A thought experiment concerning “team bailout” when diving CCR in a cave…

LongO'THREE

First off: Can anyone explain the rationale behind “Team Bailout?”

Hang on… that needs to be rephrased.

Let’s start with this: Is it just me or is the concept of “Team Bailout” for CCR Cave Diving just bat-shit crazy?

Yea, that’s way closer to what I was thinking…

Ok, for those of you who may not be familiar with the team bailout concept, it suggests that a buddy team diving CCRs in a cave environment – you know, wet rocks, hard limestone overhead, perhaps an hour or more from the surface – that they carry sufficient bailout gas “…to get one team member back to fresh air from the point of furthest penetration.”

In certain circumstances, this approach may sufficiently protect team members from harm, but those circumstances should not include the category of diving the vast majority of us engage in.  I believe, a better, more satisfactory practice is for EACH diver to carry MORE gas than is required to get themselves back to fresh air from the point of furthest penetration.

The arguments I’ve heard against using this more conservative tactic is: 1) carrying multiple bailout cylinders is a pain; 2) the likelihood of more than one CCR failure among a team is too slight to consider; 3) calculations for the volume of gas required in a high-stress situation adhere to a well-defined formula corrected for all variables, and therefore it is possible to calculate with a degree of accuracy sufficient to be safe.

Experience is a better guide to best practice behavior than deductive logic, and I have limited experience in this area. So, perhaps my paranoia is unjustified; but here’s a scenario we might all give some thought to before our next cave dive.

Here goes:
Three CCR divers were in the back of a low-flow cave. Each carried an aluminum 40 filled to capacity, which lumped together was enough gas to get any one of them out of the cave and back to dry land. Even at double their normal consumption rate, this was the case. Their dive was well within the parameters of team bailout therefore.

At the worst possible time, Diver A’s CCR went belly up. He could not revive it in any way, and has to bailout. The team began its swim out. A little sooner than expected, but still more than one-third of the way out, Diver A’s bailout cylinder was empty, and he asked Diver B for her cylinder. She suddenly realized that by giving it up, she will have no contingency gas herself. The surface was still a good swim away. Very reluctantly, she handed over her bottle. Momentarily distracted by her thoughts, she floated to the cave’s ceiling and took a minute to recover, which held the team’s progress to the surface still further. Stress levels in all three team members was now peaking. None of them was comfortable.

They were in fact, more small failure, one additional glitch away from a total melt-down. A surprisingly short while later, Diver A – who had been thinking for the past several minutes, what would happen if he got a bottle with a dodgy regulator or had a free-flow, and whose respiration rate had understandably elevated – once again was down to seeds and stems. This time in his second bailout. He turned to Diver C. Diver C had been thinking about this hand-off for a while. He was VERY uncomfortable donating his gas… however, he did so. Several minutes later, the team arrived in the cavern area. Diver A had barely sufficient gas to conduct a safety stop, but did so. Just as the team left the overhead, his regulator began to breath very, very hard.

On shore, while shucking their gear, the group was uncharacteristically silent, each with their own thoughts. What do you think the outcome of this incident was:

  1. This group did not cave dive together ever again
  2. This group rethought their bailout strategy
  3. This group  continued to dive team bailout

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Mine Quest 2.0

Bell Island Mine 2.0

Winter in Newfoundland can be bleak and is most definitely cold, but this week, a group of volunteers and Bell Island Heritage Society staff ignored the weather and did a huge amount of setup work getting things ready for Mine Quest 2.0.

As well as building a platform/staging area for the exploration team to work from, during mid-February’s expedition, they carried several hundred kilos of materials more than 225 metres down a ten-degree incline from the surface to the water’s edge. Before the building commenced, using pickaxes and shovels to clear away loose rocks from the roof and walls of the mine shaft, then installed temporary lighting.

mineshaft

After the clean-up… the mine shaft we will be working from

Eventually, it’s hoped the mine on Bell Island will feature permanent infrastructure that will add dive adventure tourism at the historic site to the world-class wreck diving found just off the island’s coast. For the time-being, the hard work will help simplify, and aid the success of an effort to add the the two kilometers of passage explored and lined during the 2007 project I was lucky enough to be part of.

Over the next several weeks, and certainly during Expedition Week (February 13 – 20), I’ll try to keep you up-to-date on progress and exactly what’s planned.

