Can Scuba Divers Talk Underwater?
Have you ever tried to talk underwater while scuba diving? If yes you would have quickly realised that communication underwater is much trickier than on land. Communication is key for both you and your diving buddy. Not only is underwater communication critical for safety, but it is also fun!
As a scuba diver, you are likely to see something epic underwater, therefore you may want to share your exciting experience with other divers, or maybe you need to communicate how much air you have left or if you have a problem with your diving buddy.
Talking above the surface is second nature, and it is the easiest way for humans to talk to one another. But underwater, we have a barrier – water, and if you have ever tried to talk underwater, it sounds like gibberish.
In this article, we will have a look at:
- Why Scuba Divers Can’t Talk Underwater
- How Does Sound Travel Underwater
- Hand Signals for Scuba Divers
- Diving Slates
- Rope Tugs
- Torch Signals
- Full Face Masks
- 10 Communication Tips for Scuba Divers
Why Scuba Divers Can’t Talk Underwater
Wearing a mask and regulator makes it impossible to breathe through our nose or open our mouths to speak clearly.
Despite sound travelling 4.3 times faster underwater than it does in air, we cannot hear very well! This is because we are not designed to speak underwater, but, why is that?
Well, to answer that, we need to look at how we can speak above the surface before we dive into why talking underwater with regular scuba gear is a challenge!
Don’t get frustrated if you cannot understand your dive buddy when they open their mouth to talk to you underwater. Remember that scuba divers are not designed to talk underwater.
When we speak on land, air from our lungs travels to our vocal cords and back out of our mouths. The different sounds and words we make are mastered using our lips, tongue, jaw, and the roof of our mouths, and sometimes even our nose gets involved!
When we go scuba diving, we have a few obstructions to those parts of our body…
As already mentioned, wearing a mask and regulator makes it impossible to breathe through our nose and open our mouth to speak clearly, and because the number one rule in scuba diving is to never hold your breath – your regulator should be kept in your mouth at all times!
Well, unless you are taking a quick smiley photo, of course!
How Does Sound Travel Underwater?
Sound travels via a mechanical wave underwater, exactly the same as in air, however, as water is much denser than air, sound travels 4.3 times faster underwater!
Whales and dolphins have developed to be able to communicate underwater! Did you know Blue whales and fin whales can produce a sound that travels over 2,000 miles!! What is interesting, is that whales do not have vocal cords! They generate sound by squeezing air through their larynx!
So the sound is travelling much faster underwater, but unlike these incredible animals, we find it difficult to speak and hear underwater! Especially determining a sound’s origin while diving.
For example, if you have ever been diving in a crowded dive site (Koh Tao is a prime example), and your dive guide used a tank banger, you probably remember looking around at who is trying to grab your attention – don’t worry, we have all been there!
Usually, your brain can recognise differences in time and sound intensity between your two ears to work out the origin of a sound, but underwater your brain registers the sound from directly above.
Hand Signals for Scuba Divers
Scuba Divers are trained from the get-go to use hand signals as a way to communicate with others.
When you learn hand signals, not only is it great for underwater communication, but it is great fun!
Hand signals are also incredible for pointing out marine life! Many specific hand signals are used for fish, which can tell buddies and students what marine life you can see!
Instructors teach their students some of the hand signals for local marine life during their dive course! During the dive, students can practice the hand signals and ask for clarification on any they did not understand during the debrief.
Fish Identification is a very popular PADI course that can be taken during the advanced open water or as a speciality! This course helps you identify fish and communicate their names underwater during a dive using special hand signals!
The ocean is incredibly beautiful, but there are some dangers. Hand signals allow us to communicate these dangers, such as currents, feelings of trouble or incidents with equipment.
You can even have improvised hand signals to use with your buddy. If you dive together very often, you can create your own hand signals that only you understand. It’s like a secret language!
Travelling and visiting some of the best dive sites in the world is extremely exciting! Hand signals can vary slightly from place to place! When diving with a new group and dive buddy, be sure to run through the hand signals before the dive to make sure you’re all on the same page!
The most common hand signals you will use while Scuba Diving are:
OK (while underwater)
OK (while at the surface)
Problem/something is wrong
To learn these hand signals plus more (including some awesome marine life), check out our hand signals for scuba divers article!
Underwater writing boards, commonly known as Dive Slates, are great to scribble down information that is too complicated for hand signals.
Dive slates are often used by instructors, to communicate with their students underwater. During the deep dive of the PADI Advanced Open Water course, a slate can be used to do a short quiz with the students, checking if they are experiencing the effects of Nitrogen Narcosis at depth.
Slates are also great if you want to pop that special question underwater to your loved one, or brag to your friends that you have reached that “100-dive” milestone!
The concept of a dive slate is similar to a pen and paper when writing notes on land, however, underwater, the slates are made from plastic or PVC that come with a waterproof eraser and pencil.
TOP TIP: If you lose your eraser, a great way to clear your slate is to use sand, rubbing it in a circular motion!
There are, however, some downsides to using diver slates:
- You need to remember to sharpen the pencil.
- It is an extra scuba diving accessory to bring.
- You risk dropping the slate during the dive.
