The current Dive Safe campaign by Roads and Maritime Services NSW “LOOK OUT Divers About” is to be applauded. The confusion surrounding the role of the alpha flag in Australia is slowly unravelling and now a distinct message is being sent to all skippers in NSW on what to look out for – Divers – on the surface – can be up to 100m from their float/flag. Steer clear.
Let’s jump back to the old argument of the “red and white diver flag” v “Alpha” flag and what they really mean. The traditional diver-down red and white flag was developed by divers (overseas) in 1957. Yet for many people in
Australia the “Alpha” flag means “diver below” yet this is what the red and white diver down flag means. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that the traditional red & white diver-down flag is intended to protect divers themselves, while the blue & white alpha flag is intended to protect vessels from collision.
The Alpha flag really is meant to protect vessels from collision the meaning “I have a diver down; This boat is restricted in its ability to manoeuvre, so keep clear and keep to a slow speed." Generally, only vessels to which the divers are physically connected by communication lines, air hoses, or the like in international water are required to display the alpha flag.
However in Australia the Alpha flag was adopted eons ago as the skindivers and scuba flag, disdaining the red and white diver flag, and it is here to stay. Yet the case with spearfishers is that we spend more time on the surface than actually “below” it. It has been an ongoing issue for spearfishers to get skippers to recognise and beware of us as surface swimmers, to not just to see the Alpha flag flying and presume we are on the bottom on the seabed and continue close past the flag at a considerable rate of knots, when we are really swimming or even resting on the surface readying ourselves for our next free-dive. All of us who spearfish could probably attest to many near misses with vessels simply because:
a) they either presume we are under the water when seeing the flag;
b) have no real knowledge of what the flag means;
c) the vessel operator had not seen the diver/float/flag this could be due to poor visibility such as driving into the sun, the diver was not towing a float/flag, the driver was not “looking ahead” as by maritime law he should be.
Raising the awareness safety issue of boat/prop strike of spearfishers has been going on since our early beginnings. Much, much hard work has been done by many members of the USFA and Maritime officials to get to this stage now – a video, stickers, posters, pamphlets, maritime handing out free float and boat flags, boat ramp signage etc. While I look with great satisfaction at what is occurring now I also anxiously hope that the awareness campaign continues into the future, this can only occur if all of us assist in driving the “look out divers about” campaign seeing that it reaches all boaters and water users. I also dwelt back on the past and reflected on what got this campaign to where it is today.
When I first took up spearfishing as a boy my two initial fears of the sea were; being stranded, alone, out in the ocean; the second fear was sharks, just sharks with big teeth that would eat me. The latter fear quickly dissipated as on my initial dives I encountered many whalers and Grey Nurse sharks and found that sharks after all are not that big an issue. However as my spearfishing journey progressed I came to realise that I was having more close calls with marine vessels than I was having with any other marine creature with teeth. By close I’m talking arm’s length type near misses; bumps and hits by powerboats and yachts and them driving over the top of me while submerged pulling my gun out of my hand as they go over my rig cord (the line I have attached to my gun and float) and drive away unaware of my presence at all; where feeling a presence or slight noise I raise my head to see a shadow bearing down on me to be pushed under between twin hulled cats (one particular boat had huge Alpha flags painted on its sides…) Take into consideration that everyone I knew who spearfished had similar stories, and the older divers had even more stories to tell. Then jet skis became popular…
When I started out in the late 70’s we used as a float like a 2lt detergent bottle that was pink or yellow, some of us used a transparent cordial bottle, fellas that used the clear bottles were asked by their skipper not to use them again as they were impossible to find when the rest of the crew wanted to move onto another location or simply to go back to shore. It didn’t take long for the USFA to insist on using a minimum size float in competition (now it is 7lt) where most spearos through the 80s used a hi vis bright orange coloured “Ronstan” float, yet still near misses and hits were occurring, fortunately nothing serious. Again the USFA made it compulsory now to fly the “Alpha” flag suspended from your float, as well as ensuring that all spearfishing boats compulsorily displayed the Alpha flag from their boats. These were all positive steps towards increasing our awareness to skippers while on and below the surface of the water.
