It’s About Time
Publish Date: March 2021
Build it and They Will Come (Cave Diving): An Interview with Consummate Underground Gearhead Lamar Hires
March, 2021—This interview was more than a quarter century in the making, and I for one am glad that we finally got it done. I am sure that Mr. Hires is too. Now with its completion, Lamar Hires, one of the stalwart pioneers of cave and technical diving, can finally take his place in this gallery of early trailblazers that graced the pages of my magazine aquaCORPS Journal (1990-1996).
Where was the soft-spoken explorer when the magazine being produced? Busy inventing and building equipment to enable him, his colleagues and customers to explore the seemingly endless underground, water-filled passageways that honeycomb portions our planet, all the while teaching enthusiastic, karst-inclined divers to follow in their fin prints.
The fact is that Hires was intimately involved with the magazine and Tek.Conferences, as a advisor, sponsor, speaker, exhibitor and longtime supporter. Tech divers from back in the day will no doubt recall that Hires’ company Dive Rite and its plethora of tech products were featured on the back cover of aquaCORPS beginning with issue #5 BENT, through issue #13 O2N2.
And the amazing thing is that Hires is still at it, more than 40 years from taking the plunge into diving! In fact, he and the Dive Rite team just rolled out a completely unique, innovative exploration-informed, rebreather, the O2ptima Chest-Mount (CM) at the end of 2020, one of several new Dive Rite products, and the indefatigable inventor shows no signs of slowing down.
Here is our quarter-century-in-the-making interview. Welcome, Lamar Hires.
Build it and They Will Come (Cave Diving): An Interview with Consummate Underground Gearhead Lamar Hires
Lamar Hires occupies a unique, venerable place in the tech diving firmament—one that lies at the intersection of cave exploration, education and diving technology R&D. The soft spoken, sixty-four old explorer and educator cum inventor has spent more than 40-years in relentless pursuit of his passion: developing the specialized equipment and training required to take him and his fellow speleophiles to where no one had gone before.
In the process, Hires along with his wife Lee Ann, son Jared and their team have built one of the most trusted and respected global brands in the tech diving business: Dive Rite Ltd., located in Lake City, Florida, in the heart of cave country. The company has helped pioneer much of the technology that tech divers now take for granted, including many firsts, to wit; the first commercially-produced backplates, wings and reels, lighting beginning with some of the first primary lights, the first variable-mix nitrox computer, the first CNS oxygen toxicity algorithm, the first mixed gas computer, sidemount diving equipment, and most recently an innovative modular, chest-mounted rebreather that integrates with a diver’s existing back mount or sidemount open circuit scuba set.
“All of the equipment we’ve developed has been based around exploration. That’s been the drive and passion behind everything we’ve done,” Hires explained.
Exploration has also figured heavily into the development of cave diving training, which Hires has been intimately involved with since the early 1980’s through the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS), long considered the gold standard of cave diving training. He is also an instructor trainer and on the board of advisors for Technical Diving International (TDI) and the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD).
Within five years of getting his open water certification in 1979, Hires, who mentored under famed underground filmmaker/photographer Wes Skiles, had logged 1000 dives—the majority of them underground, became a NAUI instructor in August, 1984 and three months later earned his cave instructor ticket with the NSS-CDS. That was the year that he and fellow cave instructor Mark Leonard started Dive Rite, in order to supply themselves and others with the equipment they needed to cave dive.
The next year, Hires, who with explorer Woody Jasper helped pioneer early sidemount diving and equipment, created the first sidemount specialty course for NSS-CDS. A few years he became a CDS instructor trainer, a member of the training council, and then Training Director (a position he has held numerous times since), and was involved in helping to develop early CDS standards such as the use of long hose, the S-drill and gas sharing. He has also served as CDS chairman, president and board member.
These days, Hires is focusing on strengthening cave diving education with an emphasis on exploration skills. “I’m trying to get cave diving training back to what it used to be—an education not just a training course to teach you how to swim down a line,” Hires explained to me. “Back in the day, anyone who took a cave diving course had the potential to be an explorer. So, we educated them on how to find a cave, lay a line, survey and know when to not go in a tunnel, so that if they ever found themselves in that lucky position to be able to explore, they knew what to do.”
Over the course of his career Hires has found himself in that enviable position at places like Cow, Bonnet and Telford Springs, Little River, not to mention caves and mines in Australia, the Dominican Republic, Finland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Russia. And he still engaged in new exploration. He also remains a very active instructor with CDS, TDI and IANTD having trained over 650 cave and tech divers.
My association with Lamar goes back to early 1990s when I was publishing aquaCORPS Journal and had launched the first Tek.Conference: TEK.93 conference held in January 1993 in Orlando, FL. Lamar and Dive Rite were there in full force. From that year forward, Dive Rite prominently displayed its wares—Lamar’s inventions—on the back cover of every issue of aquaCORPS and was an ongoing sponsor of the TEK.Conferences. Some of those covers are displayed on these pages.
This interview evolved from a series of taped conversations that I had with Lamar over the last two years while he was involved in helping to revise and update CDS training standards, and developing his new innovative rebreather offering, the O2ptima CM, which Dive Rite launched in late 2020. I decided to focus on the technology development aspect of his career vs. training for brevity’s sake, though the inimitable inventor’s extensive history developing cave and tech diving equipment is anything but brief. Here is what he had to say.
Michael Menduno: I’m just curious, do you think of yourself primarily as a diver, an instructor, an inventor, equipment designer, entrepreneur, or an explorer?
Lamar Hires: All of the above? [Hires laughs] I had to think on this awhile. I would say a little of everything; more of a designer than inventor, definitely an entrepreneur and explorer. Diver or instructor? I guess I consider myself a diver and mentor more than just an instructor. I have trained guys that went on to do exploration and have always tried to help divers reach their goals. I feel many instructors teach certain disciplines when the class is put together but don’t live it. Like the instructor who is qualified to teach sidemount but has decided to dive back mount unless he is forced to dive sidemount when teaching a sidemount course. I like to live it and share the experience when I teach.
You’ve been at this for a long time. When did you start your diving career?
It was 1979. I was 23 and single had just started working at a chemical plant near Jacksonville, Florida. I really liked my job which was working with things that could blow-up; acid reactors, hydrogen autoclaves, hydrogen compressors, distillation columns. There was some really cool shit. I had a friend that worked there and we decided to learn how to dive. So, we went to what I think was American Scuba and took at IDEA course.
I remember that name. IDEA was one of the first scuba training programs in the US.
We didn’t know anything about certification, that was just the closest shop to our apartments. All of our training was done at Gold Head Branch State Park right outside of Jacksonville. We got our basic scuba cards and it was like, “All right, let’s go dive.”
There were no dive boats in Jacksonville. Instead we found Ned Deloach’s “Underwater Guide to Florida,” and saw that there were freshwater springs only about an hour to an hour and a half away. So, we started coming over here and diving the springs and it didn’t take long before the springs get boring and you want to go inside. So, we started going inside.
You went cave diving?!?
Guilty as charged. We knew nothing about training, warnings or anything. Just basic scuba. And back then, in ‘79, when we picked out our open water dive package and bought that, regulator, BC and everything, we had a choice between a power inflator on the BC or an octopus for that package price. So, we picked the power inflator and not the octopus. Which proved very handy.
Anyway, we were diving the springs and pretty soon we started going in, so we would venture into Peacock. It was actually a bad experience but we were still so naïve we didn’t really know that we were doing something really wrong. There were no warning signs. There were no prevent your death signs. There was nothing about cave diving accidents. It was the wild west in cave country. And cave divers didn’t talk to you if you weren’t a cave diver because they didn’t want to influence you at all, or help you go in.
They just kind of let you do your thing and didn’t tell you anything.
So, we had been over to Peacock that day and had swam to the shallow side up to the crack and started for the Peanut Line but we didn’t see the line. There wasn’t a line. Then we came out and found the deep section and swam to Pothole where there was a line. And swam Pothole, surfaced with 1100 pounds of gas and decided to turn around and go back.
Oh my God.
Oh yeah. So, I ran out of gas about 50 feet from the crack to go up. And my dive buddy Mike Chapman, still had a couple hundred psi left and he’s like, let’s buddy breathe. And I looked at him and I said, no because I knew it was just going to kill us both because he didn’t have much more than I did and I was pulling hard to get a breath out. And so, I did a free ascent on a last breath from 50 feet beyond the sign up and out of the cave to the surface.
Woah! A close call. You were lucky!
Yeah that was an experience. But it didn’t slow me down. It was just like, okay, I guess we need to save more gas. I had no idea that I was doing anything wrong because no one had told me. And for the most part we were diving on weekdays because of shift work at the chemical plant, so I don’t think we saw any cave divers, or their doubles or what we were doing wrong.
So, what finally turned you around?
The turning point came later that year, a couple months later. Thank God! If it had been later I’m not sure I would still be around. A couple of months after the Peacock incident, Wes Skiles had just returned from, I think it was Jamaica, where he was teaching and running a dive boat over there. He was at Pro Dive Center. It was later renamed Aquifer Dive Center but back then it was Pro Dive. He was working on the compressor that day and had to stop to fill our tanks, the fills were free because of that. We had a good conversation and decided to make the shop our go-to-shop because of Wes.
It was probably our third meeting with Wes and he asked us what we were doing. And I said, oh we’re going to dive the springs; we’re going back to Orange Grove again. Wes just looked at us and went, you’re going into the cave? We said, well, yeah, the basin is kind of boring. And he pulled Sheck Exley’s “Blueprint for Survival” down off the wall and said, here, take this and read it. I’m looking at the book; it was $2.95 back then. And I said, “Next time Wes. We’ve got gas money and we got beer money. We’ll get the book next time.” And Wes was like, “No, I’m giving it to you guys.”
He saved your life!
Yeah. We were headed to Orange Grove. Mike was driving that day, and I’m thumbing through the book and I’m like, “Holy shit!” Mike, listen to this. These guys died on the dive we did yesterday!” We went back to the shop the next day, and said, ”Ok Wes. You got our attention! Where do we go from here?” And that’s when we started diving with Wes and got our Advanced Open Water with him and went on to learn cave diving him as well.
Wes was a recreational and a cave instructor at the time?
He was an open water (OW) instructor and cavern instructor, and he just got his cave instructor rating with the NSS-CDS. Mike and I were his first full cave students. But it was also a friendship because he lived in the same apartment complex as me and Mike. We spent a lot of time together diving and exploring.
You obviously got the bug!
Like I said, we were cave diving together, learned how to sneak dive, learned how to do all the stuff I wouldn’t even think about doing today.
Then in 1982, the chemical plant I worked at had a massive layoff. They had close to 1000 employees and they trimmed it down to 500. Unfortunately, I was number 501.
That prompted a career change. Wes and Gene Broome had recently purchased Branford Dive Center and Wes, who had moved down from Jacksonville, was managing it. Wes told me to come over and I started working there with him. So that’s how I ended up in Branford. Then sometime in early 1983, Wes went on to manage Ginnie Springs and I became the manager at the Branford Dive Center. I managed Branford until we had the big flood of ‘84 and that’s when Mark Leonard and I started Dive Rite. We launched it in May ‘84.
Was Mark a cave diver at that point too? Did you meet through cave diving?
Oh yeah. I met Mark out at Peacock Springs when I was riding around with Wes one day. I got to know Mark quite well when I was at Branford. He was a cave instructor and teaching down at Branford Dive Center. We had a lot of interaction. He was a prison guard out at Baker Prison. He would get off of night shift and come and teach cave diving. I used to enjoy telling his students that he was on work release and he’d be here shortly.
What motivated you two to start Dive Rite?
It started, well my God, as soon as I started cave diving with Wes, it was clear where things were headed, because you couldn’t buy gear. You made everything. You need a reel? Where do you get one? You have to make it. Then you needed a primary light, so you had to make the primary light. You’d go to the plastics store have them cut you a couple pieces of plexiglass, and then you’d glue it together. Because I worked at the chemical plant I would take things in and have the guys in the maintenance department drill them and bend them for me and everything to make handles and frames. They thought Mike and I were crazy.
