What is Drift Diving? Tips for Beginners

drift diving

Drift diving is a diving style where you go with the flow of the current as opposed to fighting it (good luck with that, by the way). If you’re caught in a strong underwater current, you have no choice but to be swept along with it. Rather than panicking and using up precious energy and oxygen, try using the current to your advantage to reach speeds you never thought possible underwater.

When you are intentionally taking advantage of a current to cruise underwater, drift diving can be one of the most fun and exciting experiences you can have as a diver. It is probably the closest sensation you can get to flying. With that said, there are some things to keep in mind so that you do not find yourself panicking, unable to escape the strong currents.

If you’re just starting out with drift diving, in this article we will go over some beginner tips to help you drift dive a little bit safer.

What is Drift Diving?

A drift dive is a dive where you intentionally plan on going with the flow of the ocean currents. It’s about deliberately finding underwater currents moving at speeds of one knot or greater, entering it, and letting it carry you to the exit point. It’s about experiencing the sensation of flying; a calming weightlessness as you cruise through the water.

When drift diving, you should be relaxed and letting the current do all of the heavy lifting. Don’t try to fight it, that just wastes your energy and oxygen. Simply adjust your buoyancy at the start of the dive, enter the drift, and let it carry you a few feet away from the bottom.

Why Should You Drift Dive?

If you are the kind of person to scuba dive, a sport where divers head dozens of meters underwater in an unforgiving environment where a gearless human could not survive for very long, then you are also the type of adrenaline-rush chasing person to drift dive. In a word, it’s exhilarating. Some other words to describe it: fun, memorable, exciting, relaxing, and entertaining.

When you are in a drift, you will experience a feeling of weightlessness like you’re flying through the water. On many drift dives, you won’t even need to fin at all. By letting the drift take you where you want to go, you can conserve energy and oxygen, thereby extending your bottom time. You will also be able to cover much more ground than you otherwise could with your own efforts.

Along the way, you can see some awe-inspiring sights. You will be able to float alongside huge pelagic fish, and you might even be lucky enough to witness fish hunting and feeding. Once you’re accustomed to drift diving, since you’re literally going with the flow, it can be some of the most laid-back scuba diving you’ll do. The first time might be pulse-pounding, however.

By drift diving, you can experience diving in a new way and take one step forward towards conquering the ocean.

Can A New Diver Drift Dive?

Drift diving is not for everyone. You may not have the temperament for it, and on top of that, you may not have the adequate skill to safely drift dive. If you’re not confident in your basic scuba swimming skills, don’t even bother; you’re just putting yourself at extreme risk. Drift diving requires perfect buoyancy and confidence to safely pull off. You will need additional training and gear to ensure that your drift dives are successful.

Where Can You Drift Dive?

For beginners just starting out, you should only dive in familiar locations, or in a dive site with a buddy who knows the location inside and out. Keep in mind that the current may be too strong for you to escape, and it could even sweep you out into deep water in the open sea. You could be carried far away from the surface if you’re caught in a down-current. No matter what, just stay calm, conserve your energy, and look for an exit point.

One option is to drift dive from the shore. To do this, you need to find a drift with exit points along the way since you won’t be able to exit the drift at the same place you entered from. You should always have a friend on a boat on standby so that they can transport you back when you surface a distance away.

Drift diving is most commonly done from a boat, near the reef, by a shipwreck, close to an underwater wall, or any other interesting location worth diving in.

Popular Drift Diving Locations

Cozumel, Mexico

There are drift diving spots all over the world, on almost every continent. Some of the best drift diving locations are along shorelines, reefs, wrecks, or walls. At some dive sites, the only diving you can do is drift diving. This is because the currents can be so strong at certain locations, that you are basically swept away by the water with no chance of fighting against it.

When the current reaches and exceeds 1.5 knots, then not even the strongest divers can swim against it. It’s better to just relax, conserve your energy, and go along for the ride. For those kinds of dive sites, you must only enter it if you know what you’re doing.

Some popular dive spots to check out are in the Maldives, Mexico, Indonesia, and the Galapagos Islands. If you want to see some amazing megafauna like sharks, manta rays, and dolphins, then check out Komodo National Park. In the Maldives, you can find turtles, sharks, and possibly even whales if you’re lucky.

In Mexico, you’ll find one of the best places to drift dive – Cozumel. You will get incredibly clear waters and crackling currents that are home to some of the world’s most breathtaking reefs and walls.

