Spatial awareness is as fundamental as good buoyancy, and learning how to manage yourself underwater will help you dive more safely in ways you may not have even considered. It’s an essential part of technical diving but sadly, diving awareness remains a largely untaught skill when it comes recreational-diver training. This is in deference to more obvious practical skills, such as DSMB deployment (obviously important too).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines awareness as “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.”
You use awareness during almost every waking moment of your life, yet it often disappears underwater if you’re admiring a coral reef or are hypnotized by the enormous whale shark that just swam by. Diving awareness can be split into three distinct but interlinked components: self-awareness, global awareness, and situational awareness, which considers future actions. Let’s have a look at each.
Self-awareness relates to you and your equipment. Do you feel clear-headed? Are you feeling calm and relaxed? Are you comfortable with the dive’s environmental conditions, such as current, temperature, visibility, etc.? Narcosis can affect clarity of thought and increase anxiety, as can bad visibility and strong currents. As for your equipment, do you hear or feel any bubbles? Are you constantly adding or removing air from your BCD? Are you feeling nice and dry in your drysuit?
Bubbles usually mean that you must replace an O-ring on your inflator or regulator, and adding or removing air from your BCD more than usual indicates a problem that you’ll need to investigate and solve before diving again. Leaky drysuits are at best inconvenient, and at worst dangerous if the water is very cold. You may not even notice you have a problem until you already have hypothermia. Being aware of not only your mental state but also the state of your gear before you begin a dive can help keep an inconvenience or a slight worry from turning into a big problem underwater.
Global awareness means paying attention to what’s around you while you’re diving. As well as looking around, you must also look above and below you. Where are you on the dive site? Where are your buddy and dive group? This is especially important on a crowded dive site. Perhaps you accidentally joined another dive group and are now following the wrong dive guide while your guide is frantically searching for you. Keep a safe distance from rocks and fragile corals, and always know where your body and tank are in relation to the marine environment.
When it’s time to ascend, take a moment to look up and scan the water’s surface, especially if there’s any boat traffic in the area. Lack of global awareness can be as harmless and embarrassing as (hopefully gently) kicking your buddy in the head — we’ve all done it at some point. But inattention to your environment can also lead to dangerous ascents and damage to the marine environment. As you monitor your own location in relation to your environment, look out for your buddy’s as well.
Situational awareness can mean anticipating the point when you turn a dive by using the basic rule of thirds for your gas management. Or it can mean awareness that you are approaching a turn-time. It may also be an awareness that your dive has gone on a little long. Or that you’re approaching the end of slack tide, so you might want to head back to your starting point before the current picks up. Situational awareness can mean all of these thing and more, so keeping an eye on conditions during a dive is key.
Good technical divers use their SPG only as a confirmation of how much gas they have left — they should have an idea of how much gas they have at any point during the dive. Recreational divers can do the same and anticipate how their gas consumption will change with depth. This means there will be no risk of finding yourself low on air at 100 feet (30 m), for instance.
All these types of awareness are instinctive in your everyday life. You must hone and practice them together during your dives so as to be useful underwater. Instructors should teach diving awareness beginning with the first dive. It’s up to you to maintain the skills on every subsequent dive until you hang up those fins for good. With practice, diving awareness will become as integral as buoyancy control. Being aware will make you a better buddy and a more confident, safer diver. And that can only be a good thing.
Richard Devanney is a PADI, SSI, BSAC and SDI instructor who teaches technical diving through TDI, SSI XR and PADI TecRec. He currently lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, and manages Dive Silfra, owned by parent company Arctic Adventures. He runs a Facebook technical diving page called Iceland Technical Diving. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or rd