Neutral Buoyancy—Let’s Get Real!

By Jeffrey Bozanic

“OMG! Look at that diver, kneeling on the bottom! They should be banned from diving!”

Instant evaluation. Instant judgment.

Whether it is a photograph, video, or seeing someone in the water: instant villains. This is, in my opinion, an example of the same kind of prejudice that plagues our nation, our world. The “I am right and you are wrong” syndrome. And you know what? YOU are wrong!

Don’t misunderstand me… the ability to achieve and maintain neutral buoyancy is an important skill. Often it is critical to preserving the environment, protecting fragile animals and communities, or contributing to dive team safety. As divers, we should all be attuned to our bodies and how our actions and movements can harm the environment around us. But it takes time, often lots of time, to get there.

What really is the best way to proceed?

Coral reefs are a classic example where poor buoyancy or trim by a careless or unskilled diver can destroy decades, maybe even centuries, or growth. Many times, I have watched a diver swimming above the coral, wanting to be close enough to see and observe, but struggling not to be so close that they kick or hit anything. “Don’t touch!” they are warned during the briefing. So, in attempting to follow these directions, they inadvertently create a wide swath of intermittent devastation behind themselves, as they bob up and down, occasionally kicking the reef in sincere efforts to avoid exactly what they are causing.

Wouldn’t it be better to teach them an easier skill, one which would allow them to sidestep the potential to cause damage, and allow them more time to build better in-water skills? In this case, perhaps a better option might be to swim them over to the sandy bottom next to the reef wall. Here, they could lightly settle down to the bottom, stabilizing themselves in a location relatively immune to damage, to observe the reef and its inhabitants. They can now comfortably enjoy the dive, enjoy themselves, and not worry about damaging the environment.

How dive professionals can help

We, as dive professionals, need to take a different approach in our instruction. Instead of a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding developing buoyancy, we should be educating our students (and each other) how to assess the environment, assess their skills, and then have them select a dive location that is compatible with both. In the example above, while transiting from the shore or the boat to the reef, the diver could be gaining time in the water, learning more about themselves, and consciously working to develop a better skill set, like improving buoyancy, in an area not prone to significant damage.

But divers need to know this is OK. Pictures of divers sitting on the bottom are not being published. Divers are being told that ANY time they hit, kick, or touch the bottom, regardless of where it is, is a mortal sin. We all have done it. And, I venture to say, if we are truthful to ourselves, for the most part, we all do it still. Perhaps only occasionally, but none of us are perfect. And none of us began where we are now, skill-wise. We need to allow others the time and opportunity to do the same for themselves, without a truckload of guilt being heaped upon them.

What are some other examples?

A cave diver: It is sometimes better for a cave diver to settle slowly and calmly into the silt when control is lost, pivoting on still and stationary fin tips while reestablishing proper trim and buoyancy, rather than flailing and kicking to stay off the bottom. Cleaner, calmer, safer.

An underwater photographer: It may be better for a photographer to lightly rest a finger on a dead rock, stabilizing themselves for a picture, rather than kicking to stay off the bottom or crashing their camera into a gorgonian.

Location considerations: I grew up diving in California, often in heavy surge and poor visibility. Holding the bottom was the most realistic and effective dive technique available to stay in contact with my buddy and an awareness of where was.

The alternative

I would rather maintain control of a group of entry-level divers by firmly settling them on a durable surface (like sand), rather than risk losing control of one or more class members trying to achieve and sustain neutral buoyancy during all phases of skill instruction. Safer for them, for me, and ultimately for the organisms near us.

Newer divers are being shamed, being told they are idiots or morons. It makes diving not fun. We are losing divers because of that. Why continue with a sport where you are constantly being told you are a failure?

Let’s get real

Yes, we need to teach neutral buoyancy. Yes, it is an important skill. But it is not the only dive skill, nor is it “Rule #1” in importance. Collectively we need to discard our “Holier than thou” mentality and return to a more holistic instructional paradigm… using weighting and buoyancy (heavy, neutral, or light) as a tool, coupled with the knowledge to evaluate when and where to use them properly, and in a manner consistent with our personal skill limitations.

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8 replies
  1. Bill
    Bill says:

    So, to paraphrase: Wouldn’t be easier to let them graduate before they’ve mastered a skill and tell them to do something that requires no skill?

