Hand signals

By John Bentley

Do you know the feeling of gliding peacefully over a coral reef when suddenly up swims your buddy with a barrage of hand signals so fast and intense you think for a moment they may be challenging you to a shadow puppet contest? Well, maybe it wasn’t that extreme but we’ve all had some confusion while communicating underwater. Hopefully those misunderstandings aren’t related to gas, pressure, or depth, but even the little things are better with practiced communication.

The best way to understand this communication is simple; practice and communication. If you have a new buddy, review hand signals during your pre-dive check. While we want to be educated on our communication we don’t want to be the person running their new buddy through 425 of their personal favorite hand signals including shark, turtle, brain coral, sand, empty shell, and saltwater. Instead, make sure you can communicate the basics, of which we’ve made a quick list below. Browse through resources, both online and in print, to see common themes in hand signals and attempt to find differences in important signals which could cause issues underwater. Finally, when you’re signaling during a dive, do so slowly and talk through them, even though your buddy can’t hear you well. This will force you to slow down and make your signals more clearly.


There are literally dozens of ways to communicate pressure to your buddy. Whether you’re signaling exact numbers or just waypoints in the dive (like “turn around” or “up”) you need to be very clear on this signal before entering the water. The traditional numerical representation, coupled with pointing at your gauge, is the clearest representation of how much gas you have. Combined with a good dive plan, the PSI or BAR indicated with this signal should suffice to clearly communicate with a new buddy.


While it may seem like the easiest signal in the book, communicating “let’s go this way” can provide challenges for newly formed teams. Make sure to have clearly decided a navigational plan before hitting the water and understand the difference between “let’s go this way” and “do we go this way?” Often the best solution is using the index finger as a hook to indicate “I have a question”.


Thumbs up or finger up? That is the question! A slow safe ascent in the correct location is vital to complete the dive. Clarify with your buddy on their preferred method for “let’s head up”, “look up there”, and “there’s an emergency, we need to go”. Those are three very different signals and can have big impacts on a dive’s conclusion.

While pressure, depth/direction, and ascent signals are not the only ones to review they should be first on the list with a new buddy. Take time to develop your underwater conversations and don’t hesitate to take advantage of a slate or WetNotes to communicate complex topics.

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