If you’ve never been diving before, you might wonder how a diver keeps safe beneath the water. After all, wide open waters are always likely to see plenty of boat traffic, not just marine life!
Therefore, a diver down flag is often a great way to show that you are diving in the area, and that divers are likely to remain in the area for the foreseeable.
Before you start diving, it is always a good idea to learn more about different dive flag options, and why different dive flags make a genuine difference to your safety while beneath the waves.
In this guide, I’ll take you through everything you need to know about diver down flag etiquette, and which you should use if you’re heading out with divers into the open water.
What is a Diver Down Flag?
A diver down flag is a warning signal that indicates there are divers in the region.
Specifically, a diver down flag lets other water traffic know that you are down below – hence ‘diver down’. You’ll raise a flag when you approach and start descending into a dive site, letting boats and other traffic know that they need to stay well clear.
However, there are actually different types of dive flag you need to be aware of. You may find that some dive flags are blue and white, while others are red and white. Apart from the difference in colour, these serve very different purposes, even though they are both essential to keeping you safe.
What are the Two Types of Diver Down Flags?
When you go diving, you will have a choice between an alpha dive flag, which is blue and white, or a red and white flag. The red and white flag, oddly, doesn’t have a formal name!
The alpha flag is used to generally warn people that diving is in progress, and that you are deep below the waves. The alpha flag is based around maritime flag standards, meaning that any qualified boat users will recognise a blue and white diver flag as clear indication they need to keep back at a specific speed and distance. The alpha flag is mainly used to prevent boat collisions.
The red and white diver flag is similar to the alpha flag in some ways, but it’s generally used as a dive flag when more space is required. For example, the red and white diver flag is used when you are starting to approach the surface, or if you have a particularly wide dive site demand. This, unlike the alpha flag, tends to be used more to protect the divers than the boats. This is probably the most commonly used diver down flag.
In any case, dive flags are recognised internationally, and there are specific laws and regulations which may differ from place to place. Whether you are diving or are sailing a boat close to a dive flag, it’s important to make sure you abide by the rules that the flag sets out. In some countries, the use of both flags are required by law.
What Do You Do if You See a Diver Down Flag?
If you see a diver down flag in the water, you will need to make sure that your boat is travelling at a safe speed and distance away from the flag and surrounding site. This goes for both the diver flag as well as the red and white dive flag.
If you are driving a boat, you must ideally keep around 300 feet, or 90 metres, away from any diver down flag or dive flag you spot. This applies to open water – if you spot a dive flag or multiple dive flags in smaller channels, you may be able to keep up to 100 feet or 30 metres away. However, regardless of whether you see an alpha flag or not, it’s essential you keep well clear.
Divers, too, should be keeping well within the diver down flag they set. The rules proposed by the Divers Alert Network (DAN) says that divers should look to ascend well within 45 metres of the flag.
Communication between boats and divers is essential. The dive boat should establish clear communications channels with all divers before a flag is set. As normal, all drivers and divers should make sure that they follow clear safety planning and procedures.
What’s more, there should always be a safety procedure put in place for emergencies. Both dive boat personnel and divers in the site should keep vigilant. External boats should also know what the standard dive flags look like, and should be careful to give those scuba diving in the area as much space and respect as they need.
Not paying attention to a diver flag, whether it is an alpha flag or other divers’ flags, could result in boating collisions, injuries, or even fatalities. One of the biggest risks to snorkelers in general is the risk of them hitting boats without due caution. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interests to keep vigilant, and to always know what each diver down flag is in place to warn against.
What Flag Indicates Scuba Diving or Snorkeling Activity?
Both the red and white flag and the blue and white alpha flag will indicate that scuba diving and/or snorkelling are occurring in the local vicinity.
Diver down flag colours can differ when it comes to how close a diver is to the surface. Boat traffic must make themselves aware of the different diving flags available, and what they need to do to avoid dive boat collisions and the like.
What’s more, divers and their dive boat personnel must always make sure to securely hoist the relevant dive flag on their launching boat at all times. Using the right flag – or even a diver down flag at all – is crucial not only for the safety of divers, but also for the safety of boat traffic in the area.
The alpha flag tends to be more commonly used that the red and white flags you might otherwise see in open water. However, if you are going diving, always make sure to use both types of dive flags.
Yes – a dive flag is just as important for snorkelers as it is for deeper divers. That’s because snorkelers may actually be more at risk than scuba divers, who go in much deeper. An in water mobile buoy or floatation device with one of the flags attached is a sensible option for snorkelers – this way it can be moved with the group.
What is a DSMB?
You may dive in an area where flags are not required by law, but divers must carry a delayed surface marker buoy or DSMB. A DSMB is launched by a diver as they approach the surface, normally just before the safety stop. This allows others to be alerted of your ascent. When I was working as a dive instructor in Thailand, flags were not used, but all dive leaders had use a DSMB. It is still like a flag, warning boats to stay well clear as divers are ascending. If you are an Open Water Diver and want to learn more about this, check out the PADI Delayed Surface Marker Buoy Diver specialty course.
Now you know the difference between the alpha dive flag and red and white dive flags, it’s time to make sure you use them correctly. Knowing what these flags look like is only half the battle. Use dive flags to show when a site is in use, and never remove a diver flag until you and your buddies are clear of the water.