In fact, I became one of the more popular guys with cave divers before I left the plant. Everybody used wet cell NiCad [nickel-cadmium] batteries back then for powering their dive lights. They were all Army surplus; nobody bought new NiCads. You had to drain them, rinse them, put electrolyte in them and recharge them. Well, that electrolyte was potassium hydroxide; the batteries were caustic-based, not an acid based. I had access to potassium hydroxide at the chemical plant, so I would sneak out 10, 15 pounds at a time, which would be enough to rejuvenate hundreds of those batteries.
I remember talking with you about the original back plate and wings, that was inspired by John Zumrick and Greg Flanagan. Was Dive Rite the first company to start producing those?
Well, we were the first one to make them commercially available. They were produced right here in Lake City at Metal Masters. That’s where the first ones were made and we had a small run of them made for Branford Dive Center.
Our aluminum backplate was one of the 13 products that we started Dive Rite with. Greg Flanagan and John Zumrick were the two that worked all that out. Greg was the one who made them and John was his inspiration after a trip to California, where he first saw the back mounted wings on the Water Gill At-Pac at a Navy base.
I remember the At-Pac. My advanced open water instructor had one. They were very cool. I am guessing they were inspired by Jacques Cousteau, and his dive teams’ back mounted triple or quadruple cylinders. Amazing. You mention 13 products. What were some of the others?
We had a primary light, a backplate and two different size reels, webbing and lead weights. We had six different lead weights And then we had D rings and a little bit of hardware. It was just what was needed to get a cave diver going. Wes and I had made primary lights for Branford Dive Center but when Dive Rite started, we made the lights through Dive Rite. Wes was out of manufacturing after he left Branford in 1983. Mark made the reels, which he had been doing before Dive Rite. He made some small reels and everything for the classes. Where did divers get the gear for their class?
We had to find the stuff or make it at the shop.
Cave divers would come in to fill their tanks and we would talk cave diving.
A diver might proudly put a light on the counter that they had made for themselves, many of them were machinists after all. I’d look at it and ask, “how many of those did you make?” “I made four of them.” “Do you have them with you? Bring them in.” So that’s how a lot of early stuff was acquired at the shop.
We’d resell them to students and customers and they might make me a few more until they got tired of it and realized that it was not a hobby but work because I kept asking for them. Divers built reels; there was some very fancy stuff out there. I’d trade them for air fills and gear. Very rarely did I actually have to give them money.
Because there wasn’t standardized cave diving equipment at the time.
That’s right. It was not uncommon for people to wear a jacket BC with a webbing harness around the top bolt and capture them to the bottom bands. And that would be put over that jacket BC. All that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until a little bit later Ocean Dynamics and a couple of others, came up with the wing. But we, Dive Rite came out with the first wing designed specifically for doubles with 11” on center spacing for bolts and 10” wide center panel to clear the aluminum backplate. This was around 1986 and we set the standard for wings for doubles.
Wasn’t that when 104s kind of came into their own in the late 80s?
The 104s were around. Divers starting wearing the smaller wings—Bill Main started that and then Sheck and the other guys. But what we were seeing was a combination of a wing and either a horse collar or a jacket. In some of the earlier pictures of me and Wes, you’ll see that we’ve got a jacket on. But if you look closer there’s also a 40-pound wing behind it as well. We needed all that because the 104s were heavy—we were not always diving dry. And back then our stage bottles were steel 72s, not aluminum 80s. And cannister lights could be eight to 10 pounds. Everything was bulky. I would say that divers today carry about 20 pounds less gear than what we carried back then.
At the historical equipment exhibit we put together for the last TekDive conference we also displayed a set of “belly bags” that Bill Main had brought us. They had been Sheck’s [Sheck Exley]. Were belly bags an alternative to the wing to help divers trim out?
Some of those guys were just wearing the belly bags. That was actually Greg Flanagan’s reason for coming out with the backplate because divers were wearing a belly bag with just a harness with no backplate. [Flanagan machined some of the early backplates and other equipment] And they were trying to balance themselves on that belly bag. But even after we came out with the backplate, and wings, some divers still wore belly bags for that extra flotation.
Wouldn’t it help with trim as well?
The belly bag would actually keep you from getting on the bottom. That was to replace the Clorox jugs. The wing was to give them trim; there was a big difference. But with the BC, our first big push was to come out with a BC dedicated to doubles. And then shortly after that, I came out with the singles mounting plate. That was right around 1986. Its origin was twofold.
First, Jeff Bozanic had come by the shop and showed me how he had made slots in his backplate so he could put the wing and a single tank directly onto a backplate. He was smiling from ear to ear. I told him, “Jeff, that looks terrible,” but it got me thinking about the problem.
And then Lee Ann [who later married Lamar] came to me and wanted to dive her pink and blue BC with a single tank. I had taught her to dive and eventually to cave dive. I kept thinking, how am I going to put this wing on that set up for her? We did have some plastic backplates at the time, our ABS plates. I worked on one and turned it into a single tank plate. And that was the birth of the single mounting plate in 1986.
Of course, the little joke we had—she gets upset with me when I remind her—I called her single’s mounting plate a SMP which is PMS backwards, which later was called the STA, a single tank adapter by our competition
There weren’t too many women cave divers back then.
No. There was Mary Ellen Eckhoff of course, but not too many others. They were coming on but cave diving was still a man’s world with the heavy tanks and all that. That’s where there was a big divide, because it was just so heavy with all the gear. Yeah, Lee Ann was a very active cave diver. I trained her and taught her open water and then cavern, and then after I finished her cave course in Mexico in 1986, I asked her to marry me.
Aww! And you’ve been together ever since! If I remember correctly, you were also experimenting with sidemount rigs back then.
That’s right. After creating the wing and then the singles mounting plate, we did a couple of other wings and then we were playing around with sidemount. Woody [Jasper], Wes and I were doing a lot with that. And where Woody had a lot of ideas and innovation on it, I had the tools to actually make it happen. We made some sidemount rigs in the shop. I look back on it now, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we started there.”
