Clarify Hand Signals Before Diving

Reviewing hand signals predive increases group safety and decreases mental loading. © STEPHEN FRINK

Divers spend much of their time underwater with a select group of buddies — the ones we trust to get us through the dive and surface with fresh experiences and stories to tell. Newly certified divers have had limited interactions underwater, having dived only with classmates, instructors, and assistant instructors during their classes. Some of us pair up with strangers as we travel to new destinations and hop on and off boats, but we often self-sort into cadres that make us feel comfortable and excited to head below the waves.

I usually dive with a small group of friends who share my interests and with whom underwater communication happens almost subconsciously. How many of us can read our buddies’ minds from a glance through their masks or the odd flick of their fins? 

Working with someone so effortlessly simplifies our mental load, giving us more bandwidth to enjoy the things we see on the bottom instead of stressing over the basics of communication. Yet that level of familiarity can work against us in certain circumstances. What happens when we aren’t diving with someone who knows our habits and behaviors? 

One of my first saltwater dives was to the USNS Vandenberg in Key West, Florida, while on a vacation. I was the only certified diver in my family, so I boarded a boat with other tourists and headed to sea. Since I was alone, the crew assigned me a buddy from another country who spoke very little English. He was friendly and seemed happy with pairing up, but verbal communication was difficult. He knew his way around our gear and wasn’t nervous about the dive, but I was concerned about our effectiveness once we got in the water. 

It was my first ocean dive, first wreck dive, and my deepest dive to date, sure to include currents and other distractions I hadn’t yet experienced. Fortunately, I had learned to take nothing for granted; I knew to check all my gear, thoroughly review our dive plan, and cover any expectations the team had before jumping off the boat. 

I asked to check both sets of our gear before we arrived at the wreck site, and then my buddy and I reviewed hand signals with each other, taking the time to make sure we understood everything. We worked at it until we felt we had enough understanding to keep us safe and maximize our time together, given the circumstances. 

The dive started well, and I felt comfortable as we started exploring the wreck. As the dive progressed, the current picked up from mild to “hang on for dear life.” Divers strung out along the wreck had to cling to the structure to avoid being blown off while returning to the anchor line as best they could. Dive plans collapsed as physical exertion increased and air use skyrocketed. 

Inexperienced divers struggled to return to the line and surface safely, and many were rapidly running out of air. The boat crew was overwhelmed with shuttling divers — several of whom required buddy breathing — to the surface. One mate ran out of air and had to do a rapid tank swap at the boat before descending again to render more assistance. 

It was an unsafe situation, and while nobody was injured, it was an important lesson on how quickly conditions can turn against you. The initiative my buddy and I took in reviewing our hand signals beforehand meant we could complete the dive safely despite the conditions and increase the safety of those around us. Our ability to take care of ourselves as a unit meant there were two fewer people the boat crew had to assist, freeing them to care for others who needed it more. 

Efficiently signaling our tank pressure or asking for our buddy’s, thumbing the dive when conditions worsened, and coordinating a controlled ascent up the anchor line kept us calm, reduced our air consumption, and focused us mentally. We didn’t have to deal with being task-loaded and unable to relay information or concentrate on our buddy’s mental state.  

Our mutual respect and the preparation time we took to operate as an effective pair let us experience an unforgettable wreck with less risk than some of the other divers. The care I put into my training and my focus on good communication with a new buddy allowed me to complete the dive unassisted. 

Social pressures are a real force in the dive community. We’ve all experienced the desire to project calm and competence to other divers. It can feel uncomfortable asking a new buddy to walk through hand signals that both of us potentially already know. We often just want to enjoy the boat ride or time gearing up with our friends, yet it’s up to us as responsible divers to reinforce expectations about safety and display the qualities we want to see in others. 

None of us want to find ourselves underwater discovering that someone doesn’t understand what we’re trying to say. It’s frustrating at best and dangerous at worst. Taking a few minutes to review hand signals with a dive buddy, new or old, can mean the difference between a good story or a dive barely survived.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2024