Underwater Navigation

Like an explorer, SCUBA divers need to find their way in an unfamiliar environment.  And like explorers, SCUBA divers are plagued with difficulties including a lack of maps, limited visibility, and the simple fact that you are trying to navigate while doing an activity that already requires a lot of attention.  To many divers navigation is a mystery - they simply follow the dive master on all of their dives. 

But why learn underwater navigation?  To many it seems like an skill for "advanced" diver, a skill which has little application in "normal" recreational diving.  This is dead wrong!  Here's a short list of how a basic understanding of underwater navigation can improve your diving:

  1. Better dive planning: Being able to navigate allows you to estimate how much time and air you'll need to swim to, and explore, a dive site.
  2. Less guesswork: Many divers waste a lot of time trying to find the dive site - and often spend a significant portion of their bottom time simply looking for their objective.  Being able to navigate allows you to swim directly to your objective, giving you more time at the site and wasting less time looking for it.
  3. Avoid buddy separation: Navigation promotes team work.  Any by having a planned route to your objective reduces the risk of separation as each buddy knows exactly where they are going.
  4. Conserves air and bottom time:  Anything that allows you to get to your objective faster and with less effort saves you both air and bottom time.  Navigation eliminates a lot of the random wandering many divers do, thus giving you increased time at your objective.
  5. Avoid surface swims: Swimming on the surface is difficult in full SCUBA gear - for example at a local dive site (Lake Minnewanka) it takes 10-15 minutes to swim from shore to the dive site on the surface.  Underwater this same swim takes 3-4 minutes and is less physically exhausting than the surface swim.
  6. Reduce anxiety:  Having a plan, and following it, greatly reduces the amount of stress during a dive.  Navigational planning makes sure both buddies are on the same page.  And in the event of an emergency navigational skills can return you to shore, or to your boat, much quicker then can randomly moving. 

Luckily, underwater navigation is relatively simple.  This guide is intended as a basic overview of how to navigate underwater.  To simplify things we've divided this article into several sections:

Due to the large amount of information this article has been split into multiple pages.  These pages have a lot of images, so it may take time for them to load.


  • Equipment: What you need to navigate underwater.
  • Basics: Using the underwater compass & measuring distance
  • Cheating the Compass: An easier way to use your compass
  • Navigation: finding your way on the surface and underwater.  Covers both compass-based and "natural" navigational techniques.
  • Mapping dive sites: So you can find them again
  • High Accuracy Mapping: Methods of generating detailed maps of a dive site.
  • Diving patterns: Using your navigational skills for search & recovery, moving around dive sites, and navigating around obstructions.
  • Training: Ways to practice your navigation skills before you head out.


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