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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I Trained “Doc Deep”
Numerous divers have died trying to break scuba depth records over the years, and the losses continue. Their deaths not only impact their families, friends and their support teams, but the diving community as a whole, as technical diving instructor Jon Kieren knows first hand. He was Guy Garman’s aka “Doc Deep,” first tech instructor and friend, who ultimately tried to dissuade Doc from attempting his 2015 dive to 365m/1198 ft, which proved fatal. Here is his story.
by Jon Kieren
As I look back at my career so far, there are plenty of things I wish had done differently, students I know I should not have passed, and divers I continue to worry about. It’s all a part of building experience as an instructor, but there’s one that will haunt me forever.
Almost eight years ago, I got a text message that I knew was inevitable. I had been having nightmares about it for years, including just the night before. I had prepared myself the best I could, but it’s still one of the worst things a dive instructor can experience.
“Guy didn’t come back”
For several years prior, I fought to stop the monster I believed I helped create. A constant knot of regret, fear, and guilt lived in the pit of my stomach. When that text finally came, sad as it was, I knew I would no longer have to wait anxiously for the foreseeable bad news.
Throughout my career as a technical instructor, the topic of depth records and Guy Garman’s name has come up frequently. It’s always been a tough discussion for me to navigate. Wanting so badly to defend the man who was like family to me, but too embarrassed and guilt-ridden to discuss it. I bit my tongue as armchair quarterbacks and keyboard divers ranted about how stupid he and his whole team were with little to no knowledge about him as a person.
Thankfully, after a few years, those discussions slowed down a bit, and I thought the days of depth records were finally gone. But, with recent record attempts reigniting the same discussions, I thought it might be time to finally share what I know about Doc Deep and how he came to perish at the end of that line 365 m/1200 ft below the surface.
Like anyone, Guy had his flaws. However, most of them were due to his incessant need to be the best at whatever he was doing at that moment. He led a truly extraordinary and passionate life, which ended as extraordinarily as it began.
He grew up in the Amazon jungles of Peru with the Aguaruna natives where he was nicknamed “Hummingbird” because of his constant buzzing about and his need to be involved in and understand everything. I remember listening to his stories of hunting crocodiles as a young boy with his native brothers, and his pet jaguar that would walk him to school and guard his bedroom at night. In my eyes he was truly a Renaissance man—marathon runner, alpine climber, and yet a physician in osteoplasty and head, neck and facial plastic surgeon.
Guy was certainly no stranger to hard work, sacrifice, danger, or pain. As a young man, I often turned for support and advice to this truly remarkable person who became one of my dearest friends. It’s unfortunate that most of what seems to be remembered about him is his lack of diving experience and fatally flawed dedication to accomplishing something he believed was important.
I’ll never defend his pursuit. In fact, I furiously opposed it for years, eventually needing to sever my relationship with him and the technical diving community in St. Croix, USVI, that I had built with such optimism and pride. However, I do believe it’s important to share what I know about how his fateful dive came to be so we can openly discuss the failures of the system that created this “monster” and try to put an end to these foolish pursuits.
One of the biggest criticisms (rightfully) was his lack of experience. But, to explain how he got where he was with so little experience, it’s important to understand the culture he grew up in. And this is where the weight of guilt sits heavily on my shoulders.
The Lure of Technical Diving
I found my passion for technical diving out of boredom, to be honest. Swimming for several years along the shallow reefs on top of the dramatic walls of St. Croix as an open water instructor, I was getting pretty burned out from the repetitive lifestyle and from seeing the same fish every day. So, as many 25-year-olds do when they’re bored, I started to do some pretty stupid stuff, such as single tank bounce dives on air to 75 m/250 ft … until I almost died.
After that, I decided to get the fastest and cheapest technical training I could. I booked a flight to Honduras, and a few weeks later I was a hotshot technical diver. Heading back to St. Croix with no teammates, I did even more stupid stuff. At least this time I had doubles and deco gas with me, but I quickly realized I needed some teammates and maybe a squirt or two of helium. So back to Honduras I went, and another few weeks later, I was a trimix instructor. With less than a year of technical diving experience and full support from my instructor trainer, and within training agency standards, I went to 90 m/300 ft for the third time ever with students in tow. Because the agency signed off on my instructor ratings, I had no reason to believe I didn’t have the experience or know-how to be doing what I was doing. They said I could, so I had a blind and naive confidence that what I was doing was OK.
