Underwater Communication – A Guide to Hand Signals

Underwater Communication – A Guide to Hand Signals

Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot more hand signals than only those involving the thumb; or the middle finger. When you are underwater, talking is not an option and your dive buddy may not understand what your frantic flailing and waving means. That’s why it helps to have a set method of communication that everyone is familiar with and understands.

Because safety is a major concern while diving, lines of communication must be clear so that everyone can help ensure that everyone else has a safe and fun dive.

While there are a number of different hand signals, there are a few basics that you should be sure you have down before your first dive; here is a look at what you will need for basic communication while diving.


Female scuba diver show hand signal - down


It’s important to be able to communicate where you want to go while underwater as well as other things such as needing the group to slow down. These basic signals should get you through most any dive.

  • Stop

Signal your buddy or fellow divers to stop by holding up one hand; the same as you would in any other instance.

  • Going Up or Down

To let others know that you are moving, use a thumbs up signal to indicate that you are going up, or a thumbs down to indicate the opposite.

  • Changing Direction

Just like with up and down, point your thumb to indicate which direction you’re heading.

  • Turn Around

To let everyone know it’s time to turn around, put your index finger up and rotate in a circle.

  • Slow Down

Place your hand in front of you with your palm facing down. Wave your hand up and down to indicate that you need everyone to slow down a bit.

  • Level Off

To indicate that you want to level off once you’ve reached a certain depth, put your hand out in front of you, palm down, and wave it back and forth.


When you’re underwater, behind a mask, and loaded with equipment, nobody diving with you will be able to tell how you are feeling or what you need. You need to be able to express to your fellow divers that you are in need; whether you are just cold or there is something seriously wrong. There are a number of important hand signals that you should be familiar with, but here are a few of the basics.

  • I’m Okay!

    Scuba Diver Giving Okay Signal

    Jon Milnes

Sometimes all you need to be able to communicate underwater is the fact that you are okay; especially if you are a new diver. You can let everyone know that you are alright by giving the well-known “OK” signal.

Place your thumb and forefinger together forming a circle and leave the other three fingers extended upright. However, if you are wearing gloves and can’t move your hand quite that much, place the tips of all of your fingers together and keep your hand facing you.

  • Something’s Wrong

No matter what’s wrong. Whether you’re just uncomfortable, you don’t feel right, or you just want to get your feet back on dry land, this is a signal you need to know. Place your hand out in front of you, fingers spread and palm down. Wave your hand back and forth in a rocking motion; this can be followed by a signal for whatever it is that’s wrong.

  • Help!

If you need help right away, the signal needs to be drastic. Wave your entire arm from outstretched by your side to over your head. Repeat the motion until you are noticed.

  • I’m Low on Air

Your first few dives, it is perfectly normal for you to run out of air more quickly than others. It takes practice to be able to make your air last. The initial excitement and thrill can cause you to breathe heavily and use up your air. To let others know that you’re running low, clench your hand into a fist and pull it in toward your chest. Repeat as much as you need to indicate how urgently you need to resurface.

  • I’m Out of Air

If you’ve waited too long or something has gone wrong with your equipment, signal quickly and repeatedly. Remember this signal! It’s easy to panic and start flailing about but remain calm and signal to get help. Place your hand, palm down in front of your throat and move back and forth in a sort of cutting motion.

Remember that knowing the signals are only step one. You’ve got to remember them while diving and then remain calm enough to use them. Those diving with you will not know what you need unless you show them the proper signal.

Have you ever experienced communication problems on a dive? Tell us about it and what you did to solve it!

About The Author


  1. Dive Tony

    Many time experienced problems with people who couldn’t communicate. Just waving and not using proper standard signals. So annoying!

    • Torben Lonne

      Hi Tony, Maybe we can make a signal slate you can bring underwater :) Hope the article was a bit helpful!

  2. george

    Thank! would be nice with illustrations! I learned them but some of them seems to slip out..

    • Torben Lonne

      Thanks for the opinion. We will look into it.

  3. Thomas Walker

    The level of communication of the standard diver is way below acceptable. The teaching instructor should always focus some more on this part. There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to communicate on a dive! Thanks guys!

    • Torben Lonne

      It can really be a problem! I always try to fit all the important signals in a dive briefing!

  4. Bob Lawrence

    I should have used the ‘something’s wrong’ signal on my last dive rather than pointing at my back. The dive master did not understand my signal. My tank had slipped out of the BCD strap and was hanging on only by my BCD hose, exciting time. I have bookmarked this and will review it prior to all my dives from now on.

    • Torben Lonne

      There’s always room for improvements! It’s nice you are reflecting on what to do better for your next dive! It’s great to do a quick signal review before diving, then your more likely to remember them in a stressed situation.I hope it didn’t go all too wrong with the dropping of the tank! Thanks for comenitng and for bookmarking us!

  5. Tristan Paylado

    . . . . not unless you use a full-face mask with a buddy phone system. But needs special training

  6. DavidTombs

    The signals should be part of the pre-dive buddy check. Ideally the buddy should indicate that he has understood it by repeating the signal and with an ok when given underwater. This also applies to those signals given by torch.

    • Torben Lonne

      This is great practice! I’ve never heard of it but it makes great sense to avoid misunderstandings. Thanks for sharing I’m going to adapt this to my briefings and on the dives.

  7. Enrico

    Diving with the 12 years old daughter of mine… She pointed at her leg and then moved hands joined on her face side, bending head on that side and closing eyes … repeated the signal two or three times. Everything was clearly alright so, after a couple of attempts to understand, I decided to ask later on the surface. Answer was “my leg was sleeping” …

    • Torben Lonne

      Hi Enrico, tell your daughter that I like her signal for sleeping leg :)

      Sometimes it’s hard to understand even simple things, when the brain is focusing on something else. My girlfriend(and regular dive buddy) sometimes try to explain an awful lot underwater and most of the times I need to have it explained on the surface. But it can be very funny to see her explaining a long story using hands and trying to make sounds to make her point :)

      Thanks for sharing!

  8. Sean

    The idea of having dive slates with simple, key and important hand signals seems like a great idea. They should not replace great briefings and expectations on learning but after 50+ dives It seems that a lot of hand signals are learnt as you go along and not specifically taught or studied. Having these slates available should they be needed would be worth the room in a BCD pocket or the space on a d-ring when out with students. Does anyone know if something like this is available?


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