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The Flexibility of Standard Operating Procedures

Instructor trainer Guy Shockey discusses the purpose, value, and yes, flexibility of standard operating procedures, or SOPs, in diving. Sound like an oxymoron? Shockey explains how SOPs can help offload some of our internal processing and situational awareness, so we can focus on the important part of the dive—having FUN!

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By Guy Shockey

Header Image by Derk Remmers

At first glance, the title reads like a bit of an oxymoron. How can a standard operating procedure (SOP)—which implies a ‘one size fits all’ solution to problem solving—also be flexible? How can flexible also be firm?

One of the things that initially attracted me to Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) was the presence of SOPs. For anyone with a military background, SOPs were our bread and butter. You can create a good SOP while you have the time to think and plan. You can put them into practice, refine them over time, and keep them in place until new or better information comes along to change them. 

For example, airline pilots have a binder full of SOPs for various contingencies. When something comes up, they turn to the correct page and find a list of actions to follow. Pilots understand that these SOPs represent the collective knowledge of many aviators and engineers that have come before them. Many of them have also been revised multiple times, codified, and then even revised after that. Some SOPs require commitment to memory because there may not be a lot of time, and pulling out a three-ring binder or flipping through your iPad to the correct page isn’t the appropriate action. In that case, then those same pilots practice these situations regularly in simulator training. 

One of the primary values of an SOP is that it frees up a lot of situational awareness information processing. You are able to match up “mental models” to the current situation and, rather than processing your information in small bite-sized pieces, you are able to process “chunks” of information that match patterns of something that you know or are familiar with. 

Let me create an analogy that may help make this clearer. If I were to give you a bowl of tomato sauce, some slices of pepperoni, some mushrooms, some cheese, and a piece of baked dough, you could eat them all one at a time and try to figure out what it was you were eating. Or, I can put all those ingredients on that same piece of dough, bake it, and you would instantly know that you were eating pizza. You don’t have to process all the ingredients one at a time. You already have an existing mental model that says “pizza.” We do this when we solve problems. We pattern-match and identify existing mental models all the time, and it’s actually the only way we can actually think as fast as we do. Many problems are actually solved with multiple mental models being applied together. 

Photo by Derk Remmers.

Having an SOP gives you the ability to solve problems more efficiently and effectively because you have a ready-made mental model or solution to a recognized problem. Think of every first aid course you have ever taken and the “ABCs” of first aid. SOPs are incredibly valuable in nearly every environment that includes potential risks. 

If an SOP is shared, it also allows diverse groups to work together. It is no surprise that SOPs from various militaries of the world are often similar, even if they are written in different languages. From personal experience, NATO countries can coordinate and execute complex military operations because they share common SOPs that, if not identical, are very similar and don’t require much adjusting to mesh together. Common expectations and goals can be shared toward a common purpose. 

When in time-sensitive environments, many of these SOPs and the corresponding mental models they help develop can be lifesaving. This doesn’t just apply to the military, but also to law enforcement, paramedics, firefighters, pilots, and any other profession that is often faced with time pressures in making critical decisions. 


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Do you share a common operational picture?

There is an interesting term often used in military circles called the “common operational picture” (COP). This is exactly what it sounds like, and is sometimes referred to as “a single source of truth.” Everyone involved in a decision-making cycle needs to be privy to the information that affects their decision. Sharing that information allows us to make informed decisions that often include SOPs. You could argue that we are creating a mental model that lets us apply another mental model!  

Alright, so how exactly does all this apply to diving and GUE diving in particular? I’m pretty sure that many of you have already connected many of the dots. 

In the GUE world, our divers create a COP at the beginning of the dive. We help reiterate this COP with our GUE EDGE pre-dive checklist, which is a great example of an SOP! We review the goals, team roles, our equipment, and the operational parameters of the dive, all in a standardized format that efficiently accommodates teammates from multiple different languages and cultures. I have performed GUE EDGEs in about 10 different languages and I only speak two!  The fact that we were doing this in a standardized fashion meant I could follow along and knew what they were talking about. 

