Monday, May 26, 2008

Which Rebreather ?

These days more and more divers are moving onto machines (or rebreathers). The advantages are many (longer dive times, cheaper mixed gases, feeling better after the dive). The only real disadvantage lies in the price (at least R40k up front) and of course the fact that you have to get spend time getting experience on your machine before you can get back to doing the dives you where doing on open circuit.
The good news is that gone are the days where the only machine you could choose was the Inspiration. These days South Africa has access to pretty much any machine, from the Scuba Pro Submatix to the new Hammer CCR.

Below is a short list of the readily available machines in South Africa. The prices quoted are in Dollars so that you have an unbiased comparison (all the prices come from dive rite express).

This comes standard as a semi-closed machine and can be converted to a full closed circuit, although the cost of the conversion makes it more cost effective to go straight to a fully closed machine. Price $7,000

2) Megalodon
This is a fully closed machine and available in a number of configurations, so you can basically put together a machine to match your requirements. Stands up well to the better known Inspiration (which comes in only one format).
Second hand units are not available currently in South Africa. Price : $8000

3) New Hammer CCR
This is an exciting unit (I may be biased as I sold my inspiration new vision for one). The unit is designed for deep exploration and comes with the famous hammer head and controller (which most deep divers purchase and fit onto their inspirations or megs). It also has a radial scrubber which is yet another plus for depth and duration. Another feature worth mentioning is the pre scrubber oxygen injection (the oxygen mixes before it is measured). it comes standard with an ADV (the magody that injects your diluent without you having to press a button...a must). Oh and it has been dived successfully in the 200 meter range. Training will be available from June 2008 from Gerhard du Preez of Liquid Edge Diving. Price : $10,500

4) Inpiration (Classic, New Vision)
The best known rebreather (especially in South Africa). A big plus for us here is that units can be found second hand from around R35k (for the classic, add at least 10k for a new vision or evolution), which makes Inspiration the more affordable alternative.

One of the down sides of the Inspiration is that it comes in only one configuration and the cost does not include items like an ADV (which really is a necessity these days). The new vision electronics includes decompression software which gives you a second computer although the verdict is still out as to whether or not it is better to have a classic and two Liquivisions (is certainly cheaper than a new vision and a Liquivision computer). From a depth perspective it handles well up to 150/ 180 meters after which the electronics need to be upgraded to the Hammer Head (you are looking at another $3,000) Price : $10,000

So...when you going to take the plunge and go silent ? You know you want to :)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How Many Agencies can you Name ?

I thought to myself that it might be fun to see what info you can find on the net about technical diving agencies. As South African techies we are accustomed to having limited (if any) choice when it comes to a technical agencies with only two of the ‘international’ agencies having made it to our shores, TDI and IANTD. This is not the situation over the pond where there are a number of agencies to choose from, some with as impressive (if not more so) pedigrees as our established brands.

The question is, how many do you know about ? The agencies are listed by age, oldest first.

