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Swing Through the Trees, Dive in the Seas: What Technical Diving Can Teach Arborists About Safety

Tree hugging arborist and safety consultant turned tekkie Brad Hughes is applying the lessons of technical diving to improving tree climbing safety. If the power saws don’t get you, the rapid descents will! Pre-climb checks anyone?

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By Brad Hughes
Header image courtesy of D. McLaughlin Photography

As many of you scanned the title of this article you were probably thinking, “What does diving have anything at all to do with tree climbing?” You may have added,  “Whoever wrote this is a few split pieces shy of a full chord!”

Despite the naysayers, by the end of this discussion I hope to have convinced you all that, not only are there similarities between diving and tree climbing, but also there is something relevant to be learned from the way technical divers approach safety while operating in high risk environments. I also hope to encourage you to look outside the box to find new and novel ways to improve safety and performance for your organization and the tree care industry as a whole. 

Operating in high risk environments.
Photo by D. McLaughlin Photography.

When I started out in this industry, my job became my hobby, which I am sure is true for some of you as well.  I would climb after work and on the weekends in an effort to move myself up the organizational chart from “Brush Dragger Extraordinaire” to “Guy Who Climbs Too Slow to Be Useful”. Eventually though, after reaching the lofty status of “Knows Enough to be Dangerous”, I started getting a little burnt out and determined I needed something other than work-related activities to occupy my free time. I decided to pursue technical diving, since I was already certified as an entry level diver. Through my experiences and interactions in diving I have been exposed to many diverse ideas that have added to my understanding of operating in high risk environments. I have come to realize there is much to be learned from seemingly unrelated industries and activities, each offering a different perspective and risk analysis.

Through my experiences and interactions in diving I have been exposed to many diverse ideas that have added to my understanding of operating in high risk environments.

Applying The Principals of Technical Diving

Technical diving is a leisure sport, not to be confused with commercial diving, which is a trade similar to rope access. For the purposes of this article, technical diving will refer to any diving in an overhead environment. Overhead environments include caves where there is a physical barrier to the surface and deep diving where an immediate ascent to the surface is not possible due to risk of injury caused by ascending too quickly. Though tree work and diving are vastly different, I began to see similarities between tree care operations and diving. Both divers and climbers operate in high risk environments, use unique technical skills to conduct their operations, and are not easily accessible by rescue personnel in the event of an emergency. 

As in diving, a workable plan, allowing for contingencies, and deploying as a team is what allows for the safe removal of trees in the urban environment. Photo by Brad Hughes.

As I became more involved in diving and started reading training materials, talking with divers and instructors, and investigating accident reports, I realized many diving-related incidents shared common root causes with those that we commonly observe in tree work, including lapses in situational awareness, insufficient training, and a lack of planning and preparation. I began comparing technical dive training and procedures with those commonly employed in the tree care industry to see if I could glean any insights. 

As a result, I have identified areas where safety and performance could be enhanced by implementing the mindset, practices, and procedures that I observed in the technical diving community. Though I cannot relay all of my insights in this article, I will focus on two areas where I see the most immediate benefit for the tree care industry. These specific topics were also chosen due to their familiarity; OSHA and ANSI standards already mandate job training, gear inspection, and job briefings. In many cases, though, these requirements are not being met. My intent is to illustrate how another industry takes a different and possibly more effective approach to a task that is familiar to us as tree care professionals, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the importance of culture. 

Scaling up is not as easy as it seems! As tasks become more complicated and nuanced, experience becomes increasingly critical to positive outcomes. Photo by Brad Hughes.

In the absence of a willing culture, new ideas and perspectives will not flourish. The reason that some tasks—like job briefings and equipment checks—are often omitted can be attributed to a company’s or even an entire industry’s culture. Culture is an umbrella term that encompasses topics like leadership, accountability, attitude, just culture, and employee relations. In this context I am referring to an organization’s emphasis on safety and training. To put it simply, building a better checklist will do no good if it is not used. The technical diving community places an enormous amount of emphasis on safety and training which is reflected by its relatively low incident rate.

Dive Planning/Job Planning

Technical divers plan their activities with exacting precision. Once a dive has begun, it is impractical or sometimes impossible to retrieve a forgotten item, change equipment configurations, or get help in the case of an emergency; therefore, planning for each dive is critical. Technical divers will methodically plan their goals for a dive, assign team members areas of responsibility, calculate maximum amount of time allowed underwater at a given depth, evaluate decompression strategies, determine the amount and type of breathing gas to carry, identify environmental hazards, and complete gear inspections prior to entering the water. By applying this rigorous planning process to tree care operations, I believe that safety, performance, and profitability could be improved. 



