Heart Rate Variability: What it is and Why it Matters
Brazilian scientist, hedge fund manager and diving instructor Sergio Schirato geeks out on some of his team’s latest research on heart rate variability as a potential indicator of decompression stress. If that doesn’t boost your HRV, what will?
by Sergio Rhein Schirato, PhD
Header photo by Lorenzo from Pexels
Heart Rate Variability, or simply HRV, is becoming more and more used in different fields, from an instrument able to diagnose cardiovascular anomalies, to a tool instrumental in improving high performance sports training. Many of us who are seriously into physical activities and sports practicing are familiar with or even have used one of the many apps available for watches or smart phones. But do we really know what they are?
Well, HRV is simply the variance in the interval between two heat beats. Or to be more precise, the changes in the interval between successive normal heartbeats. Usually, this is assessed through the timing between QRS complexes, which are main spikes as seen in a continuous electrocardiographic recording (ECG). HRV is the result of the balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), as well as of other non-neural sources of variation. From a practical standpoint, it is as simple as a collection of time intervals, or for those more familiar with mathematical terms, it is a time series (a series of data points indexed by time).
Typically, these time intervals are not fixed or static but can vary widely moment to moment in response to input from the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, which control the contraction and relaxation of the cardiac muscle. Each system is activated by multiple receptors, responding to arterial pressure (baroreceptors), oxygen, and CO2 levels, as well as endogenous substances, emotions, immunological alterations, among other stimuli.
The parasympathetic branch, which regulates your energy and helps your body recover during rest periods, is mediated mainly by acetylcholine and is responsible for maintaining homeostatic heart frequencies and contractility without exhausting. It is responsible for short-term fluctuations of the heart frequency, and it operates in a frequency between 9 to 25 cycles per minute or 0.15Hz to 0.4Hz. Note that Hertz (Hz) is an international metric of frequency and is defined as one cycle per second (cpm).
Conversely, the sympathetic branch, which regulates your “fight or flight” stress impulses, is mediated mainly by norepinephrine, and its activity is triggered by stress, increasing cardiac energy demand by increasing heart rate . This branch is responsible for longer-term fluctuations of the heart frequency, operating in a lower bandwidth of 0.04Hz to 0.15Hz (or 2 to 9 cycles per minute).
HRV is commonly studied in the time and frequency domains, that is as a function of time and frequency. Different HRV indicators have been associated with sympathetic or parasympathetic activity. Additionally, there is an important association between specific frequencies and the baroreflex function, which provides a rapid negative feedback loop to adjust our heart frequency in order to maintain blood pressure at nearly constant levels.
But wait, what do time and frequency domains mean?
Let us start with the simpler one, time domain. In mathematics, the domain of a function is the set into which all of the input of the function is constrained to fall; therefore, when the term time domain is used, it simply means that we are doing our analysis based on time intervals extracted from the ECG recording. There are many indicators that have been created to study the variance in the intervals but here we will discuss only two of them, SDNN and RMSSD.
SDNN is the standard deviation, a measure of variation, of the time interval between heart beats (the R-R interval), and reflects all the cyclic components responsible for variability. The greater the SDNN, that is the variation between beats, the better. RMSSD is the square root of the mean squared differences of successive R-R intervals, or the variance of the variance of our time series, and is considered to be related to the parasympathetic activity. Both, SDNN and RMSSD are powerful indicators of our cardiovascular health, since the loss of variance between intervals is associated with many cardiovascular and/or inflammatory diseases. As shown below in Figure 3, we want our heart rate frequency to fluctuate a lot over time.
Now that the main time domain indicators have been defined, let us move to the frequency domain. But first, we need to understand one important math concept: any function or time series—think of the graph of a curve—can be re-written as a summation of sine and cosine functions, which are used to model phenomena such as sound and light waves. This idea was first introduced by Jean Baptiste Fourier in 1882 in his work Théorie analytique de la chaleur and later became known as Fourier series.
Figure 1 shows an example, using an arbitrarily chosen function:fx=x3+ x2+3x+5, plotted in the interval ]-π to π [. The resulting data shown as a curve can be reconstructed using a summation of sines and cosine functions through a Fourier series. In this case, twenty sine/cosine functions were used to approximate the curve, while in Figure 2, fifty functions were used.
