Underwater Diving Navigation: How To Find Your Way Back


Getting lost when scuba diving is not at all fun. Even with clear visibility, anyone can get carried away with their personal pursuits and lose their sense of direction.

You might drift too far from the boat and the rescue team. Having the right underwater navigational skills will help you find your way back. A most important piece of gear to always have is an smb or scuba marker buoy for scuba diving. It will inform others on the surface of your location when diving.

The last thing you want is to get to the surface to find no one in sight with no sight of dry land in any direction that you look.

The brief

The most important part of good underwater navigation is brief and this happens even before putting on your scuba tank and getting into the water. You want to understand the area you will be diving in. A map will prove particularly useful. You can obtain a map of the area from the dive shop. Other times fellow divers can help you out.

Listen carefully to the briefing from the divemaster. If you are using a chartered dive boat. You will be able to obtain highly useful information about the features of the site such as depth and the current which will allow you to make a good dive plan.

Following the leader

Before getting into the water, one of the divers should take the lead. Attempting to navigate by different divers in a buddy pair isn’t the most practical thing.

If you are the leader, concentrate on picking a path through which others will follow.  On the other hand, your dive buddy will be keeping an eye on the depth, the distance traveled as well as the time spent. Make sure your hands are well protected from cold water by wearing dive gloves.

Start at the beginning

A good method is to enter the water from the boat and then swim on the surface until you reach the anchor line and then start your descent. You can also choose to get into the water from behind the boat and swim down to the anchor line.

A rule of thumb is to start diving navigation where the boat and the bottom connect.

If on the other hand, you are diving from a beach, you can swim past the waves until you reach the point where you intend to make your dive.

However, keep in mind that when you are diving from the beach or a boat, you are going to start your underwater navigation as soon as your head goes underwater. Take a good look around and notice any rock formations, any pillars, sand patches, brain corals, and any other physical features that you can familiarize yourself with.

You can then use these features to find your way back.

Check the time

Pick a time and swim away from your starting point. You will need a dive watch for this part. Then, make a complete 180 and swim back in this opposite direction for the same amount of time. If you notice that there is a current, go directly into it when you are heading back. This should make your return much faster and easier.

Keep an eye on your air consumption. Always make use of the one-third rule which states that you should use a third of your air for heading out, a third for coming back, and a third for making safety stops or for exploring around the boat.

Stay vigilant

Note any characteristics of the dive site that will help you find your way back such as picking a path. This is perhaps the easiest way to finding your way back. Check for any sandbanks or the edge of a shallow reef where it gets into the sand and use this as a path.

If the reef is sloped, then the contour can also serve as a path. With your dive buddy, you can go down to say 60 feet then start to swim horizontally with the reef to one side all while maintaining a depth of 60 feet. To go back all you will need to do is turn 180 degrees then swim back to where there is the contour and then start your ascend.

Landmarks are important and you cannot hope to navigate efficiently without taking note of these. Look out for coral formations that stand out, other objects in the sea as well as any differences in the bottom. Simply put, you aim to keep an eye on any features that stand out and are easy to notice. As you do this, note their depth. For example, you might come across an old anchor at 60 feet or a sand channel at 50 feet.

If you are diving to get some great photography, the light may not be the best. Underwater strobes can illuminate the surroundings and allows you to make some great shots.

Thirdly, watch out for the light. Check for the angle of sunlight when you are starting your dive. If you are swimming towards the sun when you start your dive, you should be swimming away from it when heading back to the boat. Another useful trick is to look out for the shadow of the boat when you are at the bottom.

Watch the movement of the water. This is a good way of telling direction. The surge in the back and forth motion that you feel. When you are close to the shore, notice the direction of the surge. The push should be stronger when heading to the beach than when heading to the open ocean. Notice this when you are on the surface and then swim towards the beach. The wave action will also cause ripples on the bottom of the sea. This will be parallel to the shoreline. Use this to find your way back.

Always make sure you are wearing a wetsuit to keep your core temperature from dropping due to the cold water. If the water is almost freezing you might need a dry suit.

Use the compass

When you are diving in tropical waters, there may be so many things to see around you that you lose all sense of direction. Don’t let the clear waters fool you and always carry a compass for your diving navigation.

Take the lubber line or the long line of your compass and place it along the length of your body and into the direction you plan to swim towards. It is crucial to ensure that you have the right positioning. Make sure that all the while the dive compass is lying flat. This will allow the wheel inside to spin feely.

It’s a good idea to wiggle the compass as you swim. Of course, you should not fixate on it but this helps to also keep the compass level. All you need to do is to make glances on the compass to make sure you remain on course.

You will need to take a heading. To do this rotate the bezel and allow the hatch marks to be in line with the north marks of the compass. It should not be difficult to swim straight once the compass is in this position.

If you want to swim in the opposite direction, all you will need to do is turn until the north arrow meets the marks on the opposite side of the bezel, then use your scuba fins to propel yourself forward.

Swim slow


There are benefits of swimming slow. One is that you will be able to remain closer to the boat or the shore which reduces the chances of losing your way.

In fact, there is really not much of a difference in the reef whether you are close or far from the boat. This means that there is really no need to swim further distances.

Swimming slow also provides you with a relaxed attitude. This will allow you to enjoy more sights and to conserve more gas.

Swim to the surface

If you are diving at relatively shallow depths, it’s a good idea to swim to the surface and try to locate the boat or shore from there. If you are suspecting when you are underwater that you may have lost your direction, then swimming to the surface makes it easier to try and find your direction as opposed to swimming randomly under the water looking for landmarks.

If you notice the shadow of a boat passing by, ensure that you provide the boat with good clearance. When at the surface, listen out for the sound of the boat as there is the chance that you will surface a distance away from it. As you do this, turn around until you can spot the boat.

If you do spot the boat give the OK signal to the crew. This will inform them of your situation and lets them know that you are heading back to them.

Carry the right gear

One of the most important aspects of finding your direction is ensuring that you carry the right scuba gear package when diving. One of such highly essential pieces of equipment is the dive computer and one of the best is the Cressi Leonardo dive computer.

Its remarkable and reliable design and performance continue to be seen in the new models that are released into the market. Ease of use is paramount. Programming should be easy and often with just a single button.

When not in sue you should always make sure to store your gear in a dive bag. this will keep it protected and ready for the next time you want to use it.

Practice while you are on dry land

The old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ definitely holds when it comes to diving navigation. You should do your practice on land so that when you do get into the water, everything flows naturally.

Take that compass and ensure that you are conversant with using it. After all, it will work the same when you get into the water.  Secondly, it’s a great idea to take an underwater navigation class that is offered by many dive agencies.

Also, learn how to quickly adjust the pressure by the diving regulator.

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The last thing anyone wants is to lose their way when they are in the ocean. You may drift so far as to lose sight of the boat and the shore. By mastering the tips above, you can dive with ease knowing that you will always be able to find your way back.

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My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!