Though we are not bound by the same constraints as divers, taking the time to identify hazards, assign tasks to the crew, create a detailed work plan, develop an equipment list, designate a drop zone and drag path, and plan contingencies will pay dividends overall. How much more efficient would your operations be if your employees were not required to go to the truck to retrieve forgotten equipment or maintain an item that should have been fixed after the last job. Have you ever arrived at a job site and realized that a necessary piece of equipment had been left at the shop? Have you ever climbed half way up a tree only to realize the main stem has a split in it? 

Mastery of fundamental skills allows for the safe execution of the seemingly impossible. Photo by Brad Hughes.

Mistakes like these could be the difference between a job being profitable or not. I decided to try planning my jobs and briefing my crews like I would plan and brief a dive. The crews that I work with are extremely professional, but even so, occasionally items would be overlooked. After implementing an improved planning process, I noticed that small things that were occasionally missed before were now being identified and mitigated before we started. Items like small yard ornaments, sprinkler heads, pre existing property damage, forgotten PPE, and hangers in incidental trees along the drag path were being identified before the job started. 

This might not seem like a meaningful improvement; however, if you consider the implications of a broken sprinkler head, a desecrated pet grave, allowing someone to work without PPE, or an injured employee, you can begin to see the value in a good plan. A mentor of mine once told me “Five minutes twelve times is an hour” in other words, little things add up costing lost time and money. 

A mentor of mine once told me “Five minutes twelve times is an hour” in other words, little things add up costing lost time and money. 

Training

As stated above, technical dive training is rigorous and demanding. Dive training is also progressive, structured, and roughly standardized across the sport. This is something that I believe the tree care industry needs to improve upon if we are to get the most out of our workforce. In the technical dive training curriculum that I am working through, a student starts in a class called Fundamentals and then if they pass would have the opportunity to move onto Cave 1 and so on. In between classes there is a requirement to make a certain number of dives in specific conditions to ensure the student is ready to move onto the next stage of training.

 As a contract trainer, I have worked with companies to help them develop similar standardized training programs for their organizations. There are many benefits to having a structured training program in place. A structured training program provides documentation, which is important if a company were ever to have a serious incident. It is also repeatable. All trainees receive instruction on the same subject matter and are held to the same level of proficiency. This gives crew leaders and owners the ability to quickly evaluate where a particular employee falls on the skills spectrum and make crew assignments accordingly. Crew leaders would be able to immediately assess a crew member’s skill level and make job assignments that are appropriate even if that employee was not a regular member of their crew. 

Training is a continuous process, not an end state. Photo courtesy of Tree Care Industry Association.

If we were able to standardize this across the industry, hiring decisions would be made simpler knowing that a prospective employee had attained a certain level of training, even if at a different organization. I am an advocate for assigning a time frame for an employee to remain in any one category of the training program, allowing them ample time to master the skills required, but also making sure that training remains a priority. There is always more to learn, and I think encouraging people to keep moving forward, and providing the structure to facilitate that, not only benefits them but the organization as well. In the end you will have a more experienced, safe, capable, and professional workforce at your disposal. 

One of the great pleasures of doing what we do, whether below the water or above the ground, is experiencing the unique perspectives that those activities afford us. Photo by Brad Hughes.

My hope is that by sharing my experiences with diving, I will encourage other members of the industry to share their experiences and observations regarding occupations and areas of interest outside of tree care. As a contract climber and trainer, it is my job to continually raise the bar for safety and performance for myself, my clients, and the industry as a whole. I hope that all of you reading this will also heed that calling and add your voice, so at the end of the day we may all walk away. 

Additional Resources


Brad Hughes is the owner of Woodline Tree Care LLC. His company specializes in contract climbing and safety consulting within the tree care industry. Brad holds several credentials including being a Certified Arborist, Certified Tree Care Safety Professional, and an aerial rescue instructor approved by the Tree Care Industry Association. Brad has been involved in presenting and conducting demonstrations at industry events and, as well as conducting training for the National Park Service, OSHA and many others. When not swinging around in trees Brad spends much of his free time pursuing his other passion, diving. Brad was first certified by SDI in 2009 as an open water diver. Brad dove off and on as time allowed until he found GUE in 2017. After being introduced to some GUE divers his passion for diving really took off. Brad took Fundamentals in early 2018, and is currently preparing for Cave 1 in February of 2021.

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Resurrecting a Ghost: The Launch of Ghost Diving USA

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By Katie McWilliams. Photos courtesy of Ghost Diving USA unless noted. Header image by Jim Babor

Ghost Diving, formerly Ghost Fishing, has officially arrived in the United States. Naming Southern California as home for the United States chapter is not an expansion to a new territory; instead, it is a warm welcome home after a long journey. 