 

In the meantime, hats off to Mark ( Magoo) McGowan, John ( Johnny O) Olivero, Nick Dawe, Kyle Morgan, Rick Stanley, Ron Reid, Teresita ( Teddy) McCarthy, Des McCarthy, and Tom Spracklin.

Thank you for your efforts folks.

 

For a comprehensive line-up of who will be working on the project, visit my friend and co-leader’s blog… Thanks Jill.

http://www.intotheplanet.com/newfoundland/

 

Flying after diving… what are the guidelines?

Here’s a somewhat common scenario… perhaps one you have experienced yourself; or thought about at least.

Anyhow, here it is. You and your buddy are on a dive vacation someplace that requires airline travel… bummer, right!? Pack light. Hope the TSA doesn’t break anything on your way out. Hope customs at the destination doesn’t fuss over anything on the way in.

However, all those issues aside, every other piece of the planning puzzle is falling into place just fine except for one small issue. The flight home is scheduled wheels-up at O-Dark-Hundred in the morning, and there is an opportunity to dive something really, really cool the previous afternoon… late in the afternoon. The question is: Can you do that dive without getting bent like a pretzel on the flight home less than 12 hours later?

The whole issue of Pre-flight Surface Interval (PFSI) is a contentious one. The old-school guidelines were wait 24 hours after diving before jumping on a commercial flight. But that recommendation has been revisited in more recent studies and the PFSI shortened; with suggestions that various other factors such as breathing nitrox, the length of safety stops, gas breathed during safety stops, and the duration and depth of dive, can all influence by just how much the PFSI can be shortened.

A quick straw-poll of my dive buddies tells me that the definitive answer is a moving target. There is little agreement.

What we can take as read is that flying after diving has a strong potential to apply extra decompression stress on a diver and increases their risks of decompression sickness. There seems to be a direct relationship between the risk dropping and the amount of time spent out of the water increases allowing excess inert gas to be eliminated normally and harmlessly through the lungs. Some trials have estimated the PFSI necessary for a low DCS risk (read acceptable number of incidents of DCS) after relatively long single or repetitive no-decompression dive profiles sits between 11 and 16 hours.

The PFSI for dives requiring staged decompression stops, was around 22 hours. At first blush then, a 24-hour break after diving would seem in most sport-diving cases to be very conservative. But then again, what worked in a dry chamber on a couple of hundred test subjects, may not apply to the average dive tourist coming home from a week in paradise where the diving was punctuated with rum, grilled fish and late-night romps on the beach. Equally, it also may not apply to an informed technical diver who pads her/his decompression stops with extra time, and breathes pure oxygen for long periods during that PFSI!

Well worth the download and reading time is: The Influence of bottom time on preflight surface intervals before flying after diving, published by Undersea Hyperb Med. And authored by Vann RD, Pollock NW, Freiberger JJ, Natoli MJ, DeNoble PJ, Pieper CF. (2007). It is available from the ultimate diver’s research tool: http://archive.rubicon-foundation.org/xmlui/handle/123456789/7343.

The study’s conclusion suggests “that bottom time, repetitive diving, and a decompression stop may significantly influence the pre-flight surface intervals required for low DCS risk. Moreover, it highlighted the need for additional human trials to resolve the effects of exercise and immersion on DCS risk during flying after diving. Such information might assist in the calibration of dry, resting trials for the effects of immersion and exercise which would be useful as dry, resting trials are less expensive and faster to conduct because more subjects can be exposed per chamber dive. This might be of aid for improving the accuracy of existing flying after diving guidelines.”

Significant in that conclusion is the call for additional human trials to resolve the effects of exercise and immersion on DCS risk when flying after diving.

I volunteer.

However, I would be far from an average test subject since something seems to put me outside the bell-curve for DCS risk. For example, my experience with PFSI is far from what’s generally acceptable and my practices at times have been foolhardy. Furthermore, I fall outside the age category that most studies could ethically accept in any trial… but all that aside, I would love to be a guinea pig.

 

Cardiac Stress Testing and technical diving

Around this time every year, most of us hang up a new calendar, and polish up the New Year’s Resolutions. Like me, you probably have a few left over from last January 1. If you do, chances are good that one revolves around “getting fitter,” “getting in better shape,” or “working off all that Christmas pudding.” If that is the case, and you’re a diver, I’d like to suggest adding a slightly different twist for 2012.

During a few recent and very informal discussions with other tech instructors, one of the highest-ranking concerns has been the number of divers – particularly tech and rebreather divers – who have died of heart-related problems either while diving or soon after diving.

