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Technical Diving Myths vs. Reality

Greek cave instructor and filmmaker Stratis Kas explores some of the unstated myths about tech diving and offers up some hard-won consensus reality.

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By Stratis Kas 

Header photo in Sardinia by Mariona Yepes Daviu / Bluforia.

While many highly-trained divers have the knowledge and experience needed to face the very real challenges that technical diving offers, some do not. The idea that all technical divers have the advanced skills needed for their dives is a myth in the industry–one that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Let’s start at the beginning. 

All technical divers know what they are doing about decompression

Technical divers are supposed to not only manage, but also to understand, and therefore agree with the diving plan that they are “choosing” to follow. They need to have a deep, extended, and in-the-field experience of all the factors affecting their chances of survival. That means really understanding decompression theory and how and why to use gradient factors. Relying on machinery means you’re not diving your plan and you’ve handed the responsibility for your safety to an expensive piece of equipment. It happens all too often.

One of our main concerns as divers is not even entirely factual. Deco theory is (still) a gathering of data that applies to a mysterious physiology and complex reacting unit, the human body. Today, technology and reliable equipment have enabled divers to extend their limits without all of the needed foundations. Massive dives beyond 100 m/328 ft, that until relatively recently were accessible to only the select few, are now “weekend” tech dives, often without surface support. I actually know people that do not dive shallower than 80m anymore because they cannot be bothered! Is this attitude followed by a parallel growth in knowledge and experience? Often not. And that is when we have a problem. 

Photo by Nata Kas.

Many technical divers today would have a very bad day if they needed to do an ascent without a computer or even tables. Even though it is not a complicated thing to do, once you know what you are doing. Sometimes, the progress through certifications and into deeper diving is faster than the diver’s capacity to learn. We tend to forget that tools are there to only assist us, not do the job for us.. In the tech era we live in, we rely on electronics way too much. Computers don’t get bent, but divers may. The issue is not the fact that the computers aren’t doing what they are designed to do, it’s that divers can become dependent on them. 

In my opinion, divers should progress slower, and most importantly take a different approach. During technical courses, divers are mostly taught gas management and gas switching skills. The fact that most agencies do not have their own (and that is a good thing) algorithms or deco procedure makes decompression a somewhat vaguer element in training. All the information about the effects of DCS is there; symptoms and dangers. But often the take away ends up being to “follow your software.” [Ed. Note that GUE teaches deco procedures that do not rely on dive computers]

I understand, given the uncertainty surrounding decompression,  it can be difficult to define with certainty what to do, so courses tend to offer procedures that are “generally accepted as safe”. As a result, responsibility is transferred to the divers themselves. That’s why it’s imperative that divers become proficient in something that is so critical.

All technical divers are independent

Technical divers tend to be independent, it’s true. But some tend to follow, perhaps from habit, the advice of their recreational instructor who then becomes a permanent dive guide for them. That dependency isn’t in line with the level of knowledge and experience needed to do the dives they are certified for, so they depend upon the knowledge and experience from others and are not prepared to deviate from that.

Diving is an organic activity. It requires careful planning, granted, but not everything always goes as planned. Part of being a proficient technical diver is to be able to adapt and adjust to new situations and to adjust and respond without making mistakes. A diver who cannot do so, does not make for a good dive buddy. It would be a mistake to attempt serious dives with them.

One solution would be to treat advanced technical diving in incremental steps, applying the patience each step requires and anticipating the reward each step offers, which is considerable.

All technical divers are experienced

Technical divers, as well as recreational divers, often speed through their training, combining multiple courses without accumulating the necessary experience needed. The disadvantages to this approach are obvious, and not all of them have to do with safety. [Note: GUE requires divers to make 25 experience dives at the level of your course before taking the next level course.] 

Let’s not forget we dive for fun. Why ignore all the shallow wrecks while racing to get your 100 m/328 ft certification quickly?? It’s true that many divers are less motivated, perhaps less excited, when they dive within their personal depth limits, in spite of the fact that each dive, with the right attitude, has its own unique thrill. If divers were more motivated to work their way slowly to depth and have fun doing it, they would be getting themselves more prepared for the next step. 

Greece. Photo by Vassilis Tsiairis.

Personally, every time I face a situation or a dive that feels new to me, due to the location, weather or other factors—not excluding dive buddies—I approach it with a combination of respect and excitement. Adding excitement to respect, helps me reduce fear. Removing respect from excitement increases risk.

Defining the ratio of these two elements is personal and paramount for each diver to truly grow. This process takes time to generate measurable awareness. It can’t be skipped or rushed. Divers should enjoy diving, monitor and celebrate each stage of growth, and challenge themselves in a gradual and measured way.

Only deep dives are worth it

Just don’t be that diver. Don’t be a depth snob. In more than two decades of diving, I am still amazed about the nonsense of the virtue of being deep for its own sake. Many compare it to driving fast. But it is not comparable, as speed is felt. The faster you drive, or fly, the more you feel the speed. Nowadays, diving deeper doesn’t really feel any different. Regulator technology (thankfully), and well designed rebreathers removed the perception of depth due to breathing resistance, and use of helium removes the narcosis. So a diver who is at 40 meters/130 ft will feel the same as a diver who is at 100 m/328 ft. Diving deep for a purpose—wrecks, recoveries, and teaching makes sense. Diving deep ‘just because’ doesn’t. 

Sardinia. Photo by Mariona Yepes Daviu / Bluforia.

Let’s not endanger ourselves in order to have bragging rights. Deeper is not necessarily better. Enjoy shallow dives. Not just caves, but shallow reefs. There are some amazing shallow caves: Bel Torrente in Sardinia, Orda in Russia and one in Sinji in Greece. No deco, no trouble—just beauty. I’m not advising against deeper caves, just advocating not looking for them on purpose. For once the machismo is removed, shallow dives can be as rewarding, if not more so, than deep ones.

We can learn fundamentals as we go

Sinji Cave. Photo by Laurent Miroult.

All divers should take a “fundamentals” or foundations course. Actually all training agencies should include a (lighter) version directly during open water courses. First of all, there is no way to be independent as a diver without fundamental knowledge and skills. But as dive training is a business before anything else, at some point it went the other way and focused on minimum skills and time required to get a certification. As a result, some divers ended up learning their fundies as you go. Well, that may be ok (not really) during recreational diving, but it’s downright dangerous in the technical path. 

It’s normal that advanced open water divers want to learn tech and cave diving. These days, with all the press and information available, the awareness about technical and cave diving has increased, seemingly making it more accessible to everyone. 

As a result, too often divers with barely sufficient skills and experience want to  enroll in demanding courses like the above mentioned. When asked to prove that they have the basic or fundamental skills needed to enroll, they explain that it’s the reason they want to do the course; to improve their fundamental skills. Following the lead of Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) and its Fundamentals course, over the last decade, most agencies have introduced a fundamentals type course. But still, many students expect to incorporate that training in an already time-constrained course like an intro to cave or a trimix course. 

Divers who want to improve skills, should find a fundamentals course that will do that.

Scuba diving is a (competitive) sport

Among other things, the definition of a “sport” explains that there is a measurable performance that differentiates winner(s) from loser(s) that is, the one who runs faster wins.  In scuba diving this is a very dangerous notion, as it pushes divers to compete against one another , often pushing their limits beyond their comfort zone. [Ed. Note that free diving does have a competitive component to it with an demonstrated safety record.]



Scuba diving is not a sport. It’s an activity. Much like hiking is about seeing wonderful new places, recording mental (or real) images and returning home with a new appreciation of nature, and alive. Actually, scuba diving is just that: underwater hiking. No need to add unnecessary risk by pushing limits that don’t offer any additional value to the actual dive.