Ghost Fishing first arrived in Southern California in the mid 2000s spearheaded by Karim and Heather Hamza. Their team, a group of volunteer technical divers, set out to improve the health and viability of the Southern California waters. The team started with the Infidel, a sunken squid fishing vessel near Catalina Island in 45 m/150 ft. They diligently worked to clean the Infidel which took almost two years. This victory was huge for their effort. Sadly, due to lack of funding, they were unable to continue other projects. Despite this hardship and some time away from their pursuit of the ghosts, Karim and Heather are back and more motivated than ever. 

Heather’s passion is deeply rooted in her mission to advocate for animals. This passion has helped her to push through and focus on advocating for the animals that are often unseen. The marine life that goes undetected but is ever threatened in our oceans. These are the animals Heather makes very certain to see. Her passion and love for them is palpable; it radiates from her like the warmth of a sunny day. It beckons you to join her cause. This is what keeps the fire alive in her heart for Ghost Diving. She knows that she can turn the collection of nets and her experiences into educational opportunities. Heather’s aspirations for Ghost Diving USA include continuing to educate others regarding the threat of abandoned and discarded fishing gear, seeking legislative solutions to the problem, and ultimately, building an informed and empowered community that takes care of our oceans.

Karim thrives in situations that require precision and accuracy. He explains that for him, this new era of Ghost Diving is providing a fresh opportunity to build a community of elite divers that share a passion for and commitment to a great cause. He has the knowledge and experience to help train and mentor divers along their path to becoming ghost divers and intends to give all he can to the process. He wants to bring to fruition teams of divers who trust not only each other but also the process, as well as high training standards and passion for the cause. As Karim described all the things that a ghost diver needs to be, one of the original team members immediately sprang to mind, Jim Babor. 

Jim recounted the arduous process that is becoming a ghost diver and being active with projects. He started with the project as a safety diver. The deep team would come up from the dive to the nets, and Jim would ascend with them through their scheduled decompression. He then progressed into his technical training and began photographing and documenting the work the divers were doing. Jim shared something that truly captures the essence of the passion needed to be a ghost diver. When asked about some of his most memorable incidents, he recounted the amazing experience of rescuing live animals by cutting them out of nets they were trapped in.. When asked what it felt like to cut an animal out of the net and watch it swim away, Jim was simply at a loss for words. We spoke on the phone and despite Jim’s reflective pause as he gathered his thoughts, it was apparent that the experience resonates with him on a deep level rooted in compassion. For Jim, the Ghost Diving USA launch brings his commitment and journey as a ghost diver full circle.  

Helping to lead Ghost Diving USA into the future is scientific coordinator Norbert Lee, Scuba instructor, marine biologist, and active technical diver. To speak to Norbert is to feel his can-do attitude and realize his aspirations are rooted in protecting and fostering the growth of the underwater world while educating the community about ocean conservation. More importantly, his strong sense of commitment to the team effort shines through everything. In asking Norbert about his journey to becoming the US chapter coordinator, he cited the significance of the mentorship he has and continues to receive. This mentorship comes from a variety of sources including Pascal van Erp, the Hamzas and Jim Babor. 

Norbert Lee’s goal is to collect data about the environmental impact of ghost nets and how their removal impacts the health and growth of a given area. By collecting this data, he is confident he can help to educate the community about the true impact of abandoned fishing gear. He does not want to stop with nets. He wants to help recover lobster pots and other fishing apparatus that continue to catch fish after being left behind. Through educating the community, he does not want to villainize or chastise commercial fishing but rather to build working, symbiotic relationships with fishermen. By working together, Norbert hopes to have the nets removed before they do irreversible damage. 

The Founding of Ghost Diving

Pascal van Erp has a commanding grasp on the issue of abandoned fishing gear. As the founder of Ghost Diving. Pascal’s passion has built a formidable and forward-thinking movement. Speaking to Pascal is a unique experience. He exudes a quiet confidence that only time and experience can build. In researching his work to prepare for his visit and subsequent presentations, it became quite apparent that Pascal is consistent in his message. The message is that Ghost Diving breathes new life into abandoned nets that can be recycled or upcycled. To reuse and upcycle the nets means to actively contribute to the health of the planet for today and more importantly, future generations. 

