by Peter Buzzacott
Most technical divers understand and know how to calculate their Surface Air Consumption (SAC) rate, which is typically used in gas planning. But did you know that SAC rates can also be used to measure various workloads—for example, the difference in workload when diving doubles vs. singles, using various techniques, or under different environmental conditions?
Let’s use an example to recap the theory; I’ll use metric throughout this blog for simplicity. A diver is at 10m depth, which is 2 ATA in the sea. The diver’s tank is a standard 12-liter tank filled with 200 bars (plus a safety margin); therefore the diver has 2,400 usable liters of gas at the surface. At 10m depth, that would be down to 1,200 breathable liters, and if the diver used the whole 1,200 L of usable gas over one hour, then the diver’s surface equivalent breathing rate would be 1,200/60, which is 20 liters per minute—a common, if slightly high, breathing rate. One might argue the actual breathing rate is 40 liters per minute, and that the equivalent of 40 liters per minute comes out of the tank, but it is actually compressed down to 20 liters because the diver is at 2 ATA. This is why we call it surface air consumption— because even though the breathing gas is twice as dense at 10 meters depth, the breathing rate is equivalent to 20 L/min at the surface (not 40 L/min at the surface). Of course, the air is twice as dense, so the work of breathing is greater, but SAC does not account for this.
Okay, that’s the math out of the way. In the real world, divers often use the average depth from their dive computers to estimate the average ambient pressure throughout the dive, then divide the volume of gas used by the number of minutes spent underwater and the average pressure. This gives a fairly accurate estimate of the surface equivalent breathing rate. For part of my PhD research, I clipped accurate depth loggers to the chest D-rings of divers and recorded over 1,000 recreational dives. I also used a calibrated pressure gauge to measure the tank pressure before and after each dive, and noted the tank volume stamped on each tank. Then, I asked every diver if they thought the workload during their dive was “resting/light,” “moderate,” or “severe/exhausting.”
Good in the SAC?
In the 1980s, a scientist named Dwyer had divers fin at a certain pace against a set resistance and measured both their SAC and how much oxygen remained in their exhaled gas. This was done at a few set depths, including a series of dives at 10m depth. An equation was generated for each depth to convert SAC into oxygen consumption. The mean depth of my 1,000 recorded dives was 10.7 m, so I used Dwyer’s 10m equation to convert everyone’s SAC into oxygen consumption. I then made one last conversion by dividing everyone’s oxygen consumption by their weight (in kilograms, of course). This standardized the oxygen consumption across the whole range of divers, from small to large and whether male or female.
Interested readers can read my paper, but to make the results meaningful here, I’ll compare the dives by how many metabolic equivalents (METS, i.e., the rate at which a person expends energy relative to the mass or weight of that person) each dive represented. When our oxygen consumption is at its lowest, for example, when we are asleep, we consume around 3.5 ml/kg.min of oxygen, which is by convention considered to be 1 MET. If I consume 35 ml/kg.min of oxygen while running on the treadmill, then I would be running at 10 METS.
In my study, the divers who said their dive was relaxing had an average workload of 5.3 METS. It is important to remember that is an average, because some people had a very low SAC and some people really chewed through their gas, but the average for a resting dive was 5.3 METS, which is about the same as a brisk walk. The dives with a moderate workload averaged 5.8 METS, which is about the same as riding a bicycle at a modest pace (~15 km/hr), and the severe/exhausting dives averaged 6.2 METS, which is about the same workload intensity as an aerobics class.
Dwyer also recorded his divers’ heart rates and tried to generate equations to link SAC with heart rate. Recently I tried something similar and took a research team to Oregon to measure SAC and heart rate in volunteer divers at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. We fitted waterproof EKGs to each diver, plus those sensitive depth/time loggers, and estimated their workload just as I’d described above. But, just like Dwyer, we couldn’t generate a reliable conversion from SAC to heart rate, or vice versa. Therefore, the most reliable estimate of workload that we divers have is, in my opinion, SAC/kg. To give some sort of guide, the “resting/light” divers in my PhD research had an average SAC/kg of 0.21 L/kg.min, the moderate divers 0.23 L/kg.min, and the exhausted divers 0.29 L/kg.min.
