Safer Diving: Situational Awareness

Safer Diving: Situational Awareness

How to develop the sixth sense of advanced scuba diving, the illusive “situational awareness”.

This is the last article in our three-part article series about emergency planning. First we covered personal dive planning and yesterday we talked about dive emergency planning.

Hang out around experienced divers long enough and you’ll start to notice that they sometimes seem to almost have a sixth sense, a gut feeling for when problems might arise.

Out of a dive group of 15 people gearing up, they spot, seemingly through eyes in the back of their heads, the one guy who hasn’t tightened his tank strap enough. And during a dive, they seem to have an instinct for current changes, their own air consumption, and the general state of the entire dive team. How do they do this? It is not magic, but rather it is what is known as situational awareness.

Apart from being bitten by a water spider and developing a spidey-sense, the best way to develop situational awareness is to dive a lot and build your experience. But you can do a few things to train it, and help develop it faster.


Developing a strong sense of situational awareness can help you avoid getting lost, running prematurely low on air, or finding yourself in a lost buddy situation.

Lose the tunnel vision

Back when you were a newly trained diver, all you had time and mental resourced to concern yourself with was breathing those nice, slow, deep breaths, and finning one foot at a time.

As you became better and more experienced, you started being able to orientate yourself more, enjoy the scenery, and generally take in more of what was around you. This tunnel vision of new divers is very common, and sometimes, a bit of it lingers as we gain more experience.

So train yourself to not focus too much of your attention on any one thing for too long. Even if looking at, say, your compass as you navigate, or at a turtle swimming ahead of you, keep just a bit of your attention on other things as well, such as currents, your air consumption, and the position of your buddy.

Empty your mind

Pardon if this next bit seems a little too new-age, but try to empty your mind of thoughts. That chain of ideas, concerns, and feelings that run through the brain of most people these days is like a constant background chatter in a crowded room.

If losing the tunnel vision is about not letting ourselves be distracted by external things, then this is about not being distracted by internal things.

Martial artists are really big on this, aiming for that state of zen where the mind is quiet and everything just comes together. Athletes call it “the zone”. Whatever you call it, it is the point where your mind quiets down melding with your body in harmony and peace.

There are a few ways to achieve this: meditation and yoga can work for some, while others prefer just taking a walk in a forest.

Whatever you need to do to empty your mind, do it, and take the feeling with you below the surface. For me, it’s very much the ritual of gearing up for a dive. I don’t speak to others much while I do it. I take my time as I put together my gear, fitting on my wetsuit to leave the stress of normal life behind me as I prepared to get into my state of zen for the dive.

Do scenarios

Wen-ho Yang

Soldiers and martial artists often train scenarios where they practice fictional but realistic scenarios and train their own responses to them.

You can do much the same in your scuba dive life.

As you watch people assemble their gear on the dive deck of a boat before a dive, look around and ask yourself what could go wrong here? How can we prevent mishaps from happening? And if it did go wrong, what would I do to help?

Do the same from time to time during a dive in a variety of situations. Practicing these scenarios helps train your brain to spot potential problems. And it prepares your neurological response for the unlikely scenario where something does happen.

It’s also something we do when training for a rescue course, but here you need to get in the mindset on an everyday dive trip.

Check-in with yourself and your team

Douglas Greenwald

As you dive, ask yourself from time to time, how am I feeling? Are you overexerting yourself? Tense? Or are you relaxed and happy?

Do the same for your team. Occasionally scan the team for signs of fatigue, stress, or equipment problems. And before checking your air levels on your manometer or the bearing on your compass, try to guesstimate what the answer will be.

Over time, this will help train your discipline, improving your air consumption and your sense of direction, making your a better diver. Rather than reminding yourself to check it all the time your increased situational awareness will become second nature.

Look for the little things

Get to know your dive spots and the changing conditions. Maybe your favorite dive spot has a tendency for bad visibility after a few days of rain? Or maybe there’s a specific time when the current tends to be particularly bad? And watch for marine life behavior.

As you’re rounding a corner, for example, and you notice a large group of stationary fish hovering in the water ahead, all facing the same direction, there’s likely a strong current coming from that direction. Recognizing signs limits surprises and maximizes fun.

These little indicators can be extremely helpful, but they require you to take note over a period of time to really use them.

Heightened situational awareness can also help you spot rare wildlife. Typically, marine life acts differently, more erratic and nervous, when there are large predators like sharks around. Spotting this behavior can help you spot a shark before anyone else, making you the king or queen of the dive boat.

Building situational awareness is not done overnight and it isn’t taught in any special course. Rather, it is something the individual diver must develop on his or her own. In many ways, it is the main difference between the good diver and the great diver.

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