Why has tech diving become so popular?
Technical diving is dominating the scuba scene.
Koh Tao, Thailand
It can’t have escaped your notice that technical diving seems to have become very popular.The fact that one of the major UK diving magazines now contains a monthly article about technical diving as well as other regular articles about different aspects of technical diving is just another example of how this once-forbidden aspect of diving has become mainstream.
We can see just how popular technical diving has become if we consider that Technical Diving International (TDI) carried out a survey in 1994 where only one person out of every 100 said that they had taken a technical diving course or were intending to take one in the following year. When a similar survey was carried out in 2008, this had changed to one person in four saying that they had taken a technical diving course or were intending to do so in the following year.
When the term ‘technical diving’ was coined in 1991 by the magazine aquaCORPS, it was considered as being completely different from recreational diving. The main technical diving agencies, such as TDI and IANTD, were formed as a way of providing technical diving training to those divers that were interested in the topic. However, most of the recreational diving agencies condemned technical diving to the extent that in 1992, any technical agency or manufacturer that supported the use of nitrox was banned from DEMA, the largest US diving show.
The reason for this was that the recreational diving agencies considered nitrox to be too dangerous for use by recreational divers. Of course, this view was driven by a lack of knowledge and a fear of anything new. Today, all of the recreational agencies encourage the use of nitrox and have all introduced their own nitrox programmes.
The wider availability of equipment suitable for technical diving has also helped to encourage its popularity. The equipment used for technical diving is quite different to that used in recreational diving. At the beginning it was very difficult for divers to find equipment that was suitable. Many of the early technical divers had to resort to making or modifying their own equipment. This obviously limited the number of people who had the skills and inclination to follow this route. Many of the well-known technical diving equipment companies started off with the owner making a prototype for his own use in his garage and then being asked to make more for his dive buddies. Unless you had the skills to make the equipment yourself, or knew someone who knew someone, it was very difficult to find suitable equipment. However, these days many of the major equipment manufacturers offer a technical equipment range and specialised technical diving equipment is easily available. This means that it is now relatively easy to buy wings, backplates, regulators, canister torches, reels and sophisticated multi-gas computers from your local dive shop, or just order it online and have it delivered to your door.
The wider availability of information has helped to popularise technical diving. The two main developments that allowed information on technical diving onto a wider stage were the publication of the aquaCORPS magazine in the 1990s and the development of the internet. The internet allowed communication between technical divers and provided a means for distributing information on the subject to the rest of the diving community. Rather than isolated pockets of technical divers each doing their own thing, the internet allowed us to develop a consensus on the best options for equipment configuration and diving procedures and to avoid re-inventing the wheel.
These days the internet is an almost-essential tool for any aspiring technical diver. There is a huge amount of information available on almost every aspect of technical diving.
Diving forums in particular can provide a fantastic source of knowledge and advice on technical diving. There are a number of dedicated technical diving forums, and recreationally focused forums will at least have a technical diving section. They are without doubt the easiest and quickest way for a new technical diver to pick up a large amount of good information. Diving forums do, however, have their disadvantages which those interested in technical diving should be wary about. Information on a diving forum may not always be accurate. You should always treat this information with caution. There are a number of reasons why this information may not be as reliable as it seems. Firstly, there are a number of diving urban myths that are continually repeated on internet forums. The fact that they are continually repeated gives weight to these stories or opinions, but that doesn’t stop them from being incorrect or misleading. In some cases, these myths may just be misleading, but in other cases they are downright dangerous.
Any sport or activity will see progress over time and diving is no exception. As a result the popularity of technical diving can be seen as just the natural progression of the activity. It is human nature to want to improve, push yourself or progress your skills and abilities. Human nature also encourages a desire to do things that few other people have done, or visit places that few others have seen. It is this spirit of exploration that has also contributed to the development of this aspect of the sport. Many technical divers progress their diving as a way of achieving a specific goal, which is why technical diving is often associated with wreck or cave diving. In these cases the techniques used are just a tool to find unknown wrecks or explore uncharted caves. For me technical diving is just a tool that I need to use if I want to dive the type of wrecks I enjoy diving. I have often said that if all the wrecks of the world were in less than 30m of water, then I would never have gotten involved in technical diving. While there are still unexplored wrecks in less then 30m, there are far more wrecks that lay much deeper than this, so I need to use different tools and techniques in order to dive them.
Diving magazine stories of divers finding lost wrecks, identifying historic wrecks or piecing together parts of a historical puzzle are always fascinating to read. There are few other areas where someone carrying out their hobby can have such a big impact on identifying major pieces of history. These have provided a strong incentive for divers to progress into technical diving in order explore these historic sites. Books such as The Last Dive, Deep Descent and Shadow Divers have further popularised technical diving and raised the profile, not just within the diving world, but also in general, and if the anticipated movie based on the latter book comes to the screen then it will undoubtedly generate further interest in technical diving.
One of the other reasons why it has become much more common for recreational divers to undertake technical diving courses is a widespread perception that these courses are a way to improve general diving skills and become a significantly safer diver whatever type of diving you do. Due to the increased potential risks the level of buoyancy control, comfort in the water, problem-solving abilities and general diving skills required to undertake technical diving is significantly higher than for recreational diving. As a result recreational divers, even many recreational diving instructors, see the skills displayed by technical divers and want to reach that same level of skill and control. “I want to be able to do that” or “I want to look like that” are common phrases I hear when I ask people about their motivation for taking technical courses. They may not want to use trimix or dive beyond 50m, but they do want to be safer and more confident when diving in the 30-40m range or when doing some decompression. As a result the increase in technical training courses has led to an increase in the use of technical diving equipment and techniques, and so many of the techniques that were once restricted to technical diving have found their way into mainstream recreational diving.
In the last five to ten years technical diving has moved from being considered as heresy by the established recreational diving community to being part of the mainstream diving industry. In the past, diving deeper than 40m, decompression diving and using gas mixtures other than air were considered so revolutionary that many of these practices were considered unacceptably dangerous and banned by some agencies. This position has softened considerably with most agencies being much more welcoming of technical diving techniques. Many recreational agencies have even gone further and rather than outright banning of technical diving have even started to introduce their own technical diving courses. Clearly this is because they see there is an increasing interest in technical diving, however this also serves to further legitimise this type of diving, which can only make it more popular in the future.
Although technical diving has become mainstream and recreational agencies have started to introduce their own courses, there are still important differences between recreational and technical diving. In the last few years the recreational agencies have tried to make diving as accessible as possible to the majority of people. Initial training focuses only on the essential skills that are required to get people diving and emphasise that diving is safe and fun. For the majority of diving this is absolutely true, however technical diving introduces risks that are not present in recreational diving. The introduction of additional depth, alternative gas mixes, decompression, multiple cylinders, etc, adds risks that are not present on a typical recreational dive. As a result technical training takes a very different form. It emphasises the risks involved and covers a much-deeper understanding of some of the concepts involved, which means the type of approach required for good technical instruction is still subtly different to that required for good recreational instruction.