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The Importance Of Safety Stops In Scuba Diving

Despite safety stops sometimes feeling like an unnecessary pause during an amazing dive, making a 3-5 minute stop at 15-20 feet is one of the most important safety practices in scuba diving to prevent decompression sickness.

You’ve just had an incredible dive, exploring a vibrant reef or sunken shipwreck, and you’re feeling fantastic – but don’t be so quick to race up to the surface. Slowing your ascent with a safety stop is an absolutely vital step that can quite literally save your life. In this article, I’ll cover the crucial reasons why every diver, no matter their experience level, should integrate safety stops into every single dive.

What is a Safety Stop?

A safety stop is a pause instituted at a depth of around 30-35 feet during your controlled ascent from a dive. Its purpose is to allow any excess nitrogen that has built up in your body’s tissues to slowly release in the form of gas bubbles at high pressure.

Failing to conduct a safety stop during a dive to allow this controlled release of inert gases can lead to decompression sickness (DCS), often referred to as “the bends” – a potentially life-threatening condition caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in the body.

Why Performing Safety Stops is a good practice Even at shallower depths?

Even if your dive computer says you can ascend directly to the surface without any decompression stops required, it’s still good practice to make a safety stop as it sets a precedent in case you decide to pursue deep diving in the future.

Besides, dive computers and decompression tables make certain assumptions and projections about your body’s nitrogen absorption rate, but every diver is different. Why gamble your health and safety on those assumptions when performing a safety stop is such an easy step? Better be safe than sorry.

When to Perform a Safety Stop?

After Every Dive Over 30 Feet (~10 metres)

For any dive where you exceed depths of around 30 feet, a safety stop is recommended. The exact depths and durations can vary, but a typical guideline is to make a 3-5 minute stop at a depth of 30-35 feet during ascent. Adjust the depths and times accordingly based on the specific profile of that particular dive – deeper or longer dives may warrant a deeper or longer safety stop.

Even If You “Missed” the Stop Initially

Missed making the safety stop on your initial ascent from the dive? It’s better late than never – make the stop even if you’ve already started ascending past the recommended stop depth. While not ideal, it’s still beneficial to pause and release gas compared to a direct shot to the surface.

The right way to conduct a Safety Stop

While safety stops are a relatively simple process, there are some key steps to follow to make sure you are performing them correctly and maximizing their effectiveness. Here is a guide on the proper technique:

1. Plan Your Stop

Never wait until you’re ascending to think about your safety stop. As part of your initial dive planning, determine what stop depth and duration you’ll need based on the profile of that particular dive. Most dives over 60 feet or so warrant a 3-5 minute stop at 15-20 feet.

2. Monitor Your Depths and Time

As you’re nearing the end of your dive’s bottom time, keep a very close eye on your depth, bottom time, and remaining air supply. You’ll need enough tank reserves to comfortably make the safety stop. I aim to have at least 500 psi / 35 bar when beginning my ascent.

3. Begin a Slow Ascent

When it’s time to start ascending, do so at a controlled rate of around 30 feet per minute. Use your buoyancy device to establish a gentle upward trajectory. Avoid holding your breath during the ascent, which could lead to air expansion injuries.

4. Level Off at Stop Depth

Once you hit the 15-20 foot depth range, level off and get neutrally buoyant. Use a wristwatch or dive computer to time how long you’ll need to hold this stop for, usually 3-5 minutes minimum. Signal to your buddy that you’re at your safety stop depth.

5. Breathe Slowly and Deeply

During your stop, focus on relaxed, deep breathing patterns to maximize gas exchange and offloading. I like to exhale fully and take nice deep inhales during this period. Staying neutrally buoyant takes concentration and the best way to find rhythm is to concentrate on the sounds of bubbles.

6. Fin and Adjust Buoyancy

If you start drifting up or sinking down, correct with your fins and BCD inflator to stay level at the stop depth. Use hand signals to communicate any buoyancy issues with your dive buddy.

7. Repeat if Needed

For very deep or long dives, you may need to perform a second stop around 10 feet for 1-2 minutes after completing the deeper stop. Follow the same process again.

8. Terminal Ascent to Surface

Once you’ve completed the full safety stop, you can continue a controlled ascent all the way up to the surface at 30 feet per minute or so. Perform a short safety stop in the final 10-15 feet as well if desired.

When You May Skip the Safety Stop

While safety stops should be the standard practice on virtually every dive, there are a few rare exceptions where you may choose to skip it:

  • In extremely cold water temperatures, ascending slowly but skipping the stop may be advisable to prevent issues like hypothermia from setting in.
  • For very shallow dives where you never exceeded 30 feet, a stop likely isn’t necessary since at that depth negligible nitrogen is absorbed in your bloodstream.
  • On repetitive nitrox dives with very short surface intervals, extended safety stops may disrupt your schedule unnecessarily.

However, these exceptions should be relatively rare for most recreational divers. When in doubt, make the stop – it’s the more conservative safety play.

Set the Example for New Divers

As a more experienced diver, it’s important to promote good safety habits with those you dive with. Making the safety stop can feel tedious, especially when you have time constraints. But I make it a point to always make the stop as a force of habit, with no exceptions. This sets the right example for newer divers and builds the “safety stops are mandatory” mentality into the diving culture.

From a personal perspective, I treat safety stops as a non-negotiable part of every dive, with no exceptions. I’ve seen far too many examples of experienced divers who skipped “just one stop” and ended up suffering awful cases of the bends. It’s just not worth the risk when the solution is so simple. So take those few extra minutes, enjoy a quiet safety stop hanging neutrally suspended underwater, and know that you’ve stacked the odds of a safe ascent firmly in your favor. Your future self will thank you.

William Dupre

William Dupre

Retired Master Diver with 20+ years of experience and 2100+ logged dives. Presently, spending my time blogging about Diving and checking off locations one by one from my bucket list of dive destinations.

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