Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I was going to call this piece “Top 10 Pet Peeves” but (I think) it turned out to be a more constructive piece so it deserves a more constructive title. I guess “Observations” isn’t the most exciting topic but I figured that the observations themselves are already controversial enough that I didn’t need an attention grabbing title.

1. Divers who don’t understand the risks involved in the diving that they do.
Diving is an activity that can kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’d argue that the probability of something untoward (that causes an emergency) happening on a dive is very small. This is evidenced by the large number of dives that take place around the world every day without incident. However, the consequences of something untoward happening on a dive are high, often leading to permanent disability or death. I don’t have any issues with divers taking risks as long as they know and understand what they are getting into. I have a big problem with divers who think they understand the risks but really don’t. Generally, awareness among divers is low because the general level of dive education is poor and agencies like PADI propagate bullshit like “anyone can dive”. This leads to complacency and an inability to (a) identify the major risks (b) quantify the likelihood of them happening (3) quantify the magnitude of the consequences. If you haven’t been taught properly, then you don’t know what you don’t know.

Let me give you an example. I know divers who carry rich deco gases regularly on recreational dives because they “accelerate the decompression”. The whole point of recreational dive profiles is that they don’t require mandatory decompression, much less accelerated decompression. So the benefits from carrying these deco gases are little to none. What are the additional risks? The main one is ox tox from breathing a rich mix. We know that reactions to high PPO2 mixes are unpredictable and catastrophic (i.e. you drown and die). What I am saying is the chances of getting bent on a recreational profile are so small that they don’t justify the additional risk of ox tox from accelerated deco. Or as George Irvine used to say, you can fix bent but you can’t fix dead.

Another example is people who dive deep air because they think they can “tolerate” narcosis. The cost of a clear head is the price of helium, and the benefit of diving helium is you live to dive again. In other words, the benefit of diving deep air is it’s cheap, and the cost of diving deep air is death.

Yet another example is people who dive wetsuits in the cold because they have the preconceived notion that drysuits are uncomfortable and a hassle. Well, the cost of a drysuit is a few thousand $, and the benefit is you don’t get hypothermia and you live to dive again.

I’d argue that a complacent recreational diver on a 20m dive on a single tank of air may be taking more risks than a fully informed and well trained technical diver doing a 70m dive with doubles and 2 deco gases. This is because the technical diver has planned his/her dive carefully, established objectives and procedures, made sure that he/she has sufficient gas, and has the situational awareness to anticipate and mitigate issues before they happen. The recreational diver probably just put on his/her tank, jumped in, and followed the divemaster around until he/she hit 50 bar.

2. The fact that scuba agencies perpetuate the fallacy that “anyone can dive”.
Mainstream open water agencies like PADI like you to believe that anybody who can pass a “diving medical” can dive. This is of course in to their benefit because the more people who dive, the more money the agencies make. But there are most definitely certain types of people for whom diving is contraindicated – obese, unfit, and those with certain types of health problems. A minimum level of fitness and wellness is required to deal with things like stress, gear, choppy seas, wind, rain, etc. If one is barely fit enough to dive in unchallenging conditions, it doesn’t take a lot of complications (like changing weather, current, thermoclines, bad vis) to place one outside one’s comfort zone. Not to mention that adipose tissue is slow to offgas. Diving is not very difficult, but make no mistake – scuba is not forgiving of screw-ups.

