The tricky question of neutral buoyancy and teaching….

Undersea Girl

Undersea girl is severely chastised for her poor trim and excessive weighting…

One area that has raised a few tricky questions over the last year has been the subject of neutral buoyancy, particularly in the context of teaching. This has caused a few problems mainly down to what I believe is a little bit of a misunderstanding of the intent. I’ve had discussions with people that have asked me why PADI have changed the rules and can’t see the benefit of this, all the way through to people getting a little over zealous in their approach and treating confined water dive one like a Tec 40 skill circuit.

Amidst all the loud shouting on the internet and the current climate of fear, where people are afraid to post pictures of divers having fun in case the Trim Police or the Sidemount Stasi come out to castigate them on enjoying themselves instead of ensuring their tanks are perfectly aligned, I thought it might be handy to have a little summary of what, in my opinion, this all means in practical terms for a working instructor:

The new Open Water Course has the following performance requirements in confined water, specifically related to hovering and trim:

  • Hover using buoyancy control for at least 30 seconds, without kicking or sculling.
  • While neutrally buoyant, swim slowly in a horizontal position to determine trim. Adjust trim, as feasible, for a normal swimming position.

Everything else that follows is simply related to these skills. Notice that nowhere do the performance requirements state that hovering should be performed in flat ‘tec diver’ style trim, but by the same count, notice that neither do they mention the Buddha position….

This is because all the Buddha position stuff is just a training technique, not a PADI method or ‘official’ version of the skill, anymore than hovering horizontally is. If you teach either of these techniques you will be meeting the first performance requirement above. However only the horizontal hover will help with meeting the second performance requirement.

Whatever your viewpoints on the best way to teach hovering, I think you will struggle to argue that a correctly weighted diver in a horizontal position has less control than a diver hovering in a Buddha position, a position that has no application to the real world.

Rather than just accepting the way your instructor taught you and their instructor taught them, all PADI is doing is encouraging us to look at our teaching techniques and see whether there might be a fresher more modern approach to meeting the performance requirements.

One point that has been raised in the context of the hovering skill is the ‘without kicking or sculling’ part of the performance requirement. This doesn’t mean hovering without twitching a butt cheek, it means arm or leg movements that are clearly being used instead of buoyancy control. Some gentle movement of the fins to help keep the legs in place behind the diver when they are clearly neutrally buoyant is perfectly acceptable and infinitely more desirable than someone cross-legged floating upside down holding their fins…..

So what’s the real world lesson here? First off let’s look at trim: Describing it as ‘tec diver’ style trim is already a bit of a red herring. Being in a horizontal position, head up, legs in line with your back, knees bent and frog kicking for propulsion is pretty much the best position for any diver to be in (strong currents etc not withstanding). I don’t believe there is anything wrong in positioning this as the goal and ideal for new divers coming into the sport all the way through to instructors and divemasters. However, do I believe that being able to hover like this makes you a good instructor? No. Do I believe that new divers must be able to dive like this to have fun and engage with Scuba? No. Do I believe that some instructors become overly fixated on technique and forget that most people sign up to diving courses so they can have fun and see fish? Yes.

Like everything, experience and judgement comes into play here. As an instructor, your goal should be to dive in trim so as to set a good role model example and you should endeavour to teach your students to maintain good buoyancy and to also dive, correctly weighted, in horizontal trim. I have a short clip here with some tips on how to hover horizontally and how to help your students too.

However as dive professionals you’ll also need to deal with all the vagaries of teaching in the real world, pool time and space, differing student abilities, poorer visibility, cold water, drysuits etc. it’s down to you, to do your best with what you have. If you have loads of space then it’s a great idea to have all your students hovering horizontally in a circle however if it’s a busy pool session it’s probably not very considerate if they’re all kicking everyone else in the head. In practical terms you’ll find that some people will engage with buoyancy easily and you’ll be able to have them hovering whilst completing skills whereas others will really struggle and simply getting them to understand and demonstrate neutral buoyancy will be a challenge.

The one most important thing you can do that doesn’t take up extra space and does very little to change the flow of your lessons is to introduce neutral buoyancy as a ‘state’ not a ‘skill’. As soon as your students learn how to become neutrally buoyant, leave them to it. They can simply rise and fall with their inhaled breath from their knees or fins both during skills and whilst waiting their turn. You may decide that some skills are better performed by having them become negative again to give them more control but this is up to you as the instructor to use your judgement. Make sure that once you introduce hovering as a skill you give them plenty of time practising and moving in the water, adjusting their weighting and kit as necessary. Try to move away from beginning every skill by getting everyone to dump all the air from their BCDs! Once the students know how to hover allow them to continue to hover, wherever possible, so they are constantly practising.

As always remember that the performance requirement is the most important thing. Make sure you understand the difference between that and a teaching technique, which is simply a means of meeting the performance requirement.

As a final thought, a little bit like the legions of ‘clean eating’ exercise freaks telling everyone to eat kale when the reality is most people would probably happily give up a few extra years in the nursing home for the occasional sweet, bacon sandwich, I can’t help but feel, that as an industry, we have become rather too obsessed with technique, presenting skill as an end game in itself rather than emphasising the fun and adventure of diving.

Whilst there’s no denying that divers who are uncertain of their skills are more likely to give up diving and a solid foundation lays the basis for enjoyment and continuing education, dour fixation on perfection should not become a barrier to people coming into the sport. So embrace change, teach modern techniques and give your students the best foundation of skills that you can but remember all the time that diving is supposed to be fun!