As we all know, good trim is essential for reducing workload while diving—as is correct weighting and good buoyancy control. Other factors include finning technique and drag. Using SAC/kg, divers can measure for themselves how much of an effect there is when going from a single tank to a set of doubles, or when adding a stage or multiple stages. Divers can also see just how much of an improvement they make when they perfect their technique over many dives—for example, their DPV technique. [ed: It’s OK to try this at home kids!]
Another advantage of SAC/kg is that it can be compared within a dive team between males and females, between small divers and big divers. In Oregon, the aquarium divers were in drysuits, the water was cold, and the divers were working (cleaning the viewing windows, vacuuming the floor, etc). Their average SAC/kg was 0.26 L/kg.min, which was equivalent to a moderate-to-difficult workload. The full paper was published in the latest issue of Occupational Medicine.
Buzzacott P, Pollock NW, Rosenberg M. Exercise intensity inferred from air consumption during recreational scuba diving. Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine. 2014;44:74-8.
Dwyer J. Estimation of oxygen uptake from heart rate response to undersea work. Undersea Biomedical Research. 1983;10:77-87.
Buzzacott P, Grier JW, Walker J, Bennett CM, Denoble PJ. Estimated workload intensity during volunteer aquarium dives. Occupational Medicine. 2019; https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqz011
Peter Buzzacott, MPH, PhD, is a former recreational and technical diving instructor, now a university researcher with more than 60 published papers on diving injuries. He is a Guest Professor at the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai, in the hyperbaric research laboratory that, in 2017, discovered the first nutritional supplement shown to prevent decompression sickness. Before that, he conducted decompression experiments during a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at a university in northern France. He is an avid cave diver.
Why I Became a GUE Instructor
Jon Kieren had been an experienced tech diver and instructor for years when, curious, he took a Global Underwater Explorers’ Fundamentals class, a prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training. Soon, he didn’t just want to be a GUE diver. He wanted to be a GUE instructor. Kieren writes about the draw of GUE and why he started over with a new agency.
by Jon Kieren. Photos courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett.
I’ve had the pleasure of working in pretty much every aspect of the diving industry over the past 15 years or so. I’ve been an instructor and boat captain in the Caribbean, worked in the training department of a large training agency, served as a consultant for equipment manufacturers, and traveled all over the world teaching as a full-time cave and technical instructor trainer. Many would have said I’d reached the highest levels in the diving industry.
So when I decided to start all over from scratch to become a Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) instructor, many of my friends, peers, and students scratched their head a bit and wondered why I would want to invest so much time, energy, and money to teach things I had been capable of teaching for years with other agencies. The answer was I wanted to commit to excellence. “Can’t you do that by teaching for other agencies?” they would ask. Not really.
Over the years, I had become quite frustrated with almost every aspect of the dive industry. Low-quality instruction, lack of accountability from agencies in accidents and quality assurance, manufacturers releasing equipment that created more problems than it solved, and dive shops and instructors at all levels racing to the bottom in terms of quality — all of it was making my blood boil. When I “saw the light,” it was refreshing, inspirational, and a huge relief. I finally found an answer to many of the issues I had been banging my head against the wall trying to solve for years. Here’s how it went down.
In 2016, I left my job in the training department of a large agency after five years of frustration. I realized I could make a larger impact on the industry working with one or two students or instructor candidates at a time. I moved from south Florida to north Florida’s “cave country” to teach full-time as an independent instructor. It was a bit scary to not have a guaranteed paycheck, but I was determined to make it work. I was hungry to improve as an instructor and knew I could do better. The problem was, after working at the highest levels with some of the biggest names in the industry, I didn’t really know where to turn.
