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Top 10 Tips for Drift Diving

Drift diving can offer you some of the most exhilarating dives of your life, but before you begin, it’s important to understand and master some of the techniques for diving in currents.

Drift diving is broadly defined as diving in a current, wherein the diver is transported from point A to point B by the water movement rather than by their own power. Drift diving makes for some of the best underwater “flying” sensations and can be truly exhilarating. Divers can also cover a much larger area while drifting in the current. On some dive sites, the current attracts bigger fish and you can witness some serious hunting or feeding — there are dozens of great reasons to drift dive. However, if you’re new to drift diving or uncomfortable in a strong current, here are a few tricks and tips to make these high-speed dives more enjoyable.

Photo by Mark.murphy
Photo by Mark.murphy

Carry and use an SMB

Even if you’re not a regular drift diver, you should always carry a surface marker buoy (SMB) with you. Plan for safety. If you drift too far away from other divers in your group, you will need to be able to signal on your own for a safe ascent. Carry an SMB and learn to deploy if from depth — which means you should also have a reel — so you can safely use it if necessary. Practice deploying it in easy conditions so that you’re ready to launch it in more difficult conditions if need be. 

Know the local area

If you’re unfamiliar with where you’re diving, pick up some literature about local sites and currents. You need to know information such as tidal movements, specifically, dive sites to avoid on rising or falling tides. Those who are new to drift diving, or just unfamiliar with the area, will probably want to dive with a guide. Preferably a good guide, which brings us to the next tip…

Choose your dive operator carefully

If you’re diving somewhere that conditions can be challenging, don’t settle for anything less than an excellent dive operator. If you’re renting, check the gear; check the reviews on the Internet; ask about their first-aid supplies and missing-diver protocols. You do not want to cheap out when you’re diving in strong currents. Look for experienced crew, a knowledgeable captain and an excellent dive guide – you need to know that they’ve got your back should the current get the best of you.

Know what to do in case of separation

This is a standard procedure for diving in general. If you lose the rest of your group, look around for one minute and then ascend slowly to the surface and signal to the boat for help. Your dive guide should mention this in the dive briefing; make sure your buddy is familiar with this procedure as well. And if for any reason this does happen during a dive, especially a drift dive, you should absolutely follow this procedure.

Triple check your equipment

Of course you should always dive with equipment in perfect condition, but when a fin strap breaks in a current, it’s a bit more challenging to deal with than on a standard dive. If you’re going to be doing a few drift dives, make sure all your gear and safety equipment is in working order before you jump in the water.

Do not get distracted

Try to concentrate on just the dive. You need to be hyper-aware of your surroundings and changing conditions during a drift dive. Taking a large, bulky camera might not be appropriate in some currents. Trying new dive equipment, such as a mask you just bought, can also be difficult, as it will take your focus away from the dive. Stay in your comfort zone and work on your technique until you feel confident.

Carry a reef hook

Ask the dive guide about local regulations and recommendations for using reef hooks; in some areas they’re not allowed, and on some dives, they’re required. In strong currents, a hook can allow you to rest or hold your position without becoming overexerted. A properly placed reef hook can also allow you to stay off the reef comfortably without damaging corals.

Do not fight the current

Learn to read the current and then work with it, not against it. The ocean will always be stronger than you. The water movement is slower the closer you are to the reef or bottom, so try to stay as low as possible. Watch your dive guide and see where they place themselves underwater; do as they do. If you need to slow down or stop to wait for the rest of your group to catch up, get close to the bottom and gently fin against the current, or find a big rock to hide behind. Avoid exhaustion, which can lead to a low air supply, panic or a bad dive experience.

Take a specialty course or get experience

A lot of training agencies offer specialty courses in drift diving. These can be quite useful to help hammer home the basics, but nothing beats experience. So if drift diving appeals to you, before throwing yourself into the “Vortex” or whatever that crazy-strong-current dive site is called, treat yourself to a few days of drift dives with good professionals in current that you can handle.

Trust your instincts

If you get to the dive site, or if at any point during your dive you suddenly feel that you need to get out of the water, it might be your instincts telling you the conditions are unsuitable for you that day. Getting out of your comfort zone and a bit of apprehension is fine. But don’t take a giant leap into a situation that scares you. Be cautious — if you feel a certain dive is way too much for you, it probably is. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing a dive you’re extremely uncomfortable with, and don’t pressure yourself. Know your limits when it comes to currents; respect them and your abilities, and soon you’ll be drift diving like a pro.