A list, A-Z, with all the dive terms you will want to know!

Scuba diving dictionary

Find the meaning of all things scuba diving by using our Diver's Dictionary


A – B – C – D – E – F – G – H – I – J – K – L – M – N – O – P – Q – R – S – T – U – V – W – X – Y – Z


Absolute Pressure – Pressure calculated by using a vacuum as the zero point and including the gauge and atmospheric pressure in the calculation.

Adrenaline – a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland into the circulatory system which stimulates the heart, blood vessels and respiratory system.

Air – a gas mixture containing 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and 1% other gases (mainly argon); compressed air is used for recreational scuba diving.

Air compressor – a machine that compresses or pressurizes air; for scuba purposes, air is compressed from the atmospheric level (14.7 psi at sea level) to the capacity of the tank, usually between 2500-3000 psi.

Air embolism – a condition that occurs when air enters the bloodstream through ruptured alveoli into the pulmonary capillaries. The air in the bloodstream then forms bubbles, which can block blood flow to the body’s tissues.

Air pressure – the force per unit area exerted by the weight of air; at sea level the air pressure is 14.7 psi. (air pressure decreases with altitude.)

Algorithm – a set of equations incorporated into diving computers in order to compute nitrogen uptake and elimination from changes in depth and elapsed time.

Alternate air source – a device a diver can use in place of the primary regulator, in order to make an ascent while still breathing normally.

Ambient pressure – the surrounding pressure; on land, comes from the weight of the atmosphere (see air pressure), at depth, comes from the weight of the water plus the weight of the atmosphere.

Analog instrument – device that uses a needle moving around a dial to provide information.

Archimedes principle – any object wholly or partly immersed in fluid will be buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.

Argon – an inert gas that makes up less than one percent of air (sometimes used as a drysuit gas).

Arterial gas embolism – the condition characterized by bubble(s) of air from a ruptured lung segment under pressure; the bubbles enter the pulmonary circulation and travel to the arterial circulation, where they may cause a stroke.

Ascent / Descent line – line suspended from a boat or a buoy for a diver to use to control their rate of ascent or descent.

Asthma – a common condition manifested by narrowing of air passages within the lungs. One reason for the narrowing is excess mucous in the airways.

ATA – atmosphere absolute; 1 ata is the atmospheric pressure at sea level; is measured with a barometer.

Atmosphere – the blanket of air surrounding the earth, from sea level to outer space. Also, a unit of pressure; “one atmosphere” is pressure of the atmosphere at sea level, i.e., 760 mm Hg. Two atmospheres is twice this pressure, 1520 mm Hg, etc. Abbreviated atm.

Atmospheric pressure – pressure of the atmosphere at a given altitude or location.

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Backscatter – light from a flash or strobe reflecting back from particles in the lens’ field of view causing specks of light to appear in the photo.  Backscatter can be a common problem in underwater photography because particulate matter can be very dense and include plankton which would otherwise be near transparent.  Backscatter can be reduced and in many cases removed altogether using various photographic techniques.

Barometric pressure – same as atmospheric pressure with the exception that it varies with the weather.

Barotrauma – any disease or injury due to unequal pressures between a space inside the body and the ambient pressure, or between two spaces within the body; examples include arterial gas embolism and pneumothorax.

BC or BCD – see buoyancy compensator.

Bends – a form of decompression sickness caused by dissolved nitrogen leaving the tissues too quickly on ascent; is manifested by pain, usually in the limbs and joints; “the bends” is sometimes used to signify any manifestation of decompression sickness.

Body suit – garment that provides full length abrasion protection.

Bottom time – the time between descending below the surface to the beginning of ascent.

Boyle’s law – at a fixed temperature for a fixed mass of gas, pressure times volume is a constant value.

Breath-hold diving – diving without life support apparatus, while holding one’s breath.

Bubble – a collection of air or gas surrounded by a permeable membrane through which gases can enter or exit.

Buoyancy – the upward force exerted on an object in liquid, whether the object sinks or floats. Objects that float are positively buoyant, those that sink are negatively buoyant and those that stay where placed are neutrally buoyant.

Buoyancy compensating device – see buoyancy compensator

Buoyancy compensator – an inflatable vest worn by the diver that can be automatically or orally inflated to help control buoyancy; abbreviated BC or BCD (Buoyancy Control Device).

Buoyancy control – the practice of controlling one’s buoyancy.

Buoyancy – in diving, the upward force on an object produced by the surrounding water in which it is immersed, due to the pressure difference of the water between the top and the bottom of the object.  The net upward buoyancy force is equal to the magnitude of the weight of water displaced by the body. This force enables the object to float or at least to seem lighter.

Burst disk – thin copper disk held in place with a vented plug. Designed to rupture if tank pressure is greatly exceeded.

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C-Card – refers to a divers certification card for a specific level of achievement.

Capillary depth gauge – made up of a small tube. Uses Boyle’s law to determine depth.

Carbon dioxide – CO2; an odorless, tasteless gas that is a byproduct of metabolism; is excreted by the lungs in exhaled air.

Carbon dioxide toxicity – problems resulting from buildup of CO2 in the blood; they may range from headache and shortness of breath, all the way to sudden blackout.

Carbon monoxide – CO; odorless, tasteless, highly poisonous gas given off by incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon fuels.

Carbon monoxide poisoning – CO bonds with hemoglobin and prevents blood cells from carrying oxygen. This causes oxygen deprivation in the tissues and can even cause death.

Carbon monoxide toxicity – illness from inhaling excess CO; problems may range from headache to unconsciousness and death.

Cave diving – a type of technical diving in which specialized equipment is used to enable the exploration of natural or artificial caves which are at least partially filled with water.  Caves often have a wide range of unique physical features, such as stalactites and stalagmites and can contain unique wildlife not found elsewhere.

Charles’s Law – the amount of change in either volume or pressure of a given volume of gas is directly proportional to the change in the absolute temperature.

Closed circuit scuba – apparatus designed to allow divers to re-breathe exhaled air after removal of CO2 and addition of supplemental O2. In contrast to “open circuit”, closed circuit scuba is noiseless and produces no bubbles.

Compartment – a theoretical division of the body with an arbitrarily assigned half time for nitrogen uptake and elimination. In designing decompression tables the body is divided into a finite number of compartments for purposes of making calculations.

Computer – a device that monitors nitrogen in the body during a dive through mathematical algorithms. The device allows divers to multilevel dive and extend bottom time beyond what a dive table allows.

Coral – invertebrates that secrete an internal, hard skeletal structure composed of calcium carbonate, which is absorbed from the surrounding water.

Core temperature – the internal temperature of the body. 98.6 F is the normal temperature of the human body. Deviation from this temperature even a few degrees could be life threatening.

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Dalton’s Law – the total pressure exerted by a mixture of gases is equal to the sum of the pressures of each of the different gases making up the mixture. Each gas acting as if it were alone were present and occupied the total volume.

Decompression – any change from one ambient pressure to a lower ambient pressure, always results in a reduction of gas pressures within the body.

Decompression dive – any dive where the diver is exposed to a higher pressure than when the dive began, the decompression occurs as the diver ascends.

Decompression stop – on ascent from a dive, a specified time spent at a specific depth, for purposes of nitrogen off-gassin. When not mandatory it is called a safety stop.

Decompression illness – DCI; a term to encompass all bubble-related problems arising from decompression, including both decompression sickness and arterial gas embolism.

Decompression sickness – DCS; a general term for all problems resulting from nitrogen leaving the body when ambient pressure is lowered. Can be divided into Type I (musculoskeletal and/or skin manifestations only) or the more serious Type II (neurologic, cardiac, and/or pulmonary manifestations).

Deep diving – for recreational divers a deep dive is a dive below 60 feet.

Depth gauge – a device that indicates how far a diver is below the surface.

Dive computer – device that constantly measures depth and time, based on a pre-programmed algorithm, the computer calculates tissue nitrogen uptake and elimination in several theoretical compartments and provides a continuous readout of the dive profile, including: depth, elapsed time of dive, duration at current depth before decompression becomes mandatory, and a warning if the rate of ascent is too fast.

Dive Flag – may be either a red rectangle with a white diagonal stripe or a blue and white double tailed pennant. Flags are used to warn watercraft to stay away because there are divers below.

Dive lights – specially designed underwater lights used for night, cave or wreck diving.

Dive tables – a printed collection of dive times for specific depths, by which the diver can avoid contracting DCS. Most tables are based on Haldanian theory for nitrogen uptake and elimination.

Diver propulsion vehicle – motorized vehicle used by divers to cover long distances underwater without having to kick.

Dry suit – a water-tight garment that keeps the diver’s body warm by providing insulation with a layer of gas, such as air; for diving in waters that are too cold for comfortable wetsuit protection, usually below 65°F.

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EAN – enriched air nitrogen; nitrox.

Equalization – the act of forcing air into an open space to offset increasing water pressure.

Eustachian tube – a short tube connecting the back of the nose to the middle ear. If clogged, by mucus, equalization is next to impossible.

Exposure protection – garment worn to prevent decreases in core body temperature and abrasions. Protection can range from thin body suits to heavy dry suits.

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First stage – regulator attached to the scuba tank that lowers the tank pressure to ambient pressure plus a pre-determined pressure (e.g., ambient + 140 psi).

Free diving -diving without any scuba or other equipment and synonymous with breath-hold diving.

FSW – feet of sea water; used to indicate either an actual depth, or just a pressure equal to that depth (e.g., in an hyperbaric chamber).

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Garibaldi – the Garibaldi or Garibaldi damselfish (Hypsypops rubicundus) is a fish of the damselfish family that is native to the north-eastern subtropical parts of the Pacific Ocean.  It is the official marine state fish of California and is protected in California coastal waters.  An interesting feature of the Garabaldi is the ability to change its sex throughout its lifetime. This process is prompted when the ratio of males to females is out of balance. Garabaldis of the over-represented gender will change in order to make up the deficit. This process can be undergone multiple times by the same fish.

Gas absorption and elimination – dissolved gases such as nitrogen are absorbed into the blood and tissues during the course of the dive. The level of saturation depends on the depth of the dive. The elimination of these gases is very important in preventing decompression sickness. The length of time required for elimination depends on the duration and depth of the dive.

Gas law – laws that predict how gases will behave with changes in pressure, temperature and volume.

Gauge pressure – pressure exclusive of atmospheric pressure, when diving, gauge pressure is due solely to the water pressure.

Great Annual Fish Count – the Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) is an event coordinated by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) that mobilizes and trains volunteer divers and snorkelers in established methodologies to identify and document fish diversity and population trends in marine ecosystems. This annual event takes place the month of July, and serves to introduce and inspire recreational divers and snorkelers to: participate in REEF’s year-round Volunteer Survey Project; raise awareness among both the diving community and public-at-large regarding marine habitats and trends in fish populations; and provide researchers, marine resource managers and policy makers with this useful information that would otherwise be unavailable.

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Half time – half the time it takes for a dissolved gas in a tissue (such as nitrogen) to equilibrate to a new pressure, or to reach full saturation at a new pressure. Theoretical tissue half times are used in designing dive tables and algorithms for dive computers.

Haldanian – related to Haldane’s theory that nitrogen is absorbed up and released in an exponential manner during a dive, and that there is some safe ratio of pressure change for ascent.

Heliox – mixture of helium and oxygen, usually reserved for very deep diving.

Helium – second lightest gas; does not cause problems of narcosis to the same extent as seen with nitrogen, and is therefore used for very deep diving.

Henry’s Law – the amount of any given gas that will dissolve in a liquid at a given temperature is a function of the partial pressure of the gas in contact with the liquid and the solubility coefficient of the gas in the liquid.

Hoods – garment worn over the head to reduce thermal loss.

Hydrogen – an inert gas, and lightest of all the elements, has been used in experimental diving situations.

Hydrostatic test – pressure test in which the tank is filled with water instead of air and raised to five thirds the maximum working pressure, causing the water to expand and be displaced.

Hyperbaric chamber – air-tight chamber that can simulate the ambient pressure at altitude or at depth, is used for treating decompression illness.

Hypercapnia – a higher than normal PO2 level in the blood.

Hyperthermia – a body temperature warmer than normal, less common in diving than hypothermia, but can occur from overheating in a wet suit.

Hyperventilation – over breathing to the extent that the blood carbon dioxide level is lowered, may lead to tingling in fingers and dizziness.

Hypothermia – a body temperature colder than normal (98.6°F), severe problems start to manifest when body temperature reaches about 95oF.

Hypoventilation – under breathing to the extent that the blood carbon dioxide level is elevated, may be manifested by carbon dioxide narcosis.

Hypoxia – lower than normal PO2 level in the blood, insufficient oxygen in the blood.

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J-Valve –Tank valve that contains a spring loaded valve that shuts off a divers air supply at Approx. 300psi

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K-Valve – a simple on / off tank valve.

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Lift bag – after being tied to an object to be lifted, the bag is inflated and will start to rise.

Lionfish – for more details about lionfish and their non-native species invasion of the east coast click here.

Liveaboard – a dive boat with sleeping and eating accommodations. Commercial liveaboard boats are usually between 50 and 130 feet long, and can carry from 10 to 30 divers for up to a week or more.

Logbook – a diary of a divers dive history. Provides evidence of the depth and breadth of a divers experience.

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Macro photography – a method of getting close-up pictures of a subject by using macro accessories attached to the camera’s lens, or a specific lens.

Mandarin fish – the Mandarin fish or Chinese perch, Siniperca chuatsi, is a freshwater carnivorous fish which lives in China.  It is very colorful, but it is only two inches long. Mandarin fish live in still water and move to deep water in winter.

Manifold – used on double cylinder systems. Has 2 valves similar to single tank systems attached by a heavy duty crosspiece with a valve in the center.

Manta Ray – the manta ray, or giant manta (Manta birostris), is the largest of the rays, with the largest known specimen having been about 7.6 m (25ft) across, with a weight of about 2,300 kg (5,000 lb). It ranges throughout the tropical seas of the world, typically around coral reefs. Mantas are most commonly black above and white below, but some are blue on their backs. A giant manta’s eyes are located at the base of the cephalic lobes on each side of the head, and unlike other rays the mouth is found at the anterior edge of its head. To breathe, like other rays, the manta has five pairs of gills on the underside.

Mask squeeze – occurs in rapid descents where the diver neglects to equalize his/her mask. The increasing pressure causes tissues around the eyes to swell.

Mediastinal emphysema – air from an over expanding lung escapes into the center of the chest . This puts pressure on the heart and major blood vessels, interfering with circulation. Symptoms are shortness of breath and feeling faint.

Middle ear – air containing space of the ear bordered on one side by the tympanic membrane, which is exposed to any change in ambient pressure. Air pressure in the middle ear space can only be equalized through the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose.

Mixed gas – any non-air mixture (e.g., nitrox), although some authors use the term only for mixes that contain a gas in addition to (or in place of) nitrogen (e.g., helium).

Multilevel diving – spending a period of time at several different depths on a single dive.

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Narcosis – depressed mental state, anywhere from confusion or drowsiness to coma.

Nitrogen – inert gas that makes up 79% of air. Nitrogen is inert in that it does not enter into any chemical reaction in the body, but it can cause problems under pressure (see nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness).

Nitrogen narcosis – depressed mental state from high nitrogen pressure; usually does not begin to manifest on compressed air until deeper than 80 feet.

Nitrox – any mixture of nitrogen and oxygen that contains less than the 79% nitrogen as found in ordinary air.

NOAA – abbreviation for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

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OEA – Oxygen enriched air – synonym for nitrox

Open circuit scuba – apparatus used in recreational diving. Exhaled air is expelled into the water as bubbles, no part is re-breathed by the diver.

Open water diver – any diving where the surface of the water immediately above the diver is in contact with the earth’s atmosphere. “Open water diving” implies that the diver can directly ascend vertically to breathe.

O-rings – a flat ring made of rubber or plastic, used as a gasket.

Oxygen – often seen as using the chemistry abbreviation O2, gas vital for all life on this planet; makes up about 21% of air by volume.

Oxygen therapy – administration of any gas, for medical purpose, that contains more than 21% oxygen.

Oxygen toxicity – damage or injury from inhaling too much oxygen; can arise from either too high an oxygen concentration or oxygen pressure. One of the most dramatic manifestations of oxygen toxicity while diving can be a seizure.

Oxygen window – difference between total gas pressures in arterial and venous blood, exists because oxygen is partly metabolized by the tissues, so venous oxygen pressure is lower than arterial oxygen pressure.

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Partial pressure – pressure exerted by a single component of a gas within a gas mixture, or dissolved in a liquid.

Piston type first stage – work by allowing water to enter the first stage and press directly on a piston within a sleeve – the greater the depth, the higher the pressure, and the greater the pressure applied directly to the piston mechanism. Because there is only one moving part, this is a great and extremely durable design under most underwater conditions, which is why you’ll see so many regulators with “balanced piston” as part of their specs.

Pneumothorax – An abnormal collection of air outside the lining of the lung, between the lung and the chest wall, often a consequence of pressure injuries (barotraumas).

Pony Bottle – a small scuba cylinder strapped to a divers main tank for emergency use.

Pressure – any force exerted over an area.

Prosumer – a professional consumer, a person who takes pride in buying high-quality items after research.

PSI – pounds per square inch, a common measurement of air pressure.

Purge valve – allow masks to be cleared without removal. Allow snorkels to be cleared easily.

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Recreational depths – a term used to define diving at depths above 130 feet.

Recreational scuba diving – diving to prescribed limits, including a depth no greater than 130 fsw, using only compressed air, and never requiring a decompression stop.

Regulator – in scuba, any device that changes air pressure from one level to a lower level.

Repetitive dive – any dive whose profile is affected by a previous dive is considered repetitive.

Residual nitrogen time – the time it would take to off-gas any extra nitrogen remaining after a dive. Residual nitrogen time is always taken into consideration when determining the safe duration for any repetitive dive.

Reverse squeeze – pain or discomfort in enclosed space (e.g., sinuses, middle ear, inside mask) on ascent from a dive.

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Salinity – the amount of salt dissolved in a liquid, measured in parts per million.

Safety stop – on ascent from a dive, a specified time spent at a specific depth, for purposes of nitrogen off gassing. By definition it is not mandatory for safe ascent from the dive.

Saturation – the degree to which a gas is dissolved in the blood or tissues, full saturation occurs when the pressure of gas dissolved in the blood or tissues is the same as the surrounding pressure of that gas.

Saturation diving – diving performed after the body is fully saturated with nitrogen. To become fully saturated the diver must stay under water for a much longer period than is allowed in recreational scuba diving tables.

Sergeant major – the Sergeant Major or píntano (Abudefduf saxatilis, family Pomacentridae) is a large, colourful damselfish. It earns its name from its brightly striped sides, which are reminiscent of the insignia of a military Sergeant Major. It grows to a length of about 15cm (6 inches).  They are popular aquarium fish, although their aggressively territorial nature can pose problems if not closely watched.

SCUBA – acronym meaning Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Sea level – the altitude of the world’s oceans; all oceans are at sea level.

Second stage regulator – the regulator that follows, in line, the first stage regulator, and delivers compressed air to the diver. Usually associated with the mouthpiece.

Scuba cylinder – a scuba or diving cylinder, also know as a tank is used to store and transport high pressure breathing gas to a diver through the demand valve of a regulator.

Shallow water blackout – a sudden unconsciousness, from hypoxia, that occurs among some breath hold divers. Often occurs near the surface after a deeper dive, hence “shallow water.”

Shipwreck diving – commonly known as wreck diving, this type of diving focuses on the practices and techniques used while exploring shipwrecks.  Although most wreck dive sites are at shipwrecks, there is an increasing trend to scuttle retired ships to create artificial dive sites. Shipwreck diving enables sport divers to visit the past. Each wreck is considered a time capsule into history waiting to be explored. Sport divers also make interesting artifact finds while exploring the remains of sunken ships. This enables the sport diving community to make its own contribution to historians and archaeologists by giving them the information needed for wreck identification and further research.

Shipwreck diver specialty – see shipwreck diving.

Shivering – the body’s attempt to create heat through muscular activity.

Sinuses – air spaces within the skull that are in contact with ambient pressure through openings into the back of the nasal passages.

Skin diving – another name for breath-hold diving; diving without the use of breathing equipment (may include snorkel).

Skirt – the part of the diving mask typically made of rubber or silicone that creates a watertight seal with the diver’s face.

SNUBA – a surface-supplied compressed air apparatus, for use in shallow diving in calm waters. The air is delivered to one or more divers through a long hose.

Split fin – a fin having a split at the end of the blade.  Split fins operate similarly to a propeller, by creating suction and lift forces to move the diver forward.  Water flowing toward the center of the fin’s ‘paddle’ portion also gains speed as it focuses, creating a ‘scooping’ or channeling effect.

Squeeze – pain or discomfort in an enclosed space (sinuses, middle ears, inside a mask) caused by shrinkage of that space, occurs on descent.

Stoplight parrotfish – a sex-changing fish inhabiting coral reefs in Florida, Bahamas, the Caribbean, eastern Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda, and Brazil. Its typical length is between 30 and 45 cm, but it can reach 60 cm at times.  The common name, stoplight, comes from the marked yellow spot near the pectoral fin.

Submarine – heavy walled vessel that can withstand pressures under water and allow occupants to breathe air at sea level pressure and travels under its own power.

Submersible Pressure Gauge – gauge to monitor air supply during the course of a dive.

Surface interval – length of time on the surface, usually out of the water, between two consecutive dives.

Surface supplied compressed air diving – diving with the air continuously supplied by a compressor on the surface can be used for both sport and professional diving.

Supersaturation – an unstable situation where the pressure of a gas dissolved in the blood or tissues is higher than the ambient pressure surrounding that gas.

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Tank Boot – flat-bottomed, plastic, vinyl or rubber devices that fit over the rounded end of a scuba tank, allowing the tank to stand up.

Thermocline – intersection between two layers of water of that are of distinctly different temperatures, usually the colder layer is deeper.

Tissue – a part of the body characterized by specific characteristics, such as muscle, bone, or cartilage. The term is also used to refer to any part of the body with a specific half time for loading and unloading nitrogen or even a theoretical compartment.

Trimix – mixture of helium, nitrogen and oxygen, used for very deep diving.

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Vasoconstriction – the constriction of the blood vessels in order to reduce heat loss from the blood through the shin.

Vertigo – dizziness caused by differences in pressure or temperature between the balance mechanism in the ear and the surrounding environment. Vertigo can be a sign of ear pressure injury. Causes may range from minor ear squeeze to perforation of the eardrum to inner ear barotrauma.

Visibility – the distance a diver can see underwater. Can be measured horizontally or vertically but usually refers to horizontal distance.

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Wall Diving – occurs on rocks or reefs that run vertically, usually run from shallow to very deep.

Water pressure – force per unit area exerted by the weight of water, each 33 feet of sea water exerts a pressure equivalent to one atmosphere, or 14.7 psi.

Wet suit – any suit that provides thermal protection underwater by trapping a layer of water between the diver’s skin and the suit.

Wheel – a dive table used to plan multi-level dives.

Wreck divers – see shipwreck divers.

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