Strong Current 101: Guide To Diving In Current

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What to do if you’re swept away by a current during scuba diving?

For many divers, diving in a current is one of their nightmare scenarios: a strong current suddenly pushes them away from their dive site, away from their buddy or dive group, away to open sea.

But with a few considerations, getting caught in a current doesn’t have to be a catastrophe.

First off, it is important to remember that you should only dive in conditions you’re comfortable diving in.

If a dive site has a strong current then it might be worth finding an alternate dive site. Or postponing the dive to another day with better conditions unless you’re specifically doing a drift dive.

However, sometimes, currents can pick up suddenly and you find yourself diving in current, and in those instances, it helps to know what to do.

Dive conditions that make you comfortable should be your top priority
Dive conditions that make you comfortable should be your top priority
Photo by: frantisekhojdysz

What are currents?

A current is basically water moving.

Water can be put into motion by many different things, such as wave activity, differences in salinity and/or temperature, and wind.

Currents can be further increased in force if large amounts of water have to pass over an object, such as a reef, or through a narrow passage, such as a strait between two islands.

Some currents are localized and temporary, but the oceans also have a number of more or less permanent currents, such as the Gulf Stream.

Read our article about Diving In Rough Seas.

How to handle a current

If you do suddenly find yourself fighting a current, there are a few things you can do to lessen the effect of it.

First of all, swim close to something, whether it is the bottom, a reef, or a wreck. Ideally, find shelter behind an object, as this will almost remove the current completely, but if this isn’t possible, just swimming close to the bottom will reduce the effect, as the current isn’t usually as strong near the bottom as it is mid-water.

Finding shelter behind an object is ideal
Finding shelter behind an object is ideal
Photo by: frantisekhojdysz

If it possible, turn around and go with the current for the duration of your dive, essentially turning your dive into a drift dive.

This should be done only if you know for sure you’ll have an exit point down-current, as you don’t want to end your dive having to fight the current to come to a point where you can exit the water.

If the current is strong, and no shelter is available, end the dive calmly, and return to dive another day.

How to handle a sweep-away

If you’re diving in areas that sometimes see strong, unexpected currents, there’s a risk that you’ll be pushed away from your dive area and the other divers in your party by the current.

This can happen in areas prone to rip currents, or on offshore reefs. Should this happen to you, then first and foremost, do not panic! Stay calm, and assess the situation.

Learn more about developing your situational awareness here.

If the current is strong, or you’ve been carried a good distance already, don’t try to fight against it. Any current with a speed of even just a couple of knots are far stronger than a scuba diver can swim against.

Instead of diving in current, consider riding it out.

Most currents don’t maintain the same strength for very long, so simply letting the current run its course can often be a good solution. If you do try and swim, don’t swim against the current, but out of it, swimming either up, down or to the left or right of it.

Many currents are fairly localised, so moving even just a few meters to either side can greatly change the strength of the current.

If none of these help, head for the surface at a normal pace.

Sometimes, it is best to just head up to the surface at a normal pace
Sometimes, it is best to just head up to the surface at a normal pace
Photo by: worldswildlifewonders

If you have a boat with you, take out your DSMB (which should be brought on all boat dives) and while staying at 5 meters, launch it and wait for your boat to come pick you up.

If you are diving without a boat, head for the surface and try and signal people on shore. Fill your BCD with air to maintain positive buoyancy and start swimming for shore.

Maintain a good, steady pace, rather than going for setting a world record, and periodically scan the shore for people, and signal for help.

The current is likely to be less severe on the surface, but if it is strong, again, try swimming to either side of it, as it may be reduced significantly here. The current will also most likely abade as you come near the shore.

Once you’re on shore, look for your dive party, and signal to them that you’re OK.

Have you ever been swept off by a strong current? What did you do? 


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