It is easy to see from the diagrams that, the more functions we use, the greater the precision in the reconstruction of the original data. In both cases, we are using the sum of sine and cosine or “wave” functions to approximate the curve fx=x3+ x2+3x+5 in an ordered way. Each of the component sine and cosine functions correspond to a specific frequency. In this way, a curve can be broken down into its constituent frequencies.
Figure 3 shows the intervals between heart beats i.e., the R-R intervals extracted from a ECG recording and plotted against the time domain, which shows the variation of the heart rate frequency over time.
The next step is to approximate the waveform or curve formed by the heart beat data displayed in Figure 3 as a summation of functions through the Fourier series. This enables us to determine all the frequencies that are acting in our system. The frequency domain indicators are thought of as the “power” associated with each frequency—think of it as the relative contribution of that frequency in the re-construction of the curve formed by the data and calculated through a Fourier transform. These are usually plotted in a spectrogram, a graph where the x axis corresponds to the frequencies and the y axis to each frequency’s power or contribution, like the one displayed in Figure 4.
Now we are ready to define each one of the frequency domain indicators, categorized according to its associated frequency. They are:
- Ultra-low and Very-low Frequencies: 0.01 to 0.04 Hz, not relevant in most cases, due to the relatively short ECG recording usually used.
- Low Frequencies (LF): 0.04 to 0.15 Hz
- High Frequencies (HF): 0.15 to 0.4 Hz
In the beginning of this article, we noted that the branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), that is the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches operate in different frequencies. Based on that, we can see that different HRV indicators in the frequency domain might be associated with sympathetic or parasympathetic activity.
High frequencies are highly impacted by the respiratory pattern, while low frequencies are affected by both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches of the ANS. Therefore, by analyzing the power or contribution associated with different frequencies, we can make inferences about the activity of each of the branches of the ANS and their interaction with other systems.
So, why does that matter?
Going back to the beginning of this article, most of the applications, i.e., “apps” used by smart phones and watches to track HRV perform their analysis are based on SDNN, which is a simple-to-calculate and powerful HRV indicator. It’s use is based on the idea that after a workout, the activity of the sympathetic branch temporarily prevails, reducing the overall variability and hence the SDNN.
In this sense, the tool can be used to avoid overtraining, adjusting the intensity of the training session according to the monitored HRV, until the measured SDNN returns to its pre-training values. The same concept can be used to measure stress levels. In theory, all other factors being the same, the more stressed we are, the less variability, and therefore a lower SDNN can be expected. In both cases, the exercise and the stress will likely induce a temporary preponderance of the sympathetic branch.
Now that we know how to analyze it and we understand that different systems are likely to be associated with different frequencies, we can understand why historically HRV was seen as a good measure of imbalances in the ANS. Probably the best way to describe HRV would be as a surrogate measure of the complex interaction between the brain and the cardiovascular system.
So how does that relate to diving?
It has been demonstrated by many studies that a reduced HRV is related to decreased life expectancy. A reduction in HRV has been reported in several cardiological and non-cardiological diseases, ranging from diabetes to renal failure, to mention a few [2,3,4]. A reduction in HRV, when analyzed in the frequency domain has also been associated with inflammatory processes [4, 5].
It is interesting to note, however, that due to huge inter-individual variance, it is difficult to establish expected HRV parameters for a population, and although some interesting studies have been published over the years, there is no consensus on standard values for each one of the HRV parameters. On the other hand, intrasubject analysis, that is the variation of HRV for the same individual over time, can offer very important insights.
Scuba diving is known to trigger oxidative and inflammatory processes, causing a variety of alterations in our physiology, ranging from loss of endothelial function , that is the capacity of the vascular endothelium to respond to vasodilator stimulus, to the activation of the innate immune system and production of microparticles  i.e., particles shed by different cells, which carry nuclear components of their originating cells, like RNA and DNA, and are involved in cell signaling and communication.
As one could imagine, scuba diving is also related to alterations in HRV  and by studying the pattern of these alterations we could infer how our bodies are responding to a dive and, in particular, to the decompression. Our recent study demonstrated that HRV is negatively associated with the production of microparticles and that, using a model built with machine learning, it was possible to predict the pre to post dive variation of the HRV, based on the variation of specific inflammatory markers, linking inflammation and oxidative stress to HRV in scuba diving.
In the past decade, many studies have demonstrated that the presence of inflammatory processes are linked to lowering HRV (either in the time or frequency domains). In our study we demonstrated the inflammatory and oxidative process related to diving are also related to changes in HRV and, interestingly enough, to a preponderance of the sympathetic branch in cases where the volunteers presented more intense responses to the decompression. This fact is also probably linked to the loss of endothelial function, long observed to happen after diving, although the mechanisms are, at this point, not completely clear.
