En route to the dive site, bouncing in rhythm with the waves, the wind and thrill about your person, you notice a group of distinctively different divers opposite you. Your interest is piqued. As you begin gearing up, you watch them from the corner of your eyes, in a series of evasive stares. The various tanks clipped to various places; the dual computers; the numerous labels; and, more often than not, the all black look. The call is given, they jump, descending to the ‘other’ section of the dive site.
For those who are, and those who want to be, technical divers, this is a moment we have all experienced. Though the allure of technical diving may escape the comprehension of some, it’s ever-growing popularity would suggest its attraction is increasingly widespread. However, for many divers, it is not obvious as to when they should enroll in their first technical diving course. Is my buoyancy good enough? Will I be able to handle all the theory? Do I have enough dives? Hopefully, after reading this article, the decision will become clearer, and the standards of readiness more objective.
What is Technical Diving?
If the world of recreational diving is to be considered young, then technical diving is still in its infancy. Thankfully, however, the embryonic phase is – more or less – over. Though a proper historical analysis of technical diving’s roots and development is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth giving a brief account of its history.
Technical diving, in the form it has developed into today, could be said to have ‘begun’ in the 1980’s. At this time, it was a nameless, taboo activity, performed by pockets of divers around the world. Nitrox was new (and feared!), equipment was largely homemade, and accident rates were high. This was a time when nitrox was coined as the ‘Voodoo/Devil’s gas’. It remained this way until industry pioneers began to push the limits of human exploration; greats such as Sheck Exley, Lamar English, Billy Deans, to name but a few. High profile projects such as Dr Bill Stone’s Wakulla Springs Project in 1987 were the equivalent of the moon landing for the diving community; a revolutionary step in decompression and gas mixing capabilities. From this, a gradual development of standards and safety protocols began to blossom. Soon after, the world received the first technical diving courses and agencies (ANDI in 1988, TDI in ‘94, GUE in ‘97). In the last three decades, technical diving has grown from a somewhat haphazard, high-risk activity into a standardised and respected discipline.
The exact definition of technical diving is sometimes debated upon. The term was originally coined by the founder of aquaCORPS, Michael Menduno, inspired by rock climbers who referred to challenging climbs as ‘technical climbing’. The easiest way to define it is by that which recreational diving is not. Therefore, technical diving encompasses all diving activities beyond 40m, mandatory decompression stops, as well as penetration into overhead environments. For the majority of agencies, the entry level technical diving course is the same. It qualifies the diver in the use of enriched air up to 100% oxygen content, to a maximum depth of 40-45m, with a cap on the maximum amount of decompression time allowed. These courses most commonly go by the names of ‘Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures’, ‘Technical Diver’, and ‘Tec 40’.
Just as a professional musician must be an excellent musician, and an olympian an excellent athlete, so must a technical diver be an excellent diver. This is a prerequisite, not a course outcome. Naturally, after undertaking your first technical diving course, your skill level will have improved. But this will be an improvement upon already high-level skills; not a miraculous transformation. As with Rome, no good technical diver was built in a day. Your pre-course skill level should be at a point at which you have a high level of comfort in the water; in other words, you have mastered the ‘fundamentals’ of diving.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, fundamental skill of diving is that of buoyancy and trim. At all points throughout any given dive, you should be able to maintain a near-horizontal position in the water column. You should also be able to hover comfortably, maintaining a distance no greater than a metre from the ground below you. Similarly, your ascents and descents should be precise; if you’re descending to 25m you shouldn’t end up at 26m, and likewise for ascents. On top of this, all adjustments to your position in the water should be the product of fin movement; not of flailing hands. This is not meant in a contemptuous or mocking way. This is a warning, as if these fundamental skills are not second-nature, the task loading and stress will be far too high for you to gain any enjoyment from a technical diving course. Think about your typical dive. If the diver in front of you stops abruptly to take a picture, will this call for a full-body arms and hands in unison reversing maneuver from you? Or a simple adjustment of your fins? Likewise, if you want to ascend to your safety stop depth, are you able to stop yourself once reaching that depth and maintain it? Or will you initially exceed it and then struggle to maintain it?
