What Happens If You Descend Too Fast While Diving
Compared to ascending, descending too fast is not as serious, which is why there is no fixed descent rate. However, descending too fast while diving may not allow enough time to equalize your ears resulting in barotrauma, lose your dive buddy, go beyond your planned depth, get “the bends”, or not have enough time to spot any dangers.
Scuba diving is an exciting sport and after entering the water, I’m sure you will want to get down to that reef or wreck site as fast as possible, but contain your excitement for a moment…
We all know that scuba divers cannot ascend too quickly, but what about descending too fast? Is it also a problem?
This article is going to help answer exactly that, covering exactly what happens if you descend too fast while scuba diving and how to descend safely!
What Happens When You Descend Too Fast?
Descending too fast is not as dangerous as ascending too fast, however, it should still be avoided. There is no fixed descent rate, so it is up to you and your buddy to decide.
The most common issues with descending too fast are:
- Squeezes: Ear, Sinus, & Mask Squeezes
- Losing Buddy Contact
- Descending Too Deep
- Lack of Buoyancy Control
- Becoming Over-exerted
- Causing Environmental Damage
Squeezes: Ear, Sinus & Mask Squeezes
Ear, sinus and mask squeezes naturally occur while diving, so descending slowly gives you time to equalize these airspaces. If you do not equalize your ears you can get barotrauma – OUCH!
If you know your ears are on the sensitive side, then take it slow! If you do get an issue use a hand signal to notify your buddy you have a problem with your ears and ascend a little. Once the problem is solved you can continue your descent safely.
Losing Buddy Contact
On your ‘power mission’ to the deep, you may lose your dive buddy or group. After speedily making your way down you may have lost them, especially if conditions are not ideal such as poor visibility or strong currents. If you encounter any dangers or hazards, you are pretty screwed, as no one will be able to help you if you get into trouble.
Descending Too Deep
Descending too fast can also cause you to exceed your planned depth, possibly going into DECO – meaning a longer safety stop at the end of your dive, and a shorter dive because you will need to make sure you have enough air for those extra minutes!
Lack of Buoyancy Control
Buoyancy control is a difficult skill to master in itself! Going down too fast can cause you to get disorientated and lose buoyancy control.
You are not running a marathon, so there is no need to get exhausted underwater. Scuba diving is a relaxing sport, so descend nice and slow so you do not get out of breath. Over-exertion can also cause scuba divers to pass out underwater, so always breathe in and out slowly and continuously.
Causing Environmental Damage
The marine ecosystem is a fragile environment. If you descend too fast you can hit corals damaging them and the marine life, especially teeny tiny marine creatures like nudibranchs – one kick of your fin and that could be the end of them!
What Is the Proper Way to Descend?
Descending should be something you learnt in your Open Water Course, whether it be last week or 30+ years ago, you should remember how much your instructor drilled in the importance of descending properly, and you most likely had to do it more than once!
Do you remember learning the 5-point procedure with the acronym S.O.R.T.E.D?
SORTED is a helpful way to remember the following steps:
S = Signal
O = Orientation
R = Regulator
T = Time
E = Elevate, Exhale & Equalize
D = Descent/Descent
Let’s go over each step!
S is for Signal
We signal on the surface using our hands, or verbally if safe to do so. Dive buddies signal to each other to check everything is “ok” to start the descent.
O is for Orientation
Orientation before the dive is important to look out for potential dangers. Divers check the area on the surface and below them, for example, you wouldn’t want to descend straight on top of a manta ray, another scuba diver, or something dangerous!
R is for Regulator
Not all scuba divers feel the need for a snorkel and if you have just done a giant stride or backroll entry into the water off a boat, your regulator should already be in your mouth. However, if you are using a snorkel, exchange your snorkel for your regulator.
T is for Time
It is important to note the time of entry for safety reasons and also to fill out your logbook once you have completed the dive. To check the time look at your dive computer or your buddies if you do not have one. This is also the perfect time to check that the dive computer is working as it is an essential piece of diving equipment.
E is for Elevate, Exhale & Equalize
To dispose of air in the BCD, we must elevate the inflator hose upwards. Your lungs are also full of air, so exhaling at the surface accompanied by deflating your BCD should make you descend if you are properly weighted. As we descend the pressure in the first 5m are at its greatest.
This means scuba divers must equalize their ears during descent.
D is for Descent/Descend
As you make your controlled descent look at your buddy and keep close contact. Always descend slowly, keeping depth and direction into consideration throughout the journey down. If you start to descend too fast while diving, you may have too much weight or may have emptied too much air from your BCD – add a little bit of air to slow down your descent rate.
How to Descend Safely?
Descending safely is extremely important for yourself and other divers around you. When you descend it is mainly controlled by you and your dive buddy, unless there is a crazy down current, then you should evaluate to continue the dive or reschedule for another day.
