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Dive, Learn, Eat: Rebreather Meeting in Italy

How would you like to spend four days with a group of passionate adventurers on an island in southern Italy, diving rebreathers on submerged seamounts, getting briefed by some of the biggest diving brains on the planet, and eating to your heart’s content? Thought so! Unfortunately, you missed it. But here are the some of the highlights and takeaways presented by InDepth’s executive editor who was in attendance. Hey someone had to go.

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by Michael Menduno

May 1, 2019—Nearly three dozen rebreather aficionados made the biannual trek to Ponza, Italy, a picturesque island in the Tyrrhenian Sea about a three-hour journey from Rome. They were there for the sixth International Rebreather Meeting organized by Andrea Donati, owner of Ponza Diving Center, and his partner Daniela Spaziani. The goal of the four-day meeting, which was sponsored by a number of manufacturers and organizations, including JJ CCR, Shearwater, DAN Europe, Società Italiana Medicina Subacquea e Iperbarica (SIMI), and the Italian rebreather users’ association CCR Italia, was to provide the latest research and information to the rebreather community.

Photo by Peter Symes.

“They’re passionate tech divers hungry for information,” explained Dr. Simon Mitchell, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, who was one of the presenters. “That’s what I love about these types of meetings. I am happy to be here and share what I know.”

Taking a cue from the hyperbaric medical community, the meeting was organized to appeal to diver sensibilities; diving in the morning (8:30 a.m.- 2:00 p.m.), and lectures and discussion in the afternoon (3:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.) followed by dinner and drinks (9:00p.m. – 11:30 p.m. or later).

Dive Right In!

Donati and his crew did a masterful job of supporting more than twenty rebreather divers bearing scooters, cameras, and bailout bottles, along with a few open circuit divers, without incident. Their enthusiastic attitude and thoughtful attention to detail, whether it was solving specific problems with individual’s rebreathers, or bringing in attendees dry suit underwear hanging on the exterior of the boat before the after dinner rain hit, helped the operation run smoothly and efficiently while feeling relaxed. They were aided by Ponza Diving’s ubiquitous mascot, an amicable large black matif named Ugo.

The boat, which was docked just outside of the dive shop, headed out each morning around 8:30 a.m., as divers huddled over Italian espresso and fresh bread after prepping their breathers. Interestingly, as we were loading up the boat on the first day there, Donati made a point of warning both me and Peter Symes, publisher of X-Ray magazine, to go easy on the coffee. “It can kill you,” he said with all seriousness, citing an American diver who had a heart attack underwater after consuming too many cups of espresso. The boat then made its way to one of the numerous submerged seamounts covered in soft corals surrounding the island, where it would anchor for the morning dive.

Photo by Marco Sieni.

Our morning dives were typically 165-261 ft/50-80m deep with one-to-two-hour run times. Visibility was 50-65 ft/15-20 m and water temperature was about 58-60°F/15-16°C. Following each dive, we were treated to a multi-course lunch, which usually included soup, fish, cephalopods, rice, pasta, bread, salad, and dessert, along with the requisite pitcher of wine and more espresso. After lunch, the boat headed back to port, where we prepped gear for the next day’s dive.

Where’s The Manzo, err Beef?

While rebreather diving in Ponza was clearly the attraction that brought people together, the presentations, given by some of the community’s leading scientists, engineers, and practitioners were the meat of the meeting. (Are you detecting a pattern here?) Our group met in an old stone chapel up the hill from the dive shop. Headphones were available for sequential English and Italian translation.

One of the themes that emerged from the meeting was the role of human factors, i.e. the way we process and act on and or fail to act on information, and its impact on diving safety. This is a deep body of knowledge that was developed in the aviation and healthcare fields and is now being applied to diving largely through the efforts of pioneer Gareth Lock at The Human Diver. Several of us noted that human factors were being discussed in the absence of the seemingly ubiquitous Lock, was a sign that this important work was beginning to gain traction. Here are some of the highlights.

Photo by Peter Symes.

