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!


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