To descend safely you should be following the correct procedures, appropriate buddy techniques, and check the environment for any dangers, while still being in complete control of your descent.
To safely descend you should:
- Go slow
- Stay in control
- Equalize your ears
- Make adjustments to equipment if needed – remember when wet, BCD straps and weight belts can become loose
- Remain close to your dive buddy and gain contact if needed
Descending too fast can mess up any of these safety rules causing anything from minor problems to more serious issues underwater.
10 Descent Tips for Beginner Divers
Do you remember your first descent into the ocean? Sometimes it can be very overwhelming and divers can become anxious. Below are 10 top tips for beginner divers to make descending more comfortable and prevent descending too fast while scuba diving.
- Get your weights correct
In the beginning, knowing how many weights you need can be tricky, which is why divers do a weight check in the pool before heading out. This is extremely important if you are diving in a new, or different exposure suit.
Many beginner divers are often overweighted, thinking it will help them descend easier, but it is quite the opposite. Being overweighted is likely to make you sink like a stone causing a lot of problems such as barotrauma (from not having time to equalize) or damaging the environment on your way down.
Being overweighted also means you will have to lug around those extra kilos underwater which can make it difficult to maintain good buoyancy and be extremely exhausting.
- Practice the descent procedure: SORTED
Until you are an experienced diver, you should always practice the 5-point procedure “SORTED” before each dive. Over time your descent will become more natural.
- Stick with a buddy you are comfortable with
It is always nice to buddy up with someone you trust and are comfortable with. Diving with someone you know, not only puts you at ease, but you will know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and when to lend a hand, for example, a dive buddy that knows you have difficulty equalizing is more likely to be patient and understanding.
- Keep an eye on your depth
Always keep an eye on what depth you are at – you do not want to descend too fast and go below your planned dive depth limit. This can put you into “DECO”, having to make a longer safety stop, cutting the dive short, and no one wants that!
The easiest and best way to keep an eye on your depth is with a dive computer. You do not need a fancy one to start with, one that tells you the basics such as depth, temperature, and when to do your safety stop will do just fine.
- Sounds silly, but keep your eyes open
When we are scared, we naturally close our eyes. When diving, your eyes should always be open to look where you are going and to spot potential dangers underwater. Keeping your eyes open is also important to see if your dive buddy is struggling. For example, if they are signalling you for help, you will not see them if your eyes are shut.
- Listen carefully during the dive briefing
Before every dive, wherever you go in the world, there will be a dive briefing that covers the dive site, what you should expect from the dive and the safety rules. The dive guide will often mention the maximum depth you will be diving and usually the rate of descent so it is important to listen carefully when they are going through this.
- Don’t forget about equalizing your ears
Diving is exciting and we cannot wait to explore as soon as our head sinks below the surface, however, do not forget that you will need to equalize your ears on the way down!
- Don’t feel stupid asking for advice
No one should feel stupid or ashamed to ask for advice. Even dive professionals will ask each other questions and for advice. If you are unsure about something, just ask.
- Go slow
You are not in a race, always go nice and slow when descending to give you time to equalize and be in control.
- Know the hand signal for “problem underwater”
We cannot verbally communicate underwater, so are restricted to only hand signals. Be familiar with hand signals commonly used while diving, especially the one for “problem”.
5 Useful Tips to Help With Equalizing Ears During Your Descent!
Some people struggle with equalizing ears, sometimes even pro scuba divers! (Me included, my left ear always takes longer than my right!) The common cold or flu can cause issues, which is why if you are at all congested you should always avoid diving to prevent issues such as a reverse block which can be very painful!
Below are 5 tips to help you equalize your ears and have an easier descent:
- Try equalizing before you hit the water. Listen for that popping release to check that you can equalize your ears before your dive. You can also do this by swallowing and moving your jaw gently from side to side – everyone is different! Pre-pressurizing will make your equalization underwater much more comfortable.
- Always descend with your feet first; when you descend head first you put 50% more pressure on equalizing. It is also much easier to equalize when your head is upright as you descend.
- Before you feel the urge to equalize, that is the time to do so. Never wait until it is uncomfortable or excruciating to equalize. Also looking up helps to equalize; extending your neck allows the Eustachian tubes to open.
- If you are having trouble equalizing, ascend a little and try again.
- If you have tried everything and you still cannot equalize, signal to your buddy that you are going to ascend – never force yourself, it will put you out of the water longer, trust me!
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:
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While scuba diving is exciting and we want to get underwater as fast as possible, descending too fast can cause ear, sinus and mask squeezes, lose your buddy, descend too deep or beyond your limits, lose control of your buoyancy, become overexerted, or cause environmental damage.
Remember to use the acronym SORTED before each descent.
You should always go slow, stay in control, equalize your ears, make adjustments to your dive equipment when needed, and remain close to your dive buddy to descend safely.
Thank you for reading, happy bubbles & have a safe descent!
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