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by Michael Menduno
Header photo by Matthias Leno courtesy of Buddy Dive Resort
Where is Bonaire? That’s the question that diving friends were still texting me as I boarded my plane for the eighth annual Bonaire Tek gathering—a week-long tech diving love fest held 6-11 OCT on the small island of Bonaire in the Leeward Antilles, in the southeastern Caribbean. The island—technically a special municipality of the Netherlands—along with Aruba and Curacao, form the ABC islands located 80 km/50 mi off the coast of Venezuela, and is known for diving, windsurfing, and sailboarding.
I was on assignment for InDepth and looking forward to meeting German Arango a.k.a. “Mr.G,” who oversees the technical diving program at the Buddy Dive Resort, which hosts the event. Sporting long wavy hair and a salt-n-pepper beard, the 45-year old Colombian-born tech diving instructor who teaches primarily for GUE, as well as for NAUI and PADI, was responsible for conceiving the idea for Bonaire Tek and has organized the event for the last eight years. “My goal is to build a community here,” he told me when he picked me up at the airport.
And he is succeeding. Bonaire Tek, which is sponsored by Dive Rite, SubGravity, SANTI, KISS Rebreathers, and Silent Diving has grown each year since its inception. This year there were 81 divers—57 men and 24 women—from 11 countries, including North and South America, Europe and Australia representing 52 open-circuit (OC) and 29 closed circuit rebreather (CCR) divers.
The concept of a tech diving “camp” embodied by Bonaire Tek, the pioneering TekCamp held at Vobster Quay in the UK, Underworld Tulum’s Cave Camp, and the Ponza Rebreather Meeting in Ponza, Italy, has proven itself to be a fantastic vehicle to engage geeky divers in tech, and help spread the love. To wit, bring in a manageable-sized group of avid tech divers of varying experience levels, provide plenty of awesome diving, an opportunity to take courses, try-out new gear, share stories, enjoy depth-full talks on various aspects of diving, eat, drink, meet new friends, and hang with the tribe.
To be sure, Bonaire Tek, which ran from Sunday through Friday, didn’t disappoint! There was a communal breakfast every morning, followed by dedicated OC and CCR tech boats and a variety of shore diving. There were people who came simply to dive, and others who were taking courses. In the afternoons there were additional boats and dockside try-dives on AP Diving, KISS, O2ptima and xCCR rebreathers, various side mount rigs and SubGravity scooters. In the evening, we gathered for one or more talks, and dinner and drinks. Rinse and repeat.
Pulling my nitrox 50 deco while gently gliding along the phantasmagoric wall of boulder-sized coral heads amidst hundreds of bright colored reef fish, following our mix dive to the wreck of the Windjammer more than 30 m/100 f below, gave new meaning to the notion of Caribbean reef diving! More surprising, we conducted the dive from shore. The water was consistently 30 C/86 F at the surface and dropped to 27 C/80 F at around 50 m. Visibility was in the 30-40 m/100-130 f range, and they tell me the reefs are almost always diveable. It’s easy to get spoiled by Bonaire!
In recreational diving circles, or maybe it’s the island’s tourism bureau, the island is known as the “Shore Diving Capital Of The World!” For good reason. On the leeward (diving) side of the island, which is approximately 39 km/24 mi long by 5-8 km/3-5 mi wide, the reef and drop-offs begin within a short swim from shore (windsurfing and sailboarding are prevalent on the windward side). The same is true of the even smaller island, Klein Bonaire, which is nestled in the leeward embrace of Bonaire, a mere 800 m/0.5 mi swim away. From the air, the two islands look like an amoeba swallowing a bite-sized morsel of food!
In fact, dive marketing mavens have identified more than 80 dive sites along Bonaire’s leeward side. As cardiologist and tech instructor, Doug Ebersole, one of the presenters, put it, “Where else can you make a 200-foot plus wreck dive, followed by a wall dive and see sailfish blennies?” Bonaire!
According to the amicable and animated Mr.G, the reefs are near pristine for several reasons. First, is the arid island’s low population density—there are only 20,000 permanent residents on the island, little rainfall, and no agriculture. Read: minimal impact population pressure and little chemical runoff.
Second, the Dutch have long instituted conservation measures; the island was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. As Mr.G instructed the assembled divers during his initial briefing, “Whatever you do, don’t touch or take anything; gloves are not allowed!,” he said, giving a new twist to the old urban meme, “NO GLOVE, MORE LOVE!”
Buddy Dive also supports the Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire, headed by local marine biologist and tech diver, Francesca Virdis, and they host part of their nursery on Buddy’s Reef, which begins 20m/64 f from the dock. The island is also known for its wild donkeys and flamingos.
Bodacious Buddy Dive
Much of the success of the event was due to the dive-oriented venue and the amazing support provided by Mr.G and his team. Located right on the water’s edge, and offering 24/7 diving, Buddy Dive Resort is arguably a bit of diver heaven. Eleven yellow stucco buildings with spacious, clean, air-conditioned apartments, patios to dry dive gear, two pools, a dockside dive service center, and 24/7 accessible wooden airy dive lockers and tanks—no surcharge for banked nitrox 32, along with a drive-thru fill station. There are also two restaurants, car rentals, laundry service, and drinkable de-salinized water. All you have to do is dive!
Providing daily diving support and gas for 81 enthusiastic tech divers is no small task, and Mr.G’s team of divemasters and gas blenders handled it with aplomb, albeit with little sleep—the fill team pulled multiple late to all-nighters. Divers were assigned individual numbered cylinders including their singles, doubles, stage bottles, and CCR tanks, which were filled to meet their daily gas needs in an area called the “Tech Block.” It likely represents the largest gas blending operation in the Caribbean. That’s where divers picked up their cylinders, analyzed, and labeled them for the day’s diving.
Buddy divemasters, many of whom had been GUE trained, provided diver support on the daily boats and typically accompanied dive teams. We were even joined by head of dive operations for Buddy Dive, Augusto Montbrun, who with his team, spent a morning supporting two teams of tech divers.
Bonaire Tek Stats
Tank Fills: 2100
Liters of helium consumed: 180,000
Liters of oxygen consumed: 324,000
Liters of banked nitrox 32: 1,000,000
Kilograms of sorb: 360 kg/792 lbs.
Number of dives conducted: 660+
Hours underwater (est.): 550+
Hours of decompression(est.): 225+
Deepest dive: 107m/350 ft
Big Smiles: 81,000
Celebrating Our Tech Sisters
The theme for this year’s Bonaire Tek was “Ladies First,” helped by SANTI, and fittingly the gathering had the largest female turnout yet, representing roughly 30% of participants. Yay!
Accordingly, Mr.G arranged for several female-focused presentations beginning with a homage to “Female Tech” presented by Buddy Dive’s PADI Course Director and tech, cave and CCR diver, Lars Bosman. His presentation began by recognizing early diving pioneers, such as Simon Melchior Cousteau, Dottie Frazer, Zale Perry, and Dr. Sylvia Earle. He then went on to profile contemporary tekkies like explorers Jill Heinerth, Verna Van Schaik, and Immi Wallin, photographer Becky Schott, shark whisperer Cristina Zenato, stuntwoman and model Szilvia Gogh, Helene “Wethorse” Graauw, who invented the “She-P,” and Bonaire’s own Virdis.
Ebersole followed a few nights later with a presentation entitled “Women’s Issues in Technical Diving.” After offering a disclaimer that he was “NOT a woman,” he proceeded to discuss the science on decompression sickness (DCS) and gender, DCS and menstrual cycles, diving and pregnancy, breast augmentation, DCS and birth control pills, menopause and more. He later wrote up his talk, which we will publish in the December issue InDepth.
Mr.G had also arranged for morning yoga and core-building exercise sessions which were enthusiastically attended by humans of both genders. Interestingly, they also tried to arrange for a women-only boat dive day, but there were no takers, even after repeated attempts, to the apparent surprise of the organizers. One female observer noted women want to be included, not set apart.
Steeped In History
Bonaire Teksters, whose average age was likely pushing 50, were offered a trio of diving history presentations over the course of the week. On our first night, we were treated to a talk, “Maritime Archeology in Bonaire” by Dutch marine archeologist, Ruud Stelton PhD. He explained Bonaire’s early history, initially as a cattle plantation for the Spanish in the 1500s, and later, in the 1600s, a plantation of the Dutch West India Company supplying salt used for preserving food to Europe on the backs of slave labor. Salt continues to be Bonaire’s largest export today, and salt fields are visible in the north, as well as the huts where slave populations lived. Moorings, abandoned anchors, and artifacts can also be found.
Dive Rite founder and cave diving pioneer, Lamar Hires, regaled us with tales of some of the early developments in cave diving with his talk, “Cave Diving: Mission Specific.” He began by explaining the early 1980s development of sidemount with cave diving pioneer Woody Jasper, regarded as the “father of sidemount.” At the time, the test of a good cave diver was to the ability to swim to the Hinkel restriction (975m/3200 f) and back to Ginnie Springs on a set of doubles.
As Hires explained, part of their motivation for diving sidemount was finding cave that the “big boys” hadn’t yet explored. That would be famed explorer Sheck Exley and Woodville Karst Plains project (WKPP) co-founder Bill Main. “We knew if it required sidemount, Sheck and Bill hadn’t been there,” Hires said with Mona Lisa-like smile. He also discussed the skepticism that greeted the first isolator manifolds as a result of three cave diving fatalities. Of course, isolator manifolds eventually became the standard.
Hires went on to talk about their first use of oxygen as a decompression gas (instead of simply using it to pad their air tables) at Cow Springs in 1986. Hires and his team were able to incorporate oxygen because anesthetist John T. Crea and his company’s Submariner Research Ltd. computer program was able to cut air with O2 tables, requiring them to pull their oxygen stop at 9 m/30 ft. It was a fascinating talk.
I also gave a two-part talk, “Revisiting The Technical Diving Revolution: An Insider’s Look at the People, Projects and Technology that Created Technical Diving.” In it, I discussed the emergence of tech diving in the mid-to-late 1980s, the development of “special mix” diving, nitrox, the origins of the name ‘technical diving,’” early tech diving fatalities, the persistence of deep air, and the development of consumer rebreathers. Call it a “history stop!”
Joys of Team Diving
The diving is what brings people to these events. I was no exception.
I made my first shake out dive of the trip with Bosman, who took me to what he said was one of the best reefs on Bonaire, called Lac Cai, on the windward side of the island. After negotiating our rocky beach entry with doubles and a pair of SubGravity Ecos S DPVs, we conducted a luxurious 75-minute dive along the length of the breathtaking reef wall max depth 23 m/75 f surrounded by bands of sea turtles, rays, and large silver tarpon. It was a sublime beginning to a glorious week in the water.
I am currently getting re-certified for mix diving, and in the process of completing my GUE Tech 1 (normoxic helium diving) training. As a result, I was excited about spending the week diving with friends from Team GUE Seattle, who had a contingent of ten, including a non-GUE rebreather diver, as well as some recreational divers.
Though not everyone’s cup of tea (mind that Kool-Aid!), I have a growing appreciation for GUE’s standardized approach to diving—standard config, gases, deco, protocol. It puts everyone on the same page so they can focus on the main goal: Having Big Fun!
The T1 class is all about underwater problem solving while maintaining one’s buoyancy and trim in the water column, and most importantly one’s COMPOSURE. After all, just like nitrox, breathing helium is easy, you just breathe in, and then breathe out. The induced problems we dealt with in class included resolving bubbling first stages and manifolds, out of gas situations, non-working deco gas, and failed mask, which occurred one at a time or in combinations, for example, while shooting an SMB.
So imagine my glee upon descending on our first dive to see my dive buddy, photographer Matthias Lebo, with first stage seal bubbling. I knew what to do. I immediately swam over to affect a fix by trying to screw down his left post. To no avail. Full disclosure: I had forgotten my lesson; valves don’t move when pressurized. (I’m sure Gareth Lock, Mr. Human Diver, has a reference for me: fact retention). Argh! Not to worry. My teammate Bert Brezicha reached over, checked that Lebo was breathing from his right post, shut down his left, purged the reg, tightened the valve, and powered up the post. No bubbles, no troubles; we were good to go. I will never forget that again!!
Though I was skeptical at first, I have come around and really appreciate GUE’s team or operational approach to deco, which again makes things easy and keeps the dive team together. I suppose it’s ironic, that just like the early days of tech, GUE dives tables instead of computers, in this case generated by DecoPlanner software (based on Buhlmann Z-16 and or VPM-B algorithms). Dive computers are there as a back-up though not really needed.
They also use standard gases such as Trimix 21/35 (21% O2, 35% He) for depths from 30m-45m/100-148 f, trimix 18/45 from 45-60M/148-197 f etc., and deco gasses like nitrox 50 and oxygen, which makes things easy. In Bonaire, we were primarily diving nitrox 32 or trimix 18/45 for deep dives with nitrox 50 for decompression.
What’s more GUE modifies its deco procedures to make them easy to carry out as a team using only gauges. So instead of everyone chasing their own dive computer, we ascend as a team to our first stop at a 9m/minute rate (30 f/min), depending on the dive make our gas switches to say nitrox 50 at 21m/70f (team-based gas switch protocol) and proceed to work our way back to the surface.
Rather than stop for example for one min at 21 m, one at 18 m, two at 15 m, two at 12 m, three minutes at 9 m up and then say 20-minute at the 6 m stop as calculated from DecoPlanner, GUE-ers average their stop times so they stop two minutes at each stop from 21m to 9m and then pull their required 20-minute deco at 6 m. The resulting plan? “Twos and 20!” Easy to remember, and easy to conduct. In fact, that’s the deco we—the shallow team—did on our Windjammer dive to 50 m/164 f with 20 minutes bottom time. Deco on deeper and longer dives get a little more complex.
Modify the numbers from the deco algorithm? Is nothing sacred? The argument being that the algorithms i.e. one minute here, two minutes there etc. are just an approximation anyway; decompression is not (yet) a precise science. In fact, according to a recent DAN Europe study, 94% of hits occur within the specified table or computer. GUE’s thinking: better to prioritize team unity and operations. See Jablonski’s article “Decompression, Deep Stops, and the Pursuit of Precision in a Complex World, Part Three; Bubble-wise, Pound Foolish.”
A final lesson in protocol: We were running late. I was waiting for my gas; doubles with 18/45, and a nitrox 50 stage. Team Seattle was waiting for me. I finally got my tanks, analyzed my gas, got labels, filled them out hurriedly, and then inadvertently mixed up the labels. I put my 50% label on my doubles and the 18/45 on my stage. I didn’t notice. However, my GUE teammate, anesthesiologist Heléné Pellerin did. “Michael, your labels are incorrect. You must re-analyze your gas,” she said with no uncertainty in her French Quebec accent. “No problem. I’ll just write new labels, “ I answered, not yet realizing where this was going. “No,” she said, “you must re-analyze your gas.”
WHAT!#@? I just did. OK, I was a bit perturbed but reluctantly reanalyzed my gas; didn’t want to push the point with my new team. The gas hadn’t changed, and this time I correctly applied the new labels.
With later reflection, I realized my tech sister was absolutely right and I was glad that she spoke up, and that I complied. Do you know how many of our tribe have died breathing the wrong gas at depth? Answer: Way too frigging many!
I’m reminded of a recent post that the human Lock recently re-tweeted—a post from Lt. Gen. David Morrison, “The standard you walk past is the one that you accept!” It’s a matter of building safe habits and a fail-safe system to catch our humanness. I mean I knew what was in my bottles, but if someone else had used them, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t, would they? In fact, after that I made it a point to ask Heléné when I had a question of protocol or procedure. She was always helpful.
Ironically, we shared the tech boat with a NAUI Tec team from Argentina headed by NAUI greybeard, Daniel “Danny” Millikovsky, along with instructor Ken Head from Texas. I learned that they were also diving their own standard config, standard gasses, and runtime tables generated by RGBM algorithm. They wrote their runtime schedule down on the wrist slates. Completely different from GUE of course that mandates Halcyon WetNotes!
Just kidding! It was clear to me that our commonality greatly outweighed our differences, and we had a number of enlightening in-depth discussions—the subject of a future article.
SubGravity and TEKDive USA cofounder Randy Thornton appealed to our higher angels in his talk, “Make Tech Diving Great Again.” He began with a startling statistic that the average time that a new tech diver stays in the game is two years! The Reasons: they never get truly comfortable with gear, and/or being in the water, and yet they often push themselves to do too much too fast, resulting in too much stress—all of which is NOT fun. “At the end of the day, we are here to have FUN,” he reminded us!
Thornton, who is a very experienced tech and CCR instructor, offered sound advice: learn progressively, gain experience at each level before moving on, pick the mentors you want to emulate, keep an open mind, and show up at classes ready to learn. He admonished instructors to maintain their integrity and to say, “No” if their student was not ready for the next class.
Not one to preach what he doesn’t practice, Thornton, who during his pre-diving career put in his 10k hours as a professional musician, shared that he takes a new class every year and makes it a point to dive with other age groups and training agencies. “Mastery is just a momentary point in time,” he observed. “It’s the process that’s important.”
Finally, he thoughtfully reminded us about the use of social media and implored us to just say “NO” to cyberbullying. “We need to be sharing information and knowledge and celebrating each other’s successes, not running each other down,” he emphasized, offering mountain biking forums as an example of communities that are doing it right.
Here was my favorite anecdote in his talk:
There was a farmer who won the award for the best corn year in and year out. A reporter discovered he shared his seed corn each year with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best corn with your neighbors when they compete with you each year?” the reporter asked. ‘Why sir,” said the farmer,” Didn’t you know that wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors to do the same.
In other words, you have to give it away to keep it! Thornton ended with a depthful plea, “Share with others through mentoring and giving back, and help build our community.” Amen.
Silent Diving’s founder and president, Mike Fowler, gave the final presentation titled, “How Do We Make Diving Safer?” He began by reviewing the grim statistics on rebreather diving deaths; 317 deaths from 1998-2018, 146 from 2010-2018 or about 16/year. Fifty-five percent were solo diving, 30% failed to monitor their sensors and or ignored warnings, 30% conducted poor assembly and pre-dive checks, the list goes on.
Fowler then discussed the role of “human or non-technical factors” in these incidents and offered the Rebreather Education and Safety Association (RESA)’s 10 Point Plan. One of his comments stuck with me, “If there’s any doubt, there is!”
Sadly, a very visible and loved member of our community who was an experienced rebreather diver, anesthesiologist and hyperbaric doctor Fiona Sharp died in Bonaire on a solo rebreather dive, a few days after the event ended, in what appears to be a result of human factors. See the accompanying article, “Fiona SharpYou Will Be Sorely Missed!,” in this issue.
To honor our dear sister’s passing, Mr. G has decided to dedicate next year’s Bonaire Tek 2020 to improving diving safety. It’s something we can’t get enough of. Hope to see you there next year.
Award-winning underwater cinematographer Matthias Lebo, who is based in Zurich, Switzerland, produced a series of videos of the event. The Croatian born filmmaker spent most of his twenties traveling the world – primarily Australia, South East Asia and Europe – working as a Scuba Diving Instructor, intensifying his love and appreciation for the ocean. Lebo operates a small film production company named “Liquid Images.” He’s made it his mission to show as many people as possible the beauty and wonders of the underwater world. He hopes to raise awareness of how fragile our marine ecosystem is. You can also find him on Facebook. Enjoy!
