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The Early Days of Technical Trimix Diving

The use of trimix, that is a breathing mix of oxygen, helium and nitrogen has become the standard for dives beyond 30-50m/100-165 ft, depending on who you dive with. However, things were much different when mixed gas technology was just emerging. Here is an in depth look at the early days of what was then called “special mix” diving including an explanation of special mix tables by Dr. RW Bill Hamilton, a report on the first 1500 trimix dives by then aquaCORPS chief Michael Menduno, and a selection of Key West Diver Consortium tables for dives to 76 m/250 ft. From the aquaCORPS archives.

Published

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 Reports by Michael Menduno and Dr. RW Bill Hamilton

Header image: Jim King and his team including Dustin Clesi and Larry Green prepare for a dive at Diepolder 1993. Photo from the aquaCORPS archives

Stories in this section:

Is The Market Ready for Mix? aquaCORPS Editorial by Michael Menduno, 1992 

Understanding Special Tables: Some Things You Should Know by Dr. R.W. “Bill” Hamilton, 1992

The Trimix Report: A Look at the First 1500-2000 Tech Trimix Dives by Michael Menduno, 1993

Key West Consortium Trimix Tables 

Is The Market Ready For Mix?

by Michael Menduno

This editorial was originally published in aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving #4 MIX, January 1992

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it. This is the century to be pro­active about the future.” Alan C. Kay, Stanford Computer Forum 1987

There was a time not long ago that “AIR” was rarely thought of as a gas in sport diving circles, much less a technology. Like the old adage regarding a fish’s description of water, “AIR” was simply what we breathed and diving was no exception. Now it seems that the whole concept of “air technology”­—a single gas to handle all expo­sures—may be out-moded before most of us knew enough to call it nitrox. What’s going on?

Author in 1991

The self-contained diving market is in the midst of a technological revolution that is changing the way we think about diving. Similar to the PC in the world of computing, technologies and methods once limited to commercial and military use including: special mixed gases, more reliable decompression methods, diver propulsion vehicles, communications, closed circuit systems, and more, are now being rescaled and applied to sport and special interest diving, driven by the need for increased safety and performance.

Until recently, this community was viewed largely as a single, homogeneous group known as “recreational divers.” Now a more sophisticated view is emerging. To borrow several terms from the computer industry, the consumer diving market is in fact made up of many different user groups, each with its own specific diving environment and applications, and a need for appropriate tools. That’s what makes the technical revolution potentially so profound.

If the benefits of these technologies were limited to a few isolated high-tech divers, their impact would be relatively minor. Instead the tools, methods, and disciplines that are being pioneered today are applicable to a wide range of diving—from recreation to professional—and hold great promise for improving diver safety. The result is a significant opportunity for growth, and with it the need for caution and responsibility.

Conceived in the early 1900s, and developed and used in industrial and military operations over the last fifty years, mix technology offers the capability of reliably supporting divers to depths beyond 2000 fsw. At the same time, if used improperly or irresponsibly, it can be deadly. And that is cause for great concern. Though mix has been a long proven standard among its industrial and military counterparts, the sport diving industry has found challenge enough in teaching divers not to “run out of air,” let alone to manage alternative breathing mixtures. Mix technology may be ready for the market; the real question is, “Is the market ready for mix?”

Like the personal computer of ten years ago, special mix is being successfully utilized today by only a small number of experienced divers representing the vanguard of the field. We still have a long way to go before this technology can be reliably employed by the masses. Safety is the primary concern. Training and education, infor­mation, and a consistent set of operating guidelines are sorely needed at both industry and consumer levels, and there is a good deal of supporting infrastructure that is simply not in place. 

aquaCORPS N4, MIX JAN 1992

With foresight, work, and the willingness to tackle the many hard issues that remain, mix technology, like the PC, will become accessible, reliable and easy to use, to the benefit of divers at all levels. Because, if kept in the closet or ignored, it will surely become a source of harm.

Now is a time for the industry to pull together, and chart a path for the future as we transition from a “fixed mix” to a multi-mix diving environment By being proactive, we stand to usher in a new era of diving, rivaling that initiated by the introduction of open circuit scuba nearly 50 years ago, and in doing so, we can make it a safer and richer activity for generations of divers to come. That’s what this issue of aquaCorps is all about.—M2



Understanding Special Tables: Some Things You Should Know 

by Dr. R.W. “Bill” Hamilton 

This article was originally published in aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving #4 MIX, January, 1992

Ever since the invention of a reliable means to supply compressed gas to divers, diving operations have been limited by the availability of appropriate decompression tables and methods. Now, with increased interest in alternative breathing mixes, advanced decompression methods, and exposures outside the range of standard air tables, special application tables are becoming an important tool in the high tech diver’s arsenal and are growing in use. 

RW Bill Hamilton

Conceptually, special tables are no different than their public domain counterparts. Each represents a decompression procedure designed to bring a diver back to the surface without incident after carrying out a planned exposure. Where public domain tables span an entire range of dives—for example 0-58 msw/0-190 fsw with bottom times ranging from five to several hundred minutes depending on the depth—and typically involve a single gas mix—usually air—special tables are typically calculated for a specific operation involving a narrow range of exposures, multiple gas mixes, decompression procedures, and custom J-factors (“Jesus” factors added for conservatism). 

Another important difference: Though most public tables have been tested on a significant number of dives, this is not always the case with special tables for which limited diving data may exist—a reason to proceed with caution. Anyone with a computer and computational algorithm can generate a table. The real issue is what the numbers mean. As Dr. Bill Hamilton points out in the article below, special tables are only as good as the experience and judgement behind them. For that reason, decompression engineering is still as much of an art as it is a science. 

