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Life of an Italian Scuba Instructor In the Time of Corona

Italy was one of the first countries in Europe to be slammed by the Covid-19 pandemic. We asked diving instructor Cristina Condemi from Reggio Calabria, to share her experience as a diver in lockdown. Cosa deve fare un sub?

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By Cristina Condemi, Translation by Fabrizio Schepisi
Header photo by Dario Condemi

Are these bad times to be talking about dreams, beauty and The Sea? And what about the realm of scuba diving, a term that opens up a wide range of meanings for its practitioners? It’s impossible to get the pandemic out of our thoughts, and the rising death toll, our inescapable fear, and common sense remind us to stay at home.

Nonetheless, by degrees, we have been able to set aside a few hours in our increasingly absurd daily routines to take shelter in the universe of our passions—whether they belong to the underwater world or to the land above the sea. Dreaming has proven to be a sound way to tackle this situation, a safe haven in such insecure times. Let’s try and dream then: it’s one of the few things we have left, and it won’t make us run the risk of appearing to be  superficial or seeming to be careless about  Covid-19 if we do so. 

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The Strait of Messina is known for bicolored Paramuricea clavata (Risso, 1826) gorgonians. Photo by Santi Cassisi

Let’s try and dream as best we can and whenever we can, even in this very moment: I, as I’m writing down my impressions, the dreams and feelings of an Italian scuba-diver quarantined  in her flat in a city in Southern Italy, and you as you read my words. Always keeping in mind that all storms must pass eventually, and then we will go back to sailing upon and  diving into our sea. Presently in Italy, as in most  other countries around the world, our days are marked by the news of how the virus is speeding up or slowing down its spread. Our hours are punctuated by attempts at finding something to do within the walls of our own houses and trying to take our minds off the tragedy.. 

Especially here in Italy. Especially in the north of the country, the opposite side of the boot from where I am, although distance has never been less of a divide than today. Our lives now revolve around a daily disease report, always hoping to hear the virus has passed its peak and waiting for the moment when we are allowed to start the slow reversion to normality, getting out of what has been defined as a kind of “war”. However, this is no war, and there will be no truce. Our will to “cease hostilities” just doesn’t seem to be enough to put an end to it. In fact, there seems to be but one thing we can do: we have to stay home! 

Facing the Onslaught of Covid-19

The beginning of March marked the onset of radical changes in our lifestyles, at least in the South of Italy. The most plagued regions, such as Lombardy in the North, were in dire straits for a longer time. In the beginning, many of us thought of Covid-19 as little more than flu; those who gave it serious  credit were deemed to be scaremongers. However, the virus soon revealed itself for what it really is, ending up in a pandemic, forcing everyone—none excluded—to an unexpected quarantine. Since then, previously high-valued items like power and beauty have lost much of their appeal. We realized that there were no borders or barriers to hold it back. The virus could hit anyone, and no amount of money or customs control could prevent it from spreading.

Scenes like these almost look unnatural nowadays. Photo by Maurizio Marzolla.

And how do we see the virus? Here in Italy, we learned to fear it. Our national health service made many cuts in funding over the past few years, and what really scares us is that in all likelihood some of us might lose the right to be treated if too many become infected. Intensive care units have been filled to capacity in some regions, and our front-line doctors and nurses are doing endless shifts. In many cases, there isn’t enough medical staff, and the safety measures in hospitals are totally inadequate.  We just weren’t ready for a pandemic, and we somehow hope the Covid-19 lesson will be a spur to improvements in hospital equipment. 

There are many theories of how it all started: conspiracy theorists think the virus was created in military labs first and then somehow got out of control. Green-collar workers are up in arms about our attitudes toward the environment and see it as a revolt of Nature revolting and taking revenge on humankind as retribution for  all the stress and suffering it has been subjected to. Similarly, some think that epidemics, being the by-products of unrestrained globalization and urbanization, could be construed as the result of unhealthy eating habits. They pin down the causes of Covid-19 to the consumption of meat from intensive breeding establishments—pork meat in this case. In their view, we should take up healthier eating regimes and give up the thought of going “back to normal”, as that normality is precisely what has brought us here.  Finally, there are those who read up on past epidemics and talk about the unavoidable cyclicity of history.  

Regardless of all the differing opinions about its causes, we are willing to admit that a tragedy of such magnitude is something new to us, something unexpected and overwhelming. Like anyone else, I find myself coping with it, especially as I am part of a generation that has been  through a lot of hardships here in Italy but has never had to grapple with a real war, real famine, let alone a worldwide spread of pandemic. It may be the evil of our times. I tell myself, ”And it will pass as all evils do.” At least, let’s hope it is teaching us something. 

