Beach Diving: Safe Entries and Exits

Divers enter the water from the land, sea and air. For those entering from land, a surf zone is frequently part of the equation. When evaluating a prospective entry site, there are a few aspects of these land-sea interfaces that require consideration.

There are three essential types of beach entries divers commonly encounter that are described based on key identifying features: long slow sloping beaches, short steep sloping surf zones and rocky beach areas. Each environment tells a great deal about what a diver is likely to see underwater and the techniques that should be used to traverse the waves and various entry and exit hazards safely.
The slow sloping beach
These environments are defined by a wide surf zone. As the bottom slopes very gradually, wave energy is spread out over a long distance and a diver is usually unable to get underwater quickly due to prolonged shallow depths. Such beaches are surfer favorites due to long-lasting waves to ride, but they can pose a hazardous entry for divers because they require remaining vulnerable on the surface long enough to face incoming waves.

Before entering the water, evaluate the behavior of the waves. Long surf zones can expose a diver to repeated waves that can keep a diver pinned in the zone or knock them over. These areas also commonly require long surface swims before sufficient diving depth is achieved. Another clue about wave action is the quality of the sand: As wave action is spread throughout a long distance, the grains of sand tend to be fine. Prior to suiting up, observe the wave action and determine if the waves are too big to navigate safely. Rough water not only makes the surf zone unpleasant, it also indicates poor water clarity and significant surge, especially at shallower depths, each of which is a legitimate reason to forego diving. If conditions are favorable, time your entry during lulls or gaps in wave sets.
The short, steep surf zone

Steep-slope entries will produce a shorter surf zone with waves that rise and curl rapidly. Wave energy is consolidated into a shorter space, so each wave is more powerful. Divers tend to prefer such beaches because if they time their entry during a lull, they can get through the surf zone quickly and into water deep enough to submerge. Visibility tends to be better in these locations and the surface swims are usually fairly short. The tradeoff is that the waves are much stronger both on ingress and egress. In addition, if the entry is sloped, the exit is an uphill trek on wet sand, which requires more energy exertion whether walking or crawling.

On entry, minimize wave impact by turning sideways as you enter the water. This reduces your personal surface area exposed to the force of incoming waves. During a shore entry in surf, securely holding onto your buddy can assist both of you as you navigate the surf. Carry your fins and wade into the water. Inflate your BCD to establish positive buoyancy as depth increases and your feet no longer touch the bottom. Once deeper water is achieved, don your fins. Conversely, on egress remove your fins as you approach the surf zone, but before the depth is shallow enough for footing. Allow the waves to carry you in feet first, and when you can touch bottom, work with the waves to move toward your exit point. Timing and awareness are essential to compensate for the sudden weight of your gear as your feet hit bottom and the waves recede.

If you are knocked down by a wave while entering, it is usually best to stay down. Keep your regulator in your mouth and decide whether you are still up for diving. If so, deflate your BCD and quickly crawl toward deeper water. If on the other hand, you realize the waves are too big for your comfort, make the safe decision and head toward shore. Keep your regulator in your mouth and crawl back to shore or turn sideways to the incoming waves and work into an upright position to exit. There is no shame in calling off a dive. Surf zones can be unkind and it is best to regroup away from their influence.
The rocky beach

Divers entering from breakwaters and steep rocky areas generally seek entry points without waves so as to minimize the risk of injury. Despite this, such areas still have surge and also the inherent hazard of slipping on rocks. Extra care is needed when getting in and out of the water. In environments where you can sit at the water's edge, be sure your regulator is in place, your BCD is inflated and your fins are on. Time your entry with the upsurge of water and allow it to carry you away from the rocks. Once clear, kick away from the rocks to prevent being pushed back into them. To egress, reverse this process: Surface away from the rocks, inflate your BCD and time your approach during a lull in surge action. Once at your exit point, allow the upsurge to help you up onto the rocks. After you are safely out of the water, remove your fins and carefully exit the area.
Natural navigation
Surf zones can be disorientating and a rattled diver may lose their sense of direction. Fortunately, beach diving provides divers with certain natural clues that can assist in navigation. Ripples run parallel to shore along sandy bottoms providing the diver with essential information regarding orientation. Rocky bottoms do not always provide such clues. Divers may need to use a compass, identify underwater features or key in on local rock formations that extend from the land into the water, which provide a stable and useful reference point. In areas with kelp, surge action runs perpendicular to the shore and helps to indicate your egress point.
There are two primary currents that divers should be aware of: rip and longshore. Rip currents form from channels of fast moving water and run perpendicular to a beach. If caught in one, remember that they do not usually extend very far and divers can successfully manage them by swimming in a perpendicular direction away from the current.

Rip currents form from channels of fast moving water and run perpendicular to a beach.

As the name implies, longshore currents run along a shore. These currents may not be apparent from the surface and will often push a diver away from their entry point.

Whether diving from a boat or beach, such currents may be recognized from the surface by looking at the direction of anchored boats, angle of waves as they hit the beach or direction of kelp. In areas of known kelp beds, the presence of currents is suggested when all surface evidence of the kelp bed vanishes beneath the water.

Longshore currents may not be apparent from the surface and will often push a diver away from their entry point.

Beach divers may choose to accommodate these currents by entering "upstream" and enjoying a drift dive. As with boat diving, the other option is to start the dive against the current and turn around at the midpoint of the dive plan. Either option can be used.
Shore diving safety
Every shore entry is unique and many beaches are comprised of combinations of these general types. Beach diving can be fun and is often less expensive than boat diving, but it also presents unique challenges. If you have never done beach entries, it is best to find a local instructor or experienced diver to provide proper instruction. Talking with local dive shops is another good way to find locations that match your skills and abilities. Unlike charter dives, beach dives do not come with the assistance of experienced divemasters, helpful crew or first aid supplies. When selecting a location, think about what you would do in an emergency. In addition to having your cell phone, locate the nearest lifeguard station or road access point where emergency medical services could meet you, if necessary; these are all important planning steps to take prior to entering the water.

If lost or uncertain of your orientation relative to the shore, safely ascend to the surface, get a bearing and either descend again or surface swim to your exit point. Boat traffic is another consideration, and at most locations divers are expected to indicate their presence underwater with a flag or float.

Dive safety begins with preparation. Know your limitations, have a plan for how you and your buddy will handle contingencies like separation, calling a dive or handling an injury. In addition, be aware of local regulations that may prohibit diving and identify any necessary considerations for hazardous marine life or conditions.

Regardless of the type of beach entry, surveying the conditions, assessing your readiness to dive the specific site as well as planning for options in case of an emergency or missed exit point are essential safe shore diving practices. Conditions can change without warning. Defer to your experience, knowledge of the area, personal limitations, and those of your dive buddies.