Buoyancy is arguably the key skill when it comes to scuba diving, in the sense that we’re practicing it constantly. Without good buoyancy, almost everything else becomes at least more difficult and inefficient or, at worst, impossible. When we truly master this skill, everything else becomes that much easier, and we become one of those effortless divers we’ve all admired since we took up diving.
Although buoyancy skills are an integral part of dive training, mastering your buoyancy doesn’t end with the fin pivot and hover drills of your entry-level course, and not even with a buoyancy specialty. Truly mastering buoyancy takes many hours of diving, and exceeds what can be achieved in a dive course.
Improving your skills
As with many new skills, there are two main ways to acquire better buoyancy: immersion and deliberate practice. Immersion is a form of learning-by-doing, where we put ourselves in situations where we must perform a certain skill, and through that, improve it. This is what we do if we move to a different country to learn the language. This method can be very effective, but it also has drawbacks — we risk picking up bad habits or inferior practices in an attempt to just get by, without truly perfecting our skill of choice. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, involves specifically training for the desired skill, focusing on the key basics first, which can be done with or without an instructor or guide. This helps us pick up skills and correct flaws, either through the guide’s help or by self-correction. Often, the best skill acquisition contains both elements.
Immersion training for buoyancy literally requires just that: immersion (in water). Simply diving a lot, particularly in situations that require buoyancy control, such as wall diving or photography, will help you develop your skills. And the more you dive, the better you become. But immersion is not the end-all to mastering buoyancy. You may pick up bad habits anyway, such as overweighting yourself and using propulsion to maintain a constant depth.
Your deliberate buoyancy practice started with your dive course. Here, an instructor taught you the basics, which you can always use as a baseline for self-correction. You can also take a buoyancy specialty course to brush up on and further improve your buoyancy knowledge. As a short course, the buoyancy specialty will mostly improve your knowledge of the skill, while offering a somewhat limited amount of practice. This is nonetheless important to help evaluate your skills and practice henceforward.
The buoyancy system
Too many divers think of buoyancy as something only related to their BCDs. It helps to think of your gear as only a part — albeit an important part — of your buoyancy system. This also includes your tank, exposure protection, your weights, your lungs and any other equipment you’re carrying. Add more protective layers, and you add more positive buoyancy. Carry a heavy dive torch, and you must either remove some weights or add more air to your BCD to compensate. And a deep breath can send you rocketing for the surface. These variables are what make buoyancy so complicated.
Evaluating your buoyancy
As you swim during a dive, your propulsion helps you maintain depth. To truly evaluate your buoyancy, you must stop and hover while maintaining depth and position in the water. Although it sounds simple, this is trickier than many people expect, but will help you truly master your buoyancy. Take note if you tend to sink (most likely) or ascend, and if you have a tendency to roll to either side or pitch forward and backwards. The latter can be related to trim, which we’ll cover later. And try and stop in a various positions — horizontal, vertical, seated — and note any differences.
Training your buoyancy
Practice overcoming any buoyancy problems you may have when you pause during a dive. If you find yourself sinking, add more air to your BCD, and consider carrying less weight next time (more on weighting later). Do the reverse if you find yourself floating upwards. Try to compensate for any pitching or rolling.
Use your safety stop to practice as well. Although the time spent hovering at 15 feet can be a little boring, take advantage of it by turning it into three minutes of buoyancy training on every dive. If your safety stop is in mid-water, try to complete the entire thing in a perfect hover. Maintain your depth throughout.
When the time comes to ascend, see if you can do so simply by taking slightly larger-than-usual breaths, (no breath-holding, though). Let the added air carry you slowly and gently toward the surface. To achieve this, and to successfully work with your buoyancy, keep all BCD adjustments very small. Do not add or subtract lots of air, as this will only make it harder to reach the sweet spot. Several smaller adjustments are the way to go. Ultimately, both immersion and deliberate attention to your buoyancy will make you a much better diver.