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Is a pre-dive checklist overkill for recreational divers?



In his first blog for Scubaverse, Steve Lewis talks about the importance of pre-dive checklists for ALL divers…

Pre-dive checklists are a brilliant idea. Using them properly can save embarrassment, and things that are much worse; for example, sinking like a rock and having nothing to breathe when you hit the bottom.

Every scuba training agency with a plastic card printer at head office seems to agree because each has its own acronym for what to check before we jump into the water. These are a sort of verbal reminder about weights, and hoses, connections, air (or gas) pressure, and all the other bits and pieces that help to keep us safe and happy underwater. It’s highly likely — I’d bet a beer and pretzel against a poke in the eye — that you were taught one of those mnemonics in your open-water class.

The only drawback is that it is also highly likely the folks kitting up beside you at your favourite dive site, don’t bother to use a checklist at all; or can’t remember how the ABCDEF, or whatever alphabet soup they were taught, relates to all the things that need to be checked before launching themselves into the deep blue. Their checklist is incomplete.

And so, it’s probable you have witnessed people jumping off dive boats with no fins on, their mask around their neck, their low-pressure inflator unconnected, weight belt someplace other than around their middle, and so on.

A checklist can help keep surprises to a minimum; especially nice when the surface is long swim away. Photo of the author in a Mexican cave by Tom St. George.

We can certainly do better. But the answer is NOT another acronym. Fact is, the stats seem to tell us that for the average diver (recreational or technical), a verbal checklist is as useful as a chocolate poker.

One reason for this is with almost everything we learn, retention is difficult. If teaching is about making a permanent change in behaviour — and that is arguably a fine definition — it follows that it takes work from both the instructor and the instructed to make change happen. It appears we are not doing a stellar job at it.

I think the answer is either a written checklist — the one you were originally taught may be fine — or at least something visual to trigger memory.

Okay, it’s time to declare a conflict of interest: I’m a cave diver. Worse, I am a cave diving instructor evaluator. I also teach rebreathers. In both those situations, checklists save lives. “My name is Steve. I am ADD, I love checklists.”

The benefit of using a physical checklist, far outweigh the “inconvenience” of carrying one!

Being a realist, it is obvious that getting every diver on the face of the earth to conform to the type of pre-dive routines taught to cave and CCR divers is a pipe-dream. A group of dive-shop operators recently told me en-masse that “advanced cave diving skills” — trim, buoyancy, gas management and most specifically using a physical checklist — are total overkill for “ordinary” divers.

I bit my tongue because I was outnumbered; but I was able to say “bullshit” before they all walked away. Surely a bimble at five or six metres on a nice tropical reef someplace warm and sunny deserves as much respect in its way to a swim a kilometre and a half back into a cave. At least until we learn to breathe water.

Last Christmas, I did something really unusual: I taught an open water diver course. It was for a special student: my girlfriend, and it was unusual because for the past 20-odd years, I’ve focused on teaching exclusively technical diving: trimix, decompression, sidemount, rebreather, and cave diving. I’ve run open water instructor programs over the years, but my poor girlfriend was in my first beginner’s class since sometime in the last century.

Consequently, it was a terrible course. First-off, she was asked to dive sidemount. Also, she had to demonstrate a bunch of “extra” skills and drills, and she was encouraged to use a pre-dive checklist to begin every dive. Her course was not a happy pat-on-the-back pencil-stroking exercise. She was pushed hard and it took ten days to certify her.

The miracle is that she did not disown me and we are still dating. In fact, she told every one of her friends how much she enjoyed herself and what fun it was. She particularly enjoyed the emphasis on “learning properly, and being made to use a checklist,” her words. “I’m forgetful, a written checklist thingy really makes me feel comfortable,” she admitted.

Invest in a waterproof notebook. It’s great for your checklist, but really a boon for underwater communication.

Now, hers is in a waterproof notebook that’s part of her dive kit (and by using it she automatically checks she has it on her dives). But that method may not work for everyone. It’s based on the “head-to-toe” buddy check used by cave divers (well, some cave divers) as they get ready to swim into a hole in solid rock to look at wet rocks.

It’s this simple. Reading from an actual physical checklist (at least until it becomes embedded in memory) one of the team leads and begins at the head, and works down the body to her feet. As she calls out, her buddy(ies) confirm with a spoken “Check” (provided they have the corresponding piece of kit of course).

There’s a simplified version below. You can use it, create your own based on the way you and your buddy dress and dive, or write down the acronym you were taught to use.

The important thing is to use something. Have Fun. Play Safe!

Example Checklist: They only work when we use ‘em!

Write down your checklist, print a couple of copies, have them laminated, give one copy to your buddy, keep a copy in your wetnotes, use it prior to every dive.

Here are some things that need to be covered:


  • Feeling good/positive to the dive
  • Diveplan — depth, time, gas(es) MOD and marked, deco
  • Route — waypoints, bailout strategy
  • Vision — mask, backup mask, lights
  • Info. — PDC on, battery good, correct bottom gas set, (deco gases set), conservatism appropriate for dive
  • Cutting — knife, line-cutter, shears
  • Breadcrumbs — Reels, spools, JON line
  • Signal — DSMB/Emergency DSMB
  • Comfort — exposure suit zipped
  • Hoses/Orings — inspected
  • BCD/Drysuit connected (inflate / deflate)
  • Breathing — pressures, regulators purge watch SPG
  • Surface support


  • Verify tank pressure, gas match, verify thirds
  • Breathe wet ALL regs, Deco pressurized and off
  • BCD/drysuit inflate/deflate
  • Check lights, reels, spools, line markers


  • Bubble Check / S-Drill / Valve Drill
  • OK to Dive… CONFIRM

Steve Lewis is an author, adventure travel writer, and generalist, who dislikes dive gear but who loves to dive. A specific interest is cave diving, which he regards as "the most creative way to learn mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation.” He lives in a converted schoolhouse in Ontario’s cottage country with coyotes, white pines, and the Great Lakes as neighbours.

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