Divers are encouraged to participate in buoyancy control workshops to master this essential diving skill. Excellent buoyancy control skills lead to better air consumption, improved perception of marine life and reduction of accidental damage to coral reefs.
Buoyancy control workshops are the keys to mastering this invaluable diving skill
The whole concept of buoyancy control sounds simple enough when you are learning to dive. You simply add air to your BC to offset the weights you wear and magically achieve a state called neutral buoyancy. This allows you to float effortlessly while diving, completely relaxed and in control. For most divers, however, buoyancy control is far from this ideal. Too often, what starts out as a good concept actually becomes a tug of war among the various pieces of equipment.
Wearing too much weight causes you to fiddle with your BC every time you change depth. If you have too little weight it’s a struggle to stay down. When the air in your tank drops below about 1,000 psi, you start floating up and have to adjust your gear yet again. All that talk about effortless seems to be just that, talk. Although most divers can recognize another diver who has mastered buoyancy control (like most divemasters and professional divers) their own skills are often still in the basic stage. The purpose of this article is to help you achieve effortless control. With a little practice, you’ll soon be soaring with the best of them.
Let’s start from the beginning. The buoyancy control skills you were taught in basic scuba classes are just that, basic. For safety and practical reasons, the overwhelming majority of new divers are intentionally overweighted during training. While this makes good sense while you are learning to dive, it’s not a good basis for mastering buoyancy control. In order to master buoyancy control, you have to go back to the basics and make sure you haven’t picked up any bad habits that will stop you from continuing to improve.
Let’s divide buoyancy control into three areas; basic, intermediate and expert. Here are the characteristic of each:
BASIC BUOYANCY: The diver controls buoyancy by making frequent adjustments to his/her BC. The diver cannot hover – either horizontally or vertically – close to the reef or bottom, he/she needs to kick to maintain proper position in the water.
INTERMEDIATE BUOYANCY: The diver is much more critical in weight selection and begins to use breath control to fine tune buoyancy and not rely on gross adjustments to the BC. Horizontal and vertical hovering skills improve but the diver still needs to kick to hold a position. The diver is properly weighted for neutral buoyancy but has not mastered it in every position.
EXPERT BUOYANCY: The diver is perfectly weighted, regardless of the type of wetsuit or divesuit worn. The BC is used very infrequently and is worn more for surface safety than buoyancy compensation. The diver has mastered not only neutral buoyancy but can maintain almost any position without kicking!
As we have already noted, most dive classes cover only the basic skills. There’s a good reason for this. Without a few dives under your weightbelt, it’s very difficult to learn the more advanced stages of buoyancy control. The skills improve with experience but practice accelerates the improvement. This is the reason many dive resorts offer free buoyancy control workshops, in which they help visiting divers hone their skills.
As great as these workshops are, they are not the only way to improve buoyancy. You and your buddy can practice your skills on every dive and follow the steps outlined in this piece to conduct your own workshop. Advanced and expert diving skills cannot be learned without practice but luckily there is time enough on nearly every dive to devote a couple of minutes to improving your skills. Don’t be surprised if you gain these additional benefits:
YOUR AIR CONSUMPTION WILL BE DRAMATICALLY IMPROVED: Relaxed divers with expert buoyancy usually have excellent air consumption. Since they don’t have to kick as much as other divers, they save a lot of air because they’re not using the very large leg muscles.
YOU SEE MORE FISH ON EVERY DIVE: Marine life is very tuned in to diver motion and activity. A group of relaxed divers will see two or three times the amount of marine life a group of novices will.
YOU WILL DRAMATICALLY CUT DOWN ON ACCIDENTAL ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE: Improved buoyancy control skills not only allow you to enjoy diving more, but vertical and horizontal hovering skills will also cut down on contact with the coral reef and minimize diver damage.
Table of Contents
It’s easy to start on the road to improved buoyancy skills. Either enroll in a workshop or conduct your own informal one. The workshop should begin with you wearing only your dive suit and mask, fins and snorkel – no weightbelt. Set up your BC and tank and make sure you have a supply of weights on the dock or boat that a buddy can hand you. The weights, ideally, should be one and two pounders and ankle weights should be available as well. (P.S. This type of workshop not only helps folks improve buoyancy control but also helps those with new suits or dive gear trim their buoyancy.)
