Every diver should know a couple of basic search patterns to help in those inevitable moments when you lose something during a dive.

If you are unfamiliar with using a compass underwater, check out my video on compass navigation for beginners. I’ll use the same beginner compass techniques I taught in that video to explain these search patterns.

Compass Use

Orientation of the compass: it must be kept flat in order to read accurately.

Buoyancy: you are likely to accidentally float up toward the surface when you start working with your compass, so pay attention to your surroundings and the pressure changes in your ears.

Buddy contact: work together. You have a buddy for a reason, so while one person manages the compass, the other should measure the distance (in time or kick cycles). That way, both of you can keep your eyes peeled for the item in question without either one of you being overloaded with tasks.

Watch out for lines: take cutting devices with you. You should be able to reach a cutting device with either hand.

Tips for searching for items

If you drop something from the surface, take references from where you lost the item according to unmoving places on shore or in the water. Check the compass headings of at least two to have a more accurate starting point for your search. For example, you can choose a specific tree on land and a rock outcropping near the dive site.

If you lose something during a dive, take note of where you last had it. If you’re familiar with the dive site, you can go directly there to start the search (assuming you have enough air and bottom time to do it during the current dive). If you are unfamiliar with the dive site, it may help to surface and take a reference of where you noticed it was gone. Then, you can narrow down the search area from the start of the dive to your ending point.

search patterns for scuba divers

Expanding Square

The expanding square is a great option to search for small items with calm conditions and decent visibility. The search consists of all right or all left turns, making each side longer than the last.

Decide on your beginning direction and set your reference, turning the bezel until North is in between the index marks. Choose a starting kick cycle number (start small-like 2-4, depending on visibility and size of the object) and decide on the expansion number for each new side of the square (again, you’ll typically want it to be a small number here, between 2-4 kick cycles).

For this example, let’s say you started with 2 kick cycles and wanted to expand the square with 2 kick cycles every turn. Once you finish your kick cycles in the first direction, turn your body until East is between the index marks on your compass (a 90 degree turn). Then, you’ll continue in this new direction for 4 kick cycles.

Once you complete that, turn your body until South is in between the index marks and follow that direction for 6 kick cycles… and on and on until you find the item or reach a predetermined time limit for your search.


The U-Pattern is helpful when searching for larger items with decent visibility. It can also be used in a current. There are different ways of setting yourself up for this search pattern, so I will share how I prefer teaching it. This search pattern has more turns and numbers to deal with so make sure you communicate clearly with your buddy before starting.

This pattern includes a long side and a short side, creating a U that moves in the direction of your reference point. For this example, let’s say you want the long side to have 10 kick cycles and the short side to have 2 kick cycles.

Determine the direction where your item should be, face that direction and set your reference, turning the bezel until North is in between the index marks. Then, turn your body to the right until East is in between the index marks and complete half of your kick cycles for the long side. In this example, that would be 5 kick cycles.

Once you complete those first 5 kick cycles, turn your body to the left until North is in between the index marks, do your short side (which in this example is 2 kick cycles), then turn your body to the left until West is between the index marks. Now, you complete the first complete long side of the U pattern, which would be 10 kick cycles. After that, turn right, complete the short side, follow it with another right turn, and you’re ready for the next long side.

Follow this pattern of left, left/right, right until you find the object or hit your predetermined time limit for the search.

I teach the U-pattern in this way so that you always have a reference for the direction you want to go, and by starting the search with half of the desired kick cycles, you’re setting yourself up to search directly in the pathway you’ve determined that the item should be located.

Expanding Circle

The expanding circle is a great option when searching for small items with poor visibility. However, you will need an unobstructed search area in order for this to work effectively because you are using a reel to complete the pattern.

This search pattern is all about the tactile communication. One buddy will be the anchor and reference point, holding the line in one place. The other buddy will be the search party, swimming with the reel in hand. Before the search, discuss how you want to signal to your buddy via pulls on the line.

The anchor buddy will decide on a starting reference point, either a physical marker like a rock nearby or a compass heading, and every time the line from the swimming buddy reaches that part of the circle, the anchor buddy will communicate that it’s time to expand. For example, the anchor could tug once to let the swimmer know they’ve completed a full circle.

With each completed circle, the swimmer will expand a predetermined length of line to make the circle bigger. The worse the visibility, the shorter the circle expansion should be. Note about using the line in this search pattern: Watch out for entanglement.

Jack Stay

The JackStay is a great option to search for larger items with poor visibility and an unobstructed bottom. You will need a reel in order to complete this search pattern.

This is another search pattern where having clear buddy communication is the key for success. You’ll determine the length of your search line and the direction of the search, setting the reference on your compass. Each buddy will take an end of the line, lightly securing it to the bottom. Once the line is secure, each buddy will swim down the line, passing each other in the middle. At the end of the line, each buddy picks up the end of the line and moves it in the direction of the search, usually by an armspan in order to avoid confusion with swimming and different kick cycles. Each buddy places the line back on the ground and swims down the line, continuing the search. This process is repeated until the object is found or the maximum search time is met. Although the line is static in this exercise, still be aware of entanglement and have your cutting device available.

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