Distracted Diving and Task OverloadSimon Vetterli
Driving while being distracted has become a major problem around the world and will likely get worse before it gets better. The use of a cell phone while driving, either sending a text message or talking on the phone, has been shown as being as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. In New York State, the rest areas along the expressways and highways have been renamed to Text areas, with reminder signs that three violations of distracted driving will result in the revoking of your driving privilege. Distracted driving is not new nor limited to a cell phone. Screaming kids in the back seat has led to more than one mom looking in the rear view mirror instead of looking forward to the car in front of her stopping. Many a young man has jumped a curb while driving, as his attention was focused on a beautiful young lady he was driving past.
Being distracted while diving is also a major concern. While there are devices that allow the sending of messages underwater, they are not common yet. We do have other items that can distract us, that can also become fatal. Recently, the State of Florida held their two-day Lobster mini-season. On average there are 50,000 permits issued to take lobsters those two days. A few weeks after the mini-season is the regular season which lasts about 8 months. As mentioned in the DAN notice, Over the last ten years, 20 divers have died while hunting during the mini-season. On the other hand, 31 divers have died while hunting during the regular season in the same ten years. While the number of divers per day will be different, you can not escape the point that on average, one diver a day died during each day of the mini-season. Only one diver died while hunting every 130 days of the hunting season. Thankfully, this mini-season no diver deaths have been reported.
Most of the deaths are categorized as either out of air situations or medical issues such as cardiac arrest. Often buddy separation or solo diving is cited as a contributing factor for the out of air fatalities. When there is a social media posting concerning an out of air situation, there will be individuals who will cite poor training or the failure of the dive buddy as the real reason. We do not fault a driver education teacher when a texting driver kills someone. Why should we fault the training the diver had received? The point is they did not check their air supply. Something else had a higher priority at the time. By all logic, nothing should have a higher priority than the periodic checking how much air is left as well as where is your dive buddy and their condition.
In the lobster diving, The thrill of the hunt distracts diver from their primary task of keeping safe. There is a heightened state of expectations on these dives. The divers are focused on getting the bag limit, and there may be a hundred divers nearby with the same intentions. The regular season has less competition and if you do not get your daily limit you can always try another day. Mini-season is just two days followed by a wait till regular season. It could even remind you of a feeding frenzy or the rush to the next checkpoint on a reality TV show. Everything else becomes a lower priority. Distracted diving is not limited to the mini-season, but the impact makes it more apparent.
Most out of air situations are caused by the diver not checking their gauges. Is it the lack of training? Not likely, as the importance of checking both your depth and remaining air is fundamental in Open Water Diver training. In the mini-season, it is the hunt and the social pressure of doing better than the others. You can be distracted on any dive. A photographer could be so focused (sorry for the pun) on following a turtle that they fail to notice they have gone too deep. A diver may be so concerned about swimming against a current that he fails to check his remaining air and does not surface when he needed to. The diver might be diving in great visibility for the first time and is in awe at the magnificent marine life surrounding him, forgetting to check the gauges. Training and experience should be enough to keep your focus on the fundamentals of diving, but that does not always happen.
I had a dive buddy that was an outstanding diver. She was always on top of her environment, check gauges at a regular internal and was aware of what was going on. However, put her in a school of large fish, and she would seem hypnotized. A school of barracuda would erase any dive plan from her mind.
Are You Ready for an Underwater Camera?
Or you could ask, Is training getting worst or distractions easier? Like the cell phone on land, an underwater camera is a useful device. However, a camera can be a major distraction while diving. Cameras have always diverted a divers attention but there is some major difference now compared to say 15 years ago. When I started to dive about 20 years ago, an underwater camera was a sizable investment. After I bought my kit, it was a while before I could justify the expense of an underwater camera. A camera that had little or no use on the surface. By the time I had my camera, I had a number of dives accomplished. A task that I had learned in training, was now second nature. I automatically checked my gauges and I had a good self-awareness while diving. Photography was a task that took my concentration. Still, I had some experience. Photography, however, was a task that had a limit. Back then cameras used film, so at most you were only taking 36 photographs a dive. The camera was generally a distraction for only a few minutes. If you wanted to shoot video, you had a camera about the same size as cameras used for television and cost thousands of dollars.
Today, entry-level cameras are very inexpensive and not limited to underwater photography. A camera able to produce broadcast quality video can fit in the palm of your hand. Go Pro cameras started the action camera industry and now there are many off brands. Some of these will cost less than a dive and are equally useful out of the water. I have seen students show up for their first open water dive with an action cam, and expect to use it on the dive. These cameras are able to take hours of video or many thousands of photographs. You will likely use up your air before running out of storage space.
There are of course many other ways to become distracted, the underwater camera is just an easy example.
Control Starts on the Surface
A good dive plan and communication with your dive buddy before you start your dive is very important. If you know that there may be a distraction, plan on how to minimize the risk. If photography is one of your goals, the dive buddy should be aware of that and accept an additional task to bring you back on focus of your diving if you get too distracted.
Another important point, if you have not dived recently, do a dive or two without any additional task. Concentrate to get the muscle memory working for you. Let those essential task be remembered and practiced. Take your time before multitasking.