Underwater surge can be dangerous even for experienced divers. When confronted with surge, one should stay relaxed and focused on the situation. One should also know the correct and safe technique for stopping while in the surge.
“Hang loose” and “Go with the flow” are the two everyday phrases that summarize the easy way to dive in surge – the to and fro bottom water movement caused by waves. Moving water can be a powerful force and trying to brace yourself against the push-pull of surge is very difficult. Most recreational diving does not require a fixed location. So, why waste energy fighting to stay in one spot?
Surge can be a gentle swaying or a rush that pulls divers 20 feet in one direction, then shoots them back toward the starting position. To keep your recreational diving safe and fun, you will need to evaluate the day’s surge and see if the amount of water movement falls within your personal comfort zone, Surge flows in a repetitive pattern like wave sets. A 6 to 16 second period is common. If you are a novice diver, it may not take much surge to make you feel disoriented or unsteady, An advanced diver may be able to glide back and forth with the water in lower visibility and remain comfortable.
Your comfort level will be affected by your diving objective for the day. If you are on a sightseeing dive over a reef, then a fixed position is not important. The surge gives you a free ride. However, if you are determined to do macro photography and thus need a very steady, close range position, any surge could make the dive impossible. If you are wreck diving and surge threatens to impale you on metal, then your comfort level will likely be zero and you should abort the dive.
GO WITH THE FLOW TECHNIQUES
Rule One: Relax. That’s easy to say and sometimes harder to do. But, the real key to enjoyable surge diving is to relax your muscles, your mind and your breathing. If you are physically relaxed your body can float in the current of moving water like a leaf in the wind. Your movements are dictated by the water and you are merely along for the ride. You can float back and forth with the surge or use it to help push you along. Ride the water when it is moving, then seriously kick in the slack period. Save your energy and forget trying to kick against the surge.
Rather than using energy to control where your body is positioned, use it to control how your body is positioned. Neutral buoyancy is one of the keys to enjoying this blowing in the wind experience, With neutral buoyancy, your body is horizontal in the water. Your head is free to turn and watch the passing terrain and your hands are free to act as bumpers and guides.
You do need to look ahead to review the area you will soon pass over. It is tempting and easy to look down – but you need to see what is looming ahead. Is the surge going to slam you into a rock, jetty, mass of kelp, wreck or pier piling? Knowing what is coming, you can take appropriate action. Put out your hands to keep yourself away from a rock, exhale deeply to sink and slide under something, arch your back and look up to rise above something. It is also possible to turn sideways as an avoidance maneuver or to grab onto a passing rock and slow your movement.
Just as a skydiver changes body position to go faster, slower or turn, scuba divers can use body movement to direct their rides in a current or surge. One caution – if you tuck into a ball in surge, you will somersault and bounce out of control. Based on the surge diving experiment I conducted when writing this article, this underwater experience should be avoided!
If you keep your body parallel to the moving water you can see where you are headed and exercise some control. If you get sideways to the surge, it is easy to get in a barrel roll that is extremely hard to control.
A word of caution about diving in heavy surge in a rocky area: You are much less likely to crash and get hurt if you stay above the rocks. If you are down in the reef you may smash into the rocks or coral. If you put your hands out as bumpers, you risk jammed wrists. So, when using your hands, keep your elbows flexed and use your hands to keep yourself away from danger, not to try and stop your movement. Think about where the surging water goes when it hits an immovable object like a rock – it flows over or around the object. Use your hands to direct yourself into the flow, not to make a sudden stop. Hands and arms are deflectors that prevent your head from making contact with solid objects.
Rule Two: Don’t Assume. Don’t assume the beautiful waving seagrass doesn’t have a big rock behind it. Don’t assume that if you can’t see too far, there is nothing there, Don’t assume your buddy can help you if you get in trouble. He or she is being controlled by the same moving water that got you in a pickle.
Most important: Don’t assume you will breathe continuously as you usually do when diving. For some reason, most divers tend to hold their breaths for short periods when they get excited, scared or thrilled. Riding the flow of a surge current can be a thrill, You may find you hold your breath or skip breathe. Make breathing normally and continuously a conscious act. When in the flow of a surge current it is common to change depth. You may be in relatively shallow water, where even a small change in depth makes a big difference in how the air expands in your body.
Rule Three: The Pivot. If you must stop in a surge, grab a handhold but let your body stream behind you like a flag on a pole. The handhold is a fixed point, around which you can rotate. This pivot concept lets you stop, look at something, keep your body extended (so you don’t get into a barrel roll or somersault) and it does not require an extraordinary amount of strength or energy to fight the force of the surge.
When you let go of the pivot, time your release so you are pointed head first in the direction of the flow. If you are head first you can see what is coming.
Diving in surge can be fun. Slight or moderate surge gives you a free ride to explore an area with a minimum of kicking. Heavy surge is usually no fun and is dangerous, as visibility may be very limited and you cannot exercise sufficient control to keep yourself out of danger.
Each diver is responsible to determine his/her own comfort zone and decide whether to begin, continue or abort a dive if the surge becomes too much. Since surge is largely a bottom phenomenon, you can sometimes simply move to a shallower depth or the surface to escape the pull. Just remember, hang loose and go with the flow!