Can you teach Open Water Neutrally Buoyant?

By Mark Powell and Brian Shreve

The traditional method of teaching open water involves a group of students running through the required skills on their knees and swimming around occasionally. This method is still widely seen today, but the industry has begun a shift to learn and practice skills while hovering in the water column instead of negatively buoyant on the bottom. This article serves as a resource for instructors to research the why and how for conducting courses neutrally buoyant.

Neutral buoyancy is being suspended in the water column at a static depth – going neither down nor up. Proper weighting, BCD use, and breathing are the 3 components of buoyancy control, and all are essential to being comfortably neutral in the water column.

Another concept, often confused with neutral buoyancy is trim, the attitude of a diver’s body underwater. If a diver is vertical, horizontal or somewhere in between, that would be an aspect of trim.

There are few absolutes with education because every student is different and they all require specialized instruction and attention. Conducting classes and skills neutrally buoyant has a host of benefits but still has drawbacks. 

Pros

Teaching divers to perform skills while hovering prepares them to hover when diving. Divers who can clear their mask in mid water will carry that ability to the reefs, wrecks and quarries where they dive for fun.

Divers who have good control of their buoyancy can relax and enjoy themselves during and after the course.

Teaching neutral divers turns their class from just “learning skills” to an experience. The future of scuba marketing and sales lies in adventure and adventure travel. Making the class an adventure prepares you to acquire the market you don’t have and the market of the future.

Cons

Many instructors were never taught how to teach skills hovering and there is a learning curve.

Popular Misconceptions

It is safer to teach classes kneeling.

There is no aspect of negatively buoyant teaching that is safer for the student or instructor. During the class, the student has less ability to swim, a higher chance of touching hazardous marine life, and the same chance of an uncontrolled ascent. A negative student might stay in the same place and seem more secure, but they have the same possibility for an uncontrolled ascent as a student who can hover. The difference is that the student who knows how to hover can correct those problems. 

People default to their knees regardless of how they’re taught.

When swimmers hop in a pool they go horizontal. Divers taught horizontal and neutral rarely, if ever, drop to their knees to problem solve. It’s the perfect example of primacy.

You cannot teach large classes while hovering.

Teaching to maximum class ratios can only be done under certain conditions, discretionary to the instructor. Low visibility, currents, surge and other factors play into this. A stationary hovering student and a stationary kneeling student are similar in the control and monitoring techniques for education purposes.

It is against standards to teach skills while hovering.

All agencies require neutral buoyancy to be taught in some fashion. SDI leaves the specifics of when and how to teach neutral buoyancy to the instructor, to accommodate our flexible teaching philosophy.

There is no single correct way to teach an open water class. Pool sizes, time restrictions, class attendees and other factors make each course unique. We’ve got a list of “How Tos” here but don’t see them as absolutes. Modify and adapt to your teaching environment and always reference course standards before conducting a course.

Although we allow flexibility in how our instructors teach a class, we expect them to be able to do all of these skills themselves. This means that during a Dive Master, Instructor or Instructor Trainer class, the candidate must be able to demonstrate the ability to perform all relevant skills neutrally buoyant. This is the minimum level required. If a DM or instructor candidate cannot perform these skills neutrally buoyant, they shouldn’t be in the course. However, the challenge is then to teach them how to teach others these skills neutrally buoyant, so the following contains some of the tips and tricks that we teach in our instructor courses.

How To

Teach Hovering First (well, kinda)

The standard scuba class usually starts by dropping to the bottom of the shallow end, equalizing, clearing the regulator, and clearing the mask. Sometime (usually much later) a neutral buoyancy skill is introduced. 

To have the most success with teaching neutral divers, they need to start with hovering. On the first descent, don’t brief any skills other than equalizing and breathing. Have the students fall forward horizontally to land on their stomachs underwater. Then signal “inhale/exhale” and monitor their breathing. If needed, have the students add small bursts to compensate for weighting. 

A common signal to help them underwater is to move your hands, like a balloon to show when to exhale and inhale. 

