While scuba diving provides an unforgettable experience, it does come with inherent risks that every diver must understand and prepare for. One of the most important safety protocols that all divers need to follow is performing a safety stop during every dive.
A safety stop requires you to pause for a few minutes at the end of your dive, usually around 5 to 6 meters/15-20 feet below the surface, before doing a controlled ascent to the top. This brief pause allows your body to off-gas, excess nitrogen absorbed during the dive.
Failing to do a safety stop significantly increases your risk of decompression sickness (DCS), also known as “the bends.” By taking the time for this simple procedure, you can dramatically improve diving safety.
In this article, we’ll explain in detail why a safety stop is so critical, when you should perform one, how to do it properly, and what can happen if you don’t.
With the right knowledge, every diver can make safety stops a standard part of their diving practices.
Why Is a Safety Stop Absolutely Necessary?
A safety stop helps prevent decompression sickness by giving your body adequate time to release excess nitrogen gas accumulated during the dive.
During a dive, the pressurized air you breathe at depth causes nitrogen to dissolve into your bloodstream and tissues. If you ascend too quickly, the reduced pressure causes nitrogen bubbles to come out of the solution.
These bubbles can cause excruciating joint pain, rashes, paralysis and other symptoms of DCS. They can even lead to death if a large bubble blocks an artery.
A safety stop gives the nitrogen time to pass safely out of your lungs before surfacing. Pausing for 3-5 minutes allows a significant amount of gas to diffuse out of your tissues. This lowers the risk of symptomatic bubbles forming.
All major diving organizations like PADI, NAUI, and SSI recommend performing safety stops even on dives well within no-decompression limits. They provide an added layer of protection against DCS.
When Should You Perform a Safety Stop?
Safety stops should be conducted at the end of any dive over 10 meters/30 feet in depth. This covers most recreational dives, which average 50-100 feet deep.
For recreational diving within no-decompression limits, both PADI and SSI recommend stopping for 3-5 minutes at 5 meters/15 feet below the surface.
More advanced technical divers making planned decompression dives will need deeper, longer safety stops based on their specific dive profiles. They should consult dive tables or a dive computer to follow the proper ascent schedule.
You should also perform a 1-3 minute safety stop after any dive in which you:
- Ascended faster than 30 feet/9 meters per minute
- Skipped planned decompression stops
- Experienced equipment issues like buoyancy problems
- Engaged in strenuous activity during the dive
The deeper and longer the duration at depth, the more excess nitrogen dissolves into your body tissues. This makes a safety stop even more critical after deep, long dives.
How to Perform a Safety Stop Correctly
1. Begin your safety stop when you reach 15-20 feet/5-6 meters on your ascent. This intermediate depth allows nitrogen to still diffuse out efficiently while preventing a sudden loss of buoyancy control closer to the surface.
2. Check your depth gauge and maintain a consistent depth. Hold the stop for the full 3-5 minute duration. Use a dive timer or watch to accurately track the time.
3. Maintain neutral buoyancy during the entire stop by adjusting your BCD. Don’t float up or sink down. Stay steady.
4. Minimize all movements. Remain as still as possible to keep tissue nitrogen saturation constant during the stop.
5. Breathe slowly and deeply. Regular, deep breathing helps flush inert gases from your system.
6. If ascending from a deep dive requiring decompression stops, complete all decompression requirements at shallower depths before beginning the final safety stop.
7. After completing the 3-5 minute safety stop, ascend to the surface doing a 60 foot/18 meter per minute controlled ascent rate.
A good rule of thumb is to make the safety stop duration proportional to your dive’s maximum depth and bottom time under pressure. For most recreational dives, 3 minutes is perfectly adequate. But extend the duration up to 5 minutes after deep, long dives beyond 60-70 feet/18-21 meters.
What Are the Dangers of Skipping a Safety Stop?
Skipping or rushing a safety stop significantly increases your risk of the bends, especially after deeper, longer dives. And this risk rises exponentially the deeper and longer you are under high pressure.
According to statistics, you are 2 to 6 times more likely to get bends if you do not perform a safety stop after diving.
Without the stopping time, excess nitrogen can come out of the solution too quickly as pressure decreases. This rapid phase transition allows bubbles to form and cause serious health issues.
Even if you complete all required decompression stops, skipping the extra safety margin can still put you in great danger. Quickly accelerating to the surface after long, deep dives also drastically escalates the risk.
Symptoms like joint pain, skin rashes, breathing problems, paralysis, and headache can appear within 1-6 hours after surfacing. Delayed symptoms sometimes don’t show up for 24 hours or more.
If you don’t perform safety stops regularly, you are essentially gambling with your health after every dive. Don’t foolishly take this risk with your safety.
5 Benefits of Making Safety Stops Standard Practice
Beyond just reducing your risk of DCS after each dive, making safety stops part of your standard procedure has several key advantages:
- Improves overall diving safety mindset and habits. It reinforces discipline, caution, and an abundance of care.
- Helps you maintain proper ascent rates. Promotes making a slow, steady ascent.
- Is easy to perform. Adding just 3-5 minutes to the end of every dive is simple.
- Provides time to monitor equipment function. You can identify and address any issues.
- Offers a buffer if accidentally exceeding no decompression limits. It still gives some protection if you inadvertently go over time/depth limits.
Making these stops completely second nature is well worth the few extra minutes. Over many dives, they substantially decrease your accumulative risks.
Safety Stop Guidelines for Common Diving Scenarios
Open water recreational diving within no-decompression limits:
- 3-5 minute safety stop at 15-20 feet depth after every dive deeper than 30 feet.
Multiple repetitive dives within the same day:
- Take extended 5-minute safety stops after the 2nd and 3rd dives of the day. This allows more off-gassing time after successive dives.
Diving at high altitude locations:
- Extend safety stop duration to 5 minutes at the end of every dive to compensate for lower ambient pressure at altitude.
Flying shortly after diving:
- Take longer 5+ minute stops at the end of your final dives before boarding any commercial flight within 18-24 hours.
Cold water diving:
- Stop for a full 5 minutes to account for slower inert gas elimination in colder temperatures.
Emergency ascents for any reason:
- Always make a slightly longer safety stop, even after exceeding the ascent rate due to an emergency.
Is a safety stop still needed if I follow my dive tables or computer?
Yes, you should still perform a stop even if you adhere to all table or computer requirements. Think of it as extra insurance.
Can I make a faster ascent and still stop for 3-5 minutes?
No. Your ascent rate is critical. Always keep it under 30 feet/9 meters per minute before beginning any safety stop.
Do safety stops completely prevent decompression sickness?
No. Stopping for 3-5 minutes substantially reduces DCS risk after diving but cannot fully guarantee you won’t have symptoms. Use it as one key part of your overall diving safety protocol.
A safety stop may add a few minutes to the end of each dive. But this simple procedure can significantly lower your risk of developing decompression sickness.
By following the proper techniques and integrating stops into every dive plan, you help protect your health for many safe dives to come. Making safety stops a consistent habit is one of the wisest things any diver can do.