Seldom receiving the attention that it deserves, shore diving is often considered a poor substitute for the spectacular variety of dive sites accessed by boat.
With none of the perceived challenges or convenience associated with diving from the side of a vessel onto isolated reefs rich in marine life, many divers regard shore diving as little more than an extension of their open water course; a reminder of time spent in confined waters refining the essential skills that were a necessary prelude to the anticipated excitement of ‘real’ diving.
It’s an attitude that’s widespread and one that often leads to complacency. Neglecting the same attention to detail that they apply to their more demanding dives, even seasoned divers have come to grief in apparently insignificant depths of water close to shore.
Knowing for ‘shore’.
Broadly speaking – and unlike boat diving, for example – shore diving tends to place a greater onus of planning responsibility on the individual diver. It’s not simply a case of finding a seemingly attractive spot and plunging in.
Many factors play a part before deciding on a site. Not least being the purpose of the dive? It might be to test out a new piece of equipment; to brush up on basic skills; observe and study marine life; practice u/w photography; or just to enjoy the natural underwater environment. But whatever its purpose some sites are better suited to shore diving than others.
Research is critical to the dive’s outcome. Check with others familiar with the area to determine the water depth; general environmental conditions; what sort of things to look for; and obstacles that might interfere with the successful completion of the dive. Study available charts and any articles written about the site and determine whether water entry – and exit – is from rocks or across a gradually shelving sandy beach. Remember, too, that in some instances the water depth can plummet to several hundred metres or more just a short distance from the low-water mark.
The weather plays a prominent role in deciding on a location. Where no natural shelter exists, exposure to a driving wind and cold rain can quickly turn what should be an enjoyable experience into a miserable one that has the potential, in colder climates, for the post-dive onset of hypothermia; a dangerous loss of body heat. Alternatively, conditions that offer little protection from strong sunlight can, in warmer climes, lead to overheating and rapid dehydration; a condition that influences the onset of DCS symptoms.
The ability to accurately gauge the sea state and the potential effects of tides and currents is paramount when shore diving. Waves and swell conditions that might still be acceptable, (albeit a little uncomfortable.) when diving from a boat take on a whole new perspective when, with their energy magnified by shallow waters, they crash onto the shoreline.
The state of the tide often has an influence on underwater visibility; an outgoing tide usually producing lower visibility than does the incoming flow. Divers also need to take into consideration the tidal variations that exist in different parts of the world. In some areas this can be as much as eight, or more, metres. Exit points that were easily accessed on an outgoing tide at the start of a dive, may well be beyond reach when it’s time to leave the water.
Currents can pose particular problems for shore divers. Longshore currents – those that run parallel with the shoreline – can carry divers far beyond the selected exit point; while the back-scattering effect of waves building up on a shoreline can produce strong rip currents to carry the unwary out to sea.
The logistics of shore diving are often more complex than those encountered when diving from a boat. On a good dive boat something as simple as a lost or perished ‘O’-ring is usually nothing more than a quickly remedied inconvenience, but to forget something so basic when shore diving miles from the nearest dive shop or resort could mean having to abort the dive.
At remote sites with no amenities, divers have to consider taking with them everything that they’ll need, (including drinking water, food and clothing). They also have to give particular consideration to emergency contact details and have in place a plan that allows for potentially slower response times should an incident occur.
There’s also the question of fitness. Putting on your gear and tumbling over the side of a boat is easy; carrying that same gear to the entry point – sometimes for hundreds of metres over a variety of terrains – requires a deal more stamina. The return journey requires even more`.
As with all forms of diving, planning is everything. Decide on a location and, if it’s feasible to do so, select a nearby alternate site should the primary not prove suitable. Ensure that there are no obvious restrictions on diving at the sites. (e.g. shipping lanes; military installations; water carnivals, etc.)
Employ a checklist to confirm that nothing is forgotten or left behind.
Before setting out for the dive site, check the weather forecast and the state of the tides. Ensure that somebody knows where you will be and what time you plan to return. (This is especially critical when diving in remote locations.)
Visually check the intended dive site on arrival and confirm entry and exit points, (having established at least one alternate exit point). Assess the sea conditions and decide on the most appropriate mode of entry. If any uncertainties exist, abort the dive.
Establish a suitable kitting up and equipment preparation area. When diving from a sandy beach the use of a groundsheet will help protect equipment from sand particles that might otherwise hinder performance.
Assign dive buddies; establish the purpose of the dive; depth, duration and gas supply parameters; review hand signals; confirm emergency procedures; and ensure that everybody is familiar with all aspects of the dive.
Carefully monitor the waves and surf conditions and always keep your eyes on the sea. Although the particular nature of the site will determine whether fins should be put on before or after entry, it’s general practice to have all of the gear in place before entering the water. (Even seemingly calm waters can produce waves that will knock a standing diver over; with fatal consequences if – as has happened – the diver’s cylinder valve becomes lodged in a rock crevice and they’ve failed to have the regulator in their mouth.)
Where surf conditions exist, negotiate the breakers as speedily as possible by swimming through them while holding the mask in place. Don’t struggle to stand up in breaking waves. Once through the surf zone inflate the BCD, rest and allow the breathing pattern to return to normal before beginning the dive.
Divers will usually start the dive swimming into a current and, depending on its strength, use the flow to carry them back to their exit point. In some instances they may elect to drift dive with the current. In either event a number of alternate downstream exit points should always be selected.
Where rip currents exist avoid the temptation to fight against them. Either swim horizontally across and out of the current or, alternatively, allow it to carry you back out to sea. Their strength is usually short lived and the diver can then swim diagonally back to the exit point.
If exiting through surf, divers should spread out and monitor the breaking waves. Once committed, place one hand on the facemask and hold the other arm straight out in front and slightly below the body to prevent collision with any obstacles. Hold onto rocks to prevent being carried back out to sea between wave sets and swim with the incoming breakers as far as possible up the shore before crawling on hands and knees well clear of the water line. Only then should the diver attempt to stand and remove equipment.
It’s an aspect of shore-diving that most people would rather ignore, but depending on the dive site’s proximity to urban areas, river estuaries, or – following a heavy rain-storm – run-off from the land, coastal waters may contain bacteria and pollutants; the reason that many regular shore divers employ medicated ear-drops after every dive.
Although there are no especial requirements in terms of personal equipment, shore diving usually involves a certain amount of walking. In that regard a pair of hard-soled dive booties are an investment and an insurance against cuts and lacerations. Such heavy-duty footwear, however, doesn’t usually lend itself to the use of full-foot fins which, in any event, are more likely to be lost during the rigours of a surfing entry or exit than the open-heel variety.
Similarly, a full body suit and gloves will help protect the wearer from cuts and abrasions dealt out by shell covered rocks.
A comprehensive spare-parts kit is a must, as is a diver’s First-Aid kit. Both require proper knowledge in their use. While replacing an ‘O’-ring, mask or fin-strap, and even a regulator hose, should be within every diver’s capabilities, never attempt more elaborate repairs unless you know what you’re doing. The sea will still be there tomorrow: make sure that you’re still around to enjoy it.
With the same potential for getting into deep water, (in both the literal and figurative sense) as boat diving, shore diving’s real attractions lie in the shallows. More vessels have come to grief on the rocks and beaches of coastlines than in open ocean waters; seldom seen, large pelagic species often choose to breed close into land; and for those who care to look there’s often a greater variety of exotic macro-life than is ever found in deeper waters.
More affordable than other forms of diving and with none of the time constraints imposed by busy boat schedules, it’s worth taking a leisurely look beneath the surface of your nearest stretch of coastline. You never know what discoveries await?