All subsequent skills are demonstrated by the instructor in neutral buoyancy, and then practiced by the student in that same horizontal position. That way, the student will continue to learn and practice to dial their breathing in while you progress to brief, demo and evaluate skills in the shallow end of the pool. An underwater frisbee or torpedo are two great tools that are fun and allow the students to task load slightly. Once you move to the deeper end of the pool, PVC hoops will be easy peasy. Use of full wetsuits rather than shorties will aid in students achieving horizontal trim with ease.

Mask Clearing

Many instructors take a fearful approach to mask clearing because of a long history of it being a difficult skill for many students. The typical cause of this is two flaws in teaching techniques: “coaching problems” and introducing the skill too soon. Coaching problems is saying “what not to do” in the skill briefing instead of focusing on the briefing. The second cause of mask skill issues is introducing the skill before the student is comfortable breathing. Introducing hovering before the mask skills can instill confidence and comfort and will most likely result in fewer mask clearing issues with your students.

Horizontal and hovering mask clearing is taught exactly like normal mask clearing. Use the appropriate control techniques to keep the student from rising or falling but give them the space needed to complete the skill. A neat trick with teaching hovering first is the student will recognize reactions much quicker. If they feel you pull down on their BCD to prevent an ascent, they will typically exhale hard to assist you.

Regulator Recovery

 Recovering a regulator horizontally has some slight nuances with teaching compared to its kneeling counterpart. Obviously these nuances don’t affect the student  – they’ve never seen the skill before – but they will change how you demonstrate the skills. The important components are typically: arm in front, sweep down and touch thigh, swing around, trace arm. When horizontal and neutral, the important components look something like: tuck elbow into side, straighten arm, swing around and trace. 

Remove and Replace Weights

Weight removal while neutral seems like a daunting task, but it’s very similar to teaching while kneeling. Have the student remove the weight and keep it close to their body. Warn them that trim will change, but that’s ok. The purpose of this still is to be familiar with the weight system function. 

Remove and Replace BCD

Another equipment familiarity skill is the removal and replacement of the BCD. There are many ways to conduct this skill neutrally. Have the student remove the BCD off to the side while maintaining trim works well with weight belts and students weighted well. Another option is to remove the BCD over the head while horizontal and neutral. Breaking horizontal trim and performing the skill vertically, similar to how it is done while negative, is also an option. Regardless of how you choose to perform the skill, maintain good control techniques to ensure the student never becomes separated from their BCD.

Instructors in cold water, with students in a dry suit, will need to take into account the distribution of weights. If the student is in a drysuit but has integrated weights then this will make the task much more difficult. It may be advisable for the student to wear a weight belt for this exercise. In this case it is a good discussion point about equipment configuration and weight distribution.

Cramp Relief

It is common to get cramps while swimming, so being able to relieve that cramp while still in mid water is an important skill.

To remove a cramp while in trim, horizontal kick the leg out to the side instead of in front or below. This gives room for most people to grab their fin and straighten the leg – to help the cramp.

Class Control

The instincts of control techniques are muscle memory for scuba instructors. Luckily those fast responses don’t change when teaching neutrally buoyant students. The organization of the students underwater does change, but typically the location doesn’t change. Hovering on the edge of platforms, or in the sandy patch beside the reef, are still valid locations to take students to get things dialed in or practice skills. Instructors who teach hovering as well as good buddy team habits have the easiest and most fun Open Water (OW) training dives – because their students are diving from dive 1! 

Examples

Is anyone out there really doing this? Oh yeah! Once you make the transition you’ll be in great company. Here are some quotes about teaching neutrally buoyant from a few of our dive centers doing such!

Demis Farrugia in Malta.
My name is Demis Farrugia – residing on the beautiful Maltese archipelago found in the Mediterrean sea. I have been Diving for 7 years and actively teaching as a SCUBA Instructor for 2 years.  I focus on bespoke, one to one courses.

A quote I frequently come across is: “When teaching a Course, there is no need to make an emphasis on Buoyancy & Trim, these come by experience and Diving more often”.

