Scuba Diving from a Kayak | Scuba Diving

Scuba Diving from a Kayak

| |Photography by David Fleetham|

"Look out!" Rick screamed. "Here comes a wave!" Still pulling the starter cord of the outboard, I looked up in time to see the nose of our inflatable dinghy kicked skyward by an avalanche of water. Then there was only darkness and the roar of the surf.

We popped to the surface seconds later amid our own flotsam of tanks, dive gear and a capsized dinghy. That great nearshore reef we'd been dreaming about--the one too far to swim and too close for a charter boat — would remain unexplored another day.

Experience is a wonderful teacher, and now I know what we should have done. We should have shot a hole in the inflatable, dumped the outboard in a dumpster and found a couple of dive kayaks.

The right paddle-powered boat is a shore diver's wet dream. It gets you and your gear past the surf line with ease ("You'll never walk in off the beach again," promises Mark Theobald, California's leading dive kayak guru) and extends your exploring range by miles. Past the surf line, a kayak serves as a stable support platform where you can take a rest, change tanks, eat your lunch and keep your hat dry.

Maybe best of all, modern dive kayaks, especially the polyethylene sit-on-top variety, are nearly indestructible and virtually unsinkable. And paddles, in my experience, never fail to start.

| |Double your paddle power and carry twice the gear in a tandem kayak. Photography by Tim O'Keefe|

The Basics of Kayak Diving

Even if you can't tell port from starboard, you can handle a modern sit-on-top dive kayak. A few minutes of basic paddling instruction are all you need to get started. Combining kayaking and scuba does add a few challenges, however. You've got gear to stow and secure. And you've got the problem of getting into and out of your gear, and into and out of the water. Then there's the issue of what to do with the kayak while you're diving. And did we mention surf?

Clearly, there are skills you'll have to learn, and the fastest way to master this form of diving is the kayak diving specialty course. Here's a sample of what you'll learn.

Loading the Kayak

| |Photography by Henry Powers|

If you think space is tight on a six-pack dive boat, wait until you start loading a kayak. There's room for everything you need, but not much more, so you've got to think carefully about where and how you stow every item.

You'll wear your boots and wetsuit, at least the bottom half. Roll down or take off the top half for easier paddling. (Dry suit divers will have to wear the whole thing through the waves, but can peel down again outside the surf line.)

The rest of your gear — weights, tank, regs, BC, mask, fins, whatever — will go in hatches or be strapped to the top of the kayak. It's easiest to pre-assemble the scuba unit, tank, BC and regs, so it's ready to go when it's time to suit up.

Two things to watch here: Keep the weight centered and low. And make sure everything is both tethered and tied down tight. If you're prepared for the most spectacular multiple-endo wipeout, it probably won't happen. But Neptune punishes laziness.

The beauty of sit-on-top dive kayaks is that they come with a pre-molded tank well and adjustable quick-release straps. Place the pre-assembled unit into the well, tank on the bottom, and cinch down the straps. Then inflate the BC until it's tight against the rope.

As far as the placement of other gear, "be organized" is Marty Senetra's first advice to the novice. He's a longtime kayak diver in Crystal River, Fla. "Think through what you're going to do, what piece of gear you're going to need first." Think FILO. First in, last out.

You'll also want to tie each major or indispensable piece of gear to the kayak with a tether. It's the astronaut principle: a short piece of line can prevent your fins from drifting off into liquid space when you're looking elsewhere. Tethers also help retrieve gear that's stored inside the kayak. Otherwise your mask may run to the end of the kayak and, like a cat, refuse to come out.

| |Photography by Henry Powers|

Surf Entry and Exit

Even if Rick and I had been in kayaks that fateful day, the result might have been the same. Punching through big surf takes experience and until you have it, you should avoid any waves bigger than ripples. That said, the entry procedures are pretty much the same whether the surf is big or little.

Drag your loaded kayak to the edge of the water and watch the surf to get the rhythm of "sets" and "lulls." Don't rush it. When a lull (a series of smaller waves) has just begun, go. Pull the kayak out to about knee-deep water, give it a last push, jump on and paddle.

Again, just two basic rules: keep the kayak pointed directly into the waves, and paddle like hell. If the kayak gets sideways, even small surf can tip you. Point straight into it and you'll be amazed what you can punch through. If you're swamped by a wave, lean back and hold your paddle high until it passes.

Returning through the surf is basically the same story. Again, take some time to watch the waves; sets and lulls are harder to see from the ocean side. When the time seems right, go in on the backside of a wave, just behind the crest. Keep the other pointy end, the stern, toward the incoming waves. Paddle hard to catch up with the crest, then stay just behind it. With luck you'll be carried all the way to the sand, so make sure you're aimed toward a soft landing. When you stop going forward, jump off quickly and grab the kayak. You don't want to be sucked backward into the next wave.

