The “Okay” Signal
The first hand signal that most scuba divers learn is the “Okay” hand signal. The “Okay” signal is made by joining the thumb and index fingers to form a loop, and extending the third, fourth, and fifth fingers. This signal can be used as both a question and a response. The “Okay” signal is a “demand-response” signal, meaning that if one diver asks another diver if he is okay, he must respond with either an “Okay” signal or the communication that something is wrong. The “Okay” hand signal should not be confused with the “Thumbs-up” signal, which in scuba diving means “end the dive.”

The “Not Okay” or “Problem” Signal
Scuba divers communicate a problem by extending a flattened hand and rotating it slowly side to side, similarly to how many people signal “so-so” in a normal conversation. A diver communicating a problem underwater should then point to the source of the problem using his index finger.

The most common use of the “Problem” hand signal is to communicate an ear equalization problem. The “Ear Problem” signal is taught to all student divers before they enter the water for the first time. As illustrated above, the diver makes the “Problem” sign and then points to his ears to specify an ear problem.

The “Okay” and “Problem” Surface Signals
During the open water course, scuba divers will also learn how to communicate “Okay” and “Problem” on the surface. These surface communication signals involve the whole arm, so that boat captains and surface support staff can easily understand a diver’s communication from far away.

The okay sign is made by joining both arms in a ring above the head, or if only one arm is free, by touching the top of the head with the fingertips. The “Help” or “Problem” signal is made by waving the arm over the head to call for attention. Don’t wave “hi” to a dive boat on the surface, because the captain is likely to think you need assistance.

The “Up” or “End the Dive” Hand Signal
A “Thumbs-Up” sign in scuba diving communicates “Up” or “End the Dive”. This should not be confused with the “Okay” signal. The “Up” signal is one of the most important signals in scuba diving. The Golden Rule of Scuba Diving states that any diver can end the dive at any point for any reason by using the “Up” signal. This important dive safety rule ensures that divers are not forced beyond their comfort level underwater. The “Up” signal is a demand-response signal. A diver who signals “Up” to his buddy should receive the “Up” signal in return so that he can be sure that his signal was understood.

The “Down” Hand Signal
The “Thumbs-Down” hand signal communicates “go down” or “descend” underwater. This signal should not be confused with the “not-okay” hand signal used to indicate a problem. The “Down” signal is used in the first step of the Five Point Descent, in which divers agree that they are prepared to begin the descent.

The “Slow Down” Hand Signal
The “Slow Down” hand signal is another basic signal that is taught to all student divers before their first scuba dive. Instructors use this signal to tell enthusiastic students to swim slowly and enjoy the incredible underwater world. Not only does swimming slowly make diving more fun, it helps to avoid hyperventilation and other dangerous underwater behaviors.

The “Stop” Hand Signal
Divers typically communicate “Stop” in one of two ways. The first method of communicating “Stop” (common in Recreational Diving) is to hold up a flat hand, palm forward, as shown in the left. Technical Divers, however, favor the “Hold” sign, shown on the right, made by extending a fist with the palm-side of the fist facing outwards. The “Hold” sign is a demand response signal; a diver who signals “Hold” to his buddies should receive a “Hold” sign in return, indicating that his buddies have understood the signal and agree to stop and hold their position until otherwise indicated.

The “Look at . . .” Hand Signal
The “Look at” hand signal for scuba diving is made by pointing the index and third fingers at one’s eyes, and then indicating the object to be observed. A scuba instructor uses “Look at me” to indicate that students should watch him demonstrate an underwater skill, such as Mask Clearing during the Open Water Course. “Look at Me” is signaled by making the “Look at” signal and then gesturing towards one’s chest with a finger or thumb (upper right). Divers can also enjoy showing each other aquatic life and other underwater attractions by using the “Look Over There” signal, made by signaling “Look at” and the pointing towards the animal or object (lower right).

Go in This Direction” Hand Signal
To indicate or suggest a direction of travel, scuba divers use the fingertips of a flattened hand to point out the desired direction. Using all five fingers to point out a direction of travel helps to avoid confusion with the “Look at” signal, which is made by pointing with a single index finger.

The “Come Here” Hand Signal
The “Come Here” hand signal for scuba diving is made by extending a flattened hand, palm up, and bending the fingertips upwards towards oneself. The “Come Here” signal is basically the same signal that people use to indicate “come here” in everyday conversation. Scuba diving instructors use the “Come Here” signal to call students together or to show divers an interesting underwater attraction.

The “Level Off” Hand Signal
The “Level Off” hand signal for scuba diving is use to communicate “remain at this depth” or “maintain this depth.” The “Level Off” signal is most commonly used to communicate that divers have reached the planned maximum depth for a dive, or to communicate that divers should hold previously designated depth for a safety or decompression stop. The “Level Off” hand signal is made by extending a flattened hand, palm down, and slowly moving it side-to-side horizontally.