Even worse are the technical diving agencies that tell you that anyone can technical dive. Technical diving is more difficult, stressful, and tiring than recreational diving. Not everyone should be diving and fewer still should be technical diving. It wasn’t that long ago that PADI was telling everyone that nitrox was a voodoo gas. When the technical diving market became more developed and PADI smelled a profit, it introduced technical diving courses through its affiliate DSAT. DSAT is the “anybody can technical dive” affiliate of PADI.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to pick on PADI in particular and I don’t have a problem with most things PADI. An agency like PADI has its place – it’s great for reaching the masses at a relatively low cost and for introducing lots of people to the wonders of the underwater world. In fact, I learned to dive through PADI and lots of my good friends are open water instructors. The problem starts when the focus is wrong and greed overshadows more practical concerns. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Open water classes as loss leaders.
I sometimes see open water classes being advertised at prices that makes one wonder how the instructor could possibly make a decent return on investment. Teaching an open water class is not easy. It takes, among other things, time, effort, patience, and people skills. A significant investment is required to even qualify as an open water instructor. Add the cost of insurance and profit sharing with the dive shop, and instructors take home very little for themselves.

This is because many instructors and dive shops treat open water instruction as loss leaders. They make little to no profit from open water classes and hope to hit you up with equipment rental and purchases, dive trips, and future classes (don’t even get me started on PADI Specialties). To maximize their little profits on open water classes, they need to minimize their costs and increase the volume. So they cut corners, teach to the minimum standards, and cram in lots of students per class. The end result is less competent divers who are less comfortable in the water and more prone to screw-ups. This is part of the reason why the dropout rate among open water divers is so high.

When I got my open water certification, I didn’t know a yoke valve from a DIN valve, had trouble fitting a regulator to a tank the right way up, and swam with my pressure gauge/depth gauge/compass (console) dangling a couple of feet below me. My instructor encouraged us to progress on to advanced open water immediately following open water (can you say $$$?). I became an advanced open water diver at the age of 17 with 9 dives under my belt. What had I been taught about essential diving skills such as gas management, dive planning, situational awareness, and buddy skills? Not much at all.

The better way to get open water instruction is to pay a bit more for a good instructor who will take the time and make the effort to train his/her students well. It may cost more up front, but leads to more competent divers who are more likely to enjoy their diving and become long term divers. And this is better for the industry in the long run as it rewards those instructors and dive shops who have higher standards and weeds out those who don’t.

A more general point is that nickeling and diming in diving is a loss making proposition in the long run. I like saving money just as much as anybody, but it is definitely possible to be too cheap to your detriment. Don’t nickel and dime on important stuff like instruction, safety equipment, and gases. A good example of being too cheap is reducing the helium in one’s mix and “tolerating” more narcosis in order to save money. Think about the cost savings (a few $) vs. the potential cost of making a judgmental error due to narcosis (drowning and death). A good place to save money is on equipment purchases. Certain pieces of equipment don’t break and can be acquired second hand at big discounts (e.g. backplates, wings, reels, spools, etc.) I have so much second hand equipment that I can’t even keep track of it all.

4. Divers who blame their equipment for their lack of skill.
Inexperienced divers love to blame their tanks for bad trim, their drysuits for bad buoyancy, their leaky masks for lack of awareness, and their faulty compasses for poor navigation. While using unfamiliar or sub-optimal gear can obviously affect one’s performance, I believe that very simply, if you can dive, you can dive. Chris Le Maillot said this to me on the first day of Cave 1 class, when I blamed my poor trim on the fact that I had never dove double AL80s with a drysuit before. Of course, he was right. It was my lack of skill and ability to compensate for changes in gear that was causing my poor trim, not the tanks.

I have lots of other examples. I used to blame my gear all the time until I realized that it was personal deficiency that was causing my problems. The first time I dove double LP95s, I went very head down. The first time I dove a 400G undergarment, I lost buoyancy at 6m at shot to the surface. Of course, I wouldn’t have had these problems if I hadn’t introduced the new gear, but it’s also the case that if I had had better diving skills, I could have compensated for the differences.

On the flipside, my buddy Leon bought a drysuit and I dove with him the 2nd or 3rd time he used it. He wasn’t perfect and his gas consumption did go up, but he wasn’t half bad and had no buoyancy or trim issues. Leon has good diving skills and putting him in a new and unfamiliar drysuit was no sweat. The same goes for my recent trip to Manado – I dove with my housed SLR + strobe for the first time. It was a huge and unwieldy package but didn’t add a lot of complication because I was already a competent diver. And because I was already a competent diver, taking good pictures didn’t add much task loading.