Beautiful Country

The beauty of Italy and all it contains. Photo by Giovanni Cotroneo.

Italy used to be nicknamed the “Belpaese”, the “Beautiful country”, but much of its allure seems to have been lost now.  Of course, our architecture and artistic heritage, our history and landscapes are still intact, as are the favorable weather conditions we have been blessed with. But, as many tell themselves, what’s the use of it now if you can’t enjoy it? What’s the use of having museums full of precious items and impressive collections of enormous cultural prestige if you can’t visit them anymore?  

Of course, I’m not suggesting that they should be reopened  to the public, I’m only hinting at the temporary loss of significance of this heritage. Quite romantically, in my mind I can picture Caravaggio’s canvases piling up dust in those closed museums, losing some of the light that made them sparkle with life: works of art “saddened” by the lack of viewers’ eyes feeding on their beauty.

Quite romantically, in my mind I can picture Caravaggio’s canvases piling up dust in those closed museums, losing some of the light that made them sparkle with life: works of art “saddened” by the lack of viewers’ eyes feeding on their beauty

I also think of one of the very few positive aspects of this absurd situation: our planet is breathing again, recovering from the devastating impact of human activity. News of this kind  is consoling, especially to those who love nature in all its forms, in water and on land. There is hope that this will be a starting point for serious meditation on how we can change our destructive lifestyles. 

Whether we come out of this tragedy  torn apart and morally crippled or totally unhurt, the clouds above our heads will be blown away by a new wind someday. On that day, hopefully we will brush the dust off those works of art and look at them with fresh new eyes. We will rediscover how beautiful and fulfilling it is to nourish ourselves with the sight of art and natural landscapes and to let ourselves be kissed by the sunrays. 

Time for growth above and below the surface. Photo by Luciano Forti.

In our case, we will also go back to marvelling at the beauties of the underwater world, which it is hoped will be all the more powerful an experience after this forced break. For now however, all we can  do is wait. Let us not wait  as patriotic soldiers forced to a quarantine by governmental decrees, but rather as citizens fuelled by solidarity, well aware that isolation means safety in this case, for ourselves and others. 

Sharing Who We Are

Spending long days at home, many will run the risk of surrendering to psychotic fears or to the sadness that comes with feeling as if we are  powerless prisoners. To escape this sense of isolation, some  have started up a number of solidarity initiatives: some leave food packages in empty baskets outside supermarkets to help out those who can’t afford to go homeshopping; others sew homemade protection  masks – a very rare item these days – and hand them out to people who need them. 

Many of us are also finding strength in our passions, telling ourselves that we’ve got time on our hands now to do all the things we couldn’t dedicate enough time and care to during our “normal routines.” Even so, they’re all passions we must now pursue at home. Because we can only go out for what is strictly necessary. We can’t go for walks, not even by ourselves. And that includes, understandably, walks out to the sea.  

A time to reflect and focus on the hidden joys of life. Photo by Federica Siena.

It was particularly hard in the beginning: many of us had a sense of dizziness, and felt deprived of everything we cared about.  At that time, we were probably as yet unaware of how serious the pandemic was and would become, and all we could think about was the injustice of not being able to go on with our lives, see our loved ones and kiss or hug them. Such simple gestures that became as dangerous as weapons.  

We felt stuck in a brand new asocial universe, because life is all about sharing, just like diving is. What else is scuba diving but the sharing of magic? Indeed, certain didactic orientations to it inform us that having a “diving buddy” at one’s side reduces risks, and that is a thought I personally subscribe to (although it might not hold true for certain kinds of more “extreme” excursions). However, I am not talking about this aspect of the issue. 

What I actually mean is that we need to share the feelings and sense of adventure that make up our diving experience with others. Even those who are used to diving solo have a support team backing them up and always find themselves telling their diver friends about their experiences or maybe holding conferences, or writing books, articles, and posts to share their feelings and discoveries. 

Black Coral. Photo by  Santi Cassisi

Even for them, sharing is an integral part of an experience they apparently live in solitude. As for me, I am one who likes scuba diving with others. Whenever I chance to spot something in the distance and point to it, the joy of that vision is cut by half if I realize I’m the only one who has noticed it. When you see something worth spotting underwater, its beauty is always heightened by being able to share it with another pair of eyes. That’s what makes your enthusiasm bubble up, when your happiness is widened and doubled by the presence of a buddy.  In the end, sharing sums up the whole diving experience for me.