Furthermore, the Galapagos Islands is where you can swim with giant mola mola and hammerhead sharks. You’ll also find some epic drifts, but beware: some of these dive sites have a minimum requirement of 100 dives of experience because of how extreme the conditions are.

Prepping For Your First Drift Dive

Before you head out for a drift dive, you must first undergo the proper training. Ideally, you should take a specialized drift diving course with certified instructors. The most popular course of this type is the PADI Drift Diver Specialty Course. The only requirements needed to sign up for it are that you possess an Open Water Diver certificate, and that you are 12 years of age or older.

As part of the course, you will learn about the following:

  • Important drift diving techniques and procedures.
  • The equipment you should use to safely drift dive.
  • Currents – how they form and how they affect you.
  • Navigation, communication, and buoyancy for drift diving.
  • How to work as a group.

Once you have successfully performed the above, you will get an official PADI certification for drift diving.

SSI is another organization that offers an equivalent course for drift diving. Both PADI and SSI are internationally recognized diving authorities and you can’t really go wrong with either one. Unfortunately, BSAC, another reputable organization, does not offer a drift diving specialty course.

When you are attempting your first drift dive, it is advisable to go with a diver who you’ve trained with. Since you already have experience with this person, you may have better teamwork and communication than with someone you are diving with for the first time..

Recommended Drift Diving Equipment

For equipment, the item at the top of the list to get is a surface marker buoy (SMB). The SMB floats along the surface and is attached to the diver via a handheld line and a reel. As the diver descends, the line is let out until the diver reaches the bottom where it is then locked. Then, as the diver is swept away by the current, so too is the SMB along the surface.

The SMB should be followed by a dive boat skipper so that each diver’s position is being tracked. This is to prevent them from getting lost, and so that divers can surface to find a boat ready to pick them up. Without an SMB, who knows where you’ll end up getting carried off to? You may be swept so far away that returning to land is impossible without a transport to pick you up, so a boat is essential.

Another item you should have on hand is a reef hook. You might never need to use it, but it’s nice to have as a backup. If you find yourself in too strong of a current, you can use it to maintain your position by hooking it to a non-living part of the reef. It will feel like you are a kite blowing in the wind. By maintaining your position without expending energy, you can recover and think of your next steps. You can also use it to wait for someone or something. Look at this video to see the reef hook in action.

Furthermore, you should also bring some underwater signaling devices, such as a dive torch and a whistle. This way, you have more methods that you can communicate with which is particularly helpful if you are diving in an unfamiliar environment.

Lastly, you may want to carry a Jon Line when diving with a large group. You can use the Jon Line to attach yourself to the downline so that you can preserve your energy, similar to a reef hook, as you surface with the rest of the group.

As far as essentials go, this is it. Do not carry large, bulky equipment with you such as large cameras. As we mentioned, the current can easily rip these things off of your kit and now you have a flying camera projectile to worry about. Bring only what you need and get rid of the rest.

Lastly, remember to check the condition of all of your gear before submerging. It is tricky enough to diagnose and fix equipment malfunctions underwater under normal conditions; it will be impossible while you are in a strong current.

Beginner Drift Diving Tips

Streamline Your Kit

Mother nature can be extremely destructive, and water currents can rip off dangling pieces of equipment with incredible force. In order to smoothly and easily drift dive, you must streamline your kit. You do not want your mask, hoses, or camera to get ripped off. Anything that is dangling, remove it or make sure it’s held down extremely tightly. If something detaches from your kit, it can become a projectile and be hazardous to other divers.

Head Positioning

When you are riding a current, the water is pushing you from behind. As such, do not try to tilt your head back as this can cause injury and strain to your neck muscles. With the current pushing against your neck and head, there is a greater risk of your mask getting ripped off. Even more so than for other types of diving, double check that the mask strap is tightly secured on the back of your head.

Update Your Current Information

You may have planned the dive days in advance with data that is now stale. Before you actually head out for the dive, do one final check on the weather conditions. Even between dives, weather conditions can change, so keep your information current.

Speak to the locals or other divers about the current conditions. Check out dive websites monitoring the area to get up-to-date info about rising and falling tides. If this is your first time drift diving, see if you can hire a guide.

Even when diving in familiar dive sites, if the current unexpectedly gets stronger and you end up diving in it, you could cover too much of the reef too quickly and end a dive prematurely before you run out of air. Furthermore, the inability to control your speed in the current may cause you to expend more energy than expected to safely maneuver through it.

