Lessons from Technical Diving for Recreational Divers

My friend Luke recently asked me if it was okay for him to translate one of my talks into Spanish. I said, “Of Course!” It reminded me about the article that inspired the talk. This was originally run in the Undersea Journal in 2003, I believe. It still holds true today, so I thought I would share it here.

Lessons from Technical Diving for Recreational Divers

Many divers do not realize that many of the items they dive with today and view as standard pieces of equipment had their origins in technical diving. Also, many of the techniques that divers view as standard had the origins there. BCDs, SPGs, underwater lights, and many more pieces of diving equipment were originally developed for the demands of technical diving.

Cave diving is regarded as the first form of technical diving. This demanding environment pushed the early explorers to develop improvements in the very limited scuba technology of the time. Buoyancy control is critical in diving and even more critical when cave diving. The cave divers saw the need for having more control over their buoyancy than just swimming harder. The cave environment would not allow that. So, they experimented with cutting out plastic bleach bottles and tying them to there cylinders. They would add air to them on descent and dump air out on ascent. This need led to the development of the BCD.

Knowing how much air you have would be critical in a cave. The early scuba gear did not have SPGs. Many cave divers would machine their own pressure gauges into their existing regulators. They could then know exactly how much air they had throughout the dive. This also led to more sophisticated gas management practices.

What is surprising is how long it took to adopt these new tools in the recreational diving community and level of resistance to the improvements by many in the community. Technical diving is not for everyone, but many of the ideas and techniques used there are very beneficial for the recreational diver.

Lesson #1
You are not as good as you think you are, neither am I.

A great deal of the lessons learned in technical diving are learned the “hard way”. Meaning someone died to allow us to learn from their mistake. It is not uncommon for divers as they progress in their training to feel and believe they have arrived. This belief tends to be over stated in their mind.

Technical divers know they are not as good as their mind tells them they are. That is why they train for big dives in shallow water first. They may even do dry runs on land. They work up changes to their gear and in their techniques as if they were learning them for the first time. They will visualize the change being used. They will then work up the change in the pool or confined water. Then, they will introduce the change in shallow water and progressively take it deeper. Only when they are total in tune with the new technique or gear will they use it in an actual mission oriented dive. Nothing is just done.

Recreational divers can take from this that you are never done learning, that you are not qualified for all environments or all conditions, and when you think you are, it is probably time for more training.

Lesson #2
Mileage Matters
We are not talking about used cars.

Technical divers know there is no substitute for time in the water. They would not dream of conducting a 300 foot dive after being out of the water for six months. Nor would they think it acceptable to dive a different environment, beyond their experience level, and/or with techniques or equipment that they were not trained to use without first training for that use.

Diving is a game of mileage. The more you dive the easier it and the better you become. There simply is no replacement for time in the water.

Lesson #3
Training Counts

Technical divers usually take great pride in who then have trained with. You hear stories of the greats that have come before and some who are still with us. Training does make a difference. Some are happy to take training with whoever arrives when they need it. Most technical divers who have been “around” for some time actively search out the instructors who they feel will connect with them and from whom they will receive the best training. Many technical divers travel great distances at great expense to receive the best training they can. They understand that training counts. Training will save their lives when it really matters most. Also, it is the training that is going to allow them to enjoy their fullest capability on dives. They will actually be able to do things on dives rather than worry about surviving them.

Who you train with and how you train counts. Seek out those instructors or instructor trainers that you connect with the most. Training from a sound educational foundation is a must. But, the application of that foundation matters even more. The recreational diver can gain a certification almost anywhere, but gaining a qualification is another thing. Make sure you seek out instruction that allows you to have the confidence to enjoy the dive for what it has to offer, not simply the activity of diving

Lesson #4
If You Pay Peanuts, You Will Get Monkeys.

