What is drift diving? 20 awesome drift diving tips for beginners to help you enjoy your first drift dive in safety
I personally love drift diving as it’s an effortless way to scuba dive and is be a lot of fun to do.
A drift dive is a type of dive where you go with the flow of the current instead of fighting against it. The fun of a drift dive lies in going with the flow and the stronger the current, the faster you drift and the more fun you’ll have. Drift diving is like flying.
What is drift diving and how do you do it?
A drift dive is a dive when the plan at the outset is to ‘go with the flow.’ It’s about enjoying being pushed along in the current. It’s about finding currents that are more than one knot and enjoying the ‘flying sensation‘ of floating through the water at speed without effort.
How you do a drift dive is to relax and allow the current to push you along. Set your buoyancy at the start of the dive and drift along a few feet off the bottom.
Why do a drift dive?
The main reason why most scuba divers do drift diving is that it’s fun. It’s an effortless dive and on many drift dives you’ll not even have to fin at all. So your air will last longer and your dive time will be extended.
One of my favourite drift dives is in the Red Sea is the Elphinstone Reef. The currents are usually about two knots or more and normally run along the reef from north to south.
Search for your favourite Red Sea Liveaboard a top place for drift diving:
The Elphinstone Reef dive itself is not about the drift as such, but is usually about diving to the northern plateau. There you can watch for sharks, hammerheads and Oceanic White Tips in the main.
The second part of the Elphinstone Reef dive is to drift up and away from the plateau and run along either the west or east side of this long reef. Slowly ascending from your dive, looking at the reef itself and watching out into the blue for more sharks.
Can any scuba diver do a drift dive?
Additional equipment needed for diver safety includes a surface marker buoy (SMB). An SMB is a buoy that floats on the surface and is attached to the scuba diver via a hand-held line and reel. As the diver descends the line is slowly let out until the diver reaches the bottom.
The SMB is dragged by the diver for the duration of the dive. The SMB is followed on the surface by the dive boat skipper. This means the boat is able to stay in constant sight of each diver’s position in the water.
20 drift diving tips for beginners to drift diving
1. Only take one surface marker buoy per buddy pair on a drift dive
Only one of your buddy pair needs to take a surface marker buoy. A surface marker buoy, which is also called a ‘Surface Sausage‘.
The reason for only one surface marker buoy between a dive buddy pair is to avoid getting the lines tangled on the dive.
Use a delayed surface marker buoy or SMB
It is possible to do a drift dive using a Delayed SMB. But this may not be advisable in stronger current drift dives for safety reasons. You don’t want to be lost at sea.
In bigger swells its more difficult for boat skippers to see divers and marker buoys. If you were to drift off in an unusual direction without an SMB, and at the point you deploy the Delayed SMB, you may be out of sight and at a distance that’s difficult to be seen.
If you chose to dive using a Delayed SMB you simply continue on the dive as normal and then deploy the buoy at the end of the dive. The dive boat is usually drifting in the same direction as you will spot that you are ascending and easily follow the marker buoy.
2. Take a delayed Surface Marker Buoy as backup on a drift dive
As only one of your buddy pair has the surface marker buoy it’s advisable for the second dive buddy who isn’t holding the surface marker buoy to have a delayed surface marker buoy as a safety backup.
This is a diver safety precaution in case of separation. The separated buddy will be able to deploy the Delayed SMB so the boat skipper can see and follow them too.
As with all dive buddy separations both separated dive buddies must surface immediately after separating.
3. Avoid tangling the surface marker buoy line when drift diving
The deeper the drift dive the more line you’ll have deployed connected to the buoy and the surface.
The more line that’s deployed the greater the chance of line to get caught or tangled. Therefore, be mindful of your SMB line when navigating around obstacles on the bottom like outcrops and wrecks.
4. Lock-off the SMB reel
Remember to lock-off the reel when you reach the bottom. You don’t want to be continually letting out line. If you do, the marker buoy will be too far behind you.
Too much line gives a bigger risk of a tangle, plus you’ll have more line to reel in when you ascend.
5. Don’t lock-off your SMB reel too soon on a drift dive
Make sure you don’t lock your reel off too soon. You should leave some slack in the line so the angle of the line is at around 30-45 degrees to the surface.
If your line is too short you will be fighting your SMB, which is especially true where there’s a swell running. In this case each time a swell comes through it will lift you from the bottom.
When you’re constantly fighting your SMB and trying to stay down you won’t enjoy the drift dive. Plus you’ll use up more air than you have to. The trick to a long and enjoyable dive is to conserve your air when scuba diving.
You may like to read my 22 pro tips on how to conserve your air when scuba diving. I challenge you to know them all, but if you know others, please comment on the article.
The main safety aspect of a drift dive is your SMB. If you lose this the boat skipper will not be able to follow your drift direction. This is why I suggest you attach the SMB reel to you.
But if for whatever reason you let go of your SMB and you drift aaway from it you should surface immediately. Otherwise the skipper will be following your buoy without you being attached to it.
Assuming you’ve you’ve followed tip 2 make sure your dive buddy deploys their Delayed SMB at this point.
7. Be careful not to get separated when drift diving
With a drift dive, it’s easier to get separate from your dive buddy, which is especially true when diving in low visibility water.
On some drift dives you’ll be moving at quite some speed. It is this speed that makes it very easy to split up from your dive buddy. The faster the current the more this will be.
Therefore be aware of the speed of the current and be extra vigilant towards your dive buddy. The slightest pause to look at something and your buddy will be lost. Especially in low visibility drift dives.
8. Be careful when drift diving in low visibility water
Low visibility water adds a further risk to a drift dive. The chances of splitting up with your dive buddy are greater. In lower vis dives it may take only a second or two for your buddy to be out of sight from you.
Stay as close to each other as you can and avoid stopping unless you both stop.
A place where visibility is usually good, plus where you’ll experience great drift dives, is the Maldives.
Search for your favourite Maldives Liveaboard a top place for drift diving:
A buddy link line is a line that attaches between scuba diving buddies. It’s a way to ensure you are not separated on a dive.
Adopting the use of a buddy link-line on a drift dive, and especially one in lower visibility, is a good safety precaution to take.
10. Don’t drift dive at night
Combining a night dive and a drift dive isn’t safe to do.
Night diving and drift diving are not a good combination. Don’t do a drift night dive otherwise there’s a chance of getting lost in the dark.
Not only will it be easier to get separated from your dive buddy (unless a link line is used), but it will be virtually impossible for the dive boat to follow you.
Even though you have dive torches you still risk being separated on a night drift dive.
To help make the point, this problem can also happen in the day time. For example, back in 2007 four divers were lost and never found after being swept away on a current from the Elphinstone Reef.
11. Mind your buoyancy control when on a drift dive
On a drift dive the waters are often more turbulent. This can have an affect on your buoyancy and how you move through the water.
As your buoyancy control can be affected on a drift dive, I suggest you master your buoyancy before you attempt diving on a drift.
You want to read this article about how to achieve neutral buoyancy the easy way. Including to 10 pro-tips.
You could be travelling at quite some speed on a drift dive. So be mindful of what’s ahead of you and don’t bump into things. This includes your fellow scuba divers.
13. Be careful when you stop to look at things on a drift dive
Be careful about stopping for too long to look at things on a drift dive.
You may stop but your dive buddy may not and they may not realise you have stopped. Before you know it, and especially in fast drifts and even more so on low visibility drift dives, your buddy will be out of sight in no time at all.
14. Be careful on your descent on a drift dive
When you’re descending on a drift dive be aware of the current and how strong it is. If the drift dive is also low visibility you’ll have no reference of speed until the bottom comes into view.
Make sure you are facing in the direction of travel and that you’re already watching for obstacles ahead.
15. Be careful on your ascent from a drift dive
More care is necessary on your dive ascent from a drift dive.
Once you leave the bottom, and this is especially true in lower visibility waters, you may no longer be able to see the bottom. You will no longer have any reference of your speed.
Be aware and continue to look ahead in your direction of travel.
16. Be aware of strong currents that can push you deeper on a drift dive
Currents can be very strong and there’s no way you’d be able to swim against them. Be careful when diving in currents that could push you deeper than your planned dive depth.
Watch your depth gauge or dive computer to make sure your planned depth is not exceeded.
This happened diving in the Red Sea on the Elphinstone Reef. We were a group of around eight divers and four buddy pairs. We were dropped off as usual on the north point of the reef. Our instruction were as normal, which was to descend immediately as soon as we hit the water. The problem we encountered was the current was not only flowing north to south but also in a downwards direction too.
Before we all knew it we were at 60 plus metres (200 feet). This was on atmospheric air too! All divers were okay in the end and we were fortunate to not get separated. But bear in mind the water depth below us was around 1,000 metres (3,281 feet).
Pro Tip: If you find yourself in a downward current, add air to your buoyancy control device in addition to finning.
17. Never fight the current on a drift dive and go with the flow
Always go with the flow and never fight the current. For one it’s usually impossible to swim against the current in any case.
It’s much more fun to just go in the direction of the flow. If you try to fight the current you’ll soon run our of air and your dive will be no fun at all.
18. Don’t drift dive in currents that exceed 3 knots
Any currents over 3 knots are regarded as severe and too dangerous to dive. Even currents between 2-3 knots are regarded as a strong current and you’d be flying along in this speed of current!
Tip for first time drift divers: Don’t make your first drift dive in a strong current. Start off slowly and build up the speed.
19. Only drift dive a site you know or that is already known
You should only do a drift dive at a site you know well or with someone else in your party knows it well.
This comes back to knowing what the currents are doing. The last thing you want to happen is to be swept into deep water and dragged down by the current.
20. Shore drift dives
Shore drift diving is possible as many times beaches have a side-ways drift. However, you will need to plan ahead as your exit point will be different to where you entered the dive.
Is drift diving dangerous?
Drift diving is only dangerous if you don’t have the necessary training and experience to dive in a current and if the current is stronger than two to three knots. Otherwise drift diving is mostly a safe activity when scuba diving, but it would be considered dangerous to drift dive at night.
What is a reef hook and when is this used on a drift dive?
Reef hooks are controversial scuba kit. A reef hook is a stainless steel hook used by scuba divers to keep them in place in a strong current. This would be useful on a dive where you want to stay in one place and watch the sea life around you. But without having to fight the current or use your hands to hold on.
The controversy comes when reef hooks are used to hook onto a reef. The worry is about the damage they may cause to the coral reefs.
The reef hook is coupled to about 1-2 metres (4-5 feet) of strong nylon rope, which is knotted every 30cm (1 foot). These knots are used for grip purposes.
Most reef hooks are fitted with a safety squeeze clip (for emergency release) that is used to attach to your buoyancy control device.
The best way to use a reef hook, if you have to use one, is to attach yourself to a non-living part of the reef. Which leads to the contrary argument of the hook damaging the coral.
As the reef hook is only attached to non-living coral, you are less likely to damage the living coral.
This argument is based on the alternative, which is to use your hands to grab on. When you hold on with your hands you are closer to the reef and therefore more likely to damage the reef with your kit and fins. At least with a reef hook you are away from the coral.
Additional training for a drift dive
PADI and SSI have specific courses for drift diving whereas BSAC don’t. However, it’s always advisable to dive with an experienced diver on your first drift dive whoever you trained with.
BSAC incorporate in their courses a managed program of diving experience. You must stick to familiar locations and conditions you have encountered during your training as a BSAC diver.
I hope you enjoyed this article about what is drift diving
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