There are all kinds of issues that may have had an influence on incidents in the past, but the collective concern was how to help make 2012 a “better year” for the dive community.

One idea floated out was to ask students* to undergo a cardiac stress test as part of the list of prerequisites that need to be met before enrolling in advanced technical programs, such as CCR, trimix and advanced wreck and cave.

A cardiac stress test stimulates the heart – either by exercise or with intravenous pharmacological stimulation – and connecting the testee to an ECG. The American Heart Association recommends this kind of testing for patients with medium risk of coronary heart disease. This includes folks with personal risk factors such as smoking, a family history of coronary artery stenosis, people with hypertension, and folks dealing with diabetes and high cholesterol.

Who knows if it would make much of a difference, but what harm would it do? I’m old and get one for free every year through my insurance (BONUS!), and there is a level of comfort knowing that there are no serious issues with the old ticker.

I believe the cost of a cardiac stress test works out to about the same as the charter fees and fill costs for an open-circuit deep wreck dive. Worth the dough? I think so and certainly worth adding to that list of resolutions… Things to do in 2012!

* Students who have risk factors, or those 45 years and older.

Teaching an old(ish) dog, new tricks

A really good friend of mine who runs a charter boat out of Florida has a wonderful phrase to describe divers  who are really set in their ways and somewhat complacent when it comes to dive prep. You may have seen them on a dive boat near you. They always dive exactly the same gear package, right down to the back-up lights on their shoulder harness, double cylinders, a stage bottle, canister light and a full complement of reels, spools, and sundry accessories; including a scooter.  Now he is first to admit there’s nothing inherently wrong-headed about that, except they dress the same regardless of whether the day’s target is a 150 foot dive on a brand-new wreck or a 25 foot bimble in a local quarry.

He calls them One-Dimensional Divers.

“I think they are so blinkered and taken with the self-importance of being a technical diver,” he says. “They forget to stop, smell the roses, and kick back!” He says that the real sign of a one-dimensional diver is that they can turn the simplest of dives into a major undertaking. “And where is the fun it that?” he asks.

And after 18 years of lugging a full North Florida Cave Diver’s rig around the country, and using it on even the most straight-forward dives, I felt I’d fallen into the one-dimensional mode myself. I told my buddy things had to change; and he offered the perfect solution. “Buy a closed-circuit rebreather.”

Working for a training agency gives an old guy like me a slightly off-kilter prospective on dive gear, dive travel, and the whole business of diver education. For example I figured I knew quite a bit about CCRs (closed-circuit rebreathers) because I have an instructor rating on a SCR (Semi-Closed Rebreather), have proofed rebreather manuals, and have logged lots of hours on several different CCR units doing everything from try-dives to bona-fide courses.

How wrong I was.

The seed change was actually getting a unit of my very own to look after. Not a loner, not one that a manufacturer suggested I take a look at, but one that I had to take apart, clean, keep spiders from visiting, change its do-dads from time to time, reassemble, and learn to dive from ground zero with the express goal of getting comfortable enough on it to drag it halfway around the world to dive the wrecks of Truk Lagoon.

To be blunt, it was one of the best things that has happened to me and my diving in a long while; and it certainly has also been among the most instructive.

The reasons for this are varied and many faceted but let’s keep things brief and simple and start with the whole one-dimensional / complacency thing. No matter how hard one works at keeping focused and realistic about skills, planning, only taking into the water what’s needed on the dive, and doing things to the letter, human nature has a wonderful way of turning short-cuts into “best practice.”

On open-circuit dives, it is very easy for an experienced diver to become one-dimensional. So much so that at times, dive plans for commonly done personal dives – ones that fall into the “I have done this a thousand times before” category – became marginally adequate at best. As little as it turns out I know about CCRs, I did know enough to understand that the one-dimensional / complacent approach will quickly get you in a very deep pile of trouble.

Occasionally doing something totally outside the norm, helps adjust one’s attitude. Training on and then diving a piece of kit that resembles nothing you are used to diving, definitely turns a few knobs.

As you know, a rebreather recycles exhaled gas, scrubs out the carbon dioxide, squirts a little oxygen back into the mix to compensate for the stuff used by the diver’s metabolism, and is designed to keep the process going for hours at a time. It also mixes gas so the diver breathes “best mix” regardless of depth and it does all this in a compact package (read this to mean, less weight than a set of doubles!).

The other side of the coin turns up the nasty little vagaries attached to rebreather diving, and understanding and working around these is the central theme of a rebreather class.

