The Physics Of Scuba Diving Swimming With

The Physics Of Scuba Diving: Swimming With The Fish Essay, Research Paper The Physics Of Scuba Diving: Swimming with the Fish Have you ever wondered what it would be like to swim with the fish and

The Physics Of Scuba Diving: Swimming With The Fish Essay, Research Paper

The Physics Of Scuba Diving: Swimming with the Fish

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to swim with the fish and

explore the underwater jungle that covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface? I

have always been interested in water activities; swimming, diving and skiing,

and I felt that scuba was for me. My first dive took place while on a family

vacation. I came across a dive shop offering introductory dives, which

immediately caught my interest. After much convincing (my parents), with my

solemn assurance that I would be careful, I was allowed to participate in a dive.

I was ready, or so I thought. The slim basics such as breathing were explained

and I was literally tossed in. Sounds easy enough, right!, well WRONG!!. From

the moment I hit the water, my experience was much less than fun. I quickly

sank to the bottom into a new world, with unfamiliar dangers. I really wasn’t

ready for this experience. I was disorientated, causing me to panic, which

shortened the length of my dive, not to mention my air supply. Let’s just say I

would not do that again.

To start exploring the underwater world, one must first master a few

skills. Certification is the first step of learning to dive. From qualified

professionals one must learn how to use the equipment, safety precautions, and

the best places to dive. This paper is designed to help give a general

understanding of the sport and the importance that physics plays in it. Self-

contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA for short, is a hell of a lot

of fun. However, there is considerably more to Diving than just putting on a

wetsuit and strapping some compressed air onto ones back. As I quickly learned,

diving safely requires quite a bit more in terms of time, effort, and

preparation. When one goes underwater, a diver is introduced to a new and

unfamiliar world, where many dangers exist, but can be avoided with proper

lessons and understanding. With this knowledge the water is ours to discover.

The Evolution of Scuba Diving

Divers have penetrated the oceans through the centuries for the purpose

of acquiring food, searching for treasure, carrying out military operations,

performing scientific research and exploration, and enjoying the aquatic

environment. Bachrach (1982) identified the following five principal periods in

the history of diving which are currently in use. Free (or breath-hold) diving,

bell diving, surface support or helmet (hard hat) diving, scuba diving, and,

saturation diving or atmospheric diving (Ketels, 4)


The development of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus

provided the free moving diver with a portable air supply which, although finite

in comparison with the unlimited air supply available to the helmet diver,

allowed for mobility. Scuba diving is the most frequently used mode in

recreational diving and, in various forms, is also widely used to perform

underwater work for military, scientific, and commercial purposes.

There were many steps in the development of a successful self-contained

underwater system. In 1808, Freiderich yon Drieberg invented a bellows-in-a-box

device that was worn on the diver’s back and delivered compressed air from the

surface. This device, named Triton, did not actually work but served to suggest

that compressed air could be used in diving, an idea initially conceived of by

Halley in 1716. (Ketels, 9)

In 1865, two French inventors, Rouquayrol and Denayrouse, developed a

suit that they described as “self-contained.” In fact, their suit was not self

contained but consisted of a helmet-using surface-supported system that had an

air reservoir that was carried on the diver’s back and was sufficient to provide

one breathing cycle on demand. The demand valve regulator was used with surface

supply largely because tanks of adequate strength were not yet available to

handle air at high pressure. This system’s demand valve, which was automatically

controlled, represented a major breakthrough because it permitted the diver to

have a breath of air when needed. The Rouquayrol and Denayrouse apparatus was

described with remarkable accuracy in Jules Verne’s classic, Twenty Thousand

Leagues Under The Sea, which was written in 1869, only 4 years after the

inventors had made their device public (Ketels, 10).

Semi-Self-Contained Diving Suit

The demand valve played a critical part in the later development of one

form of scuba apparatus. In the 1920’s, a French naval officer, Captain Yves Le

Prieur, began work on a self-contained air diving apparatus that resulted in

1926 in the award of a patent, shared with his countryman Fernez. This device

was a steel cylinder containing compressed air that was worn on the diver’s back

and had an air hose connected to a mouthpiece. The diver wore a nose clip and

air-tight goggles that undoubtedly were protective and an aid to vision but did

not permit pressure equalization.

The major problem with Le Prieur’s apparatus was the lack of a demand

valve, which necessitated a continuous flow (and thus waste) of gas. In 1943,

almost 20 years after Fernez and Le Prieur patented their apparatus, two other

French inventors, Emile Gagnan and Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, demonstrated

their “Aqua Lung.”

