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Why is buoyancy control important?

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This is first of a series of two articles on buoyancy control. this first article explains what buoyancy control is, and why it is so important to us. The second article will investigate the techniques and tricks we can use to develop proficient buoyancy control.

Let's start with a definition. Scuba diving is a constant balance. We're balancing the elements that are trying to send us to the bottom - those negatively buoyant pieces of equipment such as weights, backplate, torch and pretty much every other bit of metal we take with us, with the elements that are trying to send us to the surface - the gas in our lungs and other airpsaces, the gas in our drysuit and gas in our buoyancy devices. If we allow ourselves to go up in the water column we are positively buoyant. If we go down in the water column we are negatively buoyant. Somewhere in middle of this is neutral buoyancy, where these elements are all counterbalanced and we neither go up nor down in the water column. Buoyancy control can be defined as being our conscious control of this balance. If we are control of our buoyancy then we can consciously choose to be either negatively, positively or negatively buoyant. How accurately we control these elements is what we refer to when we ask if someone has proficient buoyancy control. Buoyancy control is a skill that is explained to us on our first scuba course, but a skill we never completely master, no matter how much work we put into it. Like most seemingly simple skills, the basics can be understood in moments, but the details can take years to grasp.

Which is all very good, but why do we care about buoyancy control, especially if it takes a great deal of work to get it right.

Buoyancy control, in my opinion, is the single most important skill a diver can learn. Poor buoyancy control is frequently cited as a contrbutory factor in many diving incidents, and many diving training agencies run specific courses to improve knowledge and skill in this area. Proficient buoyancy control is critical for a variety of reasons.

Environmental protection

We dive in a fragile world. Whether it a reef or a wreck, a diver crashing into it is going to cause destruction.

Divers often leave themselves too negatively buoyant, perhaps in a fear of a rapid ascent, and the end result of this is that at the end of the initial descent they "crash" into whatever it is they are diving on. Some divers even do this deliberately, using the reef or wreck to halt their descent.

Poor buoyancy control can be continued to be demonstrated throughout the dive with the diver's body "bouncing" off the wreck or reef, or the diver being forced to put a hand out to stop them from touching it. Each impact with the environment will have an effect, be it large or small, and in some diving environments, such damage can be catastrophic. 

 Equipment protection

We dive in expensive gear. Ripping holes in your drysuit and wing can be an expensive mistake, but fortunately is an avoidable one. With proper buoyancy control your equipment should remain snag-free. This might mean avoiding overhead snags as well as those beneath us, so the key here is proper buoyancy control.

Efficiency and Relaxation

If you are constantly adjusting your buoyancy throughout the dive a couple of things are going on. Firstly, you are not being efficient. You will be using more gas than you need to, because having to focus on your buoyancy will mean that you are not as relaxed as you could be. The second ramification of this is that you will not actually be enjoying the dive as much as you could be. You are spending your time worrying about whether or not you are going up or down, rather than looking at the fish or wreck.

Safety on ascents

Ascents are all about managing buoyancy control. During the ascent you will at times want to be positively buoyant - when you are going up!

How positively buoyant you wish to be may change depending on the ascent rate you wish to to achieve. However, during other portions of the ascent you may wish to be neutrally buoyant. For example during a safety or decompression stop. Thus, it is during the final portion of the dive, the ascent, that proper buoyancy control becomes critical.

A diver with proficient buoyancy skills should be able to remain relaxed throughout the ascent, and be able to pause the ascent wherever they want.

Getting close to the detail

if you are a photographer, or just someone that enjoys looking at things, it is useful to be able to control exactly how far away from it you are. A photographer with great buoyancy skills will be able to hover motionless just a few inches from their target, whereas someone with poor buoyancy control might scare it off.

Good team skills

How is team responsibility and buoyancy control related? Well, during the ascent and descent I want to be at exactly at the same depth as the rest of my team. This means if there is a problem I don't have to waste any time getting to them. Equally, when we are a decompression stop in mid water, I want to be perfectly neutrally buoyant, so that I can focus my attention on my team mate, and get to them in a single kick if there is a problem.

In a nutshell, proficient buoyancy control makes diving easier, less stressful, and safer. This is why GUE courses place so much emphasis on working at buoyancy control.

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Gareth Burrows is a GUE Instructor trainer, and a personal diving coach for recreational and technical divers of all levels, specialising in improving buoyancy control, trim and stability, in-water confidence, and ascent management. He has trained with PADI, TDI, IANTD and GUE as well as serving as a DO in a BSAC branch. He has been diving cold water wrecks in Europe and around the UK for over a decade, and can usually be found diving out of Brighton, Portland or Plymouth. He is qualifying later this year as a cave diver and looking to become a GUE tech1 instructor in the 18 months. He has trained or coached hundreds of divers from newly qualified open water divers, to course directors and technical instructors.