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Mastering Underwater Communication: Essential Hand Signals for Scuba Divers

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Communication is essential in all walks of life for a positive outcome. When communications fail, relationships fall apart, and the same applies to scuba diving.

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Essential hand signals for scuba divers

Why Underwater Communication is Crucial

You’ll learn the fundamental hand signals during your introductory course, but sometimes it’s hard to understand what the little cartoon diver is doing in the still picture. Maybe you’ve just watched a scuba diving movie and you’re trying to work out just what they’re saying underwater, or perhaps you just want to brush up on your hand signals before you head back into the water.

Methods of Underwater Communication

Hand Signals

The most fundamental method of underwater communication is hand signals. This method relies on line of sight, decent lighting, and your buddy actually looking at you and understanding what you're showing.

Light Signals

You can also communicate with an underwater light. Light signals are fairly limited in comparison, but they have a decent range to get your buddy's attention. At night, you can use your torch to shine on your hand so your buddy can see it.

Touch Signals

Touch signals are limited to zero-visibility scenarios along a guideline. Cave divers have a special touch language since visual signals are not feasible.

hand signals
Rope and line signals are sometimes employed

Rope and Line Communications

Used in overhead or commercial environments, rope and line communications allow direct contact with the surface using pulls and bells.

Through-Water Communications

This advanced method is similar to radios but can be patchy in certain environments. Hard-wired communications require a tether and underwater microphones.

Basic Hand Signals

OK

The most fundamental hand signal for scuba divers is “OK”. It’s a question and an answer. If another diver looks at you and shows the OK sign, they’re asking if you’re OK. If you are, give them an OK back.

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The ‘stop' hand signal is very distinctive

STOP

This signal is straightforward. Use it when you want somebody to stay where they are, such as when a diver is caught and dragging a rope.

LOOK AT ME, SLOW DOWN, I’M COLD

These are self-explanatory signals to get your buddy’s attention, indicate they need to slow down, or let them know you're cold.

DISTANCE AND TIME

Indicate a certain distance or time by using numbers, usually in meters, feet, or fin kicks.

ASK A QUESTION

A hooked finger means you want to ask a question, while a pecking bird gesture indicates “AGAIN”.

ASCEND, DESCEND, GO THIS WAY

Use your thumb as a pointing device. Thumbs up means ascend, thumbs down means descend, and pointing with your thumb indicates a direction.

hand signals
Explaining the need to stay close to a wall, for instance when there is current

CURRENT, STAY CLOSE TO THE WALL

Indicate current by punching your hand. For staying close to a wall, reference your hand with a flat hand wave to indicate leveling off or staying at the current depth.

SAFETY STOP

Signal a safety stop with a flat hand wave, indicating three minutes at five meters.

Advanced Hand Signals

DECO STOP

Your little finger signals a deco stop. Indicate how long and the ceiling depth to your buddy.

COOL SIGHTING

A thumb and pinky shake side to side indicates something awesome, like a whaleshark.

DANGER

A closed fist means danger. Point to what’s dangerous to ensure your buddy is aware.

hand signals
There are various ways of showing numbers using hand signals

Communicating Numbers

Use one hand for numbers one through five, with fingers pointed upwards. For six through nine, turn your hand sideways. Zero is like the OK sign but without the flare. Other signals include a closed fist for 50 and a T shape for 100.

Signaling on the Surface

On the surface, larger signals are necessary for visibility. Use one or two hands for OK. To be picked up, stick one hand in the air. Waving both arms signals an emergency.

Regional Variations and Final Tips

Remember, there are regional variations in hand signals. Always review signals with your buddy before diving. If necessary, use a slate or wetnotes to spell things out. Clarity is crucial for effective underwater communication.

Special Offer: Check out today's sponsor, scuba.com, for your next equipment purchase. They have monthly specials, so it’s always worth checking back. Thanks for reading, and safe diving!

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Picture of Mark Evans
Mark Evans
Scuba Diver's Editorial Director Mark Evans has been in the diving industry for nearly 25 years, and has been diving since he was just 12 years old. nearly 40-odd years later and he is still addicted to the underwater world.
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