Photo courtesy of John L. Earle
Huddled around the large 21″ TV monitor, some three dozen rebreather aficionados are jockeying for position to see a preview of Pyle’s Palau expedition footage. Juggling my notebook and a plate of California-style guacamole, I edge my way into the throng.
It’s the first annual Rebreather Party being held in conjunction with the DEMA show. A hundred tekkies, military divers, industry execs, film-makers and a few scientists have come to talk shop, swap secrets and ogle the home-built rebreathers on display as they mill about the large hall. Pyle is one of the evening’s star attractions.
Clad in an angelfish T-shirt, worn jeans and old pair of Nike’s, the cherub-esque boy wonder is on his knees in front of the monitor talking his audience through a catastrophic system failure that forced him to abort a 350 foot dive. In his enthusiasm to get in the water, Pyle neglected to cap the rebreather’s drain plug. Five minutes after reaching the bottom, the rig flooded forcing him to switch to an open-circuit scuba tank that was fortunately stationed near by.
“Right here I couldn’t breathe.” His perpetual Dennis-the—Menace cowlick is bobbing up and down as he hits the fast-forward button on the VCR. Zzzzzzzz.
Pyle demonstrating the Cis-Lunar Mk4 at a tek.Conference. Courtesy of the aquaCORPS archives
“Let me show you how stressful this bailout was. By the way, that’s a new genus of starfish.” Zzzzzzzz. The video shows Pyle calmly gliding up a coral encrusted embankment with a scuba tank in tow. Zzzzzzzz.
“Here’s John capping the plug while I do a loop flush.”
With over 300 hours on the rebreather, Pyle has mastered most of its intricacies but occasionally still trips up on fundamentals. Earle reports that in his eagerness Pyle sometimes forgets to do a proper pre-dive check.
“I recognize that it’s a shortcoming, “ Pyle acknowledged. “My nature to be is so focused on the big picture that sometimes the details slip through the cracks. I need to be more disciplined.”
Open-circuit scuba might best be described as the steam engine of diving: it’s simple and reliable. By comparison, diving an electronic rebreather is akin to piloting the space shuttle. It’s a complex life-support machine designed for inner space.
Originally developed to give military divers stealth—there are no bubbles—a rebreather mixes and recirculates a diver’s breathing gas. The system removes exhaled carbon dioxide from the breathing loop and electronically adds the proper amount of oxygen needed to keep the diver alive. An onboard computer system monitors all vital statistics and controls the gas supplied from a small cylinder of oxygen and one containing nitrogen or helium. By eliminating the bubbles, a rebreather can theoretically support a diver at depth all day.
In the fifties, the scientific diving community pioneered the fledgling field of scuba, but today the pioneering work is being done by self-funded explorers like Pyle who aren’t limited by liability considerations. The rebreather has enabled him to conduct dives that would have been impossible a decade ago. But it’s more than just a deep diving tool.
“The technology has a real value for scientists, there’s no question about it,” he said. “It’s not just for deep diving. It’s also for sitting there quietly, motionless on the bottom, and watching fish behavior. I have seen more fish sex in my first few dives with a rebreather than I’ve seen in decades of scuba diving.”
But the rebreather has become much more than a tool to the icthyologically-minded explorer.
“I’m so enthused about the technology that it’s kind of robbed my passion for science,” Pyle explained. “I mean, fish will always be number one, but this is coming up such a close number two that it’s hard for me to find time for other things.”
It’s a sore point with his University of Hawaii thesis advisor, ichthyologist Jack Randall, who according to Pyle has discovered more tropical reef fish than anyone alive.
Pyle has been working on his Ph.D. for almost seven years. His dissertation is a scientific revision of the angelfish family, the most popular of aquarium fishes. It’s a matter of dissecting and analyzing hundreds of specimens of some 90 species, and figuring out how they’re related—redoing the family tree. According to Randall, the current classification is in great need of change.
“He hasn’t really done much yet,” the professor explained. “He’s just getting down to work. The problem is he doesn’t have the time.”
Talking to Randall, it’s evident that he’s both proud and supportive of his protégé’s accomplishments, but when I asked him about rebreathers and the Twilight Zone he just sighed, “They’re not his thesis.”
Pyle says that time is his biggest limitation.
“When I started graduate school, it was deep diving competing with a full-time job, competing with aquariums and the Ph.D. I wasn’t making any progress. The Ph.D. suffered. Something had to go.”
Pyle got rid of his aquariums and discontinued his monthly aquarium articles. But then in 1994, he married fellow marine biology Ph.D. candidate Lisa Privitera. The following year Lisa gave birth to their daughter Cara.
“Now I’ve got my family, deep-diving, a full-time job and the Ph.D. Of the four, I can’t neglect my family and I have to work full-time. So it’s an issue between diving and the Ph.D. I’ll probably never use it, but it’s one of those things I need to get. I want that degree in the bag.”
But to do that he needs six uninterrupted months and he’s hard pressed to find the time.