18 months ago, most of us had never heard the terms “coronavirus” or “COVID-19”, and we had no idea it would change our lives forever, let alone our dives. By now we would have all experienced life in lockdown, and probably some form of quarantine, whether we’ve been travelling or not. We’re all familiar with the international health and safety protocols, handwashing, mask-wearing and the seemingly impossible social distancing. And while most of the world is wondering how long and to what degree these protocols might continue, many divers are considering how it may also affect their favourite activity.
It’s crucial to note that this article is only an amateur speculative guide, and for up-to-date medical and safety information there are several reliable sources available online, such as Divers Alert Network and the World Health Organisation, among others. As always, make sure you follow the most conservative guidelines you can find- social distancing, covering your nose and mouth, very frequent handwashing and adequate testing/vaccination being the best proven ways to prevent the spread of SARS-COV-2 in any environment.
As a compulsive planner myself, I have written page after page of notes that I deemed relevant to not just myself as a diver, but also to my job running a dive operation, and here I have composed them into a rough guide that aims to cover most of what’s new. Feel free to skip the sections that don’t apply to you:
Travel & Preparation
Vaccinations: I’m not going to start a debate around whether or not to get vaccinated, but if you are fully vaccinated, not only will contracting COVID-19 (or suffering harsher symptoms) be less likely for you and whomever you come into close contact with, but it will be a lot easier for you to travel in most places in the world. In Europe, for example, if you are fully vaccinated, most establishments will not require you to show proof of a recent negative result from a COVID test.
PCR Tests: Now these may be unavoidable in most places, including but not limited to- airports, government buildings, resorts, dive centres and even port-of-entry into countries. Most places will ask you to show a negative test result from the last 48-72 hours, and it’s essential that you check beforehand what kind of test and how recent the issued result should be.
Paperwork: If you are required to show proof of vaccinations and/or test results, you’ll need to make sure you have the relevant paperwork, and I’d recommend carrying both hard and soft copies. You may also need to download track-and-trace apps, QR codes, and fill out necessary forms specific to a country or establishment. An additional tip is to bring your own pen to avoid cross-contamination if forms need to be filled out on arrival.
Medical Form: There is a new updated version of the diver’s medical questionnaire and health declaration form that includes COVID-19. It’s vital that you download a copy of both before your trip and complete them honestly, then bring them to your physician to confirm and stamp. If you have contracted COVID-19 I would insist on seeing a COVID specialist and a hyperbaric physician before planning your trip. Never take medical advice from anyone other than a trained medical professional.
Pre-Bookings: If most restaurants require reservations for dinner these days, it’s highly likely that you’ll need to pre-book your entire trip, from airport transfers to a daily dive package. Sadly, the days of spontaneous island-hopping may be over, for the foreseeable future at least. Planning and booking each aspect will at least ensure you that you’ll be able to do everything you’re intending to do and will help the operators in ensuring you’re guaranteed a spot in case enquiries are busy.
Hygiene: Aside from the obvious hand sanitiser and medical masks, it might be worth packing your own disinfecting soap, since a lot of countries and/or places may be using high volumes and are low in stock. Other handy extras may include non-latex gloves, eye goggles, a face shield, hand-washing laundry detergent and a surface disinfectant, in addition to a fully-equipped travel first-aid kit (see below). I personally don’t like to buy single-use plastics, but in some cases it’s better safe than sorry.
Dive Gear: I’d always recommend owning your own gear when possible, not just for safety reasons but also for comfort and ease, but in the post-coronavirus age it should probably be compulsory for divers to use their own masks, snorkels, mouthpieces/regulators and anything that is orally inflated, such as a BC and small DSMB. We’ll get on to the how’s of disinfection of gear later, but for peace of mind, try to at the very least pack your own mask and snorkel.
Disinfection: There’s a stark difference between disinfecting your hands, disinfecting surfaces and disinfecting dive equipment, and you’ll need to be careful on how each one is done and what agents to use. For dive gear, it’s best to follow the guidelines set out on DAN. I’d recommend packing a medical-grade disinfectant that is rated for coronaviruses, such as Virkon-S, and possibly also packing (or buying when you get there) bleach and a leak-proof spray bottle.
Disinfection of Gear
Bleach: I’m not a fan of this substance, mainly because it’s pretty toxic to anything living, like humans, plants and aquatic life, but for the purposes of killing germs and viruses, it’s quite effective. WHO recommends mixing a 1:100 solution of 5% bleach to fresh water and scrubbing or submerging the item in the mixture for a minimum of 5-30 minutes before thoroughly rinsing with fresh water. For anything that’s going in your mouth or touching your skin it’s absolutely essential to make sure any remnants of bleach are rinsed completely off, and you’ll also need to use rubber gloves and an apron to make sure it doesn’t touch your skin.