The “Buddy Up” or “Stay Together” Hand Signal
A diver places two index fingers side-by-side to indicate “Buddy-Up” or “Stay Together”. Scuba diving instructors use this hand signal to remind student divers to stay close to their buddies. Divers also occasionally use this signal to reassign buddy teams underwater. For example, when two divers in a group are low-on-air and ready to ascend, they may communicate “we’ll stay together and ascend” using the “Buddy Up” hand signal. If divers plan to reassign buddy teams based on air consumption underwater, the practice should be discussed and agreed upon by all divers in the group before the dive. No diver should even be left without a buddy.

The “Safety Stop” Hand Signal
The “Safety Stop” hand signal is made by holding the “Level Off” signal (a flat hand) over three raised fingers. A diver is indicating “Level Off” for three minutes (signified by the three fingers), which is the minimum recommend time for a safety stop. The safety stop signal should be used on every dive to communicate within the dive team that the divers have reached the pre-determined safety stop depth and agree to maintain that depth for a minimum of three minutes.

The “Deco” or “Decompression” Hand Signal
The “Decompression” hand signal for scuba diving is commonly made in one of two ways — either with an extended pinky or with an extended pinky and thumb (similar to a “hang loose” sign). Technical divers trained in decompression diving techniques will use this signal to communicate the need for a decompression stop. Recreational divers should also be familiar with this signal. Although recreational scuba divers should never plan to make a decompression dive without proper training, this sign is useful in the unlikely event that a diver accidentally exceeds his No-Decompression Limit for a dive and must communicate the need for an Emergency Decompression Stop.

The “Low-On-Air” Hand Signal
The “Low-On-Air” hand signal for scuba diving is made by placing a closed fist against the chest. In general, this hand signal is not used to indicate an emergency, but to communicate that a diver has reached the pre-determine tank pressure reserve for his dive. Once a diver communicates that he is “Low-On-Air,” he and his buddy should agree to make a slow and controlled ascent to the surface and end the dive by using the “Up” signal.

The “Out-Of-Air” Hand Signal
The “Out-Of-Air” signal is taught to all Open Water Course and Experience Course students so that they know how to react in the unlikely event of an out-of-air emergency. The chances of an out-of air emergency when scuba diving are extremely low when proper Pre-Dive Checks and diving procedures are observed.

The “Out-Of-Air” signal is made by moving a flat hand across the throat in a slicing motion to indicate that a diver is “cut-off” from his air supply. This signal requires an immediate response from the diver’s buddy, who should allow the out-of-air diver to breathe from his alternate air source regulator while the two divers ascend together.

The “I’m Cold” Hand Signal
A diver makes the “I’m Cold” hand signal by crossing his arms and rubbing his upper arms with his hands, as if he were trying to warm himself. The “I’m Cold” hand signal may seem frivolous, but it is not. If a diver becomes excessively chilled underwater, he may lose reasoning and motor skills. Further more, his body will not eliminate absorbed nitrogen efficiently. For these reasons, it is imperative that a diver who begins to feel excessively chilled communicate the problem using the “I’m Cold” hand signal, end the dive, and begin his ascent to the surface with his dive buddy.

The “Bubbles” or “Leak” Hand Signal
The “Bubbles” or “Leak” hand signal is used to communicate that a diver has noticed a leaking seal or bubbling piece of gear, either on himself or his buddy. Once a leak has been observed, divers should end the dive and begin a slow and controlled ascent to the surface. Scuba diving has a very good safety record, but it is an equipment-dependent sport. Even small bubbles can indicate the beginning of a potentially serious problem. A diver makes the “Bubbles” hand signal by opening and closing his fingertips rapidly, as shown in the illustration above.

The “Question” Signal
The “Question” signal is made by raising a crooked index finger to approximate a question mark. The “Question” signal is used in conjunction with any one of the other scuba diving hand signals. For example, the “Question” signal followed by the “Up” signal could be used to be communicate “Should we go up?” and the “Question” signal followed by the “Cold” signal could be used to express “Are you cold?”

The “Write It Down” Hand Signal
When all other communication fails, divers sometimes find it easiest to simply write down the information to be communicated on an underwater slate or wet-notes underwater notebook. A writing device is a valuable tool underwater, and can save time and increase diver safety by allowing a diver to express complex ideas or problems. The “Write It Down” signal is made by pantomiming that one hand is a writing surface and the other hand is writing with a pencil.

Now you know twenty of the most common scuba diving hand signals. Of course, many more scuba diving hand signals exist! Review hand signals with your dive buddy before every dive to avoid communication problems underwater.

**Thank you Natalie L. Gibb for the photos.

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