As the dive plan complexity increases, so too does the COP become more complex. Some of our more ambitious exploration projects require even more time spent in planning than actual execution. But because there is a COP, coupled with SOPs (I know that’s a lot of acronyms), these projects usually go off without a hitch. 

Photo by Derk Remmers.

During the dive, there are multiple times that we have team-expected actions that are based on SOPs, and this contributes to and reinforces our COP. It is almost as if we are filling in a PDF form as we go along and confirming the various pieces of information that we need to complete the entire “form” or plan. 

In the case of emergencies, we have ready-to-implement SOPs for just about any equipment malfunction from valve failures to losing your mask. We practice these SOPs so that, in real time, we can employ them in a timely fashion and resolve the problem. These SOPs are just like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this article and were developed over time and refined with successive reviews and after-action analyses. Finally, they have been codified, and you can now find them in our GUE SOP manual! You will also notice that this manual is of a particular “version,” which tells you that the SOP is constantly being fine-tuned in a dynamic process.

How Can An SOP Be Flexible?

In reality, it isn’t the actual SOP that is flexible, but it is the degree of flexibility it provides to the dive plan itself that is of value. Let me give you an example from the technical diving world. 

Imagine the team is diving on a wreck and experiences a delay on the bottom for whatever reason. It could be that it was done on purpose (discovery of pirate gold!) or maybe it was imposed upon the team as a result of any number of problems, like dealing with an equipment problem or an entanglement, for example. The dive is longer, the decompression obligation is now going to be longer, and there are some decisions to be made. 

Having an SOP here can help provide a solution to the problem with no mess and no fuss. The divers dig into the bag of tricks they learned in GUE technical training, and because of their common operational picture and team-expected actions, they apply the SOP they practice regularly and modify their decompression schedule to suit the new bottom time. What could have been an exciting moment for many divers turns into just another discussion point for their debrief after the dive!

Photo by Alexandra Graziano.

So, while SOPs are usually not flexible in and of themselves, they allow for a great deal of flexibility while diving by freeing up mental processing power and providing ready-made and practiced solutions to potential problems. 

GUE SOPs presuppose the presence of personal diving skills at a high level, and assume that factors such as good buoyancy and trim are second nature. In fact, many of the SOPs state the first step in resolving a problem as “stabilize” or “stop” in all three dimensions. GUE divers see that, as the diving gets more complex, the SOPs also get more complex. For a new GUE Fundamentals diver, demonstrating some of the SOPs required to pass muster as a Tech 2 or CCR 2 diver look more akin to channeling “the force” than anything else. However, like most things, perfect practice produces perfect performance, and so it’s just a matter of putting in the repetitions. 

For me, diving has never been the end but the means to the end. Anything I can do to make those means take up less mental and physical horsepower means that I can devote more of the same to the end goal. And at the end of the day, I am really all about that pirate gold!

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Note that GUE members or divers taking a GUE course receive access to GUE’s 30-page manual, Standard Operating Procedures.


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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Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

Known for his deep air diving exploits back in the day, 86-year-old Hal Watts, aka “Mr. Scuba,” is one of the pioneers of early scuba and credited with coining the motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan.” He founded the Professional Scuba Instructors Association International (PSAI) in 1962, which eventually embraced tech diving, but never relinquished its deep air “Narcosis Management” training. Italian explorer and instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini caught up with Watts and teased out a few stories from the training graybeard.

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Interview by Andrea Murdock Alpini 
English text by Vincenza Croce

Hal Watts, Terrence Tysall, and Bill Stone in March of 1993.  This was the last stop in the U.S. for a test dive of the Cis-Lunar Mk-4 rebreather prior to Stone’s San Agustin expedition (1994) for its first real sump dive.

“Plan your dive, dive your plan,” is a common refrain in diving, but it’s easy to forget the meaning of this phrase has changed over time.

