WHAT RECREATIONAL DIVERS CAN LEARN FROM TECHNICAL DIVERS
In the last few years, possibly in the last decade the expression “technical diving” has spread to a wider audience and has been embraced by divers and agencies alike. The basic and most obvious difference between the two worlds is that in recreational diving, the diver can make a direct ascent to the surface at any point during the dive.
Technical diving is a branch of scuba diving that goes beyond the generally recognized limits of recreational diving, and that requires advanced training and different gear configuration.
Technical divers enter environments that not only present the regular hazards of being underwater but add complexity to the dive, from the planning to the execution and of course the emergency procedures. Technical diving might not be for everyone, but the approach to diving can be emulated and assimilated to give us better experiences while diving in general.
Let’s review a few key points that are part of technical training and diving and how we can apply them to our recreational diving.
1. Know your diving
Technical divers study the environment they are going to be in and plan their dives carefully. They not only review depths, times, decompression limits and related gas requirements, they also review hazards and create a full contingency plan for the dive. By the time they enter their liquid world, they have a full vision of what is going to affect them and how to react to it.
We can apply it to recreational diving by learning about our dive destination. It’s always advisable to inquire about the local temperatures, the logistics for the dives, to have an average idea of the depths, currents, tides that we might encounter during our trip. It is important to also inquire about the average local temperatures outside the water. A good source of information that the dive operator has to avoid arriving at the destination unprepared.
2. Know your gear, love your gear
Technical divers know that their gear and it is their most essential tool for the dive. They carefully select it, fit it to their personal needs and take extremely good care of it. They balance redundancy with efficiency. They work on muscle memory and on learning where each piece of gear is located on their body for ease of reach. Furthermore, they familiarize themselves with their buddies’ gear. Some dive with perfectly matching gear located in the same exact place on their bodies to facilitate teamwork and assistance. They don’t start a dive with a piece a gear that is not performing at its best. Before each dive, they complete a head to toe check and a bubble check. These checks verify that all the divers in the team are carrying the primary and redundant gear for the dive and that every piece is working efficiently.
If any piece of gear is missing or malfunctioning they fix it before starting. All too often recreational divers enter the water with less than well functioning gear.
It is not uncommon to find divers disconnecting their inflator hose because it causes the BCD to self-inflate or they will use their alternate air source as the primary regulator because their primary is not working well.
As divers, we should be familiar with our gear, how it works and where everything is located. Furthermore, we should check it periodically. Hoses, regulators and other rubber components should be inspected for cracks and tears, we should send it in for service as required by the manufacturer but even more importantly we should avoid diving with malfunctioning gear just because we did this before and nothing has happened.
One personal note from the field. If you look at the regulator choices of technical divers, you will find that they use two or more of the same. They do not have a better version and a lesser version. All their regulators are the top of the line they have selected. Why is that? Because at any given time they might have to breathe from one or the other and they need to receive equal performance from both. So when they share gas, they provide the distressed buddy with a high-quality regulator. If you are not sure if your alternate air source is working well, ask your buddy to breathe off your AAS (Alternate Air Source) while underwater and vice versa, so that you can test the level of air delivery of your regulators when under duress. If you notice that your AAS breathes hard while shared, change it for a better performing one.
3. Know your skillsThree of the essential skills technical divers focus on, and practice is buoyancy, trim and propulsion.
They practice their buoyancy not only in swimming situations but also while hovering motionless in any part of the water column. They learn how to do this while keeping a perfectly horizontal position and never use their hands to maneuver and turn. Their trim makes them look as if they are floating over a glass table.
They also secure all their gear, so they feel where each piece is and how to retrieve it without looking. Nothing is left to improvising.
Once they can maintain neutral buoyancy and trim their bodies, they learn different kinds of kicking that maximize their performance with minimal effort, ultimately resulting in better breathing and gas consumption.
These three skills work together and are practiced in unison; one cannot work efficiently without the other.
