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Tips For Drift Diving


BY ERIC MICHAEL

     The ocean is in constant motion. Driven by a vast network of interconnected currents, the sea is an endless river. This rush of water transports nutrients and energy that fuel not only our weather, but also life as we know it. Most times, scuba divers are just along for the ride. And sometimes that ride can be quite a thrill — or a nightmare.A gentle, consistent current offers a magic-carpet ride for drift divers. But when the speed increases and direction becomes unpredictable, we can be caught off-guard. With the proper training, planning and precautions, divers can manage strong, erratic currents to increase both their safety and their enjoyment.

 wreck diving lights

 “Currents are responsible for some for the richest, liveliest reefs, and the most abundant large pelagic sightings,” says Elly Wray, a Florida-based professional underwater photographer and instructor since 2007.“We actually consider currents as a beneficial environment,” says Gerry Carroll, owner of Jupiter Dive Center on the Treasure Coast of Florida. “We call it ‘lazy-man diving’ — go to the bottom, get neutral, and just go along for the ride. It’s nice and relaxing.”“The Straits of Florida are like diving in a river,” says Dan Dawson, owner of Horizon Divers in Key Largo. “The currents vary from day to day and even from morning to afternoon; when the current changes during a dive, it can get a little tricky.”Combined, these dive pros have a lifetime of experience dealing with currents, so take their advice the next time you ride the invisible wave.


     DON'T FIGHT THE FLOW

With a consistent, moderate push from the Gulf Stream just offshore, the southeastern coast of Florida offers divers world-class drift diving among healthy reefs. For area operators, currents are a serious draw for scuba divers, and they’ve perfected the process based on a few simple principles.

“You can’t fight the current,” says Carroll, who has been diving for 20 years and exploring the reefs of Jupiter for more than a decade. “Where we can run into issues with our recreational guests doing drift dives is when people try to resist it.”

According to Carroll, maintaining proper buoyancy is the key ingredient to enjoyment and safety for both divers and the environment — along with not trying too hard.

“The most common mistake we see divers new to currents make is that they swim too much,” he explains. “If a diver is swimming along with the current, they’re traveling way too fast along the reef to enjoy the dive and see what there is to be seen.

Staying low to the reef and utilizing topography to find protection from the flow is another smart strategy he recommends to help manage a current. Plus, use the local inhabitants for clues.

“There are areas on a reef where you can get behind features and find shelter,” says Carroll. “You’ll typically find a lot of schooling fish there, because they take advantage of it as well. They’ve already figured it all out, and we’re just learning, so it’s nice to be able to drift along, see a nice school of fi sh, and swim toward it to find that the current in that area is a lot less.”


     HITTING THE TARGET

Diving artificial reefs in current can create added challenges. As opposed to a typical drift dive, where the location that divers meet the reef is less important, landing on a wreck in a swift flow can be tricky. Thankfully, experienced operators such as Dawson, whose backyard in Key Largo is home to some of the world’s largest wrecks, have the technique wired.

“One of the biggest challenges is at the surface,” Dawson says. “We use a tag line that leads all the way down to the wreck, but a pretty common mistake is that divers let go of the rope after they giant-stride or back-roll in.”

Utilizing line systems in a current to maintain your position in the water column and your connection to the dive boat can increase your security and confidence. But care should be used when using lines that might be encrusted with sharp barnacles or errant fish hooks. “The best thing to do is to hold on with both hands, alternate your movement hand over hand, tuck your head in, and hang on,” Dawson says.

Once on the wreck, the master instructor trainer advises his guests to use the wreck as shelter. “Get on the leeward side of the flow, and typically you won’t feel it and can do a reasonably comfortable dive even in a strong current,” he explains.

Planning and understanding what you’re going to deal with underwater is paramount, according to Dawson. “Swimming into the current at the beginning of the dive and floating back with the current at the end of the dive is going to benefit you,” he says. And be reasonable about your experience and skill level before you plunge. “Listen to the advice of the professionals who do it every day,” advises Dawson. “If the crew is giving you a warning about the current, heed that warning, and think twice before you say you can handle it and get in the water.”


      SHOOTING THE BREEZE

Underwater photographers operating in current must work harder to maintain the proper trim and position that will ensure attractive composition and sharp focus. Seasoned pros such as Wray have perfected techniques to get the shot.

“Good buoyancy alone will not keep you stable in the water column,” says Wray, who frequents the current-swept reefs of South Florida. “You might need to fin harder to stay in one place, find an outcropping to hide behind, or carefully use a reef hook.”

One common mistake is failing to create a more conservative plan. “You will be using a lot more air when working to stay stable,” she explains. “Look for shots that allow you to face into the current, where you can gently fin to keep your position. If you have to turn your back to the current to get the shot, chances are you’ll blow right into or over your subject and obviously miss the photo op.”

To compensate, Wray advises to hone your buoyancy skills, and streamline your kit. “Keep your gear as lowprofile as you can manage to avoid drag, and use a sturdy lanyard on your camera, either tethered to your BC, or over your arm, for extra peace of mind,” she says.

 
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