fitness Flying Fractures Francois Burman Fredive Free Student cover Free diving Free flow Freedive INstructor Freedive Training Freediver Freediving performance Freediving Gas Density Gas laws Gas mixes GasPerformance Gases Gastoeusophagus Gastric bypass Gastroenterologist Gear Servicing Gordon Hiles Great White Sharks Gutt irritations HCV HELP HIRA HMS Britanica Haemorhoid treatment Hazard Description Hazardous Marine life Hazardous marinelife Health practitioner Heart Attack Heart Health Heart Rate monitor Heart rates Heart rate Heart Heat stress Helium Hepatitis C Hepatitus B High temperatures Hip strength Hip surgery Hippocampus History Hot Humans Hydrate Hydration Hydrogen Hydroids Hydrostatic pressure Hyperbaric Chamber Hyperbaric research Hyperbarics Hypothermia Hypoxia IdentiFin Immersion Immine systems In Water Recompression Indemnity form Indian Ocean Indonesia Inert gas Infections Injections Instinct Instruction Instructors Insurance Integrated Physiology International travel International Interval training Irritation Joint pain KZN South Coast Kidneys Kids scubadiver KwaZulu Natal Labour laws Laryngospasm Lauren Arthur Learning to dive Legal advice Legislation Leukemis Liability Risks Liability releases Liability Life expectancy Lifestyle Lightroom editing Live aboard diving Liver Toxicity Liver diseas Low blood pressure Low pressure deterioration Low volume masks Lung Irritation Lung function Lung injuries Lung squeeze Lung surgery Lung MOD Maintenance Malaria Mammalian Dive Response Mammalian effect Marine Biology Marine Scientists Marine conservation Marine parks Marinelife Master scuba diver Maximum operating depth Medical Q Medical emergencies Medical questionaire Medical statement Medication Mehgan Heaney-Grier Mermaid Danii Mesophotic Middle ear pressure Mike Bartick Military front press Mixed Gas Mono Fins Mooring lines More pressure Motion sickness Mozambique Muscle pain Mycobacterium marinum Nausea Nautilus Neck pain Neurological assessments Nitrogen build up Nitrox No-decompression Non-rebreather Mask Normal Air Nosebleeds O2 providers O2 servicing OOxygen maintenance Ocean Research Ocean pollution Open water divers Orbital implants Oronasal mask Osteonecrosis Out and about Outreach Oxygen Cylinder Oxygen Units Oxygen deficit Oxygen deicit Oxygen dificiency Oxygen ears Oxygen equipment Oxygen masks Oxygen supply Oxygen therapy Oxygen P J Prinsloo PFI PJP Tech Part 3 Partner Training Philippine Islands Philippines Phillipines Photography Physioball Physiotherapy Pills Pistons Planning Plastic Pneumonia Pneumothorax Poison Pollution Pool Diving Post-dive Pre-dive Preparation Prepared diver Press Release Professional rights Provider course Pulmanologist Pulmonary Bleb Pulmonary Edema Pulse Punture wounds Pure Apnea Purge RAID South Africa RCAP REEF Radio communications Range of motion Rashes Rebreather diving Rechargeable batteries. Recompression chamber Recompression treatment Recompression Recycle Reef Conservation Reef surveyors Regulator failure Regulators Regulator Remote areas Renewable Report incidents Rescue Procedure Rescue breathing Rescue breaths Rescue training Rescue Resume diving Risk Assessments Risk assesments Risk assessment Risk elements Risk management SABS 019 SafariLive Safety Stop Safety SaherSafe Barrier Salty Wanderer Sanitising Sara Andreotti Saturation Diving Save our seas Science Scombroid Poisoning Scuba Air Quality Scuba Injury Scuba Instructor Scuba children Scuba dive Scuba health Scubalearners Sea Horses Sealife Shark Protection Shark Research Shark conservation Shark diving Sharks Shoulder strength Sideplank Signs and Symptoms Sit-ups Skin Bends Skin outbreak Skin rash Snorkeling Snorkels Sodwana Bay Solomon Islands South Africa Spinal pain Splits Squeezes Stability exercise Standars Stay Fit Stents Step ups Stroke Submerged Sudafed Sulawesi Supplemental oxygen Surface supplied Air Surfaced Surgeries Surgery Suspension training TRavel safety Tabata protocol Tattoes Technical Diving The Bends The truth Thermal Notions Tides Tips and trick Tooth squeeze Transplants Travel smarter Travel tips Travel Tropical Coastal Management Tunnelling Tweezers Ultrsound Umkomaas Unconsciousness Underground work Underwater hockey Underwater photographer Underwater photography Underwater pho University of Stellenbosch Urinary retention. Vaccines Vagus nerve Valsalva manoeuvers Vape Vaping Vasopressors Vasvagal Syncope Venting Virus infections Volatile fuels Washout treatments Wastewater Water Resistance Water Weakness Weigang Xu West Papua Wet diving bell Wetsuit fitting Wetsuits White balance Wide angles Winter Woman in diving Women In Diving SA Women in diving Work of Breathing Workout Wound dressings Wreck divers Wreck dive Wreckdiving Wrecks Yoga Youth diver Zandile Ndholvu Zoology abrasion acoustic neuroma excision air-cushioned alert diver altitude anemia antibiotics antiseptics bandages barodontalgia bent-over barbell rows bioassays body art breathing air calories burn carbon dioxide toxicity cardiovascular cerebrospinal fluid checklist chemo port child clearances closed circuit scuba currents cuts dead lift decompression algorithms decongestants decongestion dehydration dive injuries dive medicing dive ready child dive reflex dive tribe diver in distress diver rescue diver training dive diving attraction doctors domestic travel dri-suits drowning dry mucous membranes dry suits dry e-cigarettes ear spaces elearning electrolyte imbalance electroytes emergency action plans emergency assessment equalising equalizing exposure injuries eyes fEMAL DIVERS fire rescue fitnes flexible tubing frediving freedivers gas bubble gas poisoning gastric acid gene expression health heartburn histidine hospital humidity immersion and bubble formation immersion pulmonary edema (IPE jaundice join DAN knee longevity lower stress malaise marine pathogens medical issues medical procedures medical risk assesment medications mental challenge micro-organisims minor illness mucous membranes nasal steroids nasal near drowning nematocysts neurological newdivers nitrogen bubbles off-gassed operating theatre operations orthopeadic outgas pain perforation phillippines physical challenges pinched nerves plasters polyester-TPU polyether-TPU post dive posture preserve prevention psychoactive pulmunary barotrauma rebreather mask rebreathers retinal detachment risk areas safety stops saturation scissors scuba equipment scuba single use sinus infections smoking snorkeling. spearfishing sterilising stings strength sub-aquatic swimmers ears tattoo care tecnical diver thermal protection toxicity training trimix unified standards vision impaired warmers water quality