Having completed an introductory diving course such as BSAC’s Ocean Diver many people wish to progress to deeper dives. Some have heard the term technical diving and are curious as to what that means. Questions arise such as why you would want to dive deeper than 20 metres, and if you do, what training and equipment is needed? In this blog, part 1 of 2, Martin Maple discusses the question of goals and training in scuba diving.

Autonomous diver courses typically certify people to dive to 18–20 metres. This aligns well with simple equipment configurations such as a single 12 litre cylinder of air. You have a limited amount of breathing gas and deeper dives would be pointlessly short. Moreover hazards such as decompression illness, nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity are less likely to occur.

Many people who dive with the goal of seeing marine life, especially in warm tropical water, find that most of the pretty things they want to see live at shallow depths. Deeper dives aren’t so attractive to them. However those who are interested in history and enjoy diving shipwrecks soon notice that deeper wrecks are more intact, which sets them thinking about diving deeper.

The first thing to consider is ‘what is your diving goal?’. Don’t seek to dive deeper just because the more experienced divers in your club are doing it, think about what you want to see and do underwater. Try different things and see what interests you. Enjoy the journey and work up to deeper dives.

A goal many British wreck divers have is to dive the First World War German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow. These world-class shipwrecks are in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, a twelve hour drive from Nuneaton but well worth the trip! The deepest, the Markgraf, lies in 43 metres of water, with most of the wrecks being at about 38 metres. Scapa Flow has an undeserved reputation for being deep and dark. In fact, it is well within reach of a competent club diver, but to get the most out of it additional training and experience is needed.

Having decided what your end goal is, whatever that may be, it is important to break it down into manageable steps. Talking to a diver who is already doing the diving you want to do will help with this. Seek out an instructor who has the same interests as you.

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The term technical diving was coined by journalist Michael Menduno in his magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996). There is however no universally accepted definition. It is more useful to just consider ‘diving’. As you dive deeper you require more life support equipment and this requires additional skills and capacity. For comfort and safety we must manage the risks of decompression, oxygen toxicity, nitrogen narcosis, and hypercapnia, amongst other things. This necessitates the use of less dense breathing gases with lower fractions of oxygen, and switching gases one or more times during the dive. At some point on the spectrum the diving becomes ‘technical’, but whether you define that by the requirement for mandatory decompression stops, the use of trimix or different decompression gases is fairly arbitrary and depends largely on the training agency concerned.
Consider the training courses that will help you achieve your goal. The following may be relevant to our hypothetical Scapa Flow trip:

  • Sports Diver: 35 metres with up to 10 minutes of mandatory decompression (shortly to be increased to 40 metres)
  • Wreck Diver / Advanced Wreck Diver: learn about the construction of ships and diving safely around and inside them
  • Buoyancy and Trim Workshop: improve safety and comfort through refinement of buoyancy, trim and propulsion techniques
  • Accelerated Decompression Procedures (ADP): use of a rich nitrox breathing gas to improve the efficiency of decompression
  • Twinset Diver/Primary Donate Workshop: use of two cylinders for the main part of the dive (40 metre depth limit when combined with ADP)
  • Sports Mixed Gas Diver: use of breathing gases containing helium (trimix) for diving to 50 metres.

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The reasons for these suggestions is outside the scope of this short article, but comfort and safety are at the foundations. We go diving to have fun, and training enables that, not the other way around! Completing some or all of these courses will take several years, but there is no need to rush the process. There is much to be gained from a slow progression, enjoying diving in the varying conditions we find around the British coast, along the way.

In part 2 we go on to consider the team, equipment and breathing gases required for deeper diving.