With experience, you can surf larger waves. That means getting in front of the crest, turning away from the break and leaning into the face. To keep your speed up, lean back and keep the bow high. It's a huge rush when you get it right--and a spectacular wipeout when you "endo." That's when you go over the crest, the bow digs in and the stern passes over your head.

Both going and coming, the most important thing to adjust is your attitude. Think of it this way: Your gear is secure, and you're wet anyway, so what's the worst that can happen? If a landing turns into body surfing, well, body surfing is fun too. And don't be embarrassed: Wipeouts happen to everybody.

If you're going to fall off in surf, fall to the ocean side so the kayak isn't washed over you. That means keeping your weight toward the ocean side. You can use your paddle like an outrigger if you extend it to the ocean side with the blade flat but aimed slightly upward.

| |Tow your boat: Drifting with your kayak is an alternative to anchoring. Photography by Ethan Gordon|

The Diving

Now the easiest part of all, the actual diving. Only entries and exits from the kayak are new experiences. Once again, there are two important rules: One, put your fins on first and take them off last. If you straddle the kayak with fins in the water you gain tremendous stability, and if you fall off you have propulsion. Fins are also essential for getting back aboard.

Did we say "fall off?" Yes, it happens. Usually the kayak starts to tip and you instinctively push against the low side, which only guarantees that the kayak will flip over on top of you. Instead, drop low and get your weight to the middle of the kayak. And if all else fails, remember you were planning to get wet anyway.

Two, keep everything attached to the kayak until it is attached to you. Knives, masks and even full tanks are surprisingly eager to dive without you, so you can't have too many tethers.

Most kayak divers put on their scuba unit while in the water. The sane way is to get in the water with it and try to put your arms through the arm holes, as if you were on land. Float it tank-side down, push the butt of the tank down and back into the BC. Little or no air in the BC and a trim weight around the butt of the tank will help it stand vertical in the water. Keep your BC unit tethered to the kayak until you've succeeded.

Show-offs prefer the over-the-head maneuver. Again, start with just a little air in the BC and face the valve end with the tank level, the BC underneath. Arrange the hoses and "butterfly" the BC. Put your arms through the arm holes and grab the neck of the tank. Sink a little, push it down and throw it over your head just like Mike Nelson used to do. Then lie on your stomach to buckle up. Breathing while doing this is the problem — keep your reg in your mouth.

Oh yeah, parking. You've got three options: tie your kayak to a mooring, take an anchor down with you on your first descent or tow the kayak behind you like a big dive flag. Before you descend, make sure hatches are securely closed and that your paddle is secured to the boat with its own strap.

Exit Strategy

Techniques for reboarding the kayak borrow heavily from deepwater exits, though if you try to pull yourself up from the water, you'll only succeed in flipping the kayak. Here's a better way. Remove your weight belt, place it in the kayak and secure it with a tether. Now add a little more air to your BC before removing and tethering it as well.

Keep your fins on your feet. Float on the surface at a right angle to the kayak, with your hands on top. Kick a couple of times to get your legs on the surface, then kick hard and lunge forward until your stomach is onboard. Roll onto your butt, then pivot to a sitting position as you swing your feet onboard. "BBF: Belly, butt, feet" is the mnemonic Mark Olson, a Santa Barbara, Calif., kayak dive instructor gives to his students.

Putting things away is the reverse of getting them out. Don't forget tethers and tight lashings.

Join the Club

While the kayak course gives you the overview of skills, you'll really learn by doing. Once you know the basics, it helps to find (maybe start?) a local kayak dive club. Tag along with other kayak divers who can show you the ropes and some of their favorite sites. Kayak diving is a very social sport, and if you're lucky, you'll find enthusiastic buddies like Olson.

"You're right on the water with the birds and sea lions, you can get closer to the rocks and reefs than you ever have before, it's quiet and you know you got there yourself. Then you can go diving where and when you want. It's an incredible combination," he says. "I've been kayaking and diving for 17 years and it still makes me say ?Wow!' "

The Boat


What to look for in a dive kayak.

Sit-on-top kayaks are the best choice for diving for several reasons. Inflatable or rigid, they offer greater stability (important when you're loading/unloading dive gear or changing tanks) and they are easy to paddle. Look for a molded tank well (1) behind the cockpit (2), with straps (3) to secure your gear. Sealed hatches (4) provide storage space for everything from weight belts to dry bags. Some hatches are even large enough to store an extra tank.

Dive kayaks come in many shapes and sizes, from one-person boats to tandems. Long, narrow kayaks track better, are faster and easier to paddle, but clumsy in surf. Short ones are more stable and more maneuverable, but carry less weight. A good compromise is the type usually called a "touring" kayak, about 12 feet long.

