'Technically Not Tech Diving' on Gili Trawangan
Tech diving is rapidly growing in popularity, with recreational training agencies marketing courses that were once the preserve of a group of specialist organisations. Gili Trawangan is becoming a tech diving hotspot, and Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell took the opportunity during a recent visit to experience some recreational tech diving with Manta Dive. Photographs by Alfred Minnaar.
Throughout my dive career, I’ve always referred to myself as an ‘unashamedly shallow water fish-botherer’ – happiest and most at home enjoying the colour and denizens of the tropical reefs that began my love affair with scuba diving.
I’ve never really been interested in technical diving as an activity. I always draw an analogy with my former life in the years BCD (Before Crowley Dived), when my passion was for fast motorcycles, blazing around a track with my knee skimming the tarmac at more than 100 miles per hour. In diving terms, I am the metaphorical equivalent of a Sunday biker, pootling around the country lanes and getting excited about trees.
But – and this is a very important part of the analogy – riding fast bikes was not, for me, all about the speed. I learned how to ride in a technically efficient manner: where to brake, what lines to follow, where to open the throttle; advance planning and situational awareness to keep me stuck to the track and not end up a sticky mess in the tyre wall. Speed was somewhat secondary to the satisfaction that came from having executed a manoeuvre correctly.
This is where I make the connection with technical diving. It’s not necessarily about how deep you actually dive, it’s the process you need to go through to get you there and back safely and efficiently, plus, of course, the amazing things you can find at depths that no recreational diver will ever reach.
I understand, and I am interested in, the fundamentals of technical diving from a scientific point of view. I know from experience that I am in a fairly small minority of recreational instructors who actually understand the principles behind decompression theory, gas switching and, as a trimix gas blending instructor, the importance of accurately mixing and analysing each gas and planning the dive around them.
Recreational diving’s mantra is ‘plan your dive and dive your plan’. This is, of course, very sound advice, but the reality is that in many cases if you deviate from your plan, you will probably make it out alive. As my former course director once said: ‘Crowley, if you’re ever not sure what to do, hit the surface. You might end up in the tank, but we’ll probably be able to patch you up.’
When it comes to technical diving, however, the surface is not an option. If you deviate from your plan you can wind up in serious trouble, and each year, fatalities within the technical community occur because the plan broke down. Death comes very swiftly if you switch to the wrong gas at 100m, and no matter how much some recreational agencies want to sugar-coat the very real dangers of diving, even the most rose-tinted of viewpoints can’t fail to notice the paragraph in the manual about what happens when one member of a buddy team gets into trouble at depth, because one dead diver is better than two dead divers.
Many people assume that technical diving is therefore very dangerous. The risks are multiplied exponentially over recreational diving, in much the same way that riding motorcycles at speed carries a great deal more risk than plodding around the lanes. But it is also true to say that following best practice and paying attention to detail, accompanied by extensive training and experience, well-executed technical diving, just like technically well-executed motorcycle riding, is actually safer than simply riding faster, or diving deeper, than the average enthusiast.
There are voices within the tech diving community who suggest that at least some technical training should be a pre-requisite for certification as a recreational instructor. I am not certain I entirely disagree with this notion. The enhanced situational awareness and ability to anticipate – and deal with – unexpected problems provided by technical dive training would certainly be beneficial in the professional recreational world.
Gili Trawangan is home to a very strong diving community, especially the technical divers. It is home to Will Goodman, the closed circuit rebreather deep-dive world record holder, and TDI instructor Theresia Gollner, a friend and former colleague, recently awarded Indonesia’s highest certifying instructor of the year accolade by tech diving guru Richie Kohler.
Gili T also has one of the strongest communities of female tech divers. I had set up an interview through Theresia with Gili T's Girls That Tech Dive, and aside from a personal interest in at least wanting to try the gear, I thought it would be remiss of myself not have at least some personal experience of what technical divers actually do.
I was diving with Manta Dive, a popular centre for the techies of Gili Trawangan, and they kindly afforded me the opportunity to dive in a technical rig but in a recreational environment. I wanted to experience what it’s like to carry a twinset and two slung stage tanks, something I’d never done before, and the first time in a long time that I’d done something really new in my diving career.
TDI instructor Mathieu Sidoti took me through a basic pool session, going through the safety drills of bubble checks, opening and closing the valves of each cylinder on the twinset, closing the manifold that connects them, and switching between the long-hose primary and necklace-mounted alternate regulators when necessary. I've never before had to reach behind me and operate a tank valve that I was actually wearing at the time. In single-tank recreational diving, there’s no real purpose in doing so, and we learn how to remove and replace the gear underwater should there be any minor problems.