Manage Your Buoyancy

Managing your buoyancy is more important than ever while drift diving because of the fast speeds you will be traveling at. Always keep your eyes in front of you and be ready to make micro-adjustments to your position to avoid collisions with the reef. You need to be comfortable with maneuvering your body with all of your kit underwater in normal conditions, and apply that same level of control to when you’re drift diving.

Catch a Break

If you pay attention to your surroundings, you will notice various locations where you can exit the current to take a breather. Look for coral heads, pockets, small caves along the wall. As you are resting, chances are you will be able to observe other sea creatures, so it’s worth it to take a break once in a while.

To exit a current, try to stay as low as possible. The current is strongest in the middle, so try to head down and find some cover to hide behind to get out of the current’s grip. If a current is too strong, it’s possible that you’ll have to wait until it carries you to an exit point before you can leave.

Only One SMB per Diver Pair

Only one of you needs to take a surface marker buoy. The reason for using only one between two people is to prevent them getting tangled up. The other should carry a delayed SMB though its effectiveness will be reduced in stronger current drifts since the current can blow it far away. You don’t want to find yourself lost at sea.

In larger swells, boat skippers will have difficulty seeing divers and their marker buoys. With a delayed SMB, should you get carried off in an unusual direction before you deploy your delayed SMB, then it may surface out of the boat skippers’ sight and it will be hard to find it.

Delayed SMBs are typically used at the end of a dive with a dive boat drifting in the same direction as the divers. In typical weather conditions, the delayed SMB will be easy to spot and they can wait for you to surface by the marker.

Bring a Delayed SMB as Backup

As we mentioned, only one diver in a pair should bring the SMB. Therefore, it’s recommended that the other diver should carry the delayed SMB as backup. This is a diver safety precaution in case the divers get separated. The lone diver can then use the delayed SMB to alert the boat skipper of their location so that they can get retrieved as well. Whenever a pair of divers are separated, the standard procedure is that both divers should return to the surface immediately.

Be Mindful of the SMB Line

Just because you are diving with one SMB doesn’t mean the line still can’t get tangled. The deeper you drift dive, the more line will be deployed and that increases the chances of it getting caught or tangled up on something. As such, try to keep the line out of any obstacles like wrecks and outcrops when navigating around them.

Attach the SMB Reel to You

Your SMB is your lifeline. Should you lose it, then the boat skipper will be following an SMB with no diver attached. If you lose your SMB, according to standard procedure, your partner with the delayed SMB should deploy it, and both divers should immediately begin their ascent, ending the dive. Since this is not ideal, you should try to prevent it by attaching the SMB reel to you.

Lock the SMB Reel at Depth

Divers sometimes forget to lock their SMB reel once they have reached the bottom. This is a mistake; forgetting to lock the reel will cause the SMB to be too far behind you. Thus, you will not surface next to it with a boat waiting nearby. Furthermore, the longer the line is, the greater the risk of it getting tangled. At the very least, you will have to spend more time reeling it in at the end, assuming you managed to avoid all of the other issues.

Conversely, you also don’t want to lock off your SMB reel too soon. There should be some lack in the line so that the angle of the line to the marker buoy at the surface is 30-45 degrees. If the line is too short, you will be fighting against the positively buoyant SMB, particularly if a swell comes through.

If you have to spend your time fighting against the SMB’s buoyancy, you aren’t focused on your surroundings which is a hazard, not to mention unfun. Furthermore, it is a waste of energy and air; the point of a drift dive is to let the drift do all of the work. By choosing carefully when to lock your SMB reel, you can conserve your air and still get the benefits of having a transport waiting for you at the surface.

Don’t Drift Dive in Low-Visibility Conditions

It’s up to you whether you want to take the risk and dive in low-vis conditions. Obviously, low-visibility water increases the risk and all it takes is one or two seconds for a pair of divers to be out of each other’s sights.

For example, combining night diving and drift diving is unwise. You are basically begging for something to go wrong. Not only is it easy to get separated, but when it happens, it’s really easy to get lost in the dark. Even if you bring a dive torch and use an SMB, it’s virtually impossible for a boat to follow you.

Therefore, try to stay as close to each other as possible, and try not to stop unless you are both going to stop. A dive site where visibility is typically excellent and there are plenty of drifts is the Maldives.

Try Not to Get Separated

drift dive in pairs

Expanding on the tip above, in general, it’s much easier to get separated from your scuba diving doing a drift dive compared to normal diving. This fact is amplified when diving in low-vis water, and is also true when riding a strong underwater current.