When you see something worth spotting underwater, its beauty is always heightened by being able to share it with another pair of eyes.   In the end, sharing sums up the whole diving experience for me. 

Divers’ Special Powers

I still remember the only time I went scuba diving alone, reaching a depth of 42 meters/138 feet. I had planned an excursion with three other divers on the ‘Mpaddata Shallows of Scilla, a 20-minute drive from Reggio Calabria, my hometown. I won’t take offence if you’ve never heard of it. When I lived in Wales, and someone asked me where I was from, most people had no idea where Reggio was, I resorted to the only description that always worked: “Italy is a boot, right? I come from its toe”. I can also tell you that Reggio, the Strait of Messina and especially Scilla are like my underwater heaven. 

Good buddies and true friends. Photo courtesy of Christina Condemi.

Well, on the day of that diving excursion we were just off Scilla. As sometimes happens, while we were sailing on a dinghy toward the starting point of our excursion, I suddenly had a hunch it wasn’t a good day for diving. For no apparent reason. Once we had reached the chosen point, I started fitting myself up and realized I didn’t have my computer with me, and that’s when I thought I’d better call myself out that time. I knew that wasn’t going to upset my friends: I know them, and they wouldn’t have forced me to do the dive or pressured me. Because what they taught me and—I’m sure—both my buddies and I thought on that occasion was that a good scuba diver is also one who knows when to say “No”.  So, the others dived, I stayed on the dinghy with that day’s support staff, and everything worked out smoothly. 

At the end of the diving expedition, the dinghy driver tried to weigh the anchor, but it was stuck. After a few minutes and several attempts, we thought someone should dive down to pull it loose if we wanted to get on our way again. As I hadn’t dived, had no residual nitrogen, and had lost my earlier reluctance to dive, I volunteered to go down. I put on my diving gear  and went into the water. After a last look at my friends on the boat, I released my BCD, exhaled and started my descent along the rope. 

When I got to the sea bottom, I saw the anchor was actually stuck in a rock spur. So I tried to pull the rope downwards to slacken the resistance and get the anchor unstuck. As I busied with the anchor, something that often befalls us divers happened. Though some might be less used to it, accustomed as we are to alternative ways of communicating when we are immersed in liquid and words are useless and undecipherable, it often feels like we are able to widen our perceptions. It’s as if we are endowed with a gift—being able to feel the presence and energy of things surrounding us while underwater. 

I promise I’m not going mad. Hasn’t it ever happened to you? You get the feeling something is behind you, prompting you to turn around. You do so and find yourself  face to face with a wonderful creature? At times, I have had the chance to discuss this idea with people who don’t view me as a lunatic and who in fact have agreed with me.I like to think of it as a “special power” that we divers have, a magic of our own. 

Going back to the moment at the anchor, I got precisely that feeling of something behind me, so I turned around despite how busy I was, and what did I see?  An eagle ray was moving in my direction, probably made curious by my presence and my awkward movements. It came very close, and I tried to keep still and hold my breath, so as not to scare it away. 

An eagle ray like the one that flew over me. Photo by Santi Cassisi.

It was as if it was aiming directly for me, though it moved very slowly. It “flew” past me, only a few inches above my head, and I followed it with my eyes. It was a magical moment, made all the more special by those unique feelings that we divers have—or by sheer coincidence, I’ll let you decide. However, in that very moment I thought to myself that I would have liked to have someone there with me. Seeing my joy reflected in the big, smiling eyes of my buddy behind his frameless mask, would have made this moment even more magical. 

We Are Social Animals

And that’s what life’s all about: we humans may need our moments of solitude, but we are still “social animals” and need other people to share our experiences with. We’ve never felt it more than in  these strange days. The time we’ve spent on the phone with other people, texting and video chatting with friends we might have not been in touch with for a long time, bears testimony to this need of ours. We live in a world of social networks —and this is no chance choice of words—following live broadcasts on an array of different themes and topics. 

In our case, these may involve free divers and scuba divers talking about records and discoveries. We use video-conferencing apps to talk about excursions in submarine caves, underwater photography, or more broadly about the sea and the feelings it gives us. Even people who weren’t used to communicating on the internet have had to give in to it, because that’s our main means for sharing now. As we can’t yet meet people physically, we must be  content with seeing them behind a computer screen. 

Something to look forward to.
Photo by Giovanni Cotroneo.

As is inevitable, much of the talking revolves around the virus and how we got to this point. We also discuss what the next phase will be like, how we will try to bring our lives “back to normal”, in spite of the fear we will still have of infecting and being infected, but still hopeful that the present crisis will bring about positive changes in our lifestyles. 

