Last Updated: July 18, 2023
If you as a diver, like me, travel around the world to experience the most fantastic dive spots, then you will often be confronted with strong currents during your dives.
Whether it’s the Galapagos, Bali, the Maldives, or even Egypt – where it really “tickles” underwater, i.e. the current literally tears the diving mask off your face, that’s exactly where the great hunters of the underwater world gather…because it’s exactly where the water is particularly rich in nutrients and teeming with life.
Drift diving, just like diving in extreme cold or in poor visibility, requires a certain diving “skill” and routine to behave properly underwater in the current and to really enjoy drift diving.
In this article you will learn about drift diving, how to do it, the advantages it has, and whether or not it is dangerous.
Dive and go with the flow to find out if drift diving is right for you.
What is Drift Diving?
Drift diving is the act of scuba diving with the current. When planning a dive, there may be no current in your designated area or you may be fighting it to get where you want to go. With drift diving, you purposefully allow yourself to be taken with the current and plan your entry and exit accordingly.
What is the Purpose of Drift Diving?
There is no better purpose for drift diving that to simply have fun and experience the total thrill of what can be compared to underwater flying. You can experience the flow of the ocean in its natural state and witness how aquatic animals both big and small essentially use current to engage in survival and to find food.
Related: What is Drift Snorkeling?
Drift diving offers a unique diving opportunity that can potentially last longer than a regular dive, because you will be expending less energy and oxygen with the current doing most of the movement for you. Drift diving can be an extremely relaxing experience, while at the same time providing a rush of adrenaline due to the speeds you can attain with some currents.
How Do You Drift Dive? Expert Tips
If you’re doing a drift dive, there are a few factors you should consider that don’t play as big a role in normal dives.
1. Match the vacation destination to the experience
Strong current is something for experienced divers only. If possible, you should approach it slowly, because not everyone feels comfortable right away. And not all currents are the same.
The sea can develop a force that you can only imagine after it has tugged at you. Therefore, caution is advised when choosing a dive destination. Many dream destinations are known for strong currents. It makes sense to save trips to such areas until you can clear your head underwater for an extra challenge. Otherwise, the fun of the the diving is quickly gone.
2. Take into account the current when planning the dive
The first step to drift diving occurs before you even don your scuba gear: research. Look into the currents in the area you are planning on diving and take note of their speed and direction.
Dive guides answer questions and explain in briefings about the conditions on-site. It is essential to follow their instructions because currents can be treacherous and, for example, pull in different directions at different depths.
Be aware of any obstacles or dangers you might encounter due to the current’s course and plan your entry and exit points with precision.
Triple check your equipment and also leave your buddy to check your gear before entering the water.
Also streamline your gear so that nothing is in danger of getting caught up or tangled together. It may be wise to take a specialty course in drift diving or choose a dive partner who has done it before to increase your chances of having a fun, safe diving experience.
3. Avoid long stays at the surface
Currents are often strongest near the surface. To prevent premature fatigue, you should not stay on the surface for long periods of time. Buddies should therefore enter the water at the same time if possible, even if this means a longer wait onshore or board for individuals.
Safety is always the number one measure to take, so be sure to have a dive buddy. It is even more important than usual to stay close together. This prevents anyone from drifting unnoticed or being left behind because they can’t fight the current.
Review a plan in case of separation, which is more likely in a drift dive since you are allowing the current to move you.
4. Descent and ascent: if possible with a line
To avoid going off course immediately after descending, descend on a line. If there is no line, a fixed point can help with orientation if the current is not too strong, a rock wall can protect from the current.
Surfacing should also be done on a line or on a nearby rock wall. The risk of drifting away (unnoticed) is too great. Ideally, the line should lead directly to the boat’s stairs. This saves divers laborious pedaling against the current at the surface and prevents being washed past the stairs by the current.
If you do have to surface without a line, you should pay even more attention than usual to depth and ascent speed. Always set up a surface marker buoy for any other vessels in the area to be aware of you.
Everyone involved, including the boat crew, should be prepared in case divers stray from their course and surface somewhere else than planned.
5. Do not fight against the current
Fish love the current. And they don’t fight it permanently. Rather, they seek shelter behind rocks and reefs and use the right moments to move in the current. It also helps when diving to stay close to the bottom and, like fish, only step on the gas when the current supports it. Fish are therefore good role models to “learn from” underwater. The same applies to experienced guides.
If you have to hold on, you should be careful not to damage the underwater world and injure yourself, for example, by sea urchins or stonefish. Equip yourself with a reef hook to allow a method of stopping within the current if there is a structure to latch on to nearby.
Fighting the current will exhaust you and could cause you to hyperventilate or become disoriented, both of which are very dangerous when underwater. Stay calm and breathe normally, if there is a problem signal to your dive buddy for help.
Other useful equipment may include a dive whistle or underwater torch if you and your dive buddy get separated.
6. Adjust buoyancy
Drift divers should pay special attention to the right amount of lead to lie streamlined in the water and provide as little surface area of attack as possible.
Equipment such as octopuses, lights, snorkels, and cameras should be close to the body. In general, if you offer a lot of surface area to attack, pump up your jacket and “stand” upright in the current or straighten your fins, for example, you will be pushed away faster; if you “make yourself small,” you will be slower.
If you can’t move forward properly against the current, lag behind the other divers or have to make a big effort, you may have over-inflated your jacket. In this case: Deflate! You want to stay close to the bottom anyway.
7. Adjust fins (stroke)
Many experienced divers dive with the so-called frog kick instead of making a paddling motion with the feet as originally learned.
I myself am a fan of the frog kick, but it is no good in a strong current. Sweeping movements only increase the water resistance and with the frog kick there is no constant movement forward, so you hardly move forward. Therefore, the paddle movement is usually the better choice here.
The right choice of fins suited for strong currents should also be considered. Fins that are simply bent over by strong currents are useless. Hard rubber fins, on the other hand, are more suitable for the frog kick and can cause leg cramps, especially in current.
A diver who gets out of breath due to exertion will panic more quickly. If you get out of breath in the current, you should therefore take a break – if possible near the bottom and if necessary by holding on, but without hurting yourself or the reef.
It is important to breathe calmly, maintain eye contact with your dive buddy and calm down. If this does not help: stop the dive in a controlled manner and start the way back.
Advantages of Drift Diving
There are so many advantages to drift diving that it’s almost too good not to try. It allows the thrill seeker to experience what it feels like to fly weightlessly underwater, while also offering a zen activity. You can typically dive for longer periods because you will not tire or use up oxygen as fast as when working to swim where you need to go.
Drift diving lets you view much more reef area in a single trip and may allow for observation of marine life, such as larger pelagic animals that may otherwise be absent. You also don’t have to worry about swimming back to your point of entry in order to exit because you will have planned to surface down current.
Is Drift Diving Dangerous?
Drift diving can be dangerous if you don’t take the time to put safety measures in place, such as checking your equipment, planning your trip, or diving with a buddy. As long as you are smart about it and stay focused and aware during your dive, there is no reason to fear any danger.
There are a few conditions under which you should never drift dive due to the hazards the experience could pose. These include diving in extremely strong currents and under conditions of low visibility. Currents with speeds in excess of three knots, and sometimes even two, are considered too dangerous to dive in.
Drift diving in low visibility conditions such as those presented at night or during inclement weather can pose serious dangers, including separation from your buddy and collisions with unforgivable objects on the reef.
Unfamiliar areas could also pose a danger if you don’t do your research ahead of time, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the location of your planned drift dive. Some currents tend to carry water to deeper depths, so be wary of the depths you plan to dive and what you are equipped and trained for.
Many of the world’s most beautiful dive sites are located in areas with strong currents. Current means fish cinema for divers: the nutrient-rich water attracts fish followed by large predators. However, the current is also a risk factor. The tips I covered in this article help to master the risk.
The two most important things to remember when drift diving is not to fight the current and trust your instincts.
Drift diving is exciting for both the thrill seeker and the relaxed diver. Allowing the current to carry you where it will provides unique perspective of any reef and the potential to observe and discover magnificent sights you would otherwise miss on a regular dive.
Due to the specialty nature of the dive, extra safety precautions should be taken, such as streamlining your diving equipment, extensively researching your dive area, and practicing relaxing so you don’t fight the current. While it can be dangerous, it doesn’t have to be if you are smart about it.
Drift diving is a wonderful experience any diver should try. So gear up and get out there!
My unbounded love for the oceans and everything it has to offer motivated me to pursue my passion and become a professional scuba diving instructor.
I keep reading, exploring, and learning more about scuba diving and the underwater world all the time, so I’m excited to share my knowledge with fellow scuba enthusiasts and hopefully contribute a little to your development as a diver. I want people to fall in love with the oceans with as much passion as I have. Read more about me here.