Training Doesn’t Work: Technical Diving International (TDI) Rebreather Instructor, Instructor Trainer, and author Mark Powell began with a list of ten improvements in rebreather diving that he would like to see from a community perspective; things like better buoyancy control, the increased use of checklists, and more attention to bailout planning. He then asked the question, “Why hasn’t training made a difference?” That is, why hasn’t training produced permanent observable changes in divers’ behavior in these areas? The answer, documented by numerous studies, is that humans aren’t very good at retaining information.

The solution: deliberate practice of essential skills. “People tend to practice things they like and are good at, which is not very helpful,” Powell explained, noting that practicing things that are very difficult to do doesn’t work either. “The sweet spot,” he said, “is practicing things that are challenging.” He recommended that divers practice something on every dive! Sounded very GUE to me.

In-water Recompression (IWR): The use of in-water recompression to treat divers at remote locations has long been controversial, and until recently the hyperbaric medical community has failed to reach a conclusion regarding its efficacy. But as Simon Mitchell explained, the situation has now changed as a result of a new paper, “In-Water Recompression”, he co-authored with Dr. David Doolette, a decompression physiologist at the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit (and a GUE diver). The two were able to find evidence not previously reported that answers two key questions:

  1. Does early recompression improve outcomes? (i.e. recompressing an injured diver within minutes vs hours)
  2. Is shallower, shorter recompression effective? (Note that IWR typically compresses the diver on 100% oxygen to 30 ft/9 m vs. a USN Table 6 to 60 ft/18 m.)

Based on U.S. Navy data derived in part from early research on treatment protocols, Mitchell and Doolette were able to answer both questions strongly in the affirmative. The new recommendation: A diver should be treated with IWR if a chamber is more than two hours away and the team is set up to provide IWR (i.e. has proper equipment such as full face mask and training, support, environmental conditions, and appropriate patent status).

Defensive Dive Profiling/Concerns for Aging Divers

Dr. Neal Pollock, research chair in hyperbaric and diving medicine at Université Laval, gave a pair of eye-opening lectures on the potential long-term impacts of decompression stress, what can be done, and the prospects for aging divers. Was he talking about us?

Photo by Marco Sieni.

Pollock began by citing studies that found lesions in the brain and spinal cord have been observed with higher frequency in individuals with a history of repeated decompression stress. Bone lesions have also been found in commercial divers. The factors shown to increase the risk of dysbaric osteonecrosis in commercial divers were: a history of inadequate or experimental decompression, diving deeper than 165 ft/50 m, and a history of decompression sickness (DCS). The conclusion: while dysbaric osteonecrosis has largely been eliminated in commercial diving due to procedural changes, decompression stress poses a potential long-term risk factor for technical divers! Divers need to think about immediate and long-term risk.

As a result, Pollock, who is known for doing extra deco, encouraged divers to do longer shallow decompression adding, “It can’t hurt. It can only help.” Specifically, he recommended several ways of adding conservatism: using conservative gradient factors, primarily reducing GF-high, buffering the dive by slowing down on the final ascent to the surface following the last high pO2 stop, delaying exercise post-dive, extending surface intervals to add more time for recovery, using appropriate gasses (Yes, “air is for tires!”), choosing appropriate partners with similar risk tolerances, and maintaining good physical fitness.

The bottom line for aging divers; there is no upper age limit, though there may come a point where you need greater support. Be forewarned! Note, there were several post 65-year-old divers making the plunge at Ponza!

Presenters: L to R: Dott. Pasquale Longobardi, president of SIMI, TDI instructor trainer Mark Powell, Dr. Simon Mitchell, professor of anesthesiology, University of Auckland, New Zealand, Dr. Neal Pollock, research chair in hyperbaric and diving medicine at Université Laval, Dott. Alessandro Marroni, president of DAN Europe, Shearwater founder Bruce Partridge, DAN Europe research supervisor Massimo Pieri and Eduardo Pavia, owner of Sea Dweller Divers.

Human Factors In Rebreather Diving: Mitchell began by noting that human factors were the most important, but also the hardest, path to improving safety in rebreather diving. He then posed the question: Is there a safety problem with rebreather diving?