Enter Mark Messersmith. He’s a GUE board director, instructor evaluator, chief operating officer of dive equipment manufacturer Halcyon, and one of the nicest guys around. I had gotten to know Mark a little bit over the years, and always appreciated his laidback and super supportive demeanor. When I approached him about GUE training, he asked, “Why?” Knowing my background, of course he knew the answer, but I think he wanted to hear it from me.
Fundamentals: Where the Fog First Lifted
I first started down the technical diving path when I was working in the Caribbean as an open water instructor and boat captain, and I came across GUE in my research. I was immediately put off by the standardization and team-diving philosophy, and decided other agencies would be a better fit for me. Of course I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but my thought was, “There can’t be just one way to do EVERYTHING.” Plus, I really enjoyed solo diving at the time. After moving through the ranks over the years and working with hundreds of technical, rebreather, and cave students, I had the opportunity to work with several GUE-trained divers. Most of them had only taken Fundamentals, the prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training courses, but two things were consistent with all of those students: The classes were easier to teach, and they were way more fun. We would be able to start cave or tech diving straight out of the gate and not need to spend three or four days on basic skills. I wanted to know what GUE’s secret was to create such solid and consistent divers, and that’s when I approached Mark.
To answer his question, I was honest and told him I wanted to steal as much as I could from the Fundamentals course to incorporate into my classes. He just smiled through his mustache and said, “OK.” We scheduled a class, and I got to work watching all of the skills videos and practicing on my own in order to prepare. To say that I was nervous when class started was an understatement. I think I hid it pretty well, but what if I didn’t meet the highest standard for Fundamentals and get GUE’s coveted tech pass? What would that say about me as an instructor? Mark’s casual style put me at ease as we began, and I was able to focus. When Mark got to the third slide of the first lecture, it was like the fog had lifted and I could see everything clearly for the first time. I knew the trajectory of my career had just shifted and I’d be starting all over. “This is going to be expensive,” I thought.
So what’s on that slide? A simple statement that was the answer to all of my struggles: “End the disconnect between training and passion.” As Mark explained the issues in the dive industry, of which I was all too aware, he also explained how GUE addresses those issues. From the top down, GUE’s board of directors members and instructors are passionate divers and explorers, no exceptions. This changed everything for me. One of my biggest frustrations was recognizing that at the very top of the industry (senior managers of the agencies), almost nobody was an active diver. Presidents and VPs were diving once a year for social media posts to create an illusion they were still active and passionate—many of them with very limited teaching experience and making decisions on standards at the highest levels of technical, cave, and rebreather training when they had only been in a cave once or dove a semi-closed rebreather a couple of times back in the 90s.
This lack of passion filters down through the industry. It’s amazing how many instructors (technical, cave and rebreather included) refuse to get in the water if they aren’t being paid. Even with my limited experience at the time, when I went to work for the agency, I would have my head in my hands thinking, “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” when sitting in on big meetings as industry heads for all of the agencies were in my opinion focused more on how to keep standards low and profits high rather than on safety and quality.
A Commitment to Excellence
But now, staring at this slide, we discussed the ways GUE is focused on keeping quality at the highest level and inspiring divers to be passionate, competent, and capable of incredible conservation and exploration efforts. We discussed the global GUE community and all of the remarkable things they accomplish. It was so clearly the answer to everything.
I didn’t just want to be a Fundamentals diver. I wanted to be a GUE instructor. As I started on the path, I started to really realize why “Commit to Excellence” is printed on the back of our t-shirts. I was pushed harder than I had ever been in the past, with support and encouragement. The goal was always to improve, no matter what we were doing: from parking our cars at the dive sites to be courteous and leave room for others, to maintaining perfect stability in extremely task-loading situations, and developing the best instructional and evaluation techniques. There was never a time in any of my classes where I was told, “Good job.” It was always, “Good job, but here’s how we can make it better.”
