“Slow down young fella” — Attitudes in Technical Diving

By Michael Thomas

Initially, we simply called it diving. It had no other name. Some of us dived in caves, primarily to explore and map. Tourist dives only tested equipment or procedures, or train us to explore further. Others dived on shipwrecks; real shipwrecks with history and treasure, not the artificial reefs many today call shipwrecks. 

We sometimes learned the hard way. We had no manuals; these came later. It was a “game of ghosts” as the community tried to work out what went wrong and develop standards to prevent history from repeating itself. 

What‘s in a name 

As time passed, more divers transitioned from sport diving, slowly breaking away from established times and depths. Eventually, Michael Menduno coined the term technical diving in 1991. Menduno was the editor of the then far-out and controversial aquaCORPS. This journal helped shape my diving. In later years it was a pleasure to meet M2 himself. 

Now the community had a name. We were technical divers. We understandably (or maybe not) felt superior to sport divers. The tech community was further split by what type of tech diver you were: Wreck Diver, Cave Diver, CCR Diver. Over time the tech community divided even further with the advent of mainstream sidemount diving and multiple agency certification. We do so love our names and tribes. 

Experience before Technical Training

In the early days of tech diving, many divers had a long and sometimes hazardous diving career leading to their first Nitrox Diver course. Following this were courses in areas of interest such as Wreck, Cave, Trimix and CCR. Divers knew what they wanted because they most likely were already doing it.

Divers wanted longer bottom times, less narcosis and access to deeper sites. A technical diving course at that time was more a meeting of minds. Instructors might learn as much from students as students learned from them. 

What we often have today, however, are newer divers with limited experience between courses. It’s not wrong to have goals and dreams to work towards. However, as an instructor, it makes me nervous talking with divers who are logging dives solely to get the minimum required for the next course.

I generally recommend a minimum of 50 dives courses. This allows you to hone the skills acquired during the last course, and to build up valuable in-water time and experience — all while supporting your local dive center and enjoying what you have paid to do. 

Diving is supposed to be fun. Your instructor will thank you if they do not need to spend time teaching basic diving skills during your tech course. Rushing from one course to the next costs you money. If you are not ready, and if you are operating at the minimum experience standards allow, you are the weak link in the team. I don’t want students doing the minimum. I want them well beyond this. 

Instagram Glory 

My Instagram and Facebook feeds are filled with images of beautiful caves, stunning wrecks, rebreathers and large marine life. It’s awesome to see so much fantastic and advanced diving going on around the world by some truly accomplished divers. But I also see divers whom I know have limited experience attempting to repeat these dives. 

What many divers miss is the fact that for every successful deep wreck dive and exploration cave dive, hundreds of diving hours came before it. This includes training, experience, teamwork, and failure. You can’t expect to pull off a 100 m/330 ft CCR wreck dive safely without significant blood, sweat and tears during the buildup. 

iceburg

Credit to Gareth Lock

What you see on Instagram is the prize at the tip of the iceberg. A prize the diver or dive team worked hard to achieve. The problem is, it’s also a huge draw to our own egos because it looks cool. We all want to look cool. You can achieve your dreams; just remember to earn them. This involves gaining experience slowly. 

Attitude 

Merely having a Full Cave or Advanced Mix Gas CCR certification does not make you (yet) a full cave diver or Mix Gas CCR diver for all conditions found around the world. Cave diving in Florida is very different from cave diving in the UK. Similarly, a deep blue water dive in the Pacific differs significantly from East Coast USA wreck diving. 

I recently spoke with a Florida-trained CCR Cave Diver. This diver had a bad day diving a mine in the UK. He thumbed the dive just 50 m/165 ft from the entrance. Environmental conditions and team failures had overwhelmed this diver. He made the wise choice to abort and research further information and advice. 

Also, your Full Cave Diver card is not an exploration certification. You trained to follow in situ cave lines and avoid complex navigation. There is no course for exploration. You learn to explore through experience, time in the water and time spent with other exploration divers. Rushing off to seek glory as soon as you receive your certification generally ends badly.

The same holds for CCR wreck diving. Start diving without the instructor as a backstop. Then back off the depth and work up slowly again. Just because you did 80 m/260 ft dives under the eye of an instructor does not mean you should do so the day after the course. Take time to enjoy diving and build back up slowly to that deep water wreck project. 

Know your limits 

We are not born equal. Understanding and accepting your limits is crucial to your safety and that of your team. For example, modern equipment such as DPVs and CCRs make it possible to go a long way into a cave quickly. Your DPV and CCR Caver Diver certs may allow you to do so, but is it wise?

Some cave divers are happy being no more than 600 m/2,000 ft from the entrance. Beyond this, however, they show signs of nervousness and apprehension. Do not push your limits. Your comfort zone will increase with experience.

If you continue to feel apprehension, perhaps this is not the sport for you. If you are making longer dives, far from home, be careful who you choose as teammates. Taking any diver beyond their comfort zone is unfair and a dangerous game to play.