After you have everything set up, jump into the water. As you come to the surface, you will notice an immediate and automatic reaction. You will begin to kick to hold yourself above water. Divers do this even when they jump into the water with a fully inflated BC. For the workshop, however, you are going to make the effort not to kick. Not kicking may be the very best tool to improve your buoyancy control skills.
In addition to not kicking, relax your breathing. Gently inhale and exhale. Novice divers are often very excited when they first enter the water and, while it’s great to get excited about diving, this can also cause you to overweight yourself by four to eight pounds! This is because you naturally adjust to anything perceived as dangerous by breathing more frequently and deeper. This causes the lungs to fill with air, increasing your positive buoyancy. You must add weight to compensate. A relaxed diver needs a fraction of the weight an excited one does and that’s why you begin the workshop by not kicking and relaxing.
After you have relaxed for a minute or two, check your position in the water. In a feet down position halfway between an inhalation and exhalation, notice the water level on your mask when you look straight ahead. If the water is right about the middle of the mask, you don’t need any weights. If your mask is out of the water, you will need to add a few ponds. When you add the weight, add it slowly and in small increments (just one or two pounds). Make sure the weight is balanced on the belt (two pound weights on each side, for instance, not three on one side and one on the other). Each time you add weight, stop kicking (you’ll be amazed at how hard it can be to literally kick the habit of kicking) and relax. See if you can feel the difference each weight makes. By not kicking and relaxing, you should feel a big difference with just a few pounds. Once you are weighted properly you are ready to put the rest of your equipment on and go U/W.
After you put your tank on, take a minute and see if you are getting excited again. This is not unusual but you might discover that now you don’t have enough weight on, even though you were fine just a minute ago. This is the same “fight or flight” lung expansion activity we just described. Instead of adding more weight, float around on the surface and get control of your breathing. Good control of your breathing is necessary to move from basic to intermediate buoyancy skills and essential for expert skills.
With your tank on, no air in your BC and not kicking, see if you can descend merely by exhaling and sinking. Then see if you can get all the way to the bottom without kicking or making any other adjustments. If you have a problem here, remember to relax and make sure you check your BC. Some BCs trap air and getting it out can take one or two tries.
The Average Underwater Position
Buoyancy control workshops are usually conducted in sandy training areas free of coral or other marine life. If you are doing this on your own with a buddy, make sure you choose a similar site. Once you get to the bottom, you should be able to kneel comfortably. Before you begin the next exercise, make sure you are completely relaxed. Moving from basic to expert in buoyancy skills requires attention to small details and many of the small details aren’t noticeable unless you are relaxed and not kicking.
Breathing regularly, let your body assume a horizontal position parallel to the bottom. However, and this is important, don’t kick or use your hands unless you absolutely have to! What you are trying to do here is figure out your own average position underwater. This position is different for each person and depends on age, physical conditioning, body fat, size of your lungs and a variety of other factors. There is no good or bad here, just an average!
Some people will be fortunate and find their position is perfectly parallel to the bottom but experience shows us fewer than 10 percent of the population falls into this category. Most folks will float with either their heads or feet up. Remember, too, you are wearing weights and your dive suit and BC (as well as your mask and fins) are also contributing to your buoyancy.
Your average position underwater can be modified but it is important to note what it is when you are wearing your regular scuba gear. This is really where basic buoyancy starts to become intermediate. It is also not discussed very often, so it should come as no surprise that so many divers are stuck with basic skills.
When you have determined your average position underwater the most often used method of correcting it is the biggest obstacle to expert buoyancy skills. If you guessed kicking, you are 100 percent correct. Kicking allows you to assume any position underwater but you can only maintain that position while you are kicking! If you stop kicking, you revert to your average (head or feet up) position. Since that may not be the best position, many divers just kick all through the dive, wasting almost a third of their air. Let’s go back to that average position and see if we can modify it. The goal is to be horizontal to the bottom when you are just hovering and not kicking.
