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Back to Basics; The Ascent

So there you are, lying on the ocean floor. You have executed a perfect dive and even after spending some time on the bottom, you are still feeling strong. Up until now you have probably been very conscious of every movement and been very deliberate in your whole approach to the dive, but now the dive is over and you just swim back up to the surface.

The problem is that the ascent is as technical as the descent and just swimming back up is counter productive and even catastrophic when overextended or when you find yourself in trouble. There are a number of key techniques that you need to discipline yourself to use, not only to improve your diving, but to dive safer as well.

Now I am sure that if you have been diving for any amount of time, you would at some time or another have landed up screaming for the surface after a long dive. I know we should not be getting ourselves into desperate situations, but it is the nature of this extreme sport and it is easy to find yourself in a situation that is on the very edge of what you are capable of handling. I am not saying this is right or condoning reckless diving, I’m merely stating that it does happen.

Now, when it does happen, it’s very easy to panic or at least get anxious. It is in these conditions that your technique and mental control will be tested. Herein lies the problem, if on all the easy dives you just swam back to the surface and did not practice good technique, in a moment of panic, are you going to suddenly be able to do the right thing? The answer is no, you will only do what you have always done.

Here are a few basic techniques that you will need to start incorporating into your everyday diving. These will not only help improve your overall performance, but will also help you to be more competent in sticky situations.

The first and probably the most important part of the ascent, is your control and rhythm. The easiest way I have found to keep control and rhythm without getting anxious or panicking, is to know how long it is going to take you to get back to the surface and to calmly plan and execute the ascent. For this you need a dive watch that gives you depth and time. You will have to be able work out how long it takes on average for you to return to the surface from a number of different depths.

Once you know how long you generally take, you will be able to work out how much longer you will need to hold your breath. This may seem like it could be counter productive and freak you out… but in reality this helps quantify things and helps set your goal on something other than the surface.

How this works is that you mentally tell yourself that you need to hold your breath for only 30 seconds longer (that’s if your ascent normally takes 30 seconds from that depth). Holding your breath then becomes your immediate goal, not the getting to the surface.

Only focus on things that don’t increase your heart rate, and keep your consumption of oxygen as low as possible. If your focus is on the surface, it is easy to land up trying to get there as quickly as possible. This is when things like conservation and control become afterthoughts.

Finning hard for the surface in a panic is not only going to increase your heart rate, but you are also going to burn more energy than is needed. Basically, this is incredibly inefficient and a sure way to increase your risk of blacking out. Any sort of panic or desperation will also cause anxiousness and stress. These are huge oxygen thieves. Just ask any accomplished deep freediver; that’s why they focus so much on relaxation and meditation.

The goal is to get moving, using as little energy as possible. Controlled rhythmic fin strokes are best. You will probably have to put in a bit more effort in the beginning to get going, but once you are moving, settle into a calm and smooth rhythm. If you feel like you are getting desperate for the surface, just keep your composure and stay in that calm rhythm.

At this point, you see most guys looking up towards the surface. This is counter productive for 2 reasons. Firstly, your goal becomes the surface (as has been discussed) and it will be harder to control your ascent. Secondly, it causes drag as your head increases your surface area and you will slow down. It is exactly the same as in the descent, keep your chin down in a relaxed position and your eyes looking straight forward… not up.

Another great tip, that I learnt from Trevor Hutton, for increasing how streamlined you are, is to pull your shoulders in towards your chest. This reduces your profile and means you are pushing a smaller profile through the water.

Making sure that your hands and arms are also streamlined is important. Often you see guys swimming up holding the gun midway and their forearm at a right angle to their body. It is best to hold the gun by the handle facing down (also good for safety) and keep your arms and hands against your side. You might not think that this will do much, but you will be amazed at how much faster your ascent is when you combine all these little things together.

Now, if you have worked out your weighing correctly, as you approach the 10m mark, you should be able to reduce the amount of effort in your fin stroke. It is even a good habit to get to the point where you stop finning and let your buoyancy do the work. This will help with getting back to the surface relaxed and with your heart rate down. Outside of the actual dive itself, getting to the surface calm and relaxed will help speed up your recovery time and you will be able to get more dives done in a day.

When you reach the surface, there is one last thing you need to remember to do before you go about prepping for the next dive or land your fish. The hook breath is a very important part of the dive and could even be a lifesaver one day. How the hook breath works is that is keeps the air pressure in your lungs up. This is important because if the pressure in your lungs drops, there is a reduction in oxygen absorption and if you are at your limit, you could increase the chances of blacking out.

What you do, is instead of exhaling fully, make a short, sharp and partial exhale followed by a quick inhale held for the count of 3. Repeat twice before making a full exhale and entering into your standard recovery. This keeps the air pressure in your lungs up and assists in oxygen absorption, and even helps keep your blood pressure up. (Please note that the hook breath technique is a lot more technical than this.)

Additional tips and things to consider:

  • Probably the most important tip to take away from this article will be to know when to drop your weight belt. There are loads of guys with different theories such as pulling your belt loose and holding the belt in your hand while ascending, so that in the event of blacking out, you will automatically drop your belt. The best advice I have heard is if you think you should drop your belt… just drop it. When you are in trouble you rarely think clearly, so if you are thinking about it, just do it. I always travel with a spare belt and on day trips try take a spare on the boat. This way you are not trying to hold onto something you can easily replace.


  • On returning to the surface, breathe in the air that you pressurised your mask with on the descent. You will be surprised how much air fits into your mask at 20m, especially if you have a high volume mask. This is important for a number of reasons. The first is most important and it’s that it helps keep the air pressure in your lungs up, as briefly discussed in the hook breath. Secondly… why let that precious air go to waste? You never know when you need that extra little bit of life giving oxygen. Thirdly… it also looks a whole lot cooler than coming up in a cloud of bubbles.


  • Experiment with trying to dive as lightly as you can. Yes, it will make your descent more difficult, but with the correct technique, you can use less weights and make your ascent a lot easier. This will also mean that you could use softer fins, which combined with good technique, will save loads of energy and you won’t get fatigued as easily.


  • If you are diving well with in your time limit or you have left the bottom early, ascend at an angle in the direction you need go. This does increase the distance you have to ascend, but it reduces the distance on the surface you will have to swim and will help reduce your recovery time. I mainly use this technique when returning to a flasher on the surface when there’s a current, or when scouting or following fish on the reef. With a flasher, what often happens is that the wind or surface current moves it away from you while you are down. If you ascend vertically you will have to cover that distance on the surface to get back to your flasher. This can be exhausting and your recovery only starts once you are back and finished swimming. However, if you swim towards the flasher from the bottom you will get to the flasher more quickly, using only a little more energy.

Basically, in a nutshell, a good ascent is one where you maximise your momentum while using as little resources as possible. Getting to the surface without your heart pounding through your chest is also key to making your whole day’s diving more effective and enjoyable.

Don’t forget that in order for these techniques to help you on big dives or in tricky situations, you will need to be disciplined enough to practice them on all your dives no matter how shallow or easy they may be.


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