Mitchell began by reviewing what we know about rebreather safety based on the ground-breaking 2012 paper by Dr. Andrew Fock analyzing recreational rebreather deaths 1998-2010, to wit: There were approximately 20 deaths/year for 2000-2010 from a population, which was then estimated to be about 18,000 rebreather divers based on agency certifications. That means that the fatality rate for rebreather diving was estimated to be about 133 deaths/100,000 divers/year compared to about 16 deaths/100,000 divers/year for open circuit diving. The conclusion: rebreather diving was about 10x more hazardous than open circuit scuba. Note, there is currently a follow up study underway to determine if things have improved.

Mitchell broke down the causes of rebreather fatalities into three buckets:  

• Hazards of advanced diving

• Rebreather equipment failures

• Diver error and violations

Overwhelmingly, most incidents arose from diver errors (Trying to do the right thing but doing the wrong thing) and violations (Knowingly creating unnecessary risk of harm to yourself and others, and expecting to get away with it). “I have made errors and violations in my rebreather diving,” Mitchell offered to the assembled group of divers, “and I bet you have too.”

What’s to be done?

Mitchell reviewed several fatalities involving violations, like diving with two-year old oxygen sensors, or using a type of sorb not specified by the manufacturer. He said that we needed to remove the motivation for violations. This involves a culture change: Make safe choices be seen as a strength versus a weakness. Training, mentoring, and role modeling are critical in this regard.

Typical errors might include forgetting to analyze one’s gas, forgetting to turn on the rebreather or open the oxygen valve, or leaving out an O-ring on the scrubber. In fact, each of these errors has resulted in multiple fatalities. Mitchell said that pre-dive checklists are the primary means for preventing errors. As a testament to the power, he cited a study analyzing the impact of using checklists in surgical suites: Deaths were reduced by 50% after the introduction of checklists, and as Mitchell pointed out, these were among highly trained professionals. He then cited a DAN study of some 2041 dives examining the impact of pre-dive checklist use on scuba mishaps; mishaps, including rapid ascents and low/out of air were reduced by 36%.

Photo by Michael Menduno.

The barriers to using checklists?

First, misunderstanding about their purpose; checklists are not meant to replace a manual! Second, arrogance/ignorance; I can do it from memory, or I don’t make mistakes. Checklists can be supported by training, practice, and engineering.

Interestingly, after the meeting I asked one of the Italian rebreather divers if he used a checklist on our dives. “My instructor taught me to do it by memory,” the diver told me, “So that is what I do. I haven’t had any problems.” Until he does, and therein lies the problem.

Bruce Partridge, founder of Shearwater Research, also focused his talk on human factors and changing divers’ behaviors. He began by talking a little about the history of Shearwater, which got it start making rebreather controllers before venturing into dive computers. He then discussed the work involved in assuring that rebreather sub-systems like controllers meet safety requirements as part of the CE 14143 standard, which they published in a 2013  IEEE paper. Partridge said he believed that the CE 14134 standard was a really good thing for the rebreather industry. Interestingly, he pointed that there were approximately 600 failure modes possible on a rebreather, however, only 40 were equipment related; the remainder involve diver errors.

Explorer Edoardo Pavia, owner of Sea Dweller Divers, also spoke passionately about rebreather safety in light of human factors from his personal experiences. He began by speaking about British expedition leader Carl Spencer’s tragic death on the 2009 Britannic Expedition. Spencer mistakenly breathed an unmarked, high-oxygen content bailout cylinder at depth and convulsed and drowned. Pavia shared his views about the importance of following manufacturers’ rules and recommendations regarding checklists, oxygen sensors lifetime, scrubber duration, using proper sorb, and the importance of bailout out valves (BOV). He concluded that ignorance was “the hardest monster to defeat.”

DCI Research/Telemedicine

Massimo “Max” Pieri, research supervisor for DAN Europe, presented their research focusing on preventing decompression illness (DCI) using DAN’s diving database of some 66,000 dives ranging in depth from 16-628 ft/5-192 m, average depth 100 ft/30 m. Some of the factors they have considered include: gradient factors, hydration, genetic disposition, and hematological parameters. They are also conducting a decompression study with a local (Italian) GUE group in cooperation with instructor Mario Arena, examining the efficacy of so-called “deep stops” vs shallow decompression profiles [See Dr. David Doolette’s post, “Gradient Factors in a Post-Deep Stops World,” in this blog issue for additional data].

