Dive Flag Becomes a Personal Watercraft Slalom Course!

By James W. Grier, Ph.D.

I am a zoologist with a broad interest in animal life, including aquatic types. During my frequent travels, I like to explore local habitats by scuba diving.

Although diving alone did not contribute to this particular incident, I was diving alone. I am fully aware of and respect the buddy system and I do not recommend or encourage others to dive alone. I believe I know my limitations and, to me, safety, common sense and taking full responsibility for one's actions are paramount. There are several conditions under which I will not dive alone. But there are other situations in which I am comfortable, confident and able to dive on my own and frequently do so.

To return to my story, I was attending meetings in a western state and decided to do some local diving. After one of the days' sessions, I rented gear from a dive shop and headed out to a reservoir behind a large dam in the hills. I picked out a couple sites and started my first of two planned dives, dive flag in tow on the surface. It was a beautiful late afternoon with no boats in sight and the beach was isolated except for a family some distance up the shore.

The visibility was much worse than I had hoped for or been led to expect. But I am used to reduced expectations in diving; it was okay and I was navigating by compass. I had gone down to 40 feet in a large shallow and flat bay, turned around and was headed back to shore. When I was at a depth of about 30 feet I heard personal watercrafts, loud and probably overhead. Through the tension in the line, I could feel my dive flag bobbing in the waves.

I frequently experience speed boats overhead ignoring dive flags. I had heard second hand about a diver who had tied his dive flag line to his BC and was hauled rapidly to the surface by someone who had pulled his flag and line out of the water! I have never tied myself to my flag line although I used to loop it to my upper arm to leave my hands free. Out of caution, however, I had started carrying the end of the line in my hand so I could release it if necessary; fortunately, I was doing so during this dive.

The next thing I felt was a sudden and heavy jerk on my line. I gave a strong tug back. I was not pulled up but there were several more pulls on my line. Then the float went back to bobbing in the continued wave action, accompanied by continuing motor noise overhead. I was not pleased with the situation.

I slowly worked my way in toward shore by compass, stayed deep and let out the full length of line to get as far away from the action as possible. Moving and listening carefully and watching all around overhead, I got into the shallows, surfaced and looked at what was going on. Only the float and stick remained, the flag was gone. A guy I estimated to be in his 20s to 30s was jetting around the float in loops and figure eights like a cat playing with a mouse! A friend of his on another personal watercraft was nearby but had gone ashore.

I tried to find the registration numbers on their watercraft so I could report them but could not see the numbers. I yelled to get their attention and I let them know in no uncertain terms what they were doing and what I thought about it!

When the guy who was at my flag first saw me, he stopped, his mouth dropped open in surprise and he asked me where I had come from. I told him I was at the other end of the line he was messing with and he was seriously violating the law. Although diving and the dive flag symbol are publicized in the area, including the boating regulations, and the reservoir is regularly patrolled by a sheriff, these two knew nothing about diving or dive flags. They were surprised to learn that a person could go under water for extended periods and asked how long I had been down.

They said they had been attracted to the red flag from a distance and thought it was something lost by a boater. When they saw it was connected to a line, they thought it was marking an illegal fish trap or something. Then, when they tried to pull it up and it pulled back, they said they thought the Loch Ness monster or a really big fish was on the other end!

I asked about the red flag and they said they did not know what happened to it, that it must have washed off. (I thought to myself, Yeah, sure!) Later, after I took my line and remaining float back to the car, they threw the flag on the beach toward the car and left.

This incident reinforced two things I already knew but about which we must be constantly on the alert: (1) one cannot assume all boaters will respect or even know about and understand dive flags and our activities beneath the surface; and (2) the line to the dive flag should be carried by hand, not tied to equipment or otherwise connected to one's body, in case it needs to be released. In short, one must always be alert to overhead conditions and not trust others on the surface regardless of the presence of a dive flag and regulations pertaining to it.