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Situational Awareness and Decision Making in Diving

Situational awareness is critical to diving safety, right? But how much of your mental capacity should be devoted to situational monitoring, e.g., How deep am I? How much gas do I have? Where is my buddy? Where is my boat? More importantly, how does one develop that capacity? Here GUE Instructor Trainer Guy Shockey, who is also a human factors or non-technical skills instructor, explores the nature and importance of situational awareness, and what you can do to up your game.

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By Guy Shockey
Header photo by Kirill Egorov

It is not surprising that given the nature of the activity and its heavy reliance on equipment, the majority of diving discussions focus on the “technological” side of diving which includes equipment, gases, decompression, etc. These discussions will assuredly still continue but over the last few years we have seen a renewed focus on what we refer to as “Human Factors” (HF) and their role in technical diving and diving in general. 

I for one am happy with this shift in emphasis; regardless of what equipment, gases or deco protocols you are using, HF is always a part of the equation. It strikes me as a bit odd that divers would spend hundreds and thousands of dollars trying to find the “perfect” bolt snap or retractor and ignore training the “human in the system”.  This despite the knowledge that we can learn how to be better decision makers once we are aware of just what things influence our decision making. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what gear configuration or equipment or gases we are using if we have no ability to make good decisions while diving. It doesn’t matter a lot what “make of vehicle” I drive, if I don’t make smart decisions while driving. 

Thankfully, there has been a sea change in this attitude and today, just about every diving conference, magazine or blog has started discussing Human Factors or non-technical skills (NTS). As an active GUE instructor, I have tried to stay current with this and include HF training in all my classes in some capacity. I believe HF becomes more important as the diver progresses in their technical training, and even more so if they make the shift to CCR diving. Regardless of the level of diving though, the one common feature of all divers is, as Human Factors coach, Gareth Lock writes, “the human in the system.” It seems only logical then that it would make sense to turn our attention onto the human diver.

Brain Capacity

Human Factors includes many aspects of understanding our decision making process, however, I believe there is one aspect of HF and NTS training that is particularly relevant to every diver. The concept of “Situational Awareness” (SA) has been a buzzword for several years now, but only more recently have we started to talk about it in terms of HF and diving. Former Chief Scientist for the United States Air Force, engineer Mica Endsley has been one of the luminaries on the subject of situational awareness and defines it as “the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future”. This is a simple yet powerful sentence and deserves more consideration.

A lot going on.
Photo courtesy of Jarrod Jablonski.

The new diver or a diver working at the limits of their capacity in a new training or diving environment has a limited amount of internal RAM (random access memory) or CPU (central processing unit) power to call on to make decisions. They are typically overwhelmed by a new environment that includes changes in sight (everything is closer), sound (it travels faster underwater), physical changes on the body (changes in drysuit or wetsuit pressure), temperature (usually colder), and the overwhelming knowledge that humans are using life support equipment to operate in a hostile environment. Within that environment we are expecting divers to also monitor depth, time, location, team, gas, etc.  Then, if there is an emergency, we also expect them to react with precision and skill to solve the problem. And finally, our expectation is that we are doing all this for fun!

In summary, what we are expecting is for our divers to maintain a high level of situational awareness while operating in a hostile environment and maintaining enough capacity to deal with emergencies.  Seems simple on paper right? 

It is readily apparent to any instructor that trying to monitor situational awareness is an overwhelming task for new divers or those divers pushing their training limits in a more advanced class. If the typical diver, who originally started diving to have fun, is using 75% of their capacity just to monitor their situational awareness (Where am I? How deep am I? How much gas do I have? Where is my buddy? Where is my boat? etc.) they only have 25% of their remaining capacity to do what they intended to do. 

The GUE philosophy is to train in such a fashion that we are able to switch this around in order to effectively dedicate 25% of our capacity to situational awareness monitoring and thus have 75% of our capacity to do what we came to do: have fun! There is an interesting yet critical corollary of this change in that when the first diver has an emergency they have only 25% of their capacity to dedicate to the problem. Contrast this to the trained GUE diver who has 75% of their capacity to help solve the emergency. 

Helper Muscle

Positioning in a team of three during a safety drill.
Photo courtesy of GUE archives.

GUE classes are intended to help build your situational awareness while also developing fundamental skills for the level of training you are doing. Hence, it is not enough to just “do an S-drill” (check to see the long hose is not encumbered); we expect you to “do an S-drill” while also being aware of your position in the water column, proximity to the line, and awareness of your team mates. 

Consider SA as a “helper muscle” that we are developing while also working on the primary muscles. A good analogy might be using dumb bells for a chest press in a gym which requires you to stabilize the weight while also pushing it upward. This is quite different from doing a similar exercise on a machine where rails or tracks keep the load stabilized while you push or pull it. We carry this forward into our upper level classes where we require an even higher level of situational awareness such as tracking gas by time, etc. 

It is for this reason that I have become more and more convinced that situational awareness is quite possibly the most important skill that a diver must develop. As Endsley wrote, “As technology has evolved, many complex, dynamic systems have been created that tax the abilities of humans to act as effective timely decision makers when operating these systems”.  As GUE has moved into the CCR training world, I believe we are seeing just how prophetic this statement from over 20 years ago actually is. 

SA is not just about “what is” but about “what will be”. In this aspect it requires the diver to first recognize the situation, then analyze what it means, and then project into the future how it will affect them. As the environment the diver is operating within continues to change, SA management becomes a complex and ever-changing exercise. Further, it stands to reason that poor SA will lead to poor decision making. 

Developing Situational Awareness

The net result is that good situational awareness will help the diver in their decision-making process. It will help free up some mental and physical capacity to enjoy their dive and even perhaps more importantly, it will provide extra resources when dealing with problems and emergencies. GUE instruction is designed to encourage growth in your building “SA”. So the next time your debriefing includes a critique of more than just the demonstrated skill, be assured that we are doing this for a reason and to make your diving more enjoyable and safer. 

Developing situational awareness will not happen without consciously working on it. One way you can do this on every dive is by making a conscious effort to anticipate your expected gas usage and then verifying it every five minutes. You can also work on anticipating the next step or waypoint in your dive and arriving there ready to perform whatever action you are expected to do. 

For example, if you are the one expected to deploy a surface marker buoy (SMB) at the 20 minute mark, then anticipate that and arrive at that time waypoint with the SMB out of your pocket and ready to deploy. If you are the one running a line from the shot line to the wreck, then arrive at the bottom of the shot line with the reel out and ready to go. These are only a few of the ways you can work on developing your situational awareness and you will find it gets easier over time.

Keep practicing and you will be able to master most any situation.
Photo courtesy of Jong Moon Lee.

I tell my students that learning how to plan and complete a dive is not unlike learning a new dance where at first you may need numbered footprints on the ground telling you what foot to place and where. Then after practicing a few times, you can remove the footprints and then soon your footwork becomes second nature and you can concentrate on smiling at your dance partner as you prepare for the next “So You Think You Can Dance” tryout. 

Make every dive an effort to develop your situational awareness. It will pay off handsomely in terms of making you a more relaxed and confident diver. Before you know it, you will be doing things subconsciously that used to require significant RAM. This will make your diving more enjoyable and you will retain lots of capacity for problem solving, and worrying about your next dance lesson.


Guy Shockey is a GUE instructor and trainer who is actively involved in mentoring the next generation of GUE divers. He started diving in 1982 in a cold mountain lake in Alberta, Canada. Since then he has logged somewhere close to 8,000 dives in most of the oceans of the world. He is a passionate technical diver with a particular interest in deeper ocean wreck diving. He is a former military officer and professional hunter with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He is also an entrepreneur with several successful startup companies to his credit.

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Teaching Again as the World Tries to Reopen

Conducting classes and supervising dive ops during the midst of a pandemic can be challenging. Here GUE instructor Francesco Cameli details his experience teaching his first “Fundies” class since lockdown! Welcome to the new normal.

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By Francesco Cameli 

Header Photo by Damon Loble.

The world has definitely become a little stranger as we all try to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and are forced to adapt our way of life to safeguard ourselves from infection. Needless to say, it has been a challenging time for diving instructors around the world, and certainly here in Southern California.

Whether you like reef structure, macro photography, kelp forests, or deep wrecks, Southern California offers some of the best diving in the world. However, it is often overlooked in favor of warmer waters and more exotic locations. It’s true that conditions here are at times challenging, but as the saying goes, “if you can dive in SoCal, you can dive anywhere.” As such, it has been fertile ground for divers seeking out GUE training in an effort to perfect their underwater skills. 

As we launched into 2020, diving conditions in SoCal were stunning. We were seeing 30 m/100 ft plus visibility days, and the new GUE community-inspired dive boat, Big Blue, had just been delivered and began conducting dive operations. Importantly, our four active local GUE instructors were busy with classes. Then the pandemic hit. In early March, the governor of California issued a stay-at-home order and all activity shut down. As a result, courses—and to a large extent local diving—were placed on hold. 

Francesco and students practicing mask skills. Photo by Sheldon Jones.

As of early July, we have resumed limited diving operations carefully following the recommendations from Divers Alert Network to insure our divers’ safety. We have also begun modified classes. In fact, as luck would have it, I just finished teaching my first Fundamentals class in this new COVID-19 world, and wanted to share my experience of what it was like.

The short answer is that it was not unlike many Fundamentals classes before it. While there were a couple of small changes that I think overall actually made for a better learning experience for my students, there were a few minor drawbacks.

