Clear and proper communication is absolutely crucial when diving with other people. Of course, this isn’t as easy as you would think given the fact that you can’t really speak to one another when you’re underwater. Due to that obstacle, it then becomes essential to figure out other ways to communicate—such as with underwater writing devices or through scuba hand signals.
Over the years, the industry has come up with over a hundred hand signals to make it easy to communicate underwater for navigation and safety. Below we’ll help you learn scuba language by teaching you 20 of the most commonly used hand signals.
Don’t worry, many of them are common gestures that you may already know, so these scuba hand signals should be very easy to learn.
20 Scuba Hand Signals
How to do it: Join your thumb and index finger to form a loop and then extend the remaining three fingers up.
The “OK” hand signal is usually the first one that divers learn. As a “demand-response” signal, you use it to ask if other divers are okay, and they must also use it as a response to your inquiry—unless there is something wrong, in which case you’ll have to use the “Not OK” sign.
“OK” is the only hand signal for positive confirmation and should not be confused with the “thumbs-up” signal, which is used for something else—more on this below.
How to do it: With an open, flat hand facing downwards, rotate it slowly side by side as if to say “so-so.”
Divers can let others know that there’s a problem by doing the “Not OK” signal and then pointing to the source of the problem with their index finger. Hopefully, you won’t have to use it at all for serious issues, but it will come up for you at some point as it’s a common way for divers to tell their dive buddies that they’re experiencing ear equalization problems.
“OK” and “Problem/Help” (Surface)
How to do it: Communicate “OK” above water by joining both hands to create a ring with your arms over the top of your head; if you can only use one arm, you can do this signal by touching the top of your head with your fingertips. To do the “Problem” or “Help” signal, wave your arm over your head as if to say, “hi.”
The bigger movements used for saying “OK” and “Help” or “Problem” above the surface of the water are mainly for easy communication with captains and support staff on dive boats from a distance. Remember not to make the mistake of waving your arm to say hello to someone if you don’t need any assistance.
“Up/End the Dive”
How to do it: Do the universal thumbs-up sign.
Here’s why you can’t do a thumbs-up to say “OK.” When used underwater, this widely used hand signal actually means it’s time to ascend and end the dive. Any diver is allowed (and even encouraged) to use the “Up” signal whenever they feel uncomfortable about continuing the dive. This is also a demand-response signal, which means the other diver is supposed to return the same signal to mean that the message was understood.
How to do it: Do the universal thumbs-down hand signal.
The opposite of the “Up” hand signal, the “Down/Descend” utilizes the thumbs-down sign and allows you to let your dive buddies know that you are good to go deeper. You should definitely remember not to confuse the “Down” signal with the “Not OK/Problem” signal, considering they have very different meanings!
How to do it: Extend one flat hand with the palm up and bend your fingertips up toward yourself a few times.
This is yet another familiar hand signal that means the same underwater as it does on land. It is used to motion others to come much closer to you, followed by other signals to tell them to look somewhere or do something.
How to do it: Hold one or two hands flat (palms down) and slowly move them downwards.
Divers commonly use the “Slow Down” hand signal to tell others to swim slower so others can keep up, decompress and catch their breath, or observe the beautiful marine life around them.
How to do it: Hold a flat hand with the palm facing forward or hold your forearm up and make a fist with the palm side facing forward.
The first signal is commonly used by recreational divers to communicate “Stop” while the second signal is preferred by technical divers to communicate “Hold” or “Wait.”
“Hold” is also a demand-response signal, so receiving divers are expected to respond with the same signal in agreement with the request to hold their position until told otherwise.
How to do it: Hold up the “peace” sign and point to your eyes.
The “Look” signal is used by a lot of diving instructors when demonstrating an underwater skill or when instructing another diver to look in a specific direction. They would point at their eyes and then either point at themselves to say “look at me,” or they can point elsewhere to say “look over there.”
“Go in This Direction”
How to do it: With the hand held flat and the palm facing the side, point at a specific direction using all five fingers.
This hand signal is used to suggest or indicate a dive direction and also shouldn’t be confused with other signals, particularly the “Look” signal that’s done with the index finger.
”Buddy Up/Stay Together”
How to do it: Form fists, extend index fingers, and hold both fingers together side by side.
Scuba instructors usually use this hand signal to remind students to stay close to their diving buddies. It may also be used to reassign teams in the middle of dives or to pair up with another diver when performing specific activities like going deeper (“let’s buddy up & go down”); moving in a certain direction (“buddy up & go in this direction”); and ascending to end the dive (“we’ll stay together & ascend”).
How to do it: Extend a flat hand with the palm facing down and move the hand from side to side.
The “Level Off” signal is used for telling other divers to maintain or remain at a particular depth. During this time, divers have reached either the planned maximum depth or the designated depth for making a decompression or safety stop.
How to do it: Hold a flat hand over three raised fingers.
For the full “Safety Stop” sign, hold the “Level Off” hand signal over your other hand with three fingers raised. This is used to inform the dive team that you have reached the pre-designated safety stop depth and that everybody should level off for at least three minutes. Safety stops are recommended during each final ascent, especially after diving deeper than 100 feet or when approaching a no-decompression limit.
How to do it: Make a fist and extend just your pinky or the pinky and thumb together.
Decompression stops are important, life-saving underwater techniques where divers spend a few minutes at certain depths during the final ascent to avoid decompression sickness. This is usually done by trained technical divers, but recreational divers are also encouraged to learn the signal in case they accidentally exceed their no-decompression limit and have to inform fellow divers of the need to make a “deco” stop.
How to do it: Cross your arms and rub your upper arms with your hands.
This self-explanatory signal is actually quite an important one. When divers get excessively cold, they may be unable to think clearly or move properly, and their body may not eliminate absorbed nitrogen as efficiently as it should for a safe dive.
Once you start feeling excessively cold, do this signal so you can end the dive and begin ascending with your dive buddy.
How to do it: Make a fist then raise a finger to form a hook.
The “Question” signal is used along with any of the other scuba hand signals. For example, to ask if the other diver is cold, use the “Question” and “Cold” signal consecutively. To ask someone if they are ready to resurface, do the “Question” signal then follow up with the “Up” signal.
Unlike in regular conversation, asking questions through scuba hand signals require that you use the “question mark” first before the actual question.
How to do it: With your hand facing up, hold your fingertips together, and then apart (do this rapidly)
The “Leak” or “Bubbles” signal should be used as soon as the diver notices small bubbles coming out from their or another diver’s gear, as this can mean the beginning of a serious problem. After making the signal, divers should start resurfacing at a slow and controlled pace.
”Low on Air”
How to do it: Hold a closed fist against your chest.
While it’s not normally used to indicate an emergency, the “Low on Air” signal is an important one as it helps you inform other divers that you have started using up your tank pressure reserve. After which, it’s time for you and your dive buddy to end the dive and slowly start ascending.
”Out of Air”
How to do it: Move a flat hand across your throat in a slicing motion.
Every diver learns this emergency scuba signal so that they know how to inform other divers when their gas has been cut off. While it’s a fairly rare occurrence that only take place if proper pre-dive checks are not observed, it’s crucial to be prepared. After doing the “Out of Air” signal, your diving buddy should respond and immediately assist you in ascending by allowing you to take breaths from their alternate regulator until you reach the surface.
”Write it Down”
How to do it: “Write” on your open hand using the index finger of your other hand.
Sometimes, it’s much easier to communicate and understand more complex ideas and problems by jotting them down on an underwater writing slate. You can suggest this solution to another diver by doing the “Write it Down” signal.
Tags:hand signalsscuba guidestips