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Situational Awareness


Someone said "Situational Awareness refers to the degree of accuracy by which one's perception of his current environment mirrors reality". I think that sums it up well.

We as divers need to keep track of what is happening around us right now and how that will affect us right now but also in the near future. To become a good buddy and a safer diver it is important to improve your capacity for this. The first step in improving is one you have already taking - learning a little more about Situational Awareness.

Three levels of SA

Some of the best info regarding situational awareness (SA) and Crew Resource Management (CRM, team work) comes from the aviation industry and especially warfare where situational awareness is essential for survival. This is also where a lot of the funding for research has been coming from.

Situational awareness can be divided into three levels:

  • Level 1 - Perception of information
  • Level 2 - Comprehension of current situation
  • Level 3 - Projection of future status

Let's have a closer look at these levels and see what they relate to us as divers.

Level 1 - Perception of information

The first and most basic level is the collection of information or clues from ourselves and our environment.


So what kind of information are we collecting?

Well, let's start by looking at yourself first. For example:

  • How do you feel?
  • Are you stressed?
  • Are you cold?
  • Are you working hard?
  • Are you taskloaded?
  • Are you breathing hard?
  • CO2 accumulation?
  • Level of narcosis?
  • Cramps?
  • Hydration level?
  • Glucose level?

And then your equipment. For example:

  • Is everything working as it should?
  • Is everything stowed that is not in use?
  • All hoses and cords routed as they should be?
  • How much gas pressure do we have in our tanks?
  • What's our traveling direction?
  • What's our depth?
  • What's the time?

Next is our team. For example:

  • Are my buddies comfortable?
  • What's their breathing rate?
  • Do they move their light beams slowly and deliberately?
  • Is their equipment working?
  • No strange bubbles?
  • Nothing hanging out that should be stowed?
  • No backup lights shining?
  • What's their distance to me?
  • Are they swimming faster or slower than me?

And finally our environment. For example:

  • What's the water temperature?
  • Thermoclines?
  • Currents?
  • Direction of currents?
  • Flow?
  • Hazards like monofilament line, nets, ropes, chains?
  • Potential snag points?
  • Where is the guideline running?
  • Line traps?
  • Ambient light level?
  • Silt?
  • Visibility?
  • Landsmarks for navigation?
  • Restrictions?
  • Marine life or hazards?

This is some of the information we need to collect during the dive. Let's have a look at what we can do with it.

Level 2 - Comprehension of current situation

With the information we collected we can understand our current situation. For example, a compass direction showing north doesn't mean anything by itself. But if we combine it with all information like gas consumption, depth, direction of travel, position of dive boat, swimming speed and decompression obligation we can get a good picture of out situation. Do we need to go back or go up?

Being in cave and having 180bar / 2700 psi in our tanks doesn't mean anything either. But if we know how far from the entrance we are, what our depth profile looked like and how much gas we used to get there then we can figure out:

  • our swimming pace
  • how much further we are likely to go before we have to turn around
  • how much gas we need to get out from were we are, considering the direction of the flow and restrictions or hazards that we passes on our way in.
How to remember things

Our minds have this fantastic ability to forget everything that is not relevant to us. Colleting lots and lots of information and trying to remember it doesn't work - unless it means something to us.

Descending into cold water doing decompression dives I will pay attention to any thermoclines and at what depth they are because in an emergency I may have to cut deco to get up into the warm water as fast as I can.

Running a primary line to the main line in cave, I want to know how long it took and how much gas I used because it's going to tell me if I am improving or not. But maybe more important whwn I need to figuring out my deco I need to know how much time I spent shallow running line.

Keeping track of depth and time during the dive will tell me how much deco I need to do. Thinking about it during the dives makes it easier to remember because it makes sense to me. Just looking at my bottom timer 50 times during a three hour dive I can't remember what it said. But I can tell you how long it took to run the reel, when we turned the dive, how long it took us to get back and what depth we are going to base our decompression on.

So try to take the information you collect during the dive and use that to think about your current situation and that will make it easier for you to remember important information.

Level 3 - Projection of future status

This is the third and most advanced level of situational awareness. Projection of future status is when we can play out "what if" scenarios and decide on different courses of action and know what their implications are going to be.

To be able to do it you need a very good understanding of how everything in the dive and dive plan relates and affects each other. You need to develop a mental picture of cause and effect.

For example: You are diving a wreck in really cold water and at the end of your planned bottom time you find that bell you have been looking for. To decide if you have time to shoot some pictures of it you need to consider a couple of things:

  • How much more bottom time do you need to accomplish your task?
  • How much more deco would that mean you have to do?
  • How much longer will the total time in the water be?
  • What was the temperature at the shallower stops? Are we going to get too cold at the end of the deco and have an off gasing problem?
  • Are there any potential problems reaching the upline when going back (current, low viz, entanglement hazards)?
  • Do we have enough gas to complete the bottom part, enough gas to complete the deco and still have a safe amount of reserve gas if anything goes wrong?
  • Is our extended dive time going to cause any problems on the surface with the boat, support divers or other dive teams?

Another important things is that we can start predicting problems. Among pilots it has been shown that the more experienced ones can catch a problem faster than the inexperienced one. The reason for that is not really that they are faster at scanning their environment (level 1 SA) it is more the fact that they are proactivly looking for potential problems.

For example let's say we are diving in an area that is covered with loose lines everywhere. Now it would be logical to pay more attention to where those lines are and where our buddies are because it is more likely someone will get entangled in the line. Especially when one of our buddies is less experienced we need to give him some extra attention. Also considering that it may take some time to un-entangle someone we need to cut back on our original gas plan so we have an extra reserve for this.

Developing SA

The first step is to pay attention to time, depth and gas. Divide the dive into managable segments and think about what things you need to remember about these. How much gas did we start with, how long did it take to reach the bottom and how much gas do we have now and how much can we use before we have to turn?

Next you need to start thinking about gas consumption, swimming speed and reserve gas. Then learn how to figure out your deco or how long you can stay if you are doing "no decompression" dives so you can combine this information and be able to adjust your dive plan during the dive.

Then it's time to start thinking about what you are doing as a team and about the next step before it happens. Think about how you can assist your buddies and what they have to do and if that is going to be taskloading them. Start to think about different part of the dive and problems that are likely to occur.


Situational awareness is primarily a mental or cognitive skill. The more you think about diving the better your situational awareness is going to be. Hone that during your actual diving and you will become a more alert diver and a better buddy.

Good luck!


This page was last modified 26 August 2006
ⓒ 2002-2021 Peter Steinhoff