My reply: This isn’t something that comes on its own, a certified student is the mirror image of the Instructor.

I teach neutrally Buoyant and in Trim on all my courses, even Open Water. I have been doing so ever since I became a professional Instructor. The reasons for this are that not only does it create proficient divers from the get go, but also promotes safety and environmental sustainability.

First few dives in any Course and/or Configuration should be shallow in depth and allocated to establish Stability (traits of a neutrally buoyant trimmed Diver). Coupled with this is the concept of Lung Volume and Breathing control – do not teach anything else. It boils down to you as the Instructor on how to break down the learning process. Your patience, knowledge and proper teaching method is paramount.

Make your students fall in love with the concept, practice this on land, surface and then underwater – provide feedback. Let them experience the feeling. Once dialled in, the students’ performance will allow and make it a lot easier to learn any skill that needs to be taught then on.

Invest time in your students – Be the Mentor to your students that you always wished you had! 

Mark Rowe in Lanzarote.
I’ve been a full time professional scuba instructor  for 8 years, and teaching scuba for 13 years, reaching SDITDI Instructor Trainer 2 years ago.  I am now based at one of the largest dive centres in Lanzarote and the busiest in Spain.

I first started teaching neutrally buoyant on my OW courses in about 2015 and have taught all my courses that way since because it results in much better divers.

Quote “A struggling student can go back to knees if neutral is too difficult to start, there is no way back if they’re struggling on their knees” unquote

Why does it work?, because a student knows no other way, if I say this how to be in the water, then that’s what they do. 

Don’t teach any skills at the beginning, concentrate on buoyancy and breathing control, nothing else. Let the diver feel it, become aware of their body rising and falling as they breathe. At all times remain in the dive prone position, if they touch bottom, get them to correct buoyancy if needed or just to breath in deep to initiate a rise back to hoover. 

This all takes time, but it’s time well spent.  Later, when they move to swimming, life will be easy, they will feel in control, you as the instructor can relax more, and observe and correct their buoyancy through breath control.

Jason Meany in NY
I own Deep Stop Scuba a shop in upstate NY. I have been a dive professional for 14 years and an instructor for 10. I am now a Course Director Trainer and technical dive instructor. I joined SDI 5 years ago for many reasons but mainly the flexible teaching standards. We are a retail based shop and focus on group classes and coned mentorship.

Teaching neutrally buoyant and in trim requires slightly more time the first night in the pool. However, this negative is heavily outweighed by the solid foundation you are building with your student. The confidence and control in the water developed by this foundation develops significantly better divers that (based on our numbers) continue diving and feel confident doing so. Skills presented later in the class come easier and with less frustration and more FUN! 🙂

What if you want to do this but …don’t know how?

This question is a big deal. If you’re an instructor but aren’t confident in your skills, there’s no way you can start teaching students to be neutrally buoyant. There are a few paths to learn these skills. The best option is to increase your own skills by taking a TDI Intro to Tech course. This course is designed to teach you the trim, buoyancy, propulsion and planning techniques used by decompression and cave divers. Another way to increase your own skills is to do a workshop with an SDI IT – either one who currently teaches classes neutral, or one who is also a cave or technical diver.

While the internet groups can be great communities, they aren’t always the best resource for collecting information on changing teaching habits. Always reference the standards before changing a teaching technique. Feel free to contact us at HQ for more information!

We’re only scratching the surface of the reasons and unique techniques that can be used in teaching neutral buoyancy during open water courses. Keep an eye out for followup articles and information. Check out the 2 part webinar series on teaching neutrally buoyancy below!

