We’re about to open a can of worms by asking: are women better scuba divers than men?

As a female dive instructor in the Philippines, I once had a conversation with a man who insisted that if a dive wasn’t deep and didn’t feature sharks or a strong current, it wasn’t really a “dive.” I’ve had similar conversations with other men during my career, wherein it seemed they wanted to impress me with their hardcore dive stories. And although all male divers aren’t like this, more than once I’ve had to suggest that there’s more to “boring, normal diving” than they think. I gently remind them that questionable judgement calls don’t make for exciting dives — they make for dangerous ones.

Having said that, when I came upon the research done by Mandy Shackleton, a marine scientist, at Hull University in 2007 on how women are better divers than men, I had a chuckle. But is she right? Are women better scuba divers than men?

The power of hormones

Male divers often seek sensations. They look for novel, exciting and intense experiences. This leads to the secretion of cortisol, testosterone and adrenaline, which can lead them to take more risks underwater. Dr. Magnus Johnson, head of Hull University’s center of environmental and marine sciences, also notes that men might take more risks while diving with a woman in order to impress her. Women, on the other hand, are more safety conscious and thus take fewer risks while diving, said Shackleton in her study.

Buoyancy, efficient movement and heat

Michael Messner from the University of Southern California notes that women tend to have a higher percentage of body fat than men. This makes them naturally more buoyant. Sure, they might need an extra weight or two. But this also means that women use less energy while swimming and enjoy a higher degree of insulation against cold water.

The big picture

Women are better at reading non-verbal cues, such as body language and visual cues, as summarized by Nancy Briton and colleagues. Talking underwater is largely limited to grunts and squeals of delight, and divers rely exclusively on non-verbal communication.

Nigel Forman, a professor of psychology at Middlesex University, also found that women were better at picking up on non-verbal, situational and environmental cues.

Because they are fluent in non-verbal communication, women are better able to navigate the underwater environment and adapt to changes.

Spatial awareness

Forman also mentions that because women see the bigger picture, they have a better spatial awareness underwater. This is the opposite of what is true on the surface, where men tend to be more skilled. This, combined with the tendency for women to be more-cautious divers and have better buoyancy control, means women divers make less contact with — and break less — coral than their male buddies.

It’s all in the legs

In general, women tend to harness their lower-body strength more than men, who rely more on their upper body. Scott Mclean and Richard Hinrichs found that men generally kick more than women to cover the same distance while swimming. Combining this with fins designed to propel you further with fewer kick cycles, as explained by Zamparo and colleagues, leads to a more efficient dive-kicking style and thus to lower air consumption in women.

Air consumption

Because women move more efficiently through water and have smaller lungs, they tend to use less air than men. This enables them to dive for longer and leaves more air available in if a buddy runs out.

On your next dive, observe your buddies — male and female — and examine how they dive. Do you notice any differences? Whether or not women are better divers than men, each of us can undoubtedly learn something from the other.

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