On Diving Deep, Breathing Air
  it’s what we did because that’s all we had

John BantinTwenty 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.

John Bantin

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19 thoughts on “On Diving Deep, Breathing Air<br>  <small><em>it’s what we did because that’s all we had</em></small>”

  1. Lots of information, but I don’t remember going deeper than “the limits” (130′, but usually no deeper than 90′.) In fact vis generally petered out below about 30 – 60 feet. I now hate the fact that I’m well with my 90’s – not depth; – age. Began this water-loving activity in 1968, and made my living in the wet with photo students (etc.)

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  2. Back in the old days we certainly dived beyond the strict limits set in modern recreational diving. And the way we dove is not to be any sort of example to todays divers on what you can “get away with”. Nor should it ever be taken as some macho diver sort of bragging. It was just the way we dove. If there is any redeeming lesson from this old style of diving it is the underlying assumption that todays diver will definitely benefit from being able to comfortably deal with any situation… e.g. where a non-decompression dive somehow ends up as a decompression dive, or where a diver understands the feeling of the onset of nitrogen narcosis or the state of being narked and the resolution. Having the attitude that if you restrict your diving profile you avoid these concerns so you don’t need to fully understand the full variety of diving physics a good diver needs to understand is in itself dangerous. I would say “dive within the limits” but never limit your understanding of the factors at work in diving.

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  3. An excellent article, and yes, it brings back a lot of great memories. Air was my bottom gas throughout my entire diving career. As I progressed to deeper wrecks (160 – 260 ft.) in North Atlantic wreck diving, I consulted Hal Watts (RIP) and received an education on best practices for deep diving on air. Yes, I carried the brick when it became available, but all of my dives were planned using the US Navy standard and extreme exposure tables, and I set them to the planned depth and one more bottom time increment than planned. In the later years of my diving career, I used 50/50 and O2 in combination for my decompression gases.

    The old mantra, “Plan your dive, and dive your plan” was my guide throughout my diving career, and I was fortunate to complete the dives safely every time. I’m reminded that there was some ‘luck’ involved in my dives throughout the years, any time I think about some of my fellow divers who did not return to the surface.

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  4. To paraphrase an Alaska bush pilot: “There are old divers, and bold divers, but no old & bold divers!”

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  5. Started Diving in July 1963. My “instructor” was not Certified. All of the course was doff and donn in a swimming pool, and I have not done that since. We buddy breathed with a doubled hosed regulator: not an easy task.
    Buddy Diving was purely social. We would buddy up, only to go our own way on the dive.See you back at the car. We dove without pressure gauges and had faith in our J valves that would bring us home. Weights were made in the kitchen , on the stove, with a mold.
    Mask, fins, and snorkle were under $20.00. What do they cost today ? I still have,and use,my single 72, that cost $1.00 to fill. I went on a live aboard boat,and dove the US Navy tables.
    All of the other live aboard divers used the Orca Edge: Not much better !

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  6. Hey John,

    loved your report on deep diving on air. You are right and it´s true, we “older” divers (born 1952 did my OWD 1974) did things differently to what´s beeing taught on the course. Often I had heard from friends about “getting narced” or of DCS, but for me so far these issues did not belong into my world, because so far I never suffered anything like it. Well, I sure was curious and wanted to check and find my limits. Once I went in Palau down to 62.5 m (single tank on air) where I noticed some call it “tingling in my brain” and stopped my descent thinking, okay, this seems to be it. A year later I again tried on a trip on the Thorfinn from Yap back to Chuuk. First day I went down slowly and looked onto my Aladin all the time. Again around 60 + m some tingling. The next day I covered my computer and went into the deep dark blue till my mind said, stop. I looked onto Alaldin, 70.5 m and no effects at all. Well this was a week of deep dives nearly every day so I guess your body somehow adjusts to this. Now I passed 70 (years not m) and slow down a bit. Still diving, but deep and cold gravel lakes at home have no attraction for me any more, same goes for wild rides out to Elphinston or Aliwal Shoals on the rubber part of the Zodiac, as I feel my bones are rubbing against each other, ouch. But diving in warm water – absolutely yes !!!

    Rating: 4.7/5. From 3 votes.
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  7. Your piece really resonated because I have just delivered a memoir of 50 years of diving to a group of Tasmanian divers celebrating the recent PADI Women in Diving day.
    Among my photos, records of my capillary depth gauge, my ‘sports’ life jacket with CO2 cylinder, and 5mm wetsuit (no gloves, hood or boots) for diving in 15 degree (60F) water.
    [To be read with a broad Yorkshire accent:] “We were so poor, we had to pump t’cylinders wit’ bicycle pump after school, and then lick t’gear clean wit’ tongue before going to bed.
    And you try and tell the young people of today that … they won’t believe you…”

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  8. Started diving in 1959. NAUI who? PADI what? Was certified by the City of Ft. Lauderdale Casino Pool. For what that was worth. (Much better than nothing).
    Work a summer as an instructor for the city. A few years later. Got certified as a PADI diver in 1979 when people would say the Casino Pool!!??
    1989 became a PADI Dive Master and then Instructor. Ran my own sail/dive business in the Caribbean. Made thousands of dives. Deepest on air 160 feet on the Bianca C off of Grenada. Great big fish dive. When nitros came along said, sure. Glad I did. Never did anything much over a hundred on Nitrox. Now 78, still dive, rarely over 60’. When computers came along I always tried to dive in the green and stay out of the yellow. Yeah, a pretty conservative diver. Part of the reason was that we often dove off of my own sail boat (completely self contained) in very remote areas. We were careful. Still diving occasionally, still careful.

