Learning to scuba dive is, for many people, a truly life-changing experience that opens up a whole new world of opportunities. But it can also be quite intimidating – from mastering the use of one’s diving gear to learning about, and preparing for, decompression sickness, there is plenty about diving that can appear alien, difficult or intimidating.
There is such an abundance of information, in fact, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, and easier still to fall into bad habits that, if not rectified, can become fossilized and difficult to stamp out. It’s therefore important to get into good habits from the get-go – and to recognize common beginner scuba diving problems and typical beginner diver mistakes, and how they can be fixed. Here are our tips for beginner scuba divers.
One of the first things you learn can also be one of the biggest deal-breakers for new divers – the humble art of equalizing. The failure to equalize is one of the most common beginner scuba diving problems, although it can be so easy.
There are no shades of grey when it comes to equalizing – if you cannot do it, then you cannot dive. Attempting to descend without equalizing the pressure in your ears can result in serious trauma to your inner ears, and this trauma may include permanent deafness – a risk you should avoid by proper training.
What is Equalizing?
Equalizing is the process of ensuring that the pressure in your middle ear is equal to the pressure on the water around you. Divers do this by for instance pinching their nostrils and using the Eustachian tube to force air into their middle ears, ensuring that there is no pressure imbalance between the two and thereby protecting your inner ears.
Beginner Scuba Diving Tips: How Can You Consistently Equalize?
It’s important to equalize before you feel pain in your ears, not wait until it’s already happening. Failure to equalize early and often is one of the most frequently encountered beginner scuba diving problems, which sometimes even catches experienced divers. The Valsalva Method (blowing nose into your middle ears via the Eustachian tube) is only effective to a point, and if you’re feeling the pain, the pressure is already too great.
It may still be possible to equalize by using your jaw muscles rather than the Valsava Method if you’ve reached this point. This involves moving your jaw from side to side and swallowing.
If either method is ineffectual, ascend a few feet and try again. If you still cannot equalize, it will become necessary to abort the dive. A frequent beginner diver mistake is to attempt to continue the dive, which should never be done.
If equalization is a persistent problem, it may be worth using a line to descend. This keeps your descent smooth and steady, and gives you constant reminders to equalize.
Ensuring the correct buoyancy is crucial on any dive – if you’re incorrectly weighted, your movement can feel out of your control, which can be extremely unnerving and cause you to panic. You will also expend precious energy (and air) trying to compensate for this lack of control, and it can even lead to an uncontrolled ascent – extremely dangerous if ascending from a depth that puts you at risk of DCS. Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial to keep working on your buoyancy to fix this beginner scuba diving problem early.
How Can You Ensure Correct Buoyancy?
The first step is to do a buoyancy check at the surface – this involves taking a normal breath and fully deflating your BCD at the surface. You should drop to roughly eye level if you’re correctly weighted. Believe it or not, a typical beginner diver mistake (but also one that often catches experienced divers) is to descend with too little weight – making it difficult to maintain proper buoyancy throughout the dive.
The amount of weight that you require should be recorded in your logbook; this can then be referenced when there are environmental or gear changes (e.g. switching from saltwater to fresh, or using a different kind of wet/drysuit) in order to quickly figure out what sort of weight change is needed. It’s also important to make sure that your weights are evenly distributed around your waist.
This list of common beginner scuba diving problems would not be complete without mentioning mask clearing. One aspect of diving that is of immense help to nervous new divers is the fact that you can see your surroundings; if you can see what’s going on around you, you’re more likely to feel in control and less likely to panic. Of course, this also makes diving much more fun.
Which is why having your mask fill up with water can be so terrifying to a beginner diver, and why mask clearing is probably the most challenging aspect of a beginner course. The sensation of water flooding your mask and the accompanying loss of vision may trigger a flight response in many divers, leading to a (potentially life-threatening) uncontrolled ascent to the surface.
Beginner Scuba Diver Problems: What’s the Best Way to Handle Mask Clearing?
It’s an unfortunate fact that a lot of instructors speed through this bit, and they can often teach it on the seafloor rather than in more controlled circumstances – a situation that will often only increase panic in inexperienced divers.
Insist on extra practice with this part if you’re nervous or not confident in your ability to clear a mask. Practice in shallow water (the practice pool you’ll spend your first morning in will do) and simply breathe through your regulator with no mask on; this will get you used to the unusual feeling of having water on your face while breathing through a regulator.
Once you feel comfortable with this, you can begin to slowly let water in bit-by-bit, then practice expelling it by tilting your head back, pushing against the top of your mask to ensure the air doesn’t escape, and exhaling forcefully through your nose.
With enough practice, mask-clearing becomes second nature and stops being something that is a cause for panic.