Our ability to think about what comes after is good. As is solitary reflection on what we have really missed–our loved ones, our work, and the activities we performed with others. And, since this is a diving magazine, I’m quite sure readers will understand when I mention how much I miss the sea. 

Whether the talk is about tropical waters, the temperate waters of my beloved Mediterranean, oceans, or lakes. We divers are all missing the underwater world.  But we also know the sea is waiting for us, and we will find it again sooner or later, as blue and strong and beautiful as it ever was. With a difference: when we get back to it, we will be more aware of the need to protect it with all our strength.

We divers are all missing the underwater world.  But we also know the sea is waiting for us, and we will find it again sooner or later, as blue and strong and beautiful as it ever was. With a difference: when we get back to it, we will be more aware of the need to protect it with all our strength.


Cristina Condemi is a RAID diving instructor and a staff member of the Scilla Diving Center. She was born in Reggio Calabria and the sea of the Strait of Messina has always been her natural environment. A DAMS graduate (disciplines of Art, Music and Entertainment) at the University of Bologna, she has lived in Spain and in Wales. A dive guide in Scilla since 2014, she brings divers of all levels to discover the extraordinary seabed of Scilla and its creatures, with special care for protecting its fragile ecosystem: a care she always tries to pass down to her students. An enthusiastic ecologist, vegan, and animal-rights supporter, she started technical diving in 2018, sharing the story of her experience as a diver on the web.

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The Price of Helium is Up in the Air

With helium prices on the rise, and limited or no availability in some regions, we decided to conduct a survey of global GUE instructors and dive centers to get a reading on their pain thresholds. We feel your pain—especially you OC divers! InDEPTH editor Ashley Stewart then reached out to the helium industry’s go-to-guy Phil Kornbluth for a prognosis. Here’s what we found out.

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Helium Technical Diving

By Ashley Stewart. Header image by SJ Alice Bennett.

Helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, but here on Earth, it’s the only element considered a nonrenewable resource. The colorless, odorless, and tasteless inert gas is generated deep underground through the natural radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium in a process that takes many millennia. Once it reaches the Earth’s surface, helium is quickly released into the atmosphere—where it’s deemed too expensive to recover—and rises until it ultimately escapes into outer space. 

Luckily for divers who rely on the non-narcotic and lightweight gas for deep diving (not to mention anyone who needs an MRI scan or who uses virtually any electronic device), some helium mixes with natural gas underground and can be recovered through drilling and refinement.

Yet the world’s helium supply depends primarily on just 15 liquid helium production facilities around the globe, making the industry uniquely prone to supply chain disruptions, which this year caused the industry’s fourth prolonged shortage since 2006. The shortage has caused many technical dive shops around the world to raise prices, limit fills, or stop selling trimix altogether, according to an InDEPTH survey of GUE instructors and affiliated dive centers.

Longtime helium industry consultant Phil Kornbluth, however, expects the shortage will begin to ease gradually now through the end of the year, and for supply to increase significantly in the future.

Photo courtesy of Extreme Exposure

While a majority of the world’s helium is produced in just a few countries, a new gas processing plant in Siberia is expected to produce as much as 60 million cubic meters of helium per year, about as much as the US—the world’s largest helium producer—was able to produce in 2020. The Siberian plant ran for three weeks in September, but experienced major disruptions over the past year, including a fire in October and an explosion in January, that delayed its planned opening until at least 2023.

Meanwhile, according to Kornbluth, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Texas closed down from mid-January to early June due to safety, staff, and equipment issues, wiping out at least 10% of the market supply. The plant reopened in June and is back to normal production as of July 10. The supply of helium was further reduced as two of Qatar’s three plants closed down for planned maintenance, a fire paused production at a plant in Kansas, and the war in Ukraine reduced production of one Algerian plant.

With the exception of the plant in Siberia, Kornbluth said virtually all of the recent disruptions to the helium supply chain have been resolved and should yield some relief. And the future looks promising. Once the Siberian plant is online, it’s expected to eventually boost the world’s helium supply by one-third. While sanctions against Russia could prevent some buyers from purchasing the country’s helium, Kornbluth expects there will be plenty of demand from countries that as of now are not participating, like China, Korea, Taiwan, and India, though there could be delays if those countries have to purchase the expensive, specialized cryogenic containers required to transport bulk liquid helium. “Sanctions are unlikely to keep the helium out of the market,” Kornbluth said.