  • ANDI (1988) (American Nitrox Divers International Started in 1988 by Rutkowski and Ed Betts. Interestingly ANDI and IANTD share a founding father (and agency) namely Dick Rutkowski and IAND (International Association of Nitrox Divers, which was began in 1985). Rutkowski sold IAND to Tom Mount (who was an ANDI Instructor Trainer) in order to commit fulltime to ANDI. As an agency, ANDI's courses cover nitrox (or safe air as they term it), trimix and rebreathers (but not cave diving). Another interesting feature of ANDI is that they refuse to provide paper cross over’s of instructors (their site is definitely worth a read). Gerhard is off to the States in a week or so to get his instructor rating on the new Hammer CCR with Joe Radomski (the technical head of ANDI) so I will hopefully be able to report back a bit more on other side of technical diving across the pond.
  • IANTD (1992) ( or in its longer version, the International Association of Nitrox and Technical divers. Evolving from Dick Rutkowski and IAND, IANTD these days is synonomous with Tom Mount who bought it out in 1992 and created the IANTD we know today. Their courses cover the full range of technical i.e, trimix, caves and rebreathers. The international site provides a look up of instructors and so allows you to find the instructor nearest to you (it is the only site I found that allowed you to do that).
  • TDI (1993) ( Technical Diving International was founded in 1993 by Bret Gilliam and Mitch Skaggs and is one of the largest technical agencies out there (and I believe the first to arrive in South Africa). The TDI course structure offers a suite of building blocks supplemented by good manuals (I particularly enjoyed the rebreather manual). Their courses cover the full range of technical i.e, trimix, caves and rebreathers.
  • NAUI (1997). Well known as a sport agency NAUI have had a technical division since 1997. Founded by Timothy O’Leary the NAUI technical board is sprinkled with names like Bruce Wienke and Bill Hamilton. There program covers all aspects of technical diving (and yes, it is available in South Africa – soon you to be on Personal experience with NAUI technical here in South Africa indicates that it promises good things, such as no paper cross over’s for instructors (visible and proactive maintainance of standards is something I am passionate about...which means I am furiously practicing long forgotten underwater snorkel skills for my impending cross over), high quality manuals and good customer service. Their courses cover the full range of technical i.e, trimix, caves and rebreathers.
  • ITDA (1997) ( Otherwise known as the International Technical Diving Association. I have to admit that I only found out about this agency by doing a web search. It is British based agency established by the late by Rob Palmer in 1997 and appears to be very popular in the UK and Europe.
  • GUE (1998) ( Established formally in 1998, Global Underwater Divers have become iconic in technical diving in part due to the reputation their founders established with their branded methodology, DIR (Doing it Right). These days Jarod Jablonski promotes DIR training and some hectic exploration (their favourite site is WKPP which has some impressive dives). Unfortunately there are no certified GUE instructors here in South Africa (at least not that I am aware of) although there are some intrepid divers who have done a course or two on their own bat.

In addition there are two notable cave diving only agencies (once again based in the States).

  • NSS-CDS ( is the cave diving section of the National Speleological Society
  • NACD ( Otherwise known as the national association for cave diving. This is an interesting site (and organisation). Did you know that they have an award system available to their divers (the Wakulla Award) based on the number of successful and safe hours (or logged dives) in a cave ?
So, how many did you get ?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Technical Agencies, Branding & Competition

I was sitting writing about wings and bladders and harnesses and back plates and found my thoughts wandering in a totally different direction. Probably thanks to lunch on Sunday when we had old friends over and started to talk about the good old days. Diving in South Africa started out very much club based (like BSAC in the UK here called SAUU which is now CMAS). When I started way back in 1989 you could count the number of diving schools on one hand…and they were NAUI (no-one had heard of PADI). These days NAUI has taken a back seat to PADI and CMAS/ SAUU has practically disappeared. Sport divers are spoilt for choice and a popular discussion point is how ‘fly by night’ sport schools spring up under-cutting established schools with un-sustainable pricing, ‘steal’ students, provide shoddy training and then go bankrupt six months later. Running a dive school is a tough business and highly competitive. To make matters worse, South Africa tends to be highly price sensitive which means that quality is not often a differentiator when divers pick an instructor or school.
So how does the technical diving market compare ? In sport diving you have an abundance of choice when it comes to agencies, schools and instructors. At last count you could choose from PADI, NAUI, CMAS, SSI/ TDI and recently IANTD. Basically, no matter where you live you should find at least one instructor or school who can teach you how to dive. In technical diving live is not quite so rosy. Back in 1989 the international agencies like IANTD and TDI were not well established. You had to rely on SAUU/ CMAS for technical qualifications and as most instructors were not fulltime, courses were few and far between. The arrival of full time, international agencies seemed to promise change, at the very least it should make technical diving more accessible (like the revolution that was happening within sport diving) .
TDI was the first of the ‘big’ names to arrive on our shores, followed by IANTD. However it soon became clear that the principles of expansion and market penetration that were being applied by agencies like PADI and NAUI were not being applied by TDI and IANTD. Where sport diving grew through the active training and dispersement of instructors (creating a plethora of choice for new divers) technical diving remained closely associate with individuals (for TDI read Steve Minnie and these days Dave Kitchen, for IANTD read Mike Fowler and Don Shirley). Instead of the spread of instructors and technically affiliated or inclined schools that one would expect with the arrival (finally) of South African international franchisees, the landscape looked (and still does) pretty much as it did in 1989 – with agencies being synonymous with the founding instructor and branding seeming to go no further than promoting the franchisee’s reputation and designed to acquire them students rather than promote all agency instructors.
The technical market it seems, is be well and truly ‘locked down’ and controlled by a couple of individuals.
Which made me wonder why the sport and technical diving are so different when it comes to the business and promotion there-of ?After all it is divers we are talking about and technical diving is a natural extension of sport diving which has a huge base.

