Free Diving in Kelp
Along the North Coast many divers become entangled in kelp. Those that can calmly free themselves survive but tragically, several divers drown every year in this same situation. The truth is, most entanglements can be easily avoided.
The vast majority of kelp along the North Coast is Bull Kelp (Macrocystis sp.), which is quite slippery and does not tighten up on wetsuits. In watching seals and otters swim through the kelp effortlessly and without incident, we can learn a valuable lesson about being as streamlined as possible while diving. The problem for divers usually comes when they snag items that are not streamlined with the rest of their bodies. The most notorious culprits are dive knives, fin buckles, and snorkels.
Ironically, strapping a dive knife to your calf while free diving is more likely to get you INTO trouble than out of trouble. They are notorious for catching hold of the kelp on ascent and, if strapped on the calf, can be difficult to reach. If you feel more comfortable free diving with a knife, consider strapping it to your arm or thigh where it is less likely to catch and much easier to reach if needed.
There are several reputable fin companies which offer dive fins without buckles. If you prefer fins with buckles, consider taping over the buckles once you have them sized to your foot. While diving near kelp make a visual check of your fins and feet before every ascent to be sure that they are clear.
Snorkels getting caught in kelp can compound the diver's problem. The snag often pulls the diver's mask from the diver's face. This floods the mask, obscures the diver's vision, and induces panic. Snorkel entanglement is usually caused by not being aware of your surroundings. One of the key rules of diving is to be aware of what is around you at all times. On ascent, always look up, watch where you are going and be aware of what is around you from every direction. Avoid the thick kelp canopy near the surface, but if you must break through it, lead with your hands.
The easiest way to avoid kelp entanglement is not to dive in it. If you are not an advanced diver, stay in clear areas or on the fringes of the kelp forests. Do not dive in kelp if visibility is poor. If you become entangled, DO NOT STRUGGLE and resist panic. Find where the kelp is caught and calmly untangle it.
Consider practicing a kelp removal drill while you are diving. At depth, when your lungs are telling you it is time to surface, imagine that your fin becomes entangled in kelp. Can you reach down and free it, or remove your fin if you had to? Would you remember to put your hand on your weight belt buckle and be ready to drop it if needed?
The vast majority of drowned divers are recovered with their weight belts on. Doing drills like this will teach your mind not to panic in a real emergency. Practice it- it could save your life.