The faster a current is, the more likely you will get separated from your dive buddy. Keep this in mind and watch your partner like a hawk. Taking your eyes off your partner for even one second when drifting in a fast current is all it takes for the two of you to get separated, particularly in low-vis drift dives.

To prevent getting separated, you should use a buddy-link line which attaches to two divers to keep them from getting separated. When drift diving, particularly in los-vis conditions, you should use a buddy-link line as a safety precaution.

Descending and Ascending

There are risks to drift diving just by descending to a drift. Pay close attention to the current and how strong it is before entering. Particularly on a low-vis dive, you will not be able to determine the speed of the current until the bottom comes into view.

When ascending, even more care is required. Once you leave the bottom, particularly in low-vis waters, you might not be able to see the bottom anymore, and therefore have no reference of your speed. Always be facing the direction of travel so that you can see the obstacles along the way.

Drifts that Push You Deeper

Some currents are so strong that there’s nothing you can do to fight against it once you’re in it. Be wary of currents that will take you to a depth deeper than you intended. Check your dive computer or depth gauge to make sure you’re still within a safe depth. If you find yourself in a downward current, add air to your BCD and continue finning. Eventually you may be able to exit the current.

Don’t Try Dive in Strong Currents

If the current exceeds speeds of 3 knots, then it is considered too severe and an extreme danger to dive in. Even currents around 2-3 knots is considered to be a strong current. Around 1.5 knots, even a strong diver is in for a ride. Faster than that, and you’d be flying at those speeds. For a first time diver, stay far away from strong currents until you have a few drift dives under your belt. Start off slow and build up your experience and technique.

Drift Diving in Unfamiliar Locations

Whether it’s a dive site you’ve been before, or one that someone else in your group knows well. This comes back to some of the points above where we talk about getting separated, low-vis waters, strong currents, and currents that push you deeper. Someone with experience will know the environment well to avoid them, as well as what to do in case something goes wrong. You do not want to end up getting dragged down by the current in an unfamiliar dive site.

Is Drift Diving Dangerous?

Just like with scuba diving, drift diving requires you to have the necessary training, such as the PADI Drift Diving specialty course, for you to learn the proper safety procedures to stay safe. In that course, you’ll learn how to dive in pairs and that currents stronger than two to three knots are too dangerous.

As long as you follow proper safety precautions, drift diving should be no more dangerous than regular scuba diving. Dive with a partner, use the proper gear, and err on the side of caution. Drift diving is absolutely dangerous if you try to do it in low-vis conditions such as at night.

Should I Use A Reef Hook for Drift Diving?

We mentioned reef hooks as part of the Recommended Drift Diving Equipment section, however they are actually a controversial piece of diving kit.

What are they exactly? A reef hook is a stainless steel hook that scuba divers can use to hold them in place, even in a strong current. The hook is attached to approximately 1-2 meters of durable nylon rope, which is knotted every foot (30 cm). The knots provide extra grip.

Reef hooks help you maintain your current position without expending any energy so that you can watch the sea life around you without wasting energy. Most reef hooks come with a safety squeeze clip so that you can release the hook in case of an emergency. The reef hook is generally attached to your BCD.

What makes reef hooks controversial is in how you use it. When used to hook onto the reef, the complaint is that a reef hook will damage the coral reefs. How you should use a reef hook is by hooking on to a non-living part of the reef so that it does not damage any coral.

An argument for reef hooks is that without one, you would have to rely on your hands to grip onto a surface. This brings you closer to the reef and therefore, you are more likely to damage the reef with your reef and scuba fins. At least with a reef hook, you have some extra distance, better reach, and better grip when hooked.

Parting Words

Now you know the top tips for drift diving and are better prepared to tackle the PADI or SSI Drift Diving specialty course. We highly recommend you take them before embarking on your first drift dive. You will learn first hand all of the necessary tips and techniques to stay safe while riding a current. This article is intended to serve as a preview of the kinds of things you’ll learn in an official course.

Always dive safely and plan your drift dives in advance. Stay within your limits and work together with your dive partner to stay safe. Drift diving is a fun and exhilarating way to scuba dive. You will be amazed at how similar drift diving feels like flying as you zoom through the reef at speeds you can’t normally reach, all without even kicking your fins. Once you try drift diving, it’s hard to go back.

Photo Credits: Diving Inspiration