A second fundamental skill is that of equipment use. Are you comfortable operating all the equipment you’ve been exposed to? Is a compass friend or foe? Can you shoot an SMB with relative ease? Is gas addition and removal to your BCD intuitive, i.e. can you inflate/deflate your BCD without overcompensating? When on a technical diving course, you’ll likely be introduced to new pieces of equipment. On top of this, you’ll be expected to use equipment you already know with relative ease. I say relative as not all equipment is used equally. For example, many divers just don’t get the chance to practice SMB deployment regularly enough for it to become second-nature. This is both understandable and acceptable, and does not preclude you from beginning a technical diving course per se. However, a baseline of ability is expected (i.e. you should be able to shoot the SMB without entangling yourself in it!). Equipment competence is important, as it is likely that you will be introduced to a completely new equipment configuration, such as a twinset and a long-hose setup. By already being comfortable and familiar with the gear you usually dive with, you will be better able to adapt to new configurations. Switching to a new configuration before mastering the previous one is like running before walking.
Another fundamental skill of diving, though perhaps not the first to come to mind, is that of rescue skills. Diving is an activity with a host of potential hazards. Technical diving takes those potential hazards and multiplies them by ten. That is not to say that technical diving is a form of Russian roulette; far from it. Through the correct training, planning and procedures, the risk of a diving related injury or fatality is minimal. However, objectively speaking, diving is high risk. The very environment is hostile itself; we are not designed to be underwater for extended periods of time. Barotraumas can be mild; or they can be fatal. If you are considering undertaking a technical diving course, you should have already completed a rescue diver course. Though this may not be listed as a prerequisite for some entry level technical courses, it is essential for the safety of yourself and buddies that you are capable of performing all the essentials of rescue in and out of the water. This includes, though is not limited to: towing another diver, performing in-water equipment removal and rescue breathing, ascending with an unconscious diver, dealing with a panicked diver, out of gas situations, equipment failures, and on land CPR. If the mere reading of any of these skills listed causes you an uneasy feeling, then you should definitely enroll in a rescue course or take a refresher rescue course if rusty. A technical diving course can only teach you so much; the fundamentals of diving should be mastered before enrollment. You do not want to be catching up on skills you should already have while learning new ones: especially in emergency situations.
With all that said, however, do not worry or overthink things: you are by no means expected to be perfect. Your first technical diving course is supposed to teach you something, as well as push you out of your comfort zone. Physical exhaustion, mental overload, an initially steep learning curve; these are the preconditions to the end feeling of achievement. Simply speaking, the ultimate litmus test for your suitability comes from one question: are you currently one-hundred percent inside your comfort zone? If so, then you’re ready for technical diving.
The Most Important Prerequisite
The majority of entry level technical diving courses ask for around x amount of logged dives, x amount of dives using enriched air, x amount of dives deeper than y, and an Advanced Open Water certification. Now, we could debate whether or not these prerequisites are sufficient. However, in so doing, we distract ourselves from arguably the most crucial prerequisite: mindset. In-water skills and ability are, without a doubt, critical to have for a technical diver (as previously mentioned). But, your skills and ability amount to little without the correct mindset.
The number one cause of death in technical diving is complacency and ego. And, contrary to what many may think, the risk of death increases with experience. The reason? The more and more dives one logs – especially to greater depths – with little to no incidents, the more the diver’s image of their own infallibility is bolstered. After a few hundred ‘impressive’ and uneventful dives, the diver is likely to conclude that their skill level is so high as to preclude the possibility of emergencies occurring. Similarly, they may also perceive the underwater environment to be quite benign, and very unlikely to cause them any harm. You do not need to be a technical diver to be complacent; it is equally, if not more, rife within the recreational diving community. However, given the particularly unforgiving nature of technical diving, it is of paramount importance that both complacency and ego are eliminated from the diver. The essential danger of technical diving is that if you cannot solve the problem you are confronted with, you are likely to die. Thousands of benign dives and numerous certifications cards will in no way help you confront a real-life, unknown emergency, and no amount of training can fully immunise you against stress.
So, how does one avoid becoming complacent and having an enlarged ego? Both the easiest and most difficult way to eliminate your ego, or have it ‘checked’, is to suffer a real-life emergency. There is nothing better than a good dose of reality to put you in your place. However, of course this is not something we want to involve ourselves in, and in no way should we manipulate a situation to create a real-life emergency. If it happens, and you survive and learn from it, then that’s great. Apart from first-hand experience, the number one way to eliminate your ego is to change your attitude. Humility and honesty; self-criticism and a degree of perfectionism: these are the attributes of a good technical diver. Think about yourself. Are you open-minded to criticism? Even better, are you self-critical of your own performance? Is your buoyancy really as good as you claim it to be? Would you bet your life on your navigation skills? Another useful exercise is to recall moments of stress, or perhaps even real-life emergencies you have encountered. How did you respond? What went well? What went badly? Were you still able to think and maintain situational awareness? Or did your vision tunnel? Equally, to what degree do you currently follow standard procedures? Do you always do a buddy check? Do you believe pre-dive briefings are important for every diver, or just the inexperienced? Self-reflection like this is invaluable for any diver, and is the key to improving your skills and ability. Diving is not a competitive sport, and your ability to identify your weaknesses to their full extent will only result in self-improvement. Despite being a full time instructor and technical diver, I could easily tell you the numerous things I need to improve on, without hesitation.
On a different but related note, your sensitivity to human factors – though slightly beyond the scope of this article – is also critical to your success as a technical diver. Your ability to read the body language of your buddies; to feel how the mood of the group is contributing to team cohesion; to know when to, and to have the courage to, ‘call’ a dive; to predict how a chain of seemingly insignificant events can spiral into a significant problem – these are all crucial skills that are severely underlooked in the diving community. Human factors is slowly making its entry into diving, and as any type of diver – not just technical – you should take the time to educate yourself on the subject. Gareth Lock’s Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors does an excellent job of accounting for both its importance and application.
Why You Should Become a Technical Diver
A technical diving course is neither cheap nor easy. Therefore, your motivation for enrolling in one should be clear to yourself in your mind. Similarly, by identifying why exactly it is that you want to become a technical diver, you will get more out of your course and will also be more motivated when the going gets tough at points. When you’ve unclipped and re-clipped a stage bottle for the umpteenth time, you want to have a why! Here are some, though of course not all, good reasons for becoming a technical diver.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, you want to go deeper. Depth for depth’s sake is often looked down upon by other divers, both recreational and technical. However, I whole-heartedly disagree with this. Said best by Michael Menduno: “the history of diving is the story of the quest to go deeper and stay longer.” The urge to go deeper is intrinsically primordial; it is part of the human will for exploration. Even when there is, as often said, ‘nothing to see’ down deeper. First of all, there often are many things to see, but, even if we take the claim to be true – that there is in fact nothing to see beyond recreational limits – it still does not make the pursuit of depth alone pointless. For many divers, the dive experience is not purely visual; it is also one of feeling. It is either the product of excessive marketing, or of our twenty-first century impulse for immediate and constant visual stimulation, that we equate having ‘nothing to see’ with purposelessness and/or boredom. The simple feeling of being suspended in the water column, weightless, in perfect trim, in total harmony with the underwater environment, is akin to a meditative experience. Diving is known to have similar effects to meditation in this respect. And for those who do experience this feeling, to be able to go deeper into an even more alien world, further away from the surface, is the ultimate form of meditation. These feelings are not unusual; they are shared by cave, technical and recreational divers alike. Similarly, even if you are not one for whom diving is a meditative experience, diving deeper for the sake of diving deeper can still be hugely rewarding. The feeling of satisfaction involved in a well-planned and executed technical dive is massively gratifying. The gases, the run-times, the stops, the bailout planning, the teamwork: this is something that cannot be replicated to the same degree in recreational diving. Every well-executed technical dive comes with an immense feeling of satisfaction, like that of summiting a mountain or finishing a race. That is where the pleasure is derived; from successfully and safely completing a seemingly complex and hazardous task.
Aside from the inner satisfaction and meditative effects of technical diving, there is of course the reason for doing it in order to see new things. Some of the world’s most magnificent wrecks lie beyond the reach of recreational limits. On top of this, many of the wrecks which are accessible to recreational divers, such as the Thistlegorm for example, are shallow enough to not be considered a technical dive, but deep enough to result in a shorter dive time. By being technically qualified, you are able to dive wrecks that lie in this mid-ground between technical and recreational limits without the stress of trying to avoid mandatory decompression. This turns a rushed 40 minute dive into a relaxed 70-80 minute dive, with very little hang time if using nitrox for decompression. Therefore, your technical diving qualification does not necessarily lead to you going deeper; simply, you can just stay for longer. This is particularly beneficial for underwater photographers wishing to take the time and care required for the perfect shot, without being restrained by their NDL. Aside from wrecks, there is also much to see in the way of reefs and wildlife in the deep. The Tunang Wall in Lombok, Indonesia, is one such example of this, with coral gardens extending well beyond recreational limits.
Similarly, if you are interested in breaking into rebreather diving, an entry level technical diving course is an excellent primer for this. The basics of stage setup and handling, as well as a strong grasp on the theories behind decompression and oxygen exposure, are crucial in making you a safe and successful rebreather diver. If you are an underwater photographer looking to get serious, then rebreather diving will undoubtedly be a part of your future; for both extending your bottom time as well as for getting much closer to wildlife. Therefore, an entry level technical course is an excellent undertaking for underwater photographers looking to up their game and get those awe-inspiring shots.