There is still a lot to be understood about the relationship of HRV alterations and diving. The hyperoxia, i.e., exposure to pressures of oxygen higher than 0.5 ATA associated with diving, has its own effects on HRV, making interpretation of HRV variations in diving even more complex. The long-term goal of our research is to better understand individual responses to decompression. We believe HRV variations can be a powerful tool to achieve this objective.
Our team has been working in cooperation with DAN Europe, which has a huge database of diving profiles and outcomes, and some interesting models are being created to model the oxidative and inflammatory processes, but there is still a long way to go before these models can be used in any practical application. However, it is a promising field, and its comprehension will surely help in the full understanding of decompression physiology, making this subject certainly something interesting for the diving community. We could even dream about being able to adjust our dive profiles based on individual responses, right? Watch this space.
- Ernst G. Heart-Rate Variability—More than Heart Beats? Front Public Heal. 2017;5(September):1-12. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2017.00240
- Malliani A, Pagani M, Lombardi F, Cerutti S. Cardiovascular neural regulation explored in the frequency domain. Circulation. 1991;84(2):482-492. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.84.2.482
- Appel ML, Berger RD, Saul JP, Smith JM, Cohen RJ. Beat to beat variability in cardiovascular variables: Noise or music? J Am Coll Cardiol. 1989;14(5):1139-1148. doi:10.1016/0735-1097(89)90408-7
- Sloan RP. Heart Rate Variability Predicts Levels of Inflammatory Markers: Evidence for the Vagal Anti-Inflammatory Pathway. 2015;(Bernik 2002):94-100. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2014.12.017.Heart
- Adam Moser, Kevin Range and DMY. Relationship between Heart Rate Variability, Interleukin-6, and Soluble Tissue Factor in Healthy Subjects. Bone. 2008;23(1):1-7. doi:10.1038/jid.2014.371
- Brubakk AO, Duplancic D, Valic Z, et al. A single air dive reduces arterial endothelial function in man. J Physiol. 2005;566(3):901-906. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2005.089862
- Thom SR, Bennett M, Banham ND, et al. Association of microparticles and neutrophil activation with decompression sickness. J Appl Physiol. 2015;119(5):427-434. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00380.2015
- Schirato SR, El-dash I, El-dash V, Natali JE, Starzynski PN, Chaui-berlinck JG. Heart rate variability changes as an indicator of decompression-related physiological stress. Undersea Hyperb Med. 2018;Mar-Apr 20:173-182.
- Schirato et al. Association between Heart Rate Variability and decompression-induced physiological stress. Front. Physiol. Front. Physiol., 03 July 2020
- Schirato’s Talk at the 2019 GUE Conference: Heart Rate Variability: What it is and Why it Matters
- From GUE’s membership magazine QUEST: Decompression: Revisiting Old Assumptions by S.Rhein Schirato
Brazilian scientist, Sergio Rhein Schirato, is a hedge fund manager and a researcher at the Laboratory of Energetics and Theoretical Physiology of the Biosciences Institute of the University of Sao Paulo (USP). He holds a PhD in Sciences, a Masters in Finance jointly granted by New York University and London School of Economics and post graduation in applied Math. His current research includes the application of neural networks in decompression modeling and heart rate variability. Additionally, he is a GUE Fundamentals and Rec 1, 2 and 3 instructor, as well as GUE Rebreather certified diver.
N=1: The Inside Story of the First-Ever Hydrogen CCR dive
This Valentine’s Day, Dr. Richard Harris, aka ‘Dr. Harry,’ and the Wetmules made the first reported hydrogen (H2) rebreather dive to a depth of 230m/751 ft, in The Pearse Resurgence, New Zealand. The 13 hour dive, which was nearly two years in planning, was a field test to determine the efficacy of using hydrogen to improve safety and performance on über-deep tech dives. Harris’s dive was the deepest “bounce” dive in approximately 54 experimental H2 dives—the majority SAT dives—that have been conducted over the last 80 years by military, commercial and, yes, a group of technical divers. Now in this first published account, InDEPTH editor Ashley Stewart details the inside story behind the dive, a dive that will arguably be remembered 100 years from now!
By Ashley Stewart. Images courtesy of Simon Mitchell unless noted.