Seasoned technical divers understand there is no free lunch. If a service is under valued, then the product is very likely under delivered. Many technical divers have commented that in retrospect even the most expensive course was very inexpensive. The lessons learned, tools gained and experience developed out shines any thought of economics. Quality costs, but bad training and poor performing equipment costs even more.

Realize that you get what you pay for. It may seem like a great deal now, but ask yourself what is it costing me in the long run. It is much easier to learn to do something well the first time. Making up for that will be far more expensive in the long run.

Lesson #5
You Can Learn A Lot From the Internet.
How to Actually Dive?

Technical diving is loaded with Internet information. Of course, how much of it is any good and who is actually giving the advice is tough to judge. The Internet is a very valuable tool. It can help coordinate international teams for projects, gain insights into where and who to see in an area of the world you have never been, and so much more. It cannot however replace actually diving. Technical divers know this very well. There are a lot of people who appear to be experts on the Internet that you never see actually out diving. Many do dive and are great sources for information.

Be careful whom you trust on the Internet. Check and double-check information that is gleaned from the Internet. Build a consensus of information before you adopt new ideas or techniques. It is said that a little knowledge is dangerous. Knowledge without application can be equally dangerous.

Lesson #6
Got Ego?

There is nothing wrong with a healthy ego. When ego starts to get in the way of judgment that can be a problem. Many technical diving accidents and deaths have been attributed to people allowing their brain to place their rear end somewhere it should not have been. Technical divers know they must be ready for what they are going to do on all levels. If they are not ready they do not dive. No questions asked.

Make sure that you are ready for the diving your brain (ego) is saying you are capable of doing. Do not let your mouth talk your body into something it cannot handle.

Lesson #7
No One Can Dive For You

One of the things that makes diving so pleasurable is that it is an internal sport. Much of the activity lives within us. Plus, we have to perform and do it well to fully enjoy diving to its highest capacity. Technical divers understand that they must be in control of their dive at all times. They are solely responsible for their diving outcome.

It is important that you never allow anyone to talk you into something you do not feel ready to do. Also, it is just as important that you do not rely on someone else to conduct your dive for you. Only you can dive for you.

Lesson #8
Cheap Second Hand Parachutes Anyone?

I do not think many clients in the skydiving field would say such a thing. Technical divers would never insure their lives to inferior or below standard equipment. It is their life support. Technical diving is equipment dependent and as such, equipment and its maintenance is treated very seriously. Equipment is the tool that allows access to the world being explored. Technical divers error on the side of better is always better.

Diving equipment is life support. You should treat as such. If it has been awhile since your equipment has been serviced, rather than assume it will be fine for the next dive go get it serviced. It is good piece of mind. If your gear is a bit out of date or your diving requires more of your equipment now than it did before, consider investing in better equipment. If you take care of your gear it will take care of you.

Lesson #9
Sixty-Four Pounds per Cubic Foot

You quickly say the imperial weight of seawater. Good answer. Technical divers are very aware of this number. Whether it is metric or imperial. They realize with all the gear they wear that every extra speck of surface they expose to the water that need not be is forcing them to move more water. Streamlining and balance in the water are critical. They spend enormous hours mastering a working position placing the smallest surface area against the water as they move. It does not seem like much, but it can literally mean their life. If they are not efficient in the water they could literally breath too much gas and not have enough to complete their dive. Everything on their gear is placed to reduce drag. There are no dangling slates or lights or clips. Everything is tucked away. They rig for wreck and dive with cave techniques.

Although not as dramatic for the recreational diver, the benefits of streamlining and balance in the water are clear. Greater gas efficiency, lower exertion, more comfort, ease of movement, and grace in the water are all benefits of working on streamlining and balance. This does not come easily or naturally. Most courses can only start you on the path. If you dive once a year or all year long, better body position in the water is as critical for you as the technical diver. Simply try to avoid having anything on you that creates unnecessary drag in the water. Tuck hoses, stow accessories, bring your arms to your sides and think about how you can minimize moving any more water than you have to.

