This article was written by PADI Instructor Sean Cooper of Dive Africa their website can be seen here. If you are diving in the Sharm El Shiekh area this is a fantastic choice of dive centre. The techniques are relevant when drift diving anywhere in the world. Hope you enjoy the article, thank you Sean. Sean is also a very keen and very good underwater photographer and some of his images can be seen in the Waterfront Scuba 2013 Calendars, which are now available in store for £3.50.
The dive guide isn’t giving a briefing to hear their own voice (although with the length of some guides briefings, you might doubt that), they’re trying to impart to you some of their local knowledge and expertise about the next dive and the potential risks and challenges the site may present to you. You should be listening anyway, but if the guide mentions “possibly very strong currents” you should give them your undivided attention and learn how that can affect your dive and what procedures you should use in those conditions. You should also understand any possible signals the guide will use and a lot of guides will only introduce drift related signals when they make their first briefing for a drift dive.
2) When your guide says “please get ready”, do exactly that. DO NOT wander off for a cup of tea, a cigarette and a chat with somebody about what time you’re meeting at the Camel Bar. If you know you are a little slow at getting ready you should ask your guide to give you a 5 minute pre-warning so you can start before everyone else begins gearing up.
3) When your guide says “please get ready”, they mean completely i.e. ALL your equipment is on INCLUDING fins & mask. A drift entry should be as quick as possible, and shouldn’t involve people spitting and rinsing their mask, tightening fins straps or discussing what time they’re meeting each other in the Camel Bar ONCE in the water.
4) Make sure you perform your buddy checks. Once your group starts to descend IS NOT the time to discover that you left your weight belt on the boat.
5) If they are several groups of divers on the boat, then there is probably a jump sequence i.e. Group 1 enters the water, then Group 2 and finally Group 3. If your group is first to jump you should you should make your way to the transom as quickly as possible. If you are not the first to jump, allow other divers space to make their way to the transom.
6) Once you are in the water, move away from the entry area so the rest of the group can follow you quickly in to the water. If you have a camera and want the boat crew to hand it to you, jump at the end of your group so as not to block the entry area.
7) You should descend as a whole group, not individually in buddy teams. If someone has problems equalizing, you should slow your descent to match theirs. If you discover you have forgotten your weight system, you should inform your guide you are canceling your dive and return to the boat. You should NOT invert yourself so you can kick down or allow somebody to drag you down. You should also not return to the boat, retrieve your weight system and then try to rejoin the group. You fluffed the dive, deal with it.
8) During the dive, stay behind the guide and try to maintain the same depth as them. Currents run at different speeds depending on depth, how close you are to the reef and the contour of the reef. Look out for signals from your guide, such as “get closer to the reef”, “get closer to your buddy” etc. The most important thing about drift diving is group cohesion i.e. staying together. With a very strong current it is almost impossible to regain this once it has gone. It is NOT the responsibility of a guide to stay with you, it is YOUR responsibility to stay with the guide.
9) Photographers – believe it or not, a drift dive is generally not the type of dive for macro photos. There are at least two good reasons for this: conservation and group cohesion. It is bloody difficult to maintain buoyancy in a strong current, and it should not be attempted close to lovely reefs. While a photographer is stationary, trying to photograph a nudibranch or anemone, the rest of the group are now either kicking against the current whilst waiting for the diver, using their precious air, time and energy (which is contrary to the ideas of a drift dive) or they haven’t noticed that a diver has stopped (or don’t actually care) and have carried on the dive and the groups cohesion is lost. Most guides make drift dives in the hope of finding large, pelagic fish that thrive in a strong current, not as a challenge to macro photographers.
10) When you are running with the current (i.e. you are traveling in the same direction as the current), try to fin as little as possible with it. The idea of a drift dive is to let the water do the work. The diver controls their buoyancy and then lets the water push them along. If you fin in the current several things can and often do happen i) you can overtake the dive leader and should the dive guide have an important signal for you, you’ll miss it ii) you can cause the dive to end by reaching the exit point too early and iii) it destroys the groups cohesion. Don’t do it!
