Surface Communication for Scuba Divers: How to Get Seen and Be Understood

IN THE PREVIOUS ISSUE of Dive Training, we discussed the various hand signals divers use to communicate while underwater. Now we will cover the...

IN THE PREVIOUS ISSUE of Dive Training, we discussed the various hand signals divers use to communicate while underwater. Now we will cover the equally important signals you need to know when on the surface.

First of all, any time you are on the surface before or after a dive, you and your dive buddy should make a habit of always keeping your mask and regulator or snorkel in place and your buoyancy compensator (BC) inflated so that you can float comfortably before descending or when making your way to the exit area or waiting for the boat to retrieve you. Next, it’s important to be able to be seen by and communicate with other divers and/or the boat crew while at the surface.

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[ONE] Signal “I’m OK” by using one or both arms to form an “O” above your head. Photo by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot.

“I’m OK.”

There are two ways to give the OK signal. One option is to make a large “O” with both arms held over your head with fingertips touching to complete the circle (Photo 1). The second option is used if you have one hand free and the other hand holding an object such as a camera. Make the signal by holding one arm over your head, then touching the top of your head with your fingers (Photo 2). Either signal is appropriate. Regardless of which method you use, continue to hold the signal in place until a crewmember on the boat acknowledges your signal by returning the OK signal. (Note: If you surface some distance from the boat, do not use the commonly used underwater OK signal made by touching your thumb and index finger together to form a circle. From a distance, crewmembers can easily mistake this as a distress signal.)

Dive Training Magazine | Scuba Diving Skills, Gear, Education

[TWO] Photo by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot.

“Assistance, please.”

Let’s say you surface and are not in distress but you realize you’re not making much progress in returning to the boat due to a strong surface current. In this situation, the correct signal is to place one arm straight in the air (Photo 3), which basically communicates, “I’m not in immediate danger but I am in need of assistance.” Continue to hold the signal in place until a crewmember gives you an OK signal in return. Keep an eye on the boat while you keep your mask and regulator or snorkel in place and make sure that your BC is fully inflated. You do not need to attempt to swim to the boat. Simply be patient and stay aware, watching for the approaching boat.

scuba skills - surface communication

[THREE] If you are not in immediate danger but need assistance, signal by holding one arm straight up. Photo by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot.

“I am in distress and I need help right away.”

If you surface and need immediate assistance, extend one or both arms straight up and wave back and forth repeatedly in a windshield-wiper motion to attract the attention of the boat crew (Photo 4). Either way, the crew will respond as quickly as possible to pick you up and either assist you or transport you to a medical facility.

scuba skills - surface communication

[FOUR] If you are in distress and need immediate assistance, wave one or both hands in the air. Photo by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot.

“I’m over here signaling. Can you even see me?”

scuba skills - surface communication

[FIVE] The inflatable safety sausage is considered an important safety accessory that should be worn on every dive. Photo by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot.

We started off last issue’s Scuba Skills column by saying, “Communication is the act of exchanging information by signals or messages, including writing, talking and gesturing. The key word here is ‘exchange.’ For solid communication to happen, your message must travel in a loop that sees it conveyed, received and understood, acknowledged and appropriately responded to. If the message gets hung up along the way, communication breaks down.” This means the boat crew must be able to see you before they can interpret your signals. Here we’ll go over a few more options for ensuring good communication at the surface.

Although you and your dive group are encouraged to stay close to the boat, divers can inadvertently end up surfacing farther from the boat than expected. For example, when entering the water, the current may be virtually non-existent, only to pick up pace during the dive. Before you realize it, you are some distance from the boat, making it challenging for the boat crew to locate you. This is especially true if you surface far to the side of or in front of the boat. There are times when you may be able to see the boat, but the crew is unable to see you. So how do you get the attention of the crew? You have several options to consider.

One option is to deploy your inflatable surface-signaling buoy, also called a safety sausage (Photo 5). To inflate the tube, you can orally blow into it. If you are low on air when surfacing, conserve the remaining air in the scuba tank by using this method of inflation. If you have sufficient air in the scuba tank, you can use the second stage to inflate the sausage. When properly inflated and held upright, the sausage can be seen from far away. Typically, safety sausages are bright orange or hot pink, increasing their visibility. The safety sausage is considered a standard piece of equipment: it provides a lightweight and efficient signaling device for all divers. We suggest you equip with the biggest, brightest inflatable surface signaling buoy you can find.


Another option for signaling the boat crew is to remove one fin and hold it high above your head. For better visibility, your fin needs to be brightly colored (Photo 6). The fin signal is only a viable option when surface conditions are calm. If in high seas or strong currents, do not use the fin as a signaling device, as you could risk losing it. Instead, keep both fins on for your safety.

scuba skills - surface communication

[SIX] In calm sea conditions, one way to make yourself visible to the crew is to remove one fin and hold it high above your head. Photo by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot.

“Now hear this.”

Along with a safety sausage, every diver needs to be equipped with an audible signaling device. In poor sea conditions or during a sudden rainsquall, it may be difficult for the boat crew to spot you. By using a sausage along with an audible device such as a Dive Alert Plus ™, your chances of being located quickly are much better. The newer audible devices can be heard for miles on the surface. Some audible devices can also be used below the surface. These devices are usually mounted on a hose between the first and second stage of the regulator and the BC power connector. They are very loud and can easily attract the attention of your boat crew.

As a back-up audible device, we suggest you also carry a whistle on every dive. Using a whistle requires you to have good lung capacity and strength to blow the whistle for a considerable time. This method is more efficient if you are close to the boat: if the wind is blowing or the water is choppy, the whistle may be more difficult to hear.

“Beam me up.”

nautilus lifeline

[SEVEN] Every diver should consider equipping themselves with a marine emergency GPS device such as the Nautilus Lifeline ™.

Every diver should seriously consider equipping with the latest safety accessory such as the Nautilus Lifeline ™ Marine Rescue GPS (Photo 7). This particular marine rescue unit sends a message directly to boats, ships and rescue craft. According to the manufacturer it is waterproof to 425 feet (129 m), covers up to a 34-mile (55-km) range and is said to be accurate to within a few feet/meters of your position on the surface. In the event you are out of visual/audible range of the boat, this type of unit can be a true lifesaver.

The staff at your local dive center can demonstrate the various types of surface signaling accessories now available and can help you equip with the safety accessories that best suit the type of diving you’ll be doing.

It is always important for you and your buddy to be able to communicate with each other as well as with the divemaster and boat crew. Typically, the pre-dive briefing will include how and when to signal after surfacing, along with procedures for exiting the water onto the boat. Be sure to go over the various signals with your buddy, especially if you have a new buddy.

By knowing the dive plan and reviewing the surface communication signals, you can enjoy a safer dive and avoid possible miscommunication and frustration.

Story and photos by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot