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Shore Diving

For A Good Time, Call Ahead

 By Jeffrey S. Anderson

 Planning Ahead

Whatever the reasons that draw us to the underwater realm, many of us just can't get enough of diving. Whether your next dive trip is months away or the dive boat just can't keep up with your insatiable hunger for being underwater, shore diving provides a quick, accessible way to feed our dive cravings.

From Bonaire, to the South Pacific, to the coastlines of California and Florida, to inland lakes and rivers near our own back yards, there are dive sites reachable from shore virtually everywhere in the world. Diving from shore provides access to aquatic environments that may be similar to - or completely different from -those we're used to diving regularly from boats. Regardless, shore diving rewards participants with the same mystical majesty we all enjoy from our sport.

As with other diving disciplines, proper planning within a diver's capabilities helps ensure successful shore dives. With shore divers' independence comes added planning responsibility.

To help increase your experience and confidence when embarking on new shore dive adventures, you can enlist the assistance of trained professionals. Local dive operations near popular shore dive destinations can share important information or even supply a divemaster to plan and conduct a site orientation dive. Whether under the watchful eye of a diving professional, or a group of independent dive buddies, site logistics, environmental conditions, and emergency procedures should be carefully considered before rushing into the water.

 

Site Selection

Selecting a proper site is the first step of successful shore diving. Just because a body of water is accessible from shore doesn't necessarily mean it's appropriate for diving. Before you go, ask yourselves: Is our level of training appropriate for this site? How will we be able to get in to and out of the water? Does this site provide access to things we enjoy about diving?

These are some of the basic questions dive buddies should ask during their initial shore diving site evaluation. If you and your buddy answer "Yes" to these questions, the site may be appropriate for your adventure. Some specialized forms of shore diving, like ice diving, cavern / cave diving and drift diving in rivers, require advanced training, and divers should get proper certifications before engaging in these special types of dives.

There are potential legal considerations when selecting shore sites, too. For example, some public beaches prohibit scuba diving, while others happily permit it. Marine protected areas, established to protect particularly sensitive ecosystems, may include the shore within their boundaries and may forbid diving within the area. Some sites may be surrounded by private property without public access. Parking your vehicle legally is another logistical consideration. Before risking a citation, it's a good idea to check with dive stores, beach patrol or law enforcement agencies for information about the legal considerations of the local shore diving scene.

Locating a permitted dive site is only part of the selection process. Making a safe entry is an important consideration when selecting a shore site, and exiting the water after the dive is even more important. Depending on the site, you may be faced with gently sloping, sand beaches. Other shorelines may be steep. Rather than sand, others may be old coral reefs, sometimes known as "iron shore," or rocks that may make entries and exits more challenging by presenting uneven, sharp, slippery surfaces for divers to traverse. Still other shore diving sites may have docks or piers with ladders for entering and exiting the water.

The location of the "really cool" part of the dive is another consideration. Are significant swims to and from the main site necessary? Make sure you're fit for a long swim if it's needed.

When you're looking at site logistics, keep in mind that what seems relatively easy to accomplish when you're not in full scuba gear - e.g., climbing over or around rocks, hiking a steep path to your site, making a long walk - may be quite another task at the end of a dive when fatigue, cold and equipment weight can slow you down.

 

Evaluating Conditions: Waves, Currents and Tides

The main environmental considerations for shore diving are waves, currents and tides. Watching where and how the waves break, shore divers can develop an idea of the bottom contour and relative water depths they may encounter.

In oceans and extremely large lakes, such as the Great Lakes, waves can become very large and, as they break, can hamper divers. Waves create other water movement. Rip currents, longshore currents and undertow (see page 41, "Coastal Currents") can all adversely affect your safety and enjoyment if not properly planned. Rip and longshore currents can move divers away from their anticipated exit point, while undertow can disrupt balance. Wave energy under the water, often referred to as surge, can place divers in unwanted situations by moving them too close to submerged structures. Wave-generated water movement agitates bottom sediments, reducing visibility significantly.

During days with light winds or winds blowing from shore toward the sea, waves tend to be much more subdued. To maximize positive shore dives, select diving days with minor wave activity, and dive well away from the surf zone. Days when upwellings are present make for excellent shore dives too, although you need to plan for the cooler water temperatures.

Rising and falling generally twice each day, tides affect a shore diving site's currents and visibility. Shore dives affected by tides are best conducted during the period of high, slack tide. During this period between high tide and the start of the water flow for low tide, there is generally little water movement, thus minimizing any tidal currents and enhancing visibility. Tables with tide times and water level changes are generally available at local scuba stores, boating centers and fishing tackle suppliers in coastal areas. For United States coastlines, they are even available on the internet from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service (NOS) websites, www.noaa.gov and oceanservice.noaa.gov .

Local beach patrols may have information useful for environmental evaluations. In many areas they use flags to describe water conditions for beachgoers. Green flags generally signal favorable water conditions, while red flags usually mean treacherous water conditions. Yellow flags indicate conditions requiring caution. This is when divers' judgment of their own capabilities becomes more critical. Blue flags, used in conjunction with other flags, signal the presence of sea pests, such as jellyfish and sea lice. This beach information, as well as weather forecasts, temperatures, and tide times, may also be communicated on lifeguard stations, informative telephone lines and radio broadcasts.

In addition to making surface time uncomfortable, rain affects diving conditions as well. Heavy rains may adversely affect visibility by increasing suspended particles due to runoff. Rain-swollen rivers will probably have stronger currents than normal, making them potentially too rapid to dive safely. These effects can persist several days after heavy rains.

 

Be Prepared

One of the great aspects of shore diving is the empowerment divers have in choosing the location and time of their dive. Unlike dive boats, however, a divemaster may not be available for potential emergency situations. As a result, divers should be prepared to implement their own emergency plan.

What services are readily available depend greatly on location. In urban shore diving areas, some forms of assistance may be located at the beach. In more remote areas, help may be farther away. Knowing how to activate emergency services in the dive area is another consideration. While 9-1-1 is nearly ubiquitous in the U.S., other countries may have different activation methods. Phone numbers and locations for nearby hospitals, fire / rescue, and police should also be well understood. When dealing with any of these agencies, be prepared to provide clear directions to your diving location as well as a description of the emergency.

While some potential emergency situations are common for any in-water activities, others can be unique to shore environments. Sea urchins like to congregate on rocky shorelines and can announce their presence with sharp spines as divers try to steady themselves entering and exiting the water. Jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-wars are not uncommon visitors to marine shore diving sites. Because their stinging cells can still function after being washed up on shore, divers should be vigilant during their trek across the beach as well as during the dive. A basic first aid kit and proper first aid training are great diver tools.

 

Before You Get Wet, Consider These Issues

Now that the pre-dive planning is complete, it's time to get in the water. Preparing equipment on shore is similar to gearing up on boats. Divers may consider using a tarp or other clean surface for equipment setup to minimize the potential for sand and dirt to clog regulators. Divers who don't wear booties with their fins during boat dives may want to use them on shore to protect their feet.

The method for entering the water from shore greatly depends on the topography and conditions. Choosing the simplest entry and exit options is always a good idea. Straightforward walking entries are the most appropriate for gently sloping shorelines. Before entering, divers should slightly inflate their buoyancy compensation device and have their mask, snorkel and regulator in place just in case they lose balance while entering.

Undertow, soft ground and the added weight of scuba equipment can be challenging to manage with even the slightest wave action. Carrying their fins until reaching water about waist deep, buddies can then assist each other donning their fins. This can be done in a standing position or while sitting in the water, allowing the floatation of the BCD to help support them. Walking backwards into waves can also help maintain balance.

In areas with docks, piers or iron shore to the water's edge, giant-stride entries may be more appropriate. Watch the waves and time your entry so the natural water movement will help move you away from the structure. Barnacles, mussels, oysters and similar creatures find footholds on pilings. Be sure to keep a respectful distance to avoid abrasions.

Accurate navigation is important, helping to minimize long surface swims and long walks across the beach. Prior to entering the water, it's a good idea to identify landmarks visible from both shore and water to help orient you. If a nighttime shore dive is on the agenda, use a strobe or lantern to mark your location on the beach. During the dive use a compass and natural navigation tools to keep yourself on course. Ripples in the sand generally run parallel to shore and can be an invaluable navigation aid.

If a longshore current is present, remember to head into that current to begin the dive. Should you be caught in stronger rip or tidal currents, don't try to swim directly against them. Rather, swim perpendicular to the current until you reach your destination or find yourself in an area of water without current where you can change course. Because bottom topography scatters a current's force, divers may find easier traveling near the bottom.

Whether mandated by local regulations or not, it's smart to use a dive flag during shore dives. In many locations, dive sites accessible from shore are also visited by boaters. A flag will help alert them to your presence. Because sound travels faster underwater than in air, it's not always easy to determine a boat's exact position during the dive. Stay near your dive flag at all times, and when you hear boating noise, stay near the bottom, especially in shallow water.  Always look up and around during and after surfacing to verify the position of any boats.

Exiting the water depends on the site selection, too. It may be as simple as walking up the beach after removing your fins in waist-deep water, to climbing a ladder up a pier. Remember to keep your BCD inflated and your mask and snorkel in place until safely on firm footing away from the water's edge.

Whether visiting near-shore coral reefs, sea grass meadows, moody kelp forests, encrusted dock pilings or freshwater locales, shore diving offers many rewards and adventures. An additional benefit is that they can be conducted virtually anytime, anywhere.

Remember, the tips shared within this article are general considerations for most shore diving sites. It's always a good idea to consult with the local dive professionals for more specific information about your particular dive. And after a successful shore dive, what could be more relaxing than sitting under a tree and reflecting about the dive as the waves gently lap at shore and the sun sets on the horizon?

  

Coastal Currents 

Divers should know how to recognize and safely plan for the following currents before entering the water on a shore dive:

  Longshore current - created when waves approach a shoreline from an angle rather than head on. The direction of longshore currents matches the direction the waves were traveling into shore.

  Rip current - created when water returns to sea via channels between reefs or other shallow bottom contours. Rip currents travel away from shore. Usually thin in width, areas of rip currents can be identified by turbid, foamy water moving seaward, along with a relatively smooth path through waves and surf zones.

  Tidal current - created when the sun and moon's gravity pull water across Earth's surface. Tidal currents are amplified whenever water has to move through narrow passageways. Examples of locations where these currents may be strongest are channels between islands, entrances to bays or lagoons, boating channels, river mouths entering the sea, etc. The direction of tidal currents will change during the day depending on whether the tide in a given area is rising or falling.

  Undertow - created as water flows down the slope of the beach back to sea. This current has the tendency to pull a diver's feet and legs out to sea with it, so it may affect balance.

  Upwelling - created during prolonged periods of wind blowing away from shore. As the surface water is pushed away from the coastline, the current enables generally cooler, clearer water from the depths to move toward shore.

  

About The Author

DAN Member Jeff Anderson has been a freelance underwater, nature, and travel photographer for more than six years and a diving professional for more than seven. In that professional capacity, Jeff has been instructing others about the beauty of the underwater realm. Jeff's instructional specialties include Underwater Naturalist, Underwater Photography, and Underwater Videography. Jeff also holds a Scientific Diver certification from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

See more about his work at
www.nature-imagery.com

DAN - Alert Diver Jan / Feb 2004
www.DiversAlertNetwork.org

   


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