Scuba Diving: How Dangerous Is It?

Until about 100 years ago, no-one had ever heard of scuba diving. Back then, diving was a dangerous activity: you wore a heavy suit and a metal helmet, and your air was delivered by a long pipe fed from the surface.

Then came SCUBA – an acronym for “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus” and recreational diving became possible.

So How Dangerous Is Scuba Diving?


Recreational scuba diving is one of the more dangerous things an American can do. The US death rate for scuba divers is 163 fatalities per 1 million people, higher than the death rate for motorists. But with one major difference: scuba divers are less at risk from other divers than motorists are from other drivers.

The table below illustrates the US death rate for various activities and occupations. You will note that fatalities due to recreational diving is at the top of the list.

ActivityUS Death Rate Per 1 Million People
Scuba Diving (Recreational)163
Driving a Car154
Mining & Quarrying109
Agriculture, Hunting58
Manufacturing Industry13
Drowning (not while diving)12

80% of all scuba fatalities are officially listed as death by “drowning”. Decompression sickness and arterial gas embolism are often major causes of death. And the term “drowning” often obscures the real cause of death. There can be many factors which can cause drowning when scuba diving. The main ones are:

  • Poor management of gas – Running out of air (called “gas” in scuba diving);
  • Poor buoyancy control;
  • Equipment misuse;
  • Entrapment;
  • Rough water conditions;
  • Inappropriate response to an emergency;

The health and age of the diver can also affect what happens during a dive. Pre-existing health issues can cause problems deep under water. About 25% of all scuba diving fatalities are  associated with a cardiac event. And one should worry more about the health of the diver than the health of the diving equipment: equipment failure is very rarely a cause of death.

In addition to the causes of death listed above, there are several more factors which can contribute to the drowning of a diver:

  • Inexperience
  • Infrequent diving (“out of practice”)
  • Inadequate supervision
  • Insufficient pre-dive briefings
  • Buddy separation
  • Buddy getting into trouble
  • Dive conditions beyond diver’s training.

Experience is the key. And the experience of your diving buddy is also very important. Many divers get into trouble while attempting to rescue their buddy. Most scuba accidents happen when divers encounter conditions they have never encountered before.

If you would like to see specific details about a lawsuit involving death while scuba diving, Diver Magazine has an excellent online article which examines in detail a scuba incident where two experienced divers went missing and were later declared dead.

Here’s the link to the article.

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