Stop, Think, and Act

Walt "Butch" HendrickSTOP, THINK, ACT

By Walt “Butch” Hendrick

The words and concepts are pretty simple and and areprobably familiar to all divers, but what do they mean? How do we put them to our best use?

Let us take a look at some avenues where we can put the STOP, THINK and ACT concept into ACTion.


Before you can begin fixing specific problems, you must first address the number one problem – breathing. Breathing will at some point be an issue in almost every underwater scenario. If you can not control your breathing then the rest is almost irrelevant. The first concept is to STOP, which means more than simply stop moving. The term stop lends itself to, if you can, stop doing what it is that is causing the problem. That could be as easy as catch your breath. But for a diver who is very overexerted or panicked, the words “catch your breath” do not mean very much. We need to understand how to STOP and catch our breath so we can then THINK and ACT.
Hypoventilation, shallow rapid, labored breathing results in build up of carbon dioxide. The breathing cycle can seem catastrophic at times and it can become worse because increased carbon dioxide levels increase the need to breathe. We have a tendency to use improper, shallow ventilation techniques while under stress, perhaps not realizing that carbon dioxide is a major contributing culprit to not only breathing problems, but many stress related problems including “panic”. To start, STOP, THINK and attempt to make your ventilations a little fuller and longer. Concentrate on the longer, gentle exhalations to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide. Three secnod exhalations are a good goal. Exhale just a little more than the normal tidal exhalation in a longer than normal time period. Do not attempt to blow out large volumes of air because then the response will be a large inhalation, which is not what we want.
If you find slowing down your breathing is difficult, find something to visually focus on such as a watch or gauge. Again, concentrate on long, slow, gentle exhalations. If there is no visibility then perform a task such as slowly counting your fingers. Only by reducing carbon dioxide levels, and bringing breathing volumes and rates back into normal ranges can we begin to catch our breath. Once your breathing is under control you can start to get other problems under control, including heart rate and your ability to THINK.


Breathing is certainly one of the most important parts of diving. Controlling our breathing is very often our first course of ACTion so that we can THINK. When breathing is done improperly and the blood contains high carbon dioxide levels, the survival window is made smaller because you have a shorter period of time to respond to a situation before the urge to breath causes you to REACT instead of ACT in an emergency.


As you are gaining control of your breathing the next important issue is where are you in the water column. If you are near or on the bottom, gaining physical control will be relatively easy since most problems are easier to fix when you are stationary. If you find yourself suspended in the water column and are having difficulty stabilizing, the course of ACTion will be a little different. Do not over inflate or deflate the B.C, rapid changes in buoyancy can only increase the problem. You need to make small fine tuned adjustments in buoyancy, adjustments that can be altered easily. During every dive, every adjustment to the B.C. should be performed slowly and with control, perfect practice makes perfect. In either case you need to direct your attention to stabilizing yourself in the water column. Continued descent or ascent must be by choice, not by accident. Ascending may not be the best option under ice, so going to the bottom may be preferable.


So “STOP” initially means to stabilize breathing, buoyancy, and body movements. Now is the time to establish what is going wrong, maintain your composure, and avoid rushing. THINK, do you have air, and if yes, how much. Are you entangled? If not, can you ascend to the surface in a controlled manner? Is there a gear problem? If so do you know what it is, and can you fix it or control it during your ascent? Where is your buddy if you have one? Can you get his or her attention. Think, “what is the problem and what can you do to fix or control it?” What did you learn in your basic training that can help you here and now?
If your buddy is the one having difficulties, often a simple firm hand on the arm can begin to make the difference. Look your buddy directly in the eyes. Use your eyes and the gentle, yet firm, grip to tell your buddy “I am here, STOP, breath, THINK.” ACT, bring the situation under as much control as possible and then decide what it will take to fix it. If you are a backup diver, a firm hand clasp with the primary diver will be the first step.
When you first learned to dive, you should have learned and performed many of the skills that will help you stay calm, think and act in real situations.


No matter where you are in the water column leg cramps cannot only be painful but can become disabling. The first thought is to control your breathing, remembering high levels of carbon dioxide are only going to increase the problem. Long slow breaths will help control the carbon dioxide levels, and therefore the lactic acid levels. STOP, move slowly and stabilize your position in the water column. THINK, slow movements will assists in both controlling your breathing, and help stabilize your possession.
ACT, reach for the tip of your fin and pull it gently toward you, hold that possession for about thirty seconds seconds. If the cramp is in the back of the leg create a slight amount of tension in the upper thigh muscle which will help release the back thigh muscles. If possible use the other hand to massage the cramp and make sure to make good, full respirations.
Next push the fin forward and fully relax the leg, which may require that you move your hands back slightly from the fin tip in order to control your fin contact. Hold this position again for ten to fifteen seconds. Repeat this process slowly until the cramp begins to show relief. Keep on breathing.
Leg cramps are not uncommon in the diving industry. Leg cramps are not discriminating as to who can or will be effected by them. Lack of exercise, sitting in a poor position before the dive, dehydration, fatigue, cold water temperature, restricting equipment such as drysuit legs without enough air, diet, and carbon dioxide are all contributing factors, to who and when will cramps will occur. If you have a history of leg cramps while diving, perform exercises regularily that will prepare your leg muscles for the use of fins, such as lunges and calf stretches.