You'll also need a paddle (5) and a paddle strap to keep it secured to the boat while you dive. An optional backrest is a smart investment in comfort. Don't forget an approved life jacket, a dive flag and a small anchor.

Some electronics might make your day. A VHF radio is better than a cell phone if you need help. A sonar "fishfinder" will show you the bottom contour of the site before you dive it. A GPS will help you find it again accurately. All of these can be hand-held, waterproof and fairly cheap.

Add a dry bag, water bottle and sunscreen, and you're ready to roll.

What's So Great About Kayak Diving?

What kayak divers enjoy most about our form of scuba is, well, everything — from the swirl of water along our kayaks to the camaraderie with our fellow paddlers to the great upper body workout.

But the greatest thing about kayak diving is the freedom it gives you to explore new sites, or just to visit old ones when and how you want. And no other form of scuba provides such a personal connection with the dive environment.

A few other reasons to love paddle-powered scuba:

  • You get through the surf easier.

  • You can go farther, to almost any on-shore dive site.

  • You save air for the dive, not the entry and exit.

  • Currents and rips are no problem.

  • You can talk with your buddies while you paddle.

  • You can squeeze into tight spots a big boat wouldn't dare try.

  • No diesel fumes or engine noise.

  • The diving's free (except parking and air fills).

PLUS: You can play bumper boats!

The Sites: Nine Kayak-Ready Dives

When you're a kayak diver, any beach is a possibility. Use your mobility to explore, or try one of these proven favorites.

Monterey, Calif.

The protected cove behind this 200-yard-long rock jetty in Monterey Bay is an easy place to put in, and there are several great dives within paddling distance. New kayak divers can play around in the kelp forest, explore the jetty for eels or frolic with sea lions. Stronger paddlers head northwest, following the coast as far as McAbee Beach.

Carmel, Calif.

Access to the Point Lobos State Reserve is limited to just 15 dive teams a day. Kayaks are welcome. Put in at the small ramp in Whaler's Cove, but paddle around the point to Bluefish Cove where current-swept pinnacles explode with strawberry anemones and pink and purple hydrocorals. Topside, there are restrooms and picnic facilities, not to mention acres of breathtaking scenery.

Santa Barbara, Calif.

Several finger reefs and ledges lie just off the beach and the point to the west, parallel to each other and to the shore. Kelp stands harbor opaleyes, garibaldis and calico bass, as well as purple and black urchins. A grassy area just behind the beach is perfect for gearing up.

| |Paddling off Klein Bonaire. Photography by Stephen Frink|

Puget Sound, Wash.

A series of ledges and a wall drop to about 70 feet at Sund Rock. You'll find a variety of Pacific Northwest invertebrates here, like painted anemones and metridium anemones, not to mention giant Pacific octopuses. Get air fills at Hood Sport and Dive on Highway 101 in Hoodsport, and put in at their boat ramp, just a quarter-mile north of the prominent rock.

Anacortes, Wash.

Look for Pacific king crab along the western shore of tiny Northwest Island, but don't touch: the area is a protected sanctuary. From Rosario Beach, it's a quarter-mile paddle to Northwest Island. Henry Powers, a kayak diver and instructor at Whidbey Island Dive Center, recommends anchoring on the sheltered side of the island, and then swimming the short distance around the island to the exposed west side where the wall drops to 130 feet. Just beware of strong currents.

Cape Ann, Mass.

Near the tip of Cape Ann, Folly Cove is one of New England's few real wall dives and its fissures are loaded with anemones, red gill nudibranchs and sea stars "two feet across," says Aaron Faulls of Boston's East Coast Divers. The wall is a 250-yard paddle from the beach and plunges to a sand bottom at about 40 feet.

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The local Kayuba dive kayak club has adopted this mushroom-shaped coral table as its local favorite. It's a shallow dive, 15 feet to the top of the grooved reef and 30 feet to the sand, but the reef shelters everything from spadefish to barracuda. Kayuba Reef is just north of Sunrise Reef, which is straight out from Sunrise Avenue at Highway A1A. To contact the club, check

Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

The 500 yards that separate Klein Bonaire from the main island are an easy paddle. Head for Nearest Point, and from there explore northward, toward Ebo's Reef and its photogenic grove of orange elephant ear sponges. A kayak also lets you dive the middle zones between the mooring buoys and visit parts of the reef boat divers rarely see. Several operations on Bonaire offer kayak dive certification courses and guided kayak dives.

Maui, Hawaii

Expect giant green sea turtles "as big as the hood of a VW," says Eden McAfee, of Kapalua Dive Company, when you take a guided kayak dive tour from Kapalua Beach. It's a half-mile paddle to Hawea Point, where divers drift slowly toward Manamalu Bay. Along the way you'll see complex lava ridges and tubes covered with hard corals and a diverse fish population — from surgeonfish to eels.