Buoyancy compensator

A buoyancy compensator (or buoyancy control device, BC or BCD) is a piece of diving equipment worn by divers to provide:

  • life saving emergency buoyancy both underwater and on the surface.
  • the ability to adjust and control the overall buoyancy of the diver and the diver's heavy equipment allowing the diver to remain at constant depth or to descend or ascend in a controlled way.

Some types of buoyancy compensator also provide a platform for or are built around the diver's SCUBA equipment.



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Jacket type BC on aqua lung

BCs can have the following features:

  • A low pressure direct feed that transports gas from diving cylinder and diving regulator to the BC.
  • An inflation valve that allows gas from the direct feed into the bladders of the BC.
  • A vent valve that allows gas to escape from the bladders of the BC.
  • An over pressurization valve that automatically vents the bladders if the diver over inflates the BC by ascending or by injecting too much gas.
  • A harness that the diver wears with straps around the torso and over the shoulders
  • A plastic or metal backplate to support diving cylinders
  • Pockets for carrying reels, buoys and decompression tables
  • D rings or other anchor points, for clipping on other equipment such as torches, strobes, reels, cameras and stage cylinders
  • Emergency inflation cylinders. This can either be a 0.5 litre air cylinder, filled from the diver main cylinder, or a small carbon dioxide cylinder. There is a risk that an emergency cylinder is accidentally opened during a dive causing a rapid ascent and barotrauma to the diver. Carbon dioxide, being poisonous, is a dangerous gas to have in the bag of a BC because that gas can be inhaled by the diver.


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Diver wearing a wing
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Diver wearing a stabiliser jacket
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Diver wearing an adustable buoyancy life jacket

There are three main types of BC:

  • Wings consist of inflatable bladders worn behind and to the side of the diver. They are a recent development and often used in technical diving. The diver is strapped to a back plate on to which the wings are attached. The spacious location of the bladders allows their volume and therefore their buoyancy to be high: 30 litre wings are not uncommon. Heavy equipment such as diving cylinders can be fixed to or slung from the back plate. A problem with wings is their tendency to float the diver facedown at the surface, which could be lethal in the event of the diver being incapacitated.
  • Stabiliser jacket, stab, waistcoat or vest BCs are inflatable vests worn by the diver around the upper torso. They typically provide up to 25 litres of buoyancy and are fairly comfortable to wear. They may float an unconscious casualty face-down.
  • Adjustable Buoyancy Life Jackets, ABLJs or horsecollar BCs: are worn around the neck with straps around the waist and between the legs. They are cheap, light and small, providing up to 15 litres of buoyancy. They float an unconscious casualty face-up. But they are old-fashioned, uncomfortable with a strap between the legs and provide less buoyancy than the other types. The diver must use a separate cylinder harness as a platform for the aqua-Lung.

Attitude in the water

The attitude of the submerged diver is influenced by the BC and by other buoyancy and weight components and contributed to by the diver's body, clothing and equipment. The diver typically wishes to be positioned face-down while under water, to be able to see and swim usefully, but face-up, to be able to breathe, when on the surface.

The attitude of a static and stable object in water, such as a diver, is determined by its centre of buoyancy and its centre of mass. At equilibrium, they will be lined up under gravity with the centre of buoyancy vertically above the centre of mass. The diver's overall buoyancy and centre of buoyancy can routinely be adjusted by altering the volume of the gas in the BC, lungs and diving suit. The diver's mass on a typical dive does not generally change, although it is possible if the weight belt is jettisoned or a heavy object is picked up.

Generally, the diver has no control of the position of the buoyancy in the BC, only its quantity. By inflating the BC at the surface the conscious diver can easily float face-up. By deflating the BC underwater, the diver can easily be positioned facedown. Traditionally, weight belts or weight systems are worn with the weights on or close to the waist and are arranged with a quick release mechanism to allow them to be jettisoned to provide extra buoyancy in an emergency.

It is possible to make an unconscious diver float face up on the surface by placing buoyancy and weights so that the buoyancy raises the top and front of the diver's body and the weights act on the lower and back of the body. An inflated ABLJ invariably provides this attitude. On the other hand, an inflated stab or wings BC generally floats the diver facedown because the centre of buoyancy is not close enough to the diver's head. Potential solutions to this problem are: fixed weights on the diver's cylinder or the use of large, high-density cylinders such as a 300 bar twinset. Both solutions move the centre of mass further behind the diver resulting a face-up attitude.

Many other factors, such as the number, position and density of diving cylinders, the type of diving suit, the position and size of stage cylinders, the size and shape of the diver's body and the wearing of ankle weights influence each individual diver's attitude in the water.


The ABLJ was developed by Maurice Fenzy in 1961. Early versions were inflated by mouth underwater. Later versions had their own air inflation cylinder. Some had carbon dioxide inflation cylinders, a development which was adandonned when valves that allowed diver's to breathe from the BC's inflation bag were introduced. Since 1969 most modern BCs have used inflation gas from one of the diver's main gas cylinders. In 1971, Scubapro developed the Stabilizer Jacket, the first jacket-style BC, and in 1972 Watergill developed the Atpac wing.

More recent innovations for jacket BCs include, weight pouches to adjust attitude underwater, integrating weights on the BC rather than a weightbelt, and inegrated diving regulators. Innovations for wings include, weight pouches to adjust attitude underwater and the stainless steel backplate.

Other buoyancy equipment

There are other types of equipment worn by divers that affect buoyancy:

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