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Are You Ready To Experience Drift Diving?

Diving in current can be one of the most rewarding experiences while scuba diving. You can literally drift along, buoyed by current, experiencing the panorama of the underwater world, and whatever creatures happen to cross your path.

For all of the positives, drift diving can be a challenge with unpredictable conditions. At times sites can have a surface as flat as pancake and you can roll off the boat into a gentle flow. Currents can be tidal and predictable, but they can also be completely unforeseeable with upwellings and down-currents. The topography and bottom composition of each dive destination impacts the strength of currents, as does the moon cycle. There may not be wind and swells on the way out to a site, but they may occur by the surface interval.

Lahaina Diver’s drift dives are restricted to experienced divers who are physically fit and can adapt to these changing conditions. We’ll go into some of the details of each drift charter site to help you decide if you are ready for the experience and which one to choose.

“I’m a strong advocate of drift diving. It is a totally different experience drifting with current or not having to swim back to your starting point.”—Steve Ellingson, Mgr., Captain and Dive Instructor for Lahaina Divers

Lahaina Divers 3 Advanced Drift Dives

First, let’s cover one thing that holds true for all drift dives we do. You need to be able to get back on the boat without assistance, and sometimes conditions will have shifted while you are diving. Under adverse conditions, which can happen, you can be struggling against large swells, wind and current. The crew at your exit point will be doing their best to hold the ladder steady for your safety. You must be able to remove your fins in the water while holding on, hand them up, and then climb the ladder without taking your BCD or any other equipment off in the water. You should be able to do this while keeping your regulator in your mouth and mask on until fully on board the boat. Once on board, crew will help you to your assigned seat.

1. Lanai 3 Tank

If you are new to drift diving, this charter may be the one you want to start out with. We’ll be diving off the coast of Lanai, and venture a bit farther out than our Lanai Cathedrals charter, which is done at mooring. While you still need a fair number of dives under your belt, it is comforting to most to see the bottom and structures while diving, as opposed to a blue water dive. There are caves and swim throughs to explore, and no doubling back. The boat will meet you at the end of your dive, and motor to the next dive location. After a brief interval, it’s dive, dive, dive again!

One thing to ask yourself if you are considering a drift dive for the first time is about buoyancy. Do you know how much weight you need for proper buoyancy? Can you drift with the current making graceful adjustments by finning and with your BCD to avoid smacking other divers or damaging coral?

This is a three-tank charter, meaning three dives, typically at three different sites, conditions permitting. You do not have to do all three dives if you don’t want to. However, if you are prone to seasickness, it is generally better to be below the water than bobbing on the surface. For most on this popular charter, the extra tank is big bonus.

Because the Lanai 3 Tank charter goes to locations other operators do not, you may see more diverse marine life or pelagic species. It is also common to see dolphins jumping the boat wake to and from Lanai.

2. Back Wall Molokini

A partially submerged volcanic cinder cone, Molokini crater provides a sheltered environment for snorkeling and scuba diving. But for this drift dive, we go to the back, open water side of Molokini crater! Drift diving on a vertical wall is thrilling and challenging. We will be drifting and descending vertically, keeping the wall on the right or left, depending on which way the current is running. Pelagic species abound, in addition to watching the changing hues of sponges and corals as you view the wall at different depths. Depth here is about 300 ft., but we will hover around 80 ft. to keep a good dive profile.

There are a couple of things specific to wall diving to be aware of. One is upwellings, where wind driven cooler water flows from deep in the ocean, hits the wall and rises up. Conversely, downcurrents can occur when a horizontally flowing current hits the face of the wall at right angles and follows the wall down. For these conditions, as well as normal current and surface conditions, it is critical to have excellent buoyancy control on drift dives.

In adverse conditions, you may need to fin against the up or down current to maintain your depth, while making adjustments to your BCD. If you should find yourself pushed up or down in a dive, the first rule is don’t panic, and take appropriate action. Sometimes it’s necessary to swim away from the wall where the current is strongest. In an emergency when a diver has surfaced away from the boat, a surface marker buoy (which is required that each diver have on all drift dives) can be deployed and used as a signaling device.

Although you have the wall structure, there is nothing but deep blue to the other side. Typically at the end of your dive, you will swim away from the wall to be picked up. You are essentially in the open ocean when getting on the boat, which can range from calm and flat to rough swells and wind.

We will spend the surface interval inside the protected waters of Molokini, then head out for a second dive at Reef’s End at the other side of the crater. We go a little farther out than the tour boats hugging the inside of the crater. Conditions permitting, you can explore reef’s end and the other side of the backwall.

3. Hammerhead dive

As shark numbers dwindle globally, there is increased interest in shark conservation. Industry experts have shown where diving with sharks actually helps save them by bringing understanding and awareness to conservation measures, or even replacing shark hunting with shark tourism in other Oceania countries. You can read about conservation efforts and the type of sharks you will find in Hawaii here.

Lahaina Diver’s Hammerhead dive is the premier adventure for advanced divers that want an opportunity to observe scalloped hammerhead sharks in the wild.

Our objective is to go to a place frequented by hammerhead sharks, dive in a pattern, and hopefully have an opportunity to view these amazing creatures. Last week one of our instructors reported observing about 70 hammerhead sharks that swam up and over the dive group. However, some days you could see few or none, or see some other pelagic marine life. Even though some areas we dive are deep where you can barely see the seafloor, we stay at about a 60ft depth to extend bottom time and have more viewing opportunity.

Just like the north shore of Maui, seas are not as calm and gentle off the coast of Molokai. Because of these variable conditions, the same requirements hold true for this site as other drift dives, but perhaps more so. This includes good buoyancy control and the ability to get back on the boat in rough seas without assistance while wearing full dive gear (except fins). Again, you could hit this dive on an ideal day, but about half the time we experience low to high swells, wind and current. The boat stays in the area for the surface interval, and can cause seasickness among some on rough days. The channel between Molokai and Maui is no picnic either- it can be very rough, especially on the way back.

BUT, for those that have seasickness under control and are not bothered by the chance of adverse conditions, the shark diving portion of the charter is typically a bucket list, amazing adventure that will stay with you for years to come.

Children and drift diving

There are many considerations regarding youth and diving in general. Even though a minimum age is posted for a drift dive charter, that does not mean your child is ready for the experience. In addition to getting on the boat in full gear unassisted in potentially rough conditions, young divers must have done multiple dives, been diving recently and have excellent buoyancy control. All children develop at different rates physically, intellectually and emotionally. Be sure to understand health risks for young divers. Critical thinking and problem solving without panicking are essential skills for any diver taking on a drift dive, or any advanced scuba diving. Please read this article on when to take kids diving for more information on how to assess your child’s readiness.

Be prepared

Drift diving should be part of the plan for avid divers, as it represents a much different experience than diving from a tethered boat that stays in once place. If you are prone to seasickness, you should consult your doctor and investigate a motion sickness remedy, and take it an hour before the charter. Onboard, pay close attention to the dive briefing for more information. You will want to be prepared to enter the water before reaching the dive site, including a pre-check of your gear, and have your camera and other accessories ready. Upon arrival, the boat will not be at anchor or at a mooring, so listen to your captain and dive guides for a smooth exit from the boat.

Still deciding?

Talk to us about your skills and goals, and we would be happy to point you in the right direction, whether that be choosing a drift dive, or starting out with another charter experience. We love what we do and want you to have the most enjoyable experience while staying safe.