Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Decompression Diving – What Is It and Should I Avoid It?

The Beginners Guide to Scuba Diving - Part 12


This is the Beginners Guide to Scuba Diving.  We’ve put this guide together to help budding Scuba Divers understand what is required to get started.  Part 12 of this series takes a look at Decompression Diving.

Decompression Diving – What Is It and Should I Avoid It?

The term decompression diving is sometimes confusing for beginning divers. It brings forth images of complicated formulas and in-depth planning. They are told that it is “just” for technical divers who have a vast amount of training and it not for mere recreational divers. They are right mostly, however, that does not mean that the recreational diver should not be aware of the topic and what it involves. In a broad definition, we can say that a decompression dive is one where the diver must make one or more mandatory stops prior to reaching the surface. The purpose of the stops is to allow the reduction of inert gases in the body. We refer to these mandatory stops as Deco stops.

In our Open Water Diver training, we learned the importance of the dive tables. These tables gave us a set of guidelines we could use to safely dive to certain depths and how long we could stay there. This time limit is called the No-decompression limit (NDL). Staying within the NDL time and making a proper assent means there are no mandatory decompression stops. The second part of the table helps us calculate the effects of nitrogen still in our body before our next dive. The surface internal and previous dive gave us a new NDL for our next dive at the depth we planned. In our training, we learn that these tables assumed a maximum ascent rate. We generally see 30 feet per minute as the rate we wish to stay below. This slow controlled assent allows the body to continue to expel nitrogen from our tissue at a rate that balances its growth in size due to less pressure. It also helps prevents expanding air to be caught in the ears and chest causing ruptures. We are also taught that we should pause at 5 meters/15 feet for 3 minutes as a safety stop. This is the same as a deco stop as far as its effect on the body, allows more time to let the body expel gasses.

For the recreational diver, the question of should we avoid a decompression dive, the answer is a simple yes. The explanation might not be as you expect, however. Let’s start by saying an Open Water Diver following the dive tables and staying within the limits of their certification will not likely encroach onto the decompression dive profile. On your first dive, you can stay at 60 feet/18 meters for about 55 minutes. Most divers will find that the amount of air remaining will require them to surface before reaching the NDL. Depending on the surface internal, the same may be true for the second dive. Advanced Open Water and Deep Divers, however, can exceed NDL before reaching the air consumption limit. As an example let’s say a dive plan using computers calls for a descent to 30 meters/100 feet. The divers are to start to ascent when the first diver reaches 70 bar of gas remaining or 3 minutes NDL time. There will be a 3-minute safety stop at 5 meter/15 feet. Let’s assume a diver exceeds his NDL and breathes down to the 70 bar. His dive computer will go into “deco” mode and give him one or more “deco” stops. The more time passes over the NDL, the more time and maybe more stops will be added. While a slow return to the surface with 70 bars would have left a safe air margin within NDL, the additional time required to ascend may exceed the remaining air. Very few divers, especially a new diver, can do an extended “Deco” dive on a single tank.

Two scuba divers are silhouetted in blue water
Two scuba divers are silhouetted in blue water

My Dive Computer says “Deco” What Do I Do?

The first thing to do is not to panic. If you just went into deco mode, the safety stop can still be short enough not to affect your ability to return to the surface. Ascend slightly and signal your dive buddy it is time to go up, let your buddy know you are in “deco”. Your dive computer will give you a depth where you need to make a safety stop. Ascend to that depth or slightly below it and level off. The computer will show you how long you need to remain at that depth, often with a countdown timer. When you complete that stop, the dive computer will let you know if an additional stop is needed. If you were just slightly over the limit the next stop may be the 5 meter stop with a minute or two added. Longer time over the NDL may require an additional stop. If you miss a “deco” stop, your dive computer will go into a violation mode. It will still provide recommended stops, however, it will not start a new dive for 24 hours. Both you and your dive buddy must monitor your air consumption.

Practice a “Fake” Decompression Dive.

