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A 1-page Guide to Learning and Using 3-part Dive Tables

by Jim Grier, Dept of Biol Sciences, NDSU, Fargo, ND 58105-5517


Many, if not most, students in beginning certification classes find standard 3-part dive tables to
be confusing, difficult, and even intimidating or a hurdle. The tables are, however, quite simple
and straight-forward. This overview is to help students easily learn and be able to use both the
principles and the tables. (This document may be copied and used freely.)
There are 3 gasses in air that are of concern to scuba diving:

Oxygen -- needed for life and used by the body. However, there is usually more than
enough in the air we breathe and the body does not monitor it.

Carbon dioxide -- a waste or by-product of metabolism. Too much of it creates problems;


and it is monitored by the body. As the level increases (such as from increased activity),
respiration is increased to flush it out. Respiration rate is regulated primarily by levels of
carbon dioxide, not oxygen.

Nitrogen -- normally considered "inert" from a physiological standpoint. However, with


diving it has two effects: (1) Nitrogen narcosis, like a form of intoxication that is poorly
understood. It increases with depth but varies from diver to diver and time to time. It
disappears (no "hang-over") when one returns to shallower depths or the surface. (2)
Increased nitrogen absorption into the body with increased pressures, with the reverse
occurring at reduced pressure. If it comes out too fast it can cause harmful bubbles in the
body. It is this second effect that is of concern for decompression sickness (DCS) or the
"bends," and for which dive tables are designed to help reduce the risks.
As you go deeper, the body soaks up more nitrogen from the air you are breathing.
As you come up, the body releases the excess nitrogen.
Three-part dive tables track your nitrogen load by representing it with letters. The farther
into the alphabet a letter is, the more nitrogen it represents. To be conservative and standardized,
the dive tables assume a "square" profile (descend to depth, stay at that depth for the entire time,
ascend), although most actual dives are multi-level, with more gradual descents and ascents (and
less accumulated nitrogen).
The 3 parts of the dive tables are:
1.
2.
3.

A part that shows nitrogen load and maximum "no-decompression" dive times, with
increasing letters based on depth and time.
A part that shows the loss of excess nitrogen during surface interval times, with lower
letters for longer times.
A part for repetitive dives which takes into account the accumulated, remaining, or
residual, excess nitrogen in the body, again as represented by letters. The residual
nitrogen needs to be considered in planning for the next dive.

See any set of 3-part dive tables for details. (Note: the details vary from one source or certifying
agency to another, but the principles are the same for all of them.) For an example, the NOAA
dive tables, go to: http://www.ndc.noaa.gov/pdfs/NoDecoAirTable.pdf