Underwater Navigation is daunting

Underwater navigation is one of the most daunting things for many a budding dive professional. No offense, but if your experience is limited to places like the Caribbean with no current, crystal clear waters and perfectly outlined reefs then you may get a bit of a shock when you head to anywhere else in the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of places out there that even with perfect visibility can prove tricky to navigate. Follow some simple tips though and it can be a lot easier.

Now as an instructor you need to be able to teach navigation to others. Even if you have strong personal navigation skills, relaying them to someone else is a different thing. Here are some tips to take on board when you are teaching this important scuba diving professional skill to your students.

Make sure they can set headings on land before heading into the water

Most important from the beginning. Do they actually know how to set a heading? Take time to review this and practice it on land first. Now, many underwater compasses have the small windows on the side that you can navigate with, but practically, if you are moving through the water with maybe current and surge. How easy is it to use that? Make sure they can clearly use the lubber line, set a clear heading at the top and follow their heading. Make sure the compass is flat when they are looking at it and talk about putting themselves in a good position so that they can clearly see in the water that they have it positioned correctly and are actually following it.

Watch their air consumption

underwater navigation of a reefWe all know, that student divers when they first have their compass in their hand, have a tendency to swim off rapidly. They are determined to follow that course and must get there as quickly as possible. Talk your students through this and emphasize the importance of watching their air consumption. They can also use this as their turnaround point. It can more reliable than kick cycles and can give a good indication of when to turn a dive when doing underwater navigation. Keep an eye on it yourself and remind them to check it regularly and use it as a measurement of progress during the dive.

Take a reading before they descend

In many places around the world before setting off underwater it can be extremely helpful to take a reference point from the surface.  For example, where we are here in Costa Rica we navigate alongside the Manuel Antonio park islands so it is very helpful to set a heading as your reference so you know for example, the island runs due west of you. When they are underwater they can check there compass to give them an idea of where they are running on the site. Talk to your students about this and have them practice setting bearings to Natural surface markers or set the bearing in the “direction of the reef” before they even set eyes on it underwater. It will also give them that confidence boost before they head out underwater.

Never rely solely on the compass

See, I told you, not surprising. Whilst the compass is a very important part of your navigational tools it is not to be relied on as your sole form of underwater navigation. Teaching your students to use a good combination of the compass, natural elements around the reef including currents and sunlight will give them a better overall feeling for the navigation of the reef and underwater environment.

Use a variety of natural navigation

use natural resources for navigationFor me, even with visibility is low, natural navigation is so very important.  There are so many things out there on the reef, even in a sand patch area that can assist you with your underwater navigation. It is very important that you discuss these with your students and review and look at anything you can use while underwater.

It is not just the current, have a look at sun angles, sand ripples, reef outlines. One of the biggest ones for me that is largely ignored is depth. There are many places around the world when you are cruising along a reef, you can navigate your way around purely on depth just taking note of way points in the reef. Be picky with your way points. Maybe its a sponge, maybe a coral head. But make sure they are actually memorable and point this out to your students. Practice moving around an area with them setting the waypoints and navigating their way back.


So with all of that said, most important reminder for your students….Go Slow. Talk them through these points, how they apply to the local environment, and even in a nice crystal clear place where they can see a lot, see if you can throw some curve balls at them. Make them think about where they are going and not just wandering blindly around the reef.

I hope these help you out a bit when teaching and my ending note, have fun with it!