The attention to detail in tech, however, is so much greater than amongst recreational divers. As Mat told me: 'Tech is so important, because of a great focus on fundamentals (breathing, buoyancy, propulsion and trim), which will greatly improve the skills of any divers,' he said. 'Also the safety aspect, as every piece of equipment failure is thought about before a dive and can be dealt with. Gas management becomes important and every tech diver will know and plan how much gas he or she needs to complete the dive prior to execution - no more following the computer blindly.'
I didn’t have a particular problem establishing neutral buoyancy with all the extra weight of the gear I was wearing – carrying spare weights is an everyday part of a recreational instructor’s job. I’ve slung tanks before and carried some fairly hefty objects with lift bags, but not four tanks together wearing a steel backplate and wing. The overall buoyancy characteristics, however, are vastly different. I felt as if even a small twist to the side would turn me upside down, and I was rather sheepishly proud of myself that – after all that experience – I didn’t wobble uncontrollably to the surface of the pool.
The next morning, we boarded the boat and set out to Simon's Reef, a quite spectacularly beautiful dive site, but my mind was in other places.
Back in my former life as a full-time dive professional – especially in Sharm – I dived some reefs so frequently that the dive plan became ingrained in my head. I never lost respect for what I was doing, but diving some of those reefs was like talking a walk around the back garden. Others – especially dives like the Thistlegorm – required a great deal more attention to detail and a lot more thought, and this is where my head was as I sat on the railing wearing four tanks and preparing to jump.
I was nervous, but in a good way. My head ran through the drills time after time after time. The picture of me (above) in that moment was not posed. Even though I was not doing a tech dive, and the stage tanks were there for show only, not for use, it was an unfamiliar sensation. I couldn’t stand up under the weight, but I found myself enjoying the sensation of planning, preparing, anticipating a new challenge.
In that moment, I realised why technical divers love what they do so much. There was no adrenaline rush (I don’t think adrenaline should be part of any dive at all) but there was a certain thrill. Instead of every dive being a walk around the park, every dive becomes a process of detail and challenge. The principles of visualisation – ignored by so many recreational divers, to their detriment – became paramount once more as I ran through the drills. I may have 4,000 or so dives under my weight belt, but this was new, and I was enjoying it.
Underwater, we didn’t go to any extremes. My ‘back gas’ was a bog-standard 32 per cent nitrox; the stage tanks were filled with air and I carried them for no other purpose than the sensation of having them there.
I was surprised to find that the even distribution of weight from the steel backplate, coupled with the twinset and the wing, actually forced me into better trim than I would normally be concerned about. Perfect trim is essential for technical diving, but I’ve always joked that if I wanted to remain horizontal, I would stay in bed. Good trim is important for recreational diving also, but not quite as much, and as long as you’re horizontal when you need it, making shapes underwater is part of the fun, I think.
Upon ascent, Mat demonstrated how to inflate an SMB using the deflator mechanism in order to maintain neutral buoyancy in the overall system, as opposed to inflating the SMB by purging the octopus into the entry, so common in the recreational world. Personally, I always orally inflate my SMB for exactly the same reason, but I’d never actually tried to inflate an SMB using the deflator. I hadn’t put up an SMB for four years, so there was a bit of faffing, but another new feather in my cap that I had never previously acquired.
With the exception of the gear I was wearing, the safety dills I performed, the long hose primary regulator configuration, and the deflator SMB inflation, there was nothing really technical about my brief flirtation with the dark side. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable and educational experience, particularly the attention to detail that technical divers pay to their dive planning.
I’m not certain that I have any real desire to take up deep, technical diving as a regular activity, but I do have a new perspective towards – and respect for – the people who do. I described my experience as ‘technically not technical’, but who knows? The path to the dark side is… seductive.
With huge and heartfelt thanks to Ben and Harriet of Manta Dive, Gili Trawangan for putting me up and putting up with me, Mat for taking me under his wing (quite literally) and giving up his time to broaden my horizons, and the @GirlsThatTechDive for the inspiration. Watch this space for the interview with the ladies, and check out our Autumn Print Edition for the lowdown on diving in Gili Trawangan. You can find more of Alfred Minnaar's stunning photography at www.alfredminnaarphotography.com, and also in the Spring Print edition of DIVE