Lesson #10
Operating Systems Work Great for Computers
Sure They Do.

Technical divers understand that it is very important to have a system to work from when diving. Survey courses only lend to learning many ways of doing things, none of them well. They also understand that you can never “systems” the diver out of the equation. It is more important to train the diver first than to trust blindly in a system of diving. The system is only going to be as good as the diver who operates it. Systems can and do make diving operations better and safer. However, technical divers understand that the system begins and ends with them.

It is important to learn a system of diving that allows you the freedom to develop your skills in a guided pathway. However, never forget that you are responsible for the application of any method of diving you use. Train with those that help you make yourself the best you can be first and help you apply the system you choose to you.

Lesson #11
A Poor Craftsman Blames His Tools
This works both ways.

Technical divers understand that gear is rarely the problem. It is the operator that is the problem. If they are experiencing a problem while diving they do not blame their tools (gear). They look to see what and why they are having problems with the gear and then they fix it. They do not simply continue to dive grinning and baring the issue. They take the steps necessary to solve the problem right away. If that means stopping diving and making a change that needs to be worked up from the pool, they do just that. No excuses. They also do not blame their success on their gear. Gear becomes simply a tool to give them access to the area they wish to visit. They carry what they need for safety and nothing extra that is unnecessary.

Find gear that works with you and not against you. If something does not work, change it. Do not suffer through multiple dives struggling with gear that is causing you a problem. Invest in the gear that is right for the diving you plan on doing. You will find as you dive more that you will adopt different pieces of equipment for different environments and needs. It is not uncommon to have multiple exposure suits and BCDs.

Lesson #12
The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Technical divers would never dream of conducting any dive without complete dive planning. They use systems to help remember all the necessary components of a dive to plan for. They plan for oxygen exposure, decompression obligation, inert gas narcosis, gas management, thermal stress, mission and logistics. They take into account all the other aspects of the dive before arriving at the dive site. For some dives this planning may take months or even a year.

Never just jump in the water and see what happens. It takes very little time to conduct a predive plan for recreational diving. Simply thinking through the aspects of the dive that are critical can make a scary dive and thing of ease. Make sure you and your buddy agree on all aspects of the dive plan. That way you are always on the same page during the dive.

Lesson #13
The Best Bet is to Bet on Yourself

Buddy diving is the foundation of all diving, even at the technical level. However, every technical dive is planned as if the dive will have to be completed with no one else there. Technical divers always dive as two self-sufficient divers choosing to dive together.

Never assume that anyone else can or will help you on a dive. It is always better to be able to help yourself than rely on someone for help. Plus, it makes you a better buddy. You are more able to deal with your own difficulties so you are better prepared to lend assistance when your buddy really needs it. It is also important to make sure you gain the necessary skills to lend assistance when needed. Rescue training and the associated additional training are a must.

Lesson #14
Got Gas?
Sucks to Be You!

In technical diving running out of gas is unacceptable. Short of total mechanical failure, dives are planned in great detail to avoid such things from occurring. The reserve carried by a diver is not for his buddy, but rather for him or her. If that diver chooses to provide that gas to his buddy is up to that diver. If providing that gas will cost the diver their life, the decision is to not provide the gas. Gas planning is one of the most critical aspects of preparing for a technical dive.

In recreational diving, there is just no excuse for running out of gas. Gas management should be a part of all predive planning for even shallow dives. Leave reserves on all your dives and carry redundant gas supplies for deeper dives. There is no time in any dive where you should be unaware of how much gas you have. If you have total mechanical failure of your breathing system, then and only then is it acceptable to be out of gas. Then the use of a backup supply or buddy is acceptable. Mechanical failure occurs less than five percent of the time. Other than that, there is just no excuse for running low or out of gas. None!

Lesson #15
Execution is more important than achievement.

