There is a myth that only tec diving skills are taught neutrally buoyant and skills for new divers, in particular, “have to” be demonstrated and taught negatively buoyant. New professionals often learn to start their demonstrations with the signals for “You watch me” then signal “dump all your air”. Why?
In fact, skills, at any level, should be taught in the appropriate state of buoyancy. Most instructors already do this for skills such as surface skills which are (mostly) taught with positive buoyancy established or CESA where neutral buoyancy is established before the CESA is demonstrated or practiced.
So how about the other skills? It may not be possible for a diver to hover the first time they descend underwater, but they can certainly start to aim for neutral buoyancy and try to be in a diving position instead of kneeling (I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of value in teaching divers to kneel underwater, when that is pretty much the last thing we want them to do!). The new PADI Open Water course places a much bigger emphasis on getting students neutrally buoyant and in a diving position as soon and as often as we can.
So next time you demonstrate a skill, consider when the skill would be needed in a real life diving situation and then get students to set their buoyancy appropriately – mostly we try to be neutrally buoyant underwater, so this will be the most common state of buoyancy in the real world and, therefore, how divers are likely to be when a problem occurs and they need to deal with it.
So what are the downsides? You will need to remain in control. You may think that this will be harder, but if you start encouraging divers to be neutrally buoyant and in a diving position right from the first time they go underwater, which will be in shallow water where they can stand up, by the time you get to deeper water and more complex skills they will already be well on their way to mastering buoyancy control. In fact, it is usually easier to control the group, because skills like hovering are a natural progression from their practice so far.
Divers will also need to be correctly weighted. There is no advantage to an over-weighted diver; get it right from the beginning and you’ll make achieving neutral buoyancy more easily both during the course as well as encouraging good habits that will help them continue to improve in the future.
You can provide visual references in open water to help divers control their position. Sometimes having a visual reference that can also be used as a tactile reference (if needed) may help, particularly in lower vis. You may need to reconsider your own and assistants positioning e.g. having an assistant in front of the student you are not working with means they can signal “breathe out” or deflate a bit” if necessary. Of course, if you and your assistants are neutrally buoyant you will also be able to respond far more quickly should your intervention be needed.
Does this mean that there is no place for negative buoyancy? Well, in actual diving, other than during descents, I would say that a need for negative buoyancy is pretty rare. Even during a descent, buoyancy is controlled and this is really the key; we are all aiming for buoyancy control, whatever state of buoyancy we use it should be the diver’s choice.
During training, in a pool or other non-sensitive environment it may occasionally help a very anxious student to lie down, make contact with the bottom and calm their breathing either to get used to being underwater or recover from a previous stress. This should be a choice for the benefit of the student, not a default setting or to make it easy on the instructor.
I have heard claims that divers taught kneeling on the bottom during or between skills will never be good divers. This isn’t true at all. Many of the current rec and tec diving gurus learnt to dive like this, because that is how almost everyone was taught, and they still managed to develop into divers with great buoyancy control and trim. But things move on and we learn better ways to teach. Now, we can make it easier for divers to master neutral buoyancy control and a good diving position if we introduce them to it as early as possible and throughout training.
As we all know, divers who master neutral buoyancy are better at protecting the environment and able to respond to emergencies more easily. They are also more likely to enjoy diving and be ready for further training, new equipment and more challenging environments!
P.S Season’s Greetings to all.