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Editorial: How safe is scuba diving?

by Ian Ring, staff writer

To ask, "how safe is scuba diving?" one could easily answer with another question, "how responsible is the scuba diver?" Scuba diving is a sport with risks, like every other sport. What makes scuba diving seem riskier than other sports is the fear associated with drowning and the nervousness using a scuba system as "life support". Many people are afraid of water, afraid of sharks, afraid of relying on a strange contraption of hoses and tanks to provide air in an airless environment. In reality, scuba diving is not as dangerous as people seem to believe and in those rare instances of a scuba fatality it is almost always shown diver recklessness was the cause.

most scuba diving fatalities claim the lives of the ignorant, the reckless and the irresponsible

In popular lists of the "most dangerous sports" (including one by Forbes) two kinds of underwater diving are often mentioned. The list does include some sports which strike me as being truly dangerous: base jumping (throwing oneself off a tall building), street luge (sledding down a road at up to 80 mph), bull riding (and anyone who has watched a rodeo must agree). Why scuba diving even makes it on the list is a mystery. I assume the compilers included scuba because they are afraid of it. The statistics just don't support the assertion.

On the Forbes list free diving, or breath hold diving, is at number two just below base jumping. In free diving a weighted individual plummets to incredible depths while holding their breath. Then after shedding the weights bobs back up to the surface again. It's worth noting that even though the diver compresses and decompresses very quickly they are not at risk of the bends because their dives are so short they will have little to no nitrogen absorbed. Most fatalities in free diving occur because the diver blacks out from lack of oxygen. This is not scuba.

Scuba diving is not dangerous compared to some other activities we do without hesitation.

The one kind of scuba diving that makes it onto the "most dangerous" list is cave diving. Granted, there are a lot of things that can go wrong during a cave dive. That's why we get trained to learn how to do it properly. Injuries and fatalities do occur in cave diving, even sometimes to people who are properly trained and prepared. But, by far, most scuba diving injuries and fatalities become Darwinian forces that tragically claim the lives of the ignorant, the reckless and the irresponsible.

The truth is the number of fatalities decrease every year, even though the number of people diving is increasing dramatically. About half of all reported scuba-related fatalities happen on tourists' "dive packages", rather than on organized scuba trips chartered by a dive shop. The most dangerous dive packages are those in which the participants are not trained or certified, but are merely given a short training session before diving accompanied by a scuba chaperone. Responsible associations like PADI and NAUI recommend a complete training and certification before diving in open water, which sometimes does not happen on these organized scuba trips. Novice divers beware.

With proper training a scuba diver is confident. He is prepared, responsible, knows the risks and how to avoid them. Scuba diving, to the properly trained, is not dangerous compared to most other banal activities we do without hesitation.

Scuba fatality estimates range around 5 fatalities per 100,000 divers. About a third of those are the result of heart or circulation problems, most common of which is a heart attack or cardiac arrest (which is tragically almost always fatal if it happens while submerged). Here is a partial list of things that are more dangerous than scuba diving:

  • Riding a bicycle on a city street
  • Being a passenger in an automobile
  • Riding a motorcycle
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Sailing a yacht
  • Fishing from a dock

As for non-fatal injuries it is well known that most injuries happen to scuba divers while they are still on the boat.

The point of this editorial is not to say that scuba diving is safe. Indeed people do get hurt scuba diving. But anyone who puts scuba diving in the same list as riding a bucking bronco or jumping out of an airplane is probably letting their fears take precedence over factual research.

 

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