As recreational divers, we can start by mastering our basic hovering and our horizontal swimming. It is important to understand our gear, how it works in relation to our bodies and what kind of water displacement it creates. While a key component is to weigh ourselves correctly, we also need to learn how to distribute this weight to our advantage and benefit. Modern gear allows us to place small quantities of weight in different locations without compromising the first rule of quick release to adjust for body sizes and shapes.
We also need to realize that the fins are an extension of our body and that by wearing them we grow taller. If we are not aware of where our fin tips are, we end up kicking live corals, stirring up sand or hitting somebody in the face. A simple skill to perform is to look in between our legs towards our waist while we swim on a dive. This skill will allow us to notice if our fins are below our body line and dragging along the bottom, stirring up sediments, to kicking something along the way. As for our hoses, one clip and one snorkel keeper will do the trick to secure our pressure gauge and our alternate air source.
4. Know your buddy, be there for your buddy
Technical divers invest a lot of time learning how to dive efficiently with their buddy and how to recognize which buddy will be the right one for a certain dive. They evaluate buddies readiness and make changes to the dive plans should something not feel right. They are trained in recognizing signs of stress, changes in patterns such as breathing, swimming, body positioning and responsiveness to signals and communication. They work on creating a team where each diver is strong for himself/herself and strong in the team through an understanding of each others position and through constant communication. No buddy is completely dependent from the other. They avoid “trust me dives.” These are dives where one buddy is completely relying on the knowledge and experience of the other by putting on the line their basic safety rules. As recreational divers, we can start applying this mindset by understanding that the strongest diver needs to adapt to the weakest diver and not the other way around.
Buddies need to know each other and if uncomfortable with a dive plan, being able to voice their concerns and address them in a mature discussion.
A personal note from the field. Avoid the “same day, same ocean” approach to a dive. A distance of thirty to forty feet between divers might appear as nothing in clear water but it is enough to prevent a buddy’s assistance in case of an emergency. If you want to try a little exercise, start by being twenty feet apart, and while one diver waits in a stationary position with the alternate source deployed and ready, the other simulates an out of air situation by swimming towards the buddy while producing a gentle “aaaaaaa” sound. Increase the distance until you can’t complete it. Once you have that number, add the following variables and reconsider your distance:
- your buddy is not looking at you when you start swimming to request an air share
- your buddy continues to swim gently away from you
- you can’t see your buddy but only the bubbles because your buddy is behind a coral head or on the other side of a wreck
- the alternate air source is not deployed and ready to use
- you are trying to swim up the current to your buddy ahead of you
- your gas failure happened on your exhalation, and you currently have little gas left in your lungs
5. Know your attitude One of the most important rules technical divers follow is that “any diver can call any dive, for any reason, at any time, without ANY repercussions.”
This important rule means that no matter what the situation is, the money and time spent and the planning put into it if a buddy decides to call a dive before or during, the other buddy will support and agree with the decision and not push nor peer pressure the buddy in completing the dive.
Technical divers know that different stressors will affect the outcome of a dive. Each one will have a value for each added stressor, and each value is strictly personal. It will depend on the diver’s experience, overall feeling and their personal situation on that specific day. To some, it is known as the pie theory, where the whole dive is considered as a full pie. For each small or big stressful event happening before or during the dive, there will be a slice of a pie removed, the size determined by each diver. When the number of slices removed will be too high, the diver and the team will reevaluate the situation and either change plans or postpone them to a different time. Each diver and each dive will determine how many pieces of the pie it will take.
Sometimes it’s just good to leave a dive for another day.
Recreational diving is supposed to be fun. If we force our buddy into an uncomfortable situation, we might lose their company for good on any other kind of diving. Learning to slow down and adapting to our buddies will guarantee us faithful diving companions eager to move forward when ready.
A last personal note from the field. Ultimately the key to mastering these skills and attitudes is to keep practicing and evaluating. If we take a fairly long season break from our diving, six months or more, it is always good advice to go back to the basics. Making our way to a pool or a comfortable confined water environment with our buddy to test our gear, review our basic and contingency skills, to remind our bodies how it feels to take that first breath underwater.