On March 11, a little more than three weeks after completing what is believed to be the first-ever rebreather dive with hydrogen as a diluent gas, Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris convened the group of scientists and researchers who had spent years helping to plan the attempt.
He started with an apology. “All of you had the sense that you were party to this crime, either knowingly or suspecting that you were complicit in this criminal activity,” Harris, an Australian anesthesiologist and diver known for his role in the Tham Luang Cave rescue, told the group.
The apology came because the dive was dangerous—not just to Harris who was risking his life, but for the people who supported him were risking a hit to their reputations and worried their friend may not return home. Harris and his team put it all on the line to develop a new technology to enable exploration at greater depths.
A significant challenge to deep diving is an increased work of breathing and CO2 buildup as breathing gas becomes more dense at greater depths. This can not only culminate in fatal respiratory failure but also increases the risk of practically everything else divers want to avoid, like inert gas narcosis and oxygen toxicity. For this reason, helium is favored by divers for its low density and non-narcotic effect. However, at such great depths, helium increases the risk of tremors and seizures from High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). This can be ameliorated by keeping a small amount of narcotic nitrogen in the mix. The problem is that even small amounts of nitrogen makes the mix too dense past 250 meters.
Harris’s experiment would determine if divers can turn to an even lighter gas: Hydrogen, the lightest in the universe. Hydrogen is about half the density of helium. It’s also slightly narcotic and hence thought to ameliorate HPNS, thus allowing elimination of nitrogen from the mix.
The addition of hydrogen into a breathing gas, however, comes with one small technical uncertainty—the extremely explosive nature of hydrogen. History confirmed this reality with the 1937 Hindenburg disaster in which the hydrogen-filled dirigible airship burst into flames. As Harris tells it, he set out to dive hydrogen in his diluent gas while avoiding the nickname “Hindenburg Harry.”
Hydrogen in the Mix
Why would anyone attempt to breathe hydrogen? Harris and his colleagues have spent more than a decade and a half exploring the Pearse Resurgence cave system in New Zealand. This extremely challenging, cold water cave system (water temperature is 6ºC/43ºF) has been explored by Harris and his team, who call themselves the Wetmules, to a maximum depth of 245 meters/803 feet in 2020. Their gas density at depth was 7.2 g/l, significantly above the recommended hard ceiling of less than 6.2 g/l.
Diving past this point introduces increased risks, not only of CO2 buildup, but narcosis, decompression sickness, HPNS, cold breathing gas, having adequate gas supply or bailout, and isobaric counter diffusion (ICD) in which different gasses diffuse into and out of tissues after a gas switch causing bubble formation and related symptoms, cold breathing gas, and having adequate gas supply or bailout.
Divers have been examining hydrogen as a breathing gas for decades. The Swedish Navy was the first to experiment with hydrogen as a possible deep diving gas during World War II. The U.S. Navy in a 1965 paper proposed replacing helium with hydrogen due to projected helium scarcity. Later, beginning in 1991, researchers at the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI) in Bethesda, Maryland spent a decade studying hydrogen’s potential physiological impacts and biochemical decompression. French commercial diving contractor Comex (Compagnie maritime d’expertises) launched its hydrogen program in 1982, and the Undersea Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) held a workshop “Hydrogen as a Diving Gas,” in 1987.
Even technical divers considered hydrogen. Legendary cave explorer Sheck Exley considered hydrogen in the early 1990s to mitigate HPNS symptoms, which are ultimately believed to have contributed to Exley’s death at Zacatón in 1994. Nearly all of the experimental hydrogen work up until this point used surface-supplied systems and saturation diving versus self-contained diving, and none of it, as far as we know, has been done with a rebreather.
The primary objective of Harris’ hydrogen experiment was to address the issue of increased work of breathing. Harris’s team had previously encountered CO2 incidents at the Pearse Resurgence. In one incident, while at 194 meters/636 feet, explorer Craig Challen—Harris’s primary dive buddy since 2006—lost buoyancy but was unable to find his buoyancy compensating button quickly. He kicked up a couple of times to stop his descent and immediately got a CO2 hit. Challen was able to grab the wall, calm down, slow his breathing, and survive. Based on such incidents, it’s clear to the team that they have reached the limits of the gas. “I feel we are on the knife edge all the time,” Harris said, in terms of physiology and equipment.