Correcting The Heads Up Position
If your average position is head up, it is owing to any of the following:
YOUR TANK IS TOO LOW ON YOUR BACKPACK/BC. If the tank is mounted too low, it and your weightbelt drag your lower body down. Moving the tank higher in the backpack is the obvious solution.
YOUR WEIGHTBELT IS TOO LOW ON YOUR WAIST/HIPS. Some divers wear their weights on their waist, others low on their hips. If you are of the gunslinger persuasion and find yourself floating heads up, you might want to check the position of your weightbelt and adjust it.
TOO MUCH WEIGHT IS CONCENTRATED AROUND YOUR HIPS. This is a common problem and the best way to correct it is to add an ankle weight (one-half, one or two pounds) to the tank valve. This helps distribute the weight properly and allows you to float and hover in the correct position. (Note: Whenever you place weights any place other than on your weightbelt, make sure you are still diving safely! Ditching your weightbelt should still be a workable option in the rare case you need to make an emergency ascent.)
OTHER EQUIPMENT MAY BE INTERFERING WITH YOUR AVERAGE POSITION. Some fins float, some sink and some are as much as two pounds negatively buoyant. Fins play a role in buoyancy control, as do neoprene boots. Or, you may just have switched from a full wetsuit to a shorty. This type of gear switch can alter your average position underwater.
Once you modify and achieve the correct horizontal position, you should be able to easily maintain a vertical one. If you can’t, it’s probably owing to a misalignment of the weights on your weightbelt. An adjustment is necessary.
Correcting The Feet Up Position
Many women divers, given the dual physiological combination of smaller lung capacity and a distribution of fatty tissue on their hips, fall into this category. No matter how much weight they put on their weightbelts, it seems almost impossible to achieve the average position we’ve been talking about. Adding weight only compounds the problem. Here’s how to correct this situation:
CHECK THE TANK POSITION. It can be too high in the backpack/BC and that’s enough to tip your feet up.
WHEN YOU ARE WEARING A FULL NEOPRENE WETSUIT, ADD A NEOPRENE VEST. Because some women have small torsos, most of the neoprene (and, therefore, the buoyancy) is from the hips down. Adding a vest to the torso area evens this out.
USE ANKLE WEIGHTS ON THE ANKLES. This helps tremendously and would be even better if the weights came in one-quarter pound increments or there were more one-half pound weights available.
In addition, check to make sure your fins and boots are not pulling you into the feet up position. Neoprene boots and adjustable heel strap fins are standard gear for cold water diving. These add as much as four pounds of positive buoyancy. In warm water, wear lighter (non-buoyant) foot coverings and full foot fins. You can also add ankle weights.
Determining your average position underwater is the single most critical step in moving from basic to intermediate buoyancy skills. Once you know what your average position is and gain confidence in the correct position, you will be able to get much closer to objects underwater without banging into something. Why? Because you will have learned you can hover motionless in a horizontal position and maintain this position by relaxing. You don’t have to kick to maintain the position and you breathe less air – very important and rewarding benefits of increased buoyancy control skills.
There are no physiological reasons a diver cannot achieve a perfectly neutral position with just a little bit of effort. It may be very easy for some and not so easy for others but every diver can achieve it. Once you get the feeling of both being weighted correctly (to achieve neutral buoyancy) and distributing the equipment and weight to achieve a neutral position, you will see rapid and dramatic increases in buoyancy skills.
Why Basic Doesn’t Work
You should, by now, be able to see the pitfalls of basic buoyancy control, where overweighting and overinflating your BC are the primary tools used. While they work for a novice, both concentrate only on the subject of total weight compensation, not the distribution of this weight. Too much lead around the waist almost always leads to the feet down syndrome. Putting air into the BC will compensate for the extra weight but the air will also cause the torso to rise, pushing the feet even lower! This leads to a position that is anything but natural. Just adding more weight to the weightbelt and compensating for it with the BC is adequate but not fun. And, fun is what diving is all about!
As you increase both your experience level and your buoyancy skills, you will find breath control an increasingly important part of the equation. This is directly involved with both being correctly weighted and having the weight evenly distributed. When you can maintain the average neutral position underwater without kicking, your lungs alone can contribute the equivalent of three to ten pounds of positive or negative buoyancy. Just breathing in and out in an average cycle could mean the difference of two to five pounds, depending on the size of your lungs. This is more than adequate to maintain control.