There are any number of psychological factors that can complicate a dive – particularly for new divers, for whom everything is still an unknown (and can, therefore, be scary). This can drive them into beginner diver mistakes that should be avoided.
There are also a number of phobias that can be exacerbated by diving, from the obvious (Thalassophobia, or fear of the ocean) to things like claustrophobia or agoraphobia, both of which can be triggered by small spaces underwater or the vastness of the ocean, respectively. While some of these are quite specific, some are surprisingly common and therefore belong to typical beginner scuba diving problems.
Such fears can be triggered or worsened by poor visibility or, ironically, visibility that’s too good, leading people to panic at the sight of the unending blue depths below them.
Whatever a diver’s fear or phobias, they are, thankfully, usually controllable.
How Can You Handle Psychological Factors When Diving?
Many psychological issues can be mitigated by the diver by making sure they stay within their limits and assume a sense of control over things.
Scuba diving, thankfully, lends itself to a sense of control. With so many things to keep track of – gauges, buoyancy, depth, your surroundings, keeping your mask clear, your dive buddy’s status, your air supply, etc. etc. – you can feel completely in control. And what’s more, you’re so preoccupied that you almost don’t have time to panic or worry.
Further to this, divers can, with a little research and forethought, limit the factors that might cause them to panic in the first place. Claustrophobics might avoid night dives. The shark-phobic could stick to cooler waters, where they’re less likely to encounter sharks. Even thalassophobics can control their fear of the ocean by getting to know the ocean a little better before diving – watching YouTube videos of other people diving is a great way to increase your exposure to the sport before getting in the water.
What we often underestimate is psychological health. This can be the starting point of being uneasy – and may ultimately contribute to diver panic, which is a typical beginner scuba diving problem. Therefore, make sure you are fit, both from a physical and psychological stand point, for instance by practicing Yoga and focusing on staying calm and in control. Here is our guide on the best exercises for scuba divers.
Diving Beyond Your Limits
Scuba diving is, as complicated as it appears, pretty straightforward once you’ve got the hang of the basics. Sure, there are some typical beginner diver mistakes, but few are really dangerous – most of it is quite easy to get into. So much so, that beginner divers can be lulled into a false sense of security after a couple of dives. While this is definitely a beginner scuba diving problems, also experienced divers love to go to their limits, which can sometimes result in very dangerous situations.
This can lead to divers forgetting themselves, and diving beyond their skill level or taking unnecessary risks. Whether diving too deeply, entering unfamiliar environments (caves, wrecks, etc.) or not monitoring their air supply closely enough.
Beginner Scuba Diving Tips: Diving Within Your Limits
This one is quite simple: get training! You should never be engaging in any kind of dive or dive activity without the proper training beforehand. Diving without the required training and certification is foolish! If you plan on doing a night dive, do a night-diving course! Ditto cave diving, cold-water diving or shipwreck diving. Proper training not only prepares you for what to expect, but it ensures that you know how to handle sudden emergencies or unexpected developments.
Communication with Other Divers – Especially Your Dive Buddy
Communication is key in any relationship, but it’s particularly important when you’re 20 meters under the water and your methods of communication are necessarily limited.
It’s important that you can communicate with everyone in your dive group, but there are two people with whom it’s especially important that you’re able to communicate with – the dive master, and your dive buddy.
The former is the more important of the two. It’s vital that you know where your buddy is at all times. This is the person who might be required to save your life in an emergency – and vice versa. You therefore need to stick together and be aware of each other’s relative position at all times.
How Can We Ensure Clear Communication?
It’s important that you’re on the same page regarding your hand gestures (your primary method of communication on a dive). Make sure that, prior to the dive, the two of you are familiar with each other’s hand signals. Similarly, make sure that your signals are the same as the dive master’s, so that everyone is clear on what everything means. It’s no good if you’re trying to communicate that you need to clear your mask and your buddy thinks that you’re low on air!
Miscommunication can kill a dive – or a diver, if panic sets in. Make sure everybody is able to communicate clearly and effectively before you get in the water.
It’s easy to get distracted when on a dive – if you spot a colorful octopus or a sea turtle sailing past gracefully, your first instinct will, of course, be to take a look and get caught up in the moment.
The problem with becoming fixated on any single thing under the surface is, of course, all the things that you’re not paying attention to. You may drift onto the seabed and right onto a concealed stonefish. You might become disoriented and cut your hand on a sharp rock while trying to steady yourself. You might even do some irreparable damage to some marine flora or fauna by crashing into it.
How Can You Improve Situational Awareness?
Obviously, enjoying the sights when diving is one of the primary reasons for doing it, so nobody’s saying you can’t take in your surroundings while you’re down there. The point is that you should take in all of your surroundings, all the time. Make sure you’re not drifting down too quickly, or that you’re not on a collision course with a rock face or anything else because you’re not paying close enough attention.
