What is drift diving? 20 awesome drift diving tips to help you enjoy your first drift dive in safety
I personally love drift diving. It’s the equivalent of flying, but you’re underwater and weightless. It’s an effortless scuba dive and can be a lot of fun to do.
A drift dive is a scuba dive in waters where there’s a tide or current flowing. This current will be strong enough to push you along in the water. The fun lies in going with the flow! If you’re diving in a current of half a knot or more, then I’d class this as a drift dive. But a dive where there’s a ‘drift’ may not always be about the drift itself. You may be scuba diving to see sharks that happen to be there because of the strong current. In which case you may not want to be drifting in the current.
What is drift diving?
A drift dive is a dive where the plan at the outset is to ‘go with the flow.’
In our diver training, we’re advised to swim against the current on the first leg of the dive. This assumes there’s a need to swim in the direction where the current is coming from. If not, always go with the flow.
The reason for starting the dive against the flow (where the current is a mild one) is so that the return journey is going with the current, which requires less energy. This helps with air management.
However, the advice we are given as trainee divers is referring to very mild currents of less than one knot, but in reality, less than half a knot. Water is very dense and around 800 time more so than air. So it’s extremely difficult to swim against it.
Drift diving is about going with the flow
Drift diving is like flying, but underwater. Going with the flow is a great fun dive to do and it uses very little energy too.
A drift dive is the opposite of the plan to start the dive by swimming against the current. Instead 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.
Anything over half a knot or more is in my opinion a drift dive. Plus, even if your dive kit is streamlined, you have free-diving style fins on and you’re very fit and run regularly, swimming against a half to one knot current wouldn’t be a pleasurable scuba dive in any event.
Your air would run out very quickly. And scuba diving isn’t about it being a workout, it’s about taking it slowly and enjoying as much dive time as possible, before you have to return to the surface with your reserve air.
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.
Having said that, the drift in the dive may not be the reason for the dive at all. The drift may be a consequence of where and what you’re diving on. Let me explain this by way of an example.
One of my favourite dives in the Red Sea is the Elphinestone Reef, so called because Mountstuart Elphinstone’s ship was almost wrecked on the reef and named after him. The currents are usually at two knots or more and normally run along the reef from north to south (but that’s not always the case).
The dive itself is not about the drift as such, but is usually about diving down to the northern plateau. There you can watch for sharks, hammerheads and Oceanic White Tips in the main. That’s the first part of the dive and a great dive by the way, especially if you like to scuba dive with sharks.
The second part of the Elphinestone 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.
The monster Oceanic White Tip
As an aside, on one occasion whilst drifting along the east side of Elphinestone reef in a drift of at least two knots, a monster Oceanic White Tip came along swimming effortlessly against the current. There’s no way I’d been able to swim against this current, but here was this monster four metre (13 foot) Oceanic White Tip going in the opposite direction.
Can any scuba diver do a drift dive?
For drift diving there are additional training aspects to understand and learn, see the drift diving tips below. Plus you’ll need additional scuba diving equipment too. But after that and so long as you follow safe diving practices, all Open Water Divers or Ocean Divers can do drift dives.
For diver safety, a surface marker buoy (SMB) is used for drift diving. This 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 surface buoy is then dragged by the diver throughout the course of the dive. The buoy is then followed on the surface by the dive boat skipper, which means the boat is able to stay in constant sight of each diver’s position in the water.
20 drift diving tips
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,’ is a buoy that floats of the surface above the divers.
This buoy is connected to the diver via a line and reel. As the scuba diver is pushed along in the current, so the buoy follows along. The skipper of the dive boat is therefore able to follow along and see where the current takes the divers.
The reason for only one surface marker buoy between a dive buddy pair, is this avoids you getting the lines tangled on the dive.
However, see the next tip.
Using 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. This is even more so if the sea state is less than calm with a high swell running.
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, continue on the dive as normal and then deploy the buoy at the end of the dive. The dive boat, which should have been drifting in the same direction as you, plus the skipper can follow the diver’s bubbles sometimes, will be able to see that you are ascending and easily follow the marker buoy.
2. Take a delayed Surface Marker Buoy
As only one of your buddy pair has the surface marker buoy, then it’s advisable for the dive buddy that isn’t holding the surface marker buoy to have a delayed surface marker buoy for themselves.
The difference between a surface marker buoy (SMB) and a delayed surface marker buoy (Delayed SMB) is the SMB is deployed right from the start of the dive, whereas the Delayed SMB is only deployed when needed from the bottom at the end of the dive.
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
The deeper the drift dive is, the more line you will have deployed from the reel that’s connected to your SMB.
