The Most Important Scuba Diving Hand Signals Every Diver Should Know
Nothing says stepping outside your comfort zone quite like surrendering to the deep and going diving.
Suddenly your whole world is upside down, literally, and you’ve become the proverbial fish out of water except you’re not a fish and you are underwater and all the more vulnerable for it.
Recreational diving, though potentially dangerous, is actually a really fun and unique way to get to know your surroundings, a new country, and/or the wonderful world beneath our waters that so many people never get to experience!
So long as you keep your wits about you and keep the lines of communication with your fellow divers and dive master open, recreational scuba diving is a safe and thoroughly enjoyable pastime.
To learn more about scuba diving hand signals and the importance of understanding nonverbal communication underwater, keep reading!
1 – Going up/Ascend
To indicate “going up” or “ascending”, ball the fist and raise the thumb as though giving your diving mates a thumbs up. Gesture topside with the raised thumb (i.e. jerk it upwards) so that your divemaster may ascertain the direction you wish to take.
Should you need to ascend for a particular reason, or need a member of the diving party to follow you, the “going up” hand signal can be combined with any number of subsequent hand signals.
REMEMBER – A THUMBS UP DOES NOT MEAN THE SAME THING UNDERWATER AS IT DOES ON LAND – THE “OKAY” HAND SIGNAL IS SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
Keep reading to find out how to show your co-divers you’re “okay” when you’re underwater.
2 – Going Down/Descend
To indicate “going down” or “descending”, ball the fist and extend the thumb downwards by rotating the wrist, as though giving your diving mates a thumbs down. Gesture toward the ocean floor with the extended thumb (i.e. jerk it downwards) so that your divemaster may ascertain the direction you wish to take.
Should you need to descend for a particular reason, or need a member of the diving party to follow you, the “going down” hand signal can be combined with any number of subsequent hand signals.
REMEMBER – A THUMBS DOWN DOES NOT MEAN THE SAME THING UNDERWATER AS IT DOES ON LAND – THE “SOMETHING’S WRONG” HAND SIGNAL IS SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
Keep reading to find out how to show your co-divers “something’s wrong” when you’re underwater.
3 – Something is wrong
Another potentially confusing signal that you will need to memorize if you intend to go diving is the “something is wrong” hand signal, which is identical to the “so-so” hand gesture on land. Extend the flattened hand, palm down, out in front of you and tilt it side to side on the forearm axis to indicate to your diving buddies that something is wrong.
This hand signal can be combined with any number of other hand signals to tell your fellow divers exactly what is wrong. In the event that the “something” that’s gone wrong is emergent, it is best to use the “emergency” hand sign first.
4 – I am OK!
So, if you don’t give someone a thumbs up to tell them you’re okay when you’re underwater, what is the hand signal for “I’m okay”?
The fundamental, basic “I’m okay” gesture is made by creating a circle with the thumb and forefinger and extending and splaying the other three fingers. In the event that you are wearing underwater gloves, you needn’t extend the other three fingers but can merely create the circle with thumb and forefinger.
While these two signals are great for use between divers in close quarters, sometimes you’ll need to tell people on the boat or at the surface that you’re okay, and the above gestures will be far too small for them to see.
Alternatively, for longer distance or low visibility communication, you can let your crew know you’re A-Okay by making a fist and bopping yourself on the head, extending and lifting the elbow away from the body, at your side, and at a greater than 90 degree angle. Alternatively, you can join both hands above your head in a big imitation of the letter “O”.
5 – Stop
For “stop” there are two hand signals that you can employ. The standard hand signal will be very similar to that practiced by civilians on land.
To indicate that your fellow divers should stop, you would extend the arm out in front of you and bend the hand up at the wrist in order to expose a flat palm to the front of you. The alternate hand signal is one traditionally used by those with military or other law enforcement experience and consists of raising and clenching the fist at the height of the ear.
Make sure that you and your diving mates decide on a “stop” signal before starting the dive to avoid confusion once you’re down there.
6 – Turn Around
Yay for signals that mean the same underwater as they do on land!
The “turn around” hand signal is very easy to remember as it is exactly the same underwater as on land. Simply raise the index finger and make small circles while continuing to point upward.
This scuba diving hand signal can be combined with an instruction to swim in a particular direction, can be directed at a particular person, or could mean there is danger ahead if the group does not turn around now; it will all depend on which other hand signals the “turn around” signal is used in combination with.
7 – Which direction
To avoid confusion with the “look” hand signal, directions are always indicated with the full hand while underwater.
So, if you want a fellow diver to look at something, you point with the index finger, but if you want to indicate a direction you think the party should take, you want to point with the whole hand by gesturing in that direction with a flat, open palm.
Remember, however, that “up” and “down” are indicated with the extended thumb, as explained above.
For more info on how to prevent a diver going too low without gesturing “ascending” and thus ending the dive, please see number 12, “level off at this depth”.
8 – Boat
If you need to refer to the boat at some point during your dive, you may do so by cupping your hands together as you would under a tap or under running water in order to collect it in the palms of your cupped hands.
9 – Get with your buddy
This signal, usually used on its own, means that the diver at whom it is directed should get back with his buddy if he has wandered too far away from his partner. Making sure you have an assigned dive buddy is a great way to decrease risk, increase effective communication and keep all divers safe.
This hand signal is made by clenching each fist, extending both index fingers and bringing the two fists with extended index fingers together in front of the body; thus uniting the lengths of the two index fingers.
10 – Hold onto each other
Should dive buddies need to maintain contact or hold onto each other; whether in an emergency or due to unpredictable weather or current conditions the dive master may indicate “hold onto each other” by clasping his or her own two hands together.
Note, the fingers are not interlaced, but, rather, a mitten grasp is used during this hand signal and all four fingers stay together. It is only the thumbs that intertwine.
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11 – Who leads, Who follows
In order to indicate who should lead and who should follow during a dive, a diver can point with an index finger either at himself, or at a dive buddy if they want that buddy to lead, and point in the direction they want to go with the other index finger.
For example, if a diver wants to lead, he may point at himself with the left index finger, and then in a particular direction either with the other index finger or with the full flat hand as is usually used to indicate direction.
The exception to the rule for indicating direction with a flat, open palm is in the event a diver is indicating who leads and who follows. In this combination, two-handed hand signal, it is acceptable to indicate direction with the index finger.
12 – Level off at this depth
In order to signal that a diver should level off at a particular depth instead of descending further, without accidentally ending the dive by signalling “ascend”, use the “level off at this depth” hand signal!
To signal “level off at this depth” you should extend the hand away from the body while keeping it flat with the palm facing downwards. The hand is then swept from side to side, hinging at the elbow, while maintaining the palm pointing downwards position.
13 – Take it easy, Relax, Slow down
Similar to your standard “hold your horses” on land, the “slow down” hand signal involves using a flat hand, palm down, to “pat” the water in front of you, as you would the head of a dog.
14 – Give me air now!
This hand signal is implicitly emergent – do not ask questions or hesitate if a dive buddy invokes this hand signal. Use a flat hand and gesture between your mouth and any nearby diver’s mouth to indicate that you need to share air and pronto!
15 – I’m out of air
Although this is highly unlikely to happen, especially if all your pre-dive checks were carried out correctly, in the unlikely event that you find yourself on a dive and suddenly without air, signal the nearest diver with a slashing gesture across the throat with a flat hand.
Once they have seen this hand signal, you can also signal “give me air now” to let the diver know you need to share their air until your party can safely ascend together and end the dive.
16 – Emergency! Help me now!
Used at the surface, the “emergency” hand signal is invoked by waving one or both arms in a wide arc(s) above the head. Waving a hand is not noticeable enough, especially in bad weather, so make sure to wave from the shoulder and to get the whole arm moving.
17 – I don’t know
Identical to your non-verbal “I don’t know” on land, the “I don’t know” hand signal consists simply of shrugging the shoulders and lifting the hands, palms upward.
18 – Danger in that direction
Think of the skull and crossbones and you’re unlikely to forget the “danger in that direction” hand signal. To indicate danger is nearby or in a particular direction, clench your fists and cross your arms in front of your chest, like crossbones, and then point in the direction of the imminent danger.
19 – I’m cold
While some waters are colder than others, comfort is critical when diving as hypothermia can set in incredibly quickly if you are not adequately prepared to face the elements.
If you find yourself getting excessively cold, it is important to your own health and safety that you use the “I’m cold” hand signal to let your divemaster know that you are cold and that the group should ascend without delay. To indicate that you are cold, cross your arms and grasp the opposite upper arm and rub them up and down and shiver.
If you want to ask someone if they are getting cold, point at them and then perform this hand signal. Just like the “okay” hand signal, the “I’m cold” hand signal can be both a question and an answer.
20 – Look
If you want a fellow diver to look at something, use your index and middle fingers to point at your own two eyes, and then use your index finger to point in the direction you want your diving buddy to look.
If you want your diving buddy to look at you, point at your two eyes and then at yourself. This is the correct way to get a fellow diver’s attention if you want to convey a longer message to them, or you require their undivided attention for a time, or need them to keep you in their sights.
21 – Think/remember
If you want to indicate that a diver should think of or remember something you have told them before, you can simply raise an extended index finger to the temple.
Do, however, make sure that the finger is pointed at the temple and that this hand signal does not get mistaken for the “trouble equalizing” hand sign described below.
22 – I can’t clear this ear OR trouble equalizing
If you are having trouble equalizing don’t panic, this has happened to every single diver out there at least once.
Usually, if you just ascend a little and then descend again the problem will rectify itself; however, it is crucial that you let your diving buddies know you are having trouble equalizing so that they are aware of your intent to ascend but not end the dive.
To indicate “trouble equalizing” you need to raise an extended index finger and point to your ear – make sure that you are very clearly pointing to your ear and not to your temple, or your group might misunderstand your intentions.
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Diving, while potentially dangerous, can be a truly safe if still exhilarating experience if all members of the diving party just remember to communicate with one another once they’re down there.
In the event that more inexperienced divers form part of the team, or you have divers from multiple countries with different variations of the aforementioned signals, it always pays to review the basics before embarking on a dive, and we would always recommend taking an underwater board and marker with you in case of emergency so that the divemaster can write something down for the divers to read if an instruction is initially misinterpreted.
For more information on scuba diving in South Africa, getting your Scuba Diving certification, or booking your scuba diving vacation, contact us here at ScubaCo today!
Also see: Aliwal Shoal – Sardine Run 2018 – Southern Reefs – Diving Courses – Shark Diving
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Sources used for this post:
- The ScubaCo Scuba Diving Team