Nitrox – When to Dive It

by Cris Merz:

Nitrox Diver

The fantastic stories about voodoo gas seem to have mellowed out a little in the last 20 years. From, “It’ll kill you” to “You will have soooo much energy after the dive”, it never ceases to amaze how nitrox, as a topic for discussion, has always been a leader in misconceptions.

With many reasons in favor of diving nitrox, the reasons for doing so may hold a little more scientific value today than they did 20 years ago.

Few advances in the realm of diving have had a more profound impact during the past two decades than the widespread availability of Enriched Air Nitrox. And nothing has made the switch from diving air to diving nitrox more straightforward or more enjoyable than nitrox programmable dive computers.

Simply put, nitrox – air with additional oxygen content – allows divers to enjoy longer bottom times (and shorter surface intervals) than their air-breathing dive buddies, while staying within the limits that were stressed in their open water training.

Nitrox makes this possible because it contains reduced levels of nitrogen compared to air and less nitrogen translates into more bottom time! But of course there is a price to pay. Diving nitrox does present risks that are not present while diving air and these risks require divers to take additional steps during their pre-dive planning and then adhere to that dive plan.

The number one reason for diving nitrox is safety. When diving with a greater amount of oxygen (32% or 36%) in the mix, rather than air (21%), you decrease the risk of decompression sickness because you’ve lowered the amount of nitrogen you are breathing in at depth – and as we know, nitrogen is the number one culprit associated with decompression sickness.

When should we dive nitrox? Well, whenever the opportunity presents itself. It may not make a great difference but it certainly will not hurt. Unless you go diving beyond the Maximum Operating Depth (MOD) of the mix in your tank, it is beneficial to you every time, though sometimes those benefits are much greater than others based on your diving profile.

The moments when nitrox will make the greatest difference is when you are doing multiple dives over multiple days and are getting close to some of the no-decompression limits your personal dive computer is telling you about.

As stated, when you dive using nitrox you can take advantage of increasing your maximum allowable bottom time. This happens because the extra oxygen added to your breathing gas when it was filled has displaced nitrogen. Because there is less nitrogen in the mix to be absorbed by your body you can spend longer at depth before you reach the nitrogen limit – which is the decompression limit. Secondly, since you are absorbing less nitrogen on a given dive, your surface intervals can usually be shortened.

Being on a live-aboard, hundreds of miles from home where you are doing 3 to 4 dives a day will allow you to see a huge difference if you can compare yourself to those diving on regular air. You have paid a lot of money to get there and you want to make each and every dive count. You do not want to get back in the water for the fourth dive so you can zip about at 50ft/15 meters just because you have reached your no-deco limits for the day – especially when the schooling hammerheads are hanging out around 70ft/21 meters. That is where you want to be… for as long as possible.

Despite having depth limits to be aware of due to the risk of oxygen toxicity, and perhaps some additional costs for the fills, the benefits of nitrox will play a role in your steps to keeping your dives within safer limits than if you were on air.

If you are not yet nitrox certified, find out more about diving with enriched air from your local SDI or TDI instructor.

You will discover that diving nitrox is not rocket science. The concepts are straightforward and easy to understand. Of course, like most things relating to diving, the subject does have another side and if the science and technology behind the basic concepts of nitrox interest you or if you find yourself wondering how nitrox with higher levels of oxygen than 40 percent would affect your diving, you may want to consider continuing on to Technical Diving International’s (TDI’s) Advanced Nitrox Diver course.

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