By: Vandit Kalia

A common discussion theme among instructors in various forums has to do with agency standards, and how such and such agency makes better divers because of such and such skill or requirement or whatever. Most of these arguments are of the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” variety, and seem to be mired in a reality which is very different from what I have seen/experienced in my years of diving.

The fundamental basis of all these arguments is the implied belief that if you don’t learn it in a course, you will never learn it – in other words, no learning or improvement takes place outside of a formal course environment. Implied in this, of course, is the corollary that you need to keep doing courses in order to improve your diving.

Now, let me be clear – diving courses have their place. Depending on where you are in your diving skills, a properly-chosen and well-taught course, be it an SSI Specialty, a PADI Rescue course or NAUI Master Diver course, can help you elevate your dive skills to the next level. When it comes to gaining specialized skills, a specialized course is a great way to kickstart your learning and point you in the right direction – but even here, the course is merely a starting point. You won’t learn wreck diving or deep diving or perfect buoyancy after a 2-3 days course – you’ll get the fundamental skills which you can then develop by yourself.

Note the key phrase – develop by yourself. Contrary to the industry-perpetuated belief – which a lot of well-meaning instructors also seem to have adopted – a lot of diving skills should be, and are, developed by the diver on their own.

Let me put it this way. You come to do a diving course with us. During the course, I teach you all the skills that the agency requires us to teach, plus some extra stuff which I feel is important for you to know and practice. Now, what happens if you don’t dive again for another year? You will forget your skills, regardless of whether I taught the course in 4 days or 14.

Now, diving is something you presumably do because you like it – so it shouldn’t be too difficult or an imposition for you, as a diver, to continue to work on improving your skills. And because I feel improvement is something that happens on every dive, I’m going to share 10 tips with you on how you can do so.

In no particular order:

1/ Engage your brain

Too many people are simply content to follow the divemaster, going where he goes and coming up when he says come up. Nyet, nein, no. By all means, go with a divemaster – s/he knows the local reefs a lot better than you and can show you the Good Stuff. But your dive and your safety is your responsibility, not the divemaster’s.

What does this mean in practice? Simple – ask your DM about what the dive site looks like and which route he’ll be taking. At all times, try to keep in your mind approximately where the boat is. Where your buddy is. How much NDL you have left. How much air you have left.Whether you have enough air to make it back to the exit point or not (more on this later). Etc. If a giant hand were to hypothetically sweep in and disappear with the divemaster, you should be able to continue the dive without him/her. This will generally require owning a dive computer – one piece of dive equipment that I think every keen diver should own, btw.

2/ Know your air usage

There are formulas for calculating air consumption. Very few people outside of forum heroes actually use those formulas underwater. However, you should always know what the reading in your SPG means in terms of real life air supply. When I dive, I know pretty much how much air I have (within 10 bar), based on depth and time. I don’t need to do any calculations, I just know. How? From what I remember from past dives.

So try this exercise. When you start your ascent, note your depth and air. Note how much you have when you surface. Write this in your logbook, also noting whether it was a free ascent or on a line. Soon, you’ll know how much air you need to ascend from 10m, from 20m, from 30m. Test yourself by guessing at the start of the ascent and verifying that number once you reach the surface. Soon, you’ll know exactly how much air you need to surface safely, and will no longer risk running low on air on the ascent.

Building on this, another exercise is to periodically look at your depth, your time and your SPG. A little later, while more or less at the same depth, check your time again and see how much air you have now. So it could be that you’ve used 30 bar of air over 10 min at 20m. This, along with some simple algebra gives you an idea of your air consumption rate. Once you get the hang of this, try to predict what the numbers will be.

This doesn’t take a lot of time, but is a good way to understand and track your air usage.

3/ Test your weighting

Too many people dive over-weighted. As an instructor, it is easy to teach Open Water by putting a couple of extra kilos on a student and having them swim while slightly negatively buoyant (besides, many OW courses seem to actually forget the swimming/diving component – they seem to consist entirely of “do skills and surface”) – the student is less likely to float up to the surface this way. The student is also less likely to learn proper buoyancy this way, but that is typically considered an irrelevant detail.

So what I’d like you to do is this – after a dive, run your tank down to 30-40 bar. Then empty your BCD completely. Lock your ankles together and fold your arms near your chest, so you don’t kick or scull. Relax and exhale – you should sink. Inhale, and you should come up the same amount.   Remember to inhale and exhale the same way you do when diving.  Do this a few times and you should be pretty much at/near the surface.  If you are sinking or not coming up when you inhale, you are too heavy.

