Scuba Diving: How to Ascend Safely and Surface Correctly

Scuba Diving How to Ascend Safely and Surface Correctly

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Scuba diving is about exploration and enjoyment. Movement is what drives this magnificent journey. Getting from point A to point B and back—descending and ascending—while not the journey itself, is a vital component of diving that powers the whole experience.

Knowing how to swim down to your destination is helpful, but it’s not the most important part of the sport. In scuba diving, how to ascend is perhaps the most necessary skill to know. It can be a matter of sickness or health, of life or death.

Swimming: A Somewhat-Mandatory Movement for Scuba Diving

Swimming: A Somewhat-Mandatory Movement for Scuba Diving
Photo credit to Ocean Scuba Dive

Do you need to know how to swim to scuba dive? Perhaps surprisingly, this is a frequently asked question about diving. Shouldn’t it go without saying that knowing how to swim is a prerequisite for scuba diving?

To scuba dive safely (for yourself, your dive buddy, and everyone else in your group), it’s essential to be a capable swimmer. However, this doesn’t mean expertise or technical know-how. You don’t even need to know a single stroke technique.

What you do have to know is how to exist in the water. You should be comfortable in the water, have stamina, and possess knowledge not about swimming strokes but about how to move your body through the water.

In scuba diving, leg motions are key, so being able to kick to propel yourself, turn, and adjust speed is an essential skill. When you ascend, you’ll need to rotate in a full circle more than once as you scan your surroundings. Knowing how to do this is essential for scuba diving. Knowing how to front crawl is not.

When you’re working toward your mandatory scuba certification, you will be required to pass two basic water skills tests. You must be able to

  • Tread water or float for 10 minutes in deep water
  • Swim for 200 meters without stopping (any method is acceptable, even if you’re not using formal swim strokes) OR swim for 300 meters without stopping wearing a mask, fins, and snorkel; these are untimed tests

Swimming skills are necessary, but only to a point. The sport of swimming is done at the water’s surface and involves precise strokes and movements. Scuba diving is a motion under the water.

While you don’t use swimming strokes while diving, your movements will be intentional. In scuba diving, how to ascend and descend are the skills you need, and these don’t involve swimming know-how.

Getting to Point B: The Descent

The Descent for Scuba Diving
Photo credit to YouTube

Before diving into the information about your ascent to the surface, let’s take a quick look at the descent. Getting down to your stopping point is relatively simple.

In your certification classes, you’ll learn about the equipment and how to use it. For now, it’s sufficient to know that you’ll begin breathing through your regulator before you start to descend, and along the way, you’ll equalize the pressure as well as adjust the air in your buoyancy control device (BCD).

The goal for descending, other than to reach your destination and enjoy exploring, is to control your speed. You don’t want to move so fast that you can’t correctly equalize the pressure.

As important as the descent speed is, it isn’t as vital to health and safety as is the rate of ascent. When your dive is over, it’s imperative that you return to point A properly. The following information and precautions will teach you the basics of ascending and resurfacing.

Resurfacing the Right Way

Knowing how to ascend is a scuba diving must. Returning to the surface is a purposeful process that must be done with care. Finning your way back to the surface and popping out of the water will have dire results. A gradual rise:

  • Decreases the very real risk of developing decompression sickness
  • Allows you to scan for grave surface dangers like boats and their propellers

You Don’t Want the Bends

Many people, even non-divers, have heard of the bends. Formally known as decompression sickness, it’s an illness that occurs when we are immersed in situations of extremely low or high pressure. Scuba diving is just one situation that can cause the Bends.

