Diving Tips: Shore Diving Made Easy
If you're the kind of diver who only gets wet on organized boat charters, you're missing out. Shore diving allows you to dive on your own schedule and explore a variety of unique sites, but it also requires careful planning and preparation for maximum safety and enjoyment. Whether you're wading into the bathtub-like conditions of Bonaire or charging through the pounding surf of California, here are six basic diving tips for shore dives.
Most shore diving is strictly a DIY affair, meaning you won't have a divemaster managing the dive, and you won't have any communication equipment, first-aid supplies, oxygen, water or fresh fruit slices waiting when you surface — unless you arrange them yourself. Your beach dive starts well before the planned day and step one is writing out an emergency plan that details the locations and phone numbers of the closest medical facilities and recompression chambers. A first-aid kit is always a good idea, and if you are beach diving in remote areas, a portable oxygen kit is advisable. Always tell someone where you're going and a time when you should be back. Even better, bring along a topside buddy who can keep an eye on the car and extra gear and call for help if necessary.
Evaluate Your Gear
Next, consider the conditions at your planned site and any special gear you might need for the dive itself. Is the beach rocky or sandy? Are there urchins or corals around the entry area? If the bottom of the shoreline has sharp features, wear thick-soled dive boots (that means no full-foot fins). If there's a risk of strong surf knocking you against rocks or corals, make sure your exposure suit can handle the abrasion. Consider wearing gloves so you won't cut your hands if you fall over or need to grab onto the bottom in the surf zone. Double up on most everything you might need for the dive. Bring an extra tank, mask and a spare set of fins. A save-a-dive kit can be especially handy to resolve minor equipment issues and keep your beach dive on schedule.
Evaluate the Site
Get as much information about the dive site as you can. Consult guidebooks, maps and charts, and try to get tips and a dive site briefing from local divers.
Divers must be aware of dangerous areas with underwater debris, rocks or other objects that could injure them as they navigate through the surf zone. Due to the movement of the water and the limited visibility, these areas should be avoided.
The riskiest point of any shore dive is the entry and exit, and beach dives can be roughly divided into two categories: low-energy and high-energy. Low-energy sites have small or no surf zones and minimal current action. These beach entries are relatively simple. Wearing everything but your fins, simply wade out into the water--watching that you don't step on anything sharp--until you're about chest deep. With your BC inflated and your mask and reg in place, put on your fins and start the dive. But first look back to shore; you'll want a reliable visual reference to help guide you back to your entry point when you surface.
High-energy locations have an extended surf zone with high and pounding surf; areas where strong currents sweep near the shoreline are also considered high-energy, with or without the waves. Entries at these beaches require substantially more thought, preparation and planning, and the rest of our tips apply to a high-energy environment.
Check local tide tables and talk with the local dive shop about the best times to go in--often this will be at slack tide, the period when the tide switches from high to low or vice versa. When you arrive at a dive site with heavy surf, don't just gear up and jump in. Walk out onto the beach before you do anything with your dive gear, and watch the waves. They generally come in sets, and if you watch long enough you should see a pattern of big and small sets--for example, maybe they come in sets of three big waves, followed by three small ones. Plan to make your entry during a small set. Also look around for the best place to enter. If it's a rocky beach, look for a sandy chute between rocks where you can walk straight into the water.
Keep an eye out for rip currents as well. These are isolated channels of water that run away from the beach. You can sometimes spot them as a line of sea foam running out to sea. Avoid these areas as much as possible, but remember, rip currents are only a narrow channel, so if you get caught in one, don't fight against it. Just swim parallel to the beach until you escape it before making your way back in.
Most important, play it smart. If conditions seem overwhelming, call the dive. You can always come back another day when there's less wind, shorter waves or a smaller tidal exchange.
Put everything on except your fins--extra weight is a good idea for navigating an aggressive surf zone--before stepping into the water. Some people put their fins on before going in and do a tank-first duck walk into deeper water; others choose to wade out a bit beforehand. It's up to you most of the time, though if you're coming up on serious waves, it's generally best to have everything, including fins, strapped on securely ahead of time. Also make sure gauges and alternate air sources are tightly clipped off and not trailing any big loops of hose. These can get caught in rocks or on other stuff on the bottom, entangling you in the most dangerous section of the dive.
It's best to use your regulator in and out of the surf zone. Snorkels tend to flood in heavy surf, and they can also create extra drag and dislodge your mask during a high-energy beach dive. However, it's a good idea to have a snorkel with you, just in case. A collapsible design that fits in your BC pocket until it's needed is a good idea, rather than carrying one on your mask.
There are two ways to navigate through surf: over or under. For big waves--roughly as tall or taller than you--under is the best bet. Completely deflate your BC and drop solidly to the bottom. The idea here is to maintain contact with the bottom and to half crawl, half swim through the zone of breaking surf. Once you are completely submerged, grab onto the bottom and allow the surf to crash over you when the waves break and scoot across the bottom by pulling, gliding and kicking between wave breaks. To pull and glide, simply reach forward with your hands, grab the bottom or dig your fingers into the sand and propel yourself forward by pulling your hands to waist level. As you feel the next wave beginning to break, either lie flat on the bottom or drop onto all fours, moving again with the undertow created as the wave's water volume rushes back out to sea. With practice, divers can stay side by side during the entire swim, but you should also have a plan for meeting on the other side of the surf zone in case you get separated. You can swim to a prominent underwater landmark in a known area or meet on the surface as soon as you have cleared the true surf zone. Divers using the subsurface method of entry must also be aware of dangerous areas with underwater debris, rocks or other objects that could injure them as they navigate through the surf zone. Due to the movement of the water and the limited visibility, these areas should be avoided.
For smaller waves--those breaking about waist high--you can usually do the "diver hop" over the top of them. Once you're fully geared up, walk out into the surf sideways with your BC inflated. Stop and brace yourself as the waves break around your lower body and walk between wave breaks. Once you are past the breakers, brace yourself for oncoming swells, and hop as they hit you. Your BC will help you float up over the crest, and you should slide down the back of the wave and have a few seconds to walk out a bit farther until it's time to hop again. Once you're deep enough that you can't touch bottom, roll over on your back, surface swim past the surf zone and start your dive.
Except in cases of extremely heavy surf, most divers will find it easiest to make their return trip through the surf zone underwater. Get very negatively buoyant, swim toward the beach with the force of the waves and when the water movement becomes too violent, simply lay on the bottom until the crashing water passes. This means you need to properly manage your air supply. Save about a third of your air for the exit swim; in harsher conditions, it may be wise to save as much as half of your air supply. If you can, you should swim underwater all the way to the edge of the beach. Trying to stop, take off your fins and stand up while you're still in the surf zone is usually a losing battle--though it will look funny to anyone watching your face plants. The most effective, albeit least attractive, method for exiting the water is on your hands and knees. Crawl onto the beach and take your fins off on dry land before standing up and heading for the showers to wash off all that sand.