Next, DAN Europe president Dr. Alessandro Marroni discussed his visionary program dubbed Advanced Virtually Assisted Telemedicine in Adverse Remoteness (AVATAR). Their goal is to develop tools and procedures to enable real-time monitoring of divers during their dives—think Fitbits on steroids! Marroni described his vision of a DAN doctor able to assess a diver who’s still in the water, and communicate directly with that diver via an underwater communications system. In fact, they have already tested prototypes.

Courtesy of DAN Europe.

Dott. Pasquale Longobardi, president of SIMI, also presented SIMI’s research examining the biochemical mechanisms involved in decompression stress.  He concluded with a set of best practices, namely to run pO2s at 1.3 bar or less, maintain pN2s at 3.16 bar (the equivalent of breathing air at 100 ft/30 m) or less and run pHe as high as possible; Longobardi stated that helium in the form of trimix protects divers from oxidative stress (inflammation) compared to diving air (kick those tires again!). A colleague in the audience told me he had questions about the supporting data.

Mangia Mangia

Having gotten our daily dose of brain food, attendees retired to their hotels and apartments  to catch up on email, clean up, and later walk to the ristorante du jour that had been chosen for that evening. There we were greeted by our attentive hosts, Andrea and Daniela, accompanied by Ugo, who had arranged for a family-style dinner with wine and made sure that everyone had enough to eat and drink. If you had trekked to the meeting for the food alone, you would have not been disappointed.

Photo by Michael Menduno.

“Mangia,” Dani told me gesturing emphatically with her hands and pointing to my empty plate, after the second, or was it the third course? “Please, you must eat some more,” she insisted passing me a bowl of mussels.” It felt like a family gathering—a family of passionate, geeky divers who were there to commune with their peers in celebration of l’arte e pratica che amiamo. And the eating and drinking and sharing of stories continued into the night.

Header Image: Marco Sieni.

Additional Resources:

X-Ray International Dive Magazine will be featuring more about the meeting and Ponza diving including some compelling images in their June issue.


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving”(1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.


Community

Fiona Sharp, You Will Be Sorely Missed

As you have likely heard, we’ve lost one of the irrepressible and much-loved characters in the tech and diving medicine community, 55-year old Australian anesthesiologist and diving physician Fiona Sharp.

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By Rosemary E Lunn
Header photo by Catherine Meehan. Fiona in Sodwana Bay.

Fiona at BonaireTek. Photo by Michael Menduno.

One of the colorful characters in the field of diving medicine died tragically in a rebreather diving accident on Thursday, October 17, 2019. Fifty-five-year-old, Australian diving physician and anesthetist Dr. Fiona Sharp, MBBS, FANZCA, was found unresponsive on a reef at 24 m/80 f. She had been solo diving on a rebreather, and she was discovered with her mouthpiece out. Fiona was medevaced but did not regain consciousness. The incident occurred on the last day of Fiona’s diving trip to Bonaire, located in the Leeward Antilles, Carribean Sea. It was the week after Bonaire Tek. Fiona enjoyed deep rebreather diving and was known to be a bit of a maverick.

“We are shattered.” Bruce and Lynn Partridge, Shearwater Research.

Fiona at AsiaTek. Photo by Michael Menduno.

The disturbing news of Fiona’s death rocketed around the world in a few hours. Many people from the diving medicine and technical diving communities expressed their dismay and distress at Fiona’s death. She was gregarious, fun-loving, irrepressible, and generous. Fiona was a friendly colleague and we had dived together a few times. I wrote a heartfelt tribute about Fiona’s bulldozer attitude to life and diving, and this was published by X-Ray Mag. It includes a myriad of voices from around the globe and amply illustrates just how well-loved she was by her colleagues and friends. 

“Fiona was an individual. She did what she wanted. She did what she loved. She was very much her own person, and drove us mad at times. Fiona was down to earth, had a massive heart, a huge personality, and was very dear to all of us. She will be greatly missed.