Checklists are only for rebreathers

Once it was the fins. Another time it was the drysuit. Many times it was the mask, then the backup mask. On occasion it was the backup lights. Closed valve. Computer and bottom timer. Multiple times. Compass? Do I own one?

It’s very complicated to be certain that everything works perfectly during scuba diving. The extensive equipment, procedures, and unknown and uncontrollable parameters create room for constant alterations from the ideal plan. 

Sardinia. Photo by Stratis Kas.

The solution is using checklist(s). They are used constantly by professionals, in situations where the sheer amount of information, tools and procedures risk overwhelming the user, no matter how skilled. Using a checklist guarantees a constant, relaxed performance and reduces the chance that something will be skipped or forgotten. Checklists have become standard protocol for rebreather divers, but their benefits apply to open circuit divers as well.

Checklists save projects, fun dives, and lives. There should be one for what you need to leave home with: charge lights and scooters; check batteries on the backup lights, check BCD integrity. Anything that cannot be fixed or replaced easily on the day of the dive. A separate dive center checklist is a good idea–one that includes gas analysis. And finally, a pre-dive checklist.


Stratis Kas is a diving instructor & explorer, a film-maker, adventurer and storyteller. Stratis Kas deals with all of his subjects — extreme weather expeditions to days lost in wilderness — with unique sensitivity and fearless focus. He travels to remote, sometimes risky, and often freezing locations to create stunning films that change what we know about diving expeditions.

Since 2016, he has led the Top2bottom cave filming team that specialize in Adventure Filming. In 2017, he finished his first film “Amphitrite” that won a finalist place in the film festival, “Short to the Point” in 2018. Currently he is finishing his second feature film “Infinite Liquid” produced by Because I Can Ltd.

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Brits Brew Beer Booty

What do you get when you combine British divers’ proclivity for shipwreck exploration with their strong affinity for beer? A tasty treasure hunt on the “Wallachia” that resulted in swilling 126-year old reconstituted British beer. GUE Scotland’s detective chief inspector Andy Pilley recounts the tale.

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by Andy Pilley
Images courtesy of
A. Pilley

Header Image: GUE Scotland’s brewmeisters enjoying their brew (L to R) Top: Owen Flowers, Andy Pilley, Wayne Heelbeck. Middle: Steve Symington, A. Pilley, O. Flowers, Bottom: W. Heelbeck, Sergej Maciuk, S. Symington

“Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”

Queen Victoria

I never thought when I started diving 10 years ago, that one day I would be able to sit down for a pint of beer with the team from GUE Scotland recreated from a brew that has been hidden under the waves for 126 years. Let me explain.

The Wallachia was a single screw cargo steamer that was owned by William Burrell & Son of Glasgow, and employed on regular trips between Glasgow and the West Indies. On 29th September, 1895 she left Queen’s Dock, Glasgow at 10am bound for Trinidad and Demerara. On board was a valuable general cargo including whisky, gin, beer, acids, glassware, and earthenware plus building materials and footwear. By 1pm that afternoon she had settled on the seabed of the Clyde Estuary after colliding with another ship in a fog bank, she was forgotten until 1977 when a local sub-aqua club rediscovered the wreck site.

The wreck of the Wallachia lies on an even keel in approximately 34 metres of water on a sandy seabed. The wreck itself is largely intact and has six holds in total, three forward and three aft. In the rearmost hold there are thousands of bottles of beer, some still inscribed with the name of the maker, McEwans of Glasgow. This is where myself and the team from GUE Scotland enter the story.

The Wreck of the Wallachia 

The Wallachia is one of the more accessible sites on the west coast of Scotland, where we carry out most of our diving. Depending on weather and tidal conditions, visibility on the wreck can be +10m/33 ft on a very good day or less than 2m/6 ft if there has been a lot of rain due to the amount of particulate in the water. Other elements to consider are the tide as this can vary in its intensity, as well as surrounding boat traffic. The wreck lies in close proximity to a ferry route and care must be taken not to dive when the ferry is closeby. However despite the challenges, the wreck is very rewarding and offers a diver plenty of places to explore and items to look at. 

