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New Jersey Scuba Diving


New Jersey Scuba Diving

Navigation Aids

2016 Update

Nothing much has changed in twenty years. The Tektite stobe is exactly the same, and you can still get good big dive reels, although enclosed models have disappeared. Compasses still point north, and flags are still a bother.

Here are a few pieces of gear to help you find your way around in the deep blue, or green, brown or black, as the case may be. When diving, it is important to remember that you need to navigate both horizontally, and vertically. The vertical component is usually taken care of by the dive boat anchor, but emergencies do occur, and you should be prepared.


A compass is the most basic and inexpensive piece of navigational equipment, and should be bought at the same time as the rest of your gauges.

In a beach or inlet dive your compass is your single most important tool - it tells you which direction is the shore. When wreck diving, a compass is useless if you don't look at it until you're lost. Take a bearing as soon as you hit the bottom, just in case. In a boat dive, directions such as "turn right from the anchor" can often steer you in the opposite direction, if the current reverses and pulls the boat around to the other side. Compass bearings are much more reliable.

Unfortunately, using a compass is not quite a no-brainer, and should be practiced until you are proficient.


All divers are required to show a flag when in the water. When boat diving, the boat will fly the flag for you, but when shore diving you must take care of this yourself. All dive shops sell flag / floats and lines. The simple fiberglass pole type is inexpensive and works fine; there is no need to buy anything extravagant - it will only get beat-up. If you plan to stay in one place, you can tether the flag to an extra weight on the bottom, or even just prop it up at the shore. If you plan to move around, then you should drag it behind you.

Use only polypropylene for a flag line, never nylon. Polypropylene floats, so when it goes slack it will float up away from you, instead of sinking down in coils around you, likenylon. The big yellow spools that dive shops sell work very well. Although they look clumsy, the size makes them easier to handle in the water. With experience, you will learn to gauge the amount of line necessary to keep the flag from being pulled under, without letting out a huge excess to get tangled up in. Add a brass snap to clip it off for hands-free use. Once you get used to it, dragging a flag is really no trouble at all.

Because of the risk of entanglement, always carry a knife when dragging your own flag.

Wreck Reel

A wreck reel should be considered standard equipment on all but the easiest open ocean dives. Even if you aren't into wreck penetration, you can use the reel as a foolproof way of always knowing how to get home. Just clip it on, and off you go. This is much easier and more reliable than any other means of navigation, and is useful in many situations, especially in poor visibility. Among other things, a wreck reel will allow you to make explorations over featureless sand areas, and in confusing debris fields, like the Mohawk, as well as conduct organized searches, etc. In open water, a wreck reel is often more useful than a compass, although you should always carry one of those as well. On the other hand, there is no real use for a wreck reel in a typical inlet or jetty dive, whereas your compass will be extremely useful.

When using a wreck reel, don't just clip the line to the boat anchor - anchors have been known to pull out, and if the line breaks when that happens, you're lost. The line should be attached to a fixed object on the bottom near the anchor, and then a second tie made not more than 5-10 ft away from the first, in the direction of travel. Line entanglements can be avoided by "placements" from time to time, which can be single turns around an object, with the line pulled tight beforehand so it doesn't come undone. This is especially important when changing direction. The last thing you want to do is let the line go slack; that's when it's most likely to tangle up. Because of this possibility you should not use a wreck reel unless you have a good sharp dive knife as well.

Besides navigation, wreck reels have many other uses. A wreck reel can be used as an emergency up-line. This is a means to avoid having to do an emergency free ascent and safety stop, which is highly undesirable in the open ocean with a current. The obvious way to do this is to simply tie the line to some fixed object on the bottom, but this necessitates cutting the line at the surface, and losing it. A better way is to find an object with a hole or eye in it. Thread the line through the eye, so that it slides freely, and then clip it back on to the reel. As you ascend, the line will form an ever-lengthening loop between you and the bottom, up to half the total length of your line. You can now do your safety stop easily with no fear of drifting off.

When the time comes to get free of the bottom, cut the line right at the snap, so that the end has no knot or loop that might snag, and just reel it in. You can reattach the snap later, and you will only lose a few inches of line. Adding a lift bag to the top of the loop will mark your position for the boat to find you, and also make your "hang" a little easier. An important point when using this method is that you should clip the reel to yourself rather than just hand-holding it - dropping the reel at this point would be disastrous !

When your decompression or safety stop is complete, let out some more line until you break the surface and can ascertain your situation. Signal the boat, and make a judgment as to whether or not you can make the swim with the prevailing current. Unless it looks easy, sit tight and don't cut the line, it's the only thing that keeps you from drifting away ! Nine out of ten of the monthly DCS horror stories you can find in the scuba magazines could be avoided by practicing and using simple self-rescue techniques like this, and hanging a few extra minutes at the end of every dive.