Virkon-S: Rebreather divers use Virkon-S and similar medical disinfectants to clean the breathing tubes and loop of their rebreathers, mostly because it does a brilliant job of killing most bacteria, viruses and funghi, but also because it’s graded for use with medical devices that come into contact with skin and breathing apparatus. This particular brand has been approved by the EPA to be effective against COVID-19 (click here for more information). Pay close attention to the user instructions on the packaging and the best-before date. The only downside is you’ll almost definitely need to order it in advance and it’s slightly pricier than bleach.
Soap: Soap and warm running water has proven a great cleaning agent for many germs, and the action of scrubbing and rinsing can effectively remove surface germs and even COVID-19. Just be aware that adequate scrubbing and rinsing is the key here, and tricky to reach areas should ideally be soaked in a disinfectant instead.
What to Disinfect: For rental gear, everything must be thoroughly cleaned with soap and warm water, and anything that comes into contact with faces or mouths should be disinfected before and after it has been used. If it’s your own gear, consider not just cleaning and disinfecting it yourself, but also handling your own gear entirely, avoiding all cross-contamination means not just setting-up your own gear (which you really should be doing already) but also carrying it back and forth to the boat/site, washing and storing it yourself. Always wear protective gear/gloves and make sure to check with the dive operation before wandering into any areas that are reserved for staff-only. Distancing is also a priority.
Step-By-Step to Disinfection: Click here for a detailed guide to disinfecting dive equipment.
New Dive Skills
If you’re a dive professional, you should already be aware of the changes in some dive skills due to the coronavirus pandemic. These could be available in updated websites, manuals, recent newsletters or directly from your local dive agency training representative, but most agencies are giving very similar recommendations, and most of those include changes to any skill that involves close surface contact and rescue and air-sharing exercises.
As a student diver you should expect to have to adhere to the following (or similar):
- Self-Buddy Checks:
If you’re used to fondling your dive buddy’s gear whilst performing the pre-dive buddy check, you might need a refresher from an instructor on how to best perform your own checks, and if you’re a technical or rebreather diver, then you’ll already be checking your own gear. The most important thing to note here is that buddy checks should never be missed or compromised on. Ideally the checks will be thorough, using a written checklist, and performed (socially distanced) together with a partner or team for verification, regardless of whether you’re taking a dive course or you’re an experienced professional diver.
- Simulated Regulator/Gas-Sharing Skills:
It depends on the equipment that you are diving with, but most likely you’ll need to simulate air-sharing skills in the pool, and maybe alter or simulate them in open water, too. Most agencies are recommending when practicing OOA drills to refrain from putting your buddy’s regulator into your mouth, which means just pretending to breathe from their regulator, and vice versa. For long-hose divers this is especially important, because you would usually hand over the regulator you’re currently breathing from, and switch to your own back-up short-hose. It goes without saying, but this obviously applies only to training skills, because if your buddy is actually out-of-air underwater then holding your back-up (or octopus) regulator in front of their face won’t be sufficient to save their life.
- Surface Rescue Skills:
In cases of a real-life emergency chances are all rules go out the window, but ideally there will be easy procedures for you to follow that will not only be sufficient to adequately rescue a fellow diver, but also keep you safe from multiple forms of harm, including harmful viruses. If in a training situation, it could be likely that you’ll have to safely simulate many skills that would have previously (before the pandemic) been properly practiced. These may include but aren’t limited to: rescue breaths, removing the victim’s dive gear, checking for signs of breathing, and really any close contact at all. In these circumstances I would recommend (if possible) doing your training together with a close family member or partner with whom you can adequately practice the necessary rescue skills for proper training. If that isn’t possible then you’ll have to follow the set guidelines from the relevant training agencies, follow safe distancing and hygiene rules, and obviously make sure all parties are vaccinated and recently/regularly tested for COVID-19. Rescue skills and emergency first response training is not something that should be completed subpar, so make sure your instructor and you are satisfied with the conditions of the course and your performance.
- Equipment Changes:
Some alterations in skills procedures may require different or additional equipment. It has been suggested that long-hose divers carry a third regulator as their back-up for gas sharing, and recreational divers may also want to carry a spare mask and mouthpieces, for example. Each diver will need to assess their own needs depending on what they already use and what changes may need to be made, based on the dives they’re doing and also perhaps the area and operation where they are diving. If you aren’t sure what you need check with your instructor or dive centre and, it’s extremely important that when diving with new gear or a new configuration, all the necessary training is done to make sure you are safe and well-prepared.
Emergency First Aid Kit
If you ask me, everyone should travel with their own mini first aid kit, it just makes sense to be prepared for any situation, but I realise I’m also a first aid instructor, so I’m a little more in-the-know than the average person. However, for all the emergency first responders out there, and for resort and diving operators, here are a few items you might want to add to your inventory, in case you haven’t already:
- Pocket-masks – we use them in the rescue diver course, and recommend divers to carry them, but there’s no reason why we can’t also use them on land to give us added protection when performing rescue breaths and CPR.
- Gloves – non-latex is best to accommodate for those with allergies, and they give us an added barrier when touching others, whether it’s for open wounds or not.
- Face shields – we’ve all seen food servers wear them, and they’re pretty handy for situations when you’re unable to adjust your medical mask due to busy or contaminated hands. They also add an extra layer to medical masks for situations dealing with bloody or coughing victims.
- Hand sanitiser/Alcohol wipes – again, these should already be a part of your standard first aid kit, but it’s best to stock up when possible, as they’ve proven sometimes difficult to get hold of during the course of the current pandemic.
- Aprons/overalls – it might seem a little OTT to some, but a simple apron could greatly reduce cross-contamination during a medical emergency, not only in light of COVID-19, but also for other infections and contaminants.
- Spare O2 masks – I’m making assumptions here, but many dive operations might only stock one O2 mask per emergency oxygen tank, and clean it in between uses, but should it accidently get damaged or if it’s insufficiently disinfected, it could cause more harm than not buying a few extras would be worth. Make sure to get them from the same manufacturer to ensure they will be compatible, and disinfect them before storing safely, according to the accompanied instructions.
- Medical masks – another obvious item, but it can often be the obvious items that get overlooked. Having extra masks is just a given.
- Spare emergency O2 – given that oxygen is in short supply in multiple countries, having an extra tank or two on hand could save lives. If it’s not possible for whatever reason, sharing an extra back-up supply with a neighbouring dive operation could be another option.
- AED – an automated external defibrillator is often a luxury item for remote dive operations, but in these remote areas it’s more essential than ever. Consider also sharing the costs with a very-close-by neighbour if the unit is too pricey for your budget.
- Infrared thermometer – the lack of contact is key, and makes for an easy, non-invasive and contamination-free way to ensure all divers and staff are within the safe temperature levels.
- At-home COVID-19 tests – it’s self-explanatory but having a stock of antigen tests will be necessary to ensure staff and customers are regularly testing negative for SARS-CoV-2. Consider mandatory testing on a pre-agreed schedule for all persons.
In general, it’s worth stocking up on extras, providing you have a clean, cool and dry place to store them. Most hospitals around the world are either at full capacity or are stretching themselves quite thin, so it’s a good idea to have several first aid trained staff and to call the local recompression chamber before diving to make sure they are prepared in case of an emergency.
If you’re not a professional diver then it would still be advised to check with your dive operator and team that these things are taken care of before diving with them.
Calling the Dives
I hope you found this guide useful, and I guarantee there are probably elements missing, but ultimately it is your individual responsibility to make informed and safe decisions, in and out of the water. Make sure to follow the rules set out by the most relevant governing body to you, including the governmental agencies, global health organisations, dive insurance companies and training agencies, and always use your most prudent judgement.
Many dive agencies, operators and agents would prefer not to highlight the reasons why you shouldn’t go scuba diving, and that makes sense for them financially, but let’s be honest- as divers we must practice and prepare for risks to our safety, even without considering COVID-19. I hope you take all the precautions possible and necessary to ensure the safety of yourself and others, and if that just isn’t possible, then I would recommend giving diving a miss this time. Save your money, save the carbon emissions, save your well-being and that of others, and instead consider donating something to the local community and planning your trip for a later date.
EPA Disinfectant List:
DAN Guide to Disinfecting Dive Gear:
World Health Organisation on COVID-19:
DAN Medical Forms:
Disclaimer: The Scuba Mermaid (Chi Felton) and its affiliates do not intend for any information from this entity to replace or substitute an RSTC certified scuba diving course, and at all times advise divers to dive within their certified training limits. Please seek any medical advice from a qualified hyperbaric physician.