Situational Awareness for Scuba Divers

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 spider 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.

Newly certified diver


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 sounds sort of new age-y, but try to still your own chain of thoughts. That chain of ideas, concerns, and feelings that runs through the brain of most modern people like 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 is “the zone”. Whatever you call it, it is the point where your mind quiets down and your mind, body, and surroundings come together.

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

Whatever you need to do to empty your mind, do it, and take this 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, but take the time as I put together my gear and put on my wetsuit to leave the stress of normal life behind me and get into my state of zen for the dive.

Dviers on a dive trip

Wen-ho Yang

Do scenarios

Soldiers and martial artist often train scenarios where they practice fictional, but realistic, scenarios and train their own response 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 it 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 mind set on an everyday dive trip.

Check in with yourself and your team

Scuba divers helping eachothers gearing up

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 sense of air consumption and sense of direction, so you’ll become better and better at sensing it. Rather than having to check it all the time (do check it, though, situational awareness is not an excuse for sloppiness).

Watch for the small indicatorsWatch for the small indikators on a dive trip

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

If, as you’re turning a corner, you notice a number of fish all hovering in the water ahead, fronts pointing the same way. Then there’s a very good likelihood that there’s a strong current coming from the direction they’re facing.

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

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

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