This apparatus used a demand intake valve drawing from two or three

cylinders, each containing over 2500 psig. Thus it was that the demand regulator,

invented over 70 years earlier by Rouquayrol and Denayrouse and extensively used

in aviation, came into use in a self-contained breathing apparatus which did not

emit a wasteful flow of air during inhalation (although it continued to lose

exhaled gas into the water). This application made possible the development of

modern open-circuit air scuba gear (Ketels,11).

In 1939, Dr. Christian Lambertsen began the development of a series of

three patented forms of oxygen rebreathing equipment for neutral buoyancy

underwater swimming. This became the first self-contained underwater breathing

apparatus successfully used by a large number of divers. The Lambertsen

Amphibious Respiratory Unit (LARU) formed the basis for the establishment of U.S.

military self-contained diving. This apparatus was designated scuba (for self-

contained underwater breathing apparatus) by its users. Equivalent self-

contained apparatus was used by the military forces of Italy, the United States,

and Great Britain during World War II and continues in active use today. (Ketels,


A major development in regard to mobility in diving occurred in France

during the 1930’s: Commander de Carlieu developed a set of swim fins, the first

to be produced since Borelli designed a pair of claw-like fins in 1680. When

used with Le Prieur’s tanks, goggles, and nose clip, de Carlieu’s fins enabled

divers to move horizontally through the water like true swimmers, instead of

being lowered vertically in a diving bell or in hard-hat gear. The later use of

a single-lens face mask, which allowed better visibility as well as pressure

equalization, also increased the comfort and depth range of diving equipment

(Tillman, 27).

Thus the development of scuba added a major working tool to the systems

available to divers. The new mode allowed divers greater freedom of movement

and access to greater depths for extended times and required much less

burdensome support equipment. Scuba also enriched the world of sport diving by

permitting recreational divers to go beyond goggles and breath-hold diving to

more extended dives at greater depths.

The physics of Scuba Diving

Upon entering the underwater world, one notices new and different

sensations as one ventures into a realm where everything looks, sounds and feels

different than it does above the water. These sensations are part of what makes

diving so special.

Understanding why the underwater world is different helps you adapt and

become accustomed to the changes. In the following pages I will attempt to

explain two factors that greatly affect a diver under water: buoyancy and


Have you ever wondered why a large steel ocean liner floats, but a small

steel nail sinks? The answer is surprisingly simple. The steel hull of the ship

is formed in a shape that displaces much water. If the steel used to

manufacture the ocean liner were placed in the sea without being shaped into a

large hull, it would sink like the nail. The ocean liner demonstrates that

whether an object floats depends not only on its weight, but on how much water

it displaces (Ascher, 51).

The principle of buoyancy can be simplified this way: An object placed

in water is buoyed up by the force equal to the weight of the quantity of water

it displaces. The principle of buoyancy is that if an object displaces an

amount of water weighing more than its own weight, it will float. If an object

displaces an amount of water weighing less than its own weight then it will sink.

If an object displaces an amount of water equal to its own weight it will

neither float nor sink, but remain suspended. If an object floats, it is said

to be positively buoyant; if it sinks, it is negatively buoyant; and if it

neither floats nor sinks, it is neutrally buoyant (Kolezer, 16).

It is important for a diver to learn to use these principles of buoyancy

so that the diver can effortlessly maintain his/her position in the water. One

must control buoyancy carefully. When you are at the surface, you will want to

be positively buoyant so that you could conserve energy while resting or

swimming. Under water, you will want to be neutrally buoyant so that you are

weightless and can stay off the bottom and avoid crushing or damaging delicate

corals and other aquatic life. Neutral buoyancy permits a diver to move freely

in all directions (Kolezer, 17).

Buoyancy control is one of the most important skills that a diver could

master, but it is also one of the easiest. A diver, controls his/her buoyancy

using lead weight and a buoyancy control device (BCD). The lead weight, which

is incorporated into a weight system, such as a weight belt is negatively

buoyant. The BCD is a device that can be partially inflated or deflated to

control buoyancy (Kolezer, 19).

Another factor that affects the buoyancy of an object is the density of

water. The denser the water, the greater the buoyancy. Salt water (due to its

dissolved salts) is more dense than fresh water, so you’ll be more buoyant in

salt water than in fresh water – in fact, when floating motionless at the

surface, most divers need to exhale air from their lungs to sink. By exhaling,

the volume of the lungs is decreased, and less water is displaced, resulting in

less buoyancy (Kolezer, 19).