“No matter what computational algorithm is used to produce a decompression table, it’s basis is still empirical. What works, works.” —RWH

Currently, special tables are being used by a small minority of technical divers, and there are only a few suppliers. For good reason—planning and conducting dives involving special tables requires a degree of skill, sophistication, and understanding that does not yet exist in the community as a whole. Training, experience, and a supporting infrastructure are required, and the potential for injury is no small matter. For that reason, many professionals in the field remain leery of producing tables for just anyone, particularly in light of the current legal climate in the industry. As special mix diving becomes more accessible, the need for special tables will continue to grow, and with it, the number of reliable suppliers. Until that time, it’s wise to proceed with caution and to work with qualified, experienced individuals who know what they’re doing. As Dr. Hamilton explains, there is a lot more involved than simply cutting a table.—Michael Menduno

John Crea, Submariner Research mixing it up with Dr. Bill at Tek.93

Many of you have asked about the preparation of special application tables. This is a somewhat sensitive subject that raises many issues, and I think it worthwhile to discuss. One issue is whether professional diving physiologists and decompression consultants should support the extreme exposure diving that some people want to do. Another is whether a calculated table is reliable enough to keep the user out of trouble. 

Dr. RW “Bill” Hamilton at tek.93

When I first began working with the technical diving community, I was approached by several divers who told me what they were planning to do, and it appeared they would make up the tables themselves if I could not provide them. Thus blackmailed, and having the humility at least to realize that some of the more experienced high tech divers could easily construct a table as well as I could, I went ahead with the project and generated a set of tables for them (with some trepidation, I might add). Fortunately, it has worked out well, and because of excellent feedback and sufficient repetition, I now am relatively comfortable with the process. Note, I do not view this business as “selling tables.” Rather, it is a professional service provided to clients that includes the generation of tables. As you will see, this involves much more. 

Generating a special or custom table typically begins by finding out something about the client. The individual must be totally comfortable with gas and pressure physics and physiology, with oxygen safety as it applies to both the gas as well as understanding its physiological effects, and gas logistics and decompression methods, including the technical and operational aspects of the type of diving they’re doing.

The important thing to understand is that a reliable decompression table is not based on a formula alone. With today’s knowledge, no matter what computational algorithm is used to produce a decompression table, its basis is still empirical; tables are based on field experience, and (Ed. note: data!) “What works, works.” Although we have sophisticated computational methods—and they are getting better—there is a fair degree of judgement involved in incorporating the experience of yesterday’s dive into tomorrow’s table. For that reason, table development is still something of an art that extends beyond the ability to solve exponential gas loading equations. 

The reason for this is the statistical nature of the process; it takes many, many dives to know anything at all about incidence rates inherent in a set of tables. For example, if an individual does five dives with no problems, this only means that at a 95% confidence level, the tables have a bends incidence [Ed.rate of decompression illness] of less than 50%. It takes literally hundreds of clean dives to be sure the incidence is less than 1%. Even a couple dozen clean dives should not be greeted with too much confidence. This is especially true if many of these are not conducted for the full time and depth. 

A page from Dr. Bill Stone’s book, ” Wakulla Springs Project 1987″. Courtesy of the US Deep Cave Diving Team

To help mitigate this situation, the relatively new technique of applying maximum likelihood analysis to decompression makes it possible to estimate the risk involved with a given table based on a set of previous dives. In addition, guidelines have been developed for the development and validation of new and revised tables, and the ongoing management of existing ones (See “Validation of decompression tables.” Proceedings of the 37th Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Workshop, Schreiner HR, Hamilton RW, editors.  UHMS Publication 74(VAL)1-1-88. Bethesda, MA 1989). Under these guidelines, tables based on documented experience can be introduced at the “operational evaluation” stage if done with sufficient care. 

Figure 1: In 1989, the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) held a workshop on the Validation of Decompression Tables chaired by Heinz Schreiner. This was the diagram that was originally proposed by Dr. Elliott and edited for final print by Drs. Hamilton and Schreiner. While confusing at first glance, represents the importance of designing decompression trials with a set plan for analysis in which each step builds on each other in a “feedback loop.”2 There exists a clear delineation between the concepts of Laboratory research and Operational/Field research which is linked by the continual nature of the loop. Emphasis is also placed on the appointment of a small subset of personnel to oversee the process as a whole in order to ensure the proper safety and integrity of the researchers, participants and the scientific process—Gene Hobbs.

The basic table computational methods used by most decompression consultants are still primarily Haldanian which uses compartments (commonly but inappropriately called “tissues”), exponential gas loading equations, and ascent constraints called M-values. Promising variations include bubble growth or bubble generation factors as well, but these too are usually fed by gas loadings. The Haldane method has its defects but is workable as long as one takes its weaknesses into account and stays sufficiently close to past experience i.e. what worked in the past. Personally, I prefer the “Haldane-Workman-Schreiner” method, which is a considerable advancement over Haldane. 

Jim King at Diepolder cutting some tables

Once a formula is decided upon, it is necessary to consider other factors involved in decompression management such as the range and variation of gas mixtures, particularly oxygen management; oxygen is the key to reliable decompression. The table should take into account the oxygen tolerance limits of the diver, both of their central nervous system (CNS) and “whole body.” The rates of travel and gas mix changes should be included in the table as instructions where they are needed, as well as the accumulated decompression time—or “decom time”—as well as the “stop time” at each stop. (For a discussion of decompression time management, see Decompression Strategies, M. Menduno, Technical Diver 2.2 , Summer 1990).