In short, a CCR can deliver too much oxygen one minute and not enough the next; both harbingers of a bad day at the office for any diver. The little chemistry set that extracts carbon dioxide from the breathing gas can suddenly stop working for all sorts of reasons; most attributable to user error, and again bad news all round. The unit can leak a little making breathing an awful chore, or it can leak a lot, flood and cease working at all; both of which are good reasons to bailout and go home with one’s tail between one’s legs.

All this of course comes as a real eye-opener to the experienced open-circuit diver who has been diving the same kit configuration since Reagan was in the White House.

My other eye was opened by our CCR instructor, a good friend who for that reason alone cut me and my buddies zero slack during the whole week we worked with him to earn our certs on the Pelagian manual CCR we had opted to buy.  He pushed us relentlessly and continuously picked up on any fuzzy logic we fell into using. He watched us with the eyes of a caffeine-crazed hawk as we prepared our units for our underwater escapades; and once in the water we were on a very short leash and ANY moment of distraction or deviation from our plan resulted in yet another simulated failure and drilled contingency action. In short, he treated us like the rank novices we were and took no account of the combined 30 or so years of technical diving experience, and technical instructing we had between us.

Actually, that’s a lie. He did make a special mention of all those open circuit dives we had made. And that was what brought things into focus. “You guys,” he told us, “are swimming in dangerous waters.” He explained that we had to understand and believe that we were right back to where we were when we first started diving open-circuit scuba. We had to plan and dive beginner dives again and not be tempted to think that it was ok to dive to 60 or 70 metres because we’d done that on open-circuit a thousand times.

“It doesn’t matter much,” he said, “how many dives you have or where you’ve been on open-circuit. That was the stone-age and is all in your past. You are starting with a clean slate now, and it’s important you learn to paddle around in the shallow-end of the pool before you attempt to swim the English Channel!” (He’s a Brit.)

Now here is the cool part. As soon as he let us loose with cards that said we were certified to dive without adult supervision, we starting to rack up the hours on the type of dives we had not done for years.

We went back to shallow wrecks we had ignored for more than a decade and a half. We planned weekends of multiple two-hour dives in sheltered little spots we would have swum right by if we had been diving open circuit. We relearned the simple pleasure of gradually working around a very much narrower comfort zone and competence level. We practiced bail-outs, we obsessed, we had great fun, and in the final analysis, we changed back to being a little more multi-dimensional in our dive planning and dive execution. I think it’s fair to say that becoming a weekend CCR diver, improved my OC skills.

Oh, and Truk Lagoon. Well, a story for another day, but we worked hard to build our competence and it paid off. What incredible fun to dive a CCR in that environment, even if we did opt to give some of the deeper wrecks a miss… you see, as far as the CCRs are concerned, we’ve only been diving a year.

Some thoughts about cave training…

First off, I need to declare a bit of a conflict here: Since I am a tech instructor and more importantly work for a training agency (and we do have cave diving courses on the menu), my take on certain aspects of “diver education” are bound to be biased. But all that taken into account, the primary message goes something like: If you want to dive caves, get trained. Simples, right?

In my opinion, cave diving is the oldest and purest form of technical diving. A whole lifetime ago, when I lived in England, I was a dry caver and heard about a small group of nut-bar pioneers who were making pushes through sumps in the Mendip Hills on scuba. At about the same time in the USA, a similarly labeled group of local lads where exploring the network of caves that honeycomb Florida’s North-western quadrant from Tallahassee in the north, south to Hernando County. These folks wrote the rules for extreme diving and 30 years later many of the techniques and kit modifications that they learned by trial and error, have become the gold standard for tech divers around the world.

One of the early gifts from cave diving to the rest of the tech diving community is accident analysis and specifically a shortlist of things to help keep divers safe.

  1. Seek proper (appropriate) training
  2. Maintain a continuous guideline to the surface (safety)
  3. Work within proper gas management guidelines
  4. Observe depth limitations
  5. Use appropriate, well-maintained kit

Over the years, those five points, whose authorship is attributed to the late explorer Sheck Exley, have been refined and developed to take changing attitudes and different environments into account.

Regardless, these guidelines remain a pretty good first step in the process of risk management, and they form the basic structure for building a modern technical diving course.

In case anyone is interested and for the record, the current interpretation of Risk Management is the identification, classification, avoidance and mitigation of risk with regards: Attitude, Knowledge, Training, Gas Supply, Gas Mix, Exposure (the combination of Decompression and Depth), Equipment, and Operations. These are expanded a little from that original list but certainly owe a lot to it.

