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Sizing Up The China Diving Market

Ask any training agency executive about the growth of diving, and he or she will likely mention the phenomenal growth of diving in China. We asked Edmund Yiu, owner of RAID China, and tech distributor Xtreme Deep Asia Limited, for a perspective on the Chinese diving market. How’s your Kung Fu?

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Ask any training agency executive about the growth of diving, and he or she will likely mention the phenomenal growth of diving in Asia, particularly in China. And everybody seems to be chasing it.

In fact, as this blog was being prepared there were two large rival diving exhibitions; one being held in Singapore, the other in Shanghai, both on the same weekend, which were locked in a ongoing battle for eyeballs, attendance, and, most importantly, exhibitors.

Ironically, Edmund Yiu, an accomplished technical diver with over 6000 dives and an instructor trainer who heads RAID China and tech equipment distributor Xtreme Deep Asia Limited, found it necessary to exhibit at both the ADEX and DRT shows, lest his companies concede market share to others.  InDepth caught up with Yiu at the last Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) show in Las Vegas to get a perspective on doing diving business in China. Here’s what the man had to say.

InDepth: I keep hearing that, from a global perspective, China is a hotbed of diving right now. Maybe you could explain if that is the case and what’s driving it.

Edmund Yiu: Of course, the world is always looking at China. It’s not just the diving industry; I think it’s the same as everything else as it’s really because there are a lot of consumers that have all of a sudden opened up, and there is certainly wealth involved. Everyone thinks there’s a lot of money to be made there.

Photo courtesy of Edmund Yiu.

Honestly, I am a little tired of hearing about the China market. In terms of opportunities, of course, there are plenty. But I don’t think China is as big of a gold mine as everybody thinks it is. It’s very tough to do business here in China. It’s hard to maintain profit margins and there are lot of competitors. Many are out to try to destroy each other instead of working together to protect the business, and there are price wars, misinformation, and in some cases, a total disregard of intellectual property. These things threaten to kill the market faster than anyone can benefit from it.

Isn’t diving relatively new in China?

The diving industry has only been into China for a little more than 10 years. However, it really only just got started about six years ago. So, you will find very few people who has actually dived longer than six years; most have dived less than three. In terms of age groups, you will not find many older people  that dive or have been certified to dive. Everybody is pretty young. I would say 20 to 40 years old, in that range. Demographically, it’s very attractive because there’s a huge population. Market penetration is just at the beginning, and there’s a lot of potential. And people there certainly have money to spend because they have been oppressed for so long and hungry for everything, so they go out trying to buy everything. Not just diving.

So the industry is seeing a lot of growth?

The major agencies are all looking to grow, so over the past few years they have expanded very quickly. There are a lot of course directors and instructors who, in many cases, have barely enough dives or real experience to become one.

It becomes very evident when we do crossovers. We have to teach some of the instructors a lot of the basic diving skills again. Even if they are course directors. There are instructors with just a few years of diving and yet, they are looked up to as idols. But if you compare them to people around the world who have been diving quite a while longer, they really have no idea what the outside [diving] world is like.

Is it true that most of the business is done online?

In China, everybody buys everything online. This is where the majority of purchases come through without any geographical boundaries, so all the dive shops sell countrywide. Surely they will have some locally-based customers, but when I give them stuff to sell, they sell it everywhere, the whole country.

The trouble is when you are selling stuff online, price competition is all there is. So, customers always look around and find the lowest price. As a result, margins are shrinking and it just kills the market for us.

So where do divers go to get a gas fill?

Well, most people in China aren’t in the habit of buying their own tanks and that’s how it is. Everybody uses the tanks provided by dive shops. Nobody really owns tanks unless they are a professional.

What about nitrox?

No, most dive shops don’t offer nitrox. Having and maintaining a nitrox filling facility would be a nightmare here because it’s very hard to get oxygen in China. Compressed gas and other things all heavily regulated. Even knives are heavily regulated. The Chinese government is very paranoid about terrorists. You cannot even buy gasoline unless you’re driving a car to fill it up.  

Is there good local diving?

That’s another thing about diving in China, there is really no good place to dive. There is only confined water like pools, which everybody uses for training. For open water dives, most people travel to Southeast Asia. The countries that have benefited the most from Chinese dive travel are probably the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, and Malaysia. There are also many dive shops that are being opened or bought by Chinese at these destinations. There are lakes and of course the sea in certain parts of China, but they are cold, have bad visibility, and are not very diveable.

Photo courtesy of Edmund Yiu.

Any shipwrecks or caves?

There are plenty of shipwrecks, given thousands of years of Chinese history, but they usually sank into the mud; most of the coastal areas are very muddy and often have zero visibility. Just how fun can that be?  It may be worth it for archaeology and historical study purposes. But certainly not for recreational diving.

We also have some caves in the western part of China, which are seasonal, tend to be deep, and have minimal facilities. These are not the places that most people want to go —only very experienced “tech” divers. Most people want to go diving in tropical water and see corals and fishes. So, everyone goes on trips. If you go to any diving destinations  in Asia and they’re all very crowded with Chinese tourist divers.

How do people there learn about diving? Is information readily available?

One of the problems we have is that people are not able to get good complete information. In China, we have limited information and are not able to easily get access to the outside world because the Internet is blocked. First of all, if you do a search on diving, a lot of the information is in English, but the majority of Chinese don’t speak English. The second thing is that most people don’t have any information about what the outside world is like. So it’s very easy to fall into the trap and idolize and follow the diving “hotshots” or “superstars” so to speak.

The problem is that everyone in the industry wants to be the star, and if they don’t have the knowledge, they just make it up. That’s very typical of Chinese mentality. They will just say anything. And people will believe it. They won’t have any basis to verify it.

It sounds like there isn’t a lot of cooperation within the diving industry.

One of the things that is happening here in China is, how should I put it, factionalism. Basically, there are the existing agencies and so many new agencies and pseudo-agencies in China right now because they all see it as a money-making business and want a piece of the pie. PADI has the biggest market share in China, because they have been going at it for about 12 years, marketing wise, and spending a lot of money building it; however, most other agencies are very small.

Photo courtesy of Edmund Yiu.

Factionalism?

What I mean by factionalism is that all the small agencies claiming they are the best and everybody else is no good, and they never cooperate with each other. It’s like Chinese Kung Fu: there are all these different factions, they have different styles, and they fight each other all the time.  The Chinese mentality is that your competitor is the enemy and everybody wants to kill the competitor. That’s what business is like there. It is cutthroat. Everyone is trying to kill each other instead of trying to help each other build an industry.

It sounds like a race to the bottom?

Whether it’s recreational open water or technical rebreather training, the problem is that everyone wants to grow [the business] really fast, because that’s how it is in China. They want to do everything quickly, and you can only do that to a certain degree in some industries, but you can’t do that very well in diving. You can only push it so much.

The whole point I think is that we enjoy diving, and we want people to learn it properly so they can enjoy their diving too. So that’s why we’d rather take the time and focus on quality. We believe it’s important to maintain our standards.

So, as much as I want us to grow, we don’t like to just sign everybody off because that’s what everybody else is doing. It’s the easiest and quickest way to make money. But, for me, making money is secondary because we are educators and genuine divers.

You told me at the DEMA, that RAID is trying to “do it right,” in bringing diving to China. What did you mean by that?  I’m sure you know that DIR i.e. “doing it right,” was the original name for Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) standards. So RAID also trains new divers to wear a backplate, wing, and long hose?

WE won’t go as far as GUE in term of the “DIR” standard. Yes, we do promote backplate and wings, and we promote long hoses for new divers because it just naturally goes well with our standards and philosophy. It is safer and more efficient underwater. It actually feels more natural when you are streamlined so it’s not just about being more technical. We believe the safest way is probably the best way and it also makes them a better diver.  It’s no more difficult than learning the traditional way kneeling on the bottom to do drills wearing a buoyancy jacket and a heavy weight belt. Instead we spend time and effort teaching divers correctly, i.e. properly weighted and neutrally buoyant, which means our costs are higher, and accordingly, we charge a little bit more. So we don’t need to get involved in price wars.

You’re talking buoyancy and trim!

Yes. To be able to hover horizontally, motionless, and have a proper weighting and trim is essential for all divers, not just technical divers. Open water divers appreciate it. It gives them more confidence. It’s also safer and better for the environment.

Header Image: courtesy of Edmund Yiu.


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Out of the Depths: The Story of British Mine Diving

If sumps and solo cave diving are, well, a bit too Brit for you, you may want to consider diving into the perfusion of flooded serpentine chert, copper, limestone, silica, slate, and tin mines that honeycomb the length and breadth of the Kingdom. Fortunately, British tekkie and member of UK Mine/Cave Diving (UKMC) in good standing, Jon Glanfield, takes us for a guided tour.

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By Jon Glanfield
Header image courtesy of Alan Ball.

When many think of the UK’s caves, with wet rocks and their penchant for darkness, often the images conjured are of tight, short, silty sumps, that can only be negotiated by intrepid explorers outfitted with diminutive cylinders, skinny harnesses, wetsuits and typically a beard. These are the domain and natural playground of the well-known, highly-respected, Cave Diving Group (CDG). 

In truth, much of our sceptered isle’s caves are of this ilk, but there is an alternative for the diver who favours a more conventional rig, extra room to manoeuvre, and perhaps a more team-orientated approach—one that is less than optimal in many of the true cave diving environments of the UK.

Holme Bank. Photo by Ian France.

Alongside our natural cave diving venues, we also sport a varied collection of flooded mines across the length and breadth of the Kingdom. In the south and southwest, miners have extracted metals such as tin and  copper, while in South Wales it was the mineral, silica. The Midlands Linley Caverns were a source of limestone before being converted to a subterranean munitions store in WWII. Sadly, access to these is no longer feasible. In the rolling hills of the Derbyshire Dales, flinty, hard chert strays close enough to the surface to be mined. In North Wales, the once-proud slate industry has left its Moria and Mithril redolent halls and tunnels beneath the landscape, while copper and slate underlay parts of Cumbria. Meanwhile, just over the border in Scotland, limestone was the resource that drove us to follow its veins into the earth.

Mike Greathead descending the stairway to heaven. Photo by Ian France.

Undeniably, here in the UK, mine diving has a much shorter documented history than that of its close cousin cave diving, but some of the luminaries of this dark world were, and are, active in both. Some of the initial dives in sites like the Cambrian slate mine were undertaken by the incomparable Martyn Farr, Geoff Ballard, and Helen Rider in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2014 that it was further explored and lined by the likes of Cristian Christea, Ian France, Michael Thomas, and Mark Vaughan amongst others. 

Both Rich Stevenson and Mark Ellyatt, who were part of the vanguard of the technical diving revolution in the UK, had personal dramas on trimix dives in the deep shaft of the Coniston Copper Mines, the depth of which runs to 310 m/1012 ft. Ellyatt made his dive at 170 m/555 ft in the early 2000s in a vertical 2 m/6.5 ft square shaft, dropping away into the 6º C/43º F frigid blackness.

Mines Over Matter

As was alluded to, the differences in cave and mine diving are significant. Conventional, redundant open and closed technical rigs can be employed in mine diving due to the predictably larger tunnels, passages, and chambers. Water movement is negligible, so often regular braided lines can be used, lines which would not endure the flow in many of the UK’s upland cave locations. Small teams can dive in safely. 

No Exit. Photo by Chris Elliot.

In general, it is not common to surface and explore the sumped sections of the mines, due to often dangerously contaminated or hypoxic air quality. Also, in some cases, oils and other contaminants have leached into the water. The ever-present risk of collapse—both in the submerged sections and in the dry access adits or portals—haunt divers’ thoughts and is far more common in mines than in the smooth, carved bore of a naturally-formed cave. Casevac (the evacuation of an injured diver) is complex, long-winded, and often dangerous for those involved, and in the event of an issue involving serious decompression illness (DCI), almost certainly helicopter transportation would be necessary given the remote locations.

Landowner access—or, more commonly, denial of access—is an ubiquitous spectre in the underground realm, dry or wet, and much effort is directed at maintaining relations with landowners to safeguard the resources. Some of the most frequented mines are accessible only via traverse of private property, which could be agricultural, arboreal, and in one case, bizarrely on the grounds of an architectural firm. Careful management of these routes into the mines is critical, as is demonstrating respect for the land owner and complying with their requirements when literally on their turf.

At the more prosaic level though, simply getting into some of the mines is a mission on its own, necessitating divers’ decent levels of fitness, the use of hand lines, and sometimes as much consideration of dry weight to gas volume as the dive planning itself. Careful thought and prior preparation are also required in terms of both accident response and post-dive decompression stress, given the exertion expenditure simply to clear the site.