The underwater explorers of the early days learned to plan their dives with watches, depth gauges, and US Navy tables. Back then, decompression tables were the Bible for divers—something miraculous, halfway between alchemy and physiology. Those trail-blazing divers defined what it meant to “plan” a dive.

But, at the time, the term “technical diving” did not exist; divers breathed air on the bottom as well as during decompression. Only after many years was oxygen added, followed by the famous jump into the hyperbaric chamber.  

Later came new innovations after a few decades of experiments: hyperoxygenated binary mixtures, the NOAA tables, Heli-air (i.e. the addition of helium in tanks loaded with air), the change in the speed of ascent, new molecules to be studied, new physiological and narcotic effects, and their consequent impacts on humans and their psyches.

In a very short time, diving traditions underwent a metamorphosis. The spool and the coral tank became a proper reel, the ascent bin and the plastic bag disappeared in favor of the buoyancy control device (BCD), the surface marker buoy appeared—and then, even later on, wrists were adorned with underwater computers instead of decompression slates.

Divers later renewed and revolutionized a niche discipline, transforming it into a sporting phenomenon and a vocation. Faced with imminent change, there is often nothing that can be done when an anomalous wave arrives; you cannot stop its irresistible force with the wave of a hand. And thus was the American revolution of underwater technique, where the means of exploration—read mixed gas and scooters—have become the end.

The self-proclaimed originator of the “plan your dive, dive your plan” motto was 86-year old Hal Watts, the founder of American didactic Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI) and a diving pioneer who once held the Guinness Book of World records for deep diving. Though the use of trimix grew in popularity, Hal continued to believe in deep air, in the ancient technique of coral fishermen. He supported wreck and cave diving—with decompressive mixtures and new configurations through PSAI; but, above all, he believed (and continues to believe) that deep air, if properly practiced, is a discipline with unique logistics, hidden dangers, and irresistible charms that can take you to a parallel world.

Hal Watts speaking at aquaCORPS tek.93 Conference

First of all, Hal, what was the dive that changed your way of seeing scuba diving? I mean, a dive that was like an epiphany, a dive which changed your point of view on a technical matter?

Hal Watts: Wow, you sure are really trying to test my old man memory. Now I’ll have to review some of my old logbook entries. 

The first scuba dive that really got my attention as to just how serious and dangerous scuba diving can be was on December 2, 1962. I was diving with Bob Brown, co-owner of Florida State Skindiving School in Orlando, Florida. I was a member of a dive club in Orlando known as Orlando Sport Diving Club. Bob and I had heard of a sinkhole in Ocala known locally as Zuber Sink as well as Blue Sink. Years later, I later leased the property and renamed it as Hal Watts’s 40 Fathom Grotto, and I eventually purchased the Grotto in mid-1979.

We had never talked to anyone about the sinkhole; therefore, we had no idea about the visibility or the depth. Up to this point, I had constructed my favorite BCD, using a large white Clorox plastic jug, which we tied to our twin tank system. We put air into the BCD from our “Safe Second Stage” mouthpieces. 

Bob and I tied our safety line to a tree on the bank of the sink and reviewed our dive plan. I am reminded of the motto I came up with, many moons ago—Plan your dive, dive your plan. 

We all know that motto. I didn’t realize that it was you who coined it.

It was back in the 1960s when I was writing course manuals for NASDS [National Association of Scuba Diving Schools] and opened up my Mr. Scuba dive shop.

Mr. Scuba’s Magic Bus!

But back to the dive at Zuber. I’ve failed to mention the fact that neither of us had been doing any dives below 30 m/100 ft. We followed the cave line down slowly, not paying enough attention to our depth. Before we realized it, we had hit the bottom, stirred it up, and had no clear water.

Lucky for us, I kept the cave diving reel in my hand, and Bob kept his hand on the line. I couldn’t see; however, I could feel Bob’s hand, squeeze his fingers tight on the line, grab his thumb, and give it the “thumbs up” signal. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were both able to use our NASDS safe second stages and add air into the Clorox “BCDs.” We were actually fated to begin an uncontrolled, too-rapid ascent. All of a sudden, we hit an overhead wall, which stopped our ascent at a depth of 9 m/30 ft. 

We looked at each other, and gave the OK hand signal. While decompressing, following the old Scubapro SOS mechanical computer, I started to pull up the loose line until the dive reel appeared. Wow, we sure had an awful lot of loose line floating around us. Were we extremely lucky? Of course, we were. Our problem was that we never planned our dive, and consequently, were unable to dive a plan.

After that dive, I worked with Scuba Pro and Sportsways to create the “Octopus,” or “safe second.” A while later, the octopus appeared for the first time in Scuba Pro catalogs. I was also the first to add a pressure gauge along with the Octopus.

Hal Watts set the world deep air record to 120m/390 ft in 1967

Ah yes, the “Safe Second.” That’s what NASDS called backup second stages, right? Sheck Exley (1949-1994), the legendary cave explorer with whom you were friends, was also credited with fitting a redundant second stage reg with a necklace. I want to ask you more about Exley, but first, I want to know: What are the best wrecks you ever dived?

This is really very hard to answer. I’ll have to list four, in the order that I dived them: the USS Monitor, Andrea Doria, Japanese wrecks located in Truk Lagoon, and the Lusitania in Ireland.

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The most important would have to be the USS Monitor, a submarine used during the Civil War. A group of well-known USA divers applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to dive the Monitor, as she was located in protected waters. In addition to myself, the group consisted of: Gary Gentile, attorney Peter Hess, and several other well-known expert divers. At first, NOAA refused. Then, Peter Hess filed proper papers asking that we get the NOAA permit. To that end, we presented my Deep Air training material to the concerned NOAA group. I appeared as an expert witness and provided NOAA staff and their legal representatives with my internationally accepted training material and my record of training several world record deep air divers. Our deep air training has been accepted worldwide with zero diving deaths. After that, we received the permit. 

Other than the Monitor, my favorite deep wreck dive would be the Lusitania, which is a very personal and proud story for me. The main reason is because venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owned the diving rights to the Lucey at the time. Gregg had contacted me requesting that I train him on PSAI Narcosis Management Level V, on air—which is 73 m/240 ft—and then train him on trimix so he and I could dive to 91 m/300 ft on the Lusitania lying off the coast of Ireland. 

When word got out that I had enrolled Gregg in my Narcosis Management Course, a well-known international course director (a personal friend of mine) called and told me, “Hal, do not teach Gregg deep diving.” 

PSAI’s ad in aquaCORPS Journal circa 1994 offering deep air training.

He told me that he had been training Gregg at his facility, and that he was a “train wreck.” “He is from a very well-off family in Texas, and if you cause him any injuries, you will be sued and put out of business,” my friend said. Well, guess what? Gregg completed the 240 Level V Deep Air course, then our PSAI Trimix course. My wife, Jan Watts, Gregg, and I went to Ireland to dive the Lusitania. He and I made an awesome 91 m/300 ft trimix dive to the deck.

Diving on the Andrea Doria with Tom Mount, Peter Hess, and several great wreck divers was also an awesome dive. Last but not least was a great trip to Truk to dive on some of the Japanese wrecks.

Please tell us about Sheck.  What was your relationship with him like?

Sheck and I became friends and made several dives together, and one of my favorites happened when Sheck, his Mary Ellen, my wife Jan, and I were diving at 40 Fathoms. Sheck wanted to practice gas switches during descents. Sheck was practicing, getting ready for a planned very deep dive (I think in Mexico with Jim Bowden). The four of us swam to the east side of The Grotto, slowly following the wall during our controlled descent, watching Sheck practice gas switching. 

Sheck Exley and Hal Watts at a NSS-CDS conference

After reaching our planned depth of 73 m/240 ft, we began our controlled ascent up to our first planned deco stop. During our last deco stop on our 4.5 m/15 ft platforms, I noticed that Sheck had a funny look on his face and was messing with his drysuit between his legs. I remembered then that he had told me that he had an attachment installed in the drysuit that would allow him to pee underwater. He was clearly in a bit of discomfort and Mary Ellen, Jan and I just floated nearby and watched.

I’ve heard that Sheck later used diapers, or just cut it loose in one of his old neoprene drysuits on his big dives, so evidently he didn’t get that early p-valve to work. What about your friendship and job collaboration with Gary Taylor, your brother-in-arms and a co-owner of PSAI?

Andrea, get comfortable, since this question will take some time to properly answer.

I first met Gary in Miami, which is where we became friends when I was staying in his home and taking Tom Mount’s nitrox course.  I have a photo of Tom, Gary, and me gas blending on the floor of Tom’s garage. During the course, Tom was still using his worn-out hand written paper flip charts as his notes.

Gary was impressed with my deep air program and offered to put together an updated slideshow presentation for me to teach with. PSAI still uses an updated version of this system to date. Gary stayed with Tom until Tom thought he had sold IANTD [International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers] to another individual. After that sale came about, Gary contacted me wanting to get more involved with PSAI. Being smarter than folks thought I was, I jumped at the chance to have Gary on the PSAI Team. Tom’s deal fell through, but Gary was totally involved with PSAI, and now is a partner and president of our agency. Thanks to Gary and Tom. 

Many, many years ago I was still taking some type of classes—I think regarding mixed gasses, maybe with Rebreathers—at Tom’s house. In fact, I was one of Tom’s instructors who did the final proofreading of one of Kevin Gurr’s manuals. Too far back to recall much about this mixed gas stuff—remember my reputation for being a deep air diver.

Tom Mount and Gary Taylor mixing up some trimix in the garage.

Speaking of the people with whom you’ve dived, was the aim of The Forty Fathom Scubapros Club?

Before I invested in a sinkhole in the Ocala, Florida, area—which was locally referred to as Blue Sink or Zuber Sink, and is now referred to as 40 Fathom Grotto—several diving buddies whom I had dived with and trained for extreme deep air diving—as well as cave exploring—got together and planned to dive The Grotto at least one Friday night per month. Within a short period of time, several other buddies joined our group, which eventually became known as The 40 Fathom Scubapro’s dive club. Each diver had to meet my requirements of training. 

Forty Fathom Grotto aka Zuber Sink
An early Sheck Exley mix course at Forty Fathom Grotto
An Eric Hutcheson drawing of Forty Fathom Grotto

Eventually, our group set specific personal requirements—being a good person, supporting our club safety rules, and making at least one 40 Fathom Grotto dive per month. We set a limit of 14 or 15 members. Three 40 Fathom members eventually set World Records for deep air: I was one, A. J. Muns, and Herb Johnson set ocean records, and later I set the air depth record for cave diving. Naturally, as time passed and we got older, our membership got smaller. It is notable that none of our club members have died during any scuba dive.

Finally, what led you to create the iconic motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan?” 

I used to be a private pilot, and we used to say, “Plan your flight, fly your plan.” This was back in probably 1961 when I had just started diving and there were so many instances where all the other divers would get in the water without saying anything. I’ve seen so many incidents and fatalities that could have been avoided through proper planning.

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Dive Deeper

ScubaGuru: LXD 029 : Hal Watts – Record Deep Diver & Technical Diving Pioneer

Netdoc: Netdoc chats with Mr Scuba, Hal Watts

InDEPTH: The First Helium-based Mix Dives Conducted by Pre-Tech Explorers (1967-1988) by Chris Werner

Alert Diver.Eu: Rapture of the Tech: Depth, Narcosis and Training Agencies

Professional Scuba Association International: PSAI History


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, the new one is on the way, out on fall 2022. 

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