Anyway, in North America, the oldest technical agencies are the two originally formed to teach cave diving to local divers. The NSS-CDS (National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section) and the NACD (National Association for Cave Diving) have been offering structured overhead courses to punters for over a generation. They are both based in North Florida. They both have instructors operating in Mexico (another hot-spot for cave diving), and the Caribbean, and so by default essentially focus operations on North America. The global situation involves some other agencies such as IANTD, NAUI, TDI, CMAS et al. And today, cave training is available through lots of channels.

Bottom line, there is no excuse NOT to take training if you are interested in diving caves.

There seems to be a sort of consensus among the major agencies and the process of earning a full cave diving certification takes about eight days and is broken into three or four steps: Cavern, Intro, Apprentice, Full. There are “post grad” programs that teach more advanced techniques like scootering and diving with stage bottles, sidemount diving and so on but the vast majority of certifications fall into those first four categories.

Actual standards and outlines vary a bit from agency to agency but the outline from NSS-CDS runs like this:

Cavern Diver As originally conceived, the Cavern Diver course was a recreational diving course, taught to recreational divers using basic recreational diving equipment. It was assumed most participants had little interest in penetrating caves beyond sight of the entrance. Today the need for that sort of a program has diminished. With readily available cavern diving sites in north Florida, such as Ginnie Spring and Blue Grotto, and the system of guided cenote tours in Mexico, recreational divers don’t necessarily need to take a complete, two-day course in order to enjoy a safe cavern experience. What is more common now is to use the Cavern Diver program as the first step in the complete eight-day Cave Diver curriculum.

It is where we introduce students to basic cave diving skills, such as equipment configuration, guideline and reel use, and specialized buoyancy control, body position and propulsion techniques. It is also a way to screen students to make sure they possess the necessary abilities before allowing them in the fragile cave environment.

Basic / Intro Cave Diver This is where students begin making actual cave dives — under some fairly strict limitations. By limiting penetration gas to roughly 40 cubic feet, avoiding decompression and prohibiting any sort of jumps, gaps or complex navigation, we allow students to focus on things like basic dive planning, communication and emergency skills. Students who want to gain limited cave diving experience on their own, at the completion of this program, may do so — provided they understand that the cave community will be keeping them on a fairly short leash.

Apprentice Cave Diver By the time students complete the Apprentice level, we will have covered most or all of the academic knowledge and emergency skills required for full Cave Diver certification. Students may receive a limited introduction to decompression diving procedures, as they pertain to cave diving, and will make some simple explorations off the main line. It is at this point that students are ready to gain some more realistic cave diving experience on their own, if desired. Nevertheless, they are expected to keep all dives well within the limitations of their overall experience.

(Full) Cave Diver The final step in the process, the focus here is on gaining additional practice of all fundamental and emergency skills, under more challenging conditions. Students are expected to demonstrate their readiness to be full-fledged members of the cave diving community.

Although a total of 16 training dives is required to reach this point, it is not unusual for students to have made many more practice dives on their own before full Cave Diver certification.” One of the first questions most divers have about cave training is what will I get out of it?”

ANY technical training is designed to challenge participants and to show them exactly where the borders of their comfort zone are. This is very true of a cavern or cave course. Other side-effects would be greatly improved basic skills; for example, progress in a diver’s mastery of buoyancy and trim, situational awareness and emotional control are big indicators for an instructor that someone is “getting it.”

AND of course, a cavern/cave class will take you to places that “normal” folks just don’t get to.

The next pieces of the puzzle of course are to decide where to take training and with whom.

Where is easy: Train where you are going to do the majority of your diving. Cave diving in the Yucatan is a whole order of magnitude different to cave diving in Ontario or Wisconsin. France is different to Brazil. North Florida is not the same as Australia. They all have their moments.

If asked, the default location that gets my thumbs-up is always North Florida. There are a couple of reasons. First would be the variety of caves. There are little tiny ones that you have to crawl through pushing tanks ahead of you; and there are huge passages that could swallow a hockey arena (whoops, Canadian reference. Sorry).

The second reason to train in North Florida is the quality of instruction. There used to be about three cave instructors I’d recommend but that list has grown to about 30. Some are Brits who fly in just to teach a class; one is Italian; one German; most are Yanks and Canadian; and a couple are even real Floridians.

