Whether you are searching for that snapper hole on the reef or attempting to find the anchor line at the end of a dive, swimming in the right direction can be critically important for every diver at some point in his or her diving career. Additionally, good navigation skills have the potential to make virtually any dive more informative and enjoyable. Underwater navigation seems to come easy for some divers and is harder for others. But any diver can master the art of underwater navigation by applying a small amount of background knowledge and obtaining some experience.

To use a compass most effectively, the diver should point the lubber line in the direction he intends to travel and read the number at the bottom of the compass. This number is the magnetic heading in which the diver will travel. The compass must be held level, since tilting it will cause the card to hit the compass' sides, preventing it from turning freely. The compass must also be pointed directly forward, in a straight line between the diver and his destination. Make sure no metal objects are near the compass as these can attract the north-seeking arrow, skewing the compass' reading.

The bezel can also be used to quickly and easily plot a return course. If the diver simply turns his body until the north-seeking arrow lines up with the bezel's other index mark (the 180° mark), he will turn 180 degrees, facing in exactly the opposite direction in which he was swimming. It is important that the diver rotates his whole body and not the bezel or the compass. Of course, it's also possible to set a course in the opposite direction by calculating a new heading: Add 180° to the original heading if it is less than 180°, or subtract 180° if the original heading is equal to or greater than 180°.

When you are ready for the big leagues, try swimming right-hand squares: Pick a heading and swim 100 feet, add 90° to the heading and swim 100 more feet in the new direction. Repeat this process twice more, and you should arrive back where you started. If you get a number higher than 360° at any point in your calculations, simply subtract 360° to get the heading you should use. To complete a left square, use the same procedure, but subtract 90° at each turn. If you really want to go for mastery, try swimming triangles by adding or subtracting 120° at each turn. Although you will probably never enjoy doing every dive while watching nothing but your compass, these skills provide an excellent foundation for practical navigation.

Reef lines, debris fields from wrecks and other physical structures can also be used to navigate but should be used with caution. These features do not always proceed in uniform directions, and if there are multiple structures it is easy to get off course. However, if you note your initial direction of travel with your compass and note the time, you will be able to use your compass in addition to these physical cues to help get you back to your starting point. If you start swimming north, and after five minutes you turn 90° to the left at the huge brain coral and then swim another seven minutes, you can return to the boat by reversing your direction, swimming about six or seven minutes and looking for the brain coral where you will turn 90° to the right and swim five minutes back to the boat.

Just as diving experience teaches us to enjoy being underwater without fixating on our gauges, navigation experience teaches us to find our way around without keeping our eyes permanently glued to our compasses. By spot checking the compass when you make your usual gas, depth and time checks, you will look like an expert by arriving back at the boat every time without the hazards of surfacing repeatedly to see where you are.

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*Alert Diver*— Winter 2012