Navigating your way underwater where there are no roads, no signs, no prominent landmarks so to speak is not an easy Scuba diving skill to master. Coupled with other factors playing on a divers mind like buoyancy control, keeping time, depth, conserving air and of course co-coordinating with your buddy, underwater navigation is all the more difficult to keep a track off. Dive sites don’t come with maps and the terrain underwater appears random, irregular and often unpredictable unless you’ve dived the site before a number of times, so this diving skill takes more than a little practice to acquire. When you do learn underwater navigation and know exactly where you’re going, where you’ve been and where you are at any given time underwater, it definitely makes diving a lot more enjoyable and stress free.
Here are 10 tips for improving your underwater navigation skills:
1. Plan Ahead – An important part of underwater navigation is gathering as much information about the location beforehand. Collect information about the expected scenario like large coral formations, rocks, drop offs, sandy patches, wreck size, and so on from experienced divers or dive operators in the area.
2. Draw a Map – Map out the dive site on dive slate before you go and maybe chalk out an intended dive plan in the direction you want to go in for reference underwater. Sometimes just doing that helps you visualize the map in your head and you may not need to use the map. A good idea is once you’re diving the site you can note certain landmarks on your map to find your way back easily.
3. Know where your dive boat is – Just like a car in a parking lot you need to make a note of where your dive begins, so as to return to the right spot. Make a mental note of the surroundings, any particular rock or coral formations where you first descend. Pay attention to the direction you can see the sun and remember what your dive boat looks like from under especially if there are more than one in the vicinity.
4. Carry a compass – As a minimum, a diver must carry an underwater compass for navigation. Buy a simple compass and learn the correct way to use it. Take it on guided dives to get the hang of using it before heading off on your own.
5. Setting the bezel – Before beginning a dive you should set the bezel of your compass to point you to the direction dive boat and in case of shore diving to the shore. In this case once the bearing is set it shouldn’t be changed during the dive and to return, one simply rotates himself in the opposite direction.
6. Measuring distance – A rookie mistake when it comes to underwater navigation is noting down the direction but completely losing track or not measuring distance. It’s important to know exactly how far you have swam out and in what direction in order to return. One way of doing this if you are a consistent swimmer is by time or even air consumption. It may not be as accurate as counting fin strokes as you are thought in your course but it sure beats spending most of your dive concentrating on counting rather than the surroundings.
7. Use natural directional indicators – When diving in good clear water conditions and in the day, the sun is a great natural compass. For example during a morning dive you know the sun will be in eastern direction while for afternoon dives the sun indicates west. Sand ripples caused by currents too are good directional indicators as they always run parallel to the shore. The deeper imprint of the ripple, the nearer to the shore you are.
8. Don’t use currents as indicators – Don’t rely on currents to tell you in which direction you are heading. Currents can twist and turn around undersea objects thereby leading you astray.
9. Trust your instruments – If there is a discrepancy between what you feel and what your dive compass is telling you, go with the compass. Be sure that it is working properly before the dive and that there is no interference from undersea objects like shipwrecks or anything that can be magnetic however.
10. Practice, practice, practice – Practice using your compass on land. Do squares, rectangles, set headings and reciprocals, note bearings, in short…perfect your compass skills on land. Then on guided dives, practice your own navigation rather than blindly following the dive master, it’s a great feeling to successfully hit your mark when you try. Make it a habit to jot down things like bearings, landmarks, directions, times on your dive slate throughout your dive. With time and practice you’ll be a pro at navigating during a dive and even the fish will be seeking your instructions.