Technical diving horror stories are racked with divers pushing far beyond their limits or the limits of safety in a quest for achievements with little to no rewards. Most balanced technical divers realize that how well a dive is conducted matters as much if not more than a number on a depth gauge or a distance in a cave. Respect is gained through conducting all dives well. Even a dive in 100 feet/ 30 m of water done very well, will gain more real respect than a dive conducted to 400 feet / 123 m where the diver executed the dive very poorly. Technical divers do not rush to depth before they can execute all skills and techniques flawlessly in shallow water.

Do not be in such a rush to push your limits. Achievement will come in time. It is far more important to take the time to gain the ability to really execute a flawless recreational dive prior to adding additional tasks or pressures to your diving. Plus, you gain the added benefit of much greater confidence in your diving. This frees you to concentrate more fully on what you see and experience while you are diving. When diving becomes second nature through concentrated work to master execution that is a true achievement.

Lesson #16
Call the dive, anyone?

Technical diving has a saying that anyone can call the dive at any time for any reason with no negative consequences being applied. This is taken very seriously. In fact, not so long ago, if a dive was called, those involved would often not even discuss the reasons behind it for fear of applying pressure to the decision in the future. To this day, it is completely fine for any member of a team to call the end to a dive without any reason. It has always been thought that such a choice was the only logical position to have. Who is to say someone was wrong. If a diver was made to feel guilty for ending a dive prematurely and the dive was to continue, the whole team would be endangered. Once the dive is ended the entire team exits the water.

Far too often in recreational diving when a member of a team tries to call for the end of a dive the other member simply waves goodbye to them. Affectionately know as “the kiss off” the two divers go their separate ways. On more than one occasion, this has ended badly. When one member of a team wants to end the dive, both members of the team should proceed to end the dive together. There is always time to make another dive or to fix the problem that occurred. It really is a matter of respect for those you dive with.

Lesson #17
All Dives are Decompression Dives

This is well understood by all technical divers. The process of diving under pressure compresses gas into solution in the body. By ascending you are by definition decompressing. There are differences in no stop and required stop diving, but the message is clear. You must account for and accurately track decompression for all dives whether they are no stop or required stop dives.

Lesson #18
200 feet / 60 m per minute?

What are you crazy? What could this possibly mean? You must be talking about some kind of new piece of equipment. Nope, I wish I were. This is one of the reported observed ascent rates after the average recreational diver is finished with a safety stop.

Technical divers know that a dive is not over till well after they have reached the surface. In fact, they fully understand that the greatest increase in pressure is the last twenty feet/ 6 meters. So, the final ascent to the surface for most technical divers is very very slow. They do not want to rush through the greatest pressure change they face for the entire dive. Often the surface is viewed as another point of decompression or the final stop. They know that the dive does not end until hours after the dive.

Technical divers also know that rushing to get off the bottom is probably a bad idea as well. If rapid pressure change is bad near the surface than it would make sense that it is probably not the best idea at depth either. Technical divers have been adding deep stops to their profiles for over a decade. They aid in decompression efficiency.

Recreational divers seem to be in a rush to get out of the water once they perceive the dive to be over. For many, this is when they begin to leave the bottom. Do not be so quick to leave the bottom. It is not a bad idea to add a deep safety stop at half of your original depth. Or better yet, try to make all dives multilevel when possible. If it is not possible, throw in a few delays before your normal safety stop. Error on the side of twenty feet/six meters for the final safety stop and slow down your ascent. Especially when you leave your final safety stop. Consider the surface your last safety stop.

Lesson #19
Bends is not a four-letter word.

Technical divers go into every outing knowing that getting decompression sickness, bends, is a real risk. They plan for this possibility on all dives. They know exactly how they are diving, what they are breathing and are very aware of any symptoms that may arise after a dive is over. They are prepared with oxygen and emergency assistance plans for all dives. They are also quick to seek help when they believe they might have a problem. They also carry diving insurance to help offset any costs that may come from seeking treatment. This helps avoids delays in treatment and basically eliminates any financial resistance to seeking treatment.

