Flag Up? Diver Down!
by Esther J. Perne
Steer clear! That red flag with the white stripe fluttering over the water has a message for boaters and it means stay away at least 100 yards away. A diver is usually down there somewhere beneath the surface and if there is a dive boat nearby it might not be able to maneuver out of the way of another boat approaching.
In coastal areas the flag can also be the international blue-and-white alpha flag which has the same meaning; diver down, keep away, speed slow, and although it applies to federal waters, being familiar with it is a bonus for safe boating.
The diver-down flag is especially important for all boaters to recognize in Maine. With the state's thousands of lakes and ponds, streams, mighty rivers, and reportedly the third-longest state coastal shoreline in the country, there's frequent demand for state-of-the-art search and rescue and criminal investigations; increasing demand for underwater conservation initiatives such as checking for invasive plants, harvesting the plants and covering patches of them with benthic barriers; and a growing popularity for diving as an enjoyable recreational pursuit.
Fortunately to match all that water, Maine has several highly-trained law enforcement dive teams: the Maine State Police, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the county sheriff's departments (Kennebec county has an elite response team), and individual members of some local fire departments. When any of them are on a scene safety precautions are significantly in place and there's no mistaking the stayaway warnings.
But recreationally? Sharing the lakes and waterways is a way of life and while divers may practice safety precautions, boaters are not always aware of the signals.
Maine's dive flag laws are few and older and they focus on marine species harvesting while the state boater safety handbook provides only a brief reference to United States Coast Guard requirements on federal waters.
Earlier this summer a potential near-fatal boat/diver crash on North Pond made headlines. The diver was following flag protocol. The boaters had, according to reports, been unaware of the diver flag significance and thought it was a buoy that had broken loose and should be retrieved.
With nobody seriously injured, the takeaway which lingers from the incident is the need for publicity, for education and for reaching as many lake users as possible with the significance of the diver down flag through local media, through lake associations, through word-of-mouth and perhaps through local or state ordinances, i.e. bring the attention inland.
Education about flags is where much of current lake boating safety began. There are those who remember when, before the current plastic state-maintained buoys, lake hazards were marked by flags installed and maintained by the local fishing guides and although the flags adhered to a system of differing colors as navigation guides, the message was always the same: see a flag, stay away.