KWD’s runtime slate for the USS Wilkes Barre

For technical dives, gas switches are usually determined by the specific dive plan. These are, of course, worked out in conjunction with the dive team. Once a basic operational approach is established for a dive, it is usually a relatively simple matter to make adjustments for the many factors involved, such as extensions of depth and time and J-factors, among others. However, to consider all of these, check the process thoroughly, and be sure the user has the right instructions are not trivial matters. For that reason, I feel it’s important to label tables and the corresponding computations with a unique traceable basecase name, and I encourage others to do the same rather than just calling a table the “DCAP 250/30″ or the “Wakulla tables.” That way, the origin of any table or computation can be traced and reviewed, an otherwise time-consuming task that can result in confusion. 

Another important thing that I feel is necessary is to provide the user with instructions on how to use the tables. Although you obviously cannot tell the user everything they need to know in order to perform a sophisticated dive operation requiring special tables, it is important that creators include at least a description of every item on the table and how to use them. Finally, although it’s not something that can always be enforced, I feel it is important that clients agree to provide feedback as to the results of using a set of tables. The data we get from such feedback is valuable and allows us to continue to improve the methodology. 



Generating special tables for a range where the parameters are familiar and there is sufficient available experience typically represents about a day’s work and can run anywhere from US $200-$500 and up depending on the supplier. More exotic tables, requiring the acquisition and analysis of specific data, take a good deal more time and thus can cost a great deal more (often a couple of orders of magnitude more for the development of a full set of commercial or professional tables). Note that the time it takes may bear very little relation to the value of the table, but it does have an impact on the cost. 

Sheck Exley running Dr. X

No table or decompression method is completely “safe.” In fact, I do not even use that word in conjunction with decompression. It’s wrong on several counts. First, no significant dive is free of the risk of decompression sickness. Second, DCS is not an accident; it happens and it will continue to happen as a predictable part of diving. 

The dive team should plan for it, and in doing so can reduce the consequences to as near zero as possible. When DCS does occur, it can and should be treated promptly and adequately and, if this is done, the chance of residual injury is quite small. 

First, no significant dive is free of the risk of decompression sickness. Second, DCS is not an accident; it happens and it will continue to happen as a predictable part of diving. The dive team should plan for it, and in doing so can reduce the consequences to as near zero as possible. 

The real accidents that take divers’ lives are due to operational problems like running out of gas, getting lost or entangled, not pushing a dive computer, or running over a table. In my opinion, this is where some current technical diving practices seem to be operationally inadequate. Technical dives are operations. As such, they should have a leader and/or safety manager, planning, cooperation, and the predetermined ability to cope when any step falls short. 

This is an example of a special table calculated for a 45 minute exposure at a maximum working depth of 76 msw/250 fsw, using a trimix 17/50 (17% O2, 50% He, balance N2) bottom mix  and an intermediate mix of enriched air (EANx36: 36% O2, Balance N2) and oxygen for decompression. The table was generated using Hamilton Research’s DCAP computational program with the Tonawanda II algorithm and the ascent-limiting matrix designated 11F6, without added “conservatism factors.” Rates and gas switches are given in the Comments section, but a more detailed set of instructions should accompany a table of this complexity. Note the individual stop times and cumulative decompression times are included. The diver starts the clock upon leaving the bottom and leaves each stop at the time in the “DECOM TIME” column, and thus doesn’t have to worry about individual stop times. This is an easier way to manage a decompression than timing stops, it involves fewer chances for error, and this method enables a dive to be “reconstructed” at any time. For a dive with a planned bottom time, RUNNING TIME, which starts on leaving the surface, is preferred by some technical divers. See Decompression Strategies, Technical Diver 2.2 for a discussion. Note the cumulative oxygen dosage, measured in oxygen tolerance units (OTUs) is also displayed. 

This means building in redundancy throughout: in equipment, extra gas for contingencies, extra oxygen on board, and ensuring that other team members, especially the boat captain, know what’s going on and what to do if things don’t go as planned. Having understanding and agreements before the fact can go a long way to allay the consequences of a glitch in the operation. 

Technical diving can also be risky. The divers assume this risk, fully and personally, but this does not justify taking unnecessary risks. Tricks like diving on air to 89 m/290 ft are selfish and irresponsible. The diver who does not get away with this may be the only one to die but will not be the only one to suffer. Accidents reflect on all divers and can set progress back in a variety of ways. If you want to keep pushing the envelope, fine, but do it intelligently with care and responsibility. 

The decision to use special tables depends on the specific operational plan for the dive, whether special breathing mixtures or accelerated decompression methods are to be used, and whether or not a general purpose table is applicable. Whatever your decision, make sure that the tables you’re planning to use were generated by a reputable supplier and are, in fact, appropriate for the dives you’re planning to do. It goes without saying that you should have the necessary experience, training, and equipment required for the operation in question. No matter how reliable, no table can make up for lack of judgement or the inability of the diver to carry it out. 

Additional Resources:

InDepth: Dr. Bill Talks Mix: The late great decompression physiologist, Dr. R. W. “Bill” Hamilton played a unique role in the early development and emergence of technical diving. Listen to “Dr. Bill” and cave diver nurse anesthetist John Crea discuss “special mix” diving at the TEK.95 conference (1995).

aquaCORPS #1 UnderPressure: “Call It High Tech Diving,” by RW Bill Hamilton, 1990

X-Ray: In Memoriam: Joel Silverstein’s The Prince of Gases: RW “Bill Hamilton (1930-2011) in X-Ray magazine.

The Trimix Report 

by Michael Menduno. 

This article was originally published in aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving #6 COMPUTING, June 1993

The mixing station at Key West Diver, Key West, FL. One of the first tech mixing panels in the world. Photo aquaCORPS archives.