If you have a tendency to cramp often check your potassium levels, change your kicking style, seek training for a stronger or more efficient kick, or change the type of fin you are wearing.


This could involve fishing line, or a piece of your own equipment, anything that could hold you in place or restrict your ability to move freely in the water column. Dangling gear is often the culprit. When you relax (STOP) and THINK about the problem usually you can fix it (ACT). Conversely, if you pull and tug and try to rush, the problem has a tendency to escalate. If the use of a knife or shears are necessary, `then slow methodical movements are required. The slower you move the longer your air lasts, the easier the job.

How often have you and your buddy practiced with your dive tools, have you ever practiced cutting fishing line or twine underwater? If your answer is no . Then in a controlled environment, take some fishing line, twine, light wire or plastic tie wraps go underwater and cut them. Gain the practice and experience in the learning environment.


You find yourself in a diving situation where the visibility does not have the Caribbean advantage and you cannot see your buddy. STOP, stay where you are and look around you slowly, give yourself a good minute or so for your buddy to return to your visual spectrum. If at that time you still feel uncomfortable about the situation, begin a slow and controlled ascent to the surface. THINK, this is most likely not an emergency situation, you are not in physical trouble. ACT, make sure you are ready before you leave the bottom, and perform a normal ascent. You will most likely find your buddy at or near the surface waiting for you.
Often dive buddy’s have a prearranged plan or rendez-vous location, where they will meet if they are well versed with the dive site.

# 8. . Currents

If you are in a current and believe you are being carried away, or the situation is simply to much for your skill level and you are not happy about it, or this was not part of your dive plan, then it is time to do something about it. Try not to allow things to get worse, you may have to STOP even if you have to hold on to something. THINK, what is your best avenue of choice. Go forward into the current, go with the current possibly further away from shore or boat, or go up. Make conscious decisions. Can you go forward, in this current situation, this could be a choice. How much air do you have, and do you believe it will be enough to safely return you to your point of entry. If the decision process is difficult then usually the best ACTion is to go to the surface. Once on the surface you may want to drop your weight belt, remember the key concept here is to take control of the situation to the best of your ability. If you fight the situation beyond your ability it could get worse.

It is important to understand that very few divers are carried out to sea or off and over the wall to deeper depths. If you have not been trained in current or tidal change diving and find yourself in such a situation, go to the surface make yourself positively buoyant and wait. It is always a good idea to advise relatives of where you will be diving.


When a diver finds himself in a strong current that he did not plan for or the particular current has become more than he planed for .The dive should be aborted. STOP do not allow the diving situation to take control, ascend to the surface and make yourself positively buoyant. Wait for the current to weaken or for assistance to arrive.


You find yourself at the surface, a long way from the boat or shore. STOP, THINK, are you in physical danger at this moment?
If the answer were yes, then you must ACT on that emergency first. You must make yourself positively buoyant, add air to your B.C. via power or oral inflate. If that feels as if it is inefficient, drop your weight belt, but not into a stream of bubbles. Then you can decide what to do next.
If the answer were no, then your first course of ACTion would be different. You are not in physical danger at the moment, this is simply an inconvenience The swim itself may require more strength than you are capable of, however that would cause the next course of ACTion. THINK, do not place yourself in a position that is beyond your person ability.
If you are going to make the swim, then take your time, do not over do it. A good surface swim technique is to lie slightly on your right side, this places the snorkel in the high position, put your right hand out in front, to break the water tension and slowly start kicking.
This off center swim position will keep your fins underwater more of the time, therefore making your kick more efficient, it will also improve your body position and reduce the chances of leg cramping, finally it allows for greater weight displacement of your scuba equipment, again improved efficiency and less fatigue.


Diving is most enjoyable when we have the opportunity to witness the underwater world, the sudden loss of that ability can be unnerving to say the least. Many new divers state that their greatest concern of diving without their instructor, is murky or sility water. This is a reality in many parts of our diving world, But should not be a deterrent from enjoying diving.
You find yourself in a sudden silt out (usually caused by our own movements of hands, legs etc.) STOP, try to keep in mind it is most likely your movements that caused the disturbance to begin with more movements are not going to help you. Settle down and relax, breath, THINK there is nothing here that is going to harm you, it has simply gotten dark, the bottom has simply become stirred up. If you can sit quietly ( no quick movements) visibility will usually return in a relatively short pored of time, sixty to ninety seconds. You can then ACT, ascend or move slowly away from the silted area. If the silt does not clear up in a reasonable time you can still slowly ascend.

As new divers you and your buddy might want to play a game with silt. Remain in shallow water ten to fifteen feet, in a silt bottom area, move your hand slowly over the silt and watch what happen. Next place your hand into the silt slowly and pull it out and see what happens. The silt will come up and then settle, now do it faster and more silt will be kicked up. See how much movement, or lack of movement it takes to stir up a lightly silt bottom and how quickly it clears up. it ACTion learn how to deal with silt outs and they simply become a momentary inconvenience.

Think of everything that can go wrong and have a practiced contingency plan for all possibilities. In diving we really can prevent just about all problems if we spend the time to think about what can go wrong. In the very few cases that prevention was not possible, then we can survive if we Stop, Think, and then Act.

Safe diving always,

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