by Lauren Kieren:
Drift diving is like flying underwater. When you are soaring along the bottom contour, neutrally buoyant, guided by a gentle current, watching the marine life; it gives you a perspective of the underwater world that is difficult to obtain any other way.
Depending on where you dive, Divemasters (DM’s) and dive operations may use different techniques for drift diving. In many cases, drift dives are conducted off a boat while a DM guides the direction of the dive while towing a Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) to mark the divers’ location in the water. Meanwhile, a boat might be following the group to pick up divers as they surface (keep in mind, drift diving from a boat requires a skilled boat operator to conduct drift diving procedures properly).
Prior to participating in drift diving activities, you should be extremely proficient in your diving skills. If you have not participated in diving activities for a period of six months or longer, we highly encourage a diver to go through the SDI Inactive Diver Course before considering this type of advanced dive. Setting up a drift dive can be a fast paced activity that requires your diving skills and techniques to be dialed in – the ascents and descents can be challenging but once you are on the bottom… It’s your time to cruise along the ocean floor.
So what should you consider before drift diving? Here are a few tips and tricks before you hit the water:
STAY AHEAD OF THE GAME – Prior to entering the water, ensure all of your dive equipment is on, functioning, and you have completed a pre-dive safety check. Make sure you are properly weighted so you can descend with the group. If you are having difficulties equalizing on the descent – signal to your buddy and be aware of the divers’ location on the bottom, and the surface marker buoy signaling your location. If conditions allow (good visibility and manageable current) slow your descent to catch up with the group. If conditions do not allow for this and you cannot catch up with the group, surface with your buddy to abort the dive.
GO WITH THE FLOW – Once you are on the bottom, it’s important to “go with the flow.” Avoid swimming against the current, as this will increase your work load and air consumption rate. Streamline yourself and your gear to glide effortlessly through the water. Keep an eye out in front of you to plan your moves accordingly. If you see obstructions ahead of you – whether it’s a coral head, a wreck, or a cluster of fishing line – it’s important to plan your moves ahead of time to avoid a collision.
SELF AWARENESS – As previously mentioned, the descents of a drift dive can be fast paced. It is extremely important during all dives (especially drift dives), to monitor your depth gauge to ensure you are staying at a consistent depth versus drifting downward or upward without realizing it. Also, keep a close eye on your no decompression limit (NDL), as you glide along the bottom your air consumption rate may be reduced due to the lack of physical exertion required during this phase of the dive. Remember, just because you have ample an amount of cylinder pressure remaining, does not mean your NDL, or bottom time hasn’t exceeded the limits. Finally, check your tank pressure early and often and make sure you will have an ample supply of breathing gas to make a slow ascent, conduct a safety stop, and safely surface with some remaining tank reserve.
MAKE YOURSELF NOTICEABLE! – No, we’re not talking about wearing flashy dive gear… Prior to ascending, make sure to keep your eyes open and your ears tuned for boat traffic. If you and your buddy are surfacing before the group, ascend in sight of the SMB the DM is towing. Once at the surface, deploy your own Surface Marker Buoy, give yourself some distance from the SMB marking the divers underwater, then signal to the dive boat for pick up. If necessary, carry a whistle or audible alarm to be heard from a distance if you are not seen. When the boat makes its way towards you, stay put and do not swim towards the boat unless instructed by the boat operator.
Drift diving is a fun and exciting way to explore the underwater world, however, it can also lead to increased stress and anxiety if you are not prepared. This text is not intended to replace proper dive training, nor does it cover all aspects and requirements of drift diving. Following these tips along with proper training will ensure you get the most out of your drift diving experience.