There is nothing quite like the thrill of jumping in the water and letting the current push you along an endless reef.
When done properly, drift diving is by far the laziest and most relaxing form of diving. You don’t need to worry about navigation, or even swimming. You simply jump in, let the current take you, and the boat will be there to pick you up at the end of the dive.
More current usually means more fish too, as the current brings a fresh supply of plankton, which can attract all kinds of animals, including larger species like Whale Sharks and Manta Rays.
Unfortunately, ocean currents can be unpredictable, and without the some basic knowledge, a nice relaxing drift dive can quickly turn into the dive from hell. Before attempting drift diving in areas that are known to receive strong currents, you should always take your first dive with a local guide or instructor so they can help take care of you while you get the basics down.
Here we have compiled some basic tips that you should always follow when diving in a current. Remember the most important part of diving is that you are doing it safetly, so if you feel the conditions are not fit for you to dive, then don’t dive!
Check the Current
Whenever you dive in an area that is known to often have strong currents, each dive should begin with a current check.
All you need to do is – before you kit up for the dive – jump in with your mask, snorkel, and fins, and check how the current is. You should be looking for the direction of the current, as well as the strength. If it is too strong, you may want to consider changing dive site, as it may be even stronger underwater. You should inform the boat crew of your observations before the dive so they can predict where you might surface.
Remember that there are many different factors that effect currents, so you should be prepared for the conditions to change at any point.
Go with the Flow – Don’t Fight the Current
The whole point of drift diving is to just relax and let the ocean take you with it.
If you spend the whole time swimming against the current, you will burn through your air and become exhausted very quickly. That doesn’t mean you can’t stop for a minute or two to look at something cool you may have found, just don’t stay put for too long.
If you find that the current is pulling you away from the dive site, you should swim at a right angle to the current to try to return to the reef. If it is too exhausting to get back, you should abort the dive and make a safe ascent.
Be as Streamlined as Possible
If you are trying to reduce your drift speed when drift diving, you should start by getting as streamlined as possible.
When you are inside a moving wall of water, the larger your surface area, the faster you will be dragged with the water. Make sure you are horizontal and parallel to the reef, and ensure nothing is dragging from you.
On the other hand, if you like to just float in the blue and rush by the reef (this can be an amazingly fun way to dive too) then you would be better off in a more vertical position. Just make sure you don’t stay too close to the reef, or you might end up bumping into it and being dragged along the corals.
Bring a Surface Marker Buoy
Surface Marker Buoys, known as SMB, DSMB, or safety sausage, are an important piece of dive equipment for almost any dive, however for drift diving they are absolutely essential. Each member of the team should have one, and know how to use it properly.
A surface marker buoy is simply an inflatable balloon attached to a line. They can be used for the entire length of a dive so the boat can track and follow your movement, or they can be deployed during the dive by inflating them underwater.
The more common type is the DSMB (delayed surface marker buoy), where the diver inflates it towards the end of the dive or when they feel they may have drifted too far from the boat, however in some areas local law requires a diver to carry an inflated marker for the entire duration of the dive.
The problem with ocean currents is that they are unpredictable and can change frequently. You may have checked the current, dropped down, and discover the undercurrent if going the opposite direction to the surface current. If you spend the next hour drifting the opposite direction to the boat, they will have very difficult time spotting you if you don’t have a brightly coloured inflatable tube deployed.
If you are looking at getting your own set of scuba equipment, a large, brightly coloured delayed surface marker buoy should be at the top of your shopping list, and you should practice using it regularly.
Keep Aware of your Surroundings
As previously stated, currents can be unpredictable and can change in an instant. One moment you might be gliding along the reef and having a great time, and the next you may be being pulled down 15 metres by a down current.
There are plenty of in-dive observations you can keep an eye on to help predict what might be coming.
If you see a clear difference in visibility up ahead, you might be coming up to an upwelling – where cooler waters are being pushed up from the deep. If you see all the fish ahead of you are swimming up as hard as they can, you are probably about to face a down current.
You should keep a constant watch on the fish, plants, soft corals and anemones, as these are your best gauge of what might be coming. Upwellings and down currents are most likely to happen near, or on a corner of a reef, so every time you see a corner coming up, make sure you check your surroundings so you can be properly prepared.
Keep Close to your Buddy
The buddy system is drilled into divers from the first time they step into the pool during the Open Water Course. It is designed to make sure you and your buddy have constant awareness of each others position and air supply, and can communicate easily throughout the dive.
Keeping close to your buddy is even more important when drift diving. Remember that a larger diver will be more effected by the current than a smaller one, and even a metre difference in depth can alter the speed of current you are facing.
Buddy separation can happen in seconds when drift diving – especially if the visibility is poor. Each member of the buddy team should have a way of communicating with sound underwater, so you can quickly get each others attention. Some divers carry tank bangers, however a metal clip will do the job just as well.
If you get separated during the dive, remember the rules for buddy separation – look around for no more than one minute, before ascending to the surface to meet your buddy up there.
Bring Reef Hooks
No piece of scuba diving equipment splits the dive community more than the reef hook.
A reef hook is simply an anchor attached to a line that you can drop onto the reef, and it should catch somewhere and hook you onto the reef with it. They can be a great addition to your scuba luggage, as long as you know how to use it properly.
When using a reef hook, you should never use it on live corals, and you need to make sure that the hook wont slip and cause devastation as it drags along the reef, ripping apart whatever lays in its way.
Many marine protected areas and national parks do not allow visitors to use them, so you should check if you are actually allowed to bring them to the dive site.
My opinion is split on the use of reef hooks. More often than not, dive sites that get extremely strong drift currents are relativity devoid of corals (especially on the top of the reef), and there are plenty of safe locations for you to use the reef hook. On the other hand, the reef hook could still damage non-living parts of the reef that act as a shelter for many of the smaller critters on the dive site.
I almost always carry a reef hook when diving in areas of high current, although I have never used it. If a situation were to arise where safety was an issue, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
Leave the Giant Camera Behind
This comes back to a previous point about being as streamlined as possible. When the current is very strong, every additional square centimetre of surface area you take up will impact the amount the current will effect you.
Large cameras with external strobes will effectively act as a sail underwater. You will not be able to properly use it as you will be drifting past the reef so fast you wont be able to stop, and you probably will be so focused on the camera you might not realise you are about to face a down current.
I know a very experienced diver and photographer who panicked in a down current once, and dropped his 5000 USD camera system into water far too deep to retrieve it. Luckily, he was fine, although the camera still lives hundreds of metres underwater. Still, if he had never taken the camera with him, he would have been more aware of his surroundings, and probably would have never panicked in the first place.
If you insist on bringing a camera, make sure it is a small one that you can easily stow away in a pocked or streamlined against your body.
If done properly, drift diving is fun, relaxing and exhilarating all at the same time! Remember, the most important part of any dive is safety, and only you can judge what conditions you feel comfortable in.
Have you had any thrilling drift diving experiences you would like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you. Let us know about your dive in the comments section below and we will be sure to get back to you.
‘Tips for Diving in a Current – Drift Diving’ was written by Mike