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Passive Communication and Scuba Diving

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photo of a buddy team swimming side by side.

Passive communication allows divers to communicate that everything is "okay" without using hand signals.

© istockphoto.com

"Okay?" My dive buddy signaled. I gritted my teeth against my regulator mouthpiece and attempted to flash a calm "okay" sign back at him. I was becoming frustrated. This was the fifth time in as many minutes that he had forced me to complete the "Are you okay?/I am okay!" charade. While I appreciate dive buddies that care whether or not I am okay, I do not need to be asked every sixty seconds. I was swimming beside my buddy, I was calm, and bubbles were regularly issuing from my mouthpiece. I was obviously okay and didn't need to be questioned repeatedly. There is a fine line between attentive and annoying.

Maintaining buddy contact and ascertaining whether or not your dive buddy is okay doesn't have to involve waving your hands in your buddy's face like a disgruntled chicken. Instead of using hand signals, divers can use passive communication to assure each other that they are okay. Passive communication is one of the most important types of communication in scuba diving, but it is also one of the most neglected.

What Is Passive Communication?:

Passive communication is communication that does not require or provoke a response. During open water certification, student divers typically learn active communication, which involves the use of hand signs, light signals, written notes, or signals made with an underwater communication device such as a noisemaker. Passive communication is more subtle, and relies on factors such as diver positioning and movement. Members of a dive team with strong passive communication skills can confirm that all team members are present, breathing, and calm without using hand signals or otherwise disrupting the flow of the dive.

Types of Passive Underwater Communication:

• Positioning

By far the most effective type of passive communication is positioning. During an open water dive, buddies should maintain a side-by-side or a slightly staggered position in a team of two, or a staggered position in a team of three. Divers determine which diver will be on the left/right before the dive, and maintain this positioning whenever possible. Buddies stay within each other's peripheral vision and no more than a few feet from each other. As long as a dive buddy stays in position, he is "okay" and no communication is needed. However, the moment he moves from his teammate's peripheral vision, active communication is needed.

For example, if one buddy stops to check out an interesting fish, the other should immediately notice that his buddy has stopped swimming and turn to establish visual contact with the buddy. The buddy can then point out the fantastic fish. Another example is a diver who stops to solve a problem. He will lag behind and fall out of position. His teammate(s) should notice, stop, and communicate with the lagging diver to solve the problem.

• Following and Leading Properly

A second form of passive communication is accomplished by a diver fulfilling his role as either a leader or a follower. Before a dive, the buddy team should determine which diver will be leading and which diver(s) will be following. The leading diver establishes direction and swim pace, but the following divers also have an important role to play. They must be attentive to the leader and adjust their positioning to his. If one diver wishes to change direction, ascend, or modify the team's movement in any way, he communicates his wish with the dive leader. The leader then communicates the adjustment with any other divers, and modifies his actions to accommodate the requested change. As long as no changes are required by the following diver he stays in position, passively communicating with the leader that everything is okay and that he approves of the navigation and pace.

• Passive Light Communication

Passive light communication is of great use on night dives and on dives where visibility is reduced. Passive light communication works similarly to passive positioning communication. Divers take care to direct their light beams so that they are clearly visible to all team members. Divers use their lights to illuminate the area in front of the dive team. A diver should be able to see his teammates' lights without turning or glancing over his shoulder. Divers should react immediately if a light disappears.

Besides light position, light movement is a good form of passive communication. Light movement (as opposed to light signals), is the manner in which a diver shines his light beam around the dive site. A diver's light beam should move slowly and smoothly as he looks around. By moving his light beam calmly and deliberately, and by returning his light beam to position in front of the dive team every few moments, a diver passively communicates that all is okay. Jerky, uncontrolled movements indicate a problem.

• Touch Contact

Any diver who faces the possibility of extremely reduced visibility (even if it is in a murky, open water lake) should be familiar with touch contact signals. Of course, there are both active and passive forms of touch contact communication. Active touch contact communication includes pushes, pulls, and hand movements to indicate stop, start, and entanglement. Passive communication is accomplished by the following diver maintaining a firm but calm grip on the leading diver's leg or arm to communicate that he is in position and that all is well.

• Ascents and Descents

Passive communication on ascents and descents requires a concentrated effort from all the members of a dive team. In open water, buddies should descend and ascend facing each other, maintaining visual contact between team members, and adjusting ascent/descent rates so that team members stay within a few feet of each other for the entire depth change. As long as the divers maintain this positioning, all can be assumed to be okay and the divers may proceed with the ascent or descent. In the event of a problem, face-to-face positioning allows the issue to be easily communicated.

The Take-home Message about Passive Communication in Scuba Diving:

Efficient passive communication is rarely taught in open water certification courses, but it is worth perfecting. Passive communication makes diving more efficient by eliminating unnecessary signaling and improves dive safety by encouraging stronger buddy awareness.

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