You can also use a wreck reel to recover objects from the bottom. Just tie it on, and do a normal ascent and safety stop, paying out the line behind you. Once in the boat, simply pull the object up. You won't raise any anchors this way, but 1/8" line is certainly sufficient to lift a weight belt or overloaded goody bag, and a lot easier and safer than overinflating your BC to hand-carry an object to the surface.

The most common sizes for wreck reels are 90 ft ( 3" spool, pictured, ) 250 ft ( 5" spool ) and 400 ft ( 7" spool. ) All are useful, but the larger ones allow for longer excursions and also reel in faster. Usually, two weights of nylon line are available: #24 ( light ) and #36 ( heavy. ) I prefer the heavier line, as it is stronger and a little easier to manage, although you can carry less of it. Enclosed wreck reels are less likely to tangle up, but more difficult to fix when they do ( nearly impossible in the water, to tell the truth. ) I have two wreck reels, both Dive Rites. The small one quickly proved to be too small, so I got a bigger enclosed one. I think some of the locally made reels from Manta, Reef Scuba and AquaExplorers are probably better for our conditions than the Dive Rite models, which are made for caving. But the Dive Rite certainly gets the job done, until I break it or lose it.

Thanks to diver Art Greenberg for pointing out the original deficiencies in this page and contributing corrections.


Reels are much as recommended here, except that a number of smaller-sized reels are recommended which are fairly useless in open water. Line-marker arrows and other such things are impractical outside of a cave.

Lift Bag

Lift bags are commonly used for recovering heavy objects from the bottom. The bag is simply tied on, inflated from a regulator, and shot to the surface. An often-overlooked use for a lift bag is to get yourself to the surface in a safe manner when you have become lost and can't find the anchor, or if the anchor has pulled out of the wreck. Using your reel as described above, you can shoot a bag directly to the surface and then ascend on the line.

However, under such circumstances, I prefer to get myself off the bottom and up to my decompression or safety stop depth as quickly as possible, and then deploy a bag to the surface using a short length of line attached to the bag for just that purpose. Either way, the bag marks your position for the crew of the dive boat. You should write your name in bold letters on your bag, so you can be identified before you surface. The bag will also keep you from being sucked down to the bottom if there is a strong current. Most lift bags have open bottoms. A bag like this can hit the surface, tip over, and deflate. For self-rescue as described, you should use a bag with a self-closing bottom.

If worst comes to worst, and you must do a completely free ascent and drifting decompression, sending the bag up will at least allow the boat to track your position. A 50 pound bag is adequate for this purpose, and will fold up quite small and stow away unobtrusively until you need it. Orange or yellow are the best colors for visibility; a white bag can be very difficult to see in a foaming rough sea. The miniature "safety sausages" that are available are simply too small to be of any use around here.

The OMS 50 pound Surface Marker Buoy ( SMB, right ) or something equivalent should be part of every diver's equipment. This buoy has a one-way inflation valve to prevent it from "blowing over" at the surface. This bag is designed for emergency use, although in a pinch it functions perfectly as a 50 pound lift bag.


DIR-F recommendations for surface marker buoys and lift bags are quite reasonable; ie, the same as here.

Strobe Light

Day or night, an inexpensive flashing strobe light hanging from the anchor chain will guide you home. At night, it may be the only thing that leads you back to the up-line, and even during the day it is reassuring to look up and see it blinking in the distance. Under some conditions, it can relieve you of the need to use a wreck reel, something that any spear fisherman would appreciate.

In fact, the more strobe lights there are hanging from the anchor line, the better. The presence of your strobe light signals to other divers that you are still down. Don't get one of the miniature AA-powered models, get a big bright one that you can see from a distance through murky water. The tektite Strobe 300 (pictured) is the biggest and brightest model available, and probably the best for use in our murky waters.

Strobe lights wear out. Depending on use, a strobe may last several years, but over time it will flash slower and slower, until eventually it is too slow to be useful. Battery condition has nothing to do with this - it is the capacitor dying. If you buy a Tektite strobe, the company has an excellent policy on repair and refurbishment. For around $20, they will replace the sealed electronics unit and any other worn parts and return the unit to you, usually in a week to ten days.


There are on the market today portable underwater direction finding units which home in on each other by sound. These provide similar functionality to a strobe light, but with ( theoretically ) longer range, and are ( theoretically ) unaffected by water conditions and visibility. They are also very expensive, and prone to failure when a large object or wall gets between the two units. A number of times I have seen people get lost because they counted on one of these gadgets, and it didn't work.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these devices is that their users seem to be mostly beginners who place unfounded faith in them, probably because they paid so much for it at the dive shop. They seem to hit the water in "brain-off" mode, counting on their expensive gadgets to get them home, and making little or no effort at other forms of navigation. Unfortunately, these people are probably the least able to cope with the emergency situation that arises when they find out just how reliable their little sonar toy isn't. Learn to use a wreck reel instead.