In sport diving you are inundated with adverts for agencies like PADI and if you phone the agency they tend to promote the closest school to you. In technical diving the opposite holds true. Divers interested in technical diving who do respond to what little advertising there is and phone up a specific agencies are never told about their closest instructor but instead are actively sold the individual behind the brand. Instead of creating a pervasive and accessible technical brand we are left with agencies that appear to be little more than one man shops. Which hardly creates incentive for existing or potential technical instructors. Surely ‘brand’ or agency advertising should promote equally all instructors of that brand and not just one individual ?
What does this mean for technical diving ? Well, firstly the franchisee’s are responsible for training new instructors and so ‘spreading the word’ or getting instructors out there in every major dive centre in South Africa. This makes business sense because the more instructors you have the more students and therefore the more income in a month through package sales and gear (especially if you are also an active gear distributor to that instructor base). Yet even after over ten years when one looks at full time instructors there are only two active full cave instructors in South Africa Don Shirley (the IANTD franchisee) and Gerhard du Preez (co-owner of Liquid Edge Diving). A similar situation exists when you look at Trimix or Rebreather diving where the choice is slightly extended with the introduction of TDI representation (Dave Kitchen, the local franchisee).

This impact of limited choice and penetration on the technical diving community is extensive. With no competition, prices are controlled by individuals. Instead of the pricing policy that is working out there in the sport community where the principle of ‘a small piece of a large pie’ applies (or put another way, you can afford to charge less because you have more divers coming through the door) the technical community appears to operate from a principle of ‘a large slice of a small pie’. As the pie is small prices are high and the effect of high prices is that access is restricted. You end up with a self fulfilling prophecy – with a few full time technical schools competing for a small number of divers and as the numbers are small everyone has to charge high prices. I have to question the base assumption that there are few technical diver wannabe’s out there, not when the sport base is so large.
PADI is not the only success story when it comes to brand penetration, ScubaPro has done a very good job in turn. Here a specific brand has managed to get penetration into the highly competitive equipment market by promoting and actively focusing on their dealers and dealer network. They want people to be selling their product. They want it to be easy for a diver to find and buy their product and as a result Scubapro is one of the top diving gear brands (if not the top) in the industry.
Where am I going with this ? Well Liquid Edge (the diving company I co-own with Gerhard du Preez and the only technically focused full time dive school outside of the franchisees) recently had the opportunity of taking on board NAUI Technical (yes, NAUI offers a full range of technical courses and is one of the only sport branded agencies who does so. No-one was more surprised than I). It was a tough call because based on the fact that we are operating in an artificially created small and ‘elite’ market and we had to ask the question, does South Africa need yet another technical agency ? After all, there is nothing wrong with the standards laid down by TDI or IANTD. After investigating NAUI’s standards and courses I for one felt an immediate affinity. Their instructor cross over was an eye opener with absolutely no slack or concessions given even though Gerhard is a full time technical instructor for both TDI and IANTD. He had to do all the skills, sit in on all the lectures and do all the course work which was certainly not what we were expecting. They also require two pairs of eyes to pass off students, which means you have inbuilt quality control that is not just preached, but practiced (something I have not yet experienced or seen in technical diving). The real sweetner though was the fact that NAUI is looking to actively cultivate technical instructors and get them out there where you as a diver can find them (you try find a technical instructor in Cape Town or Durban, never mind Bloemfontein). All of which can only be good for technical diving. I firmly believe that technical divers should be able to choose from a range of agencies and a range of instructors.