Dr. Catherine Meehan

Fiona Sharp was born in May, 1964, in Perth, Australia, and she was bright! She attended Mercedes College Perth, where she was “Dux” in her graduating year. [Dux: from Latin for ‘leader,’ the term that is now used in Australia and New Zealand to indicate the highest-ranking student in a specific achievement). 

Fiona in Sodwana Bay. Photo by Catherine Meehan.

After leaving high school, Fiona studied medicine at the University of Western Australia where she graduated in 1989 as a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS UWA). After serving an internship in Perth in 1989, followed by a year as a junior Resident in Sydney, Fiona moved to England where she gained her Diploma of Anaesthesia (DA) in 1992, whilst working as a Senior House Officer in Anaesthetics in Southend, Essex.

Fiona then returned to Australia and commenced specialist Anaesthetics training. In 2000, she flew once again to the UK where she spent five years practicing diving medicine at DDRC Healthcare (Diving Diseases and Research) in Plymouth. During this period, she was awarded a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (FANZCA) Fellowship in 2004.

At the time of her death, Fiona Sharp was working at the Fiona Stanley Hyperbaric Medicine Unit (FSHHMU) in Perth, Western Australia. She had been in post since it opened in November 2014. Prior to that, she was employed at the HMU at Fremantle Hospital from 2007 to November 2014. (The department then relocated to the newly built department at FSH).

Fiona at an event with the Hyperbaric Technicians and Nurses Association. Photo courtesy of Catherine Meehan.

Whilst writing this, I spoke to Fiona’s family and asked: “why medicine?” They responded,

“If you are really smart at school, you are expected to be an architect, a lawyer, or a doctor. Medicine appealed to her; however, it was possible that she could have become a vet because the family did have a lot of animals.”

Fiona’s family

“She was nuts, about everything. But especially about diving.” 

Dirk Peterson

Fiona got into diving in her late teens after trying skydiving and scuba diving. Water prevailed and she learned to dive when she was 18 years old. She was a PADI Divemaster, cave certified and qualified to dive the Inspiration, Evolution, SF2, Drager Dolphin, Mark VI Poseidon, and JJ-CCR rebreathers. 

Fiona with Dr. Neal Pollock, Rosemary Lunn, and Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris at Rebreather Forum 3. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Lunn.

You cannot ever say that diving was her hobby. It was her all-encompassing great passion. Fiona recently told her older sister that she felt happiest when she was underwater. It was therefore natural that she would take an active interest in diving medicine, and she became a fixture at all the major diving medical or tech conferences. SPUMS, UHMS, EUBS, HTNA, as well as EUROTEK, OzTek, Rebreather Forum 3 and other diving industry events. These helped keep her current and educated in this niche sector. 

Fiona loved the diving, diving medicine, and the camaraderie around the bar. She was regularly first up and last to bed. Most often, Fiona could be heard well before she was seen on land and underwater!! She was well-loved by her colleagues at these events and, as many have said, the SPUMS Conference won’t be the same without her. I think she attended at least 17.” 

Dr. Neil Banham, Fiona Stanley Hospital

Fiona’s first South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society (SPUMS) Conference was at Layang, Layang island, in Malaysia in 1999,  a venue well suited to her type of diving because it was deep. It was at a later SPUMS, in 2008, that Fiona’s diving would change. Dr. Catherine Meehan takes up the story. 

I met Fiona at a SPUMS meeting about 20 years ago. In 2008, I chartered the ‘Golden Dawn’ liveaboard. Ten of us flew into Alotau in Papua. New Guinea. and we sailed and dived our way across to Kimbe Bay, West New Britain, to join the SPUMS annual scientific conference. There was a rebreather on board and Fiona had a guided rebreather dive. She enjoyed it so much that she dived with it for the rest of the week. I believe this was one of her earliest experiences rebreather diving, and I think that she embarked on her passion for diving rebreathers shortly afterward.

Catherine and Fiona would regularly dive together, at least two or three times a year, all over the world.

We did a lot of conferences and diving together. We were most recently in South Africa diving Sodwana Bay. She was dressed in her vibrant orange drysuit so it was easy to see where she was, doing her own thing. It was tough cold water diving, but she was very hardy and didn’t miss a dive, even when her suit leaked. It is a good lasting memory of her.”