Doc Deep had just moved to St. Croix and started diving when I was getting the tech community going. Just after finishing his advanced open water course, he was wandering around our shop checking our gear when he saw the banner on the wall advertising us as a technical training facility. When he asked the shop staff about it, they gave him my number and we set up a time to chat.
Now, keep in mind, I was like 26 years old and thought I knew everything there was to know about diving. A beast inside me had awoken, and I felt like I NEEDED to go as deep as possible as much as possible. Then Dr. Guy Garman pulled up in his Mercedes to talk about technical training.
Guy seemed incredibly sharp, and excited about technical diving. Plus, money seemed to be no object. So, I signed him up for the third round of tech courses that I had ever taught. I made sure he met all of the minimum prerequisites and course requirements and, within a few weeks, he was a trimix diver. When we started talking about depth records, Nuno Gomes held the record at the time and as an invincible 26-year-old, I thought, “If he can do it, why can’t we?”
We dove a lot, and I taught a bunch of courses trying to build a team of local divers to help us explore deeper and deeper down the walls of our small Caribbean island. Guy supplied the helium. My partner at the time was my primary teammate, and we were then doing dives in the 120 m/400 ft range, with Guy acting as a support diver (and financier) for most of it. But after a bit, I could sense his frustration growing. It was clear he was not happy in a supporting role, and his ego was screaming that HE needed to be the one to dive the deepest.
I clearly remember one boat ride out for some 120 m/400 ft+ dive where he was acting like a grump. As I was about to descend, I told him not to worry, that he’d be next, and he shot me a look that made me realize our relationship was no longer an equitable one. That dive went OK, but it told me that I needed to think about the amount of resources involved, as well as the risk to us and the support divers. Perhaps it wasn’t worth it just to see a big number on a dive computer. After some soul searching, my dive partner and I agreed that we needed to change the way we pursued technical and deep diving, and leave the pursuit of “depth just because” behind us. Guy didn’t like that.
Over the next few months, we began focusing on longer duration dives at shallower depths as opposed to uber deep dives, and my partner and I built up some experience on our new rebreathers. Guy, however, distanced himself from us and started talking about how he wanted to be the deepest diver with our other teammates.
Around this time, I got offered a job in South Florida that I just couldn’t refuse, so I took it. I left a couple of months later. Before I went, I tried to have conversations with him and our other friends on the island about how I thought his pursuits were reckless with almost nothing to gain. But in the end, I just had to leave it at that and try to put it out of my mind as I created both physical and emotional distance from the whole situation.
The Drive For Depth
Over the next year, a couple of new tech instructors arrived on the island filling the void I had left. Eager to make a name for themselves, they quickly became wrapped up in Guy’s pursuits. I think this is where things really began to take a turn for the worse. The teammates who still remained on the island were very close with Guy, but they were reluctant to support him. However, with the newcomers’ encouragement, Guy continued to aggressively drive forward, earning the nickname “Doc Deep”.
They started going deep. Really deep: 152 m/500 ft, 183 m/600 ft, 244 m/800 ft. On one 600 ft+ dive, one of the new guys got severely bent. Even so, everyone pushed forward, many were convinced Guy was the one to break Nuno’s record. In 2014, Ahmed Gabr reportedly reached a depth of 332 m/1090 ft, and Guy decided to aim for 365 m/1200 ft.
I couldn’t ignore what was happening anymore when I started seeing the social media posts about their plans and hearing the same from the team at events like DEMA and TekDiveUSA. I pleaded with my friends to not support him, knowing full well what would happen if they continued. They insisted if they didn’t help him, he would do it alone. I believed them, and understood the position they were in. So, I implored the training agencies to publicly condemn these pursuits of irresponsible and dangerous record breaking attempts for their own sake, and to warn the professionals involved, but they wouldn’t take a position.
The momentum seemed to be unstoppable at this point; this thing was going to happen no matter what. I said “goodbye” to Guy after a dinner we shared at TekDiveUSA in 2014, with me knowing it would likely be for the last time.
Week after week, the knot in my stomach grew, and then the day came that I had been dreading.
Of course, the news spread quickly through the diving community, bringing extremely harsh criticism to all of those involved in the form of articles, blog posts, and forum rants. It was hard to keep my mouth shut, but I just couldn’t get involved. I was sad, angry, and became quite depressed. Even though, rationally, I couldn’t see how I could have done anything differently, I felt guilty. I wasn’t alone. Guy’s close friends and family were deeply affected. Most stopped technical diving or diving altogether. One drowned himself in rum and is still fighting to come back.