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.
Getting Back in the Water with Caveman Phil Short
With local diving slowly opening in the wake of the pandemic, InDepth caught up with British cave explorer and educator Phil Short to see how he navigated his post lockdown re-submergence. And what about those 14, 15, 16 month old oxygen sensors?
by Michael Menduno
Header photo by Michael Thomas. Phil Short swims under Wookey Chamber 14.
With diving just beginning to resume in various parts of the world after what felt like an interminable shutdown, we thought it would be interesting to check in with some of our friends to see how they were approaching their return to the underwater world after such a long hiatus.
Ironically, it’s been the longest that 51-year old British cave explorer, scientific diving officer, exosuit pilot, educator and film consultant Phil Short, principal of Dark Water Explorations Ltd. has been out of the water in his entire 30-year diving career. How did one of tech diving’s indefatigable pioneers plot his re-submergence, and what would he offer up to colleagues about to take the plunge?
We chatted up Short just as he was booking his first dive project trip abroad; this is what the ardent caveman said.
InDepth: Maybe we can start with you explaining a little about the circumstances in the UK. I know you were on lock down as far as diving was concerned, and they are now in the process of opening up.
Phil Short: Basically, when the COVID-19 crisis began, the country went into lockdown for all nonessential activities. So obviously, any type of sport and recreation was included in that. And then, after about two months, they slowly started to reduce the restrictions, certainly for more normal activities and allowed certain sports to take place again. There was a lot of controversy over diving, because COVID-19 is a respiratory or lung-borne disease. So there was concern that it could create additional potential hazards with lung expansion injuries and embolisms.
In the UK, we have a group called the British Diving Safety Group, which is made up of various organizations including diving training agencies: the British equivalent of the Coast Guard, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is our version of OSHA and the diving industry trade organization, and SITA (Scuba Industries Trade Association). I am a member, and we met to determine what the safest and most prudent, most expedited means were to get people back in the water. We consulted with the hyperbaric medical community, COVID-19 related medical experts, the agencies with the authorities that control charter boat operations, and with the HSE.
The first permissions were for small groups. Basically, you and one buddy could do shore dives. We adopted recommendations by the NSS-CDS as to how gas sharing should take place, and safety or S-drills so you are not breathing from each other’s equipment.
So when did you go diving?
As a member of the BDSG committee, I was very diligent not to go in the water until the evening we announced that it was permissible to go beach or shore diving. The next morning, 28May 2020, I left my house at 4 AM to go and do a beach dive on a landing craft from the second world war, a genuine World War II wreck. I descended at 6:23 AM and it was just heaven because I had been out of the water for 86 days because of the restrictions. And it was just great to get back in.
Where did you make your last pre-COVID-19 dive?
My previous dive had been on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands off of West Africa teaching a trimix rebreather class. It was a 93m/303 ft dive. I got on the plane, flew home, and the lockdown started almost immediately. And then 86 days later, I was doing a 12m/39 ft dive off the beach in the UK. It was my longest break in diving in the 30 years I’ve been in the industry.
Let me ask you, did you have a conscious strategy or approach to getting back in the water? You didn’t start back in at 90 meters.
Yes, it was conscious. Certainly rebreathers, it’s not just like riding a bike. You do need to keep current. I recommend to my students to be doing at least one skill dive on the rebreather per month, minimum, to maintain currency.
So I decided that for the first dive, once the permissions had been given, to go make the beach dive on doubles. I’ve got a nice little twin 8.5L set that’s small enough for walking over the beach. It still had the redundancy, but it was simple scuba and a simple depth of just 12m/39ft. Basically, the first thing I did when I got in the water was descend just a few feet and made sure that I was proficient with doing a shutdown and isolation drill on the doubles.