Next, Pascal emphasizes Ghost Diving is dangerous. He explains that the dangers are not always apparent. Instead, they lurk in the shadows cast by ghost nets. Team dynamics are not only critical but a matter of life and death. Pascal frequently mentions the significance of trust. The ability to trust teammates to maintain composure in the face of adversity. Trusting that if something goes wrong, they can and will continue to problem solve. Trusting that they can and will save your life. The team must always perform at the highest levels. It is critical that the dive is executed according to plan and that the procedure is applied with absolute fidelity. The nets do not discriminate between human life and marine life. They are not forgiving. A diver can meet an untimely fate in the grasp of a ghost net. 

Ghost Diving USA provides a unique and exciting opportunity by planting its roots here. With support from Zen Dive Co., ghost divers will have access to equipment, standard gasses and service that will meet all their needs while ensuring the quality and reliability of these resources. While funding issues had previously plagued Ghost Fishing, the Ghost Diving partnership with Healthy Seas along with other community sponsors helps to ensure the security of the critical funding that makes these projects possible. 

Launching Ghost Diving USA

Zen Dive Co. hosted a launch event for Ghost Diving USA on Thursday, April 28. The energy in the building was electric. Everyone was thrilled to network, build community, and work towards supporting Ghost Diving USA in any possible way. Karim opened the evening by describing the net diving mission that the ghost divers had gone on earlier in the day. He explained in detail that the Moody, a Wickes class destroyer, sits at approximately 45m/150 ft. Conditions at sea were challenging. Spring is a rough season in Southern California. Variable winds cause large swells, and upwellings bring up life giving nutrients. Unfortunately, both phenomena significantly reduce visibility. This dive was no exception. Karim described a thick green cloud in the shallower depths cutting visibility to 4.5–6 m/15–20 ft. This green cloud blocked out all ambient light as the ghost divers descended, and then cutting the nets only made visibility worse. Essentially, there was no ambient light, and visibility quickly became next to zero. The ghost divers were forced to rely upon the light they brought with them. Despite the challenges, the net clean-up was successful, but the work is far from done. The ghost divers will have to return to remove more net. 

Pascal made a brief presentation about the problem of ghost nets. It was incredible to experience a room full of people feeling compelled to act, and everyone looking for the way they could best support the mission. Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas helped to drive the point home when she explained that through partnerships with organizations such as Bracenet and Aquafil, the recycling and upcycling of nets can help to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, as the ability to recycle nets and the products made from nets grows, they become sustainable and renewable. The yarn made from the nets can be processed infinitely and never loses quality. 

The most precious resource to any of these projects is manpower. Volunteers. People willing to train hard, think of the many versus the one and ultimately focus on safety. A ghost diver is a technical diver that has successfully completed a series of training workshops that help to best prepare them for what they will experience on a net retrieval dive. The workshops also serve to build team cohesion. Pascal and Karim both explain that the need to work with technical divers is not to be exclusionary. Ghost divers need to be able to handle any situation that may arise at any moment. Technical divers are trained to do exactly that. 

For recreational divers and non-divers alike, there is a place for everyone. Ghost divers cannot do what they do without support. Jim shared with me that his son, middle-school-aged at the time, used to volunteer as surface support. He and a friend would help to bring nets onto the boat and then search through them meticulously for any trapped marine life that could be released back into the ocean. Not only did his son help to raise awareness through multiple award-winning science projects, but he also became a diver crediting his experience helping with ghost nets. The Hamzas and Norbert hope to grow Ghost Diving USA to include recreational limit projects that allow for the training and participation of recreational divers. 

Ghost Diving USA is hitting the ground running. If you are looking for a way to get involved, a great place to start is to follow them on their social media pages. They are on Facebook and Instagram as Ghost Diving USA or @GhostDivingUSA. If you would like to inquire about the application process, you can reach the USA chapter via email at info@ghostdivingusa.org

You can also act right now. Learn about what abandoned fishing gear does to our oceans and talk to others about it. Through raising awareness, you can help remind people that while the surface of the ocean is beautiful, it is what is below the surface that desperately needs our help.

Photo by Sean Farkas

Additional Resources

Ghost Diving International:https://ghostdiving.org
Aquafil:https://www.aquafil.com
Bracenet:https://bracenet.net/en
Healthy Seas:https://www.healthyseas.org
Alert Diver:Ghost Fishing by Michael Menduno. The story of Heather Hamza and her team (2014).


Katie McWilliams is an avid diver, spending every spare moment she can in the water. Currently completing her divemaster and training for her technical pass, she wants to not only further her education and ability to explore the ocean but help with the training of divers. Specifically, Katie wants to focus on spreading awareness of how we can help the health and conservation of the oceans and marine life. Outside of diving, Katie works in moderate/severe special education. She enjoys reading, exercise, off-roading, camping and spending time with her husband, family and friends. 

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