Though trimix is being used successfully by small groups of divers in the U.K., Mexico, France, and Switzerland, most of the current work is being done in America. To date, conservatively 1,500-2,000 open circuit trimix dives have been conducted in the U.S. since 1987 by divers from the wreck, cave, and scientific diving communities. Depths range from about 46-267 msw/150-870 fsw, though the majority of these dives have been conducted in the 61-107 msw/200-350 fsw range with typical bottom times of 20-30 min­utes, ranging up to 60  minutes. Approximately 100 dives have been conduct­ed in the 92-153 msw/300-500 fsw range and only a handful in excess of 153 msw/500 fsw. These have been conducted by several leading cave explorers including Sheck Exley, US; Jim King, US; Claude Toulomdjian, France; and Jochen Hassenmayer, Switzerland.

Technical diving pioneer Capt. Billy Deans, Key West Diver. Photo by Joel Silverstein

Dr. R.W. Bill Hamilton of Hamilton Research Ltd, Tarrytown, NY, has been responsible for developing decompression procedures for a large number of these dives using his Diving Computational Analysis Program (DCAP) computational algorithm. Schedules from John Crea, Submariner Research Ltd., Bainbridge, GA; Randy Bohrer, Underwater Applications Corp, Nashua, NH; Kevin Gurr, Aquatronics, Redding, UK; and other sources were  used as well. To date, the decompression expe­rience has been good. In four reported inci­dents, two were “suspected” decompression illness (DCI) and were success­fully treated with surface oxygen following the dive. Another possible DCI incident appears to have involved minor pain-only symptoms that were resolved without chamber treatment, an option that was refused by the diver. A final, apparently mild, DCI incident occurred following a 20 minute, 92 msw/300 fsw exposure and was treated successfully with a USN Table 5.

With regard to operational safety, three fatali­ties, one “near miss,” and a “blow-up” result­ing in decompression illness occurred during trimix diving operations in the US in the last two years, although these had little to do with  the gas mix itself. The first fatality was due to a freak water reversal in an  underwater cave near Tallahassee, Florida, that resulted in two divers being trapped during a deep mix dive. One member of the team survived. The second fatality occurred on the Andrea Doria, when a diver who had separated from his partner during a wreck penetration run, ran out of gas after exiting, and drowned. Several weeks later, another fatality, when a diver got lost in the wreck after getting sepa­rated from the team’s mainline during a trimix operation and drowned. In another incident, related to mix, a diver suffered a CNS convul­sion during in-water oxygen decompression following a deep mix dive when he lost buoy­ancy control, drifted down, and “dozed off” at 11 msw/35 fsw (PO2=2.1). The diver, a para­medic, had had only two hours of sleep the night before the dive. Managing  to inflate his BCD before convulsing, he floated to the surface, and was rescued by an excellent surface sup­port team and resuscitated. A final incident was due to operational problems during a wreck dive—the diver missed the “down line” on descent, got lost, ran out of gas, and was forced to “blow up” to the surface omitting decompres­sion. He was rescued, evacuated to a chamber and treated success­fully.1

1See “Safety First, An Analysis of Recent Diving Accidents,” by Michael Menduno, technicalDIVER 3.2, 1992, pg.23

Methods, Procedures and Training

Habitat from Wakulla Springs Project 1987. Photo courtesy of the USDCT

From a technological perspective, a focus of many of these pioneer­ing dives has been to develop reliable operational procedures including gas mixes, reliable decompression methods, stag­ing, and adequate diver support. Two groups, led by Capt. Billy Deans of Key West Diver Inc., Key West, Florida; Jim King of Deep Breathing Systems, Sevierville, Tennessee; and several other individuals, including Sheck Exley, have been responsible for much of this effort in the U.S. Their work draws on the earlier work of the Wakulla Project conceived and led by Dr. Bill Stone (“The Wakulla Springs Project,” edited by Dr.William C. Stone, U.S. Deep Cave Diving team , Derwood , MD.1989); the Sullivan Connection project organized by Bill Gavin, Bill Main, and Parker Turner; and Sheck Exley’s pioneering dives. Open water work uti­lizing heliox mixes has also been conducted by Ken Clayton, Washington D.C.; Gary Gentile, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Steve Gatto, Atco, New Jersey.

Key West Diver has developed many of the field methods and procedures for open water operations and has served as a training center for the majority of other technical diving operators and many users in the US and abroad (Presently there are about ten operators/user groups regularly conducting trimix diving operations and offering training—see below). In parallel, Deep Breathing Systems has been responsible for developing many of the operational procedures and equipment for deeper exploration work. In addition, with the help of Canada’s Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine (DCIEM) Toronto, Canada, Deep Breathing Systems has spearheaded the testing and validation of the decompression methods and tables generated by the DCAP algorithm using Doppler monitoring and other tests designed to measure decompression stress.

WKPP founders, Bill Gavin, Parker Turner, Bill Main and Lamar English. Photo from the GUE archives.

On the training side, the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD), Miami, Florida, led by Tom Mount, has pioneered the development of user and instructor trimix training programs and cur­rently has a roster of over 20 trimix instructors (see the tek.GUIDE, aquaCorps Journal #5, 1993, for facility and instructor listings). IANTD has made significant progress over the last year in developing training standards, texts, and materials with the help of Dr. Lee Somers, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is currently the only company offering formal trimix certification.

[Ed. note—American Nitrox Divers Inc (ANDI), Professional Scuba Instructors Intl (PSAI) Technical Diving International (TDI) followed within two years.]