It was like she had been shot out of a cannon when she entered a room.

Joanna Mikutowicz, DiveTech


Fiona Sharp never did anything by halves, and this is amply demonstrated by a classic Fiona story that her older sister Donna regaled to me.

Many years ago Fiona rang me up and said, ‘I have got two tickets to the rugby game on Friday night, do you want to come with me?’ I thought, ‘Why not?’ One of our kids plays rugby at school. I rocked up at the game and she said to me, ‘Here is your ticket. Don’t worry about paying. And by the way, these tickets are not just for tonight’s game. They are season tickets’.”

She goes on: 

“We ended up supporting the Western Force, a professional Perth-based rugby team, for the next twelve years and watched them play Super Rugby against New Zealand and South Africa. What I found ironic was that I went to nearly every game. I think Fiona missed more games than any of us because she was away diving so much.

Fiona Sharp drew no quarters when it came to life and diving. I only met her a few times, but she left an aircraft carrier shipwreck-sized impression on my psyche and we remained in contact.”

Laura James, Environmental Campaigner, Underwater Cinematographer

Many divers have been generous with their Fiona stories. Todd and Tiffany Winn of Silent O Solutions reached out to me with another classic Fiona tale and said I could share it. When Fiona decided you would be friends, the recipient really didn’t stand a chance. 

Fiona’s reputation as ‘difficult’ preceded her, and our first encounter with her was memorable, to say the least. It was in San Diego for an in-water recompression symposium and training event in 2014. She exceeded my expectations. I believe she only told me I was completely mistaken two or three times. I conceded two of three and agreed to disagree on the third. She had an uncanny ability to defuse my ire with a wry smirk. As she had already decided we’d be friends, I had little say in the matter.

Tiffany Winn
Fiona before a dive in Bonaire. Photo by Michael Menduno.

Tiff liked Fiona immediately and loved her unflinching honesty and authenticity. Fiona threatened to visit us on Maui on one of her transits across the globe, but unlike nearly everyone else she called and texted for a month straight, ironing out the details, and sure enough, one day, showed up. We loaded up our little boat for its maiden voyage, and Tiff and Fifi had a girl’s day rebreathering all by themselves. We had a beautiful day and a fabulous sunset. We will remember her fondly and often, and will miss her dearly.”

Todd Winn

It is only right that I leave the last words to her family. I was told that Fiona had wanted to climb Mount Everest, but she suffered so badly with altitude sickness, that she just about made it to base camp and no further. Fiona was always willing to take a risk, and push herself. Apparently she competed in triathlons in her early 20’s, and she liked challenges. Everyone who came into contact with her soon found out she had a very dry sense of humor.

Fiona didn’t like cheap champagne or wine. It had to be good quality and lots of it, and she always brought home two bottles of whiskey from every trip for her father.

Donna Sharp

Fiona was close to her family. She is survived by her mother, three sisters, a brother, and 18 cousins. She was an “oh so very proud” aunt to 13 nieces and nephews. Typically big-hearted and kind, Fiona had planned to take a nephew to Antarctica this November. You mad as a box of frogs lady, you will be missed. 

The author is very grateful for the assistance of the Sharp family and Dr. Neil Banham, Director of Hyperbaric Medicine at Fiona Stanley Hospital in writing this tribute. 


Dive industry fixer, Rosemary E Lunn (“Roz”) is the Business Development Director at The Underwater Marketing Company. This British firm specializes in providing marketing, communications, social media and event management for the “tecreational” and technical diving industry. Rosemary is a PADI IDC Staff Instructor, BSAC Advanced Instructor, Trimix, and CCR diver. Before moving into the public relations field, she worked as a professional recreational instructor, safety diver, and underwater model underwater and appeared on the History Channel and National Geographic documentaries. She established TEKDiveUSA and organized Rebreather Forum 3 on behalf of AAUS, DAN, and PADI. In 2008, Rosemary co-founded EUROTEK, the European advanced and technical diving biennial conference. She is a respected and prolific diving author, an SSI Platinum Diver, an Associate Member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, and sits on the SITA Board (Scuba Industry Trade Association).

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