The hardest skill to master as a SCUBA diver is buoyancy control. That mid-water, floating-in-space, horizontal body position may look effortless, but learning to do it can be tricky and confusing. Buoyancy control is also the most important diving skill; in fact, it is the essence of diving, and a diver without buoyancy control is not really a diver at all.
Buoyancy control means that you can place yourself exactly where you want when you’re underwater. You can achieve your intended depth and maintain it. You can ascend and descend calmly and efficiently. You can get close to the reef without touching it- no part of your fins, hands, face, or body ever make contact.
Most importantly, you can “hover” in one place. This means that you don’t move significantly forward, backward, up or down. Hovering is the hardest of the buoyancy skills. It’s also critical for an underwater photographer. A photographer needs to hover to check the camera settings, frame a scene, get focus, and wait for the perfect shot.
As an underwater photographer, your buoyancy will be tested to the extreme. A diver’s brain and body already have two tasks to manage (exploring the reef and controlling buoyancy); underwater photography adds a third, and the excitement and challenge of taking pictures often steals the spotlight. It’s not uncommon for an underwater photographer to crash into the reef, break coral, get stung by urchins, or float away from the group while focusing on the camera.
These mistakes can injure both diver and reef. It’s easy to brush up against a venomous organism like a scorpionfish or hydroid (or worse) when you’re not paying attention. And from the reef’s perspective, a broken branch of coral is a big loss- coral only grows 5 centimeters per year, on average. Plus, fish and invertebrates can end up homeless when their habitat is destroyed.
Here’s what you can do to improve your buoyancy control while diving:
Practice, practice, practice.
Don’t just dive all the time; dive with awareness. Notice your own body position and distance from the reef, and ask your buddy to watch you and give you feedback after the dive.
If you’re constantly moving, your fin movement is helping you stay off the bottom; by going slow or hovering in one place, you force yourself to find true neutral buoyancy.
Focus on the breath.
Your lungs are your first and foremost means of buoyancy control. Inhale and exhale to adjust your depth with precision.
Test your buoyancy – adjust your BCD.
Remember the neutral buoyancy exercise from your open water course? Keep using this skill. The goal is to have the precise amount of air in your BCD for you to be neutrally buoyant at your depth.
- Step 1: Breathe in and out very slowly.
- Step 2: Notice what happened. Did you start to rise after your inhale? Did you start to fall after your exhale?
- Step 3a: If you didn’t rise after your inhale, add more air to your BCD. Take another test breath.
- Step 3b: If you rose very fast after your inhale, and you did not fall back to your starting position after your exhale, release air from your BCD. Take another test breath.
- Step 4: Continue adjusting until you rise after your inhale and fall after your exhale in a controlled way.
Learn the frog kick:
An underwater photographer (or a researcher, or a conservation-minded diver) should not use the flutter kick. Instead, move your legs as if you’re swimming breaststroke. Start with your knees bent and your feet raised above the level of your head. Extend your legs only to kick out and together like a frog. By frog kicking, you’ll keep your fins far from the reef. You’ll even be able to move backward by reversing the kick!
Hover in frog kick position- “Trim Position”:
This is the underwater photographer’s ultimate buoyancy skill. Here are some tips:
- Circle your feet in small backward circles. This lifts up your lower body.
- If you’re having trouble keeping your lower body up, practice by clasping your hands and stretching them out in front of you. Point your head and arms slightly downward, lower than your legs.
- Make sure your body makes a straight line from your knees to shoulders.
- Practice on land first: lie on your stomach, bend your knees to a right angle, lift your chest, bend your elbows and clasp your hands in front of your chest. Make small backward circles with your fins.
Don’t wear gloves or use a pointer until you can trust yourself not to touch the reef or bother its creatures.
Do extra training. Courses like Peak Performance Buoyancy help immensely with buoyancy control.
Take an underwater photography course. It’s best to learn from a pro while developing your technique.
Good buoyancy, besides helping you, the reef, and your photography is also fun. Once you master it, you’ll feel like you’re flying. You can truly be a weightless underwater explorer, searching for mind-blowing creatures and capturing their essence on film. And you can leave all that beauty behind for the next person to enjoy.