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What to Do if You’re Caught in an Upcurrent

Most divers know about the dangers of getting caught in a downcurrent, but what if you’re caught in an upcurrent? Here’s what to do.

As outlined in a previous article, suddenly finding yourself dragged deeper by a downcurrent can be an intimidating experience during any dive. But finding yourself caught in an upcurrent can be just as scary. Any dive spot that is known for having strong currents may also potentially create down and upcurrents. We’ve already discussed what you should do in a downcurrent, but how should you react to an upcurrent? Here are five tips to help get you out of trouble if you’re caught in an upcurrent.

  1. Listen to your dive briefing. I can’t overemphasize how important this is before any dive, especially at a site known for currents. The person giving the briefing is a full-time dive professional, who knows the dive site and the conditions far better than you do. Not listening is at best rude, and at worst dangerous, no matter how experienced you think you are or how tame the conditions appear to be.Sites like walls are much more likely to experience upcurrents, so pay attention when your dive leader and boat captain explain procedures. When diving, if you’ve got a divemaster, follow his or her lead. Watch for warning signs yourself during a dive, such as fish swimming erratically or vertically up or down, or divers’ exhalation suddenly going up much faster than normal. If you notice your own bubbles doing this, it may be too late.
  1. While you might be able to grab onto something to slow or stop your ascent (don’t touch coral if you can help it), doing so will keep you in the upcurrent’s path. Don’t rely on thinking that you can wait it out. Instead, empty all the air from of your BCD and swim downward at a 45-degree angle, horizontally away from the current. Swimming directly down against the current will just exhaust you and keep you in the firing line, just as trying to swim straight up in a downcurrent is futile. Remember that although these currents can be very strong, up to four knots, they are usually also very narrow, just like a rip current. So eventually you will come out of it.
  1. Try to stay calm — easier said than done I know, but anxiety can quickly turn to panic, and panicked is the last thing you want to be underwater. Remember to keep breathing throughout. Inadvertently holding your breath on ascent can lead to a pulmonary barotrauma.
  1. If, despite emptying your BCD and trying to swim downward horizontally out of the current, you still find yourself ascending too fast and nearing the surface, flare your body to try and increase your drag on the water. If you do surface, do not attempt to descend again. Instead, signal your boat that you require assistance by either waving both arms above your head or by holding a DSMB above your head if you can. If you have a whistle, use it. As soon as the boat is close enough, tell them that you had a rapid ascent, answer their questions and follow their instructions once on board. They may just monitor you, watching for signs of DCS, or you may breathe oxygen as a precaution, followed by a check-up with a physician.
  1. Build up your experience. If you’ve just completed your open-water course in calm conditions, don’t choose dive locations known for strong currents. Practice your skills in order to become more comfortable with buoyancy and diving procedures. Once you’ve logged more dives, you’ll be able to explore advanced sites with more confidence.

Richard Devanney is a PADI, SSI, BSAC and SDI instructor who teaches technical diving through TDI, SSI XR and PADI TecRec. He currently lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, and manages Dive Silfra, owned by parent company Arctic Adventures. He runs a Facebook technical diving page called Iceland Technical Diving. Contact him at [email protected] or rd[email protected]