Explorer Olivier Isler with his redundant semi-closed rebreather in Doux de Coly, France. Photo courtesy of O. Isler
Sheck Exley with Jim Bowden prepping for a deep dive at Zacaton. Photo courtesy of Jim Bowden

IANTD has report­edly just obtained instructor insurance to cover its activities, though rates are not yet available. Island Scuba Center, headquarters of ANDI, has been conducting trimix dives for some time and plans to launch an extended range pro­gram later this year. In addition, there is at least one University trimix diving program at Florida State University that was developed by Gregg Stanton. The British are also involved through IANTD UK, Somerset, England, headed by Rob Palmer, though their efforts to date have focused primarily on enriched air nitrox and some of the early development work on closed circuit rebreathers. There is also some interest in Australia, spearheaded by Rob Cason—an IANTD director—of Fun Dive Centre, Sidney, NSW, and others.

Operating Guidelines 

Lou Sarlo, co-founder of the Gas Station, New Jersey. Photo from the aquaCORPS archives.

Though rudimentary training standards exist, there is as yet no written set of operating guidelines for self-contained trimix diving. However, an emerging set of “community” operational guidelines is developing with some success. (See “Blueprint for Survival Revisited”). With regard to deep div­ing, the emerging “community consensus” is that dives beyond about 62 msw/200 fsw should be conducted on a helium-based mix.

Today, most U.S. dives conducted in the 55-92 msw/180-300 fsw range have standardized around the use of trimix 14-17/X, (14-17% FO2 depending on the depth, FHe=25-60%, maximum working PO2= 1.4-1.45 atm) with an “equivalent narcot­ic depth” (END) ranging from 26-54 msw/85-175 fsw depending on the exposure and application. Though “lean” trimixes with a helium content of 25% or less (an END of 54 m/175 f at 76 msw/250 fsw)—sometimes referred to as “poor person’s mix” or heliair (helium-diluted air) on the basis of their relatively low cost and mixing ease—are some­times used to reduce the risk of O2 toxicity and “take the edge off narcosis,” the general thinking today is to eliminate as much narco­sis as is economically feasible. 

As a result, mixes with at least 50% helium (an END of 26-36 msw/85-118 fsw at depths of 76-92 msw/250-300 fsw) are gaining in popularity and will likely become a community standard. Decompressions for these operations utilize a single enriched air nitrox (EAN) intermediate mix, typically an EAN 32-36, which is breathed beginning at the first or early decompression stops—typical­ly in the 33-40 msw/110-130 fsw range—fol­lowed by oxygen breathing at the 3 and 6 msw/10 and 20 fsw stops. Based on the success of these procedures, a set of provisionally-standardized trimix decompression schedules for dives to 76 msw/250 fsw, known as the “Key West Consortium Tables” (see below), were pre­pared by Key West Diver and Hamilton Research Ltd, to assist in standardizing opera­tions and managing access to tables. 

Polly Tapson’s Lusitania expedition team. Photo from the aquaCORPS archives
Kevin Denlay preparing to dive the USS Atlanta. Photo courtesy of K. Denlay

These tables are unique in that they allow a “variable percentage of helium,” and have been adopted by the majority of technical diving operators in the US, including Enchanted Diver, Floral Park, NY; The Gas Station, Gloucester, NJ; Ocean Odyssey, Santa Cruz, CA; and Scuba Adventures, San Bernardino, CA. Schedules uti­lizing air as an intermediate gas were also developed by Underwater Applications Corp. and used with success where access to sufficient onboard enriched air nitrox supplies is a problem.

For deeper dives in 92-153 msw/300-500 fsw, ENDs are generally set at 46 msw/150 fsw or less, and decompression procedures typically involve air as an intermediate gas beginning as deep as 67-70 msw/220-230 fsw, followed by one or more enriched air interme­diate mixes. For example, a typical procedure is to use an EAN 30 for stops beginning at 46 msw/150 fsw with a switch to EAN 46-50 at the 24-21 msw/80-70 fsw stops. This would be followed by oxygen decompression at 6-9 msw/20-30 fsw. (Ed. note—the community consen­sus is to limit oxygen use to 6 msw/20 fsw or less.)  Doppler testing following these dives has suggested the use of air as a deep intermediate gas reduces decompression stress significantly, though the jolt of “instant” narcosis and cumulative oxygen tol­erance must be managed with care.

Tom Mount and Gary Taylor doing some garage blending. Photo courtesy of G. Taylor.
Jim King and Capt Billy Deans decompressing after diving the USS Saufley at 130m/425 f. Photo by Dan Burton.
Sheck Exley and Nuno Gomes at Busmansgat in 1992. Photo courtesy of Nuno Gomes.
Dr. Ann Kristovich after her record dive at Zacaton. Photo courtesy of Jim Bowden.

In response to the desire to maximize dive time at remote sites—for example, during offshore wreck diving operations—provisional repetitive trimix decompression procedures were prepared by Hamilton Research Ltd. utilizing conventional gas loading analysis. This method is criticized by some experts, but there is no accepted computational algorithm for repetitive diving. Though the potential for being able to employ repetitive diving seems promising and will probably grow as trimix use becomes more widespread within the community, these tables have received only minor usage to date. More data is needed in order to refine the computational method. Work on altitude tables has also been done by Submariner Research Ltd. and Underwater Applications Corporation for specific applications. 

The next boom in decompression management tools will likely come from the growth of “desktop decompression software”—computational algorithms running on a personal computer being pioneered by Corey Bergren of Cybertronix, Knoxville, Tennessee; Sheck Exley, Dr. X, Live Oak, Florida; Kevin Gurr, Aquatronics, Redding, England; and Dan Nafe, Miami, Florida.  



The Operations Approach 

Sheck Exley preparing for a dive at Mante. Courtesy of Mary Ellen Eckhoff and Brian Udoff. 1989

To date, the field experience with trimix has shown that a rigorous “operations approach,” including thorough planning, proper equipment, diver support, compe­tent execution, and the ability to respond promptly to and deal effectively with emergencies, is required to conduct these dives safely. Deep mix dives are by their nature com­plex because of the gas, decompression, and equipment management involved. Much can potentially go wrong. Simply breathing a mix is the easy part. The general consensus seems to be that the community still has a long way to go in improving operational procedures. In this respect, a lot can no doubt be learned from the commercial diving community.

Over the next five years, trimix diving—supported by an “operations approach” and more in depth training—is expected to grow and become more accessible because of its safety advantages. As a result, trim­ix/heliox will likely replace the use of air for open circuit deep diving operations beyond about 55 msw/180 fsw— that is, until reliable, low-cost, closed circuit systems find their way to market. Take another breath!

Key West Consortium Trimix Tables 

Trimix, or as it then was called, “special mix diving,” required tables or a program to generate them. There were no dive computers at the time that calculated deco for mixes other than nitrox. A group of technical divers including Billy Deans, Lou Sarlo, Bart Malone and Jennifer Hunt pitched in to purchase a set of trimix tables from Bill Hamilton for diving depths of 190-250 fsw/58-76 m with varying bottom times, and with helium fractions from 17%-50% They were known as the “Key West Consortium Tables.” Here is a selection for dives to 250 fsw/76 msw with 10-45 minute bottom times and a set of reset tables as well.—M2.

Additional Resources:

Letter from Capt. Billy Deans to Bart Malone, The Gas Station re: The Use of KWD Consortium Repet Tables


Michael Menduno/M2 is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning journalist and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for more than 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, and he produced the first tek.Conferences and Rebreather Forums 1.0 & 2.0. In addition to InDepth, Menduno serves as an editor/reporter for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, a contributing editor for X-Ray mag, and writes for DeeperBlue.com. He is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA), and a member of the Rebreather Training Council

Dr. R.W. Bill Hamilton (1930-2011) is a diving physiologist and principal of Hamilton Research Ltd. with over 20 years of decompression management experience in the hyperbaric and aerospace industries.


Be A Part of History: To access our treasure trove of dive history and become a member, visit us at: www.HDS.org. We are also on Facebook: Historical Diving Society USA

DCS

The SOS Automatic Decompression Meter: Bend-O-Matic or Game Changer?

Introduced in 1959, the Italian SOS Deco Meter—the forerunner of modern dive computers—was the first decompression device used by sports divers that automatically tracked users’ dive profiles. Here former French mine clearance diver, instructor, and historian Stephane Eyme takes us on a deep dive into SOS’s analog technology, compares its decompression prescriptions with those of the US Navy and French air diving tables for single and repetitive dives, and offers his perspective on its impact on the market.

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Text by Stephane Eyme. Photos and illustrations courtesy of Stephane Eyme. This story was first published on vintagescubadiving.com.

SOS Automatic Decompression Meter was the first mechanical analog dive computer.

Victor Aldo De Sanctis

The SOS Automatic Decompression Meter (“DeComPressimetro,” or DCP) was introduced in 1959 by Italians Victor Aldo De Sanctis—a known U/W cinematographer at the time—and engineer Carlo Alinari, both co-founders of Strumenti Ottici Subacquei (SOS), a Torino, Italy-based company specializing in scuba diving instrumentation.

DCP provided a decompression profile to scuba divers during an actual dive.

The device was very simply manufactured. It consisted of a waterproof deformable chamber filled with gas connected to a smaller, rigid chamber through a semi-porous ceramic cartridge. 

The rigid chamber was equipped with a bourdon tube to measure the inside pressure. A calibrated indicator interpreted these data to provide divers with a decompression status. The whole mechanism was enclosed in a metal and plastic housing.

Straightforward dive operation mode

During the dive:

Ascent and deco stops:

Quite a hit!

The device was distributed by SOS itself and many notable dive equipment companies. Throughout the US and Europe, Scubapro, Healthway, Beuchat, Sporasub, Nemrod, Barakuda and others, all sold the DCP at some point until the 1970s.

And so, the SOS DCP became the first successful decompression instrument sold at large scale to divers around the world. Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported more than 50,000 units sold.

A mind-blowing concept?

When the SOS DCP came out, the diving world already knew quite a bit about the decompression process. 

J.C. Haldane published his perfusion parallel compartments model in 1908, and a boom in decompression research followed..

We knew that human body tissues became saturated from a few minutes to several hours depending on the tissue, that saturation followed a logarithmic curve, and that it was symmetric with the desaturation process. 

We knew supersaturation ratios decreased linearly with increased ambient pressure (M-values), and that they were different for each compartment. 

Based on this knowledge, divers created and used several sets of deco diving tables, for example; US Navy 1956 and the GERS 65.

While it was true that , the diving community had long been aware that decompression was complex and had to account for a wide variety of factors,even with all those considerations, deco tables remained an approximation—a model that would probably differ slightly from diver to diver.

Still, some questions were bothering me

How could an engineer and a famous U/W photographer imagine a system like the DCP?

And, once they settled on the concept, how did they nail the exact piece of ceramic that rendered the entire human body a piece of clay?

And, furthermore, why did we trust them with our lives?

Below is an extract of the SOS DCP user manual. The device is compared to an “electronic brain.” Remember, this was in the sixties, and this “electronic brain” was at the forefront of technology!

I would have thought that, if SOS’s DCP manual was unmistakably indicating—in 1959—that the DCP was extrapolating decompression data from a piece of ceramic, lots of divers would have said, “WHAT?!” and kept using the dive tables. But then, in 1966, Scubapro essentially said the same in its DCP’s user manual, and still sold countless models!

“The mechanism is a pressure-sensitive sealed bourdon tube in a sealed chamber. The only passageway into and out of the sealed chamber is through a porous ceramic element. The element precisely controls the flow of gas into and out of the chamber. 

