Twenty years ago I met an old French diver at the DEMA show who was displaying oil paintings of various wrecks he’d dived in Bonaire. I didn’t recognize any of them and he told me where they were to be found. They were all very deep. I asked him if he used a helium mix to get that deep, to which his angry retort was “I have been diving for 50 years!”
As we get older, those of us that survived, marvel at the risks we took when we were younger.
It’s undeniable that fewer accidents happen to scuba divers nowadays as the knowledge about the physiology has increased, but more noticeable is how scuba diving training has been slimmed down to be made available on a need-to-know basis – it’s the way the world learns to dive, and it has popularized diving.
Like many Undercurrent subscribers, I go back a few more years than many and I vividly remember senior members of the British Sub-Aqua Club inviting me to a meeting to explain to them about this unfamiliar training agency PADI. After listening patiently, one suggested that few people would learn to dive that way. How wrong he was!
In those days, the only breathing gas available to us was compressed air. Part of our regular training was the precautions we were to take to avoid suffering from the bends. That involved using the RNPL decompression tables and routinely making decompression stops during an ascent. It was fraught with danger and mistakes were made, sometimes fatal.
However, it was the multiple hazards of nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness, and poor air supply management that were the bogeymen. Oxygen toxicity was, we believed, something only suffered by WW2 frogmen who used pure-oxygen rebreathers.
So if the ‘narks’ didn’t get you, the limitations of the quantity of air you could take with you meant that there were depth restrictions. We routinely used twin cylinders and went to 200 feet deep without a care in the world, provided we had a regulator that worked well enough.
That was nothing. By this time, numerous divers had been pushing the depth limits and Neal Watson in the Bahamas declared himself a Guinness Book of Records depth record-holder for diving on air to 437 feet deep, only to soon be eclipsed by Bret Gilliam who surpassed everyone by going to 452 feet deep in Roatan, and then later surpassed that with a dive on air to 475 feet breathing nothing but straight air.
Of course, that sort of thing is not for everyone. I was present in the Bahamas once when Bret Gilliam, Joe Odom, and Bob Raimo went for a deep dive. I don’t know how deep they went (using air) but Raimo reported nearly passing out at 330 feet on the way back up. Gilliam and Odom had no such problem. Everyone’s physiology is different.
Over in Egypt, where leisure diving had taken off in the calm clear waters of the Red Sea, a culture of deep diving grew among those who understood it only to be a matter of air-supply management. The remembrance plaques on the cliffs near the Blue Hole at Dahab bear testimony to the number of European divers who got it wrong.
I even witnessed Rob Palmer do four consecutive daily dives to nearly 400 feet from an Egyptian liveaboard before the fifth one killed him.
But by now most of the world was learning to dive in a different way. People were not taught about making deco-stops but instead were told to “Ascend slowly from every dive”. They were told that there was a depth limit of 100 feet, and one could only go deeper to 130 feet “in an emergency” although no such actual emergencies were properly defined.
So a new generation of divers evolved who rarely went deeper than 60 feet, they were told to always have no-stop time remaining on their computers and believed they would die instantly if they passed 130 feet.
By this time we started regularly comparing the performance of regulators for UK’s Diver Magazine. The new-fangled ANSTI machine tested them to 180 feet, so I regularly went with teams of divers to that depth to compare regulator performances. Of course, I was careful to choose competent divers, who could undertake the job and make comprehensive and coherent notes while they were at depth.
There were now many who ‘learned the way the world learned to dive’ and attempted to pillory us for our endeavors because they had been taught that 100 feet deep was the maximum depth that was safe.
The first time I went to Bonaire, I was amused to observe that I knew when I got back up to 60 feet from deeper without looking at my computer, because of the noise of all the regulators of divers for whom that was an absolute depth limit. PADI later added the 15-feet safety stop as part of the diving routine to counter the possibility of some less disciplined divers hurtling straight to the surface and hurting themselves.
Since then, the demand to go deeper has spawned the emergence of technical diving agencies which promise to get you deeper by means of multiple tanks of different gas mixes, including helium, and complex dive plans. Even PADI now offers technical diving courses.
The days of photographing the wreck of the Colona IV outside Safaga at 250 feet deep, with Rob Palmer (later lost on a deep air dive when he was last seen passing 400 feet) have faded with the passing of time, but I still possess the color transparencies.
So where does this take us? Dive within your own limitations. If 60 feet is your depth limit, stick to that. You are only diving for pleasure. Don’t risk your life. Save enough gas to make that deco-stop if your computer demands it. Always ascend slowly from every dive and make a safety stop at 15 feet before heading for the surface.
But when an older diver regales people with tales of going deeper back in the day, remember, those that weren’t competent to do that either didn’t — or didn’t survive.