George Irvine once wrote that due to standardization of gear and procedures, the only change that he needed to make going from diving the caves in Florida to the ocean in the Northeast was to put on a pair of thick gloves. I’ll be damned, but George was right. I used to cave dive in Florida and when I dove in Lake Michigan in 4 degrees Celsius, the only things I did were change my undersuit (200G to 400G) and put on a pair of gloves.

5. Pontificating nobodies or “stick to what you know”.
A resort divemaster once disapprovingly told me that my 7ft hose was fine for technical diving but wouldn’t work for open water recreational diving. When I asked him why the difference between technical and recreational diving, he repeated that it wouldn’t work and then changed the topic. This guy had probably never seen a technical diving rig in his life and didn’t know a damn thing about a 7ft hose, yet he felt that he was god’s gift to diving and had to share his opinion with me.

I’d much rather stay silent on a topic I know nothing about than speak up and show my ignorance. When on charter boats and diving with others, I don’t offer my opinion on others’ diving skills, habits, or equipment unless asked. People often have a good reason for doing things the way they do.

6. Divers who rely on divemasters to lead them on dives.
Lots of divers think that a divemaster is required on all dives. I get a lot of quizzical looks when I tell people that most of my dives are sans divemaster. “But isn’t that dangerous?” they say. Divemasters give people a false sense of security, as if diving with a divemaster is automatically safer than without one. PADI divemasters only need 20 dives to begin the course and 60 for certification. PADI certifications don’t expire and there are no guidelines on divemasters having to train in conditions similar to those they plan to divemaster in. In short, how do you know that your divemaster is (a) experienced (b) reasonably current (c) comfortable diving in the conditions that he/she is diving in and (d) knowledgeable about the local diving sites/conditions? If something goes wrong, are you relying on the divemaster to get you out alive? Don’t even get me started on instructors.

Remember that open water certification certifies divers to dive with their buddies in open water. The standards don’t say anything about requiring a divemaster to be present. Properly trained open water divers should be perfectly comfortable planning and executing open water dives. If you’re an open water diver and you don’t feel confident enough to plan open water dives, one or more of the following is true: (a) your training was lacking (b) you are rusty (c) you don’t spend enough time/effort building the skills necessary to dive safely (d) you are competent but due to past overreliance on divemasters, you don’t realize your competence.

This is not to say that divemasters are not useful. Knowledgeable and safe divemasters add a lot of value by giving you information on the dive site, weather conditions, entry/exit procedures, boat procedures, and marine life, and leading divers on underwater tours. Just don’t trust your life blindly to any random divemaster.

7. “Wow you are really experienced. Are you a divemaster?”
Why do people assume that just because I like diving that I have interest in diving professionally (i.e. making money from diving)? PADI’s website states that “PADI Divemaster training develops your leadership abilities, qualifying you to supervise dive activities and assist instructors with student divers”. Which part of diving for pleasure has anything to do with wanting to supervise dive activities and assist instructors with student divers? As mentioned previously, people tend to equate being a divemaster with competence, and on the flipside, associate competence with being a divemaster (or instructor).

The other one I hear a lot of is “are you a commercial diver?” Commercial diving is a serious job, where divers lay pipes on the sea bed, salvage shipwrecks, build structures, and do other things in poor conditions and zero vis. Most of the time, it doesn’t even involve conventional scuba. It’s often done offshore in the middle of nowhere (think oil rig). What does this have to do with diving and looking at fishies?

8. Being told to surface from all dives with a minimum of 50 bar (or 500 psi).
What’s this about? 50 bar isn’t even equivalent to 500 psi (50 bar is closer to 750 psi). Is the safety margin larger in the US because American divers are less safe? What if I’m using a big tank and my buddy is using a small tank? 50 bar in my tank is more gas than 50 bar in my buddy’s tank.

