Want to dive deep inside the World War II wrecks of Tulamben’s Liberty Shipwreck? This American WWII wreck was dumped on Tulamben beach after being damaged by enemy torpedos.
It falls under the category of recreational technical diving, using sophisticated equipment and techniques to go far beyond the conventional limits of sport diving. You can do it, but it means getting a new C-card or three, probably some pricey new gear and making the commitment of time, energy and money to rigorous training. It also means accepting more risk and perhaps facing more seriously than you have before your responsibilities to yourself, your fellow divers and your family.
Do You Really Need Formal Training?
If you want to do one of those dives, yes. At the simplest level, you’ll need to show the right tech C-card before the dive operator will let you make the deep wreck dive or give you the key to unlock the grate.
More to the point, there’s a lot you need to know in order to dive safely. Even more important than the technical information you could glean from a book are a number of new skills that must be practiced in the water under the supervision of an instructor until they become second nature.
What Is Tech Diving?
It’s a moving target, as dive techniques and equipment have drifted from commercial and military fields to recreational diving. There is general agreement that within recreational diving there are two categories–sport and technical–and that a technical dive is one deeper than 40 meters, and/ or using nitrox mixtures of more than 50% oxygen, and/ or using trimix. In addition, tech dives often involve using gear like double tanks, stage tanks and penetration equipment like reels.
Pedants will point out that this is a description, not a definition. True, and maybe the best we can do, because the inner and outer limits of technical diving are in constant movement. For example, all nitrox was once considered technical, but 32% and 36% nitrox are now considered sport gases. At the other end of the scale, trimix was once confined to commercial diving and has recently become more common in recreational tech diving.
Perhaps what should distinguish technical from sport diving is that in an emergency, the tech diver looks to backup systems and buddies almost exclusively and does not consider bailing out for the surface a realistic option. That means serious attention to equipment, backup equipment, buddy contact and diving the plan.
The Training Path
Most tech training agencies have a series of courses designed to be taken more or less in order, at least in the beginning. How far you progress in the series depends on what you want to do.
Agencies have different approaches, but typically you start with nitrox if you’re not already nitrox-certified. Even if you are, there is often a “technical nitrox” course covering mixtures other than the standard 32 and 36 percent blends.
Next might be an extended-range course designed to cover open-water diving in the 100-to 150-foot range. You’ll learn about nitrogen narcosis, use of various nitrox blends and decompression planning. Then come deeper dives and the use of trimix. Later in the sequence are courses covering the applied skills specific to the dive: wreck and cave penetration, for example.
Finally, some agencies offer courses in rebreather and scooter use, as well as topside dive management, gas mixing and other support functions.
Tech Diving Boot Camp: What to Expect
Typically, the “entry-level” tech course takes about less than a week, but it’s an intense course. Tuition alone can range from $500 to $1,500 or more (prices are often set by the individual instructors), plus boat fees, gas fills and equipment purchase or rental. Then add airfare, hotel and meals if, as is likely, the course is not available in your hometown.
Expect eight-hour days, lots of classroom work and one or two dives per day. Expect to be tired at the end of the day and exhausted at the end of the week.You’ll have close contact with the instructor; there will probably be only two or three other students in the class. The academic work is challenging. It involves more than high-school math, but in general, if you understood the basic concepts and physics of your open-water class, you should be able to master it.
In the water is where most students have trouble, says Dave Woodward, SDI TDI Technical Diving Instructor. “The most common reason for failure is lack of watermanship skills–the diver can’t perform the required timed drills like taking off and putting on a stage, staying within a prescribed distance of a line, staying horizontal 12 inches above a floor or below a ceiling, etc.”
Notice the word “timed”? That’s one way of increasing the stress on students. Another is task loading. You’ll have far more stress than you’ve experienced before because you’ll be struggling with new equipment and skills in addition to your old ones, and doing it under more challenging conditions. The purpose, of course, is to test whether you can keep your wits and cope.
And you might fail. Unlike open-water training, where virtually anyone can be certified if they stay with it long enough, in technical dive training you may find yourself flunked out and sent home. Agencies and instructors differ in their philosophies about this, of course, but the thinner margin for error in many technical dives and the lower likelihood of a safe bailout to the surface make most instructors very cautious about signing a tech C-card.
If you wash out, don’t expect a refund. Paying your tuition does not (and should not) guarantee your graduation. IANTD has a motto that says it well: “A student purchases training. A certification must be earned.”
Physical and Mental Requirements
“I know I can do it! Sign me up!”
Whoa, pardner. First, you might ask yourself why you want to do this. Your instructor will be very interested in your motivation before he takes you on. Expect a face-to-face interview focused on this subject before anyone accepts your check, and maybe even an in-water skills evaluation.