While hydrogen in the diluent breathing mix was expected to address increased work of breathing, the rest of the issues associated with deep diving were “major unknowns,” and some (such as respiratory heat loss) were potentially even made worse by hydrogen.
“At what depth do the risks of introducing this new technology outweigh the risks of carrying on with trimix?” Harris said. “That’s a very difficult question to answer. At some point we are going to have to consider different technologies and, at this point, hydrogen is perhaps the only one available to us.”
H2 Working Group
In 2021, the year after Harris completed his deepest dive at the Pearse Resurgence, InDepth editor-in-chief Michael Menduno was taking a technical diving class and reading about the government looking at hydrogen as a diving gas again. “Technical divers should be at the table,” Menduno said he thought to himself at the time, “our divers are as good as anybody’s.” He called John Clarke, who had spent 27 years as scientific director of the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), and discussed setting up a working group. Menduno’s next call was to Harris, who had shared his troubles with gas density at the Pearse Resurgence. Harris had also, separately, been thinking about hydrogen.
The so-called H2 working group met for the first time in May 2021 and included many of the top minds in diving medicine and research, including Clarke, NEDU’s David Doolette and Greg Murphy, research physiologist Susan Kayar who headed up the US Navy’s hydrogen research at the Naval Medical Research Institute (NAMRI), along with her former graduate student Andreas Fahlman. There was diving engineer Åke Larsson who had hydrogen diving experience, deep-diving legend Nuno Gomes, decompression engineer JP Imbert who had been involved in COMEX’s Hydrogen diving program, and anesthesiologist and diving physician Simon Mitchell. The group was later joined by Vince Ferris, a diving hardware specialist from the U.S. Navy, and explorer and engineer Dr. Bill Stone, founder of Stone Aerospace.
The working group met regularly with the goal of figuring out how one might possibly operationalize hydrogen for a deep technical dive using the Resurgence as an example. During one of their meetings, Clark used a breathing system simulator built for the Navy to predict how hydrogen would affect gas density in a closed circuit rebreather at depths to 300 meters/984 feet.
To Doolette, who has known Harris for decades and supervised his Diploma of Diving Medicine project in 2001, it was immediately clear this was not a hypothetical discussion. “Unlike some of the scientists, I was under no illusion that the question before the working group was fiction, I knew that Harry was likely to try a H2 technical dive in the Pearse Resurgence,” said Doolette, a cave explorer in his own right, who has laid line in the Resurgence.
By fall of 2022, it was clear to many in the group that Harris was going to attempt the dive. The group had mixed feelings ranging from cautious optimism to comments like, “My friend is going to die.”
Doolette was concerned Harris and Challen would not survive the dive due to either ignition of hydrogen—in the worst case, inside the rebreather at depth—or a serious adverse response to respiratory heat loss (the latter was especially if Harris attempted diving beyond 245 meters/803 feet as he had originally planned) he said. “I have known Harry for longer than most in the group. I encouraged him to take up cave diving, so I felt a personal responsibility toward him,” Doolette said. “I have a lot of experience in operationalizing new diving technology. My goal was, if unable to discourage him, to force him to focus on the important issues.”
Leading up to the dive, Menduno scheduled Harris to give the banquet talk about the expedition at the Rebreather Forum 4 industry meeting in April. The outcome of the dive, of course, was uncertain, and the two had to make an alternate plan in the event that Harris did not return. “We had to say we were going to talk about your dive one way or another,” Menduno said. “If you don’t make it back, Simon Mitchell is going to have to give a presentation about what went wrong. Harry made some typical Harry joke like, ‘Well, as long as you don’t stop talking about me.’” Harris’s lighthearted tone betrays how seriously he took the dive and its preparation, people close to him said.
While no one involved was taking as big a risk as Harris and Challen, they were risking a hit to their professional reputations by being associated with a controversial dive, especially in the event of a tragic outcome.
“At heart, I’m an explorer, and that was pure exploration,” Mitchell, who was the diving supervisor on Harry’s dive, said when asked why he would take such a risk. “Exploration in the sense that we were pioneering a technique that hadn’t been used for quite some time and never in technical diving, not deep technical diving.” He also emphatically added, “I was more worried about my mate dying than about my professional reputation.”
Later, in planning Harris’s trip to the RF4 event, Menduno had occasion to speak to Harris’s wife, Fiona who brought up the dive.
“She said to me ‘I hope Harry is going to be OK’,” Menduno said. “I had no idea how much Harry told her, what she knew and didn’t know. All I could say was he’s got the best people in the world on his team, and if anybody can do it, he can.”
