A Neutral Buoyancy Playground
As our series on neutral buoyancy continues, Life Butler Co-Founder Claudia Perucchini shares some of the exercises that helped her master this key diving skill.
In my last article, I recounted my frustrating experiences with achieving good buoyancy control when I first started on my diving career. It was thanks to the expert tuition of Alexis Vincent and some eye-opening exercises that I finally understood how to achieve neutral buoyancy and to control it when diving.
At this stage, I bet you are wondering exactly what the exercises were which Alexis so skilfully taught me? These exercises quickly and effectively helped me to achieve neutral buoyancy and, most importantly, to maintain it throughout a dive. Well, as promised, here is the answer.
Alexis kept on telling me that I was over-weighted. This meant that taking into account my body weight and composition, as well as the kind of equipment I was using, I had far too many weights on me. Being a novice diver (and his girlfriend) I kept on arrogantly telling him that I knew what I was doing and those were the correct weights I needed. Otherwise, I would bob up to the surface, I insisted.
Ah, the joys of teaching your girlfriend! A warning: it can be a real challenge, especially if she is a petite Italian know-it-all. Thankfully, as Alexis was already a wise and professional instructor, he knew better than to start quarreling. He did what he had set out to do: he briefed me on what we were going to do on our dive. As he did so he lined up the items we were going to use for the exercises on the ground: a hula hoop, a few spare weights, two belts, and a one-square-metre pipe frame. You are probably wondering what on earth we might use a hula hoop for underwater? Well, I can assure you I had the exact same thought! I’m sure my facial expression must have reflected that, as Alexis laughed and reassured me that we were not going to do some crazy hula hooping underwater.
“First of all, when we enter the water we are going to perform a buoyancy check,” Alexis explained in his briefing. “Then we are going to play around in shallow water doing a few basic exercises, and afterward, when you feel comfortable, we will swim towards the deeper part and you will have to adjust your buoyancy as the depth increases or decreases. Shall we go?” A nod of my head and off we went.
As we approached the dive site Alexis proceeded with a detailed briefing of the exercises, surprising me on how creative dive instructors can be when it comes to teaching important skills underwater. By that time I was eager to jump into the water and practice.
So here are the skills that Alexis taught me that day in the Caribbean:
Ideally, we suggest doing this test with a light tank that is close to the reserve zone. Try to do it at the end of a confined water (swimming pool or shallow water area) exercise session as the tank tends to become lighter and affects the buoyancy of a diver.
At the surface, wearing full equipment, and with your mask on and your regulator in your mouth, take a normal breath (not too deep) and hold it. If you sink while holding a normal breath it means you are overweighted. If your whole head is above the water then you are not carrying enough weights. If however you float at eye level and slowly start to sink as you exhale, then you are properly weighted. This check should be carried out every time any of the parameters of your dive change. This includes changing a piece of equipment such as the type of tank, BCD or wetsuit, or if the dive is carried out in a different area, such as going from the ocean to a lake for instance.
This is the basic exercise with which to learn neutal buoyancy control. In about three metres of depth, deflate your BCD completely and lay face down on the bottom. Without pushing yourself away from the bottom with your hands, take a normal breath. If nothing happens then add a tiny bit of air to your BCD using the inflator/deflator button. Wait a few seconds, as there is always a slight delay between the moment you inflate the BCD and the effect it has on your buoyancy. If you still remain on the bottom inflate a bit more and again wait a few seconds.
At this point, your breath in should raise your body from the bottom and as you exhale you should slowly sink towards the bottom. Keep in mind that while you are practicing this exercise your fins remain on the bottom and your arms are not moving. You should be able to pivot your whole body away from the bottom while your fins remain touching.
As you breathe in and out slowly your body will adjust its position, rising and falling in the water with each inhalation and exhalation. By simply focusing on your breathing and the tiny adjustments to the amount of air in your BCD you can be in complete control of your buoyancy.
This exercise follows on easily from the fin pivot. From the fin pivot position, add a tiny bit more air to the BCD and, with the next inhale; your whole body including fins should leave the bottom. At this point, it is important that you focus on normal breathing and understand its patterns rather than trying to keep the position by using your arms or hands. Every time you exhale you sink a little bit and every time you inhale you rise a little. So by focusing on breathing, you should be able to hover in mid-water with your fins crossed as in a lotus position.
Underwater Hula Hooping
Going back to my story – at this point, I was finally trusting my breathing. I could execute a decent fin pivot and be able to hover without falling backward or changing depth too fast. What I had so importantly realised was that I should focus on my exhalation and resist the temptation to use my arms or hands to try to get myself back in position. So Alexis gave me the signal that it was time to try another skill.
