Diving Fundamentals: Underwater Navigation Techniques

Although it’s easy to follow the guide on nearly every dive, it’s important to practice underwater navigation techniques.

During introductory dive training, your instructor will introduce underwater navigation techniques. Typically, you’ll learn basic compass use and how to navigate a standard out-and-back reciprocal course. Many divers stop learning there, happy to follow the divemaster, instructor or guide on subsequent dives. However, there are many good reasons to nurture your underwater navigation techniques and complete further training. In this three-part series, we’ll first address general ways to improve your underwater navigation techniques — starting before you even submerge. We’ll follow up with more specific articles on compass navigation and natural navigation.

The priority of underwater navigation is, of course, to bring you back to the boat, shore or proper exit point safely. But there are many other benefits to sound underwater navigation techniques. Here are a few of the most important, as well as general tips for finding your way underwater.

You’ll be more relaxed and independent

To begin with, confident underwater navigation techniques allow you to dive independently with your buddy where and when appropriate. You’ll have freedom to plan the dive around your wishes and needs. Good navigation techniques also increase your dive plan’s effectiveness. You’ll go directly to what you wish to see without wasting no-stop time and gas searching the site.

Solid navigation techniques also help avoid the embarrassment and potential hazards of buddy separation. They also make a long surface swim at the end of a dive unlikely. No one wants to be part of the buddy team that surfaces several hundred yards from the dive boat and must be picked up by the boat crew in the zodiac.

Proficiency in underwater navigation techniques will leave you feeling more relaxed and less anxious, both during the planning and underwater. The happy side-effect is that you’re likely to reduce both your breathing rate and reduced gas consumption, and have a more enjoyable dive overall.

Improving your underwater navigation techniques

So, how can you improve your underwater navigation? Effective navigation begins before the dive. Here are four things to bear in mind.

  1. Listen to the briefing

    Be sure to listen to the briefing from the divemaster, instructor or guide. During those five to 10 minutes, he or she will share all the crucial aspects of the dive with you. This will allow you to make a plan. Take notes on a slate if you need to. Which way is the reef? Right shoulder out, left shoulder back? Is the reef to the north, south, east or west? Where is the boat moored? Or is it a drift with a zodiac pick up? Note depth details, landmarks, hazards or points of interest on the route, such as a significant pinnacle, outcropping or swim-through. And, of course, pay attention to any emergency procedures if anything goes wrong.

  2. Plan the dive

    With all the information you’ve gathered from the briefing, make your plan with your buddy or dive team. This, of course, includes your designated navigator and whichever route the team will take. But also consider your gas consumption (and your buddy’s) using the rule of thirds, allowable no-stop time for the gas you’re using (i.e. air or nitrox) based on the maximum planned depth, and points of interest. If, for example, you’re planning a wreck dive, it may be impossible to see everything on one dive. Prioritize and make a conservative route with agreed-upon turning points.

  3. Share responsibilities

    Agree with your buddy before you enter the water who is leading the dive. Decide how you’ll share responsibilities when it comes monitoring depth, time and gas consumption. Review your hand signals so that you can effectively communicate, including for contingencies if things go off-plan. Typically, one member of the buddy pair will choose the route while the other monitors depth, time and distance.

  4. Take a bearing

    Get familiar with your compass. Always make it part of your standard set-up when entering the water and, where appropriate, take a bearing before you descend. Alternatively, take a bearing before heading down the descent line. From the boat, identify the reef’s location. That way, if you become disoriented, you will always know which way to swim back to the boat. If you’re shore diving, determine which direction brings you back to the shoreline.

You’ll hone these techniques the more you use them, so don’t be intimidated to lead or navigate a dive. You’ll soon find that – almost unconsciously – you’ll start to absorb the clues and cues from your compass and the surrounding environment. Next in our series we’ll look at some specific tips when it comes to navigating underwater with a compass.