Thus, we can see, that changing the volume of an object changes its

buoyancy. Divers primarily control buoyancy by changing the volume of air in

their BCD’s.

Body air spaces and water pressure

Although usually not noticeable, air is constantly exerting pressure on

us. An example being as simplified as when walking against a strong wind, what

is actually felt its force pushing against our body. This demonstrates that air

can exert pressure, or weight. One doesn’t usually feel the air’s pressure

because our body is primarily liquid, distributing the pressure equally

throughout our entire body. The few air spaces in our body are- in the ears,

sinuses and lungs- These are filled with air equal in pressure to the external

air. However, when the surrounding air pressure changes, such as when you

change altitude by flying or driving through mountains, some of us can feel the

change as a popping sensation in our ears (Tillman, 40).

Just as air exerts pressure on us at the surface, water exerts pressure

when a person is submerged. Because water is much denser than air, pressure

changes under water occur more rapidly, making one more aware of them.

The weight of the water above a person greatly compounds the amount of

pressure one (ears, lungs, and the air in ones lungs) is under. While it takes

the entire height of the atmosphere to contain a weight of air enough to give 1

atmosphere (1 ATM) of pressure (the pressure one is used to be under as one

walks around daily), it only takes 33 ft. of water to make up an additional ATM

of pressure. Of course, the air is still there too, so at a depth of 33 feet, a

diver is subjected to two Atmospheres of pressure, fully twice what one is

subjected to at the surface! (Resneck, 53)

A diver would have to go really, really deep before being in any danger

of actually being crushed by pressure. It’s what the pressure does to the gases

in your body that can be dangerous. Physics teaches us Boyle’s Law of gases,

which suggests that the volume of a gas is proportional to its pressure. Thus,

when one goes to a depth of, say, 33 feet (1 extra ATM) and fills ones lungs

with a breath of air from a tank and then ascend to the surface without exhaling,

the air in the lungs would expand to twice its volume, causing massive trauma to

the lungs. Other more subtle problems occur with gas under pressure, such as the

accumulation of residual nitrogen in the body’s tissues which can result in

Decompression Sickness (DCS), commonly known as the bends (Tillman, 44).

As with air pressure, one doesn’t feel water pressure on most of ones

body, but we can feel it in our body’s air spaces. When water pressure changes

corresponding with a change in depth, it creates a pressure sensation one can

feel. Through training and experience a diver will learn to avoid the problems

associated with water pressure and the air spaces in our bodies.

As previously mentioned, pressure increases at a rate of one atmosphere

(ATM) for each additional 33 feet of depth underwater. The total pressure is

twice as great at 33 feet than at the surface, three times as great at 66 feet,

and so on. This pressure pushes in on flexible air spaces, compressing them and

reducing their volume. The reduction of the volume of the air spaces is

proportional to the amount of pressure placed upon it.

When the total pressure doubles, the air volume is halved. When the

pressure triples, the volume is reduced to one third, and so on (Tillman, 40).

The density of air in the air spaces is also affected by pressure. As

the volume of the air spaces is reduced due to compression, the density of the

air increases as it is squeezed into a smaller place. No air is lost; it is

simply compressed. Air density is also proportional to pressure, so that when

the total pressure is doubled, the air density is doubled. When the pressure is

tripled the air density triples and so on.

To maintain an air space as its original volume when pressure is

increased, more air must be added to the space. This is the concept of pressure

equalization, and the amount of air that must be added is proportional to the

pressure increased.

Air within an airspace expands as pressure is reduced. If no air has

been added to the air space, the air will simply expand to fill the original

volume of the air space upon reaching the surface (Ketels, 76).

If air has been added to an air space to equalize the pressure, this air

will expand as pressure is reduced during ascent. The amount of expansion is

again proportional to the pressure. In an open container, such as the bucket,

the expanding air will simply bubble out of the opening, maintaining it original

volume during ascent. In a closed flexible container, however, the volume will

increase as the pressure is reduced. If the volume exceeds the capacity of the

container, the container may be ruptured by the expanding air (Cramer, 51).

Now let’s take a look at how the relationship between pressure volume

and density affect a diver while diving. Previously it has been mentioned that

air spaces are effected by changes in pressure. The air spaces that a diver is

concerned about are both the natural ones in your body and those artificially

created by wearing diving equipment.

The air spaces within a diver’s body that are most obviously affected by

increasing pressure are found in the ears and sinuses. The artificial air

spaces most affected by increasing pressure is the one created by a divers mask.

During descent, water pressure increases and pushes in your body’s air

spaces, compressing them. If pressure within these air spaces is not kept in

balance with this increasing water pressure, the sensation of pressure builds,

becoming uncomfortable and possibly even painful as the diver continues to

descend. This sensation is the result of a squeeze on the air spaces. A

squeeze is not only a scuba phenomena but may also be experienced in a swimmers

ears when diving to the bottom of a swimming pool. A squeeze, then is a

pressure imbalance resulting in a pain or discomfort in a bodies air space. In

this situation, the imbalance is such that the pressure outside the air space is

greater than the pressure inside (Ketels, 76-77).

Squeezes are possible in several places: ears, sinuses, teeth, lungs and

ones mask. Fortunately, divers can easily avoid all these squeezes.

To avoid discomfort, pressure inside an air space must always equal the

water pressure outside the air spaces. This is accomplished by adding air to

the air spaces during descent, before discomfort occurs. This is called


Compared to the ear and sinus air spaces, the lungs are large and

flexible. As a scuba diver, one automatically equalizes the pressure in the

lungs by continuously breathing from the scuba equipment. When you skin dive,

holding ones breath, the lungs can be compressed with no consequence as long as

they are filled with air when one begins to descent. The lungs will be reduced

in volume during decent and will re-expand during ascent to nearly the original

volume when one reaches the surface (some of the air from the lungs is used to

equalize the other body air spaces) (Ketels, 78).

In a healthy diver, blocking the nose and attempting to gently blow

through it with the mouth closed will direct air into the ear and sinus air

spaces. Swallowing and wiggling the jaw from side to side may be an effective

equalization technique. Some divers even attempt a combination of the previous

two methods.

As mentioned previously along with squeezes, the lungs experience no

harmful effects from the changes in pressure when holding ones breath while skin

diving. At the start of the skin dive, one takes a breath and descends; the

increasing water pressure compresses the air in the lungs. During ascent, the

air re-expands so that when reaching the surface, the lungs return to their

original volume (Ketels, 78).

When scuba diving, however, the situation is different. Scuba equipment

allows one to breathe under water by automatically delivering the air at a

pressure equal to the surrounding water pressure. This means the lungs will be

at their normal volume while at depth, full of air that will expand on ascent

(Cramer, 51).

If a diver breaths normally, keeping the airway to you lungs open, the

expanding air escapes during ascent and your lungs remain at their normal volume.

But, by holding ones breath and then blocking the airway while ascending the

lungs would over expand, much like the sealed bag. Expanding air can cause lung

over-pressurization (lung rupture), the most serious injury that can occur to a

diver. The most important rule in scuba diving is to breath continuously and

never hold your Breath. Lung rupture will occur unless pressure is continuously

equalized by breathing normally at all times (Cramer, 52).

Other physical Phenomena’s

As an air-breathing creature, we have evolved to live on land. Above

the water, we see, hear and move about in a familiar and comfortable manner that

seems normal because we have adapted to an air environment.

Under water, though, one enters a new world, where seeing, hearing,

staying warm and moving are different. This is because water is 800 times more

dense than air, affecting light, sound and heat in ways that we aren’t used to.

Sight seeing is a big part of what diving is all about. One dives for

numerous reasons. A primary purpose is to see new environments, aquatic life

and natural phenomena. Since underwater sight seeing is important, like buying

a new camera, one must learn, how. Therefor when diving, one must know how the

liquid environment affects vision.

To see clearly under water, a mask is needed because the human eye

cannot focus without any air space in front of it. A mask provides the air space.

Without the mask, you can see large objects, but they will be blurred and

indistinct because your eyes cannot bring the rays of light into sharp focus.

Only by wearing a mask can you see sharply (Ascher, 9).

Light travels at a different speed in water than in air. When light

enters the air in your mask from the water, the change in speed causes its angle

of travel to shift slightly. This causes a magnificent effect that makes

objects under water appear 25% larger and closer (Ascher, 52).

Water has other effects on light. As you descend, there is less light.

This is due to several facts: some light reflects off the water’s surface, some

is scattered by particles in the water, and some is absorbed by the water itself.

However, water does not absorb light uniformly.

White light, such as sunlight, is actually composed of various colors

mixed together. The colors are absorbed one by one as depth increases: First

red, followed by orange and yellow. Since each color is part of the total light

entering the water, less light remains as depth increases and each color is

absorbed. For these reason, deeper water is darker and less colorful. To see

true colors, divers sometimes carry underwater lights with them (Resneck, 151).

Underwater Hearing

The underwater world is not a silent world. One can hear many new and

interesting sounds, like snapping shrimp, grunting fish, and boat engines

passing in the distance. Since sound travels farther in water than in air, one

is able to hear things over much longer distances.

Sound also travels about four times faster in water than in air and

because of this, one may have trouble determining the direction a sound is

coming from (Cramer, 95).

Speech is virtually impossible under water because ones vocal cords do

not work in a liquid environment, not to mention the addition of the tube in

ones mouth. Communication by sound is usually limited to attracting the

attention of another diver by rapping on the tank with a solid object, such as a

knife. The diver will hear the rapping, but may not be able to tell where the

sound is coming from.

Heat loss in water.

Diving stops being enjoyable when the diver gets cold. In fact, even a

small loss of body heat has the potential to be a serious health threat. For

these reasons, understanding about heat loss is important.

In air, body heat is lost as it rises from the skin into the air, as it

is carried away by air currents, or as perspiration cools the skin through

evaporation. Water conducts heat away from your body twenty times faster than

air does, meaning that for a given temperature, water has a far greater cooling

effect. Even seemingly warm 86F water can become chilly after a while (Cramer,


The loss of body heat in water can quickly lead to a serious condition

unless you use insulation to reduce the heat loss. Insulation through the use

of exposure suits is recommended for diving in water 75F or colder. Just as one

dresses according to the temperature and conditions to go outdoors, one must

dress appropriately for diving.

Motion in water

One of the best aspects of diving is that it can be so relaxing.

There’s little reason for hurrying. By learning how to move without

breathlessness, cramping or fatigue, you learn to relax during a dive.

Due to the greater density of water, resistance to movement in water is

much greater than in air. If you’ve ever tried to run waist-deep water, you’ve

experienced this. In overcoming this increased resistance while diving, the

best way to conserve energy is to move slowly and steadily. Avoid rapid and

jerky movements that waste energy. Simply take your time. After all this is a

sport to enjoy.


Several months after my vacation, I decided to give scuba diving a

second chance. However, this time I decided to do it right. I signed up to

take a P.A.D.I. certification, which is one of the many internationally

recognized scuba associations. It was here, in a properly structured course,

consisting of both theoretical and practical (in water) sessions where I was

properly re-introduced to the sport.

Since my introductory dive from hell, I have had the chance to become

quite the scuba enthusiast. Partaking in numerous dives not only in warmer

climates (preferably) but in the colder Montreal waters as well, scuba diving

has become part of my lifestyle. I participate in and enjoy every opportunity to

re-visit the underwater world that once scared me away.

In this paper, I included some history of the evolution of the sport in

order to point out that there is more to this particular sport than jumping into

the water. Scuba is a complex sport and can not be enjoyed without some

scientific knowledge. Scuba diving did not simply evolve, but it is the result

of numerous inventions and physical properties. One could only imagine the

difficulty that those historic divers (scientists) had in creating this sport.

My objective in writing this paper was not to deter people away from the

sport, but to stress the importance of the knowledge that is required to

properly and safely partake in it. Like everything else in life, one must work

towards a goal, and this is no different. One will quickly see that the payoff

is far greater than anything else ever experienced. Recreational scuba is meant

to be a very enjoyable and relaxing sport. The scenery is magnificent and the

sensations are truly indescribable.

Today, scuba diving is quickly becoming one of the expanding trades.

Whether for military, research, business, or recreation, hundreds of thousands

of people are heading for the depths, to experience the unknown. My advice for

a new diver is to do it right. Get the proper certification and make each dive

a safe one.

When a diver is fully trained, and in good mental and physical condition,

safe diving can be one of the most enjoyable of experiences. The true beauty of

the underwater world, coupled with the marvelous almost-weightlessness of

floating with neutral buoyancy is an indescribable experience.

Bibliography/Further Reading

Ascher, Scott M. Scuba Handbook for Humans. Iowa : Kendall/Hunt Publishing

Company. 1975.

Cramer, John L. Ph.D. Skin and Scuba Diving: Scientific Principles and

Techniques. N.Y.: Bergwall Productions, Inc. 1975.

Ketels, Henry & McDowell, Jack. Safe Skin and Scuba Diving, adventure in the

underwater world. Canada : Little, Brown and Company (Canada) Ltd. 1975.

Koelzer, William. Scuba Diving, How to get started. Pennsylvania :Chilton Book

Company. 1976.

Resneck, John Jr. Scuba, Safe and Simple. New Jersey : Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1975.

Tillman, Albert A. Skin and Scuba Diving. Iowa : Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers.