Skanda is part of the next generation of cave instructors and explorers. Having developed his skills under Patrick Widmann and Kim Davidsson at Protec Dive Centers in Mexico, he is one of the most active explorers in the region. He has been regularly working with Phillip Lehman on exploration projects and the video and social media promotion for conservation projects such as Somos Los Cenotes.
What is sidemount to you?
As a cave instructor and explorer, sidemount is both a comfortable way to dive and a configuration that allows me to pursue cave exploration. I really enjoy the freedom of movement in the water that sidemount gives me, especially being able to look around freely in the caves. I definitely feel a week of diving or teaching in doubles takes it’s toll on my back, whereas sidemount – taking tanks one by one to the water – doesn’t have the same impact on my body. As I want to keep cave diving as long as possible, this is pretty important to me! Often, some of the caves I explore do not even have the space to get to the water in a set of doubles, so sidemount becomes the only way.
What can be improved with sidemount in general?
As I see it, sidemount diving suffers from gear manufacturers creating harnesses with little or no idea of how a sidemount harness should dive and training agencies allowing very substandard courses. Many sidemount harnesses were designed by divers (mainly cave explorers)—think of the DiveRite Nomad, Razor, XDeep Stealth. They all incorporate the design elements and experience of the people who designed them. Other manufacturers may not have the same experience to draw on, creating harnesses that may work in theory, but in suboptimal ways with unnecessary design features in the environment they are used.
Also, the requirements to become a sidemount instructor with many recreational training agencies are embarrassingly low. Many don’t even require specialised training, but simply experience (4 dives) in sidemount and then the instructor can apply for an instructor rating. With the bar set that low, students taking training from these instructors are bound to have a much lower skill level, understanding of how their harness works, and how tanks should sit and feel, as well as generally sidemount diving skills.
Was there an epiphany moment for you with sidemount?
I completed my full cave training in backmount, with the intention of learning sidemount to dive some sidemount-only caves. I remember diving at Cenote Carwash, close to Tulum, during my sidemount course. I had been many times in doubles, but being in sidemount allowed me to pass into sections of the cave I had never been able to go into before. To be able to pass restrictions that had previously prevented progress into the cave, and to see the amazing section after those restrictions was really cool! And in general, the freedom of movement in the water was a complete revelation!
Is sidemount a “fashion” trend?
Sidemount, while growing in popularity, is definitely not a new fashion in diving. Sure, many people are adopting sidemount configurations for diving in greater numbers now than in the past (not just for cave diving). But I don’t see many people going back to back mount once they have been diving sidemount! It’s definitely a configuration that many divers choose for a diverse array of reasons.
Do new students care for the history of sidemount? Or it is a tool only?
I do think that people new to sidemount are interested in its history. In all of my sidemount classes we cover the development of sidemount and its evolution. I think some of the developments surprise students! Especially when they realize that they are in the dive center where one of the most popular sidemount harnesses was created! As a big history and diving nerd I find it fascinating to learn about where and when many of our procedures, protocols and equipment were developed.
Sidemount and multistage cave diving? What’s your take?
I find that diving with three tanks (or four with a deco tank) sidemount is very comfortable. However, multistage diving, with four to five tanks in sidemount is just not comfortable for me. While I have done dives with that many tanks in sidemount, my chest is now too cluttered and access to my drysuit inlet valve is obstructed. It can be done, but swimming with four tanks on, often the gas that the fourth give me doesn’t get me much further due to the additional drag and effort to move through the water. But since getting a Kiss Sidewinder rebreather I haven’t needed to do dives with more than three tanks. So while it is possible, often the comfort of sidemount is lost when doing dives with more than three tanks.
Return to: The Who’s Who of Sidemount
InDEPTH: Keep It Simple Sidewinder By Jake Bulman and Skanda Coffield
GUE 25 Anniversary Conference Round Up
Global Underwater Explorers held a conference to commemorate the organization’s 25th anniversary. Held at GUE headquarters in High Springs, Florida, where it was founded by a group of cave divers founded in 1998, the organization convened instructors and divers from all over the world to recall the people and diving technologies that shaped GUE, how they’ve changed over time, and how they’ll evolve in the future.
In addition to celebrating the occasion, GUE convened speakers to present on topics related to its three biggest priorities: Exploration, Education, Conservation.
Shipwreck explorer Mario Arena, for example, gave a presentation on the “Battle of Convoys in the Mediterranean,” his 16-year project discovering and documenting dozens of shipwrecks left behind by the three-year-long battle during World War II and how his team is bringing the wrecks back to life using new technologies.
Cave explorers Fred Devos, Julien Fortin, and Sam Meacham gave a presentation on their efforts to document Ox Bel Ha, the largest underwater cave system in Mexico, a project which is concurrently celebrating its 25th anniversary. The project started out with, as Meacham called it, “two chainsaws, a compressor, and a horse,” and has begun to resurvey 144 square miles of caves with advances in diving equipment. Advances as simple as upgrades to lightbulbs and batteries, for example, enable the explorers to see through new passages.
Bill Stone, a cave explorer and head of Stone Aerospace, discussed “Recent Advances in Machine Exploration,” chronically how he’s used machines to explore underwater caves farther than any human. Stone’s autonomous drone, called Sunfish, uses sonar mapping to produce 3D maps and models deeper than photogrammetry divers can dive.
Ulrik Juul Christensen, a founder and chairman of Bonaire’s Area9 Mastery Diving Research Center, is developing an adaptive learning education platform for GUE and has spent about as much time as the organization has been in existence building education technologies. Christensen’s talk, “Learning That Matters,” focused on how to create new systems to help educate learners at their own pace so that knowledge, and not speed, is the priority.
In a complementary presentation, Sean Talamas, a managing partner and executive coach at leadership development consulting firm, discussed “The Depth of Character: Cultivating Grit, and a Growth Mindset.” The presentation focused on research by Angela Duckworth suggesting success is not achieved through talent, but a combination of passion and persistence she called “grit.”
GUE Instructor Trainer Andrea Marassich gave a presentation on “Building Capacity for Extreme Explorations” about the Sa Conca e Locoli Cave Project in Sardinia, Italy. Learning, he suggested, happens when you go out of your comfort zone, but not all the way to what he called the “panic zone,” where you are overwhelmed to the point that you don’t learn but instead shut down and it becomes extremely dangerous.” “You need a mentor,” Marassich said. “Someone who knows you enough to push you when you need to be pushed and pull back when you need to pull back.”
These were just a few of the education- and exploration-focused presentations. Speakers also included Blue Green Expeditions Managing Partner Faith Ortins on how divers can support environmentally conscious destinations, Peter Gaertner on citizen science conducted in the Caves of Gulf of Orosei project, Daniel Ortego on the Marine Genome Project, and Neal W. Pollock on the physiological limitations of technology in diving.
Max Deco & Bubble Trouble entertained conference attendees at the Friday night social with a pre-dive playlist of classic rock. Band members: John Kendall vocals, Gary Franklin vocals, Bill Stone lead guitar, Andrew Dow guitar, Francesco Cameli bass, Michael Menduno bass, Jason Cook drums.
You can find the full conference photo album here.