As you get more experienced you will also learn to modify your breathing to help your buoyancy control. You will automatically exhale when you wish to descend a few feet and inhale in order to ascend in small increments. This is not a violation of the “Never hold your breath” rule but most experienced divers would probably admit it’s at least a modification. Divers do pause in their breathing cycles when taking pictures, observing marine life close-up and a variety of other activities. Whoever wrote the rule might have amended it to read, “Never hold your breath and change your depth” and it would have more closely described today’s average experience diver.
When you have your weights and weight distribution squared away, you are ready to practice other skills that will help you master buoyancy control. Chief among these are:
HORIZONTAL HOVERING: You used this type of hovering to position your weights properly but now it’s time to really practice it. The best method is to pick a stationary object and hover close to it. See if you can maintain a position two feet away. If that’s no problem, try one foot! You will discover a comfort zone; the distance from the reef where you can maintain perfect buoyancy and avoid accidental contact. You need to continually practice your buoyancy and challenge yourself to establish closer comfort zones. When you’re six inches or closer you are starting to get into the expert category! Make sure, of course, all your gear and gauges are secured and don’t damage the reef while you practice your skills.
FINGER TOUCH METHOD. While you are improving your skills, you can still examine the reef close-up. After all, so much undersea life is small animals that to ignore them would be a shame. Use and practice the fingertip method, where you choose exactly which part of the reef you will touch (one void of coral or healthy growth) and then use a finger to steady yourself so you can see exactly what’s going on, close-up. Use your newly acquired horizontal hovering skills to approach the area with a fins up position and make sure your elbow is bent slightly. A straight arm means you have to push off using only your finger. A relaxed arm means you can push away and up from the reef and won’t have to kick until you are well away from the coral.
VERTICAL HOVERING: There is perhaps no better exercise for developing confidence in your new found buoyancy control skills than vertical hovering. Divers cross their fins, ensuring they can’t kick. Under the eye of an instructor, they then rise from 50 feet to 20, one breath at a time. It’s pretty amazing to see divers who have always thought they had to kick whenever they wanted to ascend getting proficient without kicking in just one session. And, this is one skill you can practice on every dive. Whether it’s a safety stop or the middle of the dive, there’s always an opportunity to practice!
TOUGH CHALLENGES. Time and again, I have to say that the yoga/Buddha position close to a reef is the all-time toughest buoyancy challenge. Upside down has its moments and any time you are in blue water and cannot see the bottom, surface or reef, there’s a strong challenge to your buoyancy control skills. When you get really good, you also learn a lot about the ocean. While most divers know the difference between a dive with current and one without, how would you react to the statement that 99 percent of all dives have some type of discernible current or movement? It happens to be true but if you’re kicking you won’t notice!
There are obstacle courses in some resorts, with the goal being to challenge divers’ buoyancy skills. Swimming through hoops and diamonds are two of the most popular obstacles that help you improve your skills.
While the progression from basic to expert in the art of buoyancy control relies strongly on the ability to substitute breath control for the automatic inflation/deflation of the BC, it still can be argued that, along with a regulator, it’s the most important piece of gear. One of the most innovative BC companies, Sea Quest, is and has been the sponsor of buoyancy control workshops and training that have been given to tens of thousands of divers around the world. Sea Quest has a complete line of BCs, each one designed, engineered and tested to perform at different levels of diving proficiency. The line has individual applications, not only for warm and cold water, but also different levels of buoyancy control.
While the basic buoyancy control skills you learned in dive training were adequate to get you safely through your early days, they were never intended to be the ultimate skills! There are three different and distinct levels of buoyancy control and each one has recognizable characteristics. It is easy to improve and master these different levels but this requires extra practice and effort. The latest news is helping divers find and establish their own average position underwater and then to modify their equipment so they are not only weighted for neutral buoyancy but the weight is evenly distributed to maximize buoyancy skills and protect the environment.
Either on your own or with an organized workshop, you can easily develop the skills that will make you a master of buoyancy control!