The main point of interest for most has been the rearmost hold, where the bottles of whisky and beer were stored. The majority of the whisky was removed in the 1980’s however a few bottles can be found on occasion, depending where you look. What remains are thousands of bottles of beer, still with the corks and contents intact. Over the course of 2018 & 2019, the team at GUE Scotland dived on the wreck and recovered a number of bottles from the hold. 

After a chance discussion with a friend at dinner one night, I was given contact details for a company called Brewlab, which is based in Sunderland in the north east of England. Brewlab specialise in the provision of specialist brewing training, as well as laboratory services such as quality assurance, product development, chemical/microbiology testing as well as long term research options. I made contact with Keith Thomas, the Director of Brewlab, to discuss whether he would be interested in analysing the beer and investigating whether it could be recreated. Needless to say the proposal piqued his interest and arrangements were made for the bottles to be shipped to his lab.

Unbeknownst to me, the recovery of historical beers is rare, due to various sources of degradation/contamination which can affect any residual microbial cells and chemical components left in the beer that were used as part of the brewing process. So these samples are a valuable source of information on past brewing and microbiology. Over the course of 2019/2020, Keith and I kept in regular contact over the progress of the investigations and the full analysis of the beer has recently been published.

A Brewing Interest

Between 1850 and 1950, the application of scientific principles to brewing was becoming increasingly prevalent and microbiology was playing an increasingly important role. A pertinent issue in brewing microbiology around 1900 was the application of pure Saccharomyces yeast cultures developed by Hansen at the Carlsberg laboratory in 1888. These were readily adopted by continental breweries as providing more controlled production and purer beers. Application to UK brewing was, however, less positively received, in part because of the belief that British beers possessed particular flavours arising from mixed yeast cultures and, specifically, the involvement of Brettanomyces species. This was especially believed to be essential for the character of ‘stock’ ales which were matured for extended periods.

While a number of breweries did try pure culture yeasts, UK brewing was resistant to change and, with the intervention of World War I, retained its indigenous yeast cultures. Since the 1940’s a more biotechnological approach to fermentation demonstrated the value of pure culture and was progressively applied to the larger breweries developing at that time. 

During the formative period of brewery microbiology after Pasteur, brewing yeast were identified as Saccharomyces species based on morphological features of shape, filamentous propensity and spore characteristics. Non brewing, ‘wild’ yeast was recognised and termed ‘Torula’ if non-sporulating. Of these Brettanomyces strains were identified as contributing important character to stock ales. It is also clear from brewing texts that bacteria were recognised as spoilage organisms in beer, as had been initially demonstrated by Pasteur in 1863. These species were mostly categorised as bacilli and typically portrayed as rods and associated with sarcina sickness – generally producing sourness. Some studies, nevertheless, identified lactic acid bacteria as indigenous components of standard beers.

Contemporary breweries are increasingly interested in using novel microbiology, either unconventional yeast strains or mixes of species and strains for sour and natural products. Identifying the specific strains and species of yeast and bacteria present in Victorian and Edwardian beers is directly relevant to this and has particular value if cultures of authentic microorganisms can be retrieved. Reports of retrieved historic brewery microbiology are limited but hold interesting promise for identifying novel microorganisms.

The specific parameters of the analysis are contained in a published research paper, Preliminary microbiological and chemical analysis of two historical stock ales from Victorian and Edwardian brewing.”

As I mentioned, the primary objective of the analysis was to confirm whether detail could be provided on the original brewing ingredients and the fermentation microbiology. The analysis confirmed the use of Brettanomyces/Dekkera bruxellensis and Debaryomyces hansenii, which are brewing and fermentation yeasts respectively. The presence of Debaryomyces is interesting as this genus has not been noted as a historic feature of historic brewing, but has been identified in spontaneous fermentations, for example in Belgian lambic beers. Although the strain was reported to the brewing industry in 1906, it has not featured as a major contributor to beer fermentations since.



The analysis has also provided relevant information of the beer character and has confirmed that the beer recovered from the Wallachia was a stout, close to style expectations of the time and had an alcohol content of c. 7.5%. The colour gravity was high, resulting in a much darker beer however a much lower level of bitterness. Again this was typical style of the time and differs from other modern stouts.

More interestingly is the presence of various types of bacteria, which will likely have been picked up during the brewing process. The table below lists these for reference. Needless to say, historic brewing was not a sterile process in comparison to modern methods!

Bacillus licheniformisPlant and soil bacterium
Finegoldia magnaCommensal skin bacterium
Fusobacterium sp.Possible pathogenic bacterium
Kocuria roseaPossible urinary tract pathogen
Mogibacterium pumilumPossible oral cavity bacterium
Shigella sonneiEnteric pathogen
Staphylococcus epidermidisCommensal skin bacterium
Stenotrophomonas maltophiliaSoil bacterium
Varibaculum cambriensePossible pathogenic bacterium

Table 1: The bacteria found in the Wallachia beer bottles

Due to the relatively stable conditions on the wreck, being in near darkness and at a relatively cold temperature (between 6º–14ºC/43º-57ºF depending on the time of year), the live yeast structures within the beer were protected from sources of stress and allowed them to survive over the past 126 years. Luckily, Keith was able to extract these samples and begin to recultivate the yeast, specifically the Debaryomyces, with the hope of being able to rebrew the beer.

Cheers Mates

Just before Christmas, I finally received word from Keith that he had completed a trial brew and seven bottles of the brew were on their way to me. A few excitement laden days later and a nondescript box arrived at my office with the beer inside. I called the guys on our Facebook group chat to show them the case and got each bottle packaged up and sent out to them. 

A few days later, once everyone had received their sample we got together again to try the samples. There was an air of excitement after the two years it had taken us to get to this point, the most anticipated pint ever! I’m no expert in the flavour profiles of beer so you will have to forgive me for my relatively basic analysis. In summary, I got flavours of coffee and chocolate and there was a relatively low level of carbonation, which made it very drinkable. The rest of the team got similar flavours, the only complaint being there wasn’t more to try!

There will of course be slight differences in flavour since we don’t normally add the bacteria listed above as ingredients. However, the recipe we have is as close as we can make it to the original stock version.

The next steps for the project are to carry out further investigation on the characteristics of the Debaryomyces yeast strain in order to determine their suitability for fermentation and potential use in future brewing production. We are making approaches to various commercial breweries in order to discuss future commercialisation of the recipe and produce the brew on large scale. With the story behind the original recipe, we’re hopeful that the provenance would be a key selling point to consumers. It is my hope that the recovery of these samples will open up new possibilities for different types of beers to be developed, and offer something different for beer enthusiasts to try.

I have also found out that there are other types of beer to be found on the wreck, specifically an IPA style. Once we’re allowed to begin diving again, I am hoping to return to the Wallachia and recover some of these bottles so we can carry out the same analysis and keep the project moving forward.

In the mean-time, cheers!

Additional Resources:

The Brewlab Podcast, Episode 2 (March 30, 2021): Lost Beers Recreated from Shipwreck Bottles

GUE Scotland vlog -Episode 1


Andy Pilley is a Chartered Surveyor, team member of GUE Scotland, passionate wreck & cave diver and Ghost Fishing UK team diver. Andy started diving with the Scottish Sub-Aqua club in 2011 and began diving with GUE in 2018. Andy dives on the east and west coasts of Scotland where there is a rich maritime history and an abundance of wrecks to be explored. He has a passion for project diving and is developing objectives for a number of sites with the GUE Scotland team. He hopes to assist on the Mars Project and with the WKPP in the future.

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