Information about Saba's diving, hiking and flying...
One of the more frequently asked questions divers have about Saba concerns the risks associated with diving, flying and hiking. For decades, divers have been flying to Saba from St. Maarten, conducting two-three dives and returning to St. Maarten the same day without any known cases of decompression sickness resulting directly from the short 12-minute Winair flight. This is due, in part, to the flight not exceeding an altitude of 2500 feet (and frequently much less) as well as its short duration. However, as you remember from your introductory scuba course, there is an increased risk associated with flying after diving. In particular, if you are planning to depart on an international flight from St. Maarten, you should adhere strictly to the guidelines of your certifying agency and allow sufficient time for off-gassing.
Alert Diver magazine Fall 2013 issue re-examines the question of the St. Maarten "day tripper" flying to Saba for a day of diving. Click here to read the full report in order to make your own, educated decision.
At the same time, one of the more popular topside activities on Saba is hiking up Mount Scenery or setting off on one of the other hiking trails that are maintained by the Saba Conservation Foundation. As for hiking, you may remember that rigorous exercise, either immediately before or after diving, may increase your susceptibility to decompression sickness. Again, our recommendation is conservatism when hiking Saba's trails or simply meandering around Saba's steep hillsides. In particular, when hiking Mount Scenery we recommend that you only do so after you have sufficiently off-gassed and it is safe for you to fly according to your certifying agencies guidelines.
And what about the altitude of your hotel or cottage on Saba? In 1990, Divers Alert Network ("DAN") brought 15 divers to dive with Sea Saba and conduct Doppler studies to answer this specific question. The results showed no difference in the divers propensity to bubble formation whether at the Fort Bay Harbor or back at their Windwardside locations. Click here for the full DAN report.
Just the same, there are other factors that may influence your susceptibility to decompression sickness. In the interests of diving safety , we'll defer to someone having greater familiarity and expertise with the subject, Michael N. Emmerman. Mike prepared the following advisory which you'll find in your Sea Saba welcoming packet upon arrival. Please take the time to read it to ensure a safe, pleasant and happy trip. Remember, there's only one place you don't want to visit on Saba except on the tour, and that's the Saba Hyperbaric Chamber.
Prepared in the interest of diver safety in 1991 by
Michael N. Emmerman
Research Coordinator in 1991
Diving and Water Rescue Committee
National Association For Search and Rescue (NASAR)
Research Director, Lifeguard Systems, Inc.
The risks associated with going to altitude are well known to most divers; what follows here may be less obvious. Current protocols indicate that divers should avoid aggressive exercise before or after diving.
The key to this problem is the term aggressive. What may be aggressive for one person, might only be a warm-up to someone else. The discussion that follows should be thoroughly understood by divers wishing to hike Mt. Scenery (elevation 3000 feet) before or after diving. Our goal as divers is to avoid increasing our metabolic rate, and to avoid increased circulatory stress. If these factors were elevated prior to diving, it is thought that the diver would increase his or her uptake of nitrogen during the dive because the circulatory system would be working harder. If these factors were elevated after diving, it is thought that the normal process of off-gassing nitrogen could be dangerously accelerated, and possibly lead to decompression illness. The physical fitness and health habits of the diver will dictate how much the metabolic rate and circulatory stress is increased during a given activity. The diver's physical fitness and health habits will also dictate the after-exercise recovery period (time needed to bring the metabolic rate back to normal.
As for divers visiting Saba, and wishing to hike Mt. Scenery, the determining factors should include:
the extent of alcohol consumption for several days prior to climbing Mt. Scenery (contributing to bio-chemical imbalances and dehydration).
the extent of smoking prior, during and after climbing (contributing to impaired gas exchange in lung tissues).
the degree of physical fitness (contributing to stress, fatigue and dehydration).
the surface intervals after diving (determining tissue tension and critical off-gassing).
Almost all authorities in diving medicine would agree that it is not advisable for any diver to dive after drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes (or anything else), and partying all night. Hiking Mt. Scenery would add additional risks to this problematic personal profile. A diver who wishes to climb Mt. Scenery after diving should evaluate his or her own personal health habits and make an honest judgement of the potential risks. Some divers will be able to drink alcohol, smoke, party and dive, and experience no ill effects. Some will suffer severe decompression illness or other diving related injuries. Some will just deny symptoms. Each of us has a responsibility to our fellow divers, and to ourselves, to limit our risks of diving related injuries.