TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Diving

BeckaSafety Tips For Kayak Scuba Divers

by Tom Holtey PADI Certified Open Water Diver
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Merging these two sports can present some unique safety concerns. This summary of tips is an effort to help kayak divers apply things they would have learned in scuba diving classes to what training should be provided in routine kayak lessons.

First & foremost, of course: All divers should be certified by a recognized dive training association, and re-certified on a periodic basis. It is also important when merging these two sports to have basic training in kayaking, and to take additional and repeat training as available and applicable.

DCS Risk Factors

There are risk factors that increase the chance of decompression sickness (DCS) that are particular to kayak diving as well as to all divers. There are additional factors, not covered here, so review your scuba training materials.


surf landingVigorous exercise, before, during or after your dive, as well as general fatigue, can contribute to DCS. Kayak divers should be careful to plan the kayaking portion of their outing to avoid strenuous paddling situations, such as strong currents, unfavorable winds and challenging surf breaks. Careful changes to the dive plan, or cancellation of the dive(s) should be considered if unexpected strain is encountered while paddling out to the dive site. Be well-rested prior to your outing, do not “pull an all nighter” in preparation.

Multiple Dives

Know your dive tables well and plan each day of diving carefully and conservatively well within the maximum limits. This is especially important for multiple repetitive dives. If planning more than one dive during your outing, dive the deepest location first, and continue with increasingly shallower dives. A safety stop at 15 feet, for 3 minutes, is always wise. Put a marker, and clip, on your anchor line at 15 feet.


Dehydration can contribute to DCS. Be well hydrated before launch. Bring water and have a plan for easy access to that water while onboard your kayak. A pocket on your kayak seat is often the best placement for a bottle, or PFD back for a hydro-pack with drinking hose.

Scuba DrysuitCold

Cold temperatures contribute to DCS, and can lead to hypothermia too. Pay attention to both the air temp and the water temp. Dress accordingly for both, but be wearing the outfit that will protect you for the coldest conditions you will encounter, presumably underwater. Wet suits can be worn half on, and open, while kayaking, to manage excess heat. Dry suits should always be completely sealed while on the water, and not opened again until ashore.

Dry suits for diving are different from those used for kayaking. Scuba drysuits are made of heavy duty material, have pressure release valves, and are bulky. Kayaking drysuites are not recommended for scuba although they do provide a greater degree of freedom of movement. If you overheat, cool off with a swim, or dunk/douse your head with water. A warm watch cap, put on, or taken off, can go a long way to controlling your body temp.


An increase in altitude can cause DCS complications. A drive up to Mount Haleakala, immediately after a Maui kayak dive, is not recommended. Nor is scheduling one last dive on a Caribbean reef, shortly before your flight home. Your scuba diving training will provide guidelines for air and mountain travel after diving. Review as applicable.

DCS symptoms include:

  • A dull ache, usually in the joints. Not unheard of among kayakers.
  • Tingling or numbness in the limbs. This can occur normally in the legs and feet while seated in a kayak seat.
  • Fatigue and weakness. Not uncommon while paddling especially with a heavy loaded or semi swamped kayak.
  • Lightheadedness. This is NOT a common complaint among kayakers, and a sure sign of DCS or other serious problem.

DCS symptoms can be subtle and may masquerade as typical kayaking complaints. Any of these above symptoms should be considered serious, assuming it is a direct result of scuba diving and not of kayaking. Symptoms can come on 15 minutes to 12 hours after a dive. Most symptoms come on gradually and persist but they can also be intermittent. If you suspect DCS, seek medical help and a diving physician immediately.


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Personal Floatation Devices

A personal floatation device (PFD) is required by law to be aboard a paddle craft, in most, if not all, states, provinces and countries. Yes, scuba divers, even some snorkelers and free divers, use an approved buoyancy device for the sport, such as a BC, air vest, or tow float. This could “keep you safe” but may not prevent a ticket from marine patrol, while kayaking. A life vest is the essential piece of aquatic safety gear. Be safe, smart, and keep the authorities off your back, have a PFD on board your kayak, worn or in easy reach. At the very least it is a secondary level of safety for you.