As time has gone on we see more spearfishers in the water now and add to that mix more boaters and still the incidents keep increasing. It isn’t just the social boater, yachty, fisherman or Jet Ski hoon who are a part of the issue, it is spearfishers as well. Clearly I can recall several instances of my own driving or being in a boat with someone else at the helm where due to being distracted, or a snorkeler has not had a float and flag to warn us of their presence where we had had close calls. One circumstance still sends chills along my spine where I remember looking over the gunwale and seeing the surprised looks on two snorkelers with hand spears looking up at me as I was looking down at them, disaster averted only because we had flown over a swell and the divers were in the trough between the swells. With no floats, leave alone flags, these two divers were invisible to us in the rough conditions, I remember thinking “what on earth are they thinking being out here (Sydney South Head, right on the NW tip) with handspears in this weather without some sort of float to signify their presence, idiots!” Yet they were probably thinking, apart from “Gee that was a close call!” the same thing “what are these guys doing out in this miserable weather so close to the rocks, couldn’t they see us?!?” It was food for thought for me. I began to make myself more aware, as do many of you once you have a close call. Yet still we have tragic incidents.
Mark Colys, a St George Spearfishing club member and Australian representative, was struck by a boat that had only just gone into gear, his injuries were horrific, and if not for quick thinking by his crew he would have died. Mark has been incapacitated by this accident and had permanent injuries.
Meetings with Maritime and local members saw USFA members like Lee Dalli were very keen to see the International dive flag the red with white diagonal stripe being used due to its greater visibility and they were working hard to convince the necessary authorities to see this flag recognised.
Other divers like Alex Lewis made prototypes of a flag that was a hi-vis fluoro yellow field with a black diagonal stripe which has outstanding visibility on the water, Alex also used the Alpha flag lying atop this fluoro flag that is effective.
Wade Koolis and Parry Gryllis had meetings with various Maritime employees and met with their local parliament members to encourage an awareness campaign. The Sydney clubs enforced amongst their boat drivers that when a n Alpha flag is seen that the boat must stop completely, ensure the amount of heads match the float and flags seen before proceeding slowly on cautiously. Maritime NSW in their safety pamphlet ask skippers when divers are about to slow down, keep well clear and keep a good lookout. More great advice in the pamphlet for skippers “keep an eye on the prop area when divers are reboarding to make sure it is safe…” You must ensure when picking up your divers that there is no way possible the prop can be engaged.
In March 2011 with the help of keen spearo and graphic artist Guy Keulemans a series of posters was drawn up and the USFA was about to begin a guerrilla campaign “LOOK OUT SPEARO ABOUT” these images featured the possible flags a spearfisher would use, and, enforced the message that we are not “Diver Below” more “person swimming on the surface” therefore have your wits about you when you see this flag and slow down or stop before feeling it safe to go on. Barely a week passed however and a terrible injury happened to Steve Wayne from the Mosman Whalers club. Steve like Mark an Australian representative spearfisher, was competing in the Sydney Alliman Shield competition fishing just nearby to South Head close in to the rocks, he was struck by the Ocean Extreme charter boat, a huge RIB with 3 x 300hp engines, seeing serious injury occur.
The driver of the vessel was proven to be at fault. The boat had driven at high speed through four divers all with flags and floats displayed clearly. Steve’s boat also was displaying a huge Alpha Flag from his boat, his boat being close to the four divers. Negligence from the charter boat was found to be proven. (This company again just last week at the time of writing this almost collected two divers in the water, driving at extreme speeds 30m off the rocks. Steve, this time was driving his boat and being highly alert drove at the Ocean Extreme charter boat to alter its course. Once again both divers had flags displayed and Steve’s boat was clearly displaying an alpha flag.)
It isn't just about boaters recognising and knowing what actions to take when they see an Alpha flag, it is essential that all skippers are complying with maritime regulation that while steering their moving vessel they have good field of vision and are actually “looking ahead”, and driving responsibly.
