Drift Diving Means Currents

By R.C. Blackburn

I knew plenty about Cozumel’s clear blue waters and dazzling array of sea life, but I’d also heard the island was famous for drift diving—and visions of this effortless activity were all I needed to buy a round-trip ticket.
Drift diving was a style of scuba I’d never experienced. However, those visions of effortless diving quickly faded whenever I wanted to gaze at a sponge or eavesdrop on a school of wrasse. I can usually hold my own in currents, but I often found myself going with the flow of the colossal, unstoppable force of the ocean. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the dives and quickly learned to conserve energy, expending it only when absolutely necessary. Grabbing hold of a rock or ducking behind a coral head were simple techniques that proved invaluable.
On the third day, we decided to do a night dive so that left the day open. We did our two-tank morning boat dive and snorkeled around in the afternoon. Dinner on Cozumel can be very tasty if you know where to go. We feasted on our usual Neptunian banquet—with all the trimmings—for a modest price. Bellies full, we headed back to the hotel to kick back for a while. After our food had a chance to digest, we gathered our gear and headed for adventure.
Our dive plan consisted of swimming out to the sunken plane, browsing around a bit and returning to shore. Bob was the first one in. I quickly jumped in and proceeded to check all my gear. Chaz was taking his time and hadn’t entered the water yet. Moments later, I found myself drifting towards the international pier. Bob and Chaz were on their way to the plane when I found myself getting sucked farther and farther away. I proceeded to deflate my BC and descend. With flashlight in hand, I saw seaweed and other particles racing by.
Porpoising to the top to get a look, I saw that I was now even farther away from my buddies and even closer to the cruise ships. I managed to get down to 10 or 11 feet, but I just couldn’t kick hard enough to stay in place or get out of the current. I attempted to grab onto a large rock, but in the blink of an eye, the current swept me and the rock away like a feather in the wind. With each huff and puff, I filled my lungs to the brim. As you can imagine, this was not helping me stay down. Panic was starting to set in. I had used my flashlight to indicate to my buddies I was in trouble, but they were so far away they thought I was just sweeping the terrain.
I started kicking like hell in a line to the shore. What seemed like an eternity was less than 15 minutes, but finally I saw the lights of the restaurant and knew I was close enough to be out of danger.
Lungs on fire and muscles aching, I crawled out of the water and removed my gear, trying to keep dinner from coming up and fearing the worst for Bob and Chaz. Like clockwork, I watched diver after diver come out of the water detailing horror stories of their plight against the current, but still no Chaz or Bob. Now I really started to panic.
Maybe 10 minutes had passed when I saw Chaz walking along the shore toward me. Relieved, I asked him where Bob was, and he said they had been at the plane taking pictures when he was suddenly caught in a current taking him in the opposite direction. No matter how hard he fought, he couldn’t win against the current. He tried to signal Bob, but he didn’t notice Chaz drifting away. Chaz surfaced and found himself floating near our resort. He grabbed onto some surface lines and pulled himself to shore.
That night tested the strength of our friendship. The bottom line was that we failed to plan our dive and dive our plan. When the current proved too much, we should have aborted the dive—as a group. The whole purpose of diving with buddies is to watch each other’s back.
The brilliant visual contrasts in night diving are usually a real feast for the eye, but this misadventure cast an eerie shadow over our Cozumel trip. Needless to say, I didn’t do a night dive for the rest of the week.