I started diving when I was 12 years old. Until I turned pro, it was usually on vacations with my family to somewhere sunny during the bleak English winter. I loved being underwater but frequently had problems mastering equalization for diving. On more than one occasion I had to abort dives, as I was simply unable to equalize the pressure in my ears. Stress over whether or not my ears would cooperate was impacting my overall enjoyment of an activity I otherwise loved. Over the years I’ve gotten to know my ears better, and now it’s extremely rare for equalization issues to prevent me from diving. If this resonates with you, here are a few tips on equalization for diving that I’ve found extremely helpful.
Try lots of methods
First, understand that ease and manner of equalization can vary a lot from person to person. It’s not a competition or a reflection on your diving ability. I typically have to equalize for every three to seven feet of depth by pinching my nose and blowing. It doesn’t matter how much experience I accumulate, my ears will always need frequent equalization upon descent. On the other hand, some of my students equalize hands-free all the way down to 65 feet with barely any effort. If you fall into this latter category, that’s great, but having to equalize every couple of feet is not a barrier to achieving your diving goals. Accept and learn from your own physiology. Don’t attempt to tough it out and descend regardless — I’ve tried and it doesn’t work.
Next, consider your preparation. Often people going from cold to warm climates will be carrying a bit of congestion. Obviously, do your best to avoid or get rid of any sniffles before you head off. My free-diving instructor uses a yoga technique to forcefully exhale through one nostril at a time every morning and hasn’t suffered from congestion in years. If you haven’t dived for a while, then let your ears adjust slowly by equalizing early and often. It’s like exercising any muscle; over a one- or two-week dive vacation your ears will limber up and get used to equalizing.
Decongestants: Yes or No
The use of decongestants is controversial. Dive training and dive shops warn against it, due to the risk of a reverse block — the effects of the decongestant might wear off at depth, and now you can’t equalize on your way back up. In a highly litigious world, training organizations and dive shops will always err on the cautious side when it comes to decongestants. So basically it’s your call and your risk. I take decongestants on occasion before a dive and have not encountered problems. The same may not be true for you, and I suspect that often it created placebo effect more than anything. Certainly you should not need decongestants for normal equalization. And take it easy on the air conditioning — having your A/C blasting all night will promote congestion.
Before the dive, take a few moments just to relax — it’s incredible how the body responds to tension, and this can feed into difficulty with equalization. Also try moving your jaw around, as this will loosen up the muscles you use to equalize — another trick I picked up from the free-diving coach. Once in the water, descend gently (don’t dump all the air from your BCD), and do your first equalization the moment your head dips below the surface. I love this trick and it’s saved both me and my students many times.
You already know that when you feel a block you should ascend a little and try equalizing again — it sounds simple, but it’s surprising how many divers struggle with this. They will kick a little and try again but as their BCD is negatively buoyant they’re actually still descending. Use your dive computer or depth gauge to make sure you have actually gone up a foot or two. A good dive pro will act as a visual reference if needed. You’ll rarely need to abort a dive, which should be your last resort.
What if you can’t equalize?
If you’ve tried all these things and are still having trouble equalizing, go back to the surface. Take a moment to relax, and then descend again as slowly as possible. Equalize the moment you dip under the surface. Even if you can only equalize down to a few feet, try swimming above the group at that depth for a little while and gently letting your ears get accustomed as you creep down diagonally. Remember, a vertical descent is the most demanding on your ears.
After the dive, take good care of your ears and you can avoid the most common diver injury: ear infections. You’ll see some divers flush their ears with fresh water. I’m not sure how much benefit they reap but it certainly won’t hurt, so give it a try. Divers also use Swim Ear drops or similar products to prevent infection and dry out their ears. You can easily make solutions like these at home; they usually consist of an acidic solution, which balances the pH in your ear; medical grade alcohol, which dries out the ear; and fresh water.. Avoid using Q-Tips regularly — some wax in the ear is natural and necessary, so don’t dig it out every week.
This by no means all the information out there on equalization, just a few tips gleaned from personal experience, but I hope it can be a starting point for discussion. I’m curious to know your hints and tips too; please share them with the Scuba Diver Life community so we can all benefit.