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March 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Personal Perspective on Dive Innovation

has the dive industry run out of new ideas?

from the March, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When diving as a sport emerged in the mid-1950s, almost all equipment had to be created from scratch or modified from similar activities such as surfing (think fins and wet suits). Because diving was a fringe-interest sport, the spark of innovation had to come from within since no real money from outside the industry was streaming into development. Like skiing or mountaineering, diving derived its biggest and best ideas from a cadre of committed, hardcore, first-generation innovators who pushed equipment design, technique and training protocols largely from their own desire to advance the sport. By the time I started diving in 1959 at Key West, new divers could wander into a handful of dive shops and purchase off-the-rack masks, fins, snorkels, tanks and regulators. The choices were few but the stuff worked pretty well for the most part.

In the 1960s, manufacturers and training agencies emerged that began to bring professionalism to the forefront. This fueled some spirited competition that helped drive innovations. When Dick Bonin and Gustav Della Valle founded Scubapro in 1963, no one knew it would become the most innovative diving company for nearly three decades. In the 1970s alone, they introduced the Jet Fin, the revered Mark V regulator with a flow-through first stage piston that dramatically improved breathing performance underwater, the first low-pressure BC inflator, the first silicone masks, the first analog decompression meter, the first integrated inflator/second stage device, and the venerable wraparound style BC called, simply, the Stabilizing Jacket.

Meanwhile, other companies came up with their own versions of equipment breakthroughs in wet suits, dry suits, diver propulsion vehicles, underwater camera housings and strobes, depth gauges, submersible pressure gauges, and a long list of accessory items that divers scrambled to buy. Meanwhile, retailers adopted vastly improved methods of training divers from early national certification agencies. Standardized certification smoothed out regional differences and by the early 1970s, training no longer consisted of a handful of lectures, a few pool skills and a single “check out” dive in the ocean or a quarry. The macho methods that tended to exclude women, older participants, and all but the most athletic were modified to bring a wider audience to the sport. Divers became more confident, better trained and wiser about safety.

In the 1980s, diving grew rapidly, sparking a revolution in manufacturers. Every show put on by the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) saw the introduction of new equipment previously unimaginable. Diving travel matured with the first modern liveaboards, exotic resorts and access to remote regions of the world’s best diving that had been previously accessible only to filmmakers and photojournalists.

The first modern electronic diving computers introduced in the early 1980s meant that divers would be free from the limitations of square dive tables and allowed on-the-fly dive planning in real time. Even so, some conservative industry members condemned computers and just about every innovation that followed. By the late 1980s, a bitter schism developed over whether diving computers, nitrox, technical diving, etc. should even be allowed in the sport. Further controversy raged about the supervision and control of experienced certified divers. Some places like the Cayman Islands implemented absurd rules that limited all divers to precise shallow depth limits and prohibited independent diving completely. This policy of setting the bar for all divers to the ability of the least experienced spread and participants reacted strongly. Diving magazines took sides with thinly veiled agendas based on pleasing advertisers.

Eventually, diving consumers voted with their intellect - - and their wallets. Resorts that restricted experienced divers floundered. Skin Diver magazine was sold as its “advertorial” business model crumbled and it folded a few years later. Even the Divers Alert Network (DAN), which had allowed its executive director Peter Bennett a soapbox on which to oppose just about every new idea that came down the chute, removed him and installed a refreshing policy of objective discourse based on actual scientific, medical and field evidence. Diving computers, nitrox, technical diving, and other innovations became mainstream. Suddenly, controversy stopped. It seemed Bennett’s ouster from DAN nearly a decade ago was the equivalent of the last dinosaur’s demise.

Do We Really Need Another Model of Split Fins?

Today, diving is still in its second generation. The leaders of the first generation are in their late seventies or eighties and many have passed on. Those of us who were part of the second generation of diving entrepreneurs are pushing 60. Many have cashed out and moved on, and with some of the best minds opting out, industry leadership has suffered.

I’ll turn 58 this year, too young to become an Andy Rooney-like curmudgeon, but I lament the days when manufacturing companies were run by real divers. What happened to the spirit of innovation? Have we run out of new ideas? Where are the new products that should be emerging from this exciting technological period? There has to be something more original than being able to listen to your iPod underwater. Most of the innovations achieved in the last five years are in applications of digital photography, and these have largely been borrowed from the camera technology industry. Sure, photography has been responsible for both creating new interest in our sport and keeping existing divers fired up and active. But where are the real next-generation innovations in diving equipment?

Where’s the next revolution in thermal protection? How about workable submersible tracking devices employing EPIRB and GPS locators for missing divers? Can’t we do better at downsizing equipment packages for use in warm-water regions? What happened to affordable advances in rebreather technology? And how come my fins wear out in a couple of years, when I still have a pair of old 1970s Jet Fins on a shelf with about 10,000 dives on them that may never give up the ghost?

It seems that the industry is engaged in a lackadaisical era of “tail-chasing” each other’s products without any real advancement. I mean, do we really need another model of split-fins? This “design breakthrough” may be the single biggest joke perpetrated on the diving consumer since someone tried to sell “buddy mirrors” back in the early 1970s. These gadgets attached to your tank pressure gauge or console so you could look over your shoulder to see where your buddy may have wandered off to or if he had been eaten by a marauding predator (a huge concern in the era of bang-sticks and shark-darts).

