A safety stop is an integral part of every safe scuba diver’s routine.
While safety stops are covered in the open water diver course, they can often be overlooked, forgotten, or not fully understood by divers.
And because we care about your safety, we’ve put together a complete guide to scuba diving safety stops.
So let’s take a look at the safety stop in more detail.
What are Safety Stops in scuba diving?
A safety stop is a stop at 5m, or 15ft, for 3 to 5 minutes that divers make at the end of their dive. The safety stop can be completed mid-water or at a shallow part of the dive site.
Maintaining this exact level can be tricky for new or even experienced divers, so it’s not uncommon to hold onto an anchor or mooring line during the safety stop.
Although safety stops are not mandatory, you’ll find that divers will complete a safety stop on every single dive.
All dive computers are programmed to complete a safety stop at the end of every dive and will help you track the depth and time of your stop.
Why make a Safety Stop when scuba diving?
Safety stops are highly recommended on every dive, and especially important on deeper dives, because they significantly reduce our risk of decompression sickness.
As you will have learned in your open water course, when we breathe compressed air underwater, nitrogen is absorbed into our bloodstream and gradually accumulates in our body’s tissues. When we start to ascend, the pressure reduces and the nitrogen begins to slowly disperse from our tissues. A process often referred to as ‘off-gassing’.
If we ascend too fast, the pressure reduces rapidly and the pressure differential will cause nitrogen bubbles to form in our tissues and blood vessels. These nitrogen bubbles can then get trapped in our body, resulting in decompression sickness.
By making a safety stop, we are significantly slowing down our ascent which allows time for the excess nitrogen to slowly dissolve out of our bodies before we ascend through the greatest pressure change up to the surface.
And don’t forget when you’ve finished your safety stop it’s very important to swim slowly to the surface, no faster than 18m or 60ft per minute.
A safety stop doesn’t get rid of all of the excess nitrogen you absorbed during the dive. The process of off-gassing continues for several hours after your dive. Ascending slowly ensures that any tiny bubbles of nitrogen that may have formed, also known as silent bubbles, disperse slowly and don’t get stuck.
Scuba diving safety stops are a no brainer. Who doesn’t want to stay safe and spend extra time underwater?
We ScubaOtters certainly do!
Other advantages to making a safety stop
Reducing your risk of decompression sickness isn’t the only reason for making a safety stop!
First of all, this pause gives you the time to assess the surface conditions and identify any potential hazards before you make your final ascent. For example, it is dangerous to surface directly underneath or behind a boat so you can use this time to navigate to a safer spot.
Secondly, you can make sure that all your gear is properly secured for exiting the water. The last thing you want to do is lose your underwater camera, with all that epic footage of the manta rays, because you forgot to clip it back onto your BCD.
And lastly, it’s an opportunity to get that perfect scuba selfie with your buddy or master making bubble rings!
Check out this video if you’re looking for some creative ways to pass your time on your next safety stop:
If you’re interested in learning more, PADI published a great article about the history of safety stops and how we started doing them.
5 tips for making the best safety stop on every dive
Now you know why every dive should end with a safety stop. But being so close to the surface can make buoyancy a challenge, and without the proper technique, you could find yourself ascending unintentionally.
So we’ve put together our top tips for making every safety stop look easy.
Establish neutral buoyancy
Take your time to find your neutral buoyancy at your safety stop. This means you should rise slightly as you inhale and sink slightly as you exhale.
Don’t forget to vent the air from your BCD as you head up to do your safety stop. Frequently adjusting your buoyancy will ensure you ascend slowly and don’t accidentally float up to the surface.
If you’re struggling to stay down during your safety stop, or need to pump loads of air into your BCD, then you probably need to adjust your weights.
Time your safety stop
Every diver should keep track of their own safety stop. Ultimately, as a certified diver, you are responsible for your own safety. So don’t rely on another diver to time your safety stop. A dive computer will allow you to properly track your safety stop on every dive.
Maintain proper positioning
Whether vertical or horizontal, remember to keep your depth gauge, or dive computer, at chest level so your torso remains at the right depth.
Hold a line
If you find it difficult to maintain the same level then hold onto an anchor or mooring line. It’s much more important to stay at the same level during your safety stop than it is to hover in the perfect buddha position.
Swim slowly to the surface
Some divers think that once the safety stop is over they can fin up to the surface as fast as they like. But the last 5m, or 15ft, is actually the most dangerous part of the water column for lung overexpansion injuries or decompression sickness as this is where the biggest pressure change occurs.