Why You Should Not Become a Technical Diver
Despite the host of reasons for becoming a technical diver, there are an equal amount against doing so. With technical diving’s increasing popularity, there is a drive to get as many people as possible to start their first course. Of course, this is problematic. Technical diving is not for everyone. The degree of humility, seriousness and cool headedness required, as well as the risk involved, means that it is only for a select few. This is not meant in an elitist way; anyone is of course welcome to try their hand at technical diving, provided they meet the prerequisites. However, many will simply not enjoy it: especially at the high-end of the spectrum.
There are some instructors who market entry level technical diving courses as simply a means by which to further your skills; ‘continuing education’ in the nomenclature of PADI. Though your skill repertoire will both improve and expand after having undertaken a technical diving course, it is not necessarily the best reason for which to do it. A technical diving course is designed to train and educate you in the procedures involved in diving past 40m, as well as the associated hazards of doing such. It’s primary function is not to improve your buoyancy, your trim, your ability to shoot an SMB whilst hovering. Of course, these skills will be trained and will improve over the duration of a technical course. However, they are not the primary focus. If skill refinement is what you are after, you would be far better off in undertaking a ‘fundamentals’ style course, such as GUE’s Fundamentals, IANTD’s Essentials, or TDI or PADI’s Intro to Tech course. These programs are designed to improve the fundamental skills of diving which should have been mastered before embarking on a technical diving course.
If after completing a fundamentals course like this, your thirst for knowledge and skill improvement is still not quenched, then by all means enroll in a technical course. Continuing Education is, of course, a force for good. Just consider what it is that you are really looking for before enrolling in a course.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many dives do I really need to begin my first technical diving course?
The amount of dives a diver has is most often used as a form of currency in diving circles. The more dives a diver has, the richer they are in experience and wisdom; and the richer they are in experience and wisdom, the better they are as divers – or so it is thought. However, this is an arguably misleading way in which to judge a diver. Though it may be a cliché, quality trumps quantity. The diver with 500 uneventful dives in benign conditions could be misled into thinking they are ‘experienced’. Conversely, the diver with 100 dives in a variety of conditions with a variety of encountered problems may be equally misled into thinking that they are relatively ‘inexperienced’. The point here is that you should not fixate on the exact number of dives you have, but rather on the variety of experiences you have encountered during the dives you have done. Heavy current? An incompetent buddy? A panicked diver? Low visibility? These are just a few examples. The reason that logged dives are used as a measure in this way is simply because they imply a given level of experience; the diver with 500 dives is probably a good diver. However, they are not a definitive measure. Ultimately, as stated previously, if you have a strong grip on the fundamentals of diving, then you are ready for an entry level technical diving course – regardless of the amount of dives you have.
Is it as expensive as it is rumoured to be?
Diving quickly becomes an exponential curve of cost. Courses, equipment, more courses, more equipment… technical diving is no different, however, it does add one more variable to the equation: gas! After the initial investments in equipment, the most expensive, recurring cost is gas fills: helium, oxygen, nitrox – they add up. However, for entry level technical courses and technical dives within this range, gas costs are still relatively low, especially if no helium is involved. Diving is an expensive sport, and you should not flout safety regulations in order to reduce the costs involved. However, the real expense involved in technical diving only occurs at the high end of the spectrum, when thousands of litres of trimix is required.
Is it as dangerous as it is said to be?
The risks involved in technical diving include but are not limited to: decompression sickness, oxygen toxicity (central nervous system and pulmonary), hypoxia, drowning, hypercapnia, hyperbaric arthralgia, and high pressure nervous syndrome – the majority of which can be fatal. However, the actual risk – statistically speaking – is very low. Through standards, procedures and thorough instruction, technical diving can become a safe activity to partake in, despite the potential hazards at play. However, it does still carry increased risk compared to normal recreational diving. This is for two reasons: ascent ceilings and high partial pressures of oxygen. The implications posed by these two factors, while manageable, are worth considering before enrolling in your first technical diving course. Similarly, the deeper we dive, the less certain the decompression calculations and physiology becomes. In other words, each dive is an experiment in human physiology – and you’re the guinea pig.
Will I be able to understand all the theoretical concepts and mathematics involved?
Yes. If you are already a qualified diver, then the theory you will be required to learn is completely within your academic reach. Similarly, the mathematics involved – primarily equations and the likes – are fairly intuitive and make sense once thought about. These things will become second-nature to a technical diver, and in no way do you have to be mathematically or scientifically inclined to understand the concepts to a level high enough to benefit from them. Just ensure you have a good grasp on everything you have learnt hitherto, especially the physics.