Yes, split fins are easier to kick. So are your bare feet. But if you want to go up-current or catch up with the disappearing whale shark, you want fins with some “oomph” that will do the work. Meanwhile, a new crop of divers buy these ridiculous things and then wonder why they can’t swim back to the boat when a little surface drift appears in opposition to their intended path. No one had that problem with Jet fins.

New Technology Should Mean More Affordable Gear

We live in an age of advancement in component resins, plastics and polymers that lessen weight and add strength and durability to fins, masks, BCs, wetsuits, etc. We have minuscule semi-conductors and micro-chips, almost endlessly variable algorithms for decompression computation and dive planning, but all that comes out the door is another version of the same stuff that was cutting-edge back in 1996 when I was running Uwatec. We led the world in diving computers then by integrating tank pressure transmitters to display screens, and added adjustable conservatism to deco models based on ascent rates, breathing workload and predicted skin temperatures, as well as programmable oxygen mixes. Computer screens displayed more vital information in larger fonts so middle-aged geezers could actually read them without bifocals. That wasn’t bad back then, but hell, we should have a computer by now that has an EPIRB, sonic alert, GPS, and an iPod built in. And just maybe it wouldn’t cost over $100 for a damn battery change.

Is there no way that a regulator can be simplified into a package that integrates with a BC so everything doesn’t dangle in a mess of hoses trailing beneath, behind or elsewhere? Why is it that Atomic seems to be the only company that can manufacture a regulator with a lifespan longer than bananas on your kitchen sink?

While high-definition televisions and DVD players have dropped nearly 70 percent in price in the past three years and almost every new car comes with a navigation system option at an affordable rate, the diving industry can’t seem to utilize the same technology applications to make gear more affordable -- and thus entice more people into the sport -- without the sometimes staggering initial price investment. So consumers opt for other pursuits that cost less. No wonder diving certifications are down and the sport is withering in participation.

Why can’t agencies and companies communicate database information with each other in order to share the consumer who takes a class with a magazine, a travel operator or a camera vendor? Oh no, those customers are sacrosanct, proprietary and are never to be shared with another entity, lest a potential sale be lost to a competitor. If DEMA would sponsor a consolidated database that could be accessed, how many more customers might buy things, go on trips, read a magazine, attend a dive show event, or access an online information site with tips on how to refine their photo technique? Or go see the latest Howard Hall underwater IMAX film with their family and get so turned on that they sign up for dive training? We would then come full circle and the training agency gets a new customer, along with the store that provides the lessons. That moves a sport forward and keeps the consumer informed and excited.

In today’s global economy, competitors are no longer limited to a 10- to 15-mile radius. The Internet changed the playing field and today’s consumer in Oklahoma is just as likely to make a purchase from a New Jersey, Florida or California vendor. Or even Europe or Asia. Dive businesses better get used to it - - information cannot be limited to the neighborhood dive retailer anymore. Use the technology, don’t whine about it.

“These Kids Today” Are the Next Innovators

I made it my practice in the professional diving industry to embrace innovation and technological advancement. It was good business to be on the leading edge whether in manufacturing, training, resorts, liveaboards, publishing or even writing the occasional piece for Undercurrent that tried to articulate objective assessments of various controversies. Now it seems the naysayers have faded away and left a playing field unfettered by their past obfuscation and deliberate misinformation campaigns. By all reasoning, we should be enjoying a renaissance in diving with all the current tools at our disposal. But I’m still waiting to be impressed.

Now this might sound like a snarky lecture on “these kids today” and “the good old days” but these kids are the next real innovators, having matured in an age of almost incomprehensible tools of knowledge and empowering information. The key is getting them interested in diving. And this is where the current “leadership” of the diving industry needs to step up. Diving is in decline as a sport. It has not acted decisively to attract today’s youth and has thusly undermined the sport’s growth. The active diver is an aging demographic. We need the teenagers and 20-somethings in diving. Their intellect and enthusiasm should not be limited to designing the next computer game.

I’m not optimistic that the current leadership is up to the task. About the only real diver left running a big manufacturing company is Oceanic founder Bob Hollis. And he’s just turned the corner on 70. Too many are largely run by accountants or others who only get their hair wet when they take a shower. Look at what happened to the once proud Scubapro line when the corporate suits decided to oust founder Dick Bonin; they haven’t produced a noteworthy product since. We need more leaders with saltwater in their hair -- and the vision to mentor the next generation of diving’s leaders.

The future of diving needs a proper generational hand-off, just like the baton in an Olympic relay race from one runner to the next. And the dive industry cannot afford any drops. I hope to see a smooth pass and the race continue. Then we can all take pride again as diving progresses into its third generation. The challenge lies with the current “leadership” to let the new players on the track and give them the coaching to succeed. If the industry is to regain its health, we have no other choice.

Bret Gilliam was the founder of TDI/SDI training agencies, Chairman of NAUI, CEO of Uwatec, and publisher of Scuba Times, Deep Tech and Fathoms magazines. He also operated Virgin Diver, one of the first Caribbean liveaboards, and ran Ocean Quest International, a 500-foot cruise ship dedicated to divers. He currently lives on a semi-private island in Maine. His most recent book is Diving Pioneers & Innovators: A Series of In-Depth Interviews. He can be reached at bretgilliam@gmail.com.

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