Because sidemount wasn’t really a thing back then, right? My memory is that there were a handful of people, cave divers, like yourself, like Woody, who were using sidemount to explore the caves that really weren’t accessible by back mount.
Exactly. It was strictly an exploration tool, not a lifestyle like today. This was all about wanting to go where our mentors had stopped. You know Paul DeLoach and Sheck Exley. We wanted to know what stopped them, and for the most part we used sidemount to push beyond where they stopped. So that’s what we were doing. That’s what we were using sidemount for; it was strictly a cave diving tool.
I seem to remember a bicycle inner tube was part of the rig you had. You sort of wrapped it around.
Yeah. Woody had looked at a lot of the British many British rigs but they did not trim out very well. They didn’t care because most of the time they were walking through a sump anyway. They usually didn’t start in the water and they weren’t very streamlined. What we wanted to do was get those bottles up against our side to keep us streamlined and everything.
The best way to hold the necks of the bottles was to use a bicycle inner tube and pull that valve up underneath the arm with that bicycle inner tube. So that was a Woody deal and it worked out extremely well. That was standard equipment for all sidemounts.
Lee Ann and her brother had a business in downtown Lake City, hobby shop, locksmith, picture framing and bicycle shop all under one roof. So, when sidemount started getting a little more popular in the 80s, I would send the cave divers over there and pick out the right size inner tube, which she kept in a bin. Of course, none of us paid for tire inner tubes. They were discarded from bicycle service
I ‘ve heard you refer to Woody as the “Father of Sidemount” on several occasions.
Woody was an explorer, and since new cave was usually small or had restrictions to stop back mount cave divers he gravitated to it. He thought out the streamlining of cylinders and regulator configurations. Diving with him was always an adventure.
Didn’t the TransPac come after that? Wasn’t that early to mid-1990s? 90s?
The TransPac was born in ‘95.
Oh, so that was a slightly later development.
Yeah. It came about as part of an exploration project. What happened was I had gone to Japan on an expedition in 1994. A friend of mine had set up a project with some Japanese cavers that needed divers to explore some sumps over there, because their divers couldn’t do it. They didn’t have any cave divers.
So, I went to Japan with my friend, cave diver and interpreter Peter Thompson. We had shipped over steel 95’s with h valves for the exploration. We dived the sump in Shigawatari-do. It was 2000 feet back/612m in the cave to the sump and our Japanese friends tried to carry our gear but they just couldn’t handle those tanks. We actually put all of our gear on our back and carried the tank and got back to the sump ourselves. I remember them telling me, “Oh, you don’t know the way.” I kept going and told them the path was easy to follow, I will wait on you at the sump.
We made our way back to the sump and Peter hadn’t really played around much with sidemount. We got in and hooked up the 95’s with H-valves and he started struggling with the buoyancy because he also had the camera and was trying to take pictures while I was running line. So, we had to abort the dive.
He told me he was task loaded to the max with the new setup and the camera. I said, “Alright, give me your tank.” So, I took both tanks and went on in. The reason we had 95s was because the Japanese had told us that the sump went deep. They had sent a diver, just an open water diver in the year before, and carried in 20 cylinders for the diver, and was only under a few minutes and told them that it was deeper than 40m/130 ft and just didn’t end. So that’s all we knew about the sump, and so we arranged for some bigger tanks.
I still had a little bit of visibility, but the sump bottomed out at about 9m/30 ft and then started back up. So instead of being 40 m/130 ft deep it was only 9m/30 ft, and then it heads back up. The problem was that when it came back up I had a sheer wall about 2 feet/0.6 m to climb up by myself with a couple of tanks. It was hard to get in and out of the water, and I was by myself beyond the sump. I surveyed on my way out but then I got an idea of what we could do next time.
You went back in?
We went back in February of ‘95, lots of snow but no chance of flash flooding as our last trip in 1994. The new system Woody and I developed with a receiver and pin for easy hook up or removal worked very well in Florida but we shipped LP 50’s to handle the climb out of the upstream side of the sump. We pushed back to one more sump, because the rig was easy to get up on the bank.
However, that original The system proved to be miserable with the smaller tanks because they would fall out of the receivers. After the first visit we knew smaller cylinders would do the job and sidemount was only to transport cylinders individually, our Japanese friends could handle the LP50’s. It was frustrating to have all this cave to explore but didn’t have the right tools.
That’s when I met Charlie Van Tassel who had developed this harness that no one wanted it because they said it’s too complicated. And I went, really? I looked at it and said, Charlie, this is exactly what I need. That was the birth of the TransPac.
So I took it back to Japan in early ‘96 and was able to carry the tanks in. Then put that little set of independent 50s on my back, so I could climb the waterfalls and then had the capability to go back to sidemount as needed for some of the crawlways. We pushed the line back over a mile and went through five sumps to do so. That was the birth of the TransPac. To be able to go from singles to doubles to sidemount.
And you’re still selling it today! Let me change up topics a bit. The cave diving community was really the first to start working with mix gas diving back in the 1980s. There was Sheck Exley of course and people like Parker Turner, Bill Gavin and Bill Main. What was your involvement back then?
I was on the backside of a lot of that. Around here with the 80s, Bill Main and all those guys, they didn’t think about mix until they were going below 300 foot/93 m.
People were doing deep air dives!
That’s right. The mixed diving was slow to pick up here because we just didn’t know if we could trust the tables. I didn’t get into mix diving until the 90s.
I know that a number people, like Hal Watts, had bad experiences diving with helium, and there was a bit of a stigma about it.
Yeah, everybody was having bad experiences with it because we didn’t really have good tables. People were trying to modify existing tables and figure it out as they went along. Most cave divers were afraid to touch the stuff, especially when we had Bill and Sheck going, “I feel fine on air.”
Ha! I remember my first dive to the Super Room at Eagle’s Nest, which I made somewhere in the mid-late 80s or early 90s on air. It’s a huge room at 270 ft/83m. I went back five years later on mix, and I looked around, “This is the Super Room? The big room at Devil’s Ear is twice the size.” You get my drift.
Ha! It’s amazing what a little helium will do! How about nitrox? Dick Rutkowski launched his International Association of Nitrox Divers (IAND) program for sport divers in 1986. Did he end up teaching cave divers who then brought nitrox to cave country?
Yeah. Dick started teaching and I remember Mark Leonard went down and did the course with Dick along with Joe Prosser and Bob Janowski. At that point, Tom Mount was already involved with the organization. [Ed. Note: Mount went on to become the CEO of the newly named International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD)]
They came back really pumped on nitrox. But the problem was it was all partial pressure mixing, which made it a real pain to mix. It was too time consuming and hard to get the mixes right. It was hard to get it accepted because the mixing was expensive. Oh, I need nitrox. Then you’ve got to bleed your tanks down and start from scratch. It was just too expensive to adopt in the cave community and so it took time.
And there was also the problem of decompression, right? How to decompress from a nitrox dive.
Right. We could do equivalent air depth and run Navy tables but we still didn’t have anything that gave us true credit for oxygen decompression. So, we came out with the Bridge in 1992. That was another contribution to the community. Prior to that there was only the Orca Industries Phoenix that was set for 32% nitrox. With the Bridge you could program your mix from 21% to 50%. So, we could account for partial pressure blends that came out at 28% or 34% and such. It was a big thing!
I remember. We created that full page ad on the back cover of aquaCORPS #5 BENT, “Introducing the New EAN-Compatible Dive Computer from Dive Rite.”
With the Bridge, you could just go, “Oh, give me this 36% mix and then I’ll just top off with air for the second dive and put the resulting fraction into the computer. So that was the next thing Dive Rite did. We also gave the community an oxygen limits index for O2 toxicity.
The ability to track pulmonary oxygen toxicity. That was a big step forward.
Randy Bohrer [principal, Underwater Applications Corporation] and Bill Hamilton of Hamilton research Ltd. developed the algorithm. They wrote a paper about it as well [Bohrer CR and Hamilton RW. A provisional method
of oxygen exposure management for a recreational dive computer. Undersea Hyperbaric Med 1993; 20 (Suppl): 72]. It was commissioned by Seiko Epson for Dive Rite’s Bridge computer. It definitely impacted the community. I won’t forget it.
A few years later, we were at DEMA and several other companies had incorporated their own oxygen limits index, bar graph and everything to track whole body oxygen. Mr. Aizowa was there from Seiko Epson who produced the computer for us. I asked Mr. Aizowa, “Seiko has the patent on this, why are you letting them use it?” And he said, “Lamar, this is too important for this industry to not share it.” And I went, “You’re right!” But a lot of people didn’t give any credit to Seiko, Randy and Bill for what everybody now takes for granted and uses without any knowledge of where it came from or why.
I am guessing most people today have no idea where it came from.
Were you intimidated about building a dive computer? It was something new for Dive Rite.
It wasn’t because of who we were partnering with. Seiko was already building air diving computers. In fact, at the time, they were building some of the Scuba Pro computers and the Apollo computers. They had a really good track record and they wanted the challenge: to build the first programmable nitrox computer. So, it wasn’t intimidating.
I would’ve been very worried about it if I was partnering with somebody who didn’t already know how to put the hardware and everything together. But they did. They had the track record. This was all about integrating the right features for taking it to this next level. And we were the crash test dummies. We didn’t mind doing that to make all this stuff work.
You did a lot of the testing?
Yeah. One of our testing grounds was Madison Blue Springs, which was a multilevel dive. It was 70 ft/21m on the upper level to 2000 ft back and then you drop to an average depth of 125-130ft/38-40m in the back part.
Before the Bridge, we would average it out and call it a 100-foot/30m dive, and typically run a 90-minute schedule and basically follow the US Navy tables. Our deco would be three minutes at 30ft/9m, 23 minutes at 20 ft/6m and 57 minutes at 10 ft/3m.
When we came out with the Bridge, I took it to Madison and programmed it at 28% for that lower level. It was like, “Oh my God, a two-hour dive with only an hour of deco? Oh man. I love this.”
Then we came out with the NiTek3, that allowed multiple gases. We ran a 50% while scootering on the upper level and then 28% on the lower level. This enabled us to do a three-hour dive; 180 minutes of bottom time with only five minutes of at-rest deco. It was like, “Okay! Gases and dive computers are the only way to dive.”
I know. It was like magic. You could just breathe this stuff and your decompression was drastically reduced.
It was phenomenal. To me that was some of the ‘Wow Factor’ in all this, with our computer development to be able to actually track the gas that you’re actually breathing at that depth, and change gases for these multilevel dives.
Wasn’t the NiTek3 the first computer that allowed you to do that, to dive multiple gases?
Yes, it was. Then we came out with the NiTek HE. One of the issues we ran into with the NiTek3, was that divers were starting to look at the microbubble models and wanted to do deep stops. They would complain that the computer was keeping them down too long. The NiTek did not use a deep stop model. If it told you to get to 60 foot/18m for the first stop, you needed to get to 60 ft/18 m or you’d get a penalty. It’s difficult getting people to dive the computer for what it was designed for rather than diving it the way they want it to.
Was there a NiTeK One or Two?
We had a plain NiTek after the Bridge, which was just a single-gas computer. Then we had the watch, the NiTek Plus which would do two gases. And that was slick. It was a good computer and was very successful. The only reason we took it off the market, was that the processor, and maybe even the pressure transducer came to end-of-life, and Seiko did not want to source out or retool it to accommodate some new components. So, the computer came to end-of-life.
So today, Dive Rite is no longer offering a dive computer. Why did you decide to discontinue the line?
The Nitek Q went end of life in 2014, The computer was solid but the dive log needed constant updates with all the Window updates. We learned if you want a dive computer line you need a fulltime programmer. We decided to focus on other things.
Lighting is another area that Dive Rite has clearly made huge strides with since that first NiCad-based primary that you & Wes made.
