Training Fundamentals: Top Tips for Drift Diving

Drift diving can be effortless or challenging, depending on the dive site. Here are our top tips for staying safe when drift diving.

Most initial diver training takes place in relatively calm conditions, such as secluded lagoons, simple reefs or a freshwater lake. However, as divers progress to advanced dive sites, they often face strong currents — and that’s not a bad thing. Currents bring the nutrients, and nutrients bring the life that divers want to see. Drift diving in these currents can vary hugely depending on location. You may motionlessly glide along, only finning occasionally, or you may be diving in strong currents. This can be quite challenging and, if you get it wrong, hazardous. However, drift diving isn’t intrinsically dangerous. It just requires greater preparation and planning.

Here are some of our top tips for your best drift dives yet.

Take the right gear

Take the equipment you need. If there’s a chance of strong currents and, potentially, group separation, each diver should carry a DSMB and reel. Be sure you know how to deploy one safely. In extremely remote places, or where currents are notoriously strong, dive operators will sometime insist divers use a Nautilus Lifeline — a GPS tracking device that comes into play if a diver is swept away.

Leave behind the wrong gear

A gentle drift dive may be ideal for taking some video footage, but if the dive is more challenging, leave behind what you don’t need. The dive may require your full attention. Consider leaving large cameras and strobes on the boat for this dive — if the current is extremely strong you won’t be pausing for photos. Leave your hands free for controls, monitoring depth and time, equalization and signaling. If you must take a camera, choose a compact device that you can attach to a D-ring or stow in your jacket pocket.

Pay attention to the briefing

Each drift dive has unique challenges and procedures, so pay attention to the briefing. Take notes on a slate to avoid confusion. For example, in some environments, divers commonly use reef hooks to remain in key areas such as cleaning stations. In others, they’re very much frowned upon due to their potentially damaging contact with the environment. Note other key information — is the entry standard or negative? 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? Where should you surface? Where shouldn’t you surface? Note compass bearings and direction instructions and, very importantly, emergency procedures.

Remember which boat you’re on

The dive isn’t over until you’re back on land, so be sure of which boat you’re on — it’s surprisingly common for novice divers to board the wrong boat. If a dinghy is picking you up, find out if there are any unique ways to display your DSMB to help the driver identify you as a diver from his vessel at a busy dive site with multiple liveaboards.

Discuss the dive

Discuss key parts of the dive with your buddy and confirm what you intend to do in the water. Plan the dive, dive the plan. Time can fly as you’re flying through the water, so be sure to agree upon gas and no-stop limits before entering the water so that you can monitor them carefully and signal accordingly.

Don’t skip the pre-dive checks

Complete your pre-dive buddy checks very thoroughly. Treat your mask and place it on your face in good time. If you float by the dive site still spitting in your mask at the surface, you won’t have a happy buddy, just an embarrassing dinghy ride as the crew picks you up. Streamline your hoses and secure accessories in the correct place. If you’re right-handed and it’s comfortable, 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, while simultaneously monitoring your computer display as the current pushes you along.

Be ready on time

Make sure that when the guide or driver gives the signal to enter the water, you’re ready. Current is usually stronger near the surface so, if you’re not doing a negative entry, once in the water descend as soon as possible — as directed in the briefing. Note the topography and the location of your group. Meet the rest of your dive group at the agreed depth or location with your buddy. There may be an area of natural shelter from the current, such as a wreck or pinnacle, from behind which the group will meet and begin the dive.

Use the topography

Use the reef or natural topography to your advantage. Duck in close to the reef or rocks for shelter if you need to pause or slow down. Think of the current as a wind propelling you or holding you back, depending on direction. The dive guide will inevitably have done many dives at the site, so shadow their positioning and moves.

Stay close to your buddy

It’s also important to stay close to your buddy on a drift dive. You may find, due to the water movement, that you sometimes accidentally bump into each other. But, conversely, the current will sometimes force you apart. As in your initial dive training, you ideally wish to be within two to three seconds or a few strong fin kicks of your buddy. If they’ve drifted ahead, make stronger fin kicks to catch up. If you’re ahead, keep still, relax and use the natural topography where possible to slow down. You should work as a team. If you have a low-on-air scenario or problem, you’ll need them close at hand.

Plan ahead

In fast-moving water, plan ahead during the dive as if you’re driving a fast car. Stay focused on where you’re headed. Watch with amazement at how easily the fish cope with the conditions in comparison, as if there’s no current at all. Be mindful of potential obstacles, such as rocks, pinnacles, coral, fishing line, or simply other divers. Fin sideways through the water column or make subtle buoyancy adjustments to avoid potential hazards. Currents have different strengths and speeds at different depths, so try to stay in formation with the guide and your buddy. Look for clues and cues from other divers, as if watching other drivers in heavy traffic.

Take the proper position

Angle yourself in a flat, horizontal position where possible. Tilt your feet and ankles to make small adjustments like a submarine and you’ll soon discover you’re able to discreetly make small directional changes in the current.

Make a proper ascent

As the dive ends, you’ll begin ascending to your safety stop. Note the reef’s position and, generally, take a bearing and swim away from the reef with DSMB deployed to signal to boats your location, and to keep them from going dangerously close to shallow water to pick you up. As you ascend, try to maintain the same depth as the guide and your buddy.

Stay close to the DSMB

If you’re relying on the dive guide’s DSMB, remain close on the safety stop and final ascent; a 15-foot (5 m) radius is a good rule of thumb. However, make sure not to become tangled in the dive leader’s line, a common error with novice divers as the water movement pushes them around in surge.

Stay close on the surface.

When you surface, board the boat as instructed in the briefing. Keep your mask on and regulator in your mouth in case you need to swim face-down to the boat.

What if it goes wrong?

The normal rules of diving still apply in drift diving. If you become lost or separated from the group, breathe, stop, think and act. Generally, if you haven’t identified your group in approximately a minute, begin to slowly ascend in accordance with your dive computer’s instructions. Deploy a marker buoy and/or activate your GPS at the surface as briefed.

Drift diving allows access to some of the most interesting and exciting dive sites on the planet. Taking note of these basic drift-diving tips should allow you to have a safe and enjoyable dive.