Good buoyancy control is absolutely essential to being a good diver. The best divers make it look easy, hanging gracefully in a horizontal position as if suspended by an invisible cable. Others, conversely, seem to struggle with buoyancy control. Buoyancy skills are essential for safe descents, ascents, maintaining position on stops, and taking photos. There’s always room to improve your dive skills, but how do you know when your buoyancy could use improvement? Here are some methods for practicing peak performance buoyancy that will help you improve your skills no matter how much dive experience you have.
Identify the problem
Recognizing and admitting that you need to improve your buoyancy is the first step toward becoming a better diver. There are several tell-tale signs — some physical and some mental — that your buoyancy control would benefit from practice, coaching and improvement. Do you notice any of the following traits in your diving?
Mental signs and symptoms
Avoiding the problem
Divers less confident in their buoyancy control tend to gravitate to less-challenging dive sites. A straightforward reef dive with 60 feet (12 m) maximum depth to the sandy seabed and minimal water movement offers comfort. If the diver loses buoyancy control, the sandy bottom below offers a psychological safety net. And, if the diver does lose control or become too positively buoyant, he’s still relatively shallow.
Less-confident divers often become anxious at the thought of a wall dive without the reassurance of a bottom to ‘catch’ them. They are uncomfortable at the thought of a free descent or ascent without using a reference line or reassuring visual reference, their worry about loss of control and its consequences prominent their mind.
Additionally, divers less competent with their buoyancy control (aside from those suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect) will often avoid any form of task-loading, such as navigation, DSMB deployment, photography or videography. They must dedicate their full attention to adjusting and maintaining buoyancy during the dive.
Physical signs and symptoms
Being a pack horse
There is little value in taking extra weight on a dive. Often, novice divers and those with buoyancy issues tend to dive over-weighted and have less control underwater.
The first tell-tale sign is poor positioning: the novice diver tends to remain in an upright stance. This is typically due to poor buoyancy control combined with over-weighting — the excess lead on their belts is dragging the bottom half of the body down. Consequently, they slightly over-inflate their BCD to compensate, lifting the torso. The two elements combine to leave the diver looking although they’re riding an invisible bicycle through the water.
Over-weighted divers also tend to move in a repetitive yo-yo pattern of adding and releasing gas from their jacket – each time they kick their fins they propel themselves shallower, necessitating a release of expanding gas from the jacket, which drops them deeper. Consequently, they must add air and kick to maintain position in the water column. The cycle then repeats.
The comfort blanket
Novice divers and those uncomfortable with their buoyancy skills often grasp their low-pressure inflator hose in their left hand throughout the dive. If a diver has buoyancy problems, one of the key markers is often a failure to anticipate and swiftly react to changes in pressure and volume in their jacket, wing or suit. The LPI controls offer a psychological reassurance. If the diver experiences a buoyancy issue, the means of making an adjustment is literally at hand and there is no delay in response.
Stop n’ drop
You’ll know when your buoyancy skills are beginning to fall into place as your forward propulsion — kicking your fins — will have no bearing on your position in the water column. A common sign of buoyancy skills needing attention is the ‘stop n’ drop’ — novice divers are often over-weighted or negatively buoyant and use their kick cycles to keep from dropping in the water column if they stop moving forward. If they stop kicking, they sink.
Divers with good buoyancy skills will rarely (if at all) use their hands to move in the water or maintain position. Hands and arms are for communication, a place to mount compasses and computers, or for making adjustments to BCD or drysuit controls. Each movement is careful and deliberate to save energy and gas, even when turning or reversing through the water. By contrast, a diver with less well-honed buoyancy skills will often flap their hands — sometimes unwittingly — whenever they want to stop, turn, reverse, avoid something or adjust buoyancy. This phenomenon, sometimes known as ‘wafting,’ is a marker of buoyancy requiring further work. It indicates the diver is resorting to ‘land mammal’ mode at the first sign of unbalance, using their hands to stop a fall or loss of balance as they would on land.
Whatever the depth or circumstance, a diver who is competent in buoyancy skills will be able to smoothly maintain position. A sign that your buoyancy skills need some attention may be that you find yourself floating away from the group occasionally. If you’re on the surface before the conclusion of a safety stop, drifted away from the group when the guide asks you to check your air, or lost control when task loaded with navigating or deploying a DSMB, you’ve still got work to do on your buoyancy.
Divers who need to work on buoyancy skills will usually consume more gas as they expend energy making frequent buoyancy adjustments. This doesn’t mean that every diver who consumes more air has a poor technique, or that divers economical on air are more skillful — some divers are just larger and have larger lungs. However, divers breathing hard as they’re fighting to maintain position in the water often consume more gas and, consequently, report a dry throat at the end of a dive where they have been breathing harder from the pure, filtered gas in their cylinder.
Back of the pack
If you’ve noticed that other divers prefer to dive ahead of you in the dive group, the guide asks you to lean on them to look at the interesting critter they’ve found or, alternatively, they don’t show you any small critters on the dive at all, your buoyancy may require work. If you’re kicking up a trail of sand or silt behind you, your fellow divers will quickly maneuver themselves to a position ahead of you in the dive group for a clearer view.
Similarly, a conscientious dive leader will often surreptitiously regulate the buoyancy of less able divers in the group by paying closer attention to them on the dive. They may position the diver closer to them with the group, offering more regular instruction and hand signals, or allow the diver to lean on them for stability when viewing a small critter or wreck feature. Or, as mentioned, they may not even point out a small critter at all if they feel the diver may crash into the animal or surrounding reef.
Dive buddies or instructors may offer buoyancy feedback if they’ve spotted any of the above signs and symptoms, particularly if they think the diver is a danger to themselves or the surrounding environment. Otherwise, the diver may be blissfully unaware of their shortcomings and believe they’re an entirely competent diver.
What to do
If you recognize any of the above signs and symptoms in your diving, you’ve already taken the first step. Every moment of every dive is an opportunity to learn and improve your diving skills.
Go back to the basics. As a first step, adjust your weighting and complete a proper weight check, both before and after the dive. Take some time to get into confined water or local swimming pool. Open-water diver level exercises are specifically included to help divers hone their buoyancy. Run through fin pivots, hovers and different movements and task-loaded skills such as DSMB deployment until they’re second-nature in the safe confines of a pool.
Ask for honest feedback and tips from your experienced dive buddies and professional divers who have seen you in water. Often, particularly on a simple guided dive during a dive trip or vacation, the divemaster leading you will hesitate to offer their feedback unless prompted for fear of compromising a potential tip at the end of the day’s diving. Put that aside and seek out their advice if you think you’d like to improve.
If you’re still struggling to make progress, or wish to accelerate the whole process, consider a training course. Most agencies offer a peak performance buoyancy program where, under professional guidance, you might drop som weight, improve your trim, master different finning techniques, hone your movements and reduce your gas consumption.
Great buoyancy skills will help you make safer ascents and descents, be stable on safety stops, avoid contact with your buddies and the reef, and impress your fellow divers and guide. Take the opportunity next time you’re in the water for some honest self-appraisal and practice. You’ll have a safer and more comfortable dive as a consequence.