Consider what may happen if the first real problem you encounter during a cave dive is 1.5 km/5,000 ft from the entrance. This is a far cry from dealing with a problem just 300 m/1,000 ft in. You’d best be on top of your game. You must be honest with yourself and let teammates know if you are uncomfortable with the plan. 

It’s not a race 

As someone who’s been diving for 32 years, I’m in it for the long haul…or for as long as possible. I’m no longer in any rush. I know achievement requires hard work and experience. I also know the cost of mistakes can be injury and death.

Society, however, appears to be in a rush for achievement. This applies to technical diving as well. It’s as if divers believe they have only a limited time in which to “do” diving. They must reach the pinnacle of the sport as quickly as possible. Unfortunately what we see is a repeat of mistakes we made in the 1990s. 

Too many of today’s divers do not know the history. Deviating from their training takes them into unknown ground with unknown consequences. Building experience slowly with veteran divers helps avoid many of these issues. Mistakes learned the hard way need not be repeated. We must build upon the experience base, not water it down more. 

The very Human Factor 

The issues outlined here are human factors failures. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This means you not only don’t know something; you are unaware you don’t know it. 

Overconfidence, goal orientation and goal fixation also plays a large part in building up for failure. Especially when social media bombards divers daily with images of superb wrecks and caves. 

To learn more about human factors and how to recognize failings in yourself and your team, I recommend Under Pressure the definitive guide to Human Factors in diving by Gareth Lock. A previous graduate of Gareth’s courses said, “The problem with getting human factors into diving is human factors!” In other words, all the biases we think don’t apply to us actually do. 

Finally, it is worth remembering the words of Edward Whymper, a mountaineer in the 1860s. 

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Slow down and enjoy the journey.

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14 replies
  1. eric
    eric says:

    50 dives between courses? That’s extreme. Get advanced open water then have to do 50 dives before cavern? No. Take the next course when you’re ready; not the number of dives.

    Reply
    • Mario
      Mario says:

      I’m not sure if you are being sarcastic. The thought of an AOW graduate going to cave diving after 50 dives with no other training sounds suicidal to me.

      Reply
      • Ryan
        Ryan says:

        I don’t think he is sarcastic, and I agree with you. I have people who rush through 60 dives come asking me to train them as a divemaster. Are you really in a position to help certified divers when you only have 60 dives? Slow down. Enjoy learning. I’ve been diving 22 years and am constantly amazed at how the sport continues to humble me.

        Reply
      • Jordan
        Jordan says:

        Eric did say cavern, not cave, and if the students comfort and skill allow them to do a cavern course comfortably then why not after their AOW before 50 dives? Before they get to a full cave course there a few checkpoints that must be passed with instructor approval.

        Reply
  2. steve
    steve says:

    Pretentiously written blog — I can say this is not a person I would feel comfortable diving with despite his proclaimed 32 years of diving

    Reply
    • Piggyhiggins
      Piggyhiggins says:

      I felt very comfortable diving with Michael – a great instructor – and I agree with all the comments he makes in this post

      Reply
  3. Simon C
    Simon C says:

    Nicely put Michael. I am now 56, really just embarking on diving the overhead in the UK. I am happiest getting in following the line turning, returning. And when it ends pleased that it went well. I surfaced. No rush. And I am not fully ‘certified’ yet.

    Reply
  4. Alan Jewett
    Alan Jewett says:

    Thank you for this important insight..good for divers of all levels. I plan to use this with my OWC newbies to demonstrate just where they are on the spectrum of divers….

    Reply
  5. Erik
    Erik says:

    While I think 50 dives in between courses is a bit extreme for recreational diving, 20 is probably a better number, I do agree that rushing through courses in order to just get to the next level is a problem in the diving world. I see “Advanced” divers all the time that barely have control of their buoyancy and burn through their gas faster than they should because they’ve never really taken the time to master the most important and basic skills in diving.

    Reply
  6. Olaf
    Olaf says:

    Excellent article! Could not agree more!
    Yes, 50 dives between courses should be the absolute minimum. But it is not only the number of dives on particular level, but also to train the skills over and over again. The more the better.
    Thank You for sharing your thoughts!

    Reply
  7. Ricardo Weitzel
    Ricardo Weitzel says:

    I have been diving since 1994, more than 10 years in the north east doing ship wrecks out of NYC, last year I decided to take the adv nitrox and deco procedures, but my instructor won’t give it to me, meaning not even the chance to do the skills. On the other hand He did get certified a few fellas who were just beginners, but they didn’t have experience running a reel, for example. So the article makes sense, it is what I have been doing for a long time, building my self up, but then the instructor is willing to certify newbies, when I say newbies I mean they were open water certified the previous year, and this is north east type of diving. I am not going back there because it is biased. TDI instructors need to be clear in the objectives of the course, so there are not confusions.

    Reply

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