In this otherwise-fun activity, one of the ways decompression sickness can develop is from an improper ascension. Here’s what happens within the body:

  • In normal pressure conditions, we exhale nitrogen and other gasses
  • Underwater, where the pressure is higher, breathing is slightly altered
  • A diver inhales compressed air
  • The nitrogen inhaled isn’t exhaled but instead remains in the bloodstream and fatty tissues
  • The longer and deeper the dive, the more nitrogen accumulates in the body
  • When it’s time to return to the surface, a diver experiences pressure changes—the pressure decreases as he ascends
  • As the pressure decreases, all of the nitrogen in the blood and tissues starts forming gas bubbles
  • The bubbles can affect and damage any area, any system within, the body

Take Your Time When Going Up

To safely enjoy scuba diving, learning how to ascend is crucial. The first principle to learn is that ascending to the surface takes time. It’s a process that can’t be rushed. That means that a bit of advanced awareness and planning is in order.

  • Be aware of your dive time and how long you’ve been down
  • Know your depth and take care to respect the depth boundary you established
  • Tune in to your body, including fatigue and temperature
  • Monitor how much air you have left

Begin your ascent before you are tired and while you still have plenty of oxygen. Remember that the deeper you are, the longer it will take to get back to the top. You’ll have more distance to cover, and you will have to go more slowly and possibly make more stops along the way.

The generally accepted ascent rate is 30 feet (9 meters) per minute. Older guidelines, which some organizations still support, were twice that speed, but at 60 feet (18 meters) per minute, a higher number of divers develop decompression sickness.

Take Your Time When Going Up For Scuba Diving
Photo credit to South East Asia Backpacker

The Safety Stop

The safety stop is a must in preventing nitrogen gas bubbles from forming in your body. This is a pause that allows your body to eliminate nitrogen.

A safety stop is a good idea even if your dive has been relatively shallow, but it’s required if you have dived deeper than 33 feet (10 meters). Additionally, if you have exceeded your no-decompression limit—the time you can safely stay at a given depth—you’ll need several stops.

Safety stops have a specific procedure:

  • Stop your ascent 15 feet from the surface (when doing more than one stop, you’ll begin lower)
  • Allow yourself to hang in the water, practicing buoyancy control
  • While suspended, scan the surface to check for water conditions and boat traffic; gently turn yourself 360 degrees to review the entire surrounding

The primary purpose of your safety stop is to reduce the nitrogen levels in your system. These stops offer another advantage as well. They help you break the surface with a minimum of hazards around you.

Breaking the Surface Without Being Hit by a Boat

Avoiding the bends is a primary objective of your ascent at the end of your dive. Another important consideration is avoiding hazards like watercraft.

Guidelines for returning to the top include:

  • Monitor your depth gage to verify that you’re rising slowly enough and adjust your BCD as needed.
  • As you rise, continue to orient yourself, glancing around to notice where you are in relationship to the predetermined surface point (you’ll either have placed a dive-flag buoy before your dive or sent up a delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) before your ascent)
  • Head for the surface point and emerge as close to it as you can, as boats know to avoid these but won’t be looking for divers surfacing elsewhere
  • Watch for signs of watercraft
  • Gently rotate yourself as you rise to scan all angles

Once you resume moving up after your safety stop, proceed very cautiously and even more slowly than before. Become buoyant for the remainder of the trip, letting yourself rise naturally. Don’t even fin; if you must move your legs, do it gently.

Raise one arm above your head as you continue. Doing so serves a dual purpose:

  • It allows you to hold your low-pressure inflator high, so you can dump air from your BCD if you are rising too quickly and must slow down
  • It makes you more visible as you break the surface

Once you surface, re-inflate your BCE, and allow yourself to float on the water. Revel in a successful dive, and enjoy feeling healthy and safe.

Scuba diving can be an incredible, awe-inspiring experience. When you take the time to learn all the nuances of the sport, you’ll enjoy a pastime that is both relaxing and invigorating at once. Knowing the fundamentals of scuba diving, like how to ascend safely and surface correctly, will keep you healthy and safe.

No bends. No being hit by a boat. Just beautiful waters to explore and marine life to discover.


Vance R.

Jack Thompson, a scuba diving enthusiast from San Diego, has spent over a decade exploring the underwater world across the globe. Sharing his passion through captivating stories and informative articles, Jack aims to inspire others to embark on their own scuba diving adventures and uncover the ocean's hidden treasures. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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