Then I went for the dive on a good nitrox with a long no-decompression time and surfaced way before I was getting anywhere near decompression. I took it gently. First time back in 86 days, I took it gently, and then over the last six or seven weeks, I’ve started to build up from there.
I know you’ve talked and probably compared notes with colleagues and other divers. Do you think people there are approaching getting back in the water sanely or is it a bit of a madhouse? How would you characterize things in the UK?
I would say, as often happens, it’s mixed. So, based on recommendations of the agencies and their instructors, the majority of people are getting back into it gradually like I did myself. But there’ll always be those who say, “Oh, I’m a good diver. I don’t need to do that. I’ve not been allowed to dive for two or three months. I want to go do what I want to do.” And they go straight out and do a 50 or 60m dive, which I think is just foolish.
Even ignoring the COVID-19 situation, if you were out of diving because of having a kid, or experiencing a job change or anything like that, or after a big layoff, I think it would be prudent to get back in gently and then slowly build up. So, my first dive was shallow with open circuit doubles. My next dive was a very limited penetration, shallow cave dive on open circuit, side mount, again with redundancy. A no-decompression dive but back in my natural environment of caves for a little swim around.
Gradually over the weeks, because I had better access to caves than I did to the sea, I did more and more cave dives and slowly built up in duration and distance, but still on open circuit. I then got permission from the owner to access one of the inland lakes, and we did some pre-official opening work for the owners of the site. I got back in on the rebreather but again, no-decompression, relatively shallow, no more than 30m/100 ft. Next, I integrated stages and my DPV (diver propulsion vehicle).
My first teaching was a Level one, Mod One rebreather course that I team-taught with a fellow UK instructor. It was a perfect way to get back in gently because we were running 10 hours over 8 to 10 dives of constant skills for the students. So that was a real refresher. And then finally last weekend, a group of us that had all been doing that type of gradual build up got out on a boat off the south coast of the UK, on a 33 m/108 ft deep wreck on Saturday. On Sunday, we dived a very well-known wreck, the SS Salsette, in 45 m/147 ft of water in beautiful conditions. Calm sea, good visibility, and a real wreck. So I had made a gradual buildup over seven or eight weeks to get to that point, rather than jumping straight back in.
Sweet. You mentioned rebreathers (CCR). Currently, there is a global shortage of oxygen sensors underway as a result of the pandemic. Oxygen sensors are being diverted to the medical industry, which is under siege right now from COVID-19. Any concerns or worries that people will go diving with out-of-date cells? Do you think that’s an issue?
It definitely concerns me. I’ve been a CCR instructor at all the levels, almost exclusively for the last 15 years, and I’ve seen people go out and happily spend five, six, seven, 10,000 pounds on a brand new rebreather and the training and then go out and be cheap on a £16 fill of Sofnolime or a £16 fill of oxygen. And you’re like, what are you doing? You paid £10,000 for this equipment and you’re risking your life on a £16 refill of consumables? People are so desperate right now to get back to their hobby; they feel like it’s been taken away from them, that I worry they may not always act sensibly.
It’s been a battle over the last five or six years to get people to really wake up and pay attention to the fact that these sensors are your life support. There was a very high-profile accident that was caused by overrun sensors a few years back with a quite-well-known person in the industry. He effectively died on the bottom, was rescued by his buddy, then was helicoptered to the hospital where he was put into an induced coma. He came out of it several days later and he was very, very lucky to survive. And very, very lucky to come back to actual diving again. But that was all caused by old, overbaked sensors.
So what do you see happening?
I think what’s going to happen, you know, is that some people ran out of fresh sensors a couple of months ago so now it’s 14 months, 15 months, 16 months. And some may be thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay. They’re reading fine, they’re working fine.” Some people might be doing linearity checks, doing oxygen flushes at 6 m/20 ft to check if they read high when appropriate.