    The answer is yes, of course it’s easier, but one does a disservice to a student when they sign off on a cert card before that student can hold their position in the water. Period.

    No, I think I’ll just keep teaching my students to control their buoyancy from the beginning of confined water and not let them out of the pool until they’ve mastered it. If I’m worried about controlling students, given conditions, I’ll just reduce the number of students I take in the water, or use an assistant.

    If your students are weighted so you can glue them to the bottom, your students are over-weighted. It’s mighty hard to learn buoyancy (and forget proper trim) when you’ve got an extra 4 or six pounds that keep you settled on that durable surface.

    I’m starting to wonder about SDI’s editing process. Can anyone publish anything?

  2. Jeffrey Bozanic
    Jeffrey Bozanic says:

    Hi Bill,
    Thank you for joining the discussion. It is important for our community to discuss ideas, and offer alternate views.

    I think you may have misunderstood part of my intentions. I did not mean to imply that we should overweight our students, nor should we be attempting to “glue them to the bottom.” When properly weighted, all open circuit divers are to some degree negatively weighted when their cylinders are full. This is an asset which can be utilized in both instruction and post-instructional diving.

    Your suggestions about reducing student to instructor ratios and utilizing assistants are certainly valid, and in some circumstances may provide realistic alternatives addressing some of the issues to which I alluded. Your observation about teaching proper trim is also an important one, however it was not germane to the topic of my article.

    My comments were aimed at expanding what and how we teach some aspects of buoyancy control, and what realistic expectations are. They were designed to foster discussion, and help new divers as they internalize and build the skill levels necessary to utilize and demonstrate appropriate buoyancy control in their post-instructional diving activities.

    As I am sure you are aware, a diver with only five training dives under their belt, almost regardless of how much time you spend in a pool with them, will not be able to match your skill level as an instructor. All I am suggesting is that we recognize that fact, and teach them additional considerations as to when and how to improve their skills.

    And finally, another implied purpose of the article was to increase tolerance amongst all of us in the dive community. I strongly feel that too often we point fingers and “flame” others without truly listening to what they have to say or what they are trying to accomplish.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your views!

  3. @combicalimba
    @combicalimba says:

    Una excelente respuesta!! Somos facilitadores del cambio y aprendizaje constante. Como instructores debemos se mas permeables y estar abiertos al aprendizaje constante; considerar otra vista del punto y aceptar que ese punto puede tener varias vistas es el primer paso en el mundo de la educación, educación constructiva y coactiva.

  4. Palmer
    Palmer says:

    First let address the positive. The simple fact that someone is addressing this issue in an open form is long overdue. I do not believe anyone can dispute the importance of neutral buoyancy as a skill set. However, it also points out a specific underlying concern. Specifically, the time allowed to teach open water divers. If you want to build, create, or train good divers it takes time. Time which many instructors, shops, etc do not get. The Industry has continued to simplify education and even marginalize time that an instructor has to train students. This is not a secret, nor should it shock anyone. The specific reason for this ongoing trend is nothing less than a plethora of bar stools and behind closed door discussions. You cannot make good divers without adequate and reasonable resources. Time is a vital resource

  5. Darren Guentert
    Darren Guentert says:

    Again…for Bill.
    Hmm…I remember when I started driving a stick shift. Took a while to master the clutch combined with the correct rpm and finally shift without the occasional grind. After a while it became second nature though. Such is the same with diving. Practice does not make perfect, but it sure does get you in the right direction. Shaming divers because they haven’t mastered correct buoyancy control has the purpose of what? Making someone feel bad? Experienced divers should take it upon themselves to educate those who need a little help! That way they will continue to dive. Use your knowledge base to help them understand correct weight distribution, breathing techniques etc…and eventually the gears will stop grinding. Teach them to find an area to touch down on a durable surface if necessary to limit their damage, find balance, regroup and go on. I would rather them do that instead of panicking because of a need to make sure that they are doing things perfect…because that often leads to much more serious consequences. My favorite moment diving? 1AM, full moon. Found a white sand beach at 40, went full positive and laid on my back for 10 minutes. Each bubble picked up a reflection of the moon as it made its way to the surface. Mesmerizing. Don’t think I hurt anything in the process though.


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