The gas is contained in a collapsible plastic bag which is protected by the stainless-steel case. An ambient pressure entry port and the strap slots allow for transmission of pressure to the collapsible bag. This differential forces the gas through the flow-controlling porous ceramic element into the sealed chamber. 

As the pressure builds up within the sealed chamber, the Bourdon tube response causes the indicating needle to move in a clockwise direction. This movement simulates the nitrogen absorption by the diver’s tissues. Upon ascending, the process is reversed.”

(Scubapro’s DCP Manual user 1966)

The results are here

On the other hand, and very surprisingly, DCP deco procedure profiles were not too terrible. On the first dive of the day, they actually weren’t too far from the profiles given by GERS65 or the NAVY56 table.

The GERS (Groupe d’Études et de Recherche Sous-marine) was created in April, 1945, by Cousteau, Tailliez, and Dumas. GERS was a unit of the French Navy in charge of clearing harbors and coast waters of WWII mines.

In 1965, the GERS expanded its previous dive table span from 45 m/147 ft to 85 m/277 ft. These tables were calculated on a Haldanian model with three and four tissues. They also considered two sets of constant supersaturation coefficients throughout the ascent.

Almost every diver in France until 1990 used these tables. They were the “official dive tables” of the French Federation for recreational diving.

The French Navy conducted a statistical evaluation of the safety of the GERS65 tables between 1966 and 1987, using human guinea pigs—err, young, fit, trained, and monitored military divers—and reported a not-insignificant number of accidents following the deco procedures indicated. This was one of a few other motivators for the Navy’s production of new tables—MN90.

I’ll use the GERS65 as a reference alongside the US NAVY56 table to evaluate the DCP deco profiles.

What happened on the first dive?

The following table compares DCP, NAVY56, and GERS65. The time indicated is the maximum bottom time allowed in minutes with no decompression stop on the first dive. GERS65 comes in meters only, rounded to the next meter depth to translate to feet.

(Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla)

Even if the concept of the SOS DCP is really mind-blowing, the results actually are not too far from the tables available at that time.

Looking more closely, DCP was, in fact, more conservative than NAVY56 and GERS65 up to 18 m/60 ft. It was pretty much the same as NAVY56 from 18 m/60 ft to 28 m/90 feet. Less conservative than the NAVY56, but still more conservative than GERS65 from 28 m/90 ft to 37 m/120 ft. Clearly less conservative than both tables after 37 m/120 ft—all for non-decompression dive profiles.

So, saying SOS DCP was not safe… Well, the maths don’t lie. Down to 28 m/90 ft, it was more safe than—or as safe as—the US NAVY56 tables during the first dive. The same happens with GERS65 down to 37 m/120 ft.

It is noticeable during deep dives—37 m/120 ft+—that the DCP became much less conservative than the two other tables. That might be an indicator that the DCP was well-calibrated for long compartments (and long, shallow dives) but not as well-calibrated for quick/medium ones (short, deep dives).

What happened on repetitive dives?

The time indicates the bottom time allowed with no Deco Stop on a consecutive dive.

I won’t get into too many details—I would need much more data to do the experiment justice—but the situation on a consecutive dive is a bit different than on a single dive. 

The DCP’s deco profile is almost always located between NAVY56 and GERS65. This means we almost never encounter the situation where DCP is safer than NAVY56. It seems to be less conservative than on the previous first dive scenario for non-deco dive profiles, but it is still safer than GERS65 in any case.

In short, DCP is safer than, or very comparable to, the US NAVY tables for a single ND dive down to 28 m/90 ft. During repetitive dives, DCP is almost always less conservative than NAVY56. It still remains safer than GERS65 in any dive down to 37 m/120 ft.

This is possibly why the manufacturer introduced the recommendation to make a deco stop for at least 5 minutes at 3 m/10 ft when diving to more than 45 m/150 ft. This seems a bit like a patch, doesn’t it?

Divers also applied other tricks for repetitive dives: “Move the safe-to-come-up point two ticks to the left for each dive that day.” Of course, the manufacturer did not indicate this rule in its user manual.

Different opinions about the DCP

Amazingly, it is difficult to clearly assess how good or bad the DCP was.

On one hand,

The very device looks like the result of a large experimental attempt to provide safe deco indications. It is not a scientific application based on multi-compartment Haldanian theory.

But DCP forgets serious deco parameters

SOS didn’t consider a few very serious parameters. Not even mentioned, for instance, was water temperature’s impact on deco schedules. Moreover, it approached the problem the wrong way—as cold water increased the viscosity of the gas in the deformable chamber, it diffused slower into the rigid chamber, incorrectly—and hazardously—giving the diver more no-deco bottom time.

Deco surface should differ according to air temperature for the same reasons. Divers sometimes used this factor to decrease surface time by setting the DCP close to the cooling fan of the air compressor!

In addition, different DCPs recommended considerably conflicting decompression schedules for dives with identical depth and time factors. Thus, the DCP’s no-deco limits given by the single dive table fluctuates—sometimes up to seven minutes!

Finally, the DCP’s recommended decompression schedules, in some cases, were more conservative (time-wise) than corresponding US Navy tables. But, in others, the recommendations were far outside the limits of staging according to the tables. Now we know why.

There is no failure warning

The manufacturer provided zero warnings about DCP failure. One potential failure is a needle that does not move or doesn’t start in the blue area, which is easy to check at the beginning of the dive. Another is a malfunctioning device—the needle moved toward the deco-stop zone, but much too slowly.

Don’t forget, this is a mechanical device and, as such, it can’t be expected to be failure-free. But, you had no way to anticipate the problem aside from checking the device right before you dived. Or perhaps attaching it to a line, immersing it to 30 m/100 ft depth for 30 minutes, checking that the needle is about to enter the deco-stop zone, and then waiting six hours to erase its nitrogen memory. Not too practical indeed!