But really, the companies like AP Diving, JJ-CCR, Vobster Marine Systems, and others have put a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money into researching and independently testing these life-support machines for functionality, with certain parameters. Much like car manufacturers do so you can drive your family and your kids in a safe car. [Hammerhead CCR developer] Kevin Jurgenson summed it up once brilliantly when he put out a statement saying, ”Okay, people are questioning the duration that a sensor can last. Some people would say 12 months. Others would say 52 weeks. Some would say 365 days.” And he carried on to include hours, minutes etc. Basically saying, a year is a year. Whichever way you try to stretch it, it’s a year. No more.
Personally, I would not violate that because those three simple galvanic fuel cells that represent probably somewhere between $200 and $300 depending on the manufacturer and the unit, representing a tiny percentage of the expense that I’ve outlaid to become a rebreather diver, is not worth my life.
As I mentioned, I am now back on my rebreather after starting on open circuit, and if my sensors eventually pass their 12-month date, I’m very happy to return to open circuit for as long as I have to while I wait to buy some new cells.
I have always believed in my educational career of thirty years in the diving industry to lead by example. Those are my feelings. I know from experience when you make comments like that, and it’s effectively the same as raising your head above the trench in a warfare situation. People are going to take shots; but bring it on. If you’ve got a sensible, scientific argument for extending your cells past 12 months, then I’m happy to discuss it. But I don’t think there is one.
So the moral is, if you have sensors that are past either one year, 12 months, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,000 minutes, or 31.5 million seconds, then you need to go back to open circuit, or not dive until you can get some new ones?
I believe so. The manufacturers whose rebreathers I have dived and taught on over the last 10 years are people that were passionate about rebreather safety. And much like [Sheck] Exley, who focused on improving cave training and cave safety by writing Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival, these manufacturers—people like Martin Parker at AP Diving and Jan Petersen at JJ CCR have gone the extra mile to improve safety.
You know full well from the aquaCORPS days, if you look at the safety record of CCR diving now, versus 15 years ago, we made a difference. It has become safer. Why ruin it, because of impatience and a short-term, relatively short-term, restriction on availability of consumables?
Right. In fact, I have talked to Nicky Finn at AP and also Jakub Sláma at Divesoft who have been in touch with sensor manufacturers regarding shortages, and it seems that the situation may be stabilizing and or easing up, assuming we don’t have a second wave of COVID-19 infections. So hopefully, the situation will improve.
Actually, I’ve heard that from several manufacturers, and I think it will improve quicker than was first anticipated. And that’s even more of a reason for not doing anything foolish and being a little bit patient with this to be safe.
Last question: What’s next for you? Got any big projects coming up?
I just booked my first flight to travel out of the UK again. This time to Croatia. I’m going to be designing and building a water dredge system for recovering and capturing sediment on an archaeological site for a project that we are going to do in October. This is a follow-up project from one we did in 2017 to recover a US World War II pilot from a wrecked B24 bomber that ditched in the Adriatic Sea. We’re going back to do another recovery on a different wreck.
The dredge system will be designed to work at the appropriate depth level so that we can basically recover the sediment without losing anything. Specifically, we’re not going to miss any of the crew that are found through that dredging. So, I’ve got a 10-day trip to build that system, test it in the same depth of water, and have it ready for the project.
When I come back from that, I’m flying out to Switzerland to train on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount with a good friend and former student of mine, Nadir Quarta. It will be my first sidemount rebreather. I’ve got no intention of moving away from my JJ as my primary rebreather, but I’ve got quite a few cave projects that require a side mount that I can’t do in my back-mount JJ. They don’t offer a sidemount, and because of distance and depth, I can’t do it on open circuit. I put a lot of thought into which unit to use, and am very impressed with Divesoft’s engineering and build. They’re also very courteous and professional to deal with. I like working with people like that.
After training, I plan to attend a Swiss technical dive conference, Dive TEC! in Morges as a speaker, where I will be talking on my 30-year journey as a cave diver and explorer.
Fun times ahead! Thank you, Phil. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
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.
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