scuba skills

Regulator Recovery: Choosing the Right Technique

Story by Linda Lee Walden   Photos by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot

One of the most basic skills taught in scuba certification class is regulator recovery — how to find your primary second stage underwater and place it back in your mouth. As crucial as this maneuver is, it is also very easy to learn, once you overcome the psychological barrier.

Students are sometimes reluctant to perform this skill during class because it involves removing the regulator — a diver’s most important underwater life-support device — from their mouth. They are certain that once they pass the skill evaluation they will never voluntarily take the regulator out of their mouth again. And if they do, they are definitely not planning to let go of it.
Unfortunately, unplanned events do happen and your regulator could be involuntarily pulled from your mouth during a dive. Another diver might accidentally knock it out or the hose snag on a protrusion. That’s why safety skills are a part of scuba training. They are procedures we don’t use regularly on a dive, but need to know just in case. It’s important to review and practice these seldom-used skills so you’ll be able to perform them without undue stress should it become necessary.
There are several ways to recover a second-stage regulator, depending on the situation. All of them have one thing in common: As soon as the regulator comes out of your mouth, you should automatically begin to exhale small bubbles. You must continue to release a steady stream of bubbles until you have placed the regulator back in your mouth. This golden rule of scuba (never hold your breath) protects against lung overexpansion should you float upward while recovering the regulator.
The easiest method for recovering a regulator is just to pick it up and put it back in your mouth. Of course, this is only possible if you can see the second stage. It’s just as likely that the hose is dangling somewhere behind your right shoulder — but you’re not sure where.
The sweep method is simple to perform and succeeds in most circumstances. In certification class this skill is usually practiced while kneeling on the bottom for stability. Chances are, however, that in a real open-water situation it won’t be practical to achieve that position quickly, so it’s a good idea instead to practice recovering your regulator while remaining neutrally buoyant at depth.
First, come to an upright position and lean to the right, which lowers that shoulder and causes the regulator hose to hang away from your body. Sweep your right arm from directly in front of your body back as far as you can, brushing against your right side as you sweep (photo 1). The most important aspect of this maneuver is to keep your arm against your body so you don’t miss the hose.
The regulator hose should end up lying across your right arm; if not, try once more, making sure your arm is against your body. Sweep your arm out to the side and forward, bringing the hose with it. When the second stage is within reach, grasp it in your hand and replace in your mouth (photo 2). Remember, you’re exhaling continuously throughout this maneuver, which should only take a few seconds. Also be sure to clear the second stage of water by exhaling sharply into it or pushing the purge button before taking a breath.
What if you sweep, and sweep again, but the regulator hose doesn’t land across your arm as expected? It could be that the second stage has gotten hung up behind your back — on the first stage or one of the other hoses (photo 3). In this situation the reach method should be employed.
The quickest way to find a second-stage hose that is caught behind you is to reach back over your right shoulder with your right hand and feel for the place where the hose attaches to the first stage. The scuba cylinder may be attached too low in the backpack to allow you to get hold of the first stage, so at the same time reach behind you with your left hand, grasp the bottom of the tank and push upward (photo 4). This should bring the first stage within reach of your right hand. Pulling the bottom of the cylinder to your left at the same time will shift the top to the right, making it even easier to reach.
Once you find the primary second-stage hose at its attachment point, encircle it with the thumb and forefinger of your right hand so you won’t lose it, and attempt to draw it forward. You may have to grasp the hose and tug gently to free the second stage. Once your hand slides down the hose to the second stage, grasp and replace it in your mouth (photo 5). Again, continue exhaling a stream of bubbles and clear the second stage before inhaling.
The sweep and the reach are the two regulator recovery methods typically taught and evaluated in Open Water certification class. They are commonly presented as described above. Both methods are so basic to scuba that they were developed before use of an alternate air source was standard practice, so your instructor may suggest ways to perform them that are easier and just as safe.
One option is to breathe from your extra second-stage regulator while recovering your primary. It is supposed to be fastened where it is easily and quickly available. This version of the skill allows you to breathe normally while finding your primary second stage. Once you’ve secured the primary, simply switch back and return the safe second to its holder.
Using the sweep and/or reach methods, a regulator can be successfully recovered in almost any situation. But what do you do when neither method works? Look again at photo 4. The primary second-stage hose has become tangled between the gauge hose and the low-pressure inflator hose. When the diver pulls it, the mouthpiece may catch, preventing her from freeing it. In this situation, a third method is needed.
Although this scenario is rarely discussed in relation to regulator recovery, it can be handled as an entanglement. In effect, the diver is tangled in her own equipment. The solution is to breathe through the alternate air source — octopus — while removing the scuba unit and freeing the primary second stage. This is simple when using a conventional octopus; it becomes a bit awkward, but still doable, when your alternate air source is integrated into the buoyancy compensator.
The best way to accomplish any scuba skill is by using the method that is easiest and most effective for you in a particular situation. For this reason you must practice enough to be certain which method to choose in any situation and to master the version of each method that you prefer so you can execute it efficiently and without stress if and when the need arises.