Reading and fully understanding your dive computer manual and applying it to your computer is very important. Advance and deep divers have to pay close attention to the NDL on their computers. Knowing what to do and how your computer will react is critically important. Depending on your computer, you might be able to “fake” a decompression dive for training purposes. This is best done under the supervision of an instructor. While there are many models of dive computers on the market, they all use a very small number of mathematical models. Even between different mathematical models, the results are very similar. To accommodate divers with different risk factors, many computers will let you set your computer to be more conservative than the normal model, having a normal mode, conservative mode and a very conservative mode. There may be as much as 5 minutes difference between the different settings at 30 meters.

To experience a training decompression dive requires you to use two dive computers. Set your computer to the very conservative setting, and use the other as your control computer with the setting you normally would use. This exercise will not work if you normally dive in a very conservative setting. Dive at a depth within your certification level and let the very conservative set dive computer go into “deco”, however, do not exceed the NDL on the control computer. Follow the decompression dive instructions from your computer as you surface. This will give you the experience of using your computer if you accidentally go into a decompression situation.

Deep Diving Safety Stop

The addition of the safety stop at 5 meters/15 feet for recreational divers was design to provide a larger margin of safety. It is in fact the same thing that a deco stop does. Many deep dive recreational divers are adding a deep safety stop. This stop is at half the depth of the dive. So if you dived to 30 meters, the diver will do a deep stop at 15 meters. The stop is only for a minute or two, however, it will add a safety margin in addition to the 5 meter stop.

Training for Decompression Diving

As you become a more confident and efficient diver, you may reach a point where you would want to learn decompression diving. The training agencies offer an introduction to technical diving programs that include decompression diving. PADI’s Tec 40 course and SSI’s Extended Range Nitrox are two examples. These programs do require other certifications and are for experienced divers, however, they are a worthy goal to strive for.

Continue reading more from the Beginners Guide to Scuba Diving.

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Decompression Diving - What Is It and Should I Avoid It? 3
Charles Davis
Charles Davis is an active diver for over 19 years who enjoys writing about his favorite activities, Scuba Diving and Travel. Also known as the Scuba Diving Nomad


  1. Charles, all dives are decompression dives, even breath-holding dives are.
    The shorter dives just are less likely to cause symptoms due to excess gasses dissolved in bodily tissues and fluids moving back to their gas state.
    Proof is that some divers still get bend even though they followed the tables correctly.
    Knowing that the famous U.S. Navy tables were made for young healthy men for combat missions with an acceptable % mortality rate should indicate enough how artificial this NDL really is.

    So instead of giving the dumbo diver a feather and focus your articles on false security, please teach the number one rule a diver should know, a skill very few of the agencies teach as the number one skill a new diver needs to master. Do you know which skill?


    • Roeland Papen, Yes I agree that all dives are decompression dives. In previous articles of this series, this point was explained as well as the fact that the NDL is a risk management tool. Unexplained DCS hits do happen, even when divers should have an ample buffer from the NDL.

      While the recreational tables are based on the Navy tables, the recreational tables are not identical and are more conservative. The different algorithms that the dive computers use are also more conservative. The dive computer article in this series also points out the risk involved with the assumptions of the navy tables.

      I have to disagree with you that the NDL is artificial. They are based on decades of research and represents a valid benchmark. Ever diver will have difference tolerance, and it is not practical to test each person. Also, temporary conditions such as dehydration will change an individual’s tolerance. The NDL represents the point that the overall risk increases sharply after that particle pressure of nitrogen is reached within the different tissue types. it is not perfect, however, following the guidelines does reduce DCS. My personal practice is to not to push the NDL time and if necessary prolong my safety stop. No matter what the training agencies call it, it is really a deco stop.
      Your statement “number one rule a diver should know, a skill very few of the agencies teach as the number one skill a new diver needs to master.” I do not know what rule that is a skill and not taught you are referring to. My personal view is that most of the training agency fail to properly train buoyancy control and air consumption practices.
      What rule are you commenting on?

  2. Charles,

    Since I just now found your response and question, I will gladly answer.

    The number one skill none of the agencies teach and should be mastered by all certified divers is knowing when not to dive. There is always another dive day in the future.


  3. Charles, thank you for the time and effort you put into your informative article. I can also see you are very polite.

    Roland, as a matter of interest, are you really as stuck-up and arrogant as you sound?


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