My Tech 1 (and later Tech 2) instructor, Guy Shockey, made a statement that I remember every day. He explained that he chooses to be a GUE instructor because when he wakes up in the morning and gets ready to teach a class, he knows without a doubt that he has the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. So when I’m on my way to the shop or dive site to meet my students in the morning, I keep that in the back of my mind. I have the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. It not only gives me confidence, but keeps me honest. There are no excuses and no room for shortcuts. Commit to excellence.
We are held to that standard of excellence through several mechanisms. We have strict annual renewal requirements to ensure we are actively diving and exploring so that students are learning from someone still passionate about what they are teaching. These requirements go far beyond what is typical in the industry, and we are actually monitored for meeting them.
Staying Current (And Competent)
Most agencies have some form of “currency” recommendation, meaning you’re supposed to teach or assist a class every few years. However, there’s no oversight to ensure instructors are meeting this requirement. There’s loads of instructors out there (tech instructors and instructor trainers included) who haven’t taught a class in five-plus years. There’s nothing stopping these instructors from going out and teaching a class at their highest level. Sure, if something terrible happens, the agency and insurance company will likely drop the instructor, showing that they violated a standard by not remaining current. But at that point, it’s already too late. Students pay the price. Even if there isn’t an accident in training, it’s very likely that students will not have received adequate training and will be more at risk in their post-training diving activities.
GUE instructors need to show dive logs verifying we have conducted at least 25 non-training dives each year, half of which need to be at or above their highest teaching level. This ensures that when you sign up for a GUE class, you can be sure the instructor in front of you is still active, current, and passionate about what they are teaching you.
All GUE instructors, instructor trainers, and instructor examiners are required to be re-evaluated at their highest teaching level every four years. Nobody is exempt from this rule, as it means that we are consistently ensuring everyone is teaching the same things, to the same standards, without drift.
Scuba diving is a physically taxing activity, and the more aggressive the dive, the more physically fit the diver should be. Even on fairly benign dives, you never know when the current or seas might pick up, or when a failure could result in extended decompression times. We believe that having physical fitness requirements that are consistent with diving goals is extremely important. No smoking allowed for any GUE diver or instructor, and we require swim tests at every level of training.
Instructors have to meet pretty stringent fitness requirements each year. We have to be medically evaluated for fitness to dive, maintain a low Body Mass Index (BMI), conduct timed swims and diver tows, stair climbs and equipment carries over long distances, all of which verify our ability to assist our students in emergencies. This is surprisingly absent from other agency’s renewal requirements. There are lines in the renewal agreement about being fit to dive, but there’s no oversight, and they don’t even require a medical exam.
We also have a 100% quality assurance process, meaning every student completes a quality control form. This is not only so our QC director can identify any drift from the standards or issues with our conduct in class, but also to help provide feedback on how we can improve the training we offer. We encourage our students not to just tell us what we did well, but treat us how we treat them in the debriefings and include areas we can better support their growth, because there’s always some room for improvement.
I don’t mention all of the renewal requirements as a flex, but rather to show that it takes a significant investment for GUE instructors to remain in current teaching status. Someone who isn’t committed simply won’t remain current. It was a huge draw for me, as I had seen how the minimal standards typical in the dive industry contribute to the disconnect.
For me, as an instructor, the benefits of GUE go beyond the high-quality training, standardization, and community. The opportunity to work toward ending the disconnect between training and passion as well as the continuous commitment to excellence are what keep me motivated. Not a year has gone by since my Fundamentals course that I haven’t seen significant growth as an instructor, and I don’t see that changing until I hang up my fins.
InDEPTH: The Economics of Being a Tech Diving Instructor by Darcy Kieran
Other stories by Jon Kieren:
InDEPTH: I Trained “Doc Deep” by Jon Kieren
InDEPTH: SUMP POTION #9 by Jon Kieren
InDEPTH: Grokking The FATHOM CCR: My Dive into the Nuts & Bolts with the Inventor by Jon Kieren
Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his 13-year career to improving dive training. As an active TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS, and GUE Instructor and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep, extended range cave dives, as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favorite places to share with the world.