You want to keep track of your dives and plan taking into account all factors that might put you at greater risk for a problem. Purchase diving insurance that covers expenses for treatment for diving related problems. It eliminates any financial resistance to seeking medical advice if you suspect you have a problem. If you dive, there is always a chance of a diving related problem on any dive. These are easy to avoid, but do not avoid seeking medical advice whenever you have even the slightest suspicion that you might have a problem. Even if you just give DAN a call. When in doubt, get yourself checked out.

Lesson #20
70 % = 1/3 Huh?

That is correct. Not if you are studying math, but if you understand how your lungs work it is true. Seventy percent of your gas exchange occurs in the lower third of your lungs. This lesson is not so much an advent of technical diving, but rather of extreme freediving. Tech divers have been concerned about breathing for some time. Gas can go fast when you are deep. Freedivers have to do their best on one breath. They spend a lot of time making that one breath count. They use deep relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. They fill their lungs from the bottom by dropping the diaphragm and filling them to the top with the chest. They have a relaxed pause at the top and then use a slow exhalation.

Tech divers have been using this breathing pattern for years to optimize their breathing parameter. This is the most efficient breathing pattern there is. Even with workload changes, the seasoned tech diver knows that they will not get any more gas if they alter their breathing from this pattern. In fact, altering breathing could actually make their breathing less efficient. Or worse, it can cost them their life.

You should look to refining your breathing habits to increase your comfort in the water and get more time in the water. Small changes in breathing techniques can pay huge dividends in bottom time immediately. Work with a seasoned instructor to polish breathing or join a freediving clinic near you.

Lesson #21
Be Better This Dive Than the Last, Be Better Tomorrow Than Today

This is a tech divers credo. The best tech divers realize that they are never done learning, training or growing. Complacency can and does kill you in tech diving, but more often it just hurts performance. In technical diving that is the only thing that counts. Being able to do things on the bottom is the only reason to go. Once you stop learning you become out of date and you can be dangerous. Tech divers are always polishing performance and continuing to educate themselves on the state of the art.

You are never done training. Get over it. The great thing is if you keep working at it you will find that you enjoy diving much more than you ever imagined. Plus, you gain the skills that allow you to focus more on what you are seeing on your dives rather than on conducting the dives. It is freedom, the freedom to see and do the things you want to do without putting yourself or anyone else at risk. More importantly, it allows you to gain real confidence in your skills. This frees you up to enjoy your dives more than you can possibly imagine.

Technical diving is not an end for most divers, nor should it be, but it can supply hard fought lessons to all divers. Tech diving accelerates the learning curve because the demands placed on the diver are a lot higher. The cool thing is that all divers can steal what tech divers learn to make their diving better right now. Try some or all of these lessons and see the changes right away. The only risk is having even more fun when you dive.

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3 Comments on “Lessons from Technical Diving for Recreational Divers”

  1. geoff says:

    Grant – Great insights as always. I’m surprised you didn’t say anything about gear matching with your buddy. Not necessarily everyone having the same exact brand of gear, but setting up so you and your buddy have breathing gases that are matched in terms of bottom time and no decompression limits, and everyone in the group can move at approximately the same rate. Same for one member of the buddy team getting cold way before the other due to differences in thermal protection. Also, understanding differences in gear before the dive, so your buddy can check something, or help out, during the dive if something isn’t quite right. It’s much easier to be a buddy team on a recreational dive if you and your buddy are evenly matched so you can both enjoy the same dive. Two divers mismatched in skill level can still have a great dive together if both are able to dive their plan with one another (i.e., plan the dive and dive the plan)

    • Grant W. Graves says:

      Well, first this is a piece that was written for lesson for recreational divers. So, gear matching does not really matter.

