What’s so Technical About Technical Diving?

by Ron Carlo

CCR rebreathers and decompression diving fit the definition of technical diving

Good question. Or maybe this should be titled “Just What IS Technical Diving?” That’s what I’m going to discuss. Here’s what I’m going to touch on in hopes you’ll come away with a desire to pursue this exciting side of diving:

1. What technical diving is
2. What technical diving encompasses
3. Some equipment needs
4. Training options

Technical diving is often considered: 1) A discipline that utilizes special techniques, equipment, training, and skills to improve underwater performance and safety; 2); Any diving that involves deeper and longer exposures than traditional recreational standards; 3) Diving in an overhead environment of a wreck or a cave where the diver cannot freely ascend to the surface, 4) Akin to the spirit of rock climbing and wilderness trekking, where the motivation for tech diving is a personal challenge and a thrill of exploration; 5) Having more stuff than you can carry and couldn’t possibly ever pay for when you get the credit-card bill.

But, more appropriately, technical diving is basically defined as anything “not recreational,” which could mean: 1) Diving deeper than 130 feet; 2) Using any breathing gas other than air or common nitrox blends; 3) Probable overhead environment; 4) Probable use of special skills, tools, or equipment; and 5) Still may mean a lot to carry (and pay for).

Confused? In practical terms, “technical” diving is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s not about how deep, how long, how far, or whatever. It’s more about learning and enjoying oneself. As mentioned earlier, it’s all about the personal challenge and the thrill of exploration. Weren’t you thrilled on your first night dive? How about your first warm saltwater dive? Or even the first pool dive? It’s the same thing with technical diving. Technical diving can be paraphrased as ‘expedition diving’ – to go on an expedition to explore YOUR world (to almost coin a phrase: “To boldly go where…”). And if it involves heavy/expensive stuff for YOU to meet that challenge, so be it. If not, it’s still an exploration and it’s still an expedition in diving. It’s for anyone, if they’re interested.

Ok, but what about some negative things you may have heard about tech diving? Stuff like: “It’s expensive, It’s complicated, It’s dangerous, It’s difficult.” It can be all of those things … but so can recreational diving – if you don’t have the proper training, experience, and gear…right? Starting to get the picture?

Cave diving is one kind of technical diving and requires very special training (Photo: Steve Straatsma)

How about some positive things? Stuff like: “Wow! It’s worth it… I really get off on this stuff… What a thrill… I’m glad I learned to do this… Can’t wait to go again!” Mostly, though, one has to have an open mind and be willing to seek what they enjoy. Remember how you first felt in your first open water class? Bet you said exactly the same things there, too! If you’re ready for new things and new challenges, tech is it.

As an anecdote, on one of my first cave diving trips to Mexico, I’d started out wishing I’d brought a camera or video so I could show others what I saw when I got home. But I soon realized it’d be impossible for me to be able to capture the total awesomeness of the caves I saw (it sort of reminded me of the vacation movie where the comedian takes his family to the Grand Canyon and they only take a few seconds to look at the grandeur of he landscape before hitting the road again), and I’d be better off helping others to experience, and not simply “see,” these magnificent sights on their own.

But let’s not forget ourselves, tech/exploration diving can be intimidating and confusing for the uninitiated. Fortunately, several agencies now teach technical diving, and there’s a wealth (no pun intended) of equipment choices out there to get lost in. As we’re going to see, it’s all about being prepared with the proper training, skills, equipment, and experience. Hmmm, sounds like recreational-diving again, doesn’t it?

Tech initially started by word-of-mouth, and by the desire to go deeper and farther. In the beginning, it was just small groups of dedicated divers that got together and tried different things to improve their abilities and equipment. Some ideas worked and got refined to be better, while some ideas didn’t (Darwin Principle at its best). The entire technical diving concept slowly became bigger and better accepted. Many ideas that we use without thinking about it today in recreational diving came straight from technical diving. The idea for the BC, for instance, derived from the need to achieve neutral buoyancy when wearing big, heavy, steel double cylinders. Carrying redundant regulators was an offshoot of a technical diver’s mantra of “redundancy, redundancy, redundancy.” Training and skill drills became an important principle, to the point that the proper response to any situation is ingrained into the diver after being practiced over and over – before it’s needed.

Not being ‘in the game’ is a sure way to court trouble. Technical diving by itself isn’t terribly dangerous, it’s what happens if you’re not prepared that causes the problems. Just like you heard in open water class, absolute safety is simply impossible. Risk identification and management is the key to maximizing safety. You’re going to need proper and adequate training, equipment, skill-sets, and attitude to see you through any dive. Leave out any part and you’re leaving yourself open.

