We hear the term ‘core skills’ a lot in diving circles, but what exactly does it mean? We asked our team of diving experts from the main training agencies for their take on what needs to be the focus of every diver, regardless of certification level
BSAC Chief Executive Mary Tetley: “Core skills are not just the concern of the new diver, they should be regularly practised by all divers to ensure that they can be performed safely and effectively when needed.
“Practice builds ‘muscle memory’ when it comes to key diving skills, and the aim should be to make them almost second nature. Effort put into regularly fine-tuning core skills will pay dividends when in open water.
“Honing buoyancy skills, for example, means that a diver can focus on other aspects of their dive secure in the knowledge that their buoyancy and trim is tuned in, and that they can dive safely in a range of conditions and circumstances.
“Strong buoyancy and trim skills greatly improve the diving experience, help to reduce gas-consumption and make time under water all the more comfortable and enjoyable. So time spent practising or fine-tuning at an inland site, in the pool or at the start of a dive is certainly well-spent.
“Your core diving skills can also be a life-saver, either your own or that of your buddy, and practising them regularly means that you are more likely to respond instinctively in what could be a chaotic situation.
“Regularly going through out-of-gas, controlled buoyant lift, rescue-breath and towing scenarios can help to make your reactions instinctive in an emergency situation. Panic is a major factor in the incident pit, and if your emergency response is well-rehearsed, you are more likely to be able to take control of a situation.
“And it doesn’t matter what level of diving experience you’re at, it is also important to revisit those basic diving skills that set you up as a diver. Mask-clearing, reg-retrieval and freeflow control can all be overlooked as your diving gets more diverse and adventurous, but they remain the bedrock of diving skills, whatever depth you’re at.”
GUE instructor trainer John Kendall: “There are several vital skills that every diver should have. Some are easier than others to attain, however. The major skill that every diver needs to have is self-awareness, and with that self-criticism.
“Being able to correctly analyse your own skill level, preparedness and capability before, during and after a dive is vital.
“After this, the core skills needed are buoyancy-control, breathing-control and body-position control. These all link together to form the fundamental platform that a diver needs to be competent, confident and comfortable in the water.
“I have heard far too many instructors over the years saying things along the lines of ‘Don’t worry too much about buoyancy, that will come with time’. Unfortunately, they are wrong. Buoyancy, just like mask-clearing, is a skill that needs to be correctly taught and then regularly practised.
“Heavily linked into buoyancy control is what we call trim, the body’s orientation in the water. If, when you kick, your feet are low, then you will push yourself upwards, and this leads to divers not correctly setting their buoyancy, which is fine when they kick, but if they have to stop they sink. A test to try yourself is simply to stop moving your feet and see what happens to your depth.
“Finally, breathing control is a core part of buoyancy as well. You should be breathing in and out around the middle of your lungs. A good test is to just stop in the water. Inhale fully and see what happens, then exhale fully and see. Ideally you should move up slowly on a full inhale and sink slowly on a full exhale.
“If you find that you move rapidly in either direction, you need to adjust the gas in your wing/BC until you are back in the middle of your lungs.”
Garry Dallas, Director of Training for RAID (UK and Malta): “It doesn’t matter which car you drive, how fast it will go, braking or cornering ability. To safely get from A to B requires good driving skills.
“If we just remove the ‘r’ from driving, awareness works the same in diving and is the most intrinsic core skill a diver could have – the one at the top that governs everything else.
“Awareness isn’t just the ability to judge your distance from something or someone, as you might think. We can break it down into three categories: personal, global and the domino effect.
“Personal awareness focuses on your mental state of mind before, during and after the dive; gas-management and observation; a confirmed dive plan; reserves; equipment working; and your skills, including finning technique and trim on the dive.
“Global awareness is a spherical metering between the diver and everything around you, including your team-mates – a 360° radius in every direction at any depth of water column.
“Domino effect awareness basically looks at the knock-on effect that not being aware in the first two instances has a consequential effect in future moments.
“For example, poor finning technique could reduce the visibility for the diver behind or damage something. Not sticking to a dive-plan could leave your team not knowing what to do and when.
“Not looking after your equipment or servicing it might cause a premature failure on the dive. Being dehydrated could make you feel nauseous or anxious, leading to other things. Poor trim will, in essence, have a knock-on effect on your buoyancy, your breathing rate and your ability to think clearly.
“Every diver feels the advantages of good trim – you relax, you can hover and you can deploy a DSMB easily and without stress.
“Keeping yourself sharp on a dive by defining these three attributes will make you a better diver, make you safer and enjoy it more.
Mark Powell, TDI/SDI Business Development Manager: “There are a burst of diving incidents around the start of the every season because of divers jumping in for their first dive of the year and having problems with their dive equipment, or being rusty on their diving skills.
“Unfortunately, some of these incidents are fatal. Make sure you don’t become a statistic by carrying out an ‘annual service’ before your first dive of the year.
“Many divers dive all year round. They will book sea dives throughout the year in the knowledge that some will be blown out by the weather, but in some cases they will be lucky and get a great dive with potentially good visibility because of the lower levels of plankton in the cold water. For other divers, inland sites provide an opportunity to keep their skills sharp during the winter.
“On the other hand, there are some divers for whom there is a definite diving season. They are unlikely to dive before May and the first or second May bank holidays are often their first planned dives. Others leave it until June, when the sea has warmed up even more and the May bloom has dropped off, to plan their first sea dives.
“These divers will then start cutting down their diving in late September or October and will hang up their kit for six months until the diving season starts again. This lay-off means that skill-levels have lost their edge, dive equipment has been unused and the diver is not considered ‘dive fit’. It’s all too easy for the first dive-trip of the year to creep up on us.
“One minute it’s New Year and the next it’s the day before our first dive-trip. For these divers, an annual service before they restart diving is a good idea and there are a few simple steps that can be taken to ensure that the restart of your diving activities is safe, incident-free and enjoyable.
“Most of us service our equipment every now and again (I did say most, not all) but how many of us put our diving skills through an annual MoT? If you dive regularly your skills stay sharp, but if you last dived in September then you are probably a bit rusty. Before jumping into the sea for a real dive, try some practice dives.
“If you’re a member of a club with access to a pool, make use of it. Your local dive-shop probably has pool evenings where you can go along and practice. The following is a list of skills that will test whether you’re still sharp or a bit rusty after the winter break:
- Put your kit together without anything going wrong or freeflowing
- Buddy check
- Fin pivots
- Float stationary 0.5m off the bottom of the pool for one minute
- Swim a circuit of the pool without touching the bottom
- Remove and replace your mask
- Remove and replace your mask while hovering 0.5m off the bottom of the pool
- Switch to your back-up regulator and then back to your main regulator
- Practice an out-of-air drill with your buddy and then swim a circuit of the pool breathing off their regulator
- Send up a delayed SMB on your own
- Send up a delayed SMB on your own while hovering 0.5m off the bottom of the pool
“A month or so before your first ‘real’ dive trip, you might want to think about a trip to an inland site. Most people have one within an hour or two’s drive and these are an ideal spot to brush off the winter cobwebs.
“Try the pool drills above in the inland sites. It might be a bit trickier in drysuit, hood and gloves, but once you’re happy in the pool it shouldn’t be too difficult. You can also add the following open water skills:
- Ascend at as close to 10m/min as possible
- Perform a safety stop at a chosen depth
- Try to stay within +/- 0.5m of the chosen safety stop depth
- Time yourself ascending from 6m to 3m. It should take at least a minute, with a further minute from 3m to the surface.”
“If you can do all of these smoothly, you’re ready for that first open water sea dive of the year.”
Emma Hewitt, PADI Regional Manager for Southern UK & Ireland & Master Instructor: “Being able to safely, easily and swiftly deploy a DSMB is a vital skill. In so many parts of the world there are strong currents and boat-traffic in diving areas, and the use of a DSMB is imperative.
“Honing this skill and being able to comfortably execute it at any given time will mean increased safety for all divers in the group.”
PADI Course Director & Regional Training Consultant Emily Petley-Jones: “Your Open Water Diver training will have got you well-versed with the skills you need to dive safely, though buoyancy is one in which practice makes perfect.
“If you have not been diving for some time, or are diving in new equipment or exposure protection, the chances are that your buoyancy and trim will need some tweaking. Depending on where you’re planning on diving and the conditions, you should take a few minutes to get your buoyancy and trim correct.
“This could either be done in a swimming pool or a shallow location so that, if you need to adjust your weights or the position of your cylinder, you can do so quickly without disturbing the environment or missing parts of the actual dive.
“Keep in mind that if you’re going from a freshwater swimming pool to the ocean you will need a little extra weight for the salt water. Do take a moment to perform a buoyancy check to ensure that you are not excessively weighted or underweight, and adapt your weights to ensure that you have the correct amount for the dive.
“As you descend and are close to the bottom, establish neutral buoyancy and adopt your normal horizontal diving position. Take a moment to really visualise your body position in the water.
“It might be that there are minor trim adjustments you can make: for example, if your weight-belt has moved slightly and you’re leaning to one side, move this back so that the weights are balanced.
“Don’t forget that your own abilities will change and improve as well. If you’re diving frequently with the same kit configuration, you might find that after a couple of months you can potentially remove some more weight (including ankle-weights), or change where this is positioned as your diving style has evolved and improved.”
Matt Clements, PADI Regional Manager for UK North and Malta and a PADI Master Instructor: “All diving skills are important, and you should be comfortable with all the basics before moving on.
“This is why skills are broken down into small and progressively complex steps when you’re learning to dive. Buoyancy is a core skill to get right. A lot of time and energy goes into this, but don’t forget that buoyancy is more than just being neutral.
“Know how to – and don’t be afraid to – ditch your weights. Being able to maintain positive buoyancy at the surface is vital – a near-miss could become an incident if you’re fighting to stay afloat. Make sure that you’re a comfortable, confident diver, get some extra time in with your instructor and take a few speciality courses. A really great one aimed at UK divers is the RNLI Sea Survival course.”
Vikki Batten, PADI’s Training Supervisor & a PADI Examiner: “Body position (known as trim) in the water is sometimes seen as less important than buoyancy control, but really the two are interdependent. Think about the direction in which you’re moving and whether you’re making it easier or harder for yourself.
“Here is an example that happens frequently with divers who have some experience: if you’re slightly negatively buoyant, it’s common to end up in a slightly feet down, torso up position. Then, when you fin, you will tend to ascend slightly with each fin-kick.
“Eventually you will ascend enough to be positively buoyant, so you will exhaust some of the air from your BC and sink, repeating the cycle again. That makes for an exhausting dive.
“If you haven’t yet mastered effortless buoyancy control, get yourself back in a pool or shallow water and make sure you practice both buoyancy control and trim, where you can crash and burn without damage to yourself or the environment.
“If you can’t stop finning (that includes arm-flapping) and just ‘be’, you need more practice. Once you can do this in simple situations, expand your practice to include ascents, descents and more complex skills such as launching a DSMB.”
Photographs by Mark Evans