I for one would like to see the day when divers are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a technical instructor. When you have a choice you can expand the criteria by which you make your decision, adding aspects like pro-active and visible standards management, quality of training material and C-cards not to mention service and pricing. There is one other big reason I would like technical diving to become more accessible to more divers. It gives you a new toolset that allows you to extend your limits and go and explore new places and I would like all divers to have that opportunity ! I certainly do not regret the journey that technical diving took me on. Oh, and it would mean more support divers (or is that people to braai with J ).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cave Skills Continued - Lighting vs Helmets

Sheck Exley was one of the first divers to identify a set of common cave skills that related directly to deaths or incidents underwater. One of these was the fact that cave divers should carry with them appropriate lighting. It sounds rather obvious, caves are dark… in order to see you require light. Strangely though his use of lights was a back up system (you used the line to get out, not lights) - lights helped you get out faster using less gas and in some instances with less cuts and bruises from unexpected obstacles.
The modern school of thought is that every cave diver has at least three lights, a primary and two back up lights. As far as basic characteristics goes, lights need to be:
- As bright as possible, an easy task these days.
- Uniform across a dive team, i.e all divers should have lights of approximately the same brightness. This concept is based on human physiology, so long as there is no bright light to destroy the natural adaptation, our eyes are capable of adapting to dim light conditions.
- As small as possible and neutrally buoyant (large lights get snagged on risk in narrow areas and are hard to manoeuvre with in strong currents)
- Dependable (water and pressure proof), easy to repair and maintain and with as small a failure rate as possible.
Finally, each light should also last as long as the planned dive (which is not as obvious as it sounds).
When it came to configuration of lights Sheck was not so talkative. Modern school of thought sees a primary canister light neatly stowed on the waist belt with two secondary lights stowed on the shoulder straps. Helmets make no appearance what so ever. For those of you who are not familiar with all the gadgets that come with technical diving, canister type lights have a battery in a canister (hence the name) that is connected to a light head via a umbilical. The diver holds the light head with his hand using a Goodman handle which basically attaches the light head to the top of the hand.
Using the light is not intuitive (or at least I did not find it so). In order to see you have to point your hand in the direction he is looking… something I found intensely annoying when I first moved over to this configuration - my hand would be doing something which would mean my light would be facing any direction but the one I wanted to swim in or look in.
Older divers such as myself did not grow up in a world of canister lights that provided liquid sunlight at the flick of a switch. We used normal hand held style torches and in order to accommodate high failure rates as well as light up the cave, we had to use lots of them. Which led to the interesting problem of how to practically transport them all…you only have two hands. Enter the helmet! This was the perfect solution as it could carry four, maybe six lights without using up valuable hand space. As any technical diver will tell you, diving can have quite a significant task load and not having to worry about lighting up what you are doing or where you are going makes life a whole lot simpler.
The down side of the helmet is that it can be very buddy unfriendly. It takes time and practice to not blind your buddy when casually looking in his general direction. This fact has been used to chastise most helmet divers and promote the use of the simpler canister torch with two stowed back up lights.
But, technology comes to the rescue. Just as the need to carry spans of torches has fallen away thanks to the evolution of canister lights, so has the need to have a large, bulky and heavy helmet in order to carry one (heavy) torch just to light up your immediate area. These days lights come small (the mini Q40 springs to mind, Sartek has some stunning baby lights as well). These can be easily mounted on a mask strap and because they are not killer bright, do not blind surrounding divers.
I will miss the sight of divers plunging into the darkness, small white haloes of light replacing blocking out facial recognition and whilst there are some dives (deep, task loading, where a helmet does have a place, for the rest of us, the era of the helmet is well over.
Long live liquid sunlight and canister lights!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Update on Fatally Flawed (My Memoir)

Saturday 19th of April saw the official launch of my book, Fatally Flawed (The Quest to be Deepest) and it is turning out to be an interesting journey! For those of you who have heard the rumours - the book is still in print and has not been 'pulled'. The word controversial is however starting to apply.

Reactions have been varied. For me it has been a revelation. Truth it seems is very subjective, reality even more so! Which makes me wonder how real our individual realities are. If every person on a dive experiences something different and in fact sees that dive differently whose version of the 'truth' is real ? How many of us Dare to Be ?

When Computers Crash

Well, I have been offline (as you no doubt have noticed) thanks to a computer crash. I am however back.... and can only say I hope dive computers do not run on Microsoft..can you just imagine the joy of being at 60 meters for your computer to blue screen on you ?