An Air Hog's Diary - Improving your air consumption while diving!
It was 1997, the waters off southern Japan were a frigid 52 degrees fahrenheit; my face hit the cold water and I immediately started the rapid depletion of the precious air in my scuba cylinder. Everyone else was calm and relaxed underwater. I would signal, after 20 minutes, that I was down to 700 psi on my submersible pressure gauge and my dive buddy would look at me bewildered. He showed me his SPG and it still had 2000 psi comfortably sitting in his tank. We slowly ascended to our safety stop and when we got to the surface, the chiding began. "Dude, you are an air hog. Why did you suck down so much air on your dive?!?!?"
At first, I was embarrassed. How was I the only one in the whole group that couldn't stay down long enough to truly enjoy the dive? What was I doing that they weren't doing? As a competitive individual, I became obsessed with how to properly breath underwater and be the guy that held up my SPG with 2000 psi in it when someone signaled me they were low on air! But, that road included a lot of poor techniques that were risky to my safety and didn't allow me to 'win' the air consumption wars. At first, I would attempt to skip breath on dives. This method would mean breathing in and then basically holding it until the moment I absolutely needed to breath. I then tried other tactics like orally inflating my BCD and strictly using my snorkel on the surface. All these attempts ended with nice headaches and barely an achievable goal when it came to true control of air consumption.
With each dive, I became better. I honed in on skills and worked hard towards relaxation techniques. Instead of muscling my way through dives and swimming like Dory in Finding Nemo, I found ways to minimize my movement and finally take that 'Air Hog' shirt off my back! Here's some methods to achieving breath control greatness.
The first thing is setting realistic goals for yourself when it comes to air consumption. If you are large person, you are naturally predisposed to consuming more air. That doesn't mean you will always perform terribly in the water; it's just science. The oxygen you take in is set to feed your organs, tissues, bones and much more. If there's more product there to serve, you'll require more oxygen than a smaller person would require. If you couple this with experience, you'll find that you can become rather efficient at air consumption and also employ some techniques with your buddies to ensure you enjoy the dive just as much as they do. But, you need not worry, 'bio-prene' is a huge advantage in Southern California waters. You might be an air hog, but you will be a toasty warm air hog compared to your barely able to float friend!
Your body requires oxygen to sustain life. But, lack of oxygen isn't what gives you the urge to breath. It's the build up of carbon dioxide that forces your diaphragm to react. This overwhelming urge to expel carbon dioxide drives your breathing patterns. Which is why skip breathing is not recommended for scuba divers. With the continuous build up of carbon dioxide, a diver might find themselves feeling the need to cycle air at a higher rate. By doing this, we provide further stress to the body and increase the working load while we dive. Therefore, we lose the fight in air consumption by incorrectly breathing in the first place.
If we remember from our beginning courses, the number one rule in scuba diving is to never, ever hold your breath. By producing full breathing techniques, we actually manage the carbon dioxide build up in our bodies and reduce that urge to breath. Eventually, the action will become autonomous and very similar to the breathing patterns you hold on the surface. Like right now, you are not thinking about breathing in the least bit. Your body is handling the action for you. When we are underwater though, we find ourselves in an environment where it is not natural to breath and the average diver will increase their breaths per minute because of this. A simple action like breathing and exhaling in a controlled, fluid manner will assist in reducing your effort to breathe underwater.
This is something you can practice on the surface as well. Through breathing exercises, you might find yourself able to better control your breathing while diving!
I've written about mastering buoyancy in scuba diving before. It is a very important aspect of scuba diving and a major contributor to air consumption. If a diver feels like they are constantly in a free fall from improper position of weights or incorrect calculations of air to the BCD, they will find themselves swimming with their hands. This creates work. Work creates breathing. Eventually, a person can tire out from this constant effort and find their air consumed at one of the highest rates.
Practicing good buoyancy techniques range from correctly finding your position in the water column to correct weighing. All of these techniques will create a relaxed diver in the water. When you couple these with proper breathing, you'll find a diver who is properly consuming their air underwater. When we reduce the use of the BCD as our buoyancy control and increase our capabilities using that internal buoyancy device called your lungs, you will also reduce your mechanical need for air while underwater. Reducing this reliance on the BCD will also contribute to using the air in your cylinder for what it is intended for on a dive; breathing!
If you were to take one thing away from anything in this article, it would be the understanding that we scuba dive for fun. The intent is to be relaxed, minorly moving, enjoying our activity to the fullest through our technique. If you can relax, you'll find air consumption is drastically reduced.
An oft overlooked technique is mastering fin control and fin techniques. Typically, there are two types of fin kicks. The scissor kick and the frog kick. A majority of this power is generated from our thighs in both of these kick techniques. With the scissor kick, we find a diver laying flat in the water column with straight, slightly bent knees. This diver is generating power from the hips very similar to a kick from a soccer player. The frog kick technique keeps the legs elevated while generating power from the inner thigh. The key to both of these methods is to move the fins smoothly through the water in order to achieve minimal resistance. When the power of the kick is underway, it will slowly propel us through the water.
Many divers think they must kick as hard as possible to travel through the water, when the opposite is actually true. As Newton's Third Law states, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Therefore, we find the blade of a fin pushing against water and creating propulsion for the diver. By slowing down the rate of this action in an environment where the diver is breathing and conducting themselves in a peak performance buoyancy situation, they'll find that they can move much faster by engaging the right technique. Finning is a learned trait and can be accomplished by taking a specialty class or by practicing on a regular basis.
Additionally, finning is an excellent way to condition the body for scuba diving. Through the correct fin kick, we'll create a more efficient diver that can breath correctly and glide through the water vice fighting it.
Selecting the correct tank is also imperative for a diver. As previously stated, a larger diver may naturally consume more air. Which means they may just need a larger capacity tank to match the efforts of their buddies underwater. If you are a larger person, you might not want to select an aluminum 63 cubic foot for your diving. This means you'll be shorting the space in your tank for air you breath and shorting the dive even further. Oftentimes, you'll see larger folks with a Steel 100 while their buddies have Aluminum 80's. There's approximately a 21 cubic foot difference between the two tanks and may be the small change that a dive buddy team will find works for those hour long dives in the water.
Another consideration is the buoyancy characteristics of these tanks. Aluminum tends to lighten up with the reduced psi in the tank while steel has the same buoyancy regardless of its tank pressure. If a diver is attempting to create a perfect buoyancy situation, they may not want to wrestle with their buoyancy at the end of a dive with an emptying aluminum tank. This will create work and walk us right back down the road of consuming that air at a higher rate.
Whatever the choice of tank, remember that asking a dive professional for help in selection is also important. They can get an idea of your capabilities in the water and determine the right size of tank for you in a given situation.
When I was an Open Water Diver in Japan and then Southern California, I found myself often frustrated at having to come up well before the rest of my buddies when we explored our underwater realm. As time has gone on and through honing these techniques, I've become quite the opposite in the water. You can also achieve mastery when it comes to air consumption by working on these techniques both in and out of the water. Take a class to help you master some of these techniques with your local dive shop and, more importantly, get out there and dive! It's the only way you'll become a better scuba diver!
About the Author:
D.J. Mansfield is a PADI Course Director who dives Southern California and has done so for 22 years. He is currently the Director of Operations for Beach Cities Scuba and is a committed ocean steward and trainer for divers all over the world.
Follow him on Instagram @djmansfield7or contact him at email@example.com.
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