Scuba Hand Signals Every Scuba Diver Should Know!
As you probably know by now, scuba divers are unable to verbally communicate underwater. Unfortunately, we are not as advanced as dolphins, so we use hand signals only to communicate with each other.
Learning hand signals is vital, especially in the unlikely event an emergency was to happen, you will need to signal your buddy or instructor and tell them what is wrong, using JUST your hands.
Not only do hand signals help you communicate underwater, but they also keep you safe. If you are a frequent diver, the below hand signals will become your second language!
I asked my great friend (and PADI Scuba Instructor) Darby to demonstrate all of the hand signals for you!
Scuba Hand Signals
Below are the hand signals every scuba diver should know, it is important to familiarise yourself with them to save any confusion underwater.
I am OK/Are You OK? (Underwater)
The most common one you will learn is the “OK” signal. This is used both as a question and answer. Your instructor or guide may ask if you are OK, and if everything is ‘dandy’ you will reply with OK too.
Hand Signal Explained: Pinch your thumb and index finger together at the tips and extend the other fingers.
I am OK (At the Surface)
You should always have a snorkel or regulator in your mouth at the surface, so you will not be able to speak.
Once you have entered the water, you should signal to the captain or boat crew that you are “OK” by the following signals. Number 1 is when both hands are available, and number 2 is for signalling when one hand is occupied.
Hand Signal Explained:
- Both arms in the air with your fingertips touching your head.
- One arm in the air with your fingertips touching your head.
I Have a Problem (At the Surface)
Sometimes we enter the water and have forgotten something (usually your weight belt!) on the boat and need to signal the captain and crew.
Hand Signal Explained: Wave one arm up and down (patting the surface) to grab their attention.
Something is Wrong/I Have a Problem (Underwater)
When something is wrong you will need to signal your dive buddy or instructor.
Hand Signal Explained: Put your hand out in front of you (palm down), spreading your fingers and tilt it up and down.
NOTE: This is often followed by pointing to the problem with your index finger. For example, there is an issue with your mask fogging, you would point to the front of your mask.
When the dive is over or you need to ascend a few meters, you will need to signal going up.
Hand Signal Explained: Thumbs up signal, create a fist with your thumb pointing upwards.
When you are at the surface ready to go down or you need to descend a few meters, you will need to signal going down.
Hand Signal Explained: Thumbs down signal, create a fist with your thumb pointing downwards.
Ears Not Clearing/Problem With Ears
Often, we have trouble equalizing our ears. You may need to signal to your buddy or instructor that you are having issues.
Hand Signal Explained: Take your index finger and point to your ear.
The number one rule in scuba diving is to NEVER hold your breath. If a diver looks panicked, you can signal them to remember to breathe.
Hand Signal Explained: With one hand, slowly move it away and back towards your chest/regulator.
Sometimes you may be signalled to stop because there is something dangerous ahead, you are doing something you shouldn’t be, like touching a turtle, or you are doing a skill wrong.
Hand Signal Explained: Extending your arm out in front of you and showing your hand to the person you are signalling.
This is easy to remember as it is the same as on land.
Hand Signal Explained: With your index finger raised, make small circular movements.
This hand signal is handy when diving wrecks to know which side to start on.
Hand Signal Explained: With your thumb sticking out, point it to the left to signal left, and flip it to the right to signal right.
You may have found something super cool and want to show your dive buddy, or you may have wandered off into the blue following that turtle without realising you have ventured too far from the reef.
Hand Signal Explained: With a flat hand and palm up, bend your fingertips towards you a couple of times.
If someone needs you to look at them, or you have found something cool to show your dive buddy, you may need to signal them to look.
Hand Signal Explained: Using your index and middle finger (like the “peace” sign), point them to your eyes inside your mask.
Your instructor or guide may need you to watch them, for example when they are showing you a new skill.
Hand Signal Explained: This requires you to use the “look” signal above followed by pointing at yourself with your thumb.
This is most commonly used when teaching skills, if you have missed something, your instructor may do this hand signal and point to what you forgot.
Hand Signal Explained: Signal by pointing your index finger to your head – make sure it is not pointing to your ears as this means trouble with your ears/equalizing.
How Much Air Do You Have?
This one you will see a lot! Throughout your dive, your dive guide or instructor will continuously ask you how much air you have left.
Hand Signal Explained: With one hand palm open facing upwards, with the other hand, place one (index finger) or two (index & middle) fingers on top of the other hand.
NOTE: Some instructors and dive guides will just point to the SPG.
I Have ‘X’ Amount of Air Left
After someone has signalled “how much air do you have”, you will need to respond after looking at your SPG. Some SPGs will be in BAR and others in PSI, so be sure to check this before you head out.
Hand Signal Explained: These should be self-explanatory, but starting at 0-9.
In the unlikely event, you are low on air or have run out of air, you will need to signal your buddy to share their alternate air source. Your buddy will appreciate it much more than abruptly swimming up to them and grabbing onto it – so best to give them some warning.
Hand Signal Explained: Take an unclenched hand and place it over your regulator in your mouth.
Our of Air
Underwater, we cannot shout “HELP” so you will need to signal your buddy or instructor that it is an emergency and you have used all of your air (always carry out pre-dive checks and keep an eye on your SPG during the dive to prevent this from happening).
Hand Signal Explained: With your palm facing down, move your hand across your neck – like you are signalling “off with your head”.
Bubbles or Leaking
Sometimes bubbles expel from our equipment, possibly indicating something is wrong, usually having to cancel the dive.
Hand Signal Explained: To signal your buddy bubbles are coming out the wrong place (don’t mistake this with farting, you do not want to embarrass them!) rapidly open and close your fingertips like shown below.
Emergency!!! HELP ME NOW!
If everything goes wrong, or you are in extreme panic, you will need to seek immediate help.
Hand Signal Explained: Signal by waving one or both arms erratically at your buddy or dive instructor.
You may need to signal a potential hazard or something dangerous such as a stonefish below your dive buddy.
Hand Signal Explained: Put one arm forward, in front of you making a fist with your hand. This signal is usually done facing directly to the danger/hazard, as long as it isn’t a provoked shark (or triggerfish – they can be quite territorial!) swimming towards you!
You may get cold during the dive, especially if one of those unpredictable thermoclines hit you off guard! Being comfortable is critical to reducing the chances of hypothermia underwater. If you are excessively cold you can use this signal to let your dive buddy or instructor know.
Hand Signal Explained: Hug yourself and rub your hands up and down the top of your arms.
This one is really important at dive sites that have a lot of boat traffic. You should be able to hear boats approaching, but it is also vital to learn this one, especially if you have someone that is deaf diving with you to signal a boat above you.
Hand Signal Explained: Cup your hands together with palms slightly open as if you are giving someone a present in your hands.
Buddy Up/Stay Together
If you see this signal, you have likely strayed away from your dive buddy, or you need to buddy up to perform a skill that requires two people, such as the emergency alternate air ascent in the open water training.
Hand Signal Explained: Create fists with both hands and extend your index fingers. Put the two index fingers together.
Hold onto Each Other/Hold Hands
Even if they are not your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife, you may need to hold your dive buddies hand(s). Sometimes conditions can be unpredictable or an emergency may have occurred which means you must hold onto each other.
Hand Signal Explained: Clasp your hands together – do not interlock your fingers.
Level Off at This Depth
Once you have reached the desirable dive depth, you, your dive buddy or the instructor will signal to level off at that depth. This means to stop the descent and stay at this level, keep a close eye on your dive computer so you do not exceed that depth.
Hand Signal Explained: With a flat hand extended forwards and palm down, move the hand from side to side.
Almost all dives include a safety stop at 5m (16ft) for 3 minutes to allow the body to unload some nitrogen before you surface.
Hand Signal Explained: Place one flat hand facing downwards (level-off hand signal) on top of 3 fingers pointing up towards to indicate 3 minutes.
This one is for all those ‘techy-divers’ out there! Technical divers are trained to do decompression stops, but all recreational divers should be familiar with this hand signal too.
Hand Signal Explained: With a fist, extend only your pinky (little) finger and thumb, or just your pinky.
I Do Not Understand/I Do Not Know (HUHH?)
If you don’t understand when someone signals you with one of the above, you can give them this signal – which is usually accompanied by a confused facial expression under your mask.
Hand Signal Explained: This signal is similar to what you would do above the water – shrugging with your hands to the side with palms open and facing upwards.
Some Hand Signals for Marine Life!
The whole reason we take the plunge is to see the amazing marine life that lives beneath the ocean’s surface. As you become more experienced, you will be able to correctly identify species and show them off to your diving buddies.
If you become a dive guide or instructor, knowing the hand signals for marine life, and teaching your students is a fun way to educate them and point things out, especially that tiny nudibranch that is no bigger than your fingernail!
Below is a quick overview of hand signals used for marine life you can see when scuba diving to finish off!
This is the generic hand signal for sharks, but below are some specific ones too!
I have seen two different hand signals for this one on my travels, so have included both!
This one I have also seen done differently around the world.
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:
By now you should be ready for any hand signal thrown at you, and if you need to communicate underwater you can do so without having to quickly scribble something down onto a dive slate (that’s if you have one handy!).
Not only are hand signals the only way to communicate and keep you safe, but they also make a great game of charades with your diving friends!
Remember never to touch marine life, take only photos, and leave only bubbles!
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