“We all held our breath and waited,” Menduno said.
‘Hydrogen Trials’ at Harry’s House
Ahead of the dive, Harris was preparing at home. The first thing Harris said he had to get his head around was—no surprise—the risk of explosion, and how to manage the gas to mitigate that risk. The potential source of explosion that Harry was most concerned with was static ignition within the CCR itself, plus other potential ignition sources like electronics, the solenoid, and adiabatic heating. Industrial literature—or “sober reading” as Harris calls it—suggested that the tiny amount of static necessary to initiate a spark to ignite hydrogen is .017 mJ, 400 times less than the smallest static spark you can feel with your fingertips and several hundred times less than required to ignite gasoline. “It ain’t much, in other words,” Harris said, noting that counterlung fabric rubbing against itself could generate just such a spark.
Ultimately, Harris came across research that suggested that static decreases with humidity. “I started to feel like there was no source of ignition inside a rebreather, but then again I said to myself, ‘Harry you only need to be wrong once’.”
The other concern was whether he could actually fill hydrogen safely while decanting, or filling one tank from another at the same pressure, and boosting the gas to reach higher pressures.
“I decided there is only one way to actually resolve this and that is to retire to the shed, order a sneaky bottle of hydrogen, and without telling my wife what was going on down the back of the house, start to actually have a bit of a play with this,” Harris said.
First Harris had to make his own DIN fitting (though not out of the ordinary for the anesthesiologist who built and tested his own rebreather before buying a commercial one in 2002) to decant the gas. Next he took his dual Megalodon rebreather with 100% hydrogen in one diluent cylinder and 100% oxygen in the other to the “test bed” in his backyard—his pool—and started to introduce hydrogen into his rebreather.
“Putting an explosive device into water was perhaps not the most logical approach because it becomes more like a depth charge than a bomb, but I thought, ‘Well, at least it might contain the blast somehow into the pool.’ I knew if I broke the back windows in the house or worse, my life wouldn’t be at risk just from the hydrogen. There would be bigger trouble afoot,” Harris said. “I left the lid of the rebreather unclipped in the vain hope it would spare me and the pool and the dog, who was helping with this experiment.”
He pressed the button of the Automatic Diluent Valve (ADV) on his rebreather, introducing hydrogen to the loop, and finally activated the solenoid before he started breathing from it. The first breaths were pleasant, he said. “It did feel very light and very slippery, and the hydrogen voice is even sillier than the helium voice, as you would expect,” he said. “I don’t want people to rush away thinking this is a safe and sensible thing to do. I’m under no illusions I’ve produced any evidence for you to see, but this is an honest account of the hydrogen trials at my house.”
The unit had not exploded with a fill of oxygen from zero to 70%, and very low humidity. “Harry, dog, and CCR survive,” as Harry wrote in his report of the trials. “Nothing bad had happened, so it was reasonable to move to the next step,” he said.
Harris, Challen, and other members of the Wetmules, arrived at the site of the Pearse Resurgence on New Zealand’s south island in February 2023. The cave system is so remote they needed around 10 helicopter trips to transport the team and all of its equipment. Mitchell, the diving physician, ran surface operations with “mixed feelings,” as Harris put it.
The group stayed for two weeks at a campsite, complete with a gas-mixing station, an electronics shelter for charging gear, and a “big green army tent where we meet and drink a lot of coffee and try and put off going back into the water each day,” Harris said.
The expedition was plagued with an unheard of number of problems, Harris said, “Every time we got in the water, something popped or blew up or failed.” The campsite is where Harris boosted hydrogen for the first time, from 100 to 150 bar. He flushed the booster and all the whips with hydrogen prior to boosting to make sure no oxygen was left in the system, but it was an anxious moment.
On dive day, Harris and Challen set out on what would be a 13 hour dive to 230 meters/754 feet—a “comfortable depth,” as Harris put it. Due to some problems during the expedition, it was decided that Harry would dive hydrogen, while Craig would dive trimix. At 200 meters/656 feet depth, Harris pivoted the switch block to introduce hydrogen into the loop. “The first cautious sip of hydrogen just to activate the ADV was satisfying,” he said. Gas density was not subjectively improved, but Harris noticed an obvious benefit—the HPNS-induced hand tremors he typically experienced after 180 meters/590 feet disappeared. Harris kept his setpoint at .7 during the descent and working portion of the dive, careful not to reach a fraction of oxygen above 4% which would make the mix explosive, and proceeded to the 230-meter test depth.