So after your safety stop has finished make sure you swim slowly to the surface maintaining a safe ascent rate. Again, this is where having your own dive computer comes in handy. Your computer will monitor your ascent rate and warn you if you’re going too fast.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you still make a safety stop if there’s an emergency?
Safety stops are highly recommended but, as you know already, they’re not mandatory. In an emergency situation you do not need to make a safety stop.
And here’s why:
As recreational scuba divers, we stay within our no-decompression limits, which means that we can ascend to the surface at any time during the dive without making a safety stop. But you must do your best to still maintain a safe ascent rate.
So, for example, if you or your buddy are out of air or have a serious equipment malfunction then you skip the safety stop and slowly make your way to the surface.
Do I need to make a Safety Stop if I’m diving with nitrox?
Absolutely! No matter your gas mix, safety stops should be part of every safe dive plan. Diving with enriched air nitrox is no exception.
You’re still breathing compressed air whilst under pressure so your body is still taking on nitrogen which needs to be released slowly.
What if I don’t have enough air to make a safety stop?
You forgot to watch your pressure gauge during the dive and now you’re low on air. Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there!
In this situation, it’s recommended that you stop for as long as you can but make sure you save enough air to ascend slowly and exit the water safely. As we mentioned above, in an emergency situation you can skip the safety stop.
What happens if I miss my safety stop?
If you’ve followed safe diving practices then, generally, nothing will happen if you miss your safety stop.
However, it is recommended that you stop diving for that day and monitor yourself or your buddy for symptoms of decompression sickness.
What’s the difference between a safety stop and a deep stop?
A deep stop is a 30 to 60 second stop at 50% of the maximum depth for you dive and is recommended for anyone diving near their no-decompression limits. Whereas a safety stop is a stop at 5m/15ft for at least 3 minutes at the end of every dive.
A deep stop is not a substitute and should be completed in addition to your usual safety stop. The majority of dive computers will give you the option to program a deep stop.
Deep stops are more common for single-level deep dives. If you’re doing a multi-level dive where you ascend very progressively, for example on a sloping reef, you’re already spending at least a few minutes at each depth so an additional stop isn’t needed.
What is the difference between a safety stop and an emergency decompression stop?
As you know already, a safety stop is made at the end of all dives before ascending to the surface. Whereas an emergency decompression stop is required if you accidentally exceed your no-decompression limit (NDL) during your dive.
The depth, length, and number of your emergency decompression stops will depend on how much you exceeded your limits by. A dive computer will calculate this for you.
How Long Should a Scuba Safety Stop Be?
A standard safety stop in scuba diving is between 3 and 5 minutes.
But if you’ve got the air to spare, why not do longer? It’s extra time underwater and you’re giving your body even more time to decompress. There are no downsides.
What Is The Best Depth For Safety Stops?
The standard depth for divers to do their safety stops is around 5m or 15ft.
Depending on your dives’ conditions and plan, it’s possible you’ll have to do multiple safety stops. If you’re diving with a charter or divemaster, this is all stuff they’ll cover in your pre-dive briefing.
How Deep Can You Dive Without making a safety stop?
For any dive under 10m, you’re likely to be completely fine without making a safety stop. We get it, time is valuable. But even if you follow all the safety procedures there’s still a very minuscule chance that decompression illness could happen. So why take the risk when you don’t have to?
When should you make a safety stop when diving?
You make a safety stop at the end of every dive. This means that you should pause at around 5m/15ft for at least 3 minutes before you make your final ascent to the surface.
Vertical Or Horizontal Position During Safety Stops?
This is down to a divers personal preference, so choose whatever position you feel most comfortable in for your safety stop. Unless the dive conditions call for one or the other, it’s entirely up to you.
For example, if you’re with a bunch of divers crowded around an anchor line, it’s probably best to be horizontal so you don’t kick each other in the face!
Now you know exactly what safety stops are, why we make them, and our top tips for making every safety stop easy.
So you’ve got no excuse to skip the safety stop on your next dive!
How do you like to spend your safety stop?
Let us know your favorite ways to pass the time in the comments!
Alexa Worswick is a PADI and SSI scuba diving Instructor, recreational freediver and freelance copywriter. She first learnt to scuba dive in the UK aged 15 and has since travelled and dived in multiple locations across 3 different continents. After quitting her marketing job in London in 2016, Alexa is now based in Indonesia where she can pursue her passion for the ocean fulltime.