Preparing To Dive

If you are a serious kayaker chances are you will have a Type III PFD vest style jacket that is comfortable to wear while paddling. It can easily be strapped in the tank-well while diving.

For those salty watermen who will not be wearing a vest, the Type II PFD, bright orange, and secured well to the deck, will show marine patrol, from a distance, that you are compliant. The “old fashion”, around the neck, Type II is not very bulky and easy to stow. (Affordable too. Not very comfortable to wear.)

A Type V inflatable PFD is very compact, and of interest to kayak divers who’s kayaks are heavily laden with gear. Bear in mind that a Type V PFD must be worn at all times, while aboard, for it to be “legal”. (See USCG PFD info)

Loading Your Kayak

Kayak divers will be carrying a heavy load on their kayak. Weigh your dive gear and your paddle gear. Know what your kayak’s weight capacity is. Make sure you are not overloading your boat. Your body weight plus all the cargo must not exceed the manufacture’s recommended weight capacity. An overloaded boat can cause leaking, greatly decrease the performance, and increase the chance of tip over.

The cargo must be distributed evenly in the kayak. Place the heaviest items toward the center of the kayak, as much as possible, erring slightly toward the stern for most water conditions. Gear should be evenly loaded from side to side. Cargo wells, also called tank wells, are handy for securing “wet access” gear, but they store cargo at a higher center of gravity. Cargo wells often require the addition of several cargo straps to the kayak. Do not rely on deck bungee alone. Try to limit on-deck storage and high center loads as much as possible. A weight belt and anchor is best stowed below deck and accessed by means of a center hatch. Your scuba unit is often best stowed in a tank well, but place it tank down, BC up. Other gear, such as mask fins & snorkel, is often best placed in a bow cargo hatch, below deck to prevent them from getting washed overboard. Net bags, well secured the kayak, can help with on-deck stowage. (See also Packing Your Sit-on-top Kayak)

cargoKayak divers will be opening and closing cargo hatches while on the water. Not all kayak hatches and locations are suitable to kayak diving. Pay special attention to securing a hatch properly, each and every time it is opened. Make sure all hatch covers have a good leash and will not be lost overboard.

Be very careful while unloading and re-loading gear, to ensure that you will not tip over with a hatch open. Sitting sidesaddle, or straddling your sit-on-top, feet in the water, with swim fins on, can greatly stabilize your kayak while handling heavy gear. Always carry a bilge pump that is in easy access to you and your buddies, for immediate use. At the very least, carry one pump in every buddy group of 3 sit-on-top paddlers.

Your Boat

It is assumed that most, if not all, kayak divers will be using a sit-on-top (SOT) kayak. A SOT is by far the best kayak option for any water person who plans to be both on the water and under the water in the same outing. Yes, some underwater activities can be performed with sit-in-side (SIS) kayaks or other paddle craft, as the support boat, but only within limits.

practiceA SOT kayak is self-bailing and fully sealed, if used properly, making it impossible to swamp. For scuba a SOT kayak is hands-down the best choice for kayak diving. Some Sit-inside kayaks, and even canoes, can be used as swim platforms for snorkelers, but only in the best of conditions by skilled swimmers and paddlers. They can fill with water after a tip and swamp, sinking down below the water’s surface, making them difficult to re-float, and impossible to paddle to shore effectively.


The above information is geared for kayak divers who are using scuba gear. Much of the information is applicable to snorkelers, free divers and scuba divers. I feel compelled to state that this information is certainly not complete, nor absolute, for any underwater pursuit. You are responsible for your own safety, training and research.

All kayak divers should practice the skills needed, in a trial setting, with calm protected conditions, in shallow water, before ever venturing out to open water. This will allow you a trial run, work out the “bugs”, give you a chance to recover lost gear, and be on shore quickly if necessary. Always kayak dive with a buddy, and include them in your practice trials.

Have fun on, and under, the water!

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