Even if a formal interview is not scheduled, expect the first hour or so of your first lesson to be basically that. Most instructors will want you to be fairly experienced and comfortable in the water before you embark on technical training. Buoyancy control skills are especially important, and indicative of a student’s general comfort level.
Next is the question of prerequisites. Most agencies require a minimum number of dives in your log book, usually 100. Most have a minimum age requirement, usually 18. Some require other advanced certifications, like rescue.
Then there’s the question of your physical fitness. Bulging biceps and massive pecs aren’t required, but evidence of good cardiovascular conditioning is, because it’s widely believed (though not absolutely proven) that aerobic fitness helps you handle decompression better. It certainly helps you to withstand the fatigue of long, deep dives with bulky equipment.
Just how dangerous is tech diving? Safety statistics indicate that properly trained, equipped and motivated tech divers are as safe as the average recreational diver. The best indication of that is that tech divers, tech diving instructors and schools are able to buy liability insurance at affordable rates.
Absolute safety is, of course, impossible in any endeavor. The real issue is risk management. Proper training, equipment, procedures and attitudes can reduce the risk of accidents or injury to acceptable levels, and tech training is designed to do just that. Of course, the nature of most tech diving environments means the diver is attempting to manage or offset more risk than he would in a typical recreational environment.
For example: Tech dives frequently mean restricted access to the surface. An equipment failure that would be a bit of excitement in open water becomes fatal in those circumstances if you don’t have a backup.
Techniques to handle these dives can themselves be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Take, for example, gas switching. To avoid nitrogen toxicity, a deep diver may use a bottom mix so lean (a gas that is specified for use at the deepest portions of a dive, usually when other decompression gases are present. Bottom mix may be air, nitrox or helium). That it won’t support life in shallow water. To facilitate decompression, the same diver may use a shallow-water mix so rich that it would cause convulsions at depth. There are techniques and equipment configurations designed to handle the situation, but more than one tech diver has died because he switched to the wrong gas at the wrong time.
Extended Range Diving
How to dive safely on air to a maximum of 55 meters with gas switches for decompression. By experimenting with deeper depths under direct supervision, errors can be controlled, mistakes assessed and corrected. This training is considered a significant safety breakthrough since it has saved many divers from fatal experimentation on their own.
Reality Check: Why Do You Want To Do This?
Everyone in technical diving I interviewed for this article stressed the importance of having a good reason for wanting to take technical dive training.
Good reasons for taking technical training include:
A SPECIFIC DIVE GOAL. Take tech training because you want to dive at Tulamben US Liberty shipwreck and Molas wreck at Manado, North Sulawesi Indonesia.
TO BE SAFER ON SPORT DIVES. You may never intend to go to 200 feet, but the more rigorous procedures you’ll learn in tech training will give you a greater margin of safety on shallower dives. And in case of the unexpected–chasing your buddy deep to make a rescue, for example–you’ll be better prepared to handle the situation.
CURIOSITY. You want to learn about more advanced diving techniques and find out if you can handle them.
Bad reasons for taking technical training include:
Wanting to show the world what a studly person you are.
Trying to keep up with your buddies.
Wanting to join an elite club.
As a general rule, when testosterone starts talking, prudence goes walking. Some desire to grow your ego is probably inevitable and may even be desirable, but ask yourself honestly if you’re most interested in the technical diving itself or in the audience reaction to you doing it. If it’s the latter, maybe you should find a way of showing your stuff that’s less dangerous to you and to others.
Speaking of others: Some technical divers go solo, but more often tech diving is built around teams of buddies who depend on one another. Many sport divers pay only lip service to their buddy responsibilities, but you’ll have to take them very seriously in tech diving. Be sure you want to do this, and want to live with the consequences if you don’t measure up.
Doing It Right
Technical Diving International (TDI) is the largest technical certification agency in the world. As one of the first agencies to provide training in mixed gas diving and rebreathers, TDI is seen as an innovator of new diving techniques and programs which previously were not available to the general public.
TDI offers one of the largest ranges of technical diving courses including Intro to Tech, Advanced Nitrox, Advanced Trimix, Advanced Cave and wreck penetration, Rebreathers training and more. TDI’s professionals are held to the highest standard to ensure quality training throughout the world. Just as it would take your commitment to complete a technical diving course, your TDI instructor would have gone through a much more stringent process to become part of the TDI family.
TDI is committed to offering the highest quality training supported by the latest materials with the most up to date information and techniques. TDI’s materials are written by authors that acutely conduct the type of diving they are writing about. Those same materials are update as technology and equipment change. In Indonesia, you can contact SDI TDI’s facilitator here.