One thing that is a constant challenge is weeding out the wanna-be instructors from the real thing. Rather than publishing a list of names and forgetting someone, here are eight questions you can ask.

1. How long have you been cave diving and how many cave dives do you make for yourself outside of the training programs you teach?

2. Do you teach full-time or part-time?

3. What other programs do you teach besides cavern and cave?

4. What kit configuration do you use and teach your students to use and why?

5. Can you give me a typical course schedule including dive sites and dive profiles

6. What specific changes do you look for in students before you sign off on their certs?

7. How many students did you fail last month, and how many did you pass?

8. What should be my primary take away from your course?

Cave diving is what I do for fun and relaxation with a handful of special mates, when I want to get away from the dive industry. Ironic maybe but cave diving feels more comfortable and secure than any other type of diving… which is probably why I have managed to resist the temptation to teach it!

When someone asks which cave I like the best, there’s really no answer. I like them all. There are certainly some that I will go out of my way to dive.

When I got word that the Eagles Nest — a deep and massive cave system off in the woods near Florida’s Gulf Coast — was being shut down for an indefinite period about 12 or 13 years ago, I literally left a birthday party early (mine) drove to the airport in Toronto and flew down to Gainesville and a mate waiting for me with a set of twins pumped full of trimix and three decompression cylinders. Next evening, I flew home. The Nest reopened years ago and I occasionally go back, but of the deep caves in that area, strange to say, it is not my favorite. Diepolder II gets that vote.

The entrance to # II is a small pond in the middle of a Boy Scouts of America Sand Hill camp ground just off Highway 50. At the bottom of the pond and its pale blue water is a fissure in the limestone that is wide enough for a diver in back-mounted twins to drop down (head-first) starting at about 15 metres to around 55. At the bottom, the cave opens up into a gallery which on the downstream side is about 40 metres from floor to ceiling with depths of 100 metres or more. Really a very cool dive.

Jackson Blue is another real favorite.

Its entrance is directly below a diving board at the business end of Merritt’s Mill Pond in Jackson Blue Springs Park, which is a few kilometers from Marianna up near the Florida / Alabama border. Yep, really the entrance is directly under the concrete platform that houses the dive board.

This cave is not deep — the deepest part of the main passage is about 30 metres — but it is long — about 3 kilometers at last count — and has plenty of little nooks and crannies to explore. JB is probably best known as a scooter cave. Lots of visitors fly through the first five to six hundred metres with the throttle wide open.

That first section of the cave features a passage that is wide, smooth and straight; perfect for flying in formation and a great spot to practice handling a scooter. The next section — probably from the Hall of the Mountain King on to the Banana Room or Stratosphere — seems to have the major pulling power to bring divers to this cave; however, last November a buddy and I spent a total of about seven hours on CCR playing around in the first couple hundred metres of the cave and had an absolute blast. I guess the object lesson is not to overlook the familiar when rating caves. On that score, JB is a real winner.

Florida’s caves are not decorated with Speleothems — no pretty flow-stones or drapery, no soda-straws, stalactites or stalagmites. To see these, one needs to venture a little south east to the Caribbean or west to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula or a long way south to Brazil.

The easiest decorated caves to get to, at least from my home a little north of Toronto, are in the Bahamas, and if pressed, this might be the one spot I would choose to go to for excellent cave diving year round above all others.

If you are making a list, Abaco Blue Hole, Dan’s Cave and Owls Hole are places I would like to get back to, tomorrow if possible. Send money to…

OK, so those are a few of my favorites, how about yours?

Dive Report: Truk Lagoon, February 2010

Right up front let’s establish the parameters. One of the major reasons for Erik, Dave and I to get trained on and build experience on the Pelagian DCCCR was this trip. We wanted a simple, manual unit that could pack up in a small dive bag and be used almost anywhere in the world. The Truk trip was to be the acid test.

Pelagian in Truk LagoonAs with any long-distance dive trip offering hope of a successful conclusion, this one was planned well ahead. A tactic made more necessary since Odyssey – our 40 metre live-aboard – books dedicated group charters two to three years in advance. Frankly, time dragged for a while, but then the last six months somehow disappeared in a wild flash of various activities; some even connected to the trip.

What I mean to say is, despite of all the planning and worrying and preparations, this one kind of crept up and surprised us.

One bonus of having had a long lead time was that all the vagaries of diving CCR were worked through almost a year before our departure date. I’d met with Cliff Horton (the booking guy) at BTS the March before. I ordered the same scrubber material we dived at home, and found out what tanks would be available to us.