Adrian Wayne (Steve’s father) a life member of the USFA, and a campaigner for spearfishers rights for many decades, requested for the guerrilla campaign to abort as he wished to take over the campaign for diver awareness. Adrian wanted to cement something solid concerning diver awareness on the water, to have procedure and policy in place that would reach everyone and hopefully all water users such as scuba divers, snorkellers, and ocean swimmers would benefit. With Adrian’s many political contacts garnered over his years of dealing with the political parties for the benefit of spearfishing some inroads began to be made, slowly.
Unfortunately during this period of going back and forth from one government committee to the next government department and advisory groups, in January 2013 Matthew Sykes a popular member of the tight south coast spearfishing community was struck by a fishing boat and was killed. Matt a staunch advocate of diver safety was displaying float and flag at the time, he simply was not seen by the boat driver. From the Coroner’s report came many suggestions that spearos had been requesting for some time.
To the Minister, she asked that consideration be given to introducing a mandatory requirement that divers display, in addition to the International Code Flag A (Alpha Flag), a fluorescent yellow/green coloured flag (as recommended by the Maritime Management Centre) to increase the visibility of the International Code Flag A.
Any future review or update of the NSW Boating handbook or an associated educational campaign should provide additional and specific information to inform boat operators about diver safety or diver awareness. Such material should include advisory warnings to boat users of the distances divers and spear fishers could be from the International Code Flag A in the water.
She urged the Maritime Management Centre to conduct a review of the minimum distance requirements between a vessel and person when an International Code Flag A is displayed and that consideration be given to include a requirement that all boat operators keep a minimum distance of 60 metres or more (or if not possible a safe distance) from all people in the water at all times unless such vessels are engaged in the activity of dropping off or picking up people.
Magistrate Fleming also recommended Shoalhaven City Council conduct a review of signage at all boat ramps for which council has oversight for the purpose of obtaining and displaying the most current and updated signage available from the Maritime Management Centre.
It was recommended that any such signage provide information and advice to all water users of the presence of divers and spear fishers.
Come late 2014 and Roads and Maritime NSW have launched this terrific campaign “LOOK OUT Divers About” just a subtle change from the USFA original campaign of “look out spearos about”.
The USFA committee endorses the safe practice messages that are used in the Roads and Maritime Services “Look OUT Divers About” campaign. We recommend you make your float more visible so choose an appropriate colour or put a “sock” over the float; ensure your flag sits high above the water and will stay suspended so the float does not roll and lets the flag sag in the water so weight your float ballast accordingly; a fluoro flag also flown on your float or attached on to the Alpha flag will ensure higher visibility. If you are diving from a boat the higher you can have your Alpha flag displayed and the bigger the flag the better; again you could have a fluoro flag flying as well to bring attention to your presence on the water. If you are driving a boat ensure that when divers are coming on board that there is no way possible the engine can engage the prop; when you see dive floats/flags in the water slow down or stop, keep well clear, keep a good lookout and count the heads to the floats that they match in number as a diver could be under the surface and you may drive over him.
In summary I know that this is not going to prevent future near misses and accidents that will cause great harm to divers, however it will certainly reduce the number of boat strikes I am certain. Yet we spearfishers must not only rely on the boat skipper and jet-ski drivers to be attentive and aware that we could be in the water nearby. We must help ourselves and be highly visible, as it was only this weekend past where I was at Long Bay, Malabar, and I witnessed over a dozen spearfishers and snorkelers in the bay swimming about on the surface with no float/flags, all the while Scuba charter vessels, fishing boats and jet skis were running up and down the bay zigzagging amongst them. This is lunacy. Many of these divers who I approached English is not their preferred language so are not aware of how to be safe. Please, if you see another spearo or snorkeler out diving who is not towing a flag/float please politely remind them of their responsibility to their own safety and for their families sake, remind them too of the boater who would hit them, and his family and impact that will have. To spearfish in populated areas without towing a float/flag is akin to going to work on a construction site without wearing a hard hat or being on a roof without harness attached. Think safe, act safe, be safe.