The more line deployed will mean there’s more line to get caught or tangled.
Be mindful of your SMB line when navigating around obstacles on the bottom like outcrops and wrecks. You don’t want your line getting tangled.
4. Lock-off the 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. With too much line out there will be more chance of a tangle, plus you’ll have more line to reel in when you ascend.
5. Don’t lock-off your reel too soon
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. If your line is taught and too short, each time a swell comes through, this will lift you from the bottom.
Where you’re constantly fighting your SMB and trying to stay down, you’ll not 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.
6. Attach the reel to you
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 reel of the SMB to you, so that you cannot lose it on the dive.
However, if for whatever reason you let go of your SMB and you drift apart from it, you should surface immediately. Otherwise the skipper will be following your buoy, but of course you’re not attached to it.
Where you’ve followed the advice above. In this situation, make sure your dive buddy deploys his Delayed SMB at this point.
7. Be careful not to get separated
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.
This speed 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, assuming you’re able to stop in the current, and your buddy can be lost.
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, as it may take only a second or two to be out of sight of each other.
Stay as close to each other as you can and see the next tip for added safety.
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. A buddy link line provides an extra layer of safety and prevents dive buddies from separating on a dive.
10. Don’t drift dive in the 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.
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Not only will it be easier to get separated from your dive buddy (unless a link line is used), and even though you will have dive torches, but it will be extremely difficult for the dive boat to follow your surface marker buoy in the dark.
It would be too easy for the dive boat to lose sight of your SMB. You could end up surfacing away from the boat and never to be seen again!
This problem can happen in the day time. For example, revisiting my favourite reef in the Red Sea. Back in 2007, four divers were lost and never found after being swept away on a current from the Elphinstone Reef.
If this can happen in day light, the risk of losing divers on a night drift dive are much greater and not worth the risk.
11. Mind your buoyancy control
On a drift dive the waters are 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 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
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.
As tempting as it maybe sometimes to stop, unless you have the attention of your dive buddy and they are able to stop too, don’t stop on a drift dive. If you do, you may lose them and end up having to abort a great dive.
This is not such a big problem in clearer waters, but even then for diver safety, always stay within a few fin strokes of each other.
14. Be careful on your descent
When you’re descending on a drift dive, be aware of the current and how strong it is. If you’re on a low visibility dive, you’ll have no reference of speed until the bottom comes into view.
Make sure you are facing forward and that you’re already watching for obstacles ahead of you as you descent and get closer to the bottom.
15. Be careful on your ascent on a drift dive
Be a bit more careful on your dive ascent from a drift dive.
Once you leave the bottom, and this is especially true in lower visibility waters, you’ll no longer be able to see the bottom. You will no longer have any reference of your speed. For example, if you’re in a car or a train, it’s the speed at which thing go past that provides your brain with the concept of speed.
As you no longer have this in sight, i.e. the rocks and objects on the bottom, to provide a reference for the speed of the current and your movement through the water, you may forget this.
Be aware of still looking ahead of you on your ascent, don’t drift facing backwards. Otherwise you may bump into something.
16. Be aware of currents that can push you deeper
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.
Be aware that currents can also push you down-deeper as well as push you along in the water. This could even be deeper than you’re air depth will allow.
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Watch your depth gauge or dive computer. Make sure your planned depth is not exceeded. This is better explained by way of an example, which is provided by the good old Elphinestone Reef.
We were a group of around eight divers, four buddy pairs. We were dropped off as usual on the north point of the reef. Our instruction as normal was to immediately descend as soon as we hit the water. The problem we encountered was the current was not only flowing north to south, but in a downwards direction too.
Before we all knew it we were at 60 plus metres (200 feet), on atmospheric air too! I immediately realised what was happening and began to fin like crazy to ascend to 40 metres (131 feet). I was frantically signalling to my buddy to do the same. We fortunately didn’t get separated, but this may have quite easily happened.
Adding air to my buoyancy control device
I also added some air to my buoyancy control device or BCD, in order to create more buoyancy and aid my ascent. Fortunately, my buddy was able to ascend too, but some of the other divers ended up at 70 plus metres (230 feet), as they’d not realised as quickly what was happening.
The depth to the bottom around the Elphinestone Reef is approximately 1,000 metres (3,280 feet), which meant that we could have been pushed even deeper still. If that had happened, I may not be writing this article now.
17. Never fight the current
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. In trying 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!
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. Alternatively, your dive guide may know the site, this is okay too.
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.
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 in where reef hooks are used to hook onto a reef. The worry is about the damage they may cause to the reef.
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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Have fun and be safe!