Although promoted as CCR-friendly, our group was mixed about 50-50 between OC and CCR and the only herding-cats-exercise was trying to coordinate everyone’s demands for tanks and gas mixes. This chore dragged on somewhat and in the final weeks I determined it better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission; that is, I ignored some of the less critical demands. However, kept front and center was the requirement for everyone, OC and CCR, to have something appropriate to breathe first thing on our first day. Other needs could be worked out after that. Also important was to make life easy as possible for the crew. It made sense that if the process of getting things ready for us could be streamlined, we would store up brownie points to trade for favors later.

Pelagian DCCCR in Truk LagoonYou should know that getting to Chuuk International Airport is a logistical exercise worthy of a TV reality show. Last minute changes also created challenges. My personal saga began early morning on Thursday in West Palm Beach, Florida instead of from my home airport in Toronto; Erik and Dave got an early morning call ON departure day telling them their flight from Rochester to Newark to hook up with their connection to Honolulu was canceled; they traveled on a different airline to Hawaii via Chicago.

However, things somehow worked out and instead of meeting in the President’s Club in Newark, we met up in the lobby of the Ohana Honolulu Airport Hotel to enjoy an eight-hour layover. Two things the traveler should know about the Ohana Airport Hotel:

  1. Do not eat the chicken caesar salad. It takes like cardboard dipped in printer’s ink sprinkled with budgie shit. And I am being diplomatic here.
  2. The staff are aware of the kitchen’s short-comings and at mealtimes are running scared and hard to find

In 1969, Jacques Cousteau and his team of happy pirate scientists and explorers dropped anchor in Truk Lagoon. It’s not clear if JC was the first to mount a dedicated expedition but close on the heels of the broadcast of his 1971 television documentary about the lagoon, its abundance of wrecks, and the history of Operation Hailstone, the place became a scuba diving paradise.

Cousteau had it easy though. I wonder how the viewing public would have taken to the notion of visiting Truk Lagoon if his original movie had been honest about the boredom of a half-day spent island hopping across the Pacific from Oahu / Honolulu to Weno / Chuuk with stops at Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, and Pohnpei; each complete with a security inspection of the plane’s cabin. This phase of the journey reminded me of an episode of the Twilight Zone where the passengers are in purgatory but do not realize they have snuffed it. On a positive note, we had exit row seats, plenty of Cliff Bars and at least there were no crates of chickens in the cabin.

Pelagian DCCCR in Truk LagoonWe arrived in Chuuk mid-afternoon Saturday with all our bags but slightly disoriented. I would like to have blamed alcohol or drugs, but the culprit was the International Dateline. Well known, but poorly publicized in the travel guides; any journey that crosses more than a dozen time zones and incorporates rolling forward the date on your wristwatch magically flushes the human brain with the hormonal equivalent of Drano®

One other snippet of information travelers to this part of the world need to understand; this is the third world. Nothing you will see travelling through the countryside between the airport and your hotel remotely resembles a paved highway, roadside restaurant, CVS pharmacy, Winn Dixie, or Starbucks. Chuuk is uncomfortably poor. There is no veneer of gentility or quaintness hiding that poverty from the sensibilities of western tourists. There is no local tourist association or board of trade covering up the patina of rust and ruin with a lick of colorful house paint. Shanties line the potholed mud road. Collections of abandoned motor cars and pickup trucks punctuate stands of banana trees and flowering shrubs. Ugliness and graffiti dots walls and doorways. The island of Weno – the main island and Odyssey’s home port – has nothing in the way of tourist infrastructure outside of a couple of hotels. It seems that apart from wreck diving, the island offers nothing to pull tourists from passing planes and boats. The foreigners one does see are either wreck divers or missionaries; and there is little to distinguish one from the other except the messages on their T-shirts and the over-sized bling around the Christians’ necks.

Our “hotel shuttle” dropped us and our bags at Blue Lagoon Resort and our rooms were dry and cool, faced the ocean, and did not have restricted leg room. First order was a shower and a whole can of soda.

We were not scheduled to board Odyssey until 17:00 on Sunday so we had slightly longer than 24 hours to relax and acclimate and sightsee. The sightseeing was completed before supper and so we were able to spend a day lying around, checking TSA had not fiddled with our rebreathers too much, and sorting out wet from dry bag articles before boarding our home for the next week.