A passageway in Aber Las. Photo by D’Arcy Foley.

Many of the mines are relatively shallow, mostly no more than 30 m/98 ft with exceptions in the notable and notorious Coniston, and the almost mythic levels in Croesor, extending beneath the current 40 m/130 ft galleries that are known and lined. Though, what the mines lack in depth, they make up for in distance and grandeur. 

Aber Las mine survey. Courtesy of UKMC.

Aber Las, or Lost, is more accurately a forgotten section of Cambrian that extends nearly 600 m/1961 ft from dive base at the 6 m/20 ft level, and a second level 300 m/984 ft long at 18 m/59 ft. The section features no less than 35 sculpted chambers hewn off the haulage ways with varying dimensions and exhibiting differing slate removal techniques. Cambrian’s chambers less than a mile away are larger still, and a lost line incident here could be a very bad day given the chambers’ cavernous aspect.

In The Eye of the Beholder

Beauty is—as they say—in the eye of the beholder, but it would be disingenuous to try to draw comparisons between the UK’s mines and the delicacy of the formations in the Mexican Karst, the light effects through the structures in the Bahamian sea caves, or the sinuous power tunnels of Florida. In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

Parallels are frequently drawn between wreck diving and mine diving, but often the violence invoked at the demise of a vessel—the massive, hydraulic inrush of fluid and the subsequent impact on the seabed—wreaks untold damage and destruction upon its final resting place. In contrast, nature reclaims her heartlands in the mines by stealth: a slow, incremental and inexorable seep of ground water, no longer repulsed by the engines from the ages of men, gradually rising through the levels to find its table. The result is often preserved tableaus of a former heritage with a rich diversity of artefacts left where last they served.

A leftover crate in the Croesor mine. Photo by Alan Ball.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Underpinning, protecting, preserving, and improving these gems of the realm is the UK Mine and Cave Diving Club (UKMC), which formed as mine diving intensified in the mid 2000s. So it was that Will Smith, D’Arcy Foley, Sasha London, Jon Carter, Mark Vaughan, and Ian France, all of whom are respected and experienced cave divers in their own right, forged the club to foster and engage with a community of like-minded divers. 

Sadly, in 2014, Will Smith fell victim to the insidious risks of contaminated air in the Aber Las mine system, which he had been lucky enough to re-discover and in which he conducted early exploratory dives as the club gained traction and direction.

As new members filter into the ranks, new ideas, new agendas, and new skill sets re-shape the club’s direction. At present, we are rebooting the club with a remastered website, focusing on new objectives and seeking opportunities to improve, catalogue, and document the resources we husband.

Lines laid in the Cambrian slate mine. Photo by Mike Greathead.

Exploration continues: the club is laying new line in some areas. What’s more, through our demonstrable respect and care for existing sites, the club is facilitating exploration in previously inaccessible sites, and lost and forgotten sites will resurface. Meanwhile, we’re improving the locations we frequent weekly for the benefit of trainees, recreational (in the technical sense) divers, and survey divers alike. Archaeological projects are rising from the ennui of lockdown; we’re establishing wider links with mine diving communities elsewhere to share techniques, data, and ultimately hospitality.

In Welsh folklore, a white rabbit sighted by miners en route to their shifts was believed to be a harbinger of ill fortune, but for Alice, following the rabbit into its hole led her to a whimsical and magical place. Be like Alice, and come visit the Wunderland!

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Jon Glanfield was lucky enough to get his first puff of compressed air at the tender age of five, paddling about on a “tiddler tank,” while his dad was taught how to dive properly somewhere else in the swimming pool. A deep-seated passion for the sport has stayed within him since then, despite a sequence of neurological bends in the late 90s, a subsequent diagnosis of a PFO, and a long lay-off to do other life stuff like kids, starting a business, and missing diving. Thankfully, it was nothing that a bit of titanium and a tube couldn’t fix. He faithfully promised his long-suffering wife (who has, at various anti-social times, taken him to and collected him from recompression facilities) that “this time it would be different” and that he was just in it to look at “pretty fishes.” So far, only one fish has (allegedly) been spotted in the mines. The ones Jon has encountered in the North Sea while wreck diving just obscured the more interesting, twisted metal.

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