Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Myth of the Deep Bounce (How Easy is Soap on the Rope ?)

As you may (or may not) know, I hold the woman’s world record for the deepest dive (221 meters, set at Boesmansgat in the Northern Cape). The one thing that I did not expect after achieving this were the mixed reactions I received from fellow divers.
There are definitely two camps, those that are fascinated and excited and those that do their utmost to minimise the achievement. From that camp has come the term ‘soap on a rope’ which is meant to indicate that there is nothing very special about doing a deep bounce and that anyone can do so. If you were a real deep diver and explorer you would be swimming off the line and spending time at depth, or so the argument goes.
Which started me thinking, “Is a deep bounce dive a cop out or is it something to be proud of ?”
The existing deep records require that a diver to descend (normally as fast as they dare) to their designated depth, spend a minute or less (to make sure depth gauges record the depth achieved) and then return. The actual exposure to depth is measured in minutes, if not seconds. And I guess the uninformed can be forgiven for taking the dive at face value and declaring that it is hardly difficult. Yet if one looks at the survival rate of the divers who have attempted this so-called ‘simple’ dive, a different story emerges.
Firstly the number of divers who have made it below 250 meters is limited. I count only 5 who can justify their claims (through a combination of gauges and tags retrieved). They are Nuno Gomes (the current world record holder for depth and deepest cave), John Bennett (the first man to break 300 meters), Sheck Exley (father of deep cave diving and original record holder), Jim Bowden and rebreather diver Dave Shaw. Of these every one had issues, ranging from serious inner ear bends, minor elbow bends and inner ear problems.
Every one of these divers was after one thing, finding out how to get deeper and back. None attempted to swim at depth. None at least until Dave Shaw. Dave was an Australian rebreather diver who I met on my world record dive expedition. He was planning to try for 300 meters (a new cave record) a couple of days after my dive. Instead he found the body of Deon Dryer. His plan saw him descend down the shotline to the bottom of Boesmans (about 260 meters) and then swim off to find depth. The dive required only a short swim at depth and while he was successful the first time, he never made it back to the main shotline on his second dive.
Admittedly these divers were pushing the edge of what is known, so how much safer are bounces in the 200 to 250 meter range ? One of South Africa’s more experienced instructors Don Shirley can attest to the effects of a simple and easy soap on the rope that went wrong. When supporting Dave Shaw he descended to 227 meters (according to his VR3’s) and barely made it back alive... and that was a dive not much deeper than my soap on the rope record.
None of which supports the argument that ‘anyone’ can bounce depth and survive now does it ? After all, these are some of the most experienced, accomplished divers in the world and their track record tells a completely different story.
So what is stopping deep explorers from spending time in the sub 250 meter zone ? And what makes bounce dives so deadly, even though their execution seems to be so relatively simple ?
The first problem is gas. As open circuit divers you only have so much gas to take with you which means that a couple of minutes is really all the time you have at depth (the deeper you are the more gas you use on a single breath and the more gas you need to get there, never mind build in safety in case something goes wrong).
The second problem is that tables are not designed for either depth or swimming. On a bounce you can keep your heart rate low and so minimize your absorption of helium and nitrogen. However, when you swim you change the absorption characteristics of your body… taking in more than the tables are expecting. We get around that by building in fat, an extra minute at depth that you have no intention of spending, plenty of deep stops of at least 2 minutes). But still, the resulting deco profile is an educated guess. The only way you know if it will work is by doing the dive.
Which leaves us with the one problem that has not been solved, accurate decompression profiles that predictably and repetitively eliminate bends. Right now a simple bounce is just impossible to predict and whilst spending time ‘exploring’ sub 200 meters is every diver’s ambition, it adds a whole new level of complexity to an already complex equation. Don’t get me wrong, I love complexity. I love problems that are deemed impossible. For me that just means that someone has not thought about it the right way… and maybe I can.
So are deep bounces minor dives that any diver can tackle ? No! Deep bounce dives are hard! To that the divers who have been there can attest! It does not matter if you spend seconds or minutes, the physical and mental challenges remain! Next time you hear a diver making light of these dives take a second. It is easy to belittle another’s achievements. Indeed, it seems to be a norm in society and not restricted to deep diving.
Aha, you are saying. ‘Of course she is going to say that, she is one of the people who get belittled!”
Let me tell you a secret. What I have gained from my world record is not recognition, fame or glory. Those may (and probably were) reasons that got me started, but they are not strong enough motivators to keep you going when everything goes wrong. It is not enough to be able to dive, you have to find support divers and money and equipment. You have to learn how to dive deep, safely and there are no courses out there to teach you and even fewer experienced mentors willing to take you under their wing.
I may have started out wanting a world record to prove something to the world but what I found out was that I was actually proving something to myself. The journey to a world record is highly personal and very, very internal. The value I attach to my record has nothing to do with your opinion of it (or me as a result). Thanks to this one relentless desire of mine I found out who I could be.
I also learnt that limits are choices and that the only limits that exist for me are the one’s I believe in. There will always be people trapped in a world defined by limits and they will always be the people who belittle other’s accomplishments, and there will always be people who want something enough to go ahead and do it, in spite of what the world around them thinks. It does not really matter if the limit you are pushing is the world’s or your own. Is the personal challenge any easier for people who climb Mt Everest today ? Even with modern technology and sherpa’s many do not make it.
I think Nelson Mandela put it best, ‘And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” So next time you hear a story that makes less of an achievement, take a minute… and put what you are hearing into perspective.

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