The 5 Essentials
WHEN YOU LEARN TO DIVE, you make a momentous journey from permanent landlubber to temporary denizen of the watery depths. With a lot of information to take in, it can be hard to distinguish the really important things from those that are just nice to know.
Here are five techniques that divers should particularly concentrate on mastering right from the start.
Despite what most people are told when they begin diving, you do not breathe “normally” when you’re under water on scuba. The manuals say that only to try to dispel any fears new students may have about not being able to breathe at all.
When you’re under water you are breathing air under pressure, so the air is denser than the air you breathe from the atmosphere when you’re on land. You are also breathing through your regulator, an artificial device that extends the distance between your lungs and the source of the air. This gap is known as “dead air space”.
Because of these two factors, if you breathe haphazardly and without thinking about it, as you do on land, turbulence within the dead air space will prevent much of the air you inhale from actually reaching your lungs.
You will just breathe it all out again, without the important oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange having taken place. This exchange is the whole point of breathing.
So, to breathe efficiently under water, you have to develop a controlled, long, slow breathing style, pulling the dense air down deep into your lungs with each inhalation and then expelling it in a long, slow exhalation.
Breathe from your diaphragm, rather than your chest. How do you do this? When you inhale, push your stomach all the way out so that it distends to allow your lungs to expand and draw as much air in as possible. Then, when you exhale, compress your stomach muscles to reduce your lung volume to a minimum.
Breathe out slowly and continuously until it feels as if there is no air left to exhale. Then breathe in again. You don’t need to pause between breaths – just let your breathing be a constant cycle of long ins followed by long outs.
Breathing from the diaphragm does take a little getting used to, but you don’t need to be diving to practise it. This is something you can do any time, anywhere, on a train, in your car in a traffic jam or watching TV.
At home, a good exercise is to lie on the floor, put a book on your stomach and focus on moving the book up and down by slowly breathing in and out.
When you breathe like this, you ensure that as much CO2 is removed from your body with each breath. This is important. A build-up of CO2 in your body makes you stressed and anxious. When you exhale efficiently, you reduce your body’s CO2 levels, which makes you more relaxed and less prone to anxiety.
Being relaxed on a dive enables you to be more attentive, puts you in a good frame of mind to deal calmly with any emergency, and reduces considerably your tendency to panic.
The greatest threat to any diver comes from an uncontrolled ascent. All divers know this, yet uncontrolled ascents are still much too common. Why? Because panic over-rides the intellect and induces people to do things they would never do if their brain were in charge.
Reduce the likelihood that you will panic by acquiring the long, slow breathing habit, and also learning to relax under water by adopting important techniques such as visualisation.
Before a scuba-dive, sit in a quiet place and think about the dive ahead. Think positive thoughts; imagine all the wonderful things you’re going to experience and picture a successful dive in your mind. See yourself as you descend, in control, checking all your gear is in place, keeping a long, slow breathing rhythm, maintaining good buoyancy control, looking around at the environment and staying in touch with your dive team.
Then focus your thoughts on the dive itself. Visualise yourself feeling comfortable, being aware and checking the status of your computer and contents gauge from time to time. See yourself making a slow, safe and controlled ascent with a safety stop, finally establishing positive buoyancy on the surface and ending the dive with plenty of air.
Visualisation is also an effective weapon to deploy against apprehension.
It is not uncommon for divers to be apprehensive before a dive and this can be dangerous. It doesn’t take much for the apprehension to turn into panic.
When you learned to dive, you were taught how to deal with anything that might go wrong while under water. By reflecting during your visualisation about what could happen and realising that you know exactly how to deal with it, you eliminate apprehension, grow in self-confidence and can approach the dive in a positive, relaxed frame of mind.
3. PAYING ATTENTION
Newer divers often seem to be focused on a movie streaming inside their minds rather than on what’s going on around them. They are in a new environment and the novelty makes them less attentive.
This is similar to the lack of attention typically exhibited by tourists that makes them such good targets for thieves and fraudsters. There are no pickpockets under water, but if you’re dreaming, lost in wonder and not watching what’s happening around you, you are not in control of your dive.
When you dive, pay attention to your environment and be alert to everything going on. Yes, monitor your computer and gauges as you were taught, but don’t become fixated on them.
Just as you do when walking on land, look where you’re going, notice where you’ve been and keep an eye on what other divers are doing. Don’t let your attention wander, or allow yourself to get caught up in absent-minded thoughts.
For example, as you descend, look down to see what sort of topography awaits you. Are you going down towards sand, reef, rock or seaweed? Are there other divers below you?
When you plan to ascend, look up before you go up and be more cautious the closer you get to the surface, where sharp and potentially deadly threats await in the form of boat hulls and propellers, jet-skis and other marine traffic.
In your daily life, you have developed sensitive, invisible antennae that you deploy subconsciously as you go about your business.
They enable you, for example, to cross roads safely, avoid kids on skateboards or spot people who need your seat on a busy train more than you do. Don’t retract those antennae when under water – in fact, if possible, extend them even further.
Your fins are propulsion devices, buoyancy controllers and stabilisers. When required, they can be finely tipped quill pens or delicate precision instruments. At other times they can be broad paintbrushes and power tools.
You use your fins as you use the pedals when driving a car. However, not only do fins enable you to speed up, slow down or stop, they help you to steer as well. Your fins do it all.
Learning how to fin properly requires a great deal of concentration and effort. Most new divers find they have to use their leg muscles in new ways.
The most common fin-kick taught to divers when they begin is the almost-straight-legged scissor kick or flutter kick, similar to the kick freestyle swimmers use. This is very effective for fast swimming or moving against a current flow. But it can also sap your energy and, if you’re swimming close to a reef or a silty seabed, the powerful downstroke of your fins will disturb the environment over which you’re moving, messing up the visibility and/or damaging fragile marine life.
Using a frog-kick, like a breaststroke swimmer, where you move your legs apart slowly then bring them together more quickly to provide forward propulsion, directs the displaced water horizontally behind you instead of downwards.
It is much more comfortable, and less strenuous to maintain too.
There are also other more advanced fin-kicks that you can learn, such as a modified flutter-kick where you move your feet only, pivoting from your ankles and with your knees bent so your fins are above you. You won’t make rapid forward progress with this technique but it is good for manoeuvring in confined spaces.
5. BUOYANCY CONTROL
When most people start diving, they feel awkward, clumsy and out of control, and watch with envy as more experienced divers deploy the holy trinity of fin-management, body-management and breath-management to control their position in the water.
This mastery of the environment is not magical and unattainable. It is something that all divers can acquire. As with most things in life, the more you practise, the better you become.
In the next article in this series, I will describe in more detail techniques you can apply to improve your buoyancy control.
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 are available on Amazon in a variety of formats.