My relationship with these people was fractured. I couldn’t help but be angry even though I knew they were only trying to do the best they could to keep him alive. Others who advertised themselves as deep support specialists continued to offer services to help divers achieve extreme depths. As could have been predicted, accidents happened and people got hurt, but that didn’t seem to stop them. Not until very recently, has the frenetic pursuit of deep water record breaking seemed to slow a bit.
So what went wrong on the dive? It wasn’t anything significant, because it doesn’t take a lot at 365 m/1200 ft. Guy’s family has GoPro footage, but the details haven’t been released to the public, and it isn’t my place to do so. All I can say is that successfully diving that deep—and living to tell about it—is more a matter of luck than skill. If anything goes wrong, it’s almost impossible to recover from; and if someone does succeed, I believe it’s simply because it wasn’t their day to go. What do we learn from these stunts? Nothing. We already know what it takes to put a diver that deep, it’s just not with scuba.
In Mexico, I questioned a recent depth world record team who asked, “What did we learn?” In their formal presentation, they claimed their reason for not using rebreathers or habitats was that the team didn’t have the knowledge or experience to do so, and gaining that experience would be too expensive and time consuming. They used very low helium content mixes trying to avoid HPNS, but suffered severe narcosis and CO2 issues, making it impossible to manage an entanglement at depth and very nearly resulting in an uncontrolled ascent from an absurd depth that was only stopped by sheer luck. They responded to my “What did we learn” comment by stating that, in the future, they might use more helium and rebreathers. These are all things the vast majority of the technical diving community have understood for over a decade, but they just never thought to ask people who were actively doing extremely big dives almost every weekend.
I recognized a clear similarity in the two teams, a strong reluctance to seek or accept advice from those who were far more knowledgeable and experienced than they. Almost like they thought if they did it all themselves from scratch, that they would find some magic trick nobody had thought of. Or maybe they were just trying to avoid being told that what they were doing was reckless. Either way, one team got lucky, the other did not.
So where do we go from here, knowing that these reckless boundary pushing personalities will always exist? I think we have to encourage training agencies to publicly speak out against depth records and petition Guinness to stop acknowledging them. Most importantly, I think we need to raise the minimum standards for instructors so that only those with a significant amount of real-world dive experience are guiding new technical divers into the world of deep diving, and are doing so responsibly. I absolutely should not have been qualified to teach Guy Garman technical diving. I was at the absolute peak of the Dunning-Kruger effect when we began our relationship, as was he when that fateful dive took place.
As instructors and industry leaders, we need to watch and listen for clues in our students that their motivation might have more to do with record breaking and ego than competent diving and worthwhile exploration, and set them right when and where we can. This is a skill that instructors need to develop. I was too young and too excited about tech diving to see the signs at the time, and suffered the ultimate consequence.
However since working with Guy, I’ve refused to issue certifications, withdrawn students from classes, and severed working and personal relationships when I see individuals unwilling to accept that the limits apply to everyone. It’s a tough discussion to make, but as instructors we need to try to guide students in a responsible way.
This doesn’t mean we need to condemn pushing the limits. Most of us are here because we want to discover what we are really capable of. But mentoring divers to show them what limits can reasonably be pushed, and which ones (like depth records) simply cannot, is important.
Pushing a boundary should really only be tolerated if there is something to learn or discover, in other words, if it’s a risk worth taking. Otherwise we’re just apes beating our chests.
Guy left a huge hole in my heart when that text came in, but I try to use it as a reminder of the impact I have on aspiring divers and the importance of reinforcing a conservative approach to technical and cave diving. While this is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written, I think it’s important that we speak openly about these types of events so others can learn from them.
See Companion Story: The Risk and Management of Record Chasing by Neal Pollock PhD
Wikipedia: Guy Garman
Undercurrent: A Fatal Attempt at a World Record (2015)
Men’s Journal: Prominent scuba diver presumed dead after world-record attempt off St. Croix by Pete Thomas
Scuba Tech Philippines: Guy Garman: World Depth Record Fatality by Andy Davis
Scubaboard: Doc Deep dies during dive.
Others stories by Jon Kieren:
InDEPTH: SUMP POTION #9 by Jon Kieren
InDEPTH: Grokking The FATHOM CCR: My Dive into the Nuts & Bolts with the Inventor by Jon Kieren
Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his 13-year career to improving dive training. As an active TDI/IANTD/NSS-CDS and GUE Instructor and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep, extended range cave dives, as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favorite places to share with the world.