Keeping It Real: The Scuba Skills Refresher

HOW MANY TIMES have you thought about going on an exciting dive vacation, only to have something come up that pushes your plans farther...

HOW MANY TIMES have you thought about going on an exciting dive vacation, only to have something come up that pushes your plans farther into the future? Whatever the reason, your trip gets postponed and before you know it, you’ve been “dry” for a while. If you’ve been away from diving for several months or longer, we highly recommend visiting your local dive center to schedule a scuba refresher course prior to going on a dive trip. Fine-tuning your skills after a hiatus from diving is a wise decision that will help make your return to diving safer and more enjoyable.

Scuba Refresher: Dust the Rust Off

The first step to dusting the rust from your skills is to schedule a scuba refresher course with an instructor at a dive center near you. Your reviewing instructor will help you assess your current status and determine the level of review you’ll need in order to bring your skills up to par. The work needed to fine-tune your skills will depend on a few factors, including your experience level before the hiatus and the length of time you have been away from diving.


A typical scuba diving refresher course has two main sections. One section consists of reviewing the basic safety information you learned when studying for your certification. The second section involves performing basic scuba skills in a confined water setting. With the assistance of your instructor, you will be able to identify and practice the skills necessary for your level of certification. In general, the skills you’ll review in the skill circuit include underwater communication using hand signals, mask clearing, regulator removal, replacement and clearing, buoyancy control and swimming. Your instructor may also encourage you to practice air-sharing techniques often used when handling out-of-air emergencies with a dive buddy.

scuba skills underwater hand signals

Underwater communication skills are reviewed during the skill circuit. Photo by Ruth and Barry Guimbellot.

Underwater Communications

Good communication is essential for an enjoyable, safe dive. Learning appropriate hand signals makes communication with your buddy much easier, avoiding a great deal of frustration. If your memory on basic hand signals is a bit rusty, review them with an instructor or refer to your training materials. Basic hand signals include the OK sign, up/down signal and the out-of-air sign.

MORE ON THIS SCUBA SKILL: Using Hand Signals and Accessories to Communicate Underwater
scuba skills mask clearing

The skill circuit is the perfect time to practice clearing your mask. Photo by Ruth and Barry Guimbellot.

Mask Clearing

Nothing is more frustrating than struggling with a leaky mask — even if the reason the mask leaks is that you’re smiling a lot while diving. The skill circuit is the perfect time to practice clearing your mask. To begin, you will need to add water to your mask so you can practice getting it out. Do this by tilting your head slightly down and gently lifting a portion of the skirt away from your face. Allow a small amount of water to enter the mask. With the palm of one hand, push in and down on the top frame to hold it in place as you tilt your head back and exhale through your nose into the mask. The added air displaces the water, forcing it out the bottom of the skirt. When the water is gone, press in on the mask to seal it to your face.

Note: your instructor might show you a couple variations of the mask clearing skill. Use whichever method works best for you.

MORE ON THIS SCUBA SKILL: Mastering Mask Clearing
scuba skills regulator retrieval

Knowing how to locate and clear your regulator is important. Photo by Ruth and Barry Guimbellot.

Regulator Removal/Replacement

If you have not dived in a year or more, how proficient and comfortable will you be at removing and recovering your regulator? This is an important part of any scuba refresher. Many of us are not at ease if our primary air source is unexpectedly dislodged from our mouth. To overcome this fear, practice this skill with your buddy or instructor by your side. First inhale a normal breath, then remove the primary second stage regulator from your mouth and hold in front of you with the mouthpiece facing downward. Immediately begin blowing a small, steady stream of bubbles. Developing the habit of exhaling a tiny stream of bubbles helps remind you not to hold your breath while on scuba, as doing so puts you at risk of injury. Clear the water from the primary second stage by exhaling through the regulator. You can also press the purge button on the front of the regulator to expel water.

scuba skills regulator retrieval

Finding your regulator is easy when you perform a sweep with your right hand. Photo by Ruth and Barry Guimbellot.

The regulator recovery skill is a continuation of the removal/replacement skill. Performing this skill demonstrates that you know how to locate and replace the regulator. Remove the second stage from your mouth and let go of it while continuously exhaling a stream of small bubbles. Begin the sweep by leaning with the right shoulder downward. Allow the regulator hose to swing and hang away from your body. While continuing to slowly exhale, begin a downward sweep with the right arm, fully extending the arm behind you. Next, swing your extended arm out to the side and in front of you. The regulator hose should now be lying across your arm. The second stage should be close to your right hand. With either hand, grasp the regulator, put the mouthpiece in your mouth and immediately clear the regulator of water using either the blast or purge method. Resume breathing normally.

MORE ON THIS SCUBA SKILL: The Regulator Retrieval Skill
scuba skills buoyancy control

Mastering buoyancy control is important to your safety and enjoyment as a diver. Photo by Ruth and Barry Guimbellot.

Buoyancy Control

Perfecting buoyancy control takes time and, if you’ve been away from diving for a while, this skill can get rusty. Two tips for better buoyancy include being properly weighted and having good breath control. After practicing this skill, test your ability by hovering in one position. In our example, the diver has lifted his legs and grasps each leg below the knee. If you are correctly weighted and using good breath/buoyancy control, you will be able to hover upright without falling forward or backward.

MORE ON THIS SCUBA SKILL: Pre-dive Weight Check for Proper Buoyancy


If you haven’t worn fins in a while, it’s a good idea to do some practice laps in a pool. You can do this with just your snorkel gear. It’s also a good idea to do some surface and underwater laps while wearing a full set of scuba gear. You might want to practice managing a leg cramp, too, just in case.

As a reminder, if you experience a “Charley Horse”-type leg cramp of the calf muscle, grasp the fin tip and extend the leg while pulling the toes toward you.

scuba skills air-sharing

The air-sharing exercise is important in an out-of-air situation. Photo by Ruth and Barry Guimbellot.

Air Sharing

Being able to share your air supply with another diver could prove to be an important skill in an out-of-air situation. First, get the attention of your buddy by signaling you are out of air. Your buddy will either give you his or her octopus regulator or their primary second stage. If your buddy gives you their primary second stage, they will either start breathing off their octopus or the integrated BC second stage. Practice this skill as both the out-of-air diver and the air donor. In a real-life situation, once you and your buddy each have a supply of air you’ll hold onto each other and slowly start for the surface.

MORE ON THIS SCUBA SKILL: Sharing Air with an Air-integrated Buoyancy Compensator

Even if you dive several times a year, a scuba refresher such as practicing this circuit before your trip is a great way to keep your skills sharp. Having proficient skills will make your dive experience safer and a great deal more fun.

For a more in-depth review of these and other skills, visit the Dive Training YouTube channel.

Story and photos by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot