Underwater navigation is a key skill for many divers especially professionals leading dives with a number of divers following their lead. It is a skill that is learned over time and with experience, but for many divers it is a complete mystery. A lot of holiday divers for example dive every year with a dive leader of some sort to guide them on the dive site and take them to the best spots.
After a dive many divers often ask me how on earth did I find my way and mention how completely disorientated they were during the dive in relation to the direction they had come from. This is easy to feel like this when you are following another diver, you do not have to concentrate on where you are but just enjoy the dive. It is only when you have to navigate or start to learn this skill that a diver starts to gain the knowledge and an underwater sense of direction.
A good way to learn the basics is to complete the Underwater Navigation speciality, this is a very good course and will improve any novices navigation. It is one of the most involved specialities with a lot of compass and navigation work over the dives, enough to vastly improve any divers navigation skills.
Underwater a good compass will help with initial navigation as well as a general direction guide to help you get back to your exit point. You can navigate from several points along a series of bearings and return on their reciprocal headings. You can head off and explore large areas and return with great accuracy using this method. A good slate to note your bearings, depths and navigation point details is essential as is the ability to correctly and accurately use your compass.
With training and practice you can also navigate squares, triangles and other series of legs and return back to your starting point on the final leg. This is a great way to explore an area around a dive boat or a bay for example and come back to your ascent point.
While you dive certain dive sites on a regular basis and as you use a compass with your general navigation a key skill in navigating starts to come into it's own. That is natural navigation, this is the use of underwater topography to guide you through your dive and eventually help build an underwater map in your head.
Natural navigation gives you a map and a direction to follow and you can do whole dives by just using this technique. For bigger dives or dive sites that you have not visited so much a combination of natural and compass navigation also comes into it's own.
There is so much to help you naturally navigate on your dive and these include rock formations, reefs, water movement, bottom composition, fixed marine life, depth and so on. On your Advanced Open Water course you should have had some experience of this on your navigation dive and there is plenty of this type of navigation on the underwater navigation speciality with a good Instructor. The speciality also covers compass navigation with squares, triangles, multiple bearings along a number of legs and multiple reciprocal navigation swims.
After that it is a matter of putting it all into practice and using these skills or by building your knowledge of a site over a series of dives and learning your navigation that way. You will make mistakes and learn from them, you can always safely ascend and then drop back down again in shallower depths to realign your direction and never dive outside of your comfort level. For many dives you can use your knowledge of natural navigation and then use a combination of that and your compass to build your knowledge and the topography of the area. This way you can further extend your knowledge of a dive site and expand it over large areas. This is how you start to become an excellent dive guide.
Underwater navigation soon gets easier and the mystery around how to master the skill becomes a distant memory. Any dive site then including completely new ones are pretty easy to navigate with your new knowledge and these tricks of the trade !