When you go up and down by the same amount, that’s your correct weight for that gear combo. It will change a little depending on BCD type and saltiness of the sea but it gives you a starting point. Oh, and this weighting doesn’t change depending on how deep you plan to dive. If anyone says you need more weight cos you are diving deeper, ignore them.

Note – this is for a typical tropical suit and also builds in a bit of a buffer if you need to do a safety stop while lower than ideal on air. While it also works for people diving in cold water, it will leave you slightly heavy when doing a safety stop. This is a good starting point; you can always modify it later once you know your specific needs. If you already know you have different requirements, you don’t need my advice anyway.

Second note – when you are properly weighted, you won’t need a lot of air in your BCD. If you have followed the method I have outlined above, you will be properly weighted. If you find yourself bobbing up and down while diving, work on your technique. And that leads us to….

4/ Fix your buoyancy

I have seen this happen with far too many Advanced Open Water students than I’d like – we go diving, they are happily swimming along at my depth. I stop and ask them to do likewise, and hover. And they start sinking as soon as they stop kicking – they have to add several squirts of air to their BCD in order to be neutral.

Why does this happen? Either it is a teaching shortcut used by the instructor to make his/her life easier, or the student doesn’t have a steady breathing pattern and breathes one way when swimming and another way when hovering, or some combo thereof. Regardless, it is bad technique. It means that if you stop to look at anything, you risk kicking the tar out of whatever is below you. It also means that you are not really enjoying the feeling of weightlessness that is the best part of scuba. And it means that you have to keep breathing and kicking while diving, which means you use your air faster.

So what do you do to fix it? Simple – every 5-10 min into the dive, make sure you are over a sandy patch or have some water column below you and stop kicking. You should stay more or less where you are, going up slightly when you inhale and down when you exhale. If not, add a small squirt of air and repeat until you are.

Now comes the tricky part – when you start to swim after doing this drill, odds are that you will go up, most likely cursing my name and the stupid, worthless advice you got on the Interwebz (don’t deny it). Well, is it any surprise? Your body and muscle memory is still used to kicking in a way that keeps you off the bottom – you’ve just sprung a surprise on it by not needing that lift anymore. You now need to re-train your kicking and breathing style.  

So try this – no longer are you going to go kick-kick-kick. You are going to go kick-pause-kick-pause. You are going to wait till you start to descend before you inhale. You can even point your head downwards a little to keep yourself  going down. And you are going to keep practicing this till you get better at it. Then you can apologize in your mind for calling me names.

5/ Keep your eyes and ears open

As Sammy Hagar sang, there’s only one way to rock – but there are multiple ways to do the same thing. So when you are on a dive boat, see how the local DMs do things. See how other divers do things. Ask them why they do what they do. Always take the answer with a grain of salt, as many times divers follow less than ideal diving practices.  But sometimes, you’ll learn useful little tricks. Remember – just cos you were taught diving one way doesn’t mean it is the only way.

6/ Dive with a buddy – really

Recreational scuba diving is a very safe sport with a very low incident rate of injury. And of this small % of people that get hurt, a very miniscule percentage actually die. And according to some studies, in 90%+ (97%, if memory serves me right) of those fatalities, the victim was separated from their buddy. No matter how you slice or dice it, this number makes it very clear – stay with your buddy and a safe sport becomes orders of magnitude safer.

People dive solo all the time. I do occasionally, even. But I do it knowing what the risks are and willingly choose to take those risks. I also have backup plans to deal with those risks and have dealt with enough problems underwater to know I can realistically deal with those risks (more on this later as well). And even then, I know that there is always the chance of something going seriously wrong and that a minor incident could be potentially fatal. Informed acceptance of risk.

You are an adult and how you live your life is your business. However, I will say this – most divers are not experienced enough to know the various risks of scuba diving. 50-100 dives including a bunch to 30m don’t make you an experienced diver. If you dive solo, no matter how experienced you are and whether your card says “OW” or “Instructor”, you are running the risk that a small incident could snowball into a fatal accident. Stay with your buddy. And play a little game – randomly, ask yourself “If my reg were to fail right now and I were to get a mouthful of water while trying to breathe in, could I make it to my buddy?” You’d be surprised how often the answer is “no.”

7/ Be realistic about your abilities

Some of the most dangerous divers I have seen are the ones with 30-60 dives to their credit. They have enough dives to be somewhat experienced – dived in 2-3 different locations, if not more; multiple deep dives; usually 1-2 courses beyond Open Water, etc. They have a lot of theoretical knowledge and reasonably good dive skills. But this makes them overconfident. And overconfidence doesn’t just bite you in the ass in the sea – it can tear big chunks out of you.

It is one thing to have done a regulator exchange in a class, with the donor facing you at an arm’s length away and an instructor watching. It is another thing to be at 30m, suddenly have a problem with your air supply and realize your buddy is 15m away and looking elsewhere. It is one thing to know how to navigate in a class, and another thing to be all alone in low vis, with no one around you and no idea where to go. Etc. etc.

Classroom drills may teach you the mechanics of a particular skill, but they cannot really tell you how you’ll react in a stressful situation. You only find that out the hard way – and keep in mind, how you react to stress underwater is very different from how you react to stress elsewhere. I have learned the hard way that I am very calm under stress in the water – but put me in a situation involving heights and I’d be panicking faster than you could say “don’t look down”. So just because you have proven yourself to be calm under extreme stress in a different environment doesn’t mean you’ll be calm under stress underwater.

Obviously, you dont want to be in a life threatening situation when you find out that you are prone to panicking easily underwater. So just because you’ve done a skill in practice, don’t think you can do it in a live situation when your HR and adrenalin levels are jacked up. In other words – play it safe and don’t put yourself in a situation where you have to test your problem-solving-skills-under-duress in order to be safe.

And to improve the odds of your successfully completing a safety drill when needed, practice. The more you practice, the more you develop muscle memory and the less cognitive effort required on your part to do the skill. In simple terms, this means that you are more likely to automatically perform the skill even when the thinking part of your brain is occupied elsewhere (handling extreme stress, for example). Some skills that should be absolutely automatic for you – mask removal/clearing, air sharing and deflating your BCD.

8/ No mask, no problem<

The biggest cause of injury to beginner divers is uncontrolled ascent. The biggest cause of uncontrolled ascent – water in the mask leading to inhaling a little water through the nose leading to panic. If you struggled to clear your mask in the OW course and barely managed to get it done, keep working on it.

One useful skill – lie facedown in a bathtub (or swimming pool) with just a snorkel in your mouth – get used to breathing in and out from the mouth, and keeping water from going in your nose. You should be comfy enough that if someone were to rip your mask off your face suddenly on the dive (maybe the same giant hand that took away the DM in point #1 above?), it shouldn’t be an issue.

9/ Avoid peer pressure /know when to say no

You’ve come a long way, at significant expense for a holiday. Your significant other is excited about the dive. But the dive conditions or the dive site are making you nervous. Everyone else on the dive boat seems to be very excited about it, but you aren’t sure if you can do the dive. Sound somewhat familiar? If you are like a lot of people, you may suck it up and go for the dive while stressed. And then, if something goes wrong, your stress increases significantly till it becomes panic.

Now, I am a firm believer in trying to push your comfort limit (within sensible reason!). If you don’t push yourself, you don’t improve. But the decision on how much to push is yours and yours alone – not mine, not the divemaster’s and not your significant other’s. If you are not sure about something, ask for more information/assistance in how to do it – repeat till you are confident that you can do it. If you are not confident, do not do it. No single dive is worth risking your health and that of the others around you.

10/ Dive more

By all means, stay abreast of dive developments – get magazines, subscribe to Divers Alert Network (the Good Guys of diving), etc.

But remember – diving is learned in the water. You can read many books on mountain biking as well, but you need to get on the trail in order to improve. By the same token, you can read all about the theory of diving, but diving is done in the water. If you don’t dive enough, you will not become a better diver. No amount of courses, instruction, etc. will make up for it

For those of you that live in India, there is access to excellent diving from here. Not only is there a Most Excellent Dive Center in the Andamans, staffed by instructors that are scuba gods made flesh (and very modest, to boot), you have cheap flights to Maldives, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines – all of which offer superb diving.

So get out there and dive.

Obligatory legalese – this article is geared towards certified divers and is not intended to replace actual instruction. Also, the content is inherently general – since we are not there to personally supervise how you, we cannot guarantee that you’ll be able to do them safely or if there are any specific conditions that apply to you which might make practising any of the skills or concepts in this article hazardous to your health. So whatever you do, you do at your own risk. In fact, you should assume that anything you read on the Internet is extremely bad advice and ignore it. We are not responsible for any injuries that may be caused, etc. etc.

The author is the founder of DIVEIndia Scuba & Resorts, a NAUI Course Director and SSI Instructor Trainer.  He has been teaching since 2001 and has certified over a thousand students, from Open Water to Instructor.