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DIVE LIKE A PRO: Underwater Communication

Photographs by Jason Brown

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Communicating underwater is an important skill, and there are various ways you can talk to your buddy. Here, our panel of industry experts give their hints and advice.

We all learned basic hand signals when we qualified to dive, regardless of training agency, but there are many other ways to communicate with your buddy or dive team, including slates, wetnotes, dive lights and so on. It is worth mastering or utilising various methods so you are prepared for any situation.

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Martin Robson, PADI TecRec Instructor Trainer, said: “There seem to be a lot of black dry/wet suits and black gloves in the diving world. Your black gloved hand against a background of your black suit does not make for easy-to-read hand signals. Hold your hand away from your body when signalling, illuminate with a torch if necessary, and your buddies will see your signals more clearly.”

Emily Petley-Jones, UK Regional Training Consultant at PADI and a PADI Course Director, commented: “Always review your hand signals with your buddy, especially if you are diving with someone new or that you haven’t dived with for a while. Hand signals can vary significantly from person to person, and it is especially important to review how you are going to communicate how much air you have left to your buddy.”

Vikki Batten, Director of Rebreather Technologies, Training Supervisor and Instructor Examiner at PADI, said: “Signals need to be clear so practice them in the mirror and make sure they are confident. Simple signals can be used to communicate most of our needs underwater, so use the ones you were taught rather than ‘made up’ signals that others may not understand. Carrying wetnotes and a good pencil (that won’t break) is also a good idea, just in case you need a more accurate way to communicate.”

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John Kendall, GUE Instructor Trainer, said: “Communication is an incredibly important part of safe diving and is so much more than just a few funky hand signals. Underwater communication starts a long time before the dive itself – a dive team need to make sure that they are on the same page as each other, and that there is a solid dive plan that is understood and agreed by everyone.

“Once underwater, divers should commit to follow the plan unless a situation arises that requires the plan to be changed, and this is where clear communication is key. It is far too easy to over-communicate when diving. A long sequence to hand signals will rarely be understood by your buddies, and often we can condense the whole lot into one signal. Keep your signals slow, try to make eye contact and then signal with your hands at eye level, and make sure you get confirmation from your buddy. I have often found on dives that the simplest communication (‘Thumb the dive’, ‘Go this way’) is all that is actually needed. Most of the time, you will find that your buddy is thinking much the same, but is simply waiting for someone else to say it. 

“It’s important for all divers to take responsibility for communication. If you are not sure what is going on, then ask. Don’t blindly follow. This is a major part of technical diving, and should be taken seriously on all dives.”

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Davs Brander, BSAC Diving Officer at University of Nottingham SAC, said: “We all know that feeling on a dive; you’ve turned to your buddy and signalled that you’ve seen the most-amazing creature, only to be met with a blank stare. By the time you’ve managed to convey your meaning or given up, the creature has disappeared anyway…

“Communication underwater can be difficult, not just due to the reg in your mouth. This is obviously a major problem, but one that can be overcome with some foresight. The most-basic signals are taught at Ocean Diver, so everyone should be able to say they’re okay, not okay, going up or down and so on, but once you start diving more for pleasure, rather than training,” you need to expand your repertoire.

“If you haven’t dived with someone before you should discuss signals before the dive starts. When you dive with friendly and familiar club divers, you are likely to be on the same wavelength but out on a liveaboard in the Red Sea, when you get buddied with someone at random, you should make sure you are able to understand each other underwater.

“I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, has written a list of signals and what they mean, however in practice I find that on most dives you can often make up a signal on the fly and be understood. There are a few typical ones people use – counting on your fingers for gas, pinching your thumb and forefinger to signify a lobster, and even some ruder ones when someone has just swum in front of you and destroyed what little vis there was in Stoney anyway! 

“And one of the most-amazing things about signals is the fantastic ability some people have to have a frantic argument underwater with their significant other about nothing, and still come back to the boat smiling!”

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Garry Dallas, Director of Training RAID UK & Malta (Rec/Tec/ Cave Instructor Trainer) explained: “It doesn’t matter what language we speak on land, for divers underwater, the most-common form of communication is a universal underwater sign language.

“Simplifying a sentence, question or statement is extremely difficult without some ‘keyword’ signals. When trying to describe more-detailed or informative communication, we may even rely on a string of signals. Above all, they must be clear, concise, accurate, visible and almost always require a confirmation reply back.

“However, it has been observed that divers sometimes disregard replying back to ‘okay’, ‘are you ok’, ‘do you agree’, ‘do you understand’ and ‘end dive’! These are all, by definition, command signals that require an acknowledgement gesticulation in response. A good buddy team shows respect and communication is always two-way.

“There are several ways to communicate underwater within a team, such as writing on wetnotes or a slate, by torch, touch contact or most commonly by hand signals. When using a rebreather, it is also quite possible to talk through the DSV/BOV mouthpiece of the loop.

“To ask ‘how much pressure is in your tank’ or say ‘there is a big shark behind you’ requires firstly, visual contact and a comfortable distance to be able to see the signals. Even with this in mind, it can be very difficult to see the signals when the divers’ gloves are the same colour as the backdrop of the divers’ suit, i.e. black on black. So, to make life easier when communicating, wear different colour gloves to your suit or hold your hand up higher using the backdrop of the water to highlight your signals. When in the dark, shine the light on your hands to illuminate them. This, however, gets quite interesting when you need to use both hands for signalling while holding a torch.

“To combat this problem, technical divers have developed an effective way to communicate single handed. This has proven very useful for all elements of diving in any environment and at any level of qualification and yes, that includes recreational diving too.”

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Phil Short, Dive Industry Consultant, responded on behalf of IANTD and said: “We as divers in most circumstances when underwater have lost our most basic and normal means of communication when we enter the underwater world – talking. As such we need to utilise alternative methods to keep in touch and communicate with our buddy or team of divers while diving. There are several means of underwater communication that we shall review below.

“Hand signals – the most-used communication system among divers from recreational though technical to commercial and military has been since diving’s beginnings to date hand signals.

“There are a well-developed universally recognised diving hand signals such as ‘okay’, but further communication can be achieved through specialist signals, specifically cave diving signals, and even the use of full sign language.

“One difficulty in poor visibility or low light with communication by hand signal is the ability to see the hand making the signal. In cave diving, all signals are made with one hand illuminated by the primary light in the other hand. I add to the effectiveness of this system while teaching by using white dry gloves that show up clearly against the background.

“Light signals – rather than having to illuminate a hand to express communication via hand signals in a dark environment, a simplified method of communication for primary messages evolved from the cave diving community using the dive light. The ‘O’ of ‘okay’ being replicated as a question and answer via a slow circular motion of the light beam, a slow side-to-side slashing for ‘attention’ and a rapid up-and-down slashing for ‘emergency’.

“With a well-practiced buddy pair or team there is often no requirement for any communication other than the necessary light signal confirmation of comfort on a regular dive.”

“Written communications – slates or wet books and pencils give the ability to record data such as survey information along with the ability to communicate information too complex for hand signals or not understood by hand signals, however training, practice and buddy/team familiarity should remove this need. The problem with written communications underwater especially in cold water scenarios with thick wet or dry gloves and dexterity loss, is the questionable legibility of the written communication.

“As we can see, many forms of communication enable us to remain in contact with our team and or buddy during a dive, and as with many other areas of diving simplicity and understanding are key!”

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Gary Asson, National Diving Officer with the Sub-Aqua Association, said: “One of the first things we learn when we start scuba diving is the need to communicate underwater. If you don’t have the equipment to talk underwater, then you must rely on signals. Two basic rules for signals are to try to keep your them simple, and agreed before the dive.

“Keep your signals simple. The more complex the hand movement, the more likely the signal is to be confused with something else. Think about the basic diving signals – okay, up, down, I have a problem, etc. The teaching signals – you, me, look/ watch, now you do it, stop, end of lesson, etc. These are all simple one-handed signals.