11) Sometimes you may find the current is too strong and you are moving too fast to have a look at anything. In this case kick AGAINST the current. You’ll keep moving with the current but it should slow you down enough to smell the coffee. Sometimes though a current will take you and there’ll be nothing you can do except sit back and enjoy the ride. Don’t panic! This is a drift dive, remember?
12) Unfortunately, and especially on a small reef, you may sometimes find your guide will lead you against a current. Again follow your guide, and check their position in relation to the reef. If they are close and tight to the reef or floor then that is probably where you should be. Using coral heads and pinnacles to shield yourself from the current is a perfectly good way to move around a reef even when you are traveling against against the current.
13) Unless your guide tells you differently during the briefing, and assuming you were listening, drift dives are finished as a group and not in individual buddy teams. The reason for this is the boat does not want to come in to the reef to pick up a couple of divers, move back to open water only to have to return in a couple of minutes to pick up more divers. It’s hard on the boat, hard on the crew and increases the chances of a boat accident involving a diver on the surface. Once your guide signals for a three minute safety stop, that’s exactly what you should do – a three minute safety stop – and not just continue your dive. If you miss the guide’s signal to start making your safety stop but notice they have deployed a surface marker (an SMB), you can generally assume you should begin your safety stop. Most dive guides will only call the boat for a pickup once all members of their group have surfaced. Nobody should have to wait on the surface, especially in the winter, because an individual believed they are more important than everyone else.
14) Once your group is on the surface, your guide will signal to the boat for a pick-up. Whilst you are waiting for the boat the groups cohesion is still the most important thing, and you should try to stay close to the guide and, hopefully, the rest of the group.
15) Once it is clear that the boat is approaching for a pick-up the dive group should, whilst REMAINING on the surface of the water, swim 20-25 meters away from the reef. The boat will not come close to the reef for a pick-up as i) it reduces the risk of colliding with the reef and ii) the wash from the propeller can push divers on to the reef. You should also pay attention to the boat’s skipper signals as he may indicate that you should swim further away from the reef or stop where you are.
16) Once the boat is close enough to the divers, one of the crew will throw a line and float to the group (one of the reasons you should stay as a group even at the surface). Once you have the line, you should pass the line to anyone close enough to you who hasn’t already caught it and then HAND-OVER-HAND work your way to the stern of the boat whilst staying on the line. Do not fin whilst on the line as there could be somebody behind you who is now having their regulator and mask removed by your fins. Do not let go off the line, even if there is no surface current. The skipper may need to move the boat suddenly and that would leave you trailing in his wake.
17) As you approach the stern of the boat, check to see if a ladder is available (most dive boats have two). If the ladders are occupied stay down the line, approximately 4-5 meters from the stern of the boat to avoid anyone who falls off the ladder. Never go under a dive ladder that is occupied. If a person falls off the ladder the first thing that will hit you is their cylinder and it will HURT!
18) Once it is your turn to exit the water, approach the ladder and take hold. DO NOT REMOVE YOUR EQUIPMENT IN THE WATER. Before you start to climb out, have a look underwater at the ladder and see whether its first step is on the right or left. Exiting is complicated if you are trying to use a step that simply isn’t there. A boat often dips up and down from stern to bow. Wait for the stern to dip down, take a step, then pause whilst the stern goes up. Once the stern dips down again, take another step and repeat until you are on the dive transom. Do not rush, take your time and exit the water safely. Usually crew members will be on the dive transom to help you on to the boat, either by grabbing your tank valve or BCD to help steady you.
19) Once on the dive transom, immediately remove your fins, then yourself from the transom (i.e. move on to the dive deck) so the area is clear for other divers to make their exits. Locate a place to stow your equipment, and sit down.
20) Once you have stowed your dive equipment and removed your wetsuit, get dry, get a cup of tea and log that dive!
The 20 points listed here are not meant to be a comprehensive coverage of drift diving but an overview of a fairly typical drift dive around Sharm el-Sheikh. Certain types of drift diving require a constantly deployed surface marker, others require different entry procedures to the buoyant one described here so you should always get a local orientation about local currents and the required drift procedures. PADI’s Drift Diver Speciality Diver course is a great way to discover the fun of drift diving.