Drift diving offers a fantastic way to enjoy the underwater world. Gliding effortlessly over bottom contours or next to a reef wall by simply tilting your fins and making small adjustments to steer can be a relaxing way to dive with minimal effort. But diving in strong currents can also be quite challenging.
In many parts of the world, such as Tobago, British Columbia, Cozumel, French Polynesia, Palau, Indonesia and the Maldives, most dives are drifts. Many drifts are gentle and relaxing, but some can feature fast or violent currents. If the current is quite strong, you may use a reef hook to remain in place.
Strong currents aren’t necessarily a barrier to diving a site, depending on your training and experience, but they do mean you’ll need to pay extra attention to certain aspects of your dive. Drift diving isn’t scary or dangerous. It just requires a little more preparation and planning.
Listen to the briefing
Each location and environment has unique challenges and drift diving procedures. Don’t assume that because you’ve been drift diving before that your next one will be the same. The briefing will cover any special procedures, so pay attention. For example, is it a standard entry or a negative entry? Is the guide towing a marker throughout the dive? Is the whole group ascending together at the end of the dive? Or are buddy teams ascending with their own SMBs as they run low on gas? Are you using reef hooks or not?
Ensure that you and your buddy are clear on what to do in the water. Be clear on the boat pick-up procedures and listen for any natural navigation tips. And, of course, pay attention particularly to any emergency procedures.
Don’t forget the basics
Time can fly as you’re flying through the water. Keep an eye on your computer to monitor your depth and your no-deco limit. Adjust your depth and profile accordingly and communicate with your buddy and the dive leader.
Watch your gas consumption. Drifting along at speed can be very exciting and, despite not finning, you may find you’ve used more gas than you expected. Stick to the agreed-upon procedures of the briefing and ascend with a safety stop at the end of your dive.
It’s also important to stay close to your buddy on a drift dive, and you may sometimes accidentally bump into each other. But, conversely, the current will sometimes push you apart. As you learned in your basic training, you ideally want always to be within 2-3 seconds or a few strong fin kicks of your buddy. If they’ve drifted ahead, fin a little to catch up. If you’re ahead, keep still and relax. They should reciprocate. If you have a low-on-air scenario or problem, it’s trickier for them to help if you’re separated by a strong current.
Streamline your equipment before you enter the water. Ensure you don’t have anything dangling, and take only what you need for the dive. Discuss this with your buddy and split your resources. If you’ve been briefed that the drift may be particularly strong or violent, consider leaving your large camera and strobes on the boat for this dive. You may need your hands free for controls, equalization and signaling. If you must take a camera, choose a GoPro or compact camera that you can clip to your jacket or stow in your pocket.
If there’s a chance that you’ll be diving strong currents and, potentially, group separation, each diver should carry a DSMB and reel (and know how to use them). In environments famous for strong currents, such as the Galapagos, divers will often also have a Nautilus Lifeline.
Mount accessories such as lights, camera or DSMB and reel where you can easily reach them without looking so that you don’t have to avert your gaze from the path ahead. And, if possible, mount your computer on your right wrist. This way you can check your gas-pressure gauge and make buoyancy adjustments to your jacket or wing’s low-pressure inflator with your left hand, without taking your eye off the computer’s depth gauge and ascent rate monitor as the current pushes you along.
Make sure that when the signal is given to enter the water, you’re ready — not just saying you’re ready, especially if you’re doing a negative entry. Complete your buddy checks thoroughly, make sure your mask is treated and in place and that all your gear is where it should be. If you float by the dive site still spitting in your mask at the surface, you will not have a happy buddy.
Go with the flow
Current is generally stronger near the surface. Once in the water, descend as soon as possible, as directed in the briefing. Meet the rest of your dive group at the agreed-upon point with your buddy.
The dive leader may have instructed all to meet at 30 feet (10 m). Or there may be an area of natural shelter from the current, such as a small pinnacle, from behind which the group will meet and the dive will commence.
In fast-moving water, think ahead during the dive. Imagine yourself on a skateboard gliding down a hill. Stay streamlined and focus a few feet in front of you for potential obstacles, such as rocks, pinnacles, coral heads and fishing line. You may need to fin laterally through the water column or adjust your buoyancy to avoid potential hazards.
If you’re at the tail end of a group, watch the other divers’ direction. Don’t be distracted by a computer or camera. Look for clues and movements, as if driving heavy traffic.
Use your fins to your advantage. Not for finning forward — unless you’re lagging behind — but to angle yourself in a flat, horizontal position. Let the blades act like flaps on an aircraft. As you tilt your feet and make small adjustments, you’ll soon find yourself able to discreetly steer in the current.
Ending the dive
Ending the dive is arguably the key to mastering diving in strong currents.
Due to the nature of drift diving, a boat will almost always pick you up. This often means there will be boat traffic, so DSMBs are essential to alert boats to your presence. If they’re not using a marker for the entire dive, often the guide will launch a DSMB as the group begins the safety stop.
As you ascend, try to maintain the same depth as the guide and your buddy. The water moves at different speeds depending on the depth and, should you be significantly shallower or deeper than your group you, may find be left behind or blow right past them.
If you’re relying on the guide’s DSMB, stay close by on the safety stop and final ascent, within a 15-foot (5 m) radius. Boat traffic above can see the marker buoy, not you. Keep within safe bounds of it both above and below the surface in case boats are buzzing around above you.
When on the surface give the okay, stay close, and, as the boat arrives to collect you, keep your mask on and regulator in your mouth, in case you need to swim face-down to the boat.
Watch the boat as it approaches. You and the boat may be drifting at different speeds in different directions. Never approach the boat’s stern and, as always, stay clear of the propellers in case the pilot or captain must put the boat in gear. If you’re new to drift diving, as a rule of thumb, wait for the dive leader to instruct you when and where to approach the boat. But, if you’re desperate to board the zodiac, try to approach up-current so the boat doesn’t drift on top of you in waves.
The briefing should cover general boarding procedures, but listen for instructions from the boat crew and dive leader if the conditions have changed. Make sure everyone is safely aboard the boat before departing the dive site.
If it all goes wrong?
If you find yourself lost or separated from the group, breathe, stop, think and act. Remember the general separation procedures or those discussed in the briefing. Generally, this would be to slowly ascend in accordance with your dive computer’s instructions. Deploy a marker buoy and/or activate your nautilus lifeline at the surface if you find yourself a long way from the site.
Diving in strong currents can be not only extremely exciting, but also lets you see more of a dive site. Paying attention to the briefing and following these basic drift-diving guidelines means you’ll have a fun — and safe — dive.