THE ACCIDENTAL TEC DIVER
It was never meant to happen.
I was a happy-go-lucky Open Water Dive Instructor plying my trade around the world. I never planned on owning more dive gear than could fit in an 80-liter backpack – which is basically one set of lightweight recreational gear, with room left over for a toothbrush and change of underwear. Anytime I got to dive alongside Technical Divers, I would think, ‘That seems like a lot of work, a lot of math and a lot of gear to carry for doing basically the same as recreational divers do...’
We were all breathing underwater. We were all lovers of the life oceanic. And we all looked good in rubber. How different could it be? And besides, I was living on a Dive Instructor salary and all that gear looked expensive. Not to mention heavy. No, Tec Diving wasn’t for me. I’m content within recreational limits. Ha!
The door was opened for me whilst working at a boutique dive center in the French West Indies whose co-owner; a Mr. Chris Davies, was an avid and experienced Technical Diver and Instructor Trainer. He was passionate about one wreck in particular; La Reneé, an artificial reef sunk just beyond the range of Recreational Divers (the top sat at 40m/130ft.) He would wax lyrical about all the great dives he’d had there, the way the wreck sat perfectly upright on a bed of powdery white sand, and about the myriad of pelagic life she attracted - everything from African Pompano Jacks to Silky Sharks.
I quickly realized, if I was ever going to see this wreck, I had no choice but to get into Tec. With Chris' support and mentorship (and staff discount!) I began my Technical Diver education. After completing training dives on shallower and more familiar wrecks in our area, finally the day came to dive La Reneé.
Our plan was to get up ridiculously early and drop in as soon as the sun broke the horizon. Like a dusk-to-night dive in reverse, the light would creep in and we’d get to see the wreck and the marine life start their day. We had already discussed the dive plan the night before, but in a hushed tone, Chris went back over the key details: MOD; site plan, deco plan.
We couldn’t have asked for better conditions… a smooth indigo carpet wrinkled only by our single prop as we churned our way down the channel between St. Martin and Anguilla. We geared up, ran through our pre-dive checks and slipped into the glassy water, trying not to even make a splash, respecting the tranquility.
We slid down the mooring line in free descent, not a breath of current, barely having to fin to hold position. From 10m/33ft below the surface, you could clearly see the defined ridges in the sandy bottom. The sphere of my vision filled with a deep sapphire blue and as the shadow of the wreck came into sharp focus, two Spotted Eagle Rays cruised beneath us in formation - our welcome committee. As the sun lumbered upwards, the first spears of sunlight pierced the wreck giving her rusty, coral and sponge coated surfaces a copper glow. We circled the wreck, completed our required skills and as we started our ascent, a 4m/14ft Hammerhead shark swam figure eights in the sand off to one side. Truly a rare sight in these waters. We completed our deco and climbed back aboard, neither of us saying a word until we were fully de-kitted, but both my Instructor and I were sporting ear-to-ear grins.
I went on to dive the La Reneé many times. As my training level and skills progressed, we discovered a ledge off to the stern of the wreck. I was the safety diver for a rebreather team who went further over the ledge and hit a 100m/330ft. In less than a year, I was taking my own students there as a Tec Instructor and seeing their elation at diving a new wreck.
I went from the diver who never thought he’d want to go down the Technical Diving route, to owning a Technical Diving company. How did that happen?
Firstly, I was lucky to have had a great mentor. I’d say to Chris, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for Tec. I still surface from non-decompression dives with at least 5 minutes NDL time remaining.’ To which he’d reply, ‘That conservative approach is exactly why you are ready.’ That’s the difference between peer pressure and gentle encouragement. My take on the nature of the mentor relationship as it applies to technical diving will be featured in a future article.
Secondly, I had access to a starter-pack of high-quality technical diving gear. The idea that the deeper you go, the more robust and reliable your gear needs to be, means that most gear designed for the recreational diver doesn’t mean the rigorous demands of the technical diver. As a Technical Diving school, we had all the balanced regulators, harnesses, wings, rigged stage bottles, custom gas mixing capabilities already in place. Fortunately, I got to use the shop’s rental gear whilst piecing together my own kit, which saved me from paying out a lot of money up front. Soon enough, I had my own complete set - and it no longer fit in that backpack. My advice to anyone looking to get into tec: ask what gear your potential Instructor uses, then ask what they rent. Do a your homework and by all means, try before you buy.
Lastly, I was fortunate that we had a solid selection of dive sites with progressive depths in the area I happened to be working. Interesting sites. Sites that pushed boundaries in safe increments. Here in South Florida we are lucky to have such a great range of sites in the 130-145ft (40-45m) range that can introduce divers to the technical realm. We’re never bored.
I still enjoy recreational diving. My wife and I recently visited Big Island, Hawaii and did a week of shore dives where I didn’t hit 50ft (15m) once. It was comfortable, relaxing and easy. It was bliss.
But now, whenever I’m on a dive boat, heading out to the Spiegel Grove, with a mix of technical and recreational divers, I’ll get those comments that take me back to my initial thinking about tec.
“That looks heavy.” “Those look expensive.” “What are you going to see that we won’t see?”
Quite a lot, actually. I usually just smile.