SMBs, Safety Sausages, See-Me-Tubes: the Surface Marker Buoy

Safety tools are often overlooked by newer divers when they're first investing in a dive kit. All divers know they need a reliable BCD & regulator because, well, we need to breathe. But what about the non-immediate part of staying alive? I've seen new divers willing to spend extra $$$ on a higher-end regulator because, "It's my life and I'm worth it," but then skip the accessory safety items that - in my opinion - can be just as important should you find yourself in an unexpected situation...

One of our divers came in for some regulator maintenance recently and had quite the story to tell. She and her family were out for a day of diving & spearfishing off their own boat. There was a current so they decided to do a drift dive and, being safety-conscious divers, had a flag & buoy to tow along with the group so the boat could track them. They agreed on a time limit and went off on a relaxing adventure underwater. Seems simple, right?

A simple mistake nearly ended their family outing in tragedy when the line connecting the flag to the divers came untied at the buoy.

It's not too difficult to imagine what happened next: the captain faithfully followed that flag as the wind and current took it in the wrong direction, and the divers continued on their meandering dive/hunt, oblivious that the line they were towing wasn't attached to anything anymore. 

Neither party knows when exactly the rope came untied. The captain first realized when her family didn't surface at the agreed upon time. The divers found out when they reeled in an empty rope and ascended to find their boat nowhere to be seen. 

What would you do?

I didn't get their captain's side of what happened next, but our diver told us that the group in the water, not knowing what else to do, decided to try and swim for shore - miles and miles away - eventually ditching what they could to make the swim easier. Fish, stringers, even spear guns and other equipment were sacrificed, all ending up on the sea floor. One member of the group had an SMB (Surface Marker Buoy) and inflated it in the hopes that someone would see them.

After almost 2 hours of swimming, she was able to flag down a random passing boat and the family was reunited back on shore. All thanks to a single SMB and some unbelievable luck.

So what can we learn from this? Well the obvious answer is to check your knot on the dive flag before you jump in, because that's where the problem started. But what else can be done? Captain John (who drives our dive boat, the Psychquatic) immediately responded, "Gotta follow the bubbles, man." And he's absolutely right: double check your course against not just the flag, but also the divers' bubbles in the water. 

But as a diver, personally, what can you do? Well, I don't want to even think about how this story might have ended if no one in the group had had an SMB with them. Does that mean as long as your dive buddy has one you shouldn't worry about it? Well what if you get separated from your dive buddy? And in this specific case, if everyone had had one, the whole group would have been even more visible to passing boats and could possibly have been rescued earlier.

These little neon-orange cinnamon rolls really don't take up much space; heck, I don't even realize it's there once I've clipped it to my BCD and I'm in the water. Will it get used on every single dive? Probably not. But if something goes wrong, that inflatable orange tube can be a literal lifesaver. And not only on drift dives - they're handy to have with you for other situations. If you surface far from the boat in choppy conditions you'll be much more visible with a 4-foot long, fluorescent safety sausage because, let's face it, sometimes a diver's head at the surface can look an awful lot like a crab-trap buoy or a floating coconut. Do you struggle maintaining buoyancy on free ascents? If so, an SMB used in conjunction with a string line can make your safety stops much easier - and safer too, as passing boaters can then see where there's a diver in the water.

So if you don't have one already, be sure to add an SMB to both your dive kit & your pre-dive checklist. It is easily one of the most useful tools for the money (most are under $50, depending on size) and you'll be glad it's there if you ever need it. The only time mine is off my BCD is when I'm in a pool.

That's it for now and remember to be safe out there, because the best dive is the next dive! - Tyler


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