a scuba diver in clear open water in a pool

Do I Need To Be a Good Swimmer to Scuba Dive?

So you want to learn to scuba dive, but you aren’t that big of a fan of the whole swimming thing. Maybe you have limited or no swimming skills or perhaps you just don’t enjoy swimming. 

If you’re like me, you probably assumed scuba divers must be very good swimmers. Almost everyone does when they start. But do you really need to be a good swimmer to scuba dive?

You do not need to be a good swimmer to start scuba diving. Scuba divers don’t do a whole lot of swimming. There are some basic kicks that you will practice in order to propel yourself forward; however, basic swimming skills are more than enough for the vast majority of scuba settings.

Personally, I am not a fan of swimming. I loved it as a kid but find it tedious and exhausting as an adult. 

But I absolutely love diving. So how do you merge lackluster swimming skills (or desire) with scuba? Let’s talk about it more in depth (pun intended).

a beginner scuba diver learning in a pool

Can I Dive if I Can’t Swim?

Absolutely not! Even though you rarely actually swim when diving, doing this would be incredibly dangerous as there are situations where you may suddenly need to swim. 

In fact, no scuba organization will allow you to set foot in a pool if you cannot do some very basic skills.

If you find yourself wanting to scuba dive but unable to swim, there is an easy path to do this. 

First, learn to swim. 

There are lots of adults that never learned to swim. In fact, the Red Cross reports that roughly one-half of Americans either cannot swim or cannot perform all basic swimming skills.

There are likely many places nearby you that provide swimming classes geared towards adults such as your local YMCA or community center. Additionally, you can find private instructors. Once you learn to swim, you’re ready to learn to scuba.

On a side note, let me clarify that non-swimmers are allowed to engage in a Discover Scuba pool experience where they can learn about the equipment and basic techniques such as breathing through a regulator. This is a controlled environment under close supervision of an instructor.

scuba divers beneath the waves

What are the Minimum Swimming Skills Required for Scuba?

If you aren’t that confident in your swimming skills, you may want to know what is considered the minimum standard of swimming ability for scuba diving. 

There are a few different ways of looking at this. One is to note the skills required to be able to obtain certification and the other the level needed to enjoy scuba diving.

In order to pursue open water certification, you need to first pass a swim test that consists of the following:

  • Swim 200 yards without a snorkel or 300 yards with snorkel and fins without stopping
  • Tread water for ten minutes

While this will get you in the door to get certified, the reality is that to scuba dive, you should feel comfortable in the water. This means not getting overly nervous or anxious while at the surface. 

It also means feeling that you can maneuver with purpose.

2 scuba divers swimming by a rock

Why Don’t Scuba Divers Need Strong Swimming Skills?

This is one of the major questions people have when finding out the swimming is not an overly integral part of scuba diving. To answer this, let’s think about how scuba divers move while in the water.

The first thing a diver will do is drop to the depth they want to dive at. Since you have a lot of heavy equipment and added weights, this simply requires letting gravity do its job. 

You will sink. To control the rate that you sink, you don’t kick but rather add a bit of air to your buoyancy control device (BCD), the jacket-like thing that you wear.

When you are at depth, you actually rise and fall by breathing. A scuba diver at depth will be neutrally buoyant, meaning that you float somewhat like in a zero-gravity environment. 

When you breathe in, air expands in your lungs, letting you rise. When you breathe out, your lungs empty and you fall. Again, no swimming is needed.

But what about moving laterally while underwater? 

Surely, you swim?

To move around underwater, you kick with your fins. So you kind of swim. However, you don’t use your arms. The goal of scuba diving is to move with minimal effort in order to conserve air and energy. 

Also, your fins make it very easy to propel yourself forward with little effort.

Finally, when you resurface, your ascent is driven primarily by breathing. When you start scuba training, you’ll learn the importance of ascending slowly. 

This means that putting any effort into swimming upwards will likely make you rise too fast. Controlled breathing is the way to rise.

a scuba diver finning near the surface

When Would I Actually Swim While Diving?

After reading thus far, you might wonder why scuba divers need to swim at all. The reality is that there are times where you’ll need some swimming ability. For example, if you find yourself having to navigate a current, you’ll need some kicking skills.

However, the main situation where you would need swimming skills is in the event of an emergency at the surface. 

The reason divers don’t tread water at the surface is that they inflate their BCDs. The air makes them float with no effort.

However, there are times where a diver can run out of air due to mismanagement or equipment failure. In this situation, there is a method to manually inflate your BCD the way you would blow up a balloon. 

However, it takes a few minutes and requires treading water with heavy equipment and weights. Thus, swimming becomes important in this situation.

In fact, as part of your open water certification, you will learn to do this and experience firsthand the amount of energy it takes to stay afloat while manually inflating your BCD.

a single scuba diver on the seabed facing camera

What About This Kicking Thing?

Yes, kicking (or finning, depending on who you talk to) is the one swimming-like aspect that is very critical for divers. However, you don’t need to know how to kick at all when you start diving. It’s something you’ll naturally learn and improve as you progress.

Remember that the purpose of diving is to limit expending energy and move rather effortlessly. 

Because of this, you won’t vigorously kick. Additionally, your fins move a lot of water, meaning you can move forward with little effort. You’ll actually be surprised how a kick can shoot you forward.

Good kicking form is mainly important for navigation. It is difficult to note distance underwater. Because of this, directions often occur in terms of kick cycles. 

Divers learn that they travel 100 feet in a specific number of kick cycles (mine is 18). 

Thus, navigating 100 feet means counting 18 kicks. However, this is something you won’t learn until the advanced course and not a concern for dives a beginning diver will engage in.

Kick cycles require having a consistent kick, which means determining the type of kick you want to do, and being consistent with it. 

a single scuba diver going over a rock formation

For beginning divers, finding a kick style is mainly about a matter of comfort. There are probably a dozen kick styles divers can use, but most divers use one of the following three:

Flutter Kick

I’ve heard from friends that this is actually taught in open water; however, we did not learn it in my class. It involves kicking your legs up and down in alternating directions. Your knees will bend slightly on the upward stroke and straighten on the downward stroke. It is the downward strokes that provide thrust.

Frog Kick

This is probably the most common kick for seasoned divers as it greatly reduces kicking up sand or silt, which maintains visibility. 

Instead of moving your legs up and down, you move them to the sides. You’ll fully bend your knees, moving your fins into your body, then move your legs around to the sides before pushing your fins back and together. 

It looks like a frog swimming, hence the name. It’s a powerful kick that allows you to rest between each kick.

Scissor Kick

This is a blend of the flutter and frog kicks. Your legs are moving up and down but also involves widening your legs and bringing them back together to create power. 

It is a relatively difficult one to describe in text, but a google search will find a number of videos. Some divers prefer this kick because it provides a lot of power with relatively little effort.

a single scuba diver going through a shoal of fish

Final Thoughts

Most people are surprised that scuba diving requires very little swimming skills. For safety purposes, you need to be able to swim 200 yards without stopping (or 300 yards with snorkel and fins) and tread water for ten minutes. 

However, in order to dive, you should really feel comfortable in the water.

Divers navigate up and down through breathing and seek to conserve energy (and thus conserve air) by expending little energy. A diver will not overly exert themselves underwater. 

Additionally, the great thing about fins is that they provide great propulsion.

The one swimming skill a diver will want to learn is kicking. There are many kicking styles divers use, but the most common are the flutter kick, frog kick, and scissor kick. 

While advanced divers use consistent kicking to judge distance in navigation, beginning divers will choose a kick style for comfort alone. 

Mike Seals
Chief Crisp Eater at Guiness Brewey | + posts

Mike resides in landlocked Indiana but takes every opportunity to travel to warm waters for diving. When in his home state, he typically dives quarries. His favorite place to dive is the reef off of Ambergris Caye, Belize. When not diving, he works as a researcher, runs marathons, and spends time with his three kids.

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