Divers, Cover Yourselves!

by B. N. Sullivan

diverFor the past few months, virtually all of our posts here on The Right Blue have focused on interesting species of marine life we have come to know. Feedback on those articles has been positive: our readers seem to enjoy learning about creatures that inhabit the sea. But we also have been nudged by a few readers to get back to writing about diving -- as in, "Enough with the critters, already. Get back to diving stories!"

Well, okay then. How about some tips for divers?

Over the course of a few decades of diving, we have learned a number of useful things that, for one reason or another, are not taught to divers in formal training courses. The first is a simple rule that usually does not occur to divers until after they have had a bad experience or two. Cover yourselves!

In colder water, divers must cover themselves in drysuits or heavy wetsuits in order to retain body heat. But we believe that divers should be completely covered even when diving in warm tropical locations. These days, there are plenty of lightweight dive suits designed specifically for use in warmer waters.

We see many, many divers here in Hawaii -- mostly (but not only) tourists -- who seem to think that because they are in the tropics, they should just wear a shortie suit. We see them jumping into the water with their arms and legs exposed. Worse yet, some wear no dive suit at all, donning their dive equipment right over their bikinis. Guess what happens? Sooner or later, they get wounded!

It is very easy to brush against something -- a rock, a coral head -- even when you are trying to be careful not to touch anything. Sometimes it happens because the diver is not paying attention. Other times there is a little surge, just at the wrong moment. In any case, sooner or later some part of your exposed anatomy will collide, however briefly, with something in the water, and you will get cut or scraped.

In addition to those kinds of bumps and scrapes, it happens that there are many critters in the water that can bite or sting. Some are very tiny -- stinging plankton so small that you cannot see them in the water column -- so you cannot take evasive actions. Other are big enough to spot -- jellyfish come to mind -- but even then, you run a risk of being stung. Just because you see the critters doesn't mean you can count on completely avoiding contact.

marine lifeThe best way to prevent many of these inadvertent stings and scrapes is to wear a full suit that covers you from your wrists to your ankles. Wear boots or neoprene booties inside your fins. And wear gloves.

Now, we know that many dive operators discourage or even prohibit divers from wearing gloves. We also know the reason for that: they don't want to encourage divers to pick things up or handle them, and they figure if the divers are not wearing gloves, they may be less inclined to touch things.

Fair enough, but short-sighted. There are just too many situations where the protection afforded the diver by gloves outweighs the momentary protection of the reef and its critters afforded by bare-handed divers.

We think of it like this: we're grown-ups. We know we shouldn't recklessly handle things that dwell underwater. We know that touching corals (and many other things) can damage them. We promise we won't do that -- not because our hands are bare, but because we know better.

At the same time, what happens if we are shore diving and need to grab onto rocks at our exit point? We can very easily get cuts and scrapes on our hands, that's what.

If we are diving from a boat, what happens when we need to hang onto a mooring line or an anchor chain in order to remain stationary for our safety stop? Lines and chains that have been in the water for awhile are certain to be covered with algae, hydroids, and even teeny-tiny crustaceans. If you don't believe me, just have a look at the second photo on this page -- a 1:1 macro shot of an actual mooring line, totally encrusted with an entire ecosystem of its own! Hanging onto such a line is going to disrupt some of those things anyway, regardless of whether your hands are bare or gloved. But hanging on with a bare hand will really hurt. Said teeny-tiny crustaceans will cut your hand like little razors, and if you happen to grab onto a hydroid, you will know it, believe me. They sting like a son-of-a-gun -- and you will never forget the experience!

So then, even if you don't want to wear gloves for the entire dive, do carry a pair in your pocket at all times, just in case you have to hold or grab onto something for your own safety.

Dive like grown-ups. Cover yourselves completely to protect yourselves from scrapes and stings; but at the same time, do keep in mind that being covered (and thus protected) does not excuse you from responsibility for avoiding physical contact with the reef and the creatures that call it home.


  1. Hmmm, something to think about. I run with shorty and gloves. Sometimes I leave the gloves in the pocket, but I always have them. I find I am comfortable even at full depth here in the winter. But then I am a big guy with a little built in insulation (well over 6' and 220lbs)

    I have experienced hydroid stings, the worst was across the forehead where a full suit would not have protected me. And I have picked up the occasional minor scrape or cut.

  2. Hi Andrew - If you can stay warm here in winter without a full suit, you are fortunate. We wear 5mm suits in winter and 3mm in summer in Hawaii, and have 'skins' for even warmer water. We are slow breathers and tend to do long dives (1 hr plus), thus it's easier to stay warm (enough) while wearing a full suit.

    And yes, sometimes we've been stung despite wearing full suits. A man-o-war tentacle across the neck comes quickly to mind... :-{


  3. That photo of the mooring line illustrates your point beautifully!
    Although I've only dived vicariously by reading your blog, I can relate to this entry by thinking of the skimpily-clad hikers in flimsy sandals that I've occasionally met on hiking trails.

  4. I agree completely! Even with surface temps near 90 degrees in the summer in the Sea of Cortez, I always recommend that divers and snorkelers wear the thin lycra dive skins. They are great for sun protection, and just about all you need for jellyfish protection, without adding weight or bulk. Definitely a trip-saver since even mild stings and sunburns can spoil an otherwise great dive trip.

  5. @ Lavender - Yes, your hiker analogy is a good one.

    @ John - "A trip saver," yes -- you said it well. Thanks.


  6. Aloha Bobbie,
    As you know by now I am not a diver but definitely love snorkeling in warm Hawaii waters. Looks like not everybody is as lucky as Andrew. I get easily cold just with the snorkeling. I just cut my time in the water a little shorter.

    Just wanted to tell you that we loved your recent excursions in the miracle ocean world of sea critters + the amazing photos!

    That is one reason we have become fans of your blog and included it in our 'I love this blog' award. Please, see for yourself and enjoy your award http://kohalacoastweb.blogspot.com/2008/10/hawaii-blogs.html

  7. I don't even swim (so of course I don't dive), but this makes way to much sense even to me. I think people are used to watching too many movies where the woman is diving in her bikini. Movies aren't real life. :-)

  8. I know my husband wishes he had had his dive gloves last spring. (His dive equipment was one of the many weight related sacrifices when we moved overseas) He accompanied our son on his certification dive. Even though my husband has been diving for about 20 years, he managed to take a sea urchin spine in the finger. Ouch! The water was a bit murky off Palau Putri, and the urchins there have such long thin dark spines he didn't see it until too late.


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry