Last Updated: February 22, 2023
Scuba diving is one of the most sought-after recreational water sport. Swimming in the depths of the unexplored ocean amongst unknown aquatic life certainly feels enriching. However, before you zip up your wetsuits and take a dive, you have to establish strong communication with your buddies or instructor.
If you are a scuba-diving enthusiast, hand signals will be like your second language. It’s no secret that communication underwater is tricky. Hand signals, besides also ensuring your safety, are an effective way to communicate underwater. And they can also be used with light signals.
So, are you ready to learn some scuba diving hand signals? Without further delay, let’s dive into it.
22 Common Scuba Diving Hand Signals
As you descend below the water surface, hand signals will be your only means of communication. It is important to remember that some hand signs might have variations depending on the style or dive location.
You’ll be surprised to know that there are over 200 worldwide recognized hand signals for scuba diving. Though some of these are technical diving hand signals, you have to be aware of the common ones.
So take a few minutes and refresh your diving skills by following along, as we describe the 22 most essential, yet typical scuba diving hand signals.
1. Ascend/Going Up
If you want to indicate “ascending” or “going up,” you have to accumulate your fist and strike out the thumb, like the thumbs-up sign. You have to point upwards with the raised thumb. This signal will help your divemaster comprehend the direction you wish to travel.
You may want to ascend for a particular reason or require a diving group member to follow. In that case, combine this signal with a subsequent number of signs.
2. Descend/Going Down
Do you want to “descend” or “go down”? Accumulate the fist and strike your thumb downwards while rotating the wrist. You have to point towards the ocean floor with your thumb.
You may want to descend for a particular reason or want a diving group member to follow. In that case, combine this signal with a subsequent number of signs.
You must know that a thumbs down don’t have the same meaning as it does on land. We’ll also be discussing how to signal when something is wrong in the upcoming part.
3. Something is Wrong
One of the most typical confusion among new divers is the signaling descending and expressing something is wrong. In and, the thumbs down gesture generally expresses incorrectness.
Are you aware of how to make the “so-so” gesture? Well, the hand signal for “something is wrong” is very similar to that. You have to extend your hand with palms down and tilt it slightly from side to side.
However, if you encounter a dangerous situation, it is better to use an emergency signal.
So, if thumbs up is not an indication for ‘Okay’ underwater, then what is? To express “I’m okay,” make a circle with the index finger and thumb, and splay the rest of the fingers. If you are wearing gloves, you don’t need to splay the rest of the fingers.
These two signals find better application in close quarters. In case you are in a long-distance or a depth with low-visibility, you have to use a different sign. You can join both your hands to make a big ‘O’ and hold it above your head.
For indicating ‘stop,’ there are two versions of hand signals. The more common one is quite similar to how you would mean stop on land. To indicate stop to your fellow divers, you have to hold out your arm out. Next, bend your hand and show a flat palm.
Since there are different hand signs for stop, make sure you and your diving buddies settle on one.
6. Turn Around
Signals that mean the same on land and underwater are relatively easy to remember and make. The hand signal for “turn around” is the same as you would make while you’re on land. You have to raise the index finger and try to make small circles with it.
You can use these in combination with other gestures as well. When you sense danger in moving forward, you can show this signal to your fellow divers.
7. Pointing Direction
To prevent any miscommunication, you have to indicate the direction with a full hand. So, if you want your underwater buddy to see something, use your index finger to point.
If you want to indicate the swimming direction, you can do it by laying out an open, flat palm. However, to go up or down, you have to use the signals as we’ve mentioned above.
8. A Boat
During your underwater trip, you might need to indicate the boat. If you want to express anything concerning the ship, you can do it by a simple hand gesture. Cup your hands together, like you’re trying to collect water from a tap.
This cupped hand symbolizes the boat. If you are trying to express that the divers should go to the ship, or anything else, you can use this sign.
9. Getting with your Diving Buddy
If you think that the diver should return to his diving partner if he/she has wandered too far away. Some of you might wonder what good will it do to have a diving partner underwater? Having a diving buddy reduces risks and also encourages effective communication.
To make the signal for “getting with your buddy,” you have to clench each fist and extend both the index finger together. In simpler words, unite the index fingers.
10. Hold onto your Diving Partner
The dive partners should hold onto each other or maintain contact during an unpredictable climate or an emergency. In such situations, the divemaster might clasp his palms. If you see your diving master holding out this signal, it means to hold onto your partner.
Remember, in this diving signal; you don’t have to intertwine all your finger. Instead, it’s a mitten grasp between the four fingers.
11. Which Diver Leads & Who Follows
To indicate who should lead the dive and who should follow, you can point the person with your index finger. Also, you can use the other index finger to indicate the dive direction. For example, if you want yourself to lead, you can point towards yourself with the index finger.
12. Level Off
Many people confuse the level-off hand signal with the ascending gesture. You may want to convey a level-off depth and stop descending further to your fellow divers. To signal this, you have to keep your hand away from the body, while the palm should face downwards.
Next, you have to sweep the hand from one side to another. It should hinge at the elbow, and the palm should remain facing downwards.
13. Slow Down & Relax
How do you signal “hold your horses” while on the land? In the same way, you can also communicate with your buddies to slow down and relax underwater. Using a palm down and flat hand, you have to pat the area in front.
Think as if you are patting a pup. This signal will come in handy when you are tired and haul down for a few minutes.
14. I Need Air
The hand sign for “I need air” is very emergent. If your dive buddy invokes this signal, do not hesitate or ask any further questions. Because it will help you in an emergency, it is essential to memorize and hold out this signal with clarity.
You can extend a flat hand and gesture between the fellow diver’s mouth and your mouth. It is an indication that the diver needs to share his air with you.
15. I’m Out of Air
A diver running out of air is an improbable scenario. If you got all your pre-dive check correct, this situation would not arise. However, if this unfortunate situation takes place, you have to convey it to your nearby divers.
To make this gesture, you have to perform a slashing movement with a flat hand across your throat. Once the divemaster understands this signal, you can enact the “I need air” hand gesture.
16. Emergency Situation
In our wildest imagination, we might describe an underwater emergency that includes a shark. Though it sounds unusual, it may happen. Many emergencies could arise deep down. You can invoke an emergency by waving both or just one arm in an arc.
During low-visibility, your diving partner might not be able to understand the signal. For such situations, make sure to wave clearly from the shoulders and get the arm moving ultimately.
17. I Don’t Know
The “I don’t know” underwater hand signal is nearly identical to the non-verbal gesture for the same on land. You can use this signal when the diver uses the “question” signal, and you don’t know the answer to it.
It is simple to express this underwater. Lift your palm upwards with struggling shoulders. This gesture would indicate that you don’t have an answer or don’t know what to do.
18. Dangerous Direction
If you aim to dive into an ocean that is notorious for being dangerous, you should definitely learn this one. You may come across many instances where you or your diving buddies will have to use this sign.
To express a dangerous direction, you have to clench the fist and cross the arm near your chest. It would look somewhat like crossbones. Next, you point towards the imminent dangerous direction.
19. I’m Feeling Cold
Yes, some water will feel colder than others. Hypothermia can quickly settle in if you are uncomfortable in the cold water. If you think that the water is freezing, it is crucial to ascend rather than complete the dive.
To indicate that you’re cold, cross both your arms and grasp the opposite arms and rub them like you’re shivering.
If you want to ask your diving buddy if they are getting cold, you have to point towards them and perform this hand signal.
You can express decompression in two ways – either with an extended thumb and pinkie or with just an extended pinkie finger. Technical divers that have proper training can use this signal to indicate a decompression stop, which is an important technique where you spend some time at certain depth in the final ascent to avoid the bends.
However, recreational divers should also be aware of this hand gesture. We highly recommend recreational divers refrain from going technical diving without proper training. This sign is handy when the diver exceeds the no-decompression limit of the dive.
It’s not uncommon for divers to have a doubt or a question while scuba diving. For signaling ‘question,’ you have to raise a crooked index finger. This finger will mimic the question mark symbol. You can use this in conjunction with other underwater hand signals.
For instance, using the “question” hand signal following “up” communicates “Should we swim up?”. Similarly, using the “question” hand signal following “cold” is an expression for “Are you feeling cold?”.
Do you want your fellow divers to remember or think of a diving tip that you discussed or mentioned before? It is very straightforward to do so by simply raising the index finger towards your temple.
However, the remember/think hand signal is quite similar to the “trouble equalizing signal.” For this reason, make sure that your index finger sharply points towards the temple. The main aim of these hand gestures is to encourage communication and prevent confusion.
The Bottom Line
These basic hand signals might seem to be a tad overwhelming at the start. However, once you get the hang of it, you’ll use them effortlessly and help others learn them.
It will be also useful to learn some advanced scuba hand signals so you can communicate even better with fellow divers. There are also some specific hand signals for fish or marine life in general. These would be especially useful for snorkelers or those who are into underwater photography.
Scuba diving will be more fun and exciting when you can effectively communicate with your diving buddies. Make sure your fellow divers use the same hand signs for every situation. Misunderstanding is the last thing you’d want in an underwater emergency.
Once you learn the common scuba hand signals chart, you are ready to take a plunge into the ocean. Now, nothing is going to stop you from enjoying this thrilling activity.
My unbounded love for the oceans and everything it has to offer motivated me to pursue my passion and become a professional scuba diving instructor.
I keep reading, exploring, and learning more about scuba diving and the underwater world all the time, so I’m excited to share my knowledge with fellow scuba enthusiasts and hopefully contribute a little to your development as a diver. I want people to fall in love with the oceans with as much passion as I have. Read more about me here.