Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride: Drift Diving for Dummies

Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride: Drift Diving for Dummies

July 7, 2017 | 10:10

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Drift Diving in the Maldives. Photo Credit: Mal B, licensed under CC BY ND 2.0

Picture this: one after another, you and your dive buddies giant-stride into fast-moving water that sweeps you far away from the boat in just a few seconds. Quickly, quickly deflate your BCD and immediately you start swirling down to the bottom. When you finally find the others and adjust your buoyancy, you and the other divers in your group relax. The current gently takes you on a tour of the reef without so much as kicking a fin for the entire 45-minute dive. As you drift along you are joined by fish and other marine animals doing the same as you: hitching a ride on the Mother Nature’s natural carrousel.

This is drift diving. It is one of the most enjoyable types of diving because it requires minimal effort on the part of the diver and offers a relaxing—and sometimes thrilling—ride along a reef, wreck, wall or other marine environment. While drift diving is easily one of the most pleasurable types of diving, divers can make the most of it by taking certain precautions, bringing along the right equipment, and fine-tuning their diving skills.

What is Drift Diving?

Traditional dive plans often involve swimming against the current for the first half of the dive before turning around to find your way back to the boat or exit point. The reasoning is that it is better to swim against current at the beginning of the dive when you are fresh and full of energy. This method also makes it easier to find your way back to the exit point.

With drift diving, divers go with the flow the entire dive. It is the diving equivalent of the ‘lazy river’ attraction at your favorite waterpark—you let the current take you instead of fighting against it.

Drift diving can be done from a boat or from the shore. When starting a drift dive from the boat, divers are dropped off right in the middle of a current which they ride for the duration of the dive. The boat picks up the dive group at a different location when they surface. Alternatively, divers can enter and exit the water from different points along the shore.

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Schools of fish can often be found riding on currents—the ‘superhighways of the sea.’

Advantages of Drift Diving

There are many advantages to choosing to go with the flow instead of fighting against a current. First, letting the current take you is much less tiring because you do not spend your dive finning exhaustingly to propel you against the current. Instead, you just relax and leisurely float where the water takes you, taking in the sights as you go. For the most part, you won’t even need to use your fins except to maintain your depth. As a result, you conserve energy, consume less air, and enjoy longer bottom times.

Second, at dive sites with strong currents, drift diving can resemble a thrilling underwater roller coaster more than a lazy river ride. In some places, like Komodo in Indonesia or Palau in Micronesia, divers can drop directly into ripping currents of several knots or more. On these dives, the feeling of exhilaration and the adrenaline rush that overcomes you will instantly convert you to drift diving.

Third, brace yourself for exciting marine life encounters. Ocean currents, as ‘super-highways of the sea’, bring with them vast collections of vital nutrients that attract peckish fish and allow pelagic fish to travel further with less effort.

How to Drift Dive

When going drift diving, extra planning and specialized techniques go a long way toward ensuring safe dives.

There are two main types of drift diving—float line and free drifting—both of which can be done from a boat or from the shore. Float-line drift diving involves the use of a surface marker buoy (SMB). One diver drags a rope line attached to a surface marker buoy at the surface. The SMB trails along the surface throughout the entire dive, giving the boat captain or a shore observer a visual marker to help them keep track of the divers’ progress.

When free drifting, the divers do not deploy a surface marker buoy until the end of the dive. Instead, the boat crew tracks the divers’ progress by following their bubbles or estimates the area where they are expected to ascend based on the dive plan. The dive group will deploy a delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) during their safety stop to alert the boat to where the divers should get picked up.

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A diver and his surface marker buoy. Photo Credit: Mark Murphy, licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

Safety

When diving from the shore, divers will most likely need to do some surface swimming before and after the dive. Therefore, entry and exit locations must be chosen carefully. When planning to drift dive from the shore, it is important to take into consideration the estimated distance the divers will be traveling based on the direction and velocity of the current. Exit points should also take into consideration the planned depth of the dive and how long it will take before divers run out of air or exceed their NDL. Alternate exit points should be chosen in case the current causes the group to overshoot their primary exit or if they surface earlier than expected.

It is a good idea to appoint someone to be a shore observer, who can follow the progress of the divers to make sure that nothing goes wrong. If the shore divers deploy a surface marker during the dive, the shore observer can follow their progress from beginning to end. If not, the shore observer can move from the entry point to the exit point and wait for the divers to come back. If they do not return the shore observer can alert the authorities and initiate a rescue operation.

The dangers of drift diving should not be underestimated. Many divers have lost their lives due to strong currents and therefore proper planning and safety precautions should always be taken when diving in a current.

Equipment for Drift Diving

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Hooked into the reef at Blue Corner, Palau. Photo Credit: Amanderson2, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Currents can be unpredictable and diving in them creates several potential hazards both below and above the surface. When preparing for a drift dive it is important to consider bringing along some special equipment to help you manage.

Surface Marker Buoy (SMB)—Even more so than on regular dives, a surface marker buoy (SMB) or a delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) is a necessity for drift diving. Each diver should carry their own SMB, and know how to deploy it at depth, just in case they get separated from the group and need to ascend on their own. SMBs and DSMBs will allow the dive boat or shore observer to locate the divers when they surface. Additionally, they make other boats in the area aware that there are divers below, helping to prevent divers from getting hit.

Surface Signaling Devices—In addition to a surface marker, each individual diver should also carry an array of signaling devices in case they surface far from the boat and need to get a boat crew’s attention. With drift diving, there is an increased probability that one or more divers will get lost or separated from the dive group. Audible devices such as a whistle or air horn and visual devices such as a mirror and a dive light will help to increase your visibility at the surface no matter how far away you are from the boat or exit point when you surface. Additionally, divers can carry an emergency beacon that emits a radio signal when turned on, making it easy for rescue personnel to locate divers in extreme situations.

Reef Hook—Just as it sounds, a reef hook is a small stainless-steel hook attached to a rope line that divers use to attach themselves to a fixed point on a reef to stay in one place. Reef hooks are extremely useful if one diver is too far ahead of the group and needs to wait for the group to catch up. Alternatively, they can be used to set yourself up for a front row seat to watch the action if you see something interesting you want to investigate. It is important that reef hooks be used carefully to avoid damaging fragile corals. They should only be hooked to non-living organisms such as rocks and dead coral.

7 Tips for Drift Diving

Competence in all basic scuba skills is a must for drift diving, and it should only be attempted by experienced scuba divers with an advanced certification, or open water divers who are accompanied by a dive professional. While most certification agencies offer a Drift Diving speciality course, you do not need a course to successfully complete a drift dive. What you do need is confidence in your abilities and a safe dive plan. Here are seven tips that will help prepare you for your next underwater magic carpet ride.

Tip #1: Choose a Reputable Dive Operator

Planning for a drift dive requires intimate knowledge of local currents, an experienced boat captain and crew, and a reliable dive professional to guide you along. Dive operators that have been diving in their area for many years are best positioned to ensure a safe dive. Make sure you do your homework by talking to the shop owner or manager and reading reviews of the business before you choose one. If it does not feel right, do not commit.

Tip #2: Streamline Your Equipment

One of the first considerations when you take the plunge into a current is to streamline your kit. If you have hoses dangling and or other equipment hanging off your body you are at risk of becoming entangled on rocks or corals. Obstacles and hazards can pop out of nowhere when you are travelling at a few knots. Do everything you can to minimize contact between yourself and the marine environment.

Tip #3: Maintain Neutral Buoyancy

Currents can rapidly carry you upwards or drag you downwards. This is especially dangerous when diving a current along a wall where the bottom is seemingly endless. Make sure to watch your depth gauge like a hawk to stay aware of sudden changes in depth. Maintain your buoyancy at or near the agreed-upon depth for the dive and fin where necessary to make corrections.

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Drift diving along a deep wall requires excellent buoyancy control.

Tip #4: Adjust Your Trim

If you dive in the normal, horizontal position with your knees at 90 degrees and above your waist, the current can easily flip your body in ways that will make you lose control. Adjust your trim and adopt a body position better-suited to diving in a current. The goal is to have your body somewhat vertical, so that your fins are below your waist. Finding the right position will take some trial and error. Keep in mind that the more vertical you are, the more surface area will be caught by the current, and the faster you will go. Find the right balance.

Tip #5: Ride the Wave, Don’t Fight It

The whole point of a drift dive is to let the current take you where it will. Do not try to swim against it. The current will almost always win, leaving you exhausted and low on air in the process. Use the current as an asset but make sure not to swim with it; the current is enough to propel you along the reef or wall. If you swim with it, you will end up travelling too far, too fast. Not only will you miss out on the sights, you might also become separated from your group.

Tip #6: Use the Marine Environment to Your Advantage

The natural marine environment offers several features and places where you can seek refuge from the current if you need to wait for other members of your dive group or if you simply want to take a break. First, current is weaker near the bottom, so staying close to the bottom can help you slow down. Second, the natural topography of many dive sites includes an endless array of features, such as large rocks, coral outcrops or small caves that can help protect you from the water flow. Do as the fish do and find the best places to hide out.

Tip #7: Stick Together

It is of utmost importance to stay close to your buddy and the other divers in your group while drift diving. If you do not stay together, one or more divers may be taken away for an unwanted ride. Do not underestimate the power of a current, which can take a diver far, far away in just seconds. Make sure to check in and regroup at the beginning of the dive and to maintain a close distance to the other divers throughout the dive.

Drift Safely and You Shall be Rewarded

By taking following the above recommendations, and the instructions of your dive guide, you can learn how to harness the power of the ocean currents for a fun recreational scuba adventure. Many divers regard drift diving as their favorite type of diving and after you try it and master the techniques, it is easy to see why. All aboard the Underwater Express!

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