Scuba Diving: How to Ascend Safely and Surface Correctly

Scuba Diving How to Ascend Safely and Surface Correctly

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

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

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

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

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.

Read Post  7 Things You Should Never Do Immediately After Diving

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

Breaking the Surface Without Being Hit by a Boat For Scuba Diving

Photo credit to Scuba Diver Life

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

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.

Let’s Talk about Surface Markers

What is a Surface Marker and Why you Should Have One

In a perfect world scuba divers would hop into the water, do their dive, surface a few feet from the boat and climb back in. Life would be grand and we wouldn’t need to think twice about boat traffic, excessive swells or underwater emergencies.

But the reality is accidents happen, and when they do, time is most often of the essence. When you surface after a dive it’s important to be seen.


What is a Surface Marker?

A surface marker buoy (or SMB) is a simple air filled device that floats on top of the water. It is used to attract attention and mark your place while submerged.

A surface marker can take many different shapes and forms, each one dependant on where they are being used and what they are required for. For scuba diving, there are two different types of surface marker buoys; a permanent surface marker buoy and a delayed surface marker buoy.

Joey and Ali Preparing to Scuba Dive in Croatia with a Surface Marker

A Permanent Surface Marker Buoy (SMB)

A permanent surface marker buoy is a buoy that is inflated at the beginning of the dive and remains on the surface of the water during the entire scuba adventure. While you are scuba diving, the buoy gets towed along the surface marking your position underwater and keeping boats away.

Permanent surface markers are typically red and white to stand out against the water and to match the diver-down flag color. The marker can be round or torpedo-shaped, often with a ballast section that can hold some water to maintain stability.

Dive Buoy And Flag Scuba Shop Product

Inflatable Dive Buoy with Dive Flag: This 13-inch round inflatable dive buoy is the perfect permanent surface marker for scuba divers. The buoy has a 12 by 11-inch scuba diving flag that can be placed into the inflatable buoy.

Ali Standing With A Permanent Surface Marker Dive Buoy On Zakynthos Island, Greece

A Delayed Surface Marker Buoy (DSMB)

A delayed surface marker is a marker that divers take with them underwater on their dive. Attached to the marker is a reel or spool from which scuba divers can deploy the marker, during the ascent, to indicate their positioning at the surface. Delayed surface markers are long and tube-like in appearance and come in a variety of bright, flashy colors such as orange, red, yellow.

Safety Sausage Scuba Shop Product

Neon Yellow Scuba Diving Surface Marker Tube: Make yourself seen at the surface with this 1 meter (4-foot) neon yellow surface marker signal tube with “Diver Below” print. This delayed SMB is fabricated from nylon material and fits in a BCD pocket or can be fastened via the plastic clip.

Using the Lift Bags on the Zombie Gas Underwater

What does a Surface Marker do?

Unplanned issues can occur on any dive and when they do, it’s important to be seen at the surface. Whether you use a delayed surface marker buoy or a permanent surface marker, both are very practical because they;

  • Identifies you to boats and other marine traffic
  • Can be used to attract attention in an emergency situation
  • Helps you be spotted by your own dive boat during a drift dive or in rough waters

Female Scuba Diver Rolling Up Her Safety Buoy After A Dive In Zihua, Mexico

Deploying a Surface Marker

It’s one thing to have a surface marker on hand, it’s another to know how to properly inflate and use it. If you’re lucky, during one of your scuba diving courses, your instructor will have taken the time to teach you how to use and deploy a surface marker.

How to Deploy a Surface Marker:
  1. Unroll and unclip the surface marker from your body.
  2. Ensure the reel or line is not tangled and can unwind freely.
  3. Blow air either with your mouth, with your regulator or with your alternate regulator into the surface marker until it is inflated.
  4. Release the surface marker at or so it floats towards the surface.
  5. Maintain tension on the line so that you or other divers do not get entangled.

Important Notes:

  • If you are deploying a delayed surface marker (which happens while underwater) be prepared for changes in buoyancy as you add air to the tube.
  • In areas with high boat traffic or current, surface markers should be deployed underwater with a reel or spool and not at the surface. Divers have better things to worry about once they break the surface than fiddling around with inflating a surface marker.

As easy as it is to read about how to deploy a surface marker both from the surface and while at depth, nothing compares to actually getting out in the water and actually trying it out. Remember practice makes perfect.

Carlos the Scuba Dive Master

Is a Surface Marker Always Necessary?

Having at least a rolled-up delayed surface marker in your BCD pocket is a good thing for every diver to have, however, there are some circumstances where having a surface marker just simply isn’t feasible.

For example, having a surface marker while diving in an overhead environment is not very practical. Cave diving or ice diving both typically have scuba divers enter and exit from a single spot, and more often than not there are no boats involved. In these instances, having a surface marker is counterintuitive and sometimes more of a hazard.

Use your common sense, when it comes to deciding whether to dive with a surface marker. Consider things like; what if a problem arises and you need to come up earlier than expected? What if the current picks you up and you are too far away from the boat? And above all, make sure you’re not compromising your safety by diving with a surface marker.

