Decompression Algorithms in Scuba Diving

Decompression algorithms are essential tools in the world of scuba diving, providing divers with vital information to ensure their safety as they explore the underwater environment. These algorithms calculate the decompression stops required for a specific dive profile, allowing divers to plan their ascent and avoid potentially life-threatening decompression sickness (DCS). This entry will provide an in-depth exploration of decompression algorithms, their history, various models, and their applications in dive computers and decompression tables.

History of Decompression Algorithms

The development of decompression algorithms dates back to the early 20th century when John Haldane, a British physiologist, proposed the first decompression model. Haldane’s model was based on the understanding that nitrogen, a gas found in the air we breathe, is absorbed by body tissues during a dive and must be released slowly during ascent to avoid the formation of dangerous gas bubbles.

Haldane’s work laid the foundation for subsequent decompression research, with several scientists and diving organizations refining and expanding on his initial concepts. Over the years, a variety of decompression algorithms have been developed, each with their own unique approach to calculating decompression stops.

Types of Decompression Algorithms

Decompression algorithms can be broadly classified into two categories: deterministic models and probabilistic models.

  1. Deterministic Models: These algorithms provide a specific set of decompression stops for a given dive profile. They are based on empirical data and theoretical assumptions about how the body absorbs and releases inert gases. Examples of deterministic models include the Haldanean model, Bühlmann model, and the US Navy dive tables.

a. Haldanean Model: As mentioned earlier, this model was developed by John Haldane and is based on the premise that body tissues absorb and release nitrogen at different rates. Haldane’s model divides tissues into groups with different half-times and provides conservative decompression schedules.

b. Bühlmann Model: Developed by Swiss physician Albert A. Bühlmann, this model expands on Haldane’s work by accounting for multiple inert gases, including helium. The Bühlmann model allows for more accurate decompression calculations for dives involving mixed gases, such as trimix and heliox.

c. US Navy Dive Tables: Developed by the United States Navy, these tables provide divers with a simplified method for determining decompression stops based on empirical data collected from numerous dives. While not an algorithm in the strictest sense, the US Navy dive tables incorporate the principles of decompression algorithms to generate safe ascent schedules.

  1. Probabilistic Models: These algorithms take a statistical approach to decompression, accounting for the inherent variability in how individuals absorb and release inert gases. Probabilistic models provide a range of possible decompression schedules, with each associated with a specific risk of DCS. Examples of probabilistic models include the Varying Permeability Model (VPM) and the Reduced Gradient Bubble Model (RGBM).

a. Varying Permeability Model (VPM): Developed by David Yount and Erik Baker, the VPM is based on the idea that microscopic gas bubbles form in body tissues during a dive. The VPM calculates decompression stops by accounting for the growth and elimination of these bubbles, providing a more accurate ascent schedule.

b. Reduced Gradient Bubble Model (RGBM): Developed by Bruce Wienke, the RGBM also focuses on the behavior of microscopic gas bubbles in the body. The RGBM seeks to minimize bubble growth by adjusting the ascent schedule to allow for the slowest tissue to off-gas safely.

Applications in Dive Computers and Decompression Tables

Decompression algorithms are widely used in dive computers, which are small, wrist-mounted devices that constantly monitor a diver’s depth, time, and gas mix

to provide real-time decompression information. Dive computers are programmed with one or more decompression algorithms that calculate safe ascent profiles, allowing divers to optimize their decompression stops and minimize the risk of DCS. The use of dive computers has significantly enhanced dive safety and convenience, as they provide more accurate and personalized decompression schedules compared to traditional dive tables.

Decompression tables, on the other hand, are pre-calculated decompression schedules based on specific dive profiles and depths. These tables are typically generated using deterministic decompression algorithms, such as the US Navy dive tables or Bühlmann model. Divers must consult the appropriate table for their dive profile and adhere to the decompression stops outlined within. While less precise and adaptable than dive computers, decompression tables remain a valuable tool for dive planning and safety, particularly for those without access to dive computers or as a backup option in case of computer failure.

Customizing Decompression Algorithms

It is important to note that individual responses to decompression can vary, with factors such as age, fitness level, body composition, and dive history potentially affecting a diver’s susceptibility to DCS. Consequently, some divers may require more conservative decompression schedules than those provided by standard algorithms. To accommodate these differences, many dive computers allow users to customize decompression algorithms by adjusting gradient factors or conservatism settings, tailoring the ascent schedule to the individual’s specific needs and risk tolerance.


Decompression algorithms are essential tools in scuba diving, enabling divers to plan safe ascents and avoid decompression sickness. With a variety of models available, each with their own unique approach to calculating decompression stops, divers can choose the algorithm that best suits their diving needs and preferences. The implementation of these algorithms in dive computers has revolutionized diving safety, providing real-time, personalized decompression schedules that minimize the risk of DCS. As our understanding of decompression physiology continues to evolve, it is likely that decompression algorithms will be further refined and optimized, ensuring that scuba diving remains a safe and enjoyable pursuit for all.