Communications underwater


Scuba diving, like pizza, is an activity best shared (it’s also best without pineapple, but I digress). One of the first things we learn as new divers is the importance of diving in a buddy team. Whether all divers make good buddies is a question for another time, but the core concept of proper buddy procedure is effective underwater communication. In an environment where verbal communication is limited, divers have arrived at a system of hand signals to communicate the essentials. Whether you have more dives than you’ve had hot dinners or have never experienced squeezing into fresh neoprene after your bacon sarnie, you’re probably aware of the OK signal and maybe even that it’s a diver’s bread and butter; but something as elementary as asking if somebody is OK can cause confusion underwater. The classic telltale sign that a diver is new to the sport is a “thumbs up” response to their instructor asking if they’re OK. As divers it’s likely we’ve all experienced something like this; usually as instructors we can tell what was really meant and it’s laughed off without a second thought; but this time it got me thinking: if something so simple can be misunderstood, surely there would be more examples when we try to communicate more complex ideas? Sure enough, when considering the last 2 years of working in diving, I came across a few examples of such misunderstandings and thought I’d share my favourite with all of you.

Where are we?

The anecdote in question features a rare (ahem) breakdown in communication between Sho and yours truly. On a dive just outside Las Galletas, we were exploring a potential new site when we came across a current that pushed us in the general direction of one of our most famous sites – Moray Rock. Intrigued to see if we could make it to see the stingrays, we drifted until sure enough the rocks started to appear all the more familiar, or at least they did to me… Excited to share that information with Sho, I turned to signal that we’d made it to Moray Rock: drawing a circle with my index finger (around here), a snapping motion with the same hand (Moray), and bringing two hands together in a point (Rock), I felt confident that Sho would understand. Her quizzical expression told me otherwise however, so I repeated my signals, she glanced around, as though searching for something, again she looked at me, confusion across her face, seeing it was no use, I gestured that I’d tell her afterwards and carried on swimming. No more than 5 seconds had passed when I heard Sho’s unmistakeable excited rattling, turning to her as she signalled across: the same circular motion (around here), the same hand snapping (Moray), but a clenched fist onto her palm (Rock). Bringing my hands to my head and then sharply away with open palms, there was no mistaking this time what I was trying to communicate: Yeah! Duh! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! Upon surfacing, we wasted no time in discussing the misunderstanding and the question I wanted the answer to: what on earth did you think I was trying to say? Apparently, that series of hand signals could only mean one thing to Sho: that I’d spotted an Angelshark! Don’t ask!

So what should we take away from all this? First, that it’s important to agree on a system of hand signals with your buddy pre-dive. Second, when communicating underwater, be sure to make your hand signals slow, clear and concise. And finally, take a pencil and slate with you for those unforeseeable moments (especially if your buddy is a few o-rings short of a first stage!)


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