He wanted me to swim streamlined through the hula hoop which he had previously positioned. The challenge was to swim slowly through it without touching the edges of the circle. It was definitely harder than it sounds! Water is not static and constantly flows and I had no choice but to go with the flow. It took several attempts but I got it in the end. The key moment was when I finally relaxed. As I was happily swimming back and forth through the hula hoop, Alexis positioned the one-square-metre PVC frame, anchoring it to the bottom with the help of a belt and few extra weights. Again he gave me the signal and I swam towards the middle of the frame.
This time the challenge was to lie in mid-water, facing up towards the surface, with my ankles crossed and my arms wide open, and to simply float in the middle of the frame – again without touching the edges. As Alexis explained to me during our skills briefing, keeping my ankles crossed would encourage me to stop kicking, while the wide-open arms would encourage me to relax and embrace the ocean. The frame was a visual reference, with my breathing alone controlling how close I would come to touch it.
What an amazing skill to learn! As I played around in the frame (obviously crashing into it several times) I started having fun and feeling freer and lighter. I was learning how to be in control.
The next exercise involved diving a few metres deeper, adjusting the air in the BCD accordingly and putting myself upside-down in a vertical position. Then I had to get my face as close as possible to the bottom, observing a tiny goby fish by hovering a few centimetres over it but not touching the bottom. Now that was an enormous challenge, but it involved a lot of laughter, as needless to say I hit the bottom several times (don’t worry, the goby had long decided to move out of my way). The great thing was that we had lots of space around us, so we could play and go upside down at everything we saw, from a flounder to a hermit crab and a sea cucumber. By cheating a little bit I realised that if I felt that I was getting too close to the bottom I could simply use a fingertip to gently push myself away.
A Real Sense of Achievement
By now I was ready to swim to the deeper part of the site. So Alexis signaled me to streamline my body, get into a horizontal position and swim towards the drop-off. He had explained to me previously that towards the end we would go for a dive along the wall and I wouldn’t have to adjust the air in my BCD to compensate for the changes of depth. As we reached a greater depth I could feel it was time to inflate my BCD a tiny bit to compensate for the increased pressure, so that I could keep on gliding through the water. In the same way, as we prepared to ascend for our safety stop I remembered to deflate my BCD a bit to allow the expanding air to escape.
We had a great dive. I enjoyed swimming at a relaxed pace, and I realised that when I was kicking was the time to exhale and when I was gliding was the time to inhale. In my mind, all of a sudden, there was peace. I was breathing normally and calmly. It became clear to me that if I was vertical, with my feet down and kicking, obviously I would rise up. So I learned to perform tasks like clearing my mask from a tiny bit of water whilst I was horizontal, or with my legs bent to prevent myself from kicking.
To my surprise, when it was time to start our safety stop I still had plenty of air left in my tank. As we were hovering mid-water in a Buddha-like position during our safety stop, Alexis introduced me to the last buoyancy exercise. In this skill, he wanted to teach me to compensate for a change in weight just by breathing. To do this he handed me a spare one kilogram weight. I was not to touch my inflator/deflator to adjust my buoyancy and had to remain neutral whilst handing the weight back and forth for about five minutes.
Each time I inhaled I rose a bit and each time I exhaled I sank a bit, so I needed to time the exact moment for handling the weight back to him and vice versa. That exercise was enlightening. It gave me a real-world, clear understanding of neutral buoyancy. I surfaced from that dive happy. I now knew that mastering neutral buoyancy was an important step in the life of a diver and that every diver needed to spend time practicing it.
From Student to Instructor
Since that day I have been on hundreds of dives over many years, in different countries and numerous oceans. I chose to embrace diving with all my heart (as did that wise instructor, Alexis). I became a dive instructor myself and went on a few Dive Butler expeditions on superyachts. One of the first skills I teach my students is how to achieve neutral buoyancy, and every time our services are requested on a superyacht we make it a point to teach buoyancy control skills in shallow water at the beginning of a trip to allow our guests to enjoy and appreciate their experience in full.
One of the exercises I like to play with my students involves using a Frisbee underwater. Young students love it; they embrace the challenge of floating mid-water while throwing the Frisbee and catching it without losing control of their neutral buoyancy. It is also great fun, and I am often asked to repeat the exercise.
Being able to control our buoyancy while we dive brings the quality of our diving to the next level. Divers start to relax, and as they focus on their exhalation they are also optimising their air consumption. They become more aware of their surroundings, enjoying the different kinds of experiences that present themselves, such as strong currents where buoyancy control can change a diver’s experience from a nightmare to an exhilarating and fantastic experience.
In the next article, we will share with you how Alexis learned how to achieve neutral buoyancy in cold water by using a dry suit. It was a completely different story from wetsuit diving, so stay tuned.