A Surface Marker Dive Buoy Floating at the Surface of the Water

Surface markers are not the be-all end-all of scuba diving, but sometimes a dive just doesn’t go according to plan, and having a surface marker can be the difference between ending things unscathed or winding up on the 5 o’clock news.

Dive safe everyone!

Have you ever been on a dive where you were thankful you had a dive buoy on your person? When and where was this?

Writers Note: This post may contain affiliate links. We will make a small commission if you make a purchase through one of these links, at no extra cost to you. See full disclosure and disclaimer policy here.


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How to use a diving surface marker buoy

Learn how to safely use a surface marker buoy while diving.

Scuba instructor with surface marker buoy

Diving surface marker buoys (SMB) are very useful and may even save your life during a dive.

Therefore, you should definitely know how to use them correctly!

It is also an essential skill for all divers no matter their experience so be sure to practice it.

In this article, you will learn why we use SMBs and how to deploy them underwater.

What is a diving surface marker buoy?

Diving buoys or Surface Marker Buoys (SMBs) are usually large, inflatable tubes divers carry on their dives. When inflated, they mark the location of a diver or a diving group on the surface. In order to be clearly seen, they are usually colorful and sometimes equipped with reflective materials.

As you can see, this is similar to the clothes of cyclists or runners in the dark to increase their visibility.

Step 1: The right time

Depending on the nature of your dive and the environment, it can make sense to inflate your diving buoy at the beginning of your dive.

For example, if you go shore diving in shallow water, boats may also come to the same beach.

They should definitely know that you are out there with your buddy!

During drift diving or river diving, it is important for the dive boat to know where the group is at.

Therefore, an SMB is usually set right at the beginning.

Surface Marker Buoy

A personal surface marker buoy is especially useful if no other buoys are in the water.

Sometimes you just dive your plan and then use the buoy at the end of the dive to make sure that no boats cross the spot where you resurface. Or just to show your dive boat where it can collect you.

In an emergency, the buoy can be used on the surface to attract attention by swinging it back and forth.

Step 2: Before inflating the SMB

Prepare your surface marker buoy and check your surroundings.

Before you inflate it, you should make sure that you are neutrally buoyed. Then take the SMB out of your BCD (buoyancy control device) and unpack it.

It is often stowed in a small package together with a reel. There is enough line on the reel for the buoy to come to the surface. So take both out of the package and make sure the SMB is attached to the end of the line.

Look up and check that there are no obstacles.

Make sure you are not tangled on the line before inflating it!

Step 3: Inflating the buoy

How you inflate the buoy depends on how it is built. Some are inflated with the mouth and others with your alternative air supply (octopus). No matter which one you use, it is important that you practice!

Many diving buoys have openings on the bottom through which you can fill in the air from your regulator.

Either you use the purge button on your octopus or you hold the opening above your regulator so that the buoy catches your air bubbles (when exhaling).

You can do this without taking your regulator out of your mouth! But it takes a little longer and, as we think, is more cumbersome than using the octopus.

There are also buoys that can be filled with the hose from your inflator. Just don’t forget to plug it back into your BCD when you’re done!

If you use such a buoy a lot, you can also attach a second inflator hose to the first stage of your regulator so that you don’t have to remove the hose from the BCD every time.

Scuba diver hovering underwater

Become neutrally buoyant before inflating the SMB!

However, if you inflate the buoy with your mouth, make sure you have enough air between breaths to blow out your regulator. You mustn’t hold your breath while doing this!

If you want to practice how to deploy a safety marker buoy during a scuba dive, check out the Dive Control Management specialty course at Social Diving or book a private practice session!

Good to know: At depths, you usually do not need a lot of air to bring your diving buoy to the surface because the gas expands on the way up.

Check out the 3 most important diving gas laws if you wonder why this is.

Step 4: Let go

That may sound strange, but in the heat of the moment, many divers forget to let go of the buoy or line when inflating.

This could mean that you will be pulled up with it. This is of course not a good idea because it would make the ascent much too fast.

It is best to hold the reel lightly in your hand when you “shoot up” the buoy. This allows the leash to unwind in your hand without being pulled up.

Scuba instructor with surface marker buoy

A happy dive instructor with his surface marker buoy (SMB)

Once it has reached the surface, you need to hold the line taut so that it is level in the water on the surface.

If you have trouble staying down with the buoy in hand, try taking some air out of the BCD or adding a little less air to the buoy next time.

Step 5: The ascent

To keep the line taut, slowly wind it up again on the ascent. A loose line can cause the buoy to fall sideways on the surface and allow air to escape.

Always climb at a safe pace and remember to take a safety stop!

Your dive computer will tell you if you ascend too fast.

Step 6: At the surface

When you reach the surface, make sure the buoy remains upright until the boat has picked you up.

Scuba divers at surface with surface marker buoy

It’s best to leave the SMB inflated until you are back on the boat.

That’s it! Simple, right?


That’s all there is to deploying a surface marker buoy.

Practice this a few times in a safe environment before relying on it in open water.

Use the FREE scuba diving trip packing list before your next vacation and don’t forget your SMB.

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