One of the basic but difficult tasks to learn in skin diving is controlling one’s buoyancy. Several tips on how to properly maintain buoyancy are discussed.
We’ve all seen divers floating effortlessly above a coral reef, suspended in the blue water and maintaining an exact depth with no obvious effort. We’ve watched U/W photographers work within inches of their subjects, yet never contact the bottom or the reef. How do they do it?
It’s called Balanced Buoyancy Control and represents the ultimate skill a diver can learn. It’s achieving a oneness with the underwater world; your skills are so refined, so good, you’re almost an integral part of the ecosystem.
Like any skill you are attempting to master, Balanced Buoyancy Control is part art, part science. You need the right basic equipment, placed correctly to achieve Balanced Buoyancy Control. This is the science part and, luckily, it’s easy to learn. There’s also an element of style, of art, to this pursuit of the ultimate diving skill. This is not only about being completely sure of your buoyancy at any time during the dive, it’s also about gliding, soaring, hovering and being relaxed underwater.
Balanced Buoyancy Control is a challenge – a personal one. To begin to learn, take a frank look at your skills. Most divers grasp the rudiments of basic buoyancy control during classes and open water dives. Typically, however, new divers are overweighted (with lead) and compensate by putting air in their BCs. While this type of diving is fine, it’s not gliding and soaring! When you dive in warm water, however, you should know that most masters of the skill rarely touch their BCs (except on the surface or in an emergency) and rarely put any air in them during a dive.
Another fairly basic method of buoyancy control is swimming. Swimmers appear to be in control during the dive, stay off the reef and practice sound environmental diving (no contact that can damage the reef) but, in order to do so, they are almost always swimming! Their hands are at their sides, comfortably, and their positions look right but those legs are always moving. This is almost universal among novice/intermediate (and some “expert”) divers. There’s a simple test you can do right now to tell if you’ve got a little of the swimmer’s philosophy: Pretend you’re all suited up on the dive boat, have checked your gear and are ready to start a great dive in clear, calm water.
When you jump into the water, however, you may not kick – no matter what. Are you comfortable with this restraint? Probably not, since there’s a little swimmer in us all. Since we were kids, we’ve been kicking and moving in the water. Why should diving be any different? Well, it is to folks who practice Balanced Buoyancy Control. They only kick when it’s absolutely necessary and that means when getting from point A to point B.
Table of Contents
BASIC BUOYANCY DRAWBACKS
Many novice and intermediate warm water divers make do with their basic buoyancy skills, relying on lead weights, BCs and swimming to make them comfortable underwater. There’s nothing wrong or unsafe with diving this way but there are definite performance drawbacks. When you carry too much weight, your breathing rate increases and the amount of air you take in on each breath increases. This is because you have to kick harder to maintain your position and kicking a lot increases your need for more air. And, while you were told to “breathe deeply and regularly” in your basic class, this did not mean breathing should be strenuous. Yet, many divers are breathing way too hard underwater. Also, they compensate for the significant extra (four to ten pounds) lift, caused by the extra breathing, by adding even more lead to their weightbelts. Then, they have to swim harder, fool around with their BCs all the time and breathe more. They get stuck in a novice/intermediate rut that prevents them from truly relaxing underwater. Unless you relax and learn to breathe properly (a slow inhale and exhale) you can’t enjoy the benefits of Advanced/Balanced Buoyancy Control!
With the relaxed breathing and optimal weighting learned in Advanced Buoyancy Control, you will enjoy the following:
- You can interact more closely with the reef and its inhabitants without damaging them. Novice divers may establish a personal comfort zone, which keeps them several feet off the reef. But, if you want to observe fish or marine invertebrates or become a good photographer, you’ll need a much closer comfort zone. Those who master Balanced Buoyancy Control can interact with the reef in distances measured in inches because they know exactly where their equipment and body are in relationship to it.
- Your air consumption will drop – dramatically! Many divers add several pounds of weight to compensate for the positive buoyancy of tanks when they are nearly empty. Well, imagine never coming back to the boat with less than 1200 to 1400 psi, which eliminates that problem. Relaxed breathing can transform any diver from an air gulper to one whose computer or tables (instead of a pressure gauge) tell him/her when to end a dive.
