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Are Britain's divers getting out of their depth?

THE Health and Safety Executive is investigating the death of a scuba diver earlier this week and may prosecute the diving school involved in the accident which has prompted renewed fears about the safety of the sport in this country.

The diver, a 34-year-old married man from south London, drowned eight miles out in the Channel, off Littlehampton, West Sussex. Four of the eight other divers in the party were rushed to hospital suffering from the bends after surfacing too fast without decompression stops. They were diving at a depth of 90 feet.

An increasing number of Britons are going on diving holidays abroad. When they return home many decide to explore the UK waters. What some fail to realise is that diving in Britain is often far more demanding than on a coral reef. Visibility is poorer, the temperatures are lower, and the currents are worse. Inexperienced divers are failing to take account of these factors and are going beyond their skill levels and diving without adequate support.

Graeme Gourlay, who set up the magazine Dive International two years ago, said: "If you're trained in the Red Sea it will be made crystal clear to you that you are trained to dive in similar circumstances, not in a cold water gravel pit in England." However, the certification card which many divers gain after a course abroad involving around 10 dives - two of which take place in a swimming pool - allows the holder to dive in any waters.

"Maybe the rules should be changed and people who have learnt to dive in more benign environments shouldn't be allowed to dive in the UK on their own -- or even with a buddy - until they have done more supervised dives," suggested Mr Gourlay.

Diving does not feature in the top 10 list of risk sports. Last year there were 16 deaths from diving in Britain. However, this figure could be reduced if more divers were to join the British Sub-Aqua Club, the UK's governing body for sports diving, believes the club's vice-chairman, David Roberts.

He said: "What tends to happen is people who have diving experience in only one site walk away with a ticket that allows them to dive anywhere in the world. Our training programme requires people to experience a range of conditions before being certified."

One of the deaths at Leicestershire's Stoney Cove inland site last year involved a diver with only four open water dives in his logbook and those had been undertaken in Malta.

A spokesman for the HSE, which is investigating whether in Wednesday's accident the instructors breached the Diving At Work Regulations 1997, said: "Diving is a growing sport, along with windsurfing and paragliding. Just as with other adventure sports, when you get into difficulties and you aren't prepared things can go wrong quite rapidly and have disastrous consequences."