Five happy faces bob around me. My divers and I have just back-rolled from our dive boat, and we are doing one final check of our dive computers before making our descent. The dark blue surface of deep water sets off the color of my divers' faces, which are gradually becoming red from over-exertion. I hold my hand in an "okay" sign above my head to confirm that everyone is ready to begin when one diver takes his regulator out of his mouth. "Hang on," he pants. He gasps for breath and continues, "I just need to fix my mask!" Why is he out of breath and why are my divers already looking exhausted?
A quick glance beneath the surface reveals the answer. The diver is kicking his fins as hard has he can. No wonder he is breathing heavily! I turn my head to check on the other divers and discover that every one of them is kicking. This totally unnecessary exercise is tiring out the divers before we even begin the dive. Properly weighted and with their buoyancy compensators inflated, my divers could float easily on the ocean surface without needing to kick to stay afloat, but instead they exhaust themselves with their struggles.
When I was training to become a dive instructor, I learned that most scuba accidents occur on the surface of the water. After teaching diving for many years, I have begun to understand why. People are most uncomfortable on the surface. Once a diver is underwater, his training takes over and he can navigate the submarine world comfortably. The surface, however, is a strange environment halfway between the terrestrial and the subaquatic. Although a diver is in the water - a location in which he should try to minimize his movements - the fact that his head is above the surface causes him to behave as if he wasn't wearing scuba gear at all. The diver's instinctual response to kick to keep his head above the surface takes over and he struggles unnecessarily to remain afloat.
The tendency to fight and kick to remain at the surface, while innate, can lead to problems. Not only does it exhaust the diver before a dive, but in emergency situations it can exacerbate problems. A person who flails around on the water's surface in a panic will splash water into his airway and eyes and have difficulty drawing a full breath. On the other had, a person who relaxes, floats on his back, and carefully fills his lungs with air will soon find he has a natural ability to float. The ability to relax on the surface can mean the difference between life and death, or between a traumatic situation and a minor incident.
As divers, we spend a huge amount of time in the water, both under and on the surface. To be efficient and safe, we must retrain our instinctual reactions so that we can relax. Underwater this is not difficult - the subaquatic world is an entirely foreign environment in which we have no learned responses. To be comfortable and still on the surface, however, takes some work. Most people, myself included, will unconsciously kick while floating on the surface until trained not to. This takes conscious thought and effort.
I didn't learn to relax completely on the surface until I took a cave diving course. With exceptionally heavy gear and a particularly fragile environment, relaxing on the surface became a necessity, both to conserve energy and to avoid stirring up sediment and destroying the water's visibility. I learned to relax by being sure to fully inflate my buoyancy compensator, and then to lean back slightly, a position which tilts my mouth and nose away from the water. I trained myself to stop kicking by crossing my legs at the ankle, a position in which it is impossible to kick. By consciously putting my fins into a position which disabled kicking, I reprogrammed myself over many months to not kick at all. Now, regardless of whether I am cave or ocean diving, I can float comfortably without kicking and without crossing my legs - but it took some work.
More diving tips:
Nearly every new diver (and many experienced divers) has the tendency to kick on the surface. This exhausting and potentially harmful habit can be eliminated with just a little work. The next time you are on the surface, stop for a moment to check if you are kicking. You may surprised to find that you are. Relax, inflate your buoyancy compensator a little more, and cross your legs. The entire dive becomes more comfortable once you learn to relax on the surface.