Hand signals are the language of divers. It’s the only means of communication underwater, which can be paired with dive light signals. Moreover, divers can have full conversations with basic scuba diving hand signals. And since it’s universal, divers who don’t speak the same language will understand each other.
So in this post, we’re going to teach you some basic hand signals for diving, what it means, and when it should be used. Take note that these are essential and can even save a life during harsh conditions.
Can I dive without learning the basic hand signals?
As much as you can perform the plunge without this knowledge, you’re exposing yourself and your buddy to danger. This also means that the other divers would have to guess what you’re talking about. Worse, they won’t understand that you’re already asking for help.
Nevertheless, basic hand signals are one of the first lessons taught in diving schools. Instructors will only teach you basic signals, so make sure that you master it before diving. Besides, the signals are very easy to remember since it’s similar to most hand gestures you use every day.
So take a few minutes and check these hand signals. For pros, this is a great refresher.
Before you dive…
Hand signals are always responded with an OK sign to confirm that the diver understands the message. Also, any form of response is common practice as the lack thereof may mean rudeness.
Moreover, you should always perform hand gestures in front of your chest. If the hand signal seems lethargic, labored, or inappropriate, other divers assume that something’s wrong. The divemaster will decide what to do, which is usually to perform an emergency ascent.
In addition, if you’re diving at night, you should always point a dive light in your hands as you perform the signal. This is so other divers will see it clearly. However, never point your light toward other divers as it will blind them and they will not see your signal. If you’re located far from the group and you need catch a diver’s attention, move the light beam side to side within your buddy’s line of sight.
Also, you should always pay attention to your fellow divers. This way, you can catch their signals and acknowledge it. If not, other divers will hate you for minding your own business. Remember, they can’t shout at you underwater so it’s your job to be alert always.
Basic Scuba Diving Hand Signals
**OK or Are you OK?
This is the first signal you’ll learn during dive lessons and one of the most widely used among divers. It’s a default response to almost all hand signals as it’s customary for divers to acknowledge the signal of their fellow divers.
To do this, just create a loop by joining the tips of your thumb and index finger with the three other fingers extended.
The You and Me hand signals are important so divers will know to which the next hand signal is intended. It’s as simple as pointing to the diver and then doing the next hand signals you want to communicate.
For the Me signal, you’re going to point to your chest using the tip of your index finger. Remember that when performing the You or Me signal, always use your index finger.
**Look at Me
This signal is done to catch the attention of the diver or the entire group. It’s done usually by the divemaster when he or she has to demonstrate or communicate something lengthy.
To do this, you’re going to use the typical look at me gesture by pointing your index and middle finger in your eyes simultaneously in a V sign. Then, you’re going to point to your chest.
You can also use the same gesture to point a spot to the divers. Instead of pointing to yourself, point to the direction that you want to show.
**Come back here
This hand signal is similar as to how you’ll gesture someone to go back to your spot. With your palm facing you, move it back and forth with a cupping motion. Make the movement large if the other divers are far so they can see it well.
**OK on surface
Once the dive ends, you can let everybody know that you’ve made it safely to the surface by using the OK on surface hand signal. Why not shout out loud, instead, you ask? Well, with the mask and air on, it’s quite impossible plus not everyone will hear you.
To perform an OK on surface hand signal, close your right fist and bring it to the top of your head to create an O shape with your arms.
When the divers are getting too fast or are scaring the creatures away, the divemaster can signal a “slow down” gesture to them. It’s also useful when performing safe ascents.
To do this, place your palm facing the bottom of the sea and move your hand up and down slowly. Do this several times until all the divers have followed your signal.
**Stop or Wait here
The Stop, Wait Here sign is useful to prevent the group of divers from splitting. This is done if the divemaster has to check a certain area first before leading the group into it.
This hand signal is done with your palm facing outward. Also your fingers should be pointing to the surface of the waters.
In diving, the thumbs down sign doesn’t mean something’s wrong. It actually means that the diver or divermaster is requesting other divers to descend further. Repeat the sign a few times until all the divers have followed suit.
**Up/End of dive
This is the opposite of the down sign. This is performed to signal the divers that it’s time to ascend. To do this, make a thumbs up sign and move your hand upward.
Divemasters are usually the ones who will use this signal. It could be due to a technical issue of a diver or that the dive itinerary has been accomplished.
**Stay within this depth
Once the divers have reached the set depth for the dive, the DM will now signal the group to stay within that specific depth. This is done with your palm facing the sea bed. After that, move your hand left and right a few times.
**Stay with your buddy
Take note that before diving, the DM will ask the group to pick a buddy. So once all of you are underwater, you have a partner to look after each other. When the DM signals you to ‘buddy up’, that means you have to stay close to your assigned partner.
This is done by placing two index fingers side by side. Aside from reminding divers to stay together, other divers can switch partners underwater to share air. This can be done by pointing to the two people followed by this hand signal.
**Move apart a little
When divers get too close and the current is strong, the DM can signal them to move apart a little to prevent the tanks from banging. This is the same with the Stay with your Buddy signal, except that the index fingers are motioned in opposite directions.
**You lead I follow (or vice versa)
When exploring underwater, the DM has to be in charge. Sometimes, a specific diver can lead his or her partner or vice versa.
To signal the You lead, I follow, point to the person then use your index finger to point a direction then hold this gesture. After that, point to yourself then use the other index finger to point the same direction, just behind the leading finger.
**I’m in charge
Also known as the Sergeant Stripes signal, this hand gesture is done to let other divers know that the DM or someone is in charge underwater. To do this, flash your index, middle, and ring finger while the thumb and pinky fingers are hidden in your palm.
During the ascent, the group of divers has to perform decompression to allow the body to dissolve the absorbed nitrogen in the blood. This is done on 15 feet for three minutes depending on the amount of air left on each diver.
The DM and other divers can signal decompression by sticking their pinky and the thumb fingers at the same time. The other fingers are tucked on the palm.
Air-related hand signals
**How much air do you have?
It’s important that divers know a few hand signals to communicate their air supply to their buddies. This way, the DM can ask the group to ascend if someone is running out of supply. Also, other divers can help by sharing their reserved air.
So can you ask a diver about his or her remaining air? Take two fingers on your left hand and then draw them flat on your other hand. The DM should ask each diver about their remaining air before heading to a specific area. Through this, no one will accidentally run of out of air.
**Air amount signal
Once the DM or other divers asked how much air you still have, you need to communicate your answer. However, each dive group varies on the hand signal for this so you should ask first before diving.
The easiest way to do this is to sign the digits to your fellow divers. For example, if you have 1,500 PSI remaining, you can signal ‘one’ then ‘five’ in succession.
On the other hand, some dive groups measure air by ‘bar’. A tight fist is equal to 50 bars while 10, 20, 30, and 40 bars can be signed by the number of fingers. Make sure that you round off to the nearest tenths.
**I’m running out of air
If a diver is starting to run out of air, he or she can signal it to the DM or other divers. Clench your fist and put it toward your chest. Repeat this sign until someone acknowledges your signal. It’s either the DM will order the group to ascend or someone can share air with you.
Remember that you should let your buddies know about your low air supply right away. Here’s how it looks like:
** I don’t have air
If things go to worse and you ran out of air, you should signal it immediately to the nearest diver. Make a slashing motion across your neck. For sure, another diver will share air (see signal below) or the DM will ask the group to ascend if the depth is manageable. Other variations of this signal at British Sub-Aqua Club include an up and down hand motion instead of left and right.
If someone runs out of air underwater, a diver will signal to share air. This can also be done if someone is having trouble with their air supply gear. To do this, mimic a flying kiss signal with a flat hand gesturing back and forth into your and the other diver’s mouth.
**There’s a problem
Divers should know how to tell other divers that something is wrong. It could be their equipment or other things. Usually, the problem signal is followed by another signal to specify the problem (e.i. problem signal followed by feeling cold signal below).
To do this, do a ‘so-so’ gesture by wriggling your wrist with your palm and fingers out.
Being narked or experiencing narcosis happens when a diver experiences anaesthetic effects due to the nitrogen content of their air supply. Some will feel drunk so it’s important that other divers be informed of the situation.
Narcosis is a temporary condition, but if the diver doesn’t communicate, it can result in irreversible health consequences. If you feel the onset of narcosis, don’t panic and signal it to your fellow divers. Move your index fingers in circles around your ears, also known as the crazy gesture.
**I’m having cramps
Cramps are one of the enemies of divers. If you feel the onset of this condition, signal it right away to your fellow divers. Make a clench fist then point your index finger to nowhere in succession. Do this multiple times until other divers acknowledge. During this situation, the DM will ask the group to ascend.
Even if the temperature above water isn’t freezing, you’ll be surprised how cold it can get once you’re 100 meters deep. Also, some divers wear the wrong suits, causing them to get cold too fast. Getting cold underwater also increases your risk of decompression sickness. So once you feel uncomfortably cold, signal a problem, cross your arms, and rub your upper arms with your palm.
**General distress signal
If your group has dispersed and you need help, you can perform a general distress signal by waving your arm on the side. It’s like saying hi but in large motions. This will catch the attention of your fellow divers and help you with your problem. If you need to surface, put your hands above your hand with palms facing up.
**Abort dive, danger in place
If a DM senses or sees danger underwater, he or she can terminate the dive. To do this, make an X on your chest using your arms with fists closed tight. After that, point a fist outward or into the direction of the source of danger. Remember to have a closed fist when pointing.
Marine life hand signals
Aside from communicating for safety and organized diving, divers can also converse about underwater creatures. These signals are useful, especially for those who are profiling sea creatures or are into photography/videography.
If you see a shark, you can let other divers know by placing palms vertically on your forehead, as if mimicking the fins of a shark.
If you see a crab or a lobster, you simply have to mimic the movements of its claws. With your four fingers altogether, press it to your thumb repeatedly after pointing to the direction of the crab. Some divers only use their index and thumb.
For hammerhead sharks, clench your fists and place it above your ears. Do this after pointing to the direction of the creature.
If you want to show your fellow divers a turtle hidden on the reef, put your hands on top of each other with your thumbs sticking out. After that, make a circulation motion using your thumbs, as if mimicking the limbs of a swimming turtle.
Stingrays are sneaky creatures as they can camouflage really well. So when you spot one, let the other divers know by making the right signal. Cross your wrists then stick an index finger with your left hand while the right has a flat palm.
Lionfishes have venomous fins so you should always alert your fellow divers once you spot one. Point to the location of the lionfish then clasp your fingers, but without bending the fingers. This mimics the fins of a lionfish.
As its name indicates, you can easily let your fellow divers know that an angelfish is nearby by tracing a halo on top of your head using your index finger. Although angelfishes are a common sight, your fellow divers will surely enjoy seeing one underwater.
Like Lionfish, Boxfish emits venom when it’s threatened. So when you spot this creature, make sure that you let other divers know by making a box shape using your thumb and fingers. Imagine taking a picture in a make-believe camera, that’s how it goes.
Barracudas are easy to spot with their markings, sharp teeth, and elongated bodies. So if one of your fellow divers is looking to profile one, let them know by making three chopping gestures on your arm using your other hand. It’s like emulating the markings on a barracuda’s body.
Fire corals are dangerous for divers and it will cause intense pain upon contact. So be quick enough to warn them by mimicking the coral using your fingers pointed upward and seemingly swaying in water. After that, use your thumb to gesture lighting a flame on a lighter. So the next time that your buddies look like they are asking for a lighter underwater, a fire coral is usually nearby. It’s best to observe distance to prevent injury.
It’s always a joy to see dolphins swimming underwater. Your buddies will surely love seeing one so make sure that you signal it to them as well. You should be quick because these underwater mammals don’t stick around for too long. With your index finger, mimic an up and down swimming motion similar to the playful attitude of dolphins.
Mastering some basic hand signals for scuba diving is crucial before you even take your first plunge. Also, it will help to know advanced signals so you can communicate better with other divers. Besides, these hand signals are a matter of safety. If anything goes to worse, the divers will not panic as they know that there’s a way to communicate.
Above all, attentiveness is necessary. You should keep an eye on your buddies so you’ll see whoever needs help or if someone is warning of a potential danger.