8 Basic Scuba Diving Skills You Should Master

Scuba diving student and instructor practicing a skill

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When you make the life-changing decision to become a qualified scuba diver, the first step is to enroll in an entry-level certification course. The next is to master the basic skills required to keep you safe underwater. The PADI Open Water Diver course covers no fewer than 40 different skills— from the correct way to enter the water to the best way to remove your gear at the end of a dive—all of which will be properly demonstrated and explained by your instructor. To give you an idea of what to expect, however, (or to serve as a refresher for those that are already qualified), this article takes a detailed look at eight of the most important beginner scuba skills.

How to Assemble Your Dive Gear

First, inspect your dive tank or cylinder to see when it was last tested and to ensure that the valve’s O-ring is intact and seated properly. Next, slip the buoyancy control device (BCD) strap over the top of the cylinder so that the valve faces the back of the jacket. There should be room for at least four fingers between the top of the BCD strap and the neck of the cylinder. Tighten the BCD securely.

Next, take your regulators and unscrew the dust cap. Place the first stage over the cylinder valve, making sure to orient it so that the second stages are on your right. Screw the first stage into place, then attach the inflator hose to your BCD. Before turning your air on, be sure to turn your air gauge so that the glass faces away from you. Turn the valve slowly until it is fully open. 

How to Communicate Underwater

One of the greatest pleasures of the underwater world is its quietude. However, being unable to speak means that you need to find another way to communicate: with hand signals. Divers use a universally recognized series of signals to convey important messages. The most crucial of these include: 

  • OK: Make a circle with your first finger and thumb (at close quarters) or make a circle by touching the top of your head with one arm (on the surface, at a distance). This can be both a question and an answer.
  • Descend: Give a thumbs down.
  • Ascend: Give a thumbs up.
  • Stop: Hold one hand in front of you, palm facing outwards.
  • Something’s wrong: Hold one hand flat in front of you, then tilt it from side to side. Indicate what is wrong by making this signal and then pointing to the problem.
  • Look: Use your index and middle fingers to point at your eyes, and then your index finger to point in the desired direction.
  • "How much air have you got left?": Hold your index and middle fingers together on top of your opposite palm.
  • “I’m out of air”: Move a flat hand in a slashing motion across your neck.

How to Control Your Buoyancy

During training, you will learn about positive, negative, and neutral buoyancy, all of which are controlled by several factors including your breathing, the amount of additional weight you wear, and the amount of air in your BCD. To add air to your BCD, press the inflate button in short, sharp bursts. When you are underwater, it is important to add air slowly so that you can control your buoyancy; add it too fast, and you could trigger a dangerous, out-of-control ascent. 

You can also inflate your BCD orally (if you have no air left in your cylinder) by holding the inflate button down and breathing into the attached mouthpiece. To release air from your BCD, press the deflate button. You will need to be upright in the water for air to escape properly. All BCDs also have an emergency dump valve or two so that you can release air no matter your position. 

How to Recover and Clear a Regulator

To recover a regulator that has been knocked from your mouth, first orient yourself upright in the water. Then, lean to your right, extend your arm down to your knee and behind you as far as your cylinder before sweeping it forwards again. The regulator hose should now be caught over your arm, allowing you to replace the second stage correctly in your mouth. Throughout this process, you must adhere to the first rule of scuba (never hold your breath) by blowing small bubbles. 

At this point, the regulator will be full of water. In order to breathe through it, you must clear it. There are two ways to do this. Firstly, you can exhale sharply to expel water out of the second stage. Or, you can clear it by pressing the purge button in the center of the regulator. To prevent water from being pushed into your mouth, remember to use your tongue as a splash guard. 

How to Clear a Flooded Mask 

Learning how to clear a flooded mask during training is the key to preventing panic (and avoiding a potentially dangerous situation) when this happens in open water. During your course, you will need to demonstrate that you can clear a partially flooded mask, a fully flooded mask, and remove, replace, and clear a mask underwater. Many new divers find this stressful, so it’s important to remain calm and always, always keep breathing. 

No matter how much water is in your mask, the method for clearing it is the same. Breathe deeply through your regulator, then use your fingers to hold the top of the mask frame in place. Look slightly upwards, and breathe out through your nose. The air from your nose will expel the water out of the bottom of the mask. Do this as many times as necessary to completely clear your mask. 

How to Release a Leg Cramp 

Getting a leg cramp on land is irritating; getting one underwater can prevent you from being able to swim properly and is therefore dangerous. Fortunately, it’s also easy to remedy and the process for doing so is the same whether you’re at the surface or underwater. First, signal to your buddy that you have a cramp (by opening and closing your fist, and pointing to the affected area). Then, with their assistance, grab the top of your fin and pull it towards you, straightening and stretching your leg as you do so. Extending your heel and calf should release the cramp. 

How to Breathe Off a Free-Flowing Regulator 

If your regulator malfunctions underwater, it is designed to let air flow freely rather than closing off altogether. This means you can still breathe off it while ascending safely. To do this, simply peel half off the mouthpiece back to allow the full force of the free flowing air to escape into the water. Then breathe off the remaining bubbles by “sipping” at them, remembering to maintain a safe ascent rate as you swim to the surface. 

How to Handle an Out-of-Air Situation

Running out of air is a nightmare situation that should never happen if you keep a close eye on your air consumption. If it does, there are two ways to deal with it. If your buddy is within reach, the preferred method is to use their alternate air source. To do this, get their attention and use your out-of-air hand signal. They will present their spare regulator to you, which you will place in your mouth and clear. Then, ascend at a safe rate, maintaining contact by gripping each other’s forearm firmly. 

If your buddy is not immediately close by and you are within 30 feet (9 meters) of the surface, a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent is your best option. Start by making sure you are neutrally buoyant, then get into an upright position and swim at a safe rate towards the surface. Keep one arm raised above your head to protect yourself from any obstructions and be sure to exhale continuously to prevent decompression sickness.

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