After completing their time at 230 meters, the team began their ascent. Harry shut off the hydrogen feed to the active loop of his dual Megalodon rebreather back at 200 meters, and then conducted a diluent flush every 10 meters/33 feet to remove the hydrogen from the loop until reaching 150 meters/492 feet. At that point, Harris boosted his PO2 to 1.3 from his set point of 0.7 (Challen remained at 1.3 throughout the dive), and they continued their ascent decompressing on a trimix (O2, He, N2) schedule, treating hydrogen as if it were helium. The complete technical details of the dive will be published in a forthcoming paper in the Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal.
As soon as the team were helicoptered back to civilization, Harry called Michael from the road. “Michael, we did it!,” Harris said.
“Harry, you’re alive!,” Menduno responded.
At that March meeting with the H2 working group, Harris presented his findings from the dive. “I’m not sure what to conclude to a highly scientific, analytical, and evidence-based audience like yourselves,” he told the group. “Conclusions: N=1,” meaning it had been successful one time.
Doolette, who had been the most vocal in the group about his concerns, suggested Harris could add to his conclusions “the probability of survival is greater than zero.” Doolette, whom Mitchell contacted as soon as they reached civilization, said he “was relieved to hear that Harry survived this test dive” but remains disappointed with some aspects of the experiment, and concerned about possible future attempts. “For instance, I imagine among the engineers he consulted would have been someone with the ability and resources to do a computational fluid dynamic analysis of the Megalodon rebreather to establish the ignition risk, but instead Harry filled his rebreather up with hydrogen in his backyard.”
Overall, Harris said his findings are that hydrogen can be handled and boosted, hydrogen and CCR diving are compatible, a strategy to introduce hydrogen on descent was successful, a decompression dive was successful, a low setpoint at depth did not practically affect total dive time, strategy to reintroduce a high PO2 on ascent was successful, and HPNS and narcotic impacts were subjectively favorable.
“In introducing hydrogen we have addressed the issue of gas density, but we certainly have not established it is safe to use in terms of explosion risk, decompression of the thermal hazards,” Harris said.
Among his conclusions, Harris pointed out that he also managed to evade the nickname “Hindenburg Harry.” “Fortunately that was avoided,” he said, “but remains an ever-present risk.”
The Future of H2
Harris warns not to read too much into what his team achieved—a single data point that should in no way encourage others to repeat the dive. “David Doolette’s comment should be heeded,” Harris said. “All we have shown is that we got away with it on one occasion.”
Provided it can be safely proven and built upon, Harris said he thinks of his hydrogen dive as a window into the future that would enable tech divers to continue exploring into the 250 to 350 meter/820 to 1148 feet range. “Imagine the wrecks and caves that lay unvisited around the planet,” Harris said.
YouTube: Wetmules 245m Cave Dive in the Pearse Resurgence, New Zealand (2020)
InDEPTH: Hydrogen, At Last by Michael Menduno
InDEPTH: Density Discords: Understanding and Applying Gas Density Research by Reilly Fogarty
InDEPTH: Playing with Fire: Hydrogen as a Diving Gas by Reilly Fogarty
InDEPTH: High Pressure Problems on Über-Deep Dives: Dealing with HPNS by Reilly Fogarty
InDEPTH: The Case for Biochemical Decompression by Susan Kayar
John Clarke Online: Hydrogen Diving: The Good, The Bad, the Ugly (2021)
InDEPTH: Diving Beyond 250 Meters: The Deepest Cave Dives Today Compared to the Nineties by Michael Menduno and Nuno Gomes.
Undersea Hyperbaric Medical Society: Hydrogen as a Diving Gas: Proceedings of the 33rd UHMS Workshop Wilmington, North Carolina USA (February 1987)
InDepth Managing Editor Ashley Stewart is a Seattle-based journalist and tech diver. Ashley started diving with Global Underwater Explorers and writing for InDepth in 2021. She is a GUE Tech 2 and CCR1 diver and on her way to becoming an instructor. In her day job, Ashley is an investigative journalist reporting on technology companies. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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N=1: The Inside Story of the First-Ever Hydrogen CCR dive
This Valentine’s Day, Dr. Richard Harris, aka ‘Dr. Harry,’ and the Wetmules made the first reported hydrogen (H2) rebreather dive...