Hence, you could potentially be diving with a malfunctioning device without knowing it, effectively risking your life.

No deco time scheduling

Lastly, the device didn’t provide a time schedule at the deco stop. The DCP only showed that you need to stop, but didn’t tell you for how long. This complicates consumption schedules, which stipulated air. You could easily find yourself with 50 bars in the tank and, without knowing it, beginning a 30 minute deco-stop… breathe shallow!

Scientists say IT IS NOT SAFE!

Scientists conducted very significant studies far beyond what a simple diver like me can understand. Their conclusions included:

“The meter’s performance is compared with the US Navy’s no decompression limits. It is concluded that use of the meter by recreational divers should be discouraged.” S. Howard, H. Bradner, K. Schmitt, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, Calif. 92093, USA Medical and Biological Engineering, September 1976

“Certainly, these techniques will make diving more complex for ‘fools’—but anyone who dives to depths in excess of 30 m/100 ft and thinks all is rosy when following a DCM is a fool. Deep diving in a hostile environment requires careful planning and thoughtful techniques, and no mechanical mechanism exists which can always reliably predict decompression schedules for divers at various depths for variable periods.  Surely, it is safer to err conservatively and stick to the ‘deepest depth X longest time’ method. There are many ex-patients who can recommend this practice from personal experience with DCMs which failed.” Carl Edmonds, Automatic decompression meters. SPUMS J . 1973; 3: 9

On the other hand,

There is a cadre of probably tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of dives using the DCP with no decompression incidents at all [See companion story by Bret Gilliam]. A huge number of divers can testify to using this device for many years with no problem. I probably used mine on a couple hundred dives. I’m still here to tell the tale!

Why? Let’s travel back in time to the 60s—when sex was safe, and diving was dangerous…

Equipment was emerging

The scuba equipment industry was in a very embryonic stage. Double hose scuba regulators were introduced no more than 15 years earlier. The first prototype of Maurice Fenzy ABLJ was developed in 1961—so until then you were diving on your legs—and Georges Beuchat introduced its Tarzan wetsuit in 1963 and the Jet Fins in 1964. 

Equipment in the 60s was, indeed, still very much emerging and would take time to penetrate the market; as a result, there were diving mandates to be in good physical shape, and divers are fit. In comparison, today’s equipment is far easier to use and even, sometimes, gives us the false impression that diving doesn’t require good physical condition.

Another kind of diver

In the 60s, divers simply weren’t the same as they are today! Scuba diving was still quite new and enjoyed by a very limited number of divers. A lot of them were former Navy—they were trained divers, fit and very experienced. This is one of the reasons why almost all national diving federations used a military-like training plan for new divers in the beginning.

This is mainly because instructors were former Navy divers, and it was the only way they knew. The long swims, the hard training sessions, the 5 minutes lifting a weight belt over your head while paddling… It came from the Navy.

As a result, the profile of the average diver back in the 60s was probably much closer to the military divers who were using the GERS65 tables than it is today. I guess if today’s divers were using the SOS DCP instead of electronic dive computers, results would be far more disastrous.

A large number of dives were done across Europe in federal clubs, with depth limits based on certification levels.

Another consideration is the dive profile itself: SOS’s DCP deco profile, when used shallower than 28 m/90 ft, was safer than (or as safe as) the US NAVY tables. In federal clubs, we did most of our recreational dives in this range due to certification level limits. Consequently, DCP guided numerous club divers with no problematic decompression outcomes during dives to less than a 30 m/100 ft. 

What were the key benefits supporting its success?

The DCP was a piece of cake to operate. No need to understand the table, thoroughly plan your dive, or remember your deco parameters. It was freedom. You just had to follow the guide and enjoy the dive!

Even the DCP’s user guide was only a seven-page booklet, of which three were useless for operational purposes! With just a quick read, you could strap it on and dive right away. It was extremely intuitive.

The DCP was very practical for calculating desaturation during surface-time between consecutive dives. DCP was doing everything for you. No nitrogen factor to calculate, no additional minutes on bottom time. You just dived, and DCP would do the rest for you.

Most importantly, the DCP was following your dive profile! That was quite a revolution in a square-dive-profile-world. Suddenly, you could dive much longer by slowly ascending a cliff and get more time to enjoy the dive! That was a true difference compared to table-based diving (at least for multilevel dives).

Was the DCP a bendomatic, or a game changer?

I think it is fair to say that the SOS DCP was a game changer in this emerging scuba world. The DCP would eventually bring a new perspective to diving. It was a brilliant idea, though probably a bit incomplete on the development side. 

Yet, the device laid out a genius concept—that we could design a device to do the math for us and change the way we dive. This probably inspired equipment manufacturers to look into electronic dive computers, the very same ones that appeared on the market during the 80s, but this time with a far more advanced scientific basis.

See Companion story: Diving the SOS: A Practical Discussion by Bret Gilliam

Additional Resources

Eyme’s website offers a wealth of historical resources and tools and tips: VintageScubaDiving.com 

InDepth: Oh Deco, Oh Doppler, O’Dive: Assessing the World’s First Personal Deco Safety Tool by Michael Menduno


As a former clearance diver with the French Navy, Stephane Eyme’s scuba diving experience includes running his own dive centre in the Canary Islands, supervising underwater archaeological excavations, and working for the largest dive shop in Paris. He has more than 30 years’ experience as instructor for the French Scuba Diving Federation (FFESSM) and is a PADI Master Instructor in teaching status. He runs the website VintageScubaDiving.com and often organises vintage try-dive events and participates in vintage equipment gatherings to share his passion with the diving community. He lives in Valencia on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, and lives by a motto: “What matters is being under [water].”

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