How To Use A Compass

Scuba diving tips - using a compass

Diving Tips – How To Use A Compass

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Need help with getting from A to B? Having trouble finding your way round? There is no such thing as an underwater Tom Tom. You will need to learn how to use an underwater compass.

Underwater navigation isn’t rocket science. All you need is some basic knowledge on how to use a compass, and practice some basic skills and the rest of your dives should be all about enjoyment, making bubbles and seeing the fantastic marine life the underwater realm has to offer.

The most important rule of underwater navigation is to trust your compass. The north arrow will always point towards magnetic north so as long as you have some basic knowledge and skills you should be going in a straight line.

So How Do You Use A Compass?

During your open water course you would of have mastered two navigation skills; one underwater and one on the surface. It may have been a while ago that you did this so here are a few reminders:

Hold It Correctly – The compass should be held directly in front of you with the lubber line directly in the centre of your body. The compass should be perfectly flat meaning and not tilted either to the left, right, forwards or back.

Set The Heading – You should point the lubber line in your desired direction; you should then turn the bezel so that the north arrow sits directly in between the 2 index marks. Take note of the number of degrees on top of the bezel for your bearing.

Swim – You should then swim out slowly counting your fin kicks. Remember to only count one leg during the stroke. Keep the North arrow in between the index marks and you will be heading straight to where you want to go. Easy.

Sounds simple enough but there are a few tips and tricks to make it even easier while you navigate. This will mean you can enjoy your dive more – look around and spot marine life and of course, if necessary get safely back to the boat.


If it has been a while since you last used a compass practice on land first. Reorient yourself with the different features of the compass and how to set headings. Carry a slate and pencil on your dive. This will allow you to note down any headings you plan to use before the dive and if there is any confusion underwater you can use the slate to communicate with your buddy.

Look Around

Don’t just stare at the compass. Take note of your surroundings. Not only are you going to see more marine life but you can watch out for currents and use natural references. After setting your initial heading you should look around to see if there are any natural features such as rock or coral formations. After setting off you should keep a little check on the feature to make sure you are on course and no currents are pushing you off.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you want to be become more proficient with the compass then you should take your Advanced open watercourse. During this course there is an entire Adventure dive dedicated to Underwater Navigation. You will learn how to perform a square underwater, use natural navigation as well as methods to estimate distance underwater. You will also practice a reciprocal heading, similar to what you did on your open water course.

Buying your own compass is only going to make you more familiar and comfortable with it. The most popular compass in the world is the Suunto SK8, this can be fitted onto your SPG, worn on your wrist or attached to your BCD connected with a retractable string.

You can even use it during night diving. The body of the compass absorbs your torch light and become luminescent allowing you to navigate in the dark.

Keep It Simple

There is no need to make things harder than they have to be. Try just using the main points on the compass North, South, East or West for headings. Doing this means you don’t have to worry about remembering any specific degrees bearings and simplifies the whole process of getting around a dive site.


The PADI underwater navigator course will test your compass skills to the max and strengthen your confidence to use a compass and underwater navigation in general. Once you have completed this 3 dive PADI Specialty course you would have been able to navigate around a dive site using multiple headings. You will even be able to map a dive site. After this your dive buddies will have confidence in you to lead a dive and make it back to the boat at the end.

Author: Neil Davidson (PADI MSDT #294100)

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