Taking The Plunge

Because of the required social distancing, I experimented with working with the students remotely for all of the lectures and some of the land drills. At first, I was unsure as to how this was going to pan out, but it actually turned out great. You see, typically here in Los Angeles, because of the logistics of going diving, we tend to pre-load the class with all the academics in one marathon day consisting of Modules 1-6 followed by the swim test. That was traditionally how I had been doing it. Frequently though, you could see the students start to struggle with concentration after about four modules. So I would take a break and do the swim test but then, they would be tired from the swim test. Not so anymore! This last class, we scheduled three Zoom meetings, each lasting about two to three hours, where we could go through the modules at a leisurely pace. This allowed each student to meet in the comfort of their home and at a time that suited them.

As these were going so well, I then tried Valve drills, Basic 5, and SMB deployment with us all sitting in our rigs. I have to say, that seemed to be well received, too. I was able to focus easily on each student, and the picture quality meant it was really no different than if they had been standing before me in person. So far, so good! 

Now, because these meetings only took up the equivalent of one day of time, we were left with three days of diving (versus two, normally). The cool part is that we had ample time, thanks to our swift local boat Big Blue to still get three dives in per day. So instead of doing six dives, we did nine. We filled in the missing land drills on the boat, which—as it was travelling with COVID-19 load restrictions—still gave us plenty of room to social distance and work on the drills. 

Everyone of course was wearing a mask at all times and kept a bit more to themselves. The students benefited greatly from these extra dives as we could really focus and spend time on the subject matter that required more attention. I feel, after all, that my students benefit most from the time they get with me in the water, so the more the merrier. 

We were even able to conduct the swim test in the open ocean. The boat leant itself well to the task as 10 times around the boat rather neatly worked out to be 300 yards. As for the breath hold, we deployed 15 m/50 ft of current line with a diver holding the line taught while the students swam from the boat to the buoy.  



Getting Wet

So, what about the diving itself? Well, managing the students on the surface was easy enough. Keeping them 2 m/6 ft or so apart worked while we discussed dives and debriefed. Then once the regulators were in, we would get closer and descend as a team. Honestly, this was no great chore. 

The one slight hiccup I had not anticipated, however, came in the form of the S-Drill COVID-19 style. The donation itself went without an issue, and the switching to a necklace instead of the donated regulator was no problem at all. The full long hose deployment and swimming part were also somewhat unspectacular with the exception of the fact that you could see the cogs turning as the out of gas (OOG) student tried to decide on hose routing once a direction was picked. Because they were simply holding the donated regulator and were in fact breathing from their own necklace, they did not always have the regulator correctly orientated and therefore had to be reminded that the hose would normally be on the right side of their face. This of course is something we never actually think of when the regulator is in our mouths. The biggest confusion, in my opinion, came at the moment when it was time to clean up. 

Francesco with students in formation. Screen grab of a video by Angie Biggs.

What I noticed was that frequently the donating student would try to clean up too soon before the OOG student was back on their primary regulator. I can only assume that they were confused by seeing their team mate holding a regulator in their hand and not breathing from it, which would normally signify it was time for the donating diver to clean up. This small confusion was easy enough to clear up in the subsequent debrief, and the students managed just fine after that. This was a small price to pay, I feel, to ensure that our students remained safe and that we reduced as much as possible the risk of passing COVID-19 through regulator sharing. Just in case, we had disinfectant ready on the boat to re-sanitize a regulator that was unwittingly used not by its rightful owner, but the need never presented.

In conclusion, I think the differences are not so great that the class suffered in any way. As it went, in this case, both students earned a well-deserved tech pass and were rather chuffed (those Brits!) with how the class proceeded. I myself greatly enjoyed the online lecturing and the extra dives. I may well try to find a way to keep conducting fundamentals classes in this manner in the future to maximize water time and split up the modules for better assimilation and retention. 

Happy Diving everyone! 


Photo by Imad Farhat.

Born in France but hailing from Italy via England, Francesco’s passion for the ocean was ignited early on by the work of Jaques Cousteau, and Luc Besson’s film “The Big Blue.” Growing up in the seaside village of Portofino, Italy, Francesco spent just about every daylight hour of his summers freediving. In his 20s and 30s, he found himself locked in a recording studio in London or Los Angeles making records for the likes of Queen and Duran Duran as well as Korn, Stone Sour, Avatar, and others. Francesco rediscovered the ocean on a trip to Kona, which is where his scuba journey began in earnest. Since then, he has averaged over 200 dives a year cultivating his own skills. Once he found GUE, he worked his way through the curriculum and became a GUE instructor in 2019. That year, the passionate and exacting polymath was one of the busiest GUE instructors in Los Angeles, and is now working to become a Tech One instructor in 2020. Some say you can occasionally hear him singing to the fish.                                                                                                           


Big Blue was built by a GUE instructor with the GUE and tech diving community in mind. She’s got a big wide ladder, wide diver spaces to accommodate doubles, CCRs, comfy seating for long rides to far targets and speed. Big Blue is one of the fastest dive boats in the Los Angeles area. What’s more, it offers a tech savvy crew. Visit us at: www.bigbluediveboat.com or on FB!

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