I’m all for rules of thumb to simplify dive planning, but they need to make sense. Applying a blanket rule like returning to the boat with 50 bar doesn’t work because in some cases it’s too conservative, and in other cases, it’s too aggressive. On shallow dives, it can be too conservative because it doesn’t take a lot of gas to ascend from a shallow depth. More problematic is on deeper dives (say 30m) because it’s too aggressive. 50 bar as a rule of thumb doesn’t take into account the time required to ascend, minimum deco stops, or emergencies. What happens if at the end of the dive your buddy has a catastrophic failure, losing all the gas in his tank, requiring gas sharing? Is 50 bar enough to get both of you, sharing gas in a flustered state, through your minimum deco stops and to the surface? Simple calculations would show that the answer is no, but most open water divers aren’t taught how to make these calculations anyway.

Reading this, you may think I am an angry man and have nothing nice to say about the diving industry. That’s just not true. I’ve seen and experienced enough to know the good from the bad and I’m trying to save others the hassle.

Diving has so much to offer and one can get the most of it by being fully educated and exercising some caution. Look hard for a good instructor. Ask around and get various opinions before you make a decision. Find an instructor who puts your safety first and has the patience to not cut corners and make sure you learn the requisite skills and gain comfort in the water. Discuss with your instructor his/her approach to instruction, teaching style, and standards. If your instructor isn’t passionate about diving and doesn’t dive extensively for fun, move on. If anything in your interaction isn’t to your liking, move on. If you don’t get the feeling that your instructor is reliable, competent, patient, and dedicated, move on. A good instructor may cost more, but in the diving industry, with few exceptions, you get what you pay for.

If you’re looking to get into technical diving, look for a mentor or two who is willing to take you on and show you the ropes. Someone who is willing to teach you and help you gain experience. Not the high and mighty I’m-a-fancy-technical-diver sort but the sort who remembers what it was like getting into the sport and is keen to help less experienced divers. Some sacrifices may be required. If you have a chance to be a safety diver, hump tanks, blend gas, or otherwise be helpful, take the opportunity. Don’t expect to receive without giving back.


Dagomir said...

Nicely written Terrence. I fully agree with all the points you raised.

I have a friend who is an experienced diver (probably more than 300 dives). The guy is about to become a diving instructor. Moreover, he is a physicist so he can definitely do calculations. Yet, he cannot or refuses to accept the notion of minimal gas. I spent some time trying to explain it to him and convince him that it is an essential part of dive planning without success.

So, the guy will finally get his instructor certification and start spreading his bad habits to other divers.

My point is that this is a piece of evidence that PADI does not put an emphasis on a good dive planing. They will insist on having a snorkel though.

Again, I do not want to demonize PADI. As you pointed out it plays an important role in popularizing SCUBA. However, the organization has some fundamental issues that it should address and resolve.

By the way, I will never dive with him again. Why should I risk death by drowning, diving with an irresponsible diver?

Tommi said...

Good writing! You point out many of the same observations that I've been trying to figure out on my diveholidays abroad.

For instance, about divemasters, last winter holidays we dove in Thailand and booked a few dive trips with two different dive operators there. I asked Operator #1 if we could dive on our own with my wife and not to follow a divemaster around. Operator #1 said that it is ok since I had my compass and computer with me.

Operator #2 said that what I am asking is illegal in Thailand and would get their business in serious trouble. We agreed to comply with their rules but underwater I just could not follow their divemaster as he was going down to over 20m with single al80 tank of tyre-inflating gas. We had discussed this before the dive and I said to him that we rather wanted to stay shallow than to see Grey Reef Sharks at 30m. So we stayed shallow with my wife and watched closely their divemaster descend in the deep on his own as we were the only divers in his group.

Luckily we all survived and the DM was cool about us after dive but we didn't want to dive with Operator #2 again.

Agnes T said...

Amen, Terrence.