Technical Diving

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John BantinAt DEMA one year, I met an elderly Frenchman based in Bonaire who exhibited paintings of all manner of wrecks that lay there. When questioned about them, it seemed that most lay well beyond one-hundred feet deep. When I asked him if he used trimix for these dives he retorted as only a Frenchman can, “Mon Dieu, I ’ave been diving for fifty years!”

I took that be a “No.”

It was many years ago when I took up scuba diving. I was in my thirties and was soon diving independently with friends from my own boat with air-fills from my own compressor. In order to add more safety I soon equipped myself with two tanks and although they had a manifold, I used two independent regulators so that I was effectively diving with two independent aqualungs on my back. I had stumbled across ‘redundancy’. I regularly dived to two-hundred feet this way and thought nothing of it.

Once I got into diving professionally I soon made friends with erstwhile exploratory cave diver Rob Palmer who advocated this method of diving together with the added long-hose to make emergency air sharing more comfortable. He had coined the term ‘technical diving’.

One thing led to another and he introduced me to another new idea. It was adding extra oxygen to our air so that it displaced some of the nitrogen and made it safer. Dick Rutkowski had thought of this and called it “Nitrox” although at that time we had to keep secret what we were doing or risk being pilloried by the rest of the diving community.

Sometimes we dived to two-hundred-and sixty feet with air and used a stronger Nitrox mix to speed decompression on the way up.

Soon under Rob’s guidance I was adding helium too and with this exotic mix of gas (trimix) so achieved and we dived to depths that I had thought unimaginable a few years before. Later, Rob, together with Bret Gilliam and others, started a technical diving training agency. It was one of several.

By now I was an esteemed diving journalist and I was using prototype closed-circuit rebreathers as well as early production models so I suppose you could say I was a ‘technical diver’. However, the main core of my diving consisted of dive trips to the tropics and, alongside every other diver there, used a single tank and conventional BC.

New training agencies came on the scene and adopted technical diving equipment configurations as standard procedure. Some of these owed their ancestry to Florida cave explorers but they adopted the ideas developed there for general diving. (I’m not saying they were doing it wrong.)

Manufacturers rose to the challenge of a marketing opportunity and produced technical diving equipment that was sold in large quantities, mainly to people who liked the idea but really didn’t need it. One manufacturer even developed its own training agency to promote its products – or that is how it seems.

The best dive in Truk Lagoon for me in that of the San Francisco Maru but it’s a bit deep. My computer read more than two-hundred feet in the depths of the holds. I know of younger divers who have been to Truk but missed this dive because they were not technically trained. My wife and I have both dived it (more than once) using one tank of air for the deep part, switching to a separate Nitrox tank as soon as we were shallow enough. It isn’t rocket-science. It’s the old technique taught me by Rob.

In the UK there are a number of inland sites (with limited depths) where you will see many ‘technical divers’ practicing with technical diving configurations of their kit. They even use helium mixes when it is really not necessary, but they are happy! Practise makes perfect. Internet forums are filled with people advising newcomers to get a back-plate and a wing and a diving computer that with handle multiple mixes of both Nitrox and trimix on dives.

It is now generally believed by a younger generation of divers that if you go deeper than thirty-metres breathing air, you will die. That is the idea they have been sold. They simply do not believe the seemingly outrageous claims of diving pioneers like Bret Gilliam and Joe Odom that they have been deeper. At the same times, training agencies sell specialist courses that will provide the diver with the techniques needed to go beyond that depth. Of course, there will always be an element of the diving population who are not competent to be in the water at any depth!

You can pay for a course to do anything nowadays. Now semi-retired, I now work in London’s largest dive store. When an American friend visited the store and asked me about diving in Britain, he asked if he’d need a drysuit. I strongly advised him to get someone to show him how to use it before he got into trouble with it. A young and newly qualified instructor also working in the store interrupted and told he would not be allowed to buy a drysuit unless he had done a PADI drysuit course. This is patently untrue. In the UK we do not even check if people are certified to dive before we can sell them equipment. It may be different elsewhere.

While I’m not disrespecting getting trained, don’t lets make diving more complex than it really is. In the UK the water is so cold that everyone uses a drysuit, but that is not ‘technical diving’.

We recently calculated that only about one-percent of divers world-wide made technical dives. The fact of the matter is that most of you dive with a single tank at depths shallower than one hundred feet – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t be misled by those vociferous Internet divers who extol the virtues of back-plate and wing and insist you need a complex helium-mix computer because ‘you are going to need one eventually’. They probably never go deeper than the depth of their nearest lake!

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2 comments for “Technical Diving

  1. September 4, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Only having met smiling Mr. Bantin once at the DEMA trade show I have reveled in his on spot and humorous writing ever since :)

    Truer words on where “sport” diving is today were never spoken. Please keep the insights coming!

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  2. Matt
    April 20, 2016 at 5:07 am

    Great words.
    Dive agencies that allow divers to Pay And Dive Immediately are always looking for new cash grab opportunities in the form of specialty courses. I’m eagerly awaiting the Nuclear Power Plant Intake Diver Specialty Course and the NYC Deep Sewer Naturalist Specialty Course to become available.
    Those same dive agencies seem to be fostering a culture of divers that believe without a c-card, you can’t do anything beyond AOW.

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