- You will see more fish and marine life. Divers with basic skills, particularly those with rudimentary buoyancy skills, send out a clear message to many reef inhabitants: “Take cover, they’re here again!” Constant kicking, chasing marine life and any irregular or quick movements underwater make reef inhabitants think one thing: Predator! Indeed, the reef is a very serene place except during feeding time. With balanced buoyancy skills, you’re an observer, part of the reef. With rudimentary skills, you are viewed as a clumsy predator. Most fish will not understand the clumsy part, treating you like a predator and leaving the scene.
HOW TO GET STARTED
The first step in acquiring advanced skills is to participate in a Buoyancy Control Workshop. These are conducted (usually free of charge) at popular resorts around the world. Most follow an established pattern and include:
- A snorkeling phase (with whatever suit you wear) and no weights.
- Gradually adding weights to your weightbelt until you achieve a water level (on your mask) of 50 percent sky and 50 percent water when looking straight ahead at midbreath of a relaxed breathing cycle.
- Adding a tank. Nearly all full tanks are negatively buoyant, even with a BC attached as long as the BC doesn’t have any air in it.
- Practicing underwater horizontal and vertical skills. Remember, keep kicking to an absolute minimum.
A quick review of advanced skills (and how workshops are conducted) is included in the sidebar with this article.
You may participate in a formal workshop or go through the drill yourself with your buddy. It helps to have someone topside to help you with weights and, eventually, tanks but you can do it yourself if you wish. It can be done from a dock, shore or boat. You need a minimum of 15 feet of water (although we have had some success with pool workshops in as little as eight feet of water) for the horizontal skills and positioning. It’s best to do the vertical skills in at least 40 feet of water.
Once you reach this beginning stage of advanced buoyancy, you are ready to practice these skills on just about every dive. Test yourself to see what your comfort zone is and work to get closer to the reef without touching it. (A finger on dead areas of the reef is fine.) The combination of relaxed breathing and optimal weighting will also allow you to fine tune your position in the water by using your breathing rate to hover. By slowing the in/out breathing cycle at the mid-breath level, you’ll find yourself able to observe marine life from inches away. As always, you must breathe continuously (never hold your breath!). Your breathing rate, however, is controlled by you and replaces your BC as the primary piece of equipment responsible for neutral buoyancy.
Congratulations, you’ve already taken the first and most important step toward achieving Balanced Buoyancy Control!
BALANCED BUOYANCY CONTROL
Now you are ready for the ultimate in buoyancy control. Balanced Buoyancy Control theories have been discussed by divers for some time but credit goes to Bruce Bowker, owner of the popular Carib Inn on Bonaire, for coming up with the term and incorporating it into his weekly Buoyancy Control Workshops. These are given to interested guests at his resort and to island visitors who call and make reservations for the session.
I recently had the good fortune of attending one of Bruce’s workshops and will share many of his thoughts on the subject of “balancing” divers. Any divers wishing to participate in Bruce’s workshops should be forewarned, he is passionate and articulate on the subject and that alone makes for an interesting class.
Balanced Buoyancy Control begins after Advanced Buoyancy Control. Once you discover the optimal amount of lead to wear and learn to relax and control your breathing, you are ready for the next step. Since nearly all divers wear their lead around the waist/hip area, this brings up the subject of balance. The lightest part of our body is our chest (that’s where our air filled lungs are) and it makes sense that, without any lead at all, most folks would tend to float. To counterbalance the positive force in the lungs, we then add weight around our waists. This keeps the lower part of the body down (with the lead) but our lungs continue to pull us up. This results in a nearly vertical position in the water. (Bruce has a lot to say about that!)
Bruce’s main contention is that fish swim in an efficient, horizontal fashion. Those who intuitively grasp the efficiency of horizontal U/W swimming emulate fish. But, when we take divers whose natural position in the water is vertical and attempt to reorient them, they are in fact, out of balance. Over the 20 plus years Bruce has been in the diving business, his conclusion is that “nearly all divers are out of balance.” They must correct their balance before they can master buoyancy control. We agree and here’s how to go about it.
First, Bruce determines a diver’s basic position in the water. He notes that most are fin heavy, displaying a tendency to sink feet first. But, in the course of hundreds of Buoyancy Control Workshops, we have also seen many fin light divers, whose basic tendency is to hover face down. These latter divers are often (although not always) women and there’s an easily understandable physiological reason. Most women have smaller rib cages than men of the same size and, therefore, smaller lung volumes. Thus, they don’t have as much natural buoyancy in this area. Second, women have larger hips than men and disproportionately larger amounts of both muscle and fat in the hip area. While total body weight can be a factor, it’s not the important one. It’s the size of the lungs and the distribution of body weight that determine if you are naturally fin heavy or fin light.
Bruce has plenty of solutions for both!
FIN HEAVY SOLUTIONS
While stressing there isn’t just one simple solution to everyone’s balance problems (just like your body, it’s a custom job), the method Bruce finds most effective in eliminating the fin heavy position is to redistribute the lead from the belt to other parts of your equipment. Most divers will still carry the bulk of their lead weight (probably one-half to two-thirds of it) on their belts, so emergency weight ditching situations are not compromised. But, given the relatively small amount of weight experienced warm water divers wear, ditching a weightbelt is usually not the right solution to an underwater problem anyway! There are two ways to redistribute the lead:
Add a one or two pound ankle weight around your tank valve (subtracting the same amount from your belt).
Put a small amount of weight in the top/shoulder area of your BC. One pound on either side is sufficient and makes quite a difference.
I have been an advocate of Advanced Buoyancy for many years. I used to wear six pounds of lead with a 2mm jumpsuit. After Bruce’s workshop, I opted first for a one pound weight on each shoulder and two, two pound weights on my belt. That felt much better but not perfect. I then switched to a one pound weight on each side of my belt (down to four pounds from six) and that did the trick, perfectly!
FIN LIGHT SOLUTIONS
For those whose fins head for the surface when they stop kicking, the successful strategy is just the reverse of the above. Add a small portion of weight to the lower body (ankle weights work great) and you’ll find yourself floating naturally in an efficient horizontal and balanced way! Wetsuit manufacturers take note: extra pockets in the lower calf/outside area of the legs would allow divers to add a one-half to one pound weight. (And, lead weight companies might consider making one pound weights!)
TOTAL GEAR APPROACH
Balanced Buoyancy Control is the sum of many parts; relaxed breathing, optimal, balanced weighting and equipment. How you position your gear makes all the difference in whether you are balanced underwater or will have to fight your equipment to stay comfortable. See the sidebar on this page for details.
Balancing and buoyancy are actually two different ideas but each depends on the other. If you first master Advanced Buoyancy Control you will have the relaxed breathing pattern and optimal weight situation that will allow you to receive and process natural feedback on your basic position in the water. Once you get that, it’s time to bring in the balanced approach, then you’re well on the way to mastering both. Soar, glide, hover at will; it’s a tremendous experience!
A Quick Review of Advanced Skills
1 Buoyancy Control Workshops can be formally (given at resorts) or informally done with just a group of friends (experienced divers often go through a mini-version of this when they get a new wetsuit or other piece of gear that changes their buoyancy). Buoyancy checks can be done from shore, a dock or a boat. You need a minimum of 15 feet of water to do nearly all of the exercises. Start with just mask, fins, snorkel and suit, no weightbelt! Enter the water and just relax. That’s right, just relax. Don’t kick, since you don’t plan on going anywhere. Calm your breathing down to a relaxed, steady pace. Then you’re ready to get started.
2 In a vertical position in the water (cross your ankles or your innate desire to start kicking will take effect), check the waterline on your mask as you look straight ahead. Add only enough lead to your belt so the water is at the halfway level when you’re in between inhaling and exhaling. This is very close to your optimal weight.
3 After you determine the weight needed, put your tank and BC on. Make sure you dump all the air from your BC. Some BCs nearly always contain several pounds of air, so make sure you get all the air out so you won’t be carrying extra lead during the dive. As you slowly exhale you should sink easily to the bottom. It’s not necessary to kick here, either.
4 Choose an area free of coral and practice horizontal hovering. See how close you can get to the bottom and still feel in control. Notice which parts of your equipment (watch those pressure gauges and consoles) come in contact with the bottom first. Then see which part of your body wants to hit the bottom when you exhale. It will be your fins/feet or your mask/head. Ask your buddy to observe your natural, non-kicking position in the water.
5 Try vertical hovering, changing depth only by breathing, You’ll be surprised at how much control you have! When there’s no air in your BC, your lungs can supply more than enough buoyancy to keep you in position as long as you don’t breathe rapidly or deeply. See just how close you can get to a coral head and still feel comfortable. Select a dead area of the reef and have a finger ready just in case you’re too successful and need to gently push yourself back!
6 Try the above; if you’re really feeling confident, you’ll know you’ve mastered Advanced Buoyancy Control and are ready for the next step, Balanced Buoyancy Control.