Oh yeah! To me, light technology has been one of the things that I’m the happiest about, in terms of where we started to where it is now, it’s been such an advancement. Compared to say regulators? We’ve got a new venturi here, and a new heatsink and we’ve increased the flow, but nothing has really changed as to what a regulator is, and how it works.
But lighting, my God, we’ve been able to take lighting to all new levels; from the original 30W tungsten filament bulb that you had to overdrive, to 50 W halogen bulbs, to HID and then moving on to LED technology. And now we’re pushing LED technology as far as we can. We’ve put a lot of engineering and mechanical ingenuity that goes into it. We have definitely been pushing the boundaries on some of this stuff.
It’s amazing. Your new lights, the LX 20 hand held primary, the modular HP 50 and EX 35 cannister lights, are so bright. It’s just phenomenal.
The LX 20 is brighter than anything we had 20 years ago. And the HP 50 is brighter than anything we had 10 years ago, and it’s handheld and you’ve got equal to or more burn time than most cannister lights. Of course, the EX 35 is even brighter.
Let there be light!!
The lithium-ion battery technology is really amazing. In fact, an interesting point came up with the NSS-CDS training when I was completing the last
standards review. I was going through the standards, and found this: you must have at least one alkaline battery light. What? And the committee confirmed it. I of course asked, “Okay, tell me which one of you guys carry one and also tell me who supplies one?” And they all looked at me sheepishly. Ah, it’s a standard that none of you follow. So why don’t we take it out? We did.
Again, a little history. This standard was created in 1984 during Wes’s tenure as training director. It said that you needed to have one alkaline-powered battery light. At the time, the most common rechargeable battery was the NiCad and they were very unreliable. Because of that, we required divers to have at least one alkaline-powered light.
Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find an alkaline battery in use in those lights today. Some companies don’t even offer them because now lithium-ion technology is the proven standard. Nobody carries around an alkaline light anymore. Things have come a long way.
It seems like underwater lighting is one area that has been solved. Lighting is simply not an issue anymore.
That’s right. But there is an irony there. No matter what we do, people keep saying they want something brighter. However, we have now hit a point, especially with our HP 50 and our EX 35 lights, that lights may be getting too bright. If there are particulates in the water, you get too much backscatter. So, we finally have more than enough light; our goal now is to make the lights smaller.
Let’s talk rebreathers. Dive Rite currently offers the O2PTIMA, and you have a new type of rebreather that you just launched that I want to get to. When did you start working with rebreathers and why?
We started playing around with them around 2003. We did about a year of testing and development and then started looking for someone to partner with for the electronics and putting the package together. A big step for us was partnering with Micropore to integrate their ExtendAir CO2 absorbent cartridge (scrubber) technology.
Everybody stayed away from them because of the cost factor. But I looked at it as an asset. A couple years prior, Joe Odom got a caustic cocktail on his hybrid Drager while doing a body recovery down in Central Florida. It kept him out of diving for two years. That got my attention.
Wow. I didn’t realize that.
Yeah, it would be worth having a little talk with Joe. It kind of scared me off rebreathers for quite a while. But then when the cartridge technology came out, it made me realize that it was something that I could get behind because the cartridges can tolerate a lot of water without giving you a caustic cocktail.
Weren’t scrubber cartridges a new innovation in the early 2000s?
They had been around for a short bit and were integrated into the Drager as an alternative to Sofnolime. That’s where their scrubber technology and canister design had come from. The technology got a lot of military play and they had done very well with it, but the sport market, had still not embraced it like the military has.
I remember talking to Vince Ferris at the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) and he was saying they loved cartridge technology. It makes operations much easier. It’s a little more expensive but the US Navy wasn’t concerned with that. So, it made a lot of sense to them.
Yeah. It’s like with anything, you can say they were more expensive, but when you actually look at how you can use them, at the end of a month it might not cost you any more than you think compared to what Sofnolime would be.
I say that because if you fill a big scrubber, like an eight-pound scrubber or whatever, with sorb for a big four or five-hour dive and you have a leak in your drysuit or something that cuts the dive short, then what? Let’s say you only put two hours on the cannister. So, you patch your drysuit and the next day you are going to get ready for that five-hour dive again, and what do you do with the sorb? Well, you pour it out and you repack.
Well with the cartridge you can pull it out, mark the time you have on it and then save it for a dive which you are only planning to be about two hours.
The fact that you can actually store it, and we’ve done storage testing for way over a month on them, you’re not going to waste the cartridge. So, at the end of a month, you may not spend as much as you would have with sorb because you can save the cartridges and re-use them. And if a cartridge that has say 30 minutes to an hour duration left on it, you can use for a pool session.
That makes good sense. You can store used sorb as well but you have to keep it in the scrubber cannister itself so it’s not the same as a cartridge you can remove. You can end up wasting the material, where with cartridges, you can use the material more efficiently.
Exactly. Sorb can also get sloppy and messy and a lot of boat captains will scream at you if you get sorb on the boat because it’s corrosive. I know a couple of people named Frank and Mel who had a boat down in the Keys; they just sold it last year. It was a big live aboard. A while back, a diver flooded their rebreather and then stored it under the bench of the boat and dived open circuit for the rest of the trip.
Well, after about six months they started noticing a lot of leaks below the deck and saw that it was pockmarked with holes where that sorb had leaked out. It was corrosive and caustic and got underneath the carpet on the deck and corroded it. So, they got very pissed about that.
After that they made rebreather divers stand in a plastic kiddie swimming pool while they pack their cannisters and one of them stands next to the diver with a hose to make sure if anything got on the deck it got washed off immediately. Their policy on cartridges? “Hey man, do what you want. It’s no problem.”
Because they’re basically self-contained?
Exactly, they’re contained. They come with their own disposal box. You use it and when you’re done with it you put it back in the carton.
So that was a key technology for you to decide to go forward with the rebreather?
It was. I really liked the simplicity of it and, like I said, I’ve been staying away from them just because of what happened to Joe. It scared me. I was looking for something better than what everybody was doing to make it work.
Got it. When did you launch the O2PTIMA?
I want to say it was 2006. Somewhere in 2005, 2006 is when we launched it.