      It is certainly important to understand your dive buddies gear and how it functions, but any strict matching is not really necessary since you can ascend directly to the surface as any time. There could be some benefits on deeper dives in matching nitrox mixtures and such, but strict kit matching is just not necessary. Plus, it requires a more in depth discussion about the whens and the whys of it than a simple lesson statement can provide.

      So, this piece is not the place for the discussion on that area. It is worth discussing and I will add it to the list for a future topic.

      In a technical diving mode, in my opinion, strict kit matching is not totally necessary either. It has a place in regard for matching schedules and gasses, for sure in a team operation where you are live boating, so planning can be built around the teams returning together and decompression schedules being similar. Within a buddy or working team, it is more important so all are on the same gasses at the same time and decompression schedules match.

      As far as what gear is worn and how, there are some items that should match and much that just does not matter. Opinions here vary greatly. Critical items will make life less complicated in an emergency, like breathing from the long hose. Perhaps how that long hose is routed as well. So, there is no effort or thought needed in how to secure gas if there is an issue with it. You can say this also applied to recreational diving, but error chains are longer in recreational diving and take longer to develop. It is not as critical in this mode of diving and a good understanding of your buddies kit is enough to allow for the exchange to be done appropriately. It is best to be self sufficient in either application so the problem can be self corrected. Or even better yet, just never run out of gas at all.

      But, there are less critical areas like where decompression bottles are worn that really does not need to match. Research has shown that non critical differences can be easily dealt with via discussion and use of other techniques to prevent issues, like incorrect gas switches and many other things.

      In fact, over reliance on kit matching without procedures in place to mitigate mistakes at the time they occur on top of that can lead to complacency and potential mistakes like a bad gas switch. Whether a diver wears all cylinders left or right and left does not matter nearly as much as if they are switching to the correct gas at the depth that gas is able to be breathed.

      Gas and schedule matching are wise to do within a dive buddy team, but may not be necessary and even an issue with the larger group. This also will depend on the operation and the setup of the dives. But, it is rare that an entire group of tech divers jump at once or plan around all returning at the same time. Sadly, few use support divers nor work as a group any more.

      Recreational tech diving is not expedition tech diving. Most tech divers just out to have fun have little concept of any of the issues or capabilities that are employed during expeditions. Nor do they exhibit the abilities that that level of diving requires.

      Certainly, an understanding of how much gas you have and will use along with a plan for when that will require heading to the exit would be a good thing. This again depends on depth of the dive and distance traveled. Time, depth, and gas awareness and some discussion of that prior to going on the dive with your dive buddy is a very good thing so you can return to the exit and have enough gas to properly ascend and do a safety stop should be SOP.

      Thermal protection is a good thing and in technical diving running out of heat can be as bad as running out of gas, but recreationally you can end the dive. When technical diving you have to suffer through it or it could be a very bad day or the heat issue can lead to other issues or even kill you.

      Rebreathers only complicate the discussion as they become more available and easier to use. Different units diving together may make gas matching impossible recreationally. A single gas unit is not going to be able to match a closed circuit unit directly. Recreationally, it does not matter all that much as you can base your dive on time as gas durations is not as likely to even be an issue at all. As dives move deeper, then available bottom time from a no stop time frame may matter more, but again this is more of predive planning thing and agreeing on a return time.

      We can save this discussion for another time. More choices to deal with and a more complicated topic.

      I will post on dive planning in a future post. Thermal is part of dive planning. This post could continue on with many more lessons. But, you have to stop at some point. At the time of its writing, there was also a limit on how many words were available for the publication.

      The more important part is that it helps drive discussion and points to how technical diving helps all of diving by working out stuff and innovating for more critical situations and we can all learn from those lesson in our everyday diving.

  2. julia cowell says:

    Scuba diving is a continuous learning. Everyday, every minute, you are getting better and better. You will encounter different challenges while in the bottom of the sea. That is part of learning.


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