- You need to get your buddy’s attention so that they can read it.
- Most dive slates can only be seen during the day, however, recently companies have made glow-in-the-dark markers/pencils!
Noisemakers, like shakers, rattles, and tank bangers, are another fantastic way to get a diver’s attention when they are off looking elsewhere.
There is nothing worse than spending that whole dive looking for some rare macro and not being able to get your dive buddy’s attention.
However, many Scuba Divers have such a passion for this sport due to the silence and tranquillity! It can be just like meditating! So make sure you do not abuse those noisemakers!
Try to only use these for emergencies!
Rope Tugs – Communicating to the Boat Crew
If the dive boat you are with has docked on a mooring line, you can use the rope to signal to each other.
If the boat captain/crew pulls the mooring line once, this means they are asking if you are “OK”. To respond that everything is “OK”, you pull back on the rope once.
If the boat captain/crew pulls on the rope two times, they are telling you to “remain where you are”. This is usually because it is currently not safe to surface. To let them know you “understand the signal”, pull back on the rope twice and wait for them to give the “OK” signal.
Hand signals and diving slates are great during the day but come night time, or diving in poor visibility, these communication tools become very difficult to see.
Torches are used during Scuba Diving in poor visibility conditions, to peek under rocks and during night dives! Hand signals change slightly when diving with a torch, and specific movements with the torch can communicate specific things.
There are many occasions underwater when dive torches come in handy! During low visibility, dive torches can help you see more clearly, marine life, your buddies and the environment around you!
Dive torches are most commonly used for night dives! Submerging below the surface as the sun is setting, opens up a whole new experience! Nocturnal organisms reveal themselves during night dives, caught hunting within the beam of your dive torch!
Night dives are mysterious and incredibly unique. You will only see what you uncover within the narrow beams of your dive torch, making night dives special to you.
During a night dive, divers use their dive torch to communicate. Shining the torch at one hand and creating hand signals can communicate with other divers. It is important to always do hand signals under your torch beam, otherwise, no one will be able to see!
Hand signals change slightly when diving with a torch, as you only have one hand to spare! Holding the torch above one hand shining down, pointing your hand directly up into the torch bulb indicated that you have 100 bars left! After this, you can signal with your fingers how many ten bars you are over 100!
Pointing your dive torch up towards the surface, communicates to your dive buddies, other diving groups and any boats on the surface, that Scuba divers are surfacing!
Pointing your torch at something and moving in circular motions around the object or marine life, indicates to your dive buddies that there is something they should come look at! Depending on which shop you are diving with, this can also mean “OK”!
It is always best to go through the dive torch signals when completing a night dive with a new shop or dive buddy!
Some torch signals that will come in handy, are:
- OK: Pointing your dive torch at the ocean floor, move the light in a circular motion.
- Danger: Pointing your torch at the dangerous object, move the light up and down.
- Emergency: In an unlikely event of an emergency, move your torch from side to side. If your buddy still doesn’t see, you can shine your torch at them, or simultaneously flick it on and off – just be careful not to point the light in their eyes and blind them!
Special Underwater Communications Systems
We live in a world where technology is always advancing, so it is no surprise that we now have special underwater communication systems to allow scuba divers to talk underwater – the almighty full-face masks!
How Do Full Face Masks Work?
Some full-face masks have transceivers, which are responsible for converting your voice into an ultrasound signal. Your dive buddy’s mask has an ultrasound receiver that accepts your signal and converts it inside the full face mask so that they can hear what you said.
Commercial divers can communicate with colleagues with transceivers, reporting progress and fixing problems. Videographers can also benefit from this verbal communication, recording dialogues while filming underwater.
What Do the Experts Say?
Diving experts reveal that the best face masks are:
- Voted the best overall: OTS Guardian Full Face Mask
- Voted the best value: Dräger Panorama Nova Dive Sport Full Face Dive Mask
- Voted the most comfortable: Scubapro Full-Face Diving Mask
- Voted the most affordable: Ocean Reef Neptune Space G Full-Face Mask Emerald
- An extra mention, because they loved it too: OCEAN REEF Unisex Integrated Full Face Diving Mask
10 Communication Tips for Scuba Divers!
- Talk about the dive before you take the plunge underwater
- Familiarise yourself with rope tug signals
- Practice your hand signals
- Stay close to your buddy
- Get yourself a diving slate
- Be familiar with light signals when diving at night or in poor visibility conditions
- Take a noisemaker diving
- Remember the limits of talking underwater
- Be patient when your buddy/instructor/dive guide is trying to communicate underwater
- Enjoy the peace and quiet!
Don’t Forget Your Dive Insurance!
Before you go out on any dive trip or holiday, it is essential to make sure you have insurance that covers you if something goes wrong. Check out our dive insurance article for more information.
Or go straight to these dive insurance company websites:
Communication is key when Scuba Diving, but naturally Scuba Divers cannot talk underwater.
Luckily there are many communication tools available for Scuba Divers such as diving slates, tank bangers, dive torches, and hand signals.
More technical diving and clearer communication technology have allowed us to create face masks, and let’s face it, they look insanely cool!
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