You originally used Hammerhead electronics but then you switched to Shearwater electronics, right? When did you make that switch?
January 2014. I approached them at DEMA (the Diving Equipment Marketing Association show) that year and said, I’d like to see about integrating your electronics into our rebreather. The founder and then president Bruce Partridge was like, “Oh man, sure. I’ll send you a set to play with. And I said, “Get them to me quickly so I can play with them over the holidays.” We got the electronics and integrated it over Christmas break. We placed our first order at end of January 2014.
Let’s talk about your new travel-friendly chest-mounted rebreather that you just released prior to 2020 yearend. I know that you’ve been working on it for more than two years. Maybe we could start with you explaining your concept for this rebreather and how it came about.
Actually, developing the unit was a selfish project on my part. It all had to do some cave exploration that I wanted to do, but I just couldn’t get myself to doing multiple stage dives and everything required to get through the restrictions and high flow. Basically, we’re talking about Cow Springs. I explored it back in the 80s with Wes [Skiles] and Woody [Jasper] but there were still a few things left there to do.
I wanted to be able to go back there but I didn’t want to hump all those bottles through the restrictions and everything at the entrance. What I wanted was a rebreather that I could integrate into my core rig whether it was sidemount or back mount. I wanted it to integrate seamlessly either way. So that was the genesis of it! There were some dives that I wanted to use it for.
Ha! So, your idea was integrating a closed circuit system into your open circuit rig, something that you could just plug in and go.
That was my vision. You just pick whether or not you need the rebreather for today’s dive or not. For example, in cave diving, “Oh I need to carry a stage for this dive? Let’s put the rebreather on.” So now the rebreather is an added tool in your toolbox, that you employ as needed when the dive calls for it, as opposed to be committed to it all the time.
How did it go from play toy to product?
As I kept developing and testing it, a lot of people expressed interest in what they might want to do with it. So, I kept working on it. There were a few times that I wanted to give up because it was just a personal toy, and as a result, I wasn’t in a rush to do anything with it.
But when my friends started getting interested in it, then it was like, all right, let me push this thing a little bit further. The concept was to make rebreathers a little easier to accept because they didn’t have to change everything they were doing. No matter if you were diving sidemount or back mount, you just needed to add a few D-rings to your shoulder straps on your harness and you could clip the unit on and go diving. That was the concept behind it.
For readers who haven’t seen the unit [See: InDepth’s Rebreather Holiday Shopping Guide] and or aren’t familiar with it, you basically connect the chest-mounted counter lungs, scrubber and an oxygen tank to your harness an single or double back mounted tanks, or twin sidemount tanks, and now you’re diving a closed circuit rebreather. It’s a very interesting concept Lamar.
One of the challenges for students in learning to dive a rebreather is that they show up, put on the rebreather and are told to forget everything that they’ve learned about buoyancy, and configuration and everything. Oh, and we throw on a stage bottle or two. Now everything is foreign from the get go; there is nothing familiar about anything they are doing. That’s not the case with the chest-mounted unit, and it has had a soothing effect for a lot of people to realize that putting the unit on did not commit them to closed circuit only.
Right. Because with this unit, you can show up at the dive site or on a boat and go, “You know, I was going to dive open circuit, but because of conditions or whatever, I think I’m going to go closed-circuit.” And then basically just connect it to your rig and now you’re a closed-circuit diver.
Exactly. One of my planned trips before COVID hit, was to go down to the Keys with Lee Ann and make a two-hour dive the Spiegel Grove with the rebreather and a single 95 on my back, and an aluminum 40 for oxygen decompression. Then get back on the boat, remove the rebreather, and then go do a shallow reef dive with Lee Anne on the 95. Because I’ve only used a couple hundred pounds of gas out of that 95.
For me, the whole point is not being committed to being on the rebreather all the time. For example, if you go on a trip and you have any kind of malfunction on your rebreather, you are not going to have to worry about making it work or else, because you didn’t bring any alternate dive equipment. You can just leave it behind, and dive open circuit. You now have the time to fix whatever the problem is. My hope is that people will be more relaxed knowing that they now have options.
When I think of a chest-mounted rebreather I think of Army combat divers, who typically are doing these long swims on chest-mounted oxygen rebreathers. It’s an optimal position for the counter lungs, when the diver is in trim position.
That was one of the design concerns as we were building this thing that we went through a lot of iterations. The shape of the lungs, where to put them, how to route everything to get the type of performance we wanted when it came to the work of breathing. It took about a year of refining the shape and everything to get it to where it was comfortable to dive, and all my test pilots wanted to dive it again rather than go, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go dive with Lamar again.” Now they’re all loving it, but it took a bit of time for everybody to get on board.
I know you have also been experimenting with different types of scrubbers for the unit including some of Micropore’s R&D concepts. What have you ended up with for the launch?
It’s an axial scrubber. We are still using the ExtendAir cartridge mounted underneath the unit. However, we redesigned the scrubber from the O2ptima so it can take sorb as well as a cartridge, which will make it more acceptable to the marketplace. So now users can go either way. Most people prefer the cartridges once they dive them, but they like knowing they can go either way.
Do you foresee cartridge technology getting less expensive over time as usage grows?
I’m hoping that what’s going to happen, however, there’s never going to be enough volume in our marketplace to actually make the cost go down. But there will likely be more improvements on the material and design that will make it last longer, so that your cost per use will go down as new methods of production come into play. Like you mentioned, there are also some new designs that could help by improving the gas flow through the scrubber.
You talked about the lungs, were there other challenges in developing the unit? Other design challenges?
The counter lungs were the key thing. However, another issue was creating effective water traps because the scrubber is on the bottom of everything. So that was a big challenge. Because of the way everything is mounted, you actually breathe through the lung from bottom to top. It’s not an overflow bag like a conventional back mount or an over-the-shoulder counter lung. Because of that it has an internal, anti-collapse snorkel on the inhalation side, and a unique water trap snorkel on the exhalation side. So that any water that you put in it will stay trapped in the lung to be evacuated before it gets to the secondary trap and the scrubber lid.