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7 replies
  1. Mark R Ingrassia
    Mark R Ingrassia says:

    As a freshly certified diver, (and I assume like most) I had enormous difficulties with buoyancy on my first post cert dives. The main issue was that I wasing using my own newly bought and untested dive suit and BCD, not the shop rentals I used getting my cert. I went from a 5 mil suit and a jacket BCD to a 3MM suit and back inflated BCD. My first post cert dives were in the ocean in heavy waves. I first used too much weight, and then too little. I either sank or had issues with rapid ascents. These were drift dives off West Palm Beach so, there was no rope to hang on to during the 3-minute safety stop; consequently, it was a wild struggle for me to keep from sinking or popping up like a cork. Also different, a back-inflated BCD can’t be inflated fully like a jacket on the surface; otherwise, it puts your face in the water where a fully inflated jacket keeps you upright. Eventually, with the close watch of instructors, I was able to work out the bugs but only after a few hairy experiences.

    Reply
  2. DeAnne Davis
    DeAnne Davis says:

    I have been an instructor for over a decade and have always taught from neutral. My students never learn, practice, nor perform basic skills on their knees. They only sit at negative to remove and re-don gear. They finish pool sessions as controlled neutrally bouyant divers. They are taught to never hit bottom on descents and have no trouble on their open water dives. This makes them comfortable controlled divers, right from the start.

    Reply
  3. Matt
    Matt says:

    Excellent article. I’d like to believe most open water instructors who are tech trained themselves have been teaching entry level skills neutrally buoyant for a while now. Glad we finally have the conversation in public and can hopefully finally set it as the best practice.
    Was teaching entry level dive courses in the Philippines 15 years ago, and we only used wing/backplate BCD systems, DIN valves and all skills off the bottom.
    Unrelated to the current topic, but I hope we can gradually globally phase out yoke-regulators. Seems backwards to have them still in use in recreational diving, and sadly as many divers move to tech they either need conversion kits or completely new regs because someone sold them yoke ones.

    Reply
  4. Seal Scott
    Seal Scott says:

    “Open Water class teaches people how to survive underwater. Advanced Open Water teaches them how to dive.”
    This was something that was recited to me by most of the instructors that I worked with as a Dive Master. Those instructors taught me that it was “safer” to keep a student on the bottom while teaching them skills because you can:

    1. keep an eye on them
    2. keep them from “bolting” to the surface
    3. minimize their task loading by giving them just one thing to focus on.

    …sound familiar?

    These are all very rational reasons until you realize that receiving an Open Water certification tells a student that they can go out and dive in the wild and untamable ocean. An environment where a dive buddy “kinda” keeps an eye on them, the only person who can keep them from bolting to the surface is themselves, and they would be hardpressed to find a situation where they can focus on just one thing at a time.

    Is the purpose of an Open Water class to defer the risk of a diver getting hurt until after they get certified? It shouldn’t be.

    There were no clearer indications of this method of teaching’s weaknesses than while observing students on their tours and guiding brand new divers on their first few certified dives. Mind you, I was fortunate enough to also be DM’ing for an instructor (considered a goat in my dive center’s flock of sheep) who was conducting his training much in the way that is discussed in this article. There was no comparison! The students in the “goat’s” class had decent buoyancy control during their tours, left with better mastery of the skills, and, those that took a discover local diving from me, actually got to experience the dive site instead of spending all of their time flopping around like a jelly in the Kona current being knocked around by a seal (that would be me trying to catch them).

    Sorry for writing a book here (oops!), but your well-written piece is awesome and got me all excited! This article is just another great example of why I transferred my professional rating over to the IT family. Some of the best training I’ve received over the years has been from IT instructors, and the fact that articles, like this one, are shared with the diving community, really shows that IT cares and is constantly looking to improve!

    THANK YOU Mark Powell and Brian Shreve for putting this article together. For what it is worth, you are both heroes in my book!

    Reply
  5. Paul Seldes
    Paul Seldes says:

    Neutral is literally the first pool skill i teach (well, right after breathing with a regulator). If students learn this as a fundamental and initial skill it becomes a habit. If a student never learns to be on their knees then they will know it’s wrong. Everything i teach reinforces diving neutral. And as an instructor, my students never see me kneeling of resting on the bottom. This models proper behavior which students will copy.

    Reply
  6. Elvis
    Elvis says:

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    But wanna remark on some basic issues, The website taste is perfect, the
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    Reply

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