So, let’s talk about the training. Each course within the field is taught as a single entity, and they’re all laid out in a logical and progressive building block pattern. One of the greatest assets to this policy lies in the fact that multiple or follow-on courses may be easily combined into a closely related group of courses, or lead in a specific direction. As the diver progresses through these tiered programs, their experience base is enlarged a little each time, affording a high degree of diving discipline and confidence to successfully complete the dives. The diver’s confidence is built up through repeated hands-on work both in the water and in the tech lab. The ultimate objective is not only to qualify the diver for the dive objective, but also to give a healthy respect for the tech diving environment.

The more common technical courses (names may vary a bit between training agencies) include:

1. Nitrox & Advanced Nitrox. Mixing additional amounts of pure oxygen with breathing air to decrease chances of nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness.
2. Decompression Procedures. Using special dive tables to compensate for deeper depths or time limits outside established recreational dive limits.
3. Extended Range. Taking decompression procedure diving to greater depths and times.
4. Trimix & Advanced Trimix. Similar to nitrox diving, but mixing in inert helium gas to offset the effects of oxygen and nitrogen when diving very deep.
5. Rebreathers. Recapturing and recycling most or all of the diver’s exhaled breathing gas, reducing noisy bubbles, and greatly increasing dive-times.
6. Cavern & Cave. Diving in natural overhead environments, where the surface may not be seen without extended exit procedures.
7. Wreck & Advanced Wreck. Diving in natural manmade environments, where the surface may not be seen without extended exit procedures.

Another offshoot of the training, and one that leads directly into the equipment arena, is the physical and mental readiness. With all the demands being asked of you, it’s obvious you need to have a fair degree of fitness as well as a proper frame of mind. Being able to bench press 500 pounds isn’t really necessary, but you better be ready to at least pull the wheeled duffel bag the gear is carried in. Mental fitness means not only having a clear head for the dives and not replaying the argument you had with your boss yesterday, but also simply doing it for the right reasons. There’s no place for ‘hotdog divers’ in technical diving (or recreational diving, did I already say that?), this isn’t a contest for anything. Ask yourself before each dive “Why am I doing this?” and you might be surprised by the answer. If you don’t like the answer or can’t come up with one, don’t make the dive. Save it for another time.

Traditional “tech” gear is assumed to be double tanks, lots of regulators, a big BC, huge floodlights, and tons (literally) of extra “stuff.” All may be needed – but only if the dive plan warrants it! (ummm, you DO still plan your dives, don’t you?). The point is, you go into a tech dive prepared to do or see things a lot of others haven’t, and you have a heck of a lot more fun on the dive because you were ready. Several manufacturers have made it much easier these days to go technical diving. We no longer have to lash together old milk jugs for BC’s, or solder up motorcycle batteries to car headlights to see in dark spaces. We only have to decide which harness fits the best and which aircell is used with which set of cylinders. By the way, color has been pretty much a Henry Ford idea for years (“You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black”), but that’s changing – you can now get harnesses and aircells in blue and red!

A very common faux pax is to get so focused on the relative merits of wearing this dive knife on your weight belt versus that knife on your harness (it happens a lot more than you’d think!) that you tend to lose the entire concept and neglect the training and skills aspects. It’s been often said that it’s more feasible for a highly trained diver with minimal equipment to resolve a situation than it is for a poorly trained diver with the newest and shiniest toys on the market. You can’t compensate for a weak side of the equation; you have to be strong in everything. Get the training AND the equipment, and know how to use it all!

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested in getting into technical diving or at least checking it out a bit more. Invest some time and find a reputable instructor and a reputable dive facility to work with. Don’t just look for a quickie class or inexpensive gear, because the life you’re planning to save is your own! You owe it to yourself to do some digging to find a good match, and don’t be afraid to scout around and to ask others where and who they’d recommend. Plan on taking it slow, there’s a lot of material to absorb and to practice, and gear to get comfortable with, before moving on to the next step. Strive to be able to accomplish each task without thinking about it and to know your gear with your eyes closed (as often happens).

All of this may seem like a formidable mountain to scale, but I bet the first night of your open water class felt quite similar. You took one step at a time and worked through it all to a common and satisfying end goal, and it was all worth it. It’s the same with technical diving. There are a lot of wonderful things in our underwater world. You may have to expend a little more energy and a few more hard-earned dollars to do them or to see them, but the results will definitely make it feel like solid accomplishment and one to be proud of. You may do things a bit different on a technical dive than you do on a recreational dive, or you may have your equipment configured in a subtly unique manner, but you know exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

So, that’s everything there is to say about technical diving…or is it? Did I just take you to the Andrea Doria at 250 feet to touch a piece of history? Did I take you back in a pristine cave to see a bit of aquatic nature that no other person has ever seen? Did I hold your light while you shot some unique video of a never-before-encountered creature? Or did I simply peak your interest to get YOU to go do it?

Technical diving and recreational diving…there’s a lot of similarities, aren’t there? It’s all about the diving.


Ron Carlo started diving over 30 years ago while living in Florida. He is an instructor-trainer with SDI/TDI training, as well as a regional manager for SDI/TDI, Dive Rite equipment, and several other leading scuba products. His favorite dive is always “the next one.”