Diving Blind

YOU'RE INSIDE A WRECK, and either through your own fault or an environmental change, the visibility drops to zero. How do you manage it?

We asked two of the Northeast's top tech divers for their opinions on managing low- or no- vis overhead environment situations.

Dan Crowell is captain of the Brielle, New Jersey-based dive boat SEEKER. He is a tech diving instructor, as well as a commercial diver who has made more than 130 dives on the Andrea Doria. He has also been a member of expeditions to the USS Monitor and the Britannic, among others.

John Chatterton also is a commercial diver, tech instructor and boat captain. Among his dive accomplishments are the first Trimix dive on the Lusitania and the first rebreather dive on the Britannic. He did his 100th dive on the Doria in 1996. Both men are also accomplished underwater videographers and members of the prestigious Explorers Club.

"I always plan on encountering zero visibility, " said Chatterton. "If I don't, great. If I do, it poses two specific problems: One, it's as intimidating as hell, and two, it poses terrific navigation problems. Preparation is the key defense."

Crowell says divers are responsible for creating most visibility problems. Ninety percent of the time, it'll clear if you just stop moving, maintain contact with the wreck and wait."

As with any difficult environment or situation, panic is the killer in zero vis, he says. Relax, take a few breaths and analyze what is occurring. Maintain your original position vis-a-vis contact with your surroundings and think before reacting. If there is a current, it will eventually clear your position.

Crowell says one simple means of avoiding visibility problems when digging or moving wreckage is to orient yourself toward the exit before you begin to dig and to excavate into the current, not with it.


Both divers consider navigational skills to be the key to low vis diving. "No method of navigation is failure proof", said Chatterton. "In my opinion, successful navigation is using multiple methods simultaneously as conditions dictate. Navigation doesn't happen by itself. It takes effort, but it can enable you to do things that otherwise would be extremely foolhardy."

Crowell adds personality to Chatterton's description: "It's analogous to going shopping at a mall. Some people drive, park their cars, go shopping, go back to their cars and leave, never having to stop and think where they are. Others have to remember what row and section they parked in, which entrance they used, etc. The number of navigational methods you use depends on what you're comfortable with."


"I hardly ever dive with a reel, " said Crowell, "but I only go as far as I'm comfortable. If you don't feel comfortable, you shouldn't be where you are. Pen (penetration) lines are fine if you know how to use them and lay them out. There's also a time factor involved on each end of the dive - laying the line going in and removing the line coming out. A reel is a secondary piece of equipment. Don't use it as a crutch nor expect it to be there when you need it."

"A pen line can break or be cut on just about anything", noted Chatterton. "Then what? In my opinion, penetrating with only a reel is foolish and dangerous. And using a pen line is much slower than swimming without one.


"As I understand it, Gary Gentile coined the phrase 'progressive penetration' to describe penetration without a reel, instead relying on multiple dives to learn a specific area and progressing incrementally each dive", said Chatterton. "I'd describe this as experience, but it's come to describe any non reel penetration."

"Knowledge and experience go a long way", agreed Crowell. "Don't go beyond your comfort zone. Get deck plans and study the layout of the wreck. Count portholes or doorways on the way in. And start practicing progressive penetration on wrecks with lots of ambient light. One thing I still do is take my light and place it in my stomach, then sit and wait for my eyes to become accustomed to the dark. You'd be surprised at how they pick up the ambient light."


"Panic will kill you", said Crowell. "It reverts right back to your open water training. Assess the situation, stop and take three breaths, but don't panic." the name of the game is survival, which is as much an attitude as an action.

More often than not, it is the perception of a problem, rather than the problem itself, that leads to an accident. Don't freeze, and don't focus on what you did wrong - there's plenty of time for recriminations later. Instead, concentrate on getting your breathing, emotions and actions under control. Think about where you are and how you will exit the wreck, then devote your attention to retracing your route at a calm, steady pace.

reprinted from Sport Diver magazine, May / June 2000

John Chatterton diving the Andrea Doria 1 - Dive Sites & Shipwrecks - New Jersey Scuba Diving This is what diving the 'Doria was like in its heyday. Actually, this dive by John Chatterton is extraordinary. John's matter-of-fact narration belies the fact that for almost anyone else, a dive like this would be suicide.
John Chatterton does a deep penetration dive on the Andrea Doria.



I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.

Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
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since 2016-09-11