There’s a reason some of the top scuba diving destinations in the world have stronger currents. Currents can bring the coolest underwater things with them; an abundance of algae may draw in gorgeous gliding manta rays, and your chances of spotting sharks and other pelagics are usually heightened. Not to mention drift diving is a lot of fun, and with the water helping you along there’s much less effort involved in finning!
Despite this, many newer divers are intimidated by the thought of drift diving and end up missing these bucket list scuba diving destinations. We’re here to demystify drift and give you some top tips to learn how to better handle currents.
What is current?
The simplest definition for current is “water movement”. A mild current may barely affect your dive, a light to medium current could be enough to help you glide along the reef, or currents can be incredibly strong and therefore impact on how you conduct your dive. They are affected by various factors; large oceanic systems move constantly, whilst smaller local currents are affected by wind, water density, and tides.
When scuba divers refer to a “strong current”, it is the consistent fast movement of water in one specific direction. However, currents like to keep us on our toes; they can switch direction, push upwards or downwards, or change intensity at different points in your dive. You can also come across surge, which is more of a rolling-back-and-forth motion.
Whilst this may sound intimidating, particularly if you’re a newer diver, there’s no need to be daunted by the prospect of diving in current. Being self-aware in your diving skills will make you better equipped for a drift dive, so read on to discover our tips for confidence in currents!
Plan the dive and dive the plan
We’ve all heard the phrase time and time again, but we shouldn’t underestimate its importance. Knowing the plan for your dive, whether you’re on a guided dive or diving independently with a buddy, is a priority for any dive but will be especially useful if you’re anticipating current.
Make the most of your guide
In parts of the world where you can expect more current it is often the norm to have a divemaster along with you on the dive. A guide with local knowledge should give you a strong dive briefing to ensure you know what to expect and how to handle yourself in the current.
Use your guide to your advantage; when you’re amongst a large group of seemingly more experienced divers it can be tempting to nod along during the dive briefing and say that you’re more comfortable than you really are, but having the confidence to say that you’d like a little more attention from your divemaster will make your experience much better and you’ll likely learn something new!
Planning a drift dive
If you’re confident and experienced enough to be planning your own dives (without a guide or divemaster), timing your dive correctly will be extremely important to ensure you get to see the best of the dive site. In tidal areas, currents can vary hugely depending on whether the tide is high or low, so tide charts are your best friends for dive planning. As tides are affected by the moon, the currents will also generally be stronger around a full moon and new moon. If you’re not confident reading a tide chart or if you’re unsure whether the area is tidal, seek out advice from a local dive operation. Remember that this should be part of your dive planning anyway; you should always take an orientation dive with a local guide before diving independently in a new area.
Entries, exits, descents and ascents
Listen to your briefing (or plan carefully with your buddy) to ensure you know how you’ll be entering the water and staying paired with your buddy on your descent and ascent. When drift diving from a boat and expecting current you may be required to do a negative descent, which is helpful to avoid stronger currents in mid-water and reach your desired depth faster.
In a positive descent (the kind you will have learned on your Open Water course), you back roll from the boat with a partially inflated BCD, fully inflate once you are in the water, meet with your group at the surface, and finally empty your BCD to slowly descend together. A negative descent is slightly different; it requires you to roll in with an empty BCD (get your buddy to help you squeeze out as much air as possible) and kick down in a head down position as soon as you hit the water. The usual practice is to then meet at 5 metres before continuing your descent but this may vary from location to location, so ensure you know where you’ll be meeting your group and keep good buddy contact. Remember to equalise frequently and keep an eye on your computer to check your depth. This is a super fun new skill to master, and can be very useful to have at your disposal.
Make sure you also know how you will be ascending and ending the dive. Will the whole group end the dive together when one person reaches their reserve air? If you’re diving in a larger group with multiple buddy pairs, can you continue the dive with your buddy (separate from the rest of the group), deploy your own DSMB and wait for the boat to collect you? Are you exiting on to a boat or back to shore?
Shore or boat
Most drift dives are completed from a boat, however, you may also come across current when diving from shore. If visibility allows, check the direction of the current before descending (this tip also applies to boat dives, but will usually be done for you by a guide if diving with one). You can usually tell by looking at the marine life and topography from the surface; fish will face into the current, feeding on algae and small invertebrates brought along by the water, and soft corals or seaweed will move in the same direction as the water. If the fish are swimming calmly, the current is likely lighter, whereas if they are swimming hard and fast you may find a stronger current.
If you’re shore diving in a current and need to return to the same entry when you end your dive, remember to begin your dive by swimming against (into) the current; the current can then help push you back in your desired direction at the end of the dive when you have less air remaining and less energy to swim.
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If you’re diving in a larger group ensure that you know who you’re buddied with, and get to know their equipment during your all-important pre-dive safety check. Pay particular attention to their releases (these can vary on differing BCD styles) and most importantly their alternate air set-up.
It should be covered in your dive briefing, but it’s always worth reviewing emergency procedures between your buddy pair as well as in the wider group. As much as we don’t want to find ourselves in these situations, you should always know your plan for an out-of-air situation, a buddy separation, and hand signals should you wish to abort the dive.
Focus on the fundamentals
As well as a thorough buddy check, keeping good general dive habits will make dives in current much easier. Ensure that your buddy contact is good; stay within two seconds touching distance of your buddy, and keep strong communication through hand signals to ensure you’re both comfortable throughout the dive.
Keep a close eye on your dive computer - if you’re focusing on finning to keep steady in a current it can be easy to forget to check your depth and end up deeper than you intended, or find yourself with much less no-decompression time than you’ve planned. With this in mind, you may want to check your computer more frequently than you would normally.
This also applies to checking your gas; if you’re swimming hard against a current you will likely use your air much quicker than a comparable dive at the same depth with no current. Communicate your air frequently to your buddy and turn/end the dive appropriately.
Get the right gear
If you know you’ll be diving regularly in medium-strong currents, it’s worth taking that into consideration when choosing your equipment. Get yourself geared up correctly by carrying the following drift-dive specific pieces of gear, and check out our post here for more information on purchasing scuba equipment
Some fin designs are better suited to swimming in stronger currents. Wider, flatter shapes made from more rigid materials will offer powerful fin kicks, whereas you may want to avoid more flexible materials and split-fin styles. GTS loves: Scubapro Jet Fins, Apeks RK3.
Whilst it’s a requirement on most Open Water courses to learn how to use a surface marker above water, many divers neglect to carry their own and rely on a guide to have one. However, if you’re drift diving it’s worthwhile carrying your own (and knowing how to deploy it) in the unlikely event you end up separated from your group.
Reef hooks are small metal hooks on an extendable cord used to anchor into rocks (carefully ensuring you avoid corals and marine life) in strong current. You then clip the cord to your BCD, add a small amount of air to float above the reef, and watch as the underwater world glides by. Irresponsible use by some divers means reef hooks have been banned in a number of locations, so check local regulations before bringing one along on a dive.
Now that you’re armed with the tools to dive in a current, where will your next drift dive adventure be? Let us know in the comments below, discuss in our Facebook group, or tag us on Instagram @girlsthatscuba!
About the author - our GTS blogger Lauren
Lauren originally learned to dive in 2008, and her heart has been in the ocean ever since. In 2018 her sense of adventure and passion for the underwater world led her to Indonesia, where she completed her PADI Divemaster and Instructor qualifications. You can find her on Instagram @laurennn_elizabeth to follow where the currents take her next!