The rebreather market seems to have trended toward back mounted counter lungs from front or over-the-shoulder lungs in order to keep their chest area clear.
How do divers find the chest-mounted lungs? Do people find they get in the way? Or are people willing to put up with cluttered front in order in exchange for a travel friendly unit?
Yeah, I’m kind of laughing here because that’s been one of the things from some of the people looking at it and reading about it. A lot of the new exploration going on right now in our area is happening with the chest-mounted rebreather. We’ve given them an option that they are comfortable with doing because they feel they have more options when they start getting into low or tight areas. When dealing with the restrictions, or a lot of ups and downs, the diver can just disconnect the rebreather, clip it off behind them, or push it ahead of them, and then, once they get through the restricted area put it back on. I found that people either love it or they just don’t get it.
Wow, you just blew my mind. You go can remove the rebreather underwater go through a restriction for example, or a saw tooth section, and then put it on again.
Yeah, push it ahead of you and then put it back on when you’re through it.
Wow. That is something new. So, it actually has some unique capabilities that you don’t have with a conventional rebreather.
Yes, very unique. In addition to being able to easily remove it and put it back on, the unit only weighs 17 pounds without the scrubber cartridge and a tank on it. Seventeen pounds! You can fly with it, you can travel with it. It makes going anywhere much easier because it weighs 17 pounds and goes into your hand luggage. So that in itself makes it easy.
Number two, when some of these explorers are looking at a bailout rebreather option, well, here you go. And you can actually just clip it off to your butt D-ring where you clip a scooter and drag it behind you. Just need a bottle connected to make sure the loop stays at ambient pressure, which can be done with an automatic diluent valve. So, it’s ready to go. But it stays out-of-the-way until you get ready to clip it on and start using it. It can also be turned into a decompression rebreather. When you get back to decompression, you just put this on and use it.
And thereby extend your decompression gas quite a bit.
Lamar testing the Optima CM
And it’s available now?
It’s available. We’ve been shipping now for months. And like I said, it’s one of those things where some people looked at it and said, “I’ve got a use for that,” and other people look at it and scratch their head and said, “I just don’t get it. What’s the draw?”
The work of breathing (WOB) is phenomenal because of the lung placement. It’s very good. And the fact that you can take it off, put it on. You put your core equipment on first; doubles, side mount, single tank, whatever and then you put on the chest mount, so it’s easily removed.
That’s really revolutionary. You are an out-of-the-box thinker Lamar!
Thank you. You need to come over and dive it.
I’m going to do just that. Interestingly, I talked to Frauke Tillman [DAN US research director] last week and she was just raving about it. She said she was coming back to dive it again, right? I guess people are now having to decide between the Optima classic, the regular Optima with back mounted counter lungs, or the chest-mount.
No, the whole concept of the new design is to be able to go back and forth. So, the new head design for the chest mount works with the back mount as well, so we are actually selling a combo. You can get both configurations with one scrubber pack that you just either put on your back or chest mount. It goes either way. So, you don’t have to pick and choose. You can have both and then pick the best tool for the mission.
That is very exciting. So, you are taking a somewhat similar approach to Divesoft that has a conversion kit for their Liberty rebreather, which can go from back mount to sidemount. But with the chest mount unit you have even more options!
And ours is smaller and lighter!
Ha! Let me ask, you have launched the new rebreather at what is turning out to be a peak in the pandemic. Seems like a brave thing to do. How is Dive Rite doing business-wise? You’re evidently surviving.
Actually, launching this rebreather was one of the things that have kept us going. We’ve launched it at a time when people aren’t traveling but they are buying rebreathers. Things haven’t slowed down that much for us. I think one of the reasons is that we are in a dive destination. So as soon as the lockdown started, people started doing local diving and, guess what? We are local diving.
You are right in the heart of cave country!
That’s Right. Our first instructors on the chest mount have been doing classes left and right for people wanting to get up to speed on them, so that they would be ready when things did open up again for travel.
What are your plans for the coming year?
We have a number of new things coming. We’re launching a new regulator that we have been working on for several years and we have a couple of new lights. We are also revamping our entire line of sidemount set-ups, with some new innovations. I’ve been playing with them over the past few months; diving them and letting some others dive them as well. We haven’t sat still.
Lamar, you haven’t sat still for the last 30-plus years. You just continue to invent and innovate.
That’s true. I’m never satisfied. I’ve never wanted to sit back on my laurels for anything. And it has all been based around exploration, that’s been the drive and passion behind everything. With all the gear we develop there’s always a reason for it. I just don’t sit down and go, I need to make something to sell. There’s a reason for it.
I invented the singles mounting plate when Lee Anne wanted to dive a single. All the sidemount innovation was the result of years of exploration; trying new things, going to new places and finding out that the gear I had didn’t work, which meant I needed to come up with something to make it better and easier. That’s been a big thing.
Certainly, all the exploration we did in the 80s at Cow, Bonnet, Telford, Little River, Luraville and Mexico was a big motivator for me to keep developing gear. And a lot of innovation came out of those dry caving/cave diving expeditions to Japan in the mid-90s, where we had to carry gear through waterfalls and sumps.
And your still at it!
There are places that I still want to go back to in Cow that I never had the opportunity to explore with open circuit. By the time you get 4000, 5000 feet back, you’re hitting thirds and you’re too impatient to find something because you don’t have a lot of gas left before you have to turn. Of course, you can say carry more gas but there a point where it just becomes a whole hell of a lot of work.
I am thinking that the chest-mount will let me get back there without having to carry all those extra tanks and still have enough bailout to get out because I’m going with a full-blown side mount and not just a couple small bailout bottles. So even with the new chest-mount, my whole motivation has been exploration.
Lamar Hires, cave diving hero.
Jared and Lamar Hires on a recent trip to Plura, Norway—the home of arctic cave diving.
The Hires and Dive Rite in Mexico
- 2017 YouTube Interview with Lamar Hires re: cave diving
- Lamar Hires on the History of Sidemount Diving
- aquaCORPS “Talk Tech To Me” video from TEK.93