NO MATTER HOW experienced you are, or what sort of shape or size you are, you can always get more out of your diving by reducing the rate at which you consume your air.
The techniques in this month’s column will not only help you enjoy longer dives, they will also ensure that you dive with less stress. As a bonus, they will make you look even better in the water than you do now, more relaxed, more comfortable and more professional.
If that is not enough, you will also find that you are much more aware of what is going on around you, and become better at spotting marine life.
1. GET IN THE MOOD
Spend a little time preparing yourself mentally. Find a quiet space where you can be alone and focus on the dive ahead.
Slow your heartbeat, establish a deep breathing rhythm, close your eyes or gaze out on to the ocean. Get yourself into a nice peaceful zone. Put away any thoughts circling around your mind concerning other aspects of your life, particularly areas where there is something negative going on.
You’re going diving; there is nothing you can do about anything that is happening in your surface existence while you are under water.
2. PAUSE ON DESCENT
We all learn the pre-dive safety check during our beginners’ course, and this soon becomes something instinctive. Another very good habit is to do an in-water check at the start of your dive.
The whole process of gearing up on a busy boat and entering the water can be rushed and stressful, and can raise your breathing rate. Once you have left the surface and are a couple of metres under water, surrounded by the peace and quiet of the ocean, pause on your descent.
Take a few seconds to compose yourself, relax and get a long, slow, deep breathing cycle going (see below) before setting off calmly for the depths.
This is also a good opportunity to make sure that all your equipment is intact, buckles are fastened, nothing is leaking and your gauges are working.
3. LEARN TO EXECUTE THE PERFECT DIVING BREATH
The most effective way for a diver to breathe is from the diaphragm, rather than the chest. When you inhale, push your stomach out so that your lungs can expand, and so that you can draw as much air in as possible.
Ideally, take 5 to 7 seconds to breathe in. The air in your cylinder is to be sipped like wine, not guzzled like beer.
When you exhale, compress your stomach muscles to reduce your lung volume to a minimum and breathe out for at least 7 seconds. This will give you a breathing cycle of around 15 seconds, and a rate of about 4 breaths per minute.
This extended exhalation will ensure that you expel from your lungs as much as possible of the carbon dioxide that your body generates via the metabolic process. A build-up of CO2 will cause you to breathe faster and become anxious.
Make this long, deep, slow breathing cycle an instinctive part of your diving behaviour. You will use less air, but also be able to stay calm, think clearly and control your breathing even if something goes wrong, or a current picks up.
Breathing from the diaphragm does take a little practice, but you will be impressed at how calm it makes you feel. It is something you can practise any time, anywhere, while you are riding the bus, sitting in your car in a traffic jam or watching TV.
At home, a good exercise is to lie on the floor, put a dive weight on your stomach and focus on moving it up and down by breathing in and out. Try not to move your chest during the breathing cycle.
4. GET FIT
Diving is a sport for almost everyone but it is still a sport, and the fitter you are the better you will dive and the less air you will use.
Start a programme of progressive aerobic training and increase the level of your training as a dive-trip approaches. This will enhance your stamina and help you keep a slow, steady breathing rate even when you are expending effort.
5. DON’T FLIP & FLAP
When you’re under water, move only when you need to go somewhere. If you aren’t going anywhere, stay still.
After all, as you sit here now, reading this magazine, you’re unlikely to be moving your feet or flapping your arms around. The more you move, the more air you will use.
Your arms are primarily for communicating or holding lights and cameras. They are no use at all in the medium of water for regaining balance, maintaining buoyancy or changing direction.
Keeping your arms close to your body helps you move more smoothly through the water as it makes you more streamlined. This in turn makes it easier to swim against a current. The less effort you exert, the less air you will use up.
If you want to change direction, dip your shoulder as if you’re riding a motorbike and use your fins like the rudder on a boat. If you lose your balance, go with the flow at first and let yourself move with the water column. Then adjust your body position by shifting your shoulders and torso to regain your equilibrium and use breath control to make yourself more or less buoyant.
In the water, concentrate especially on what your fins are doing. Experienced guides and instructors know that the degree of divers’ mental agitation is reflected in the movement of their feet, especially when at the surface.
Much of this movement is completely unconscious but, of course, the more you flap your fins, the more energy you use and the more air you consume.
6. LOSE THAT WEIGHT
There is a good chance that you may be wearing too much weight when you dive. If you’re still wearing the same amount as you used in your basic training, this is almost certainly the case.
Another good indication is if, when you swim under water, you adopt the head-up tail-down posture of a seahorse.
If you’re not sure, ask someone to take video of you during a dive. You may not be as perfectly horizontal as you thought.
This affects your air consumption adversely in several ways. It means that you need to inflate your BC too much. Being over-weighted and compensating by air injection makes it harder for you to maintain your balance under water, as the excess air moves around in your BC every time you change your position.
Constantly struggling to adjust your position will cause you to get agitated and lose control of your breathing.
Finally, it takes more energy to move through the water if you are not horizontal and streamlined. So trim your weight down to the minimum. As a basic rule of thumb, you should be able to hang comfortably at 5m with 50 bar in your cylinder and no air in your BC.
Wear your weight-belt higher on your waist to bring your feet up and make you more horizontal. Remember to tighten your belt as you descend, as it tends to loosen and slip down when the neoprene of your wetsuit is crushed at depth.
7. LEARN DIFFERENT KICKS
There are a number of different ways of finning other than the classic wide full-legged flutter power-kick divers are typically taught when they first learn to dive. Before your next trip, go to the beach or pool and practise doing the kind of frog-kicks a breaststroke swimmer uses, or a modified flutter-kick with knees bent and feet up.
You will find that these take less energy and can be maintained for a long time with little effort. As well as improving your air consumption, different methods of propulsion can minimise the disruption you cause to the environment through which you’re swimming.
Practise with a buddy, as you will need an extra pair of eyes to see what your fins are doing behind you. Get advice from a local instructor or, during your trips, watch closely how your dive-guides swim, and copy them.
Read more from Simon Pridmore in:
Scuba Confidential – An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver
Scuba Professional – Insights into Sport Diver Training & Operations
Scuba Fundamentals – Start Diving the Right Way
All available on Amazon in a variety of formats.