Communications Underwater

Scuba Diving Communications


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 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 essentials. Whether you’ve more dives than hot dinners or never experienced squeezing into neoprene after your bacon sarnie, you’re probably aware of the OK signal. It’s a diver’s bread and butter, but something as elementary as asking if somebody is OK can cause confusion underwater.

The classic sign of a new diver 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. However, this time it got me thinking. If something 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 you.

Where are we?

The anecdote in question features a rare breakdown in scuba diving communications between Sho and yours truly. 

On a dive just outside Las Galletas exploring a potential new site. We came across a current that pushed us in the direction of our famous site – Moray Rock. Intrigued if we could make it to the stingrays, we drifted until the rocks started to appear 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. So I repeated my signals. She glanced around, as though searching for something, again she looked at me confused. 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, then away with open-palms, there was no mistaking this time what I was communicating. 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!)