“Agree the signals beforehand. Even the basic signals can be slight different between agencies. A diver approaches making a chopping motion to their throat, another drawing their fingers from one side of their throat to the other. Same message – I need something to breathe now! – different signal. The few extra seconds it can takes to process the unexpected signal can make all the difference to the outcome. The ‘thumb up signal’ will initiate an ‘okay’, followed by its return in open water. Give this signal in a cave, and the reaction will be very different. After the dive at surface, hand to head, or ok?

“Some years ago, I was decompressing on a shot with two other divers, when one started repeating the following signal – he would point to the regulator in his mouth, make a circular motion with one of his fingers, point to the first stage of his pony, pull the reg out of his mouth, put it back in again, then start the show again. Both I and the other diver offered him a spare regulator, which he refused. However, he kept repeating the above, with slight variations, getting more and more wound up, until we surfaced. So, what was he was trying to say? I’m on my pony bottle, which has a button contents gauge which I cannot see, can you look and tell me how much gas I have left. Use a dive slate!

“Body language can signal the state of mind your buddy is in. Swimming too close, constantly fiddling with kit, checking contents gauge or computer every few seconds, can be a signal that your buddy is not in a happy place. Actions out of character, overconfidence, panic, can be signs of narcosis. Read the signs, and take the appropriate actions.”

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Mark Powell, Business Manager for TDI/SDI, said: “Communication becomes even more complicated when diving in a team of three. Recreational diver training has traditionally encouraged divers to adopt the buddy system and always dive in buddy pairs. Diving in a group made up of more than two people has been described as undesirable. This view must be balanced against technical dive courses where divers are encouraged to dive as a team and often cite three as the optimum team size.

“Poor communication and buddy skills often go unnoticed on recreational dives but for technical dives or on dives with three divers, these skills become much more important. It is possible to get away with poor communications skills when there are only two divers, but this becomes less feasible as the number of divers increases or the complexity of the dive increases.

“In a buddy pair you only have one other person to keep track of, this makes communications fairly straightforward. When diving in a trio you now have two others to keep track of and so you spend more time looking for the third person. As you are unfamiliar with diving in a trio, all three of you are likely to be moving around and looking for the other two, which makes the task even more difficult.

“This problem occurs because divers don’t usually know where to look for the other divers, especially in a trio or more. If you don’t even know where your buddy is then you have no chance of communicating with them. One of the key principles of team diving is having agreed positions. Common positions when diving in a three are to dive in a line, either one in front of the other or side by side, or alternatively in an arrow head position. Swimming in a line, one in front of the other, works well for swimming along the side of wrecks or reefs or through restricted areas. In this case the person in front only has to keep track of the person immediately behind them – no different to a buddy pair. The person in the middle has to keep an eye on the person in front and the person behind. This is more work but they have two people keeping an eye on them. The person at the back just has to keep an eye on the person in the middle however this is the most-exposed position as there is no one looking at them unless the person in the middle looks back to monitor them. Of course, this is no worse than a buddy pair where one buddy is in front of the other.

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“In each case it is essential that each diver is monitoring the relevant member(s) of the team closely enough to stay in contact and to be close enough to assist should they get into trouble. A high level of awareness is required in order to achieve this. The use of powerful torches for signalling can make keeping track of other members of the team much easier. If you can see the torch beam of the diver behind then you don’t need to turn around in order to check that they are still there. In addition, the diver behind can use their torch to signal the diver in front if they need to get their attention.

“The skills required to be a good buddy are the same as those required to be a good team diver and vice-versa. By adopting some of the team diving methods used by technical divers we can improve our communication skills even if we are carrying out a recreational dive no-stop dive. Recreational dives with three divers can be made easier by adopting a fixed position and using torches for signalling. Effective communication between buddies will help them stay together and avoid any potential problems. In this way, we can take some of the communications aspects of team diving and increase our safety on all of our dives.”

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