    Rating: 4.8/5. From 5 votes.
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  9. Yes, the early days of recreational diving were full of mistakes. In the early ’70s I was on a boat for a week and the idea back then was to ‘train’ your body to ‘get used’ to nitrogen by doing increasingly deep dives. We capped off the week with a dive to 200 feet. The time limit, I believe, was 5 minutes and I remember looking at my dive watch during the dive and seriously worrying whether I could tell when 5 minutes were up. There was also a week of diving to 140 feet or so on some Bahamas island where I remember saying to my dive buddy I thought we were maybe double Z divers (we were using Navy dive tables). Whereupon we flew back to Miami in an unpressurized airplane. We both swore if we got back ok, we’d sign up for a dive course…which we did.

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  10. Your comments remind me, of first trips diving Truk, as many as 5 dives a day on air to 200 feet and the brick computer 25 years ago. Three decompression stops with hang times to get out of deco as long as an hour. Computer completely went into full deco on each dive regardless of depth.

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  11. The dive shop owner and guide we use in Cozumel, Edmundo Torres, tells the story of his attempts to compete in the Guinness Book of Records race you mention when he was a young, new diver. I think he said he trained at the Maracaibo site. I don’t remember the depths exactly but the were significantly over 400 feet on a single tank (80cf?). He said he had broken the standing record but before he could get a response from Guinness, someone broke it, and then someone else broke that. I asked him once what kind of setup he had–safety divers, extra safety tanks on ropes, etc. He told me that he had witnesses but none of that other stuff. I kind of checked out his stories with some other old guys down there who were still diving and they generally verified what Edmundo told me.

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  12. John is absolutely correct – go as deep as your specific need for this dive, AND re-evaluate that requirement each dive. There was a diver on the Turks & Caicos Aggressor a few years ago that went to ~125 feet on each dive. Not for a specific reason, just to prove he could. On the third morning, he had a rash covering the right side of his rib cage – skin bends. Fortunately, 100% O2 and 24-36 hours out of the water cleared it – but ate up a bunch of his vacation.
    Started diving in 1981 – the same summer BCD’s took over from horse-collars. Now 73 year-old Master Scuba Diver and still diving a few trips each year.
    What amazes me is that new divers think the tables (and computer limits) just appeared out of thin air. They don’t realize the vast number of young, fit USN sailors were thrown into the seas as guinea pigs in years of experiments to see what worked OK and what was less than optimal.
    Another reason to say thanks to our men and women in the Armed Forces.

    Rating: 4.5/5. From 4 votes.
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  13. Back in the 1970’s, to get an advanced diver card from NAUI through Humboldt State College (as it was called then) in California, one had to make a free ascent (drop your regulator, blow out as you go up) from 60 feet. We also made beach entries into 55 degree water NORTH of San Francisco. But hey, I was a teenager!

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  14. Deep air diving is possible with educated information and personal confidence. Risk verses reward is a personal decision. I too have been diving since 1968. NAUI Instructor 1971 to 1978. Registered Water Safety Instructor from 1966 to 1980. I’ve have experiences diving in lakes, gravel pits, salvage, search and rescue, Caribbean ,French Polynesian Islands, Thailand, Puget sound, ice diving. Florida, Cozumel, Isle Mujeres, California, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts and Canada. My first deep dive was with 2 Navy seals who made me memorize the US Navy dive tables. Dive Computers are fine until they give out or aren’t right. Computers don’t take into account each individuals lung volume, breathing pace, exertion, or panicked breathing. Computers don’t register effects of excess body fat that absorbs Nitrogen for a longer period of time.
    Again,.deep diving is possible with educated information and personal confidence. And don’t go deep expecting to risk others lives to rescue you,..

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  15. Much enjoyed remembering those days.
    The last time diving the San Francisco Maru we had either CCR or 3 gases.

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  16. Excellent article that brings back fond memories of that era.

    Rating: 5.0/5. From 2 votes.
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  17. When I started diving 1990. I had a bumper sticker. “” Remember when sex was safe & diving was Dangerous “.

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  18. The only reason to go deep is you have a specific need to. I dove the San Franciso Maru in Truk at the age of 68 to get the photo of the jap tanks on her deck. It was a 149 foot planned dive on EAN 26. Stayed too long and ducked into it’s cargo hold to take a peak (stupid thing to do) and max depth ended up being 179 and a deco dive. Plenty of safety air, my PPP of 1.4 was blown but not my 1.6. Just did what my computer told me to do. I have approx 6000 logged dives and am a Instructor Trainer and now 74. Started diving in Maine in 1971 with a YMCA card, a “horse colar” for a vest diving for scallops.

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  19. Excellent piece and reflections on another era!

    Rating: 5.0/5. From 4 votes.
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