Meanwhile, there are at least 30 startup companies exploring for helium, and there are other projects in the pipeline including in the U.S., Canada, Qatar, Tanzania, and South Africa. “Yes, we’re in a shortage and, yes, it’s been pretty bad, but it should start improving,” Kornbluth told InDEPTH. “The world is not running out of helium anytime soon.” 

THE SURVEY:

To find out how the helium shortage is affecting divers, InDEPTH surveyed Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) instructors and dive centers and received 40 responses from around the world. 

The survey’s highest reported helium price was in Bonaire—a Dutch island in the Caribbean that imports its helium from the Netherlands—where helium costs as much as US$0.14 Liter(L)/$4.00 cubic foot (cf) and is expected to rise. At that price, a set of trimix 18/45 (18% O2, 45% He) in double HP100s (similar to D12s) would cost around $360.00 and trimix 15/55 would cost $440.00.

“We have enough to support both open circuit and CCR, but in the near future, if the situation remains, we may be forced to supply only CCR divers,” Bonaire-based GUE instructor German “Mr. G.” Arango told InDEPTH. “We have enough for 2022, but 2023 is hard to predict.”

Not far behind Bonaire was the Philippines, where helium costs around US$0.13 L/$3.68 cf—if you can even get it. Based on the responses to our survey, Asia is experiencing the greatest shortages. Supply is unavailable in some parts of the Philippines, limited in South Korea, and unavailable for diving purposes in Japan as suppliers are prioritizing helium in the country for medical uses, according to four instructors from the region. In Australia, it’s relatively easy to obtain.

Four US-based instructors reported that helium prices are increasing significantly and supply is decreasing. Helium remains “very limited” in Florida and prices in Seattle increased to $2.50 from $1.50 per cubic foot ($0.09 L from about $0.05 L) in the past six months, and there was a period when the region couldn’t get helium as suppliers were prioritizing medical uses. In Los Angeles, prices have reached as high as $2.80 cf (nearly $0.10 L) and one instructor reported helium is only available for hospitals and medical purposes, even for long-term gas company clients who are grandfathered in. Another Los Angeles-based instructor said direct purchases of helium had been limited to one T bottle per month, down from three. 

“Currently, we are only providing trimix fills for our CCR communities,” GUE instructor Steven Millington said. “Possibly this will change, but the current direction for active technical divers is CCR. I agree (and already see) that open circuit technical diving in some regions will go the way of the dinosaur.”

In Western Europe, helium is becoming more difficult and expensive to acquire, 10 instructors in the region told us. Instructors in the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Germany reported longer wait times, high price increases, and limited supply. 

Meanwhile, Northern Europe appears to be a bright spot on the map with comparatively reasonable prices and general availability. In Norway, two instructors reported helium is easy to obtain, with no lead time from suppliers. Likewise in Sweden and Finland, though one Finnish instructor told us that in the past year prices have increased significantly.

Three instructors in Northern Africa and the Middle East said helium is easy to get, but is becoming more expensive. The price of Sofnolime used in rebreathers is increasing in Egypt as helium becomes more expensive and more difficult to obtain. Lebanon has minimal lead times, but helium is among the most expensive in all of the responses we received at US$0.10 L/$2.83 cf.

Helium is generally easy to obtain in Mexico, though prices are increasing dramatically and instructors are starting to see delays. In Brazil, prices in São Paulo quadrupled in the past 12 months and by 30% in Curitiba. Suppliers there aren’t accepting new customers and existing customers are having difficulty obtaining supply. Supply is mostly constrained in Canada, with the exception of one outlier: an instructor who has a longstanding account with the gas company and pays less than US$ 0.035 L/$1.00 cf. “I have been hearing of helium shortage every year for the last decade,” instructor Michael Pinault of Brockville Ontario told InDEPTH, “but I have never not been able to purchase it.”

Many instructors around the world said that helium shortages and skyrocketing prices are, no surprise, fueling a shift to CCR for individual divers and exploration projects. “CCR is saving our exploration projects,” GUE instructor Mario Arena, who runs exploration projects in Europe, said. “These projects would be impossible without it.”

Please let us know what helium prices and availability are in your area: InDEPTH Reader Helium survey

Additional Resources

US Geological Survey: Helium Data Sheet: Mineral Commodity Summaries 2021

NPR: The World Is Constantly Running Out Of Helium. Here’s Why It Matters (2019)

The Diver Medic: The Future of Helium is Up in the Air,” Everything you wanted to know about helium, but were too busy analyzing your gas to ask—talk by InDEPTH chief Michael Menduno


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: ashley@gue.com


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