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What Is A Dive Flag & What Are The Rules?

   October 2nd, 2023   Posted In: Articles   Tags:

You may have seen a flag on a boat or on the surface of the water and not known what it is. This is the scary truth for many boaters out on the water that do not know to avoid the immediate area around a dive flag. SCUBA divers learn about dive flags in their first open water SCUBA class. But sometimes, people operating boats do not get any training. So what exactly is a dive flag and what are the rules for it?

What Is a Dive Flag?

A dive flag, sometimes appropriately called a “diver down flag”, is used to let any boaters in the area know that there are divers below and to avoid the area. This is because divers can be very close to the surface at any given time during their dive. It is also very important that divers do not ascend right into a boat. Thus, a dive flag is necessary to warn boaters to stay clear so they don’t accidentally hit an unsuspecting SCUBA diver.

What Does A Diver Down Flag Look Like?

There are two types of dive flags. One is the typical diver down flag that is red and has a white diagonal stripe through it. The other is an internationally recognized dive flag known as the alpha flag that is white and blue and has a “K” shape on the right side. This international flag is actually flown to tell other vessels in the area that the boat’s mobility is restricted, and it should be flown with the first diver down flag for divers in the water.

Dive Flag Rules

Dive flag rules will vary by state and country. Please look up the dive flag rules before SCUBA diving or operating a boat in a certain area. In general, boaters must stay 50-300 feet away from any dive flag that is displayed in open water or 50-100 feet when in narrow bodies of water such as rivers or canals, depending on the region. Divers must be within 50-100 feet of a dive flag when diving with one attached as a buoy on the surface. When diving from a boat, divers must stay within 100-300 feet. These distances are dependent on location. In general, it is good advice to stay close to a dive flag when in shallow water or when surfacing. 

Dive Flag Size

When a diver down flag is flown from a boat, it needs to be placed at the highest point on the boat and must be 20 x 24 inches or greater. When a diver down flag is attached to a buoy on the surface of the water, the dive flag should be at least 12 x 12 inches. Dive flags should have some sort of stability rod placed along the flag to keep it stiff.

Shore Diving With A Dive Flag

In some regions, it is required by law to have a dive flag when shore diving. Underwater while SCUBA diving, one diver holds onto the flag with a rope, while any other divers stay nearby. Do not attach the rope to yourself in any way. This is dangerous because a boat could hit it and drag the line and you with it.

The dive flag is attached to a buoy and stays on the surface. There is a rope attached to the buoy that is wrapped and can extend and be wrapped up as needed with a reel as you change depths in the water. You want to keep the rope snug so as not to create any drag in the water. This also keeps the flag as close to above you as possible.

what is a dive flag

Boat Diving With A Dive Flag

While boat diving, you may have noticed the dive flag or flags mounted somewhere on the lines of the boat. This is an indicator to all boats in the area that there are divers below. Of course, the rules here are a little different. You are not expected to stay right under the dive flag. Once you descend off the boat, you go on your dive which can take you away from where the boat is located. However, you should be pretty deep at this point so that even if a boat was above you, you would be fine. This is also why it is important to surface near your boat. That way the flag will serve as that warning to protect you. Especially as you ascend and help keep other boaters away.

Surface Marker Buoys

Another way to be visible in the water as a SCUBA diver is to deploy a surface marker buoy just before ascent. This will ensure that other boats will have a chance to see you. The surface marker buoy is attached to the diver and then removed from the clip on the BCD to use it. Do not keep the buoy attached to you when in use.

Remember to Play it Safe

If you hear a boat getting closer and you are shallow in the water, get a little deeper as soon as you can to avoid getting hit by the boat. Even with dive flags, we have seen so many boats and jet skis in particular go flying through the dive area directly adjacent to where a dive flag is. Whether it be on a boat or from divers below holding onto their own flag. Be safe and keep an eye on your surroundings! In the end, it is up to you, the SCUBA diver, to make sure you are safe while SCUBA diving. Even with dive flags and surface marker buoys, you need to be aware of potential boat traffic at all times, while underwater and especially while surfacing from a dive.

Candace is an avid scuba diver and freelance writer with a PhD in Biomedicine. She has been diving since 2002 and is currently a PADI IDC Staff Instructor. When she is not instructing, she enjoys writing about scuba and volunteering at the local aquarium where she dives with the sharks!

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