Getting into a good routine can help with this. Before or after checking your air or depth gauge, take a minute to look around and reorient yourself. Where’s your diving buddy? Where’s the dive master? How close are you to that shipwreck you just spotted a few minutes before?
Having a solid feel for your own position in the water is key to situational awareness. Incorporate it into your routines, and you’re unlikely to go wrong.
In technical diving, situational awareness becomes even more important, in particular team awareness. Technical divers try to never lose sight of their team, always knowing where every team member is and able to spot potential problems early. It is definitely good practice to incorporate this habit into your diving early on to avoid this typical beginner scuba diving problem!
Overreliance on Your BCD
It’s common for new divers to be constantly inflating and deflating their BCD while underwater, leading to a ‘bobbing’ effect and making it very difficult for them to maintain a consistent depth. Every scuba diving instructor knows that this is one of the typical beginner scuba diving problems – and it simply requires some practice before divers first nail their buoyancy. This can lead to accidental uncontrolled ascents (which, as we’ve pointed out before, can be extremely dangerous) or even uncontrolled descents and a painful barking of your shins off the seabed – or worse. How can you fix this typical beginner diver mistake?
Beginner Scuba Diving Problems: Fixing BCD Overuse
You’re already taught how to do this your training course, but the most effective tools you have in your buoyancy arsenal are your weights and your breath control. Your weight belt is something that is taken care of ahead of time, and is checked when you first get in the water. Breath control is another kettle of fish altogether, and takes time and practice, but once mastered you should be able to maintain your desired depth simply by controlling your breathing. Good breath control also means that you can ascend and descend simply by breathing – no BCD or kicking necessary!
Being out of shape can be a beginner scuba diving problem, but also one you can fix rather easily. Nobody’s saying that you have to be an Olympic athlete for beginner scuba diving, but it doesn’t hurt if you maintain a physically active lifestyle. Similarly, it’s important that you’re feeling well on the day of a dive. Best case scenario – you’re not really going to enjoy the dive, and will be wasting your time and money. Worst case scenario – your condition will lead to you making mistakes that you otherwise wouldn’t, and you could have/cause an accident.
What Should I Do to Ensure Fitness Before a Dive?
First of all: don’t dive if you’re ill. Even if (especially if) if something as simple as a cold. Congestion makes it difficult, if not impossible, to equalize, leading to an aborted dive and a waste of your time and money. Even if you’re able to equalize, your illness may lead to unforeseen complications.
In a more general sense, try to maintain a respectable level of fitness. Again, you don’t have to be a toned, muscular superhero, but consider doing half an hour of cardio a day. Cardio never hurts, and it’s especially good for scuba diving because it lowers your resting heart rate and helps with breath control. In this in-depth article, we cover the importance of fitness for scuba diving in detail and provide tips on what you can do to stay fit.
Pre-Dive Safety Check
Whether through laziness or simple forgetfulness, one of the more common beginner scuba diver problems is not running through the pre-dive safety check. This check is here for a reason – to make sure all your gear is in good condition, and to avert any potential gear problems while you’re still on the boat, rather than when you’re 15 meters down.
What is the Pre-Drive Safety Check?
If you’ve done a PADI Open Water Course or similar, you’re probably (or should be) familiar with the pre-dive safety check (also called buddy check): BWRAF. This is one of the key measures you can take to keep scuba diving safe. You may have learned a specific acronym, such as Big White Rabits Are Fluffy, or Begin With Review And Friend. Whatever acronym you use, make sure you go through all of the essential steps:
- B is for BCD: check that your BCD is working properly, including the oral inflation tube; check that the quick-dump valves are functional; check that the low-pressure inflator is secure.
- W is for weights: check that you have the correct number of weights, that the release is within reach of your right hand, and that the belt is not twisted.
- R is for releases: check that all releases are securely fastened (tank, shoulder and chest, belly). Check that you know how to release your gear quickly in an emergency.
- A is for air: this should be more in-depth than taking a quick breath from your main regulator. Both regulators should be checked by taking several deep breaths while referring to an SPG (submersible pressure gauge) or air-integrated computer. Also make sure the air tastes good, and you and your buddy both know where to find your respective backup regulators.
- F is for final check: gather your loose gear (snorkel, mask, fins, any lights/signaling devices/cameras you might be taking) and check that nothing is loose or dangling in a way that might lead to it getting snagged. Check your buddy from head to toe and have them do the same for you.
We hope that this article has shed some light on common beginner scuba diving problems and typical beginner diver mistakes, and how you might go about fixing them. Remember that 95% of problems are a result of being ill-prepared in some way, shape or form, and so they can be fixed with sufficient preparation. Follow our beginner scuba diver tips to avoid any problems early on. And always prepare properly for your dive, whether mentally or physically, and you’ll be in good shape for a great dive!