A quick word about rebreathers and airport security. Film-maker, explorer and CCR guru, Jill Heinerth, came up with the idea of labeling dive gear, especially rebreathers, with a note explaining the various suspicious bits and pieces in a manner that makes sense to the average TSA operative. I created a version of Jill’s template for our group. It featured TDI and NOAA logos, a breakdown of CCR components including the head and “gas” sensors (NEVER mention oxygen to anyone in the security industry), and the statement that the life-support system it describes offers no threat.

Throwing one of these notes into a dive bag is a great proactive move for anyone travelling with a ‘breather. Prior to our Truk trip, I had a conversation with the Canadian version of a TSA team leader while carrying the scrubber head of a Pelagian CCR through security at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. He read the official looking document, asked me if I worked for National Geographic and walked me through the screening area with a thank you, have a nice day.

Following a very laid-back day as guests at Blue Lagoon, and right on schedule, Odyssey’s tender picked up our baggage, and its skiff picked up the 11 of us and delivered us to the boat at anchor in the lagoon about 300 metres off shore.

The deal with our charter was its billing as a “Tech Week” the major difference between this and a non-tech week was that for us, nitrox fills and surface-supplied oxygen (fed to a bunch of second stages hanging off a solid deco bar under the transom at about 4 metres) would be free. Tech week also focused on a selection of dive sites in the 35 to 60 metre range.

What was the same and a constant on Odyssey charters was the cleanliness and size of the state rooms (flat-screen TVs and DVD players in each room is a nice touch) the level of service and hands-on help (high and appropriate), the quality food (most of us gained weight), and of course, the visual appeal and historic significance of the diving itself.

First impressions of the handful of our group who had not dived off Odyssey before was, Wow! This was closely followed by supper.

The majority of the wrecks in Truk are lined up in formation around the Dublon, Eten, Fefan and Uman Islands. The Fourth Fleet anchorage was just on the western side of Dublon and the repair anchorage to its east. There are many dive sites there. The wrecks on our agenda included: the Nippo, Hoki, Rio de Janeiro, Amagasan, Shotan, Fujisan, Shinkoku, San Francisco, Heian, Kensho, Nagano, and a couple more deepish ones that Dave, Erik and I did not dive and I did not take note of.

The pool opened immediately after a post breakfast dive briefing early on Monday. Another thing about tech week was that we punters were free to dive as we chose with the only restriction to be back for lunchtime. We took full advantage of this.

The water in Truk is warm (28 degrees by my bottom timers) and we had visibility that ranged from a few metres to about 30. We experienced little or no current and overall conditions were mild, except…

The trade winds blow in February and we were faced with “big seas” on several days. However, big seas in Truk Lagoon are manageable; especially when one dives off a big boat. The most daunting thing is the Odyssey’s tendency to put her head into the weather and shake her tail like a cat watching a bird feeder. This increases the task-loading of anyone hanging out at the deco bar to off-gas; and this was certainly a factor in our dive planning. In short, we planned to use the deco bar and the gas it offered only as part of a bailout plan – a contingency that did not arise for any of us. We carried jon-lines and finished our decompression either close to the mooring line or on the shallowest part of the wreck. When those obligations were finished, we swam to one of the stern ladders and grabbed on.

Pelagian DCCCR in Truk LagoonWe three Pelagian divers dove as a team. We had Franck and France (inspo divers) with us for some dives but not all, and sometimes we started out with OC divers but our plan on the shallower sites was to pull one long dive rather than do two shorter ones; and that meant OC divers did not have the gas to stay with us for two hours or more of bottom time.

Odyssey does not offer trimix, so we dived air diluent and oxygen in 4 litre (30 cubic foot) cylinders with an 80 cubic foot aluminum cylinder of ENA30 as a side-mounted bailout.

My comfort with CNS toxicity, specifically 24-hour or daily CNS limits would not cover the space between absolute zero and the freezing point of helium, therefore on deeper dives, we were severely restricted by the inability to run an oxygen set-point during bottom times lower than 1.3 to 1.35 bar. This caused some issues with our planning later in the week and we either passed on deeper dives or pulled OC-type bottom times.

For the record, 24-hour CNS limits are among a handful of issues that seem to have passed the tech community by. Bill Hamilton, who wrote the book on the topic, advises divers to be particularly mindful of and conservative with 24-hour limits. Therefore if the 24 hour limit of a 1.1 set-point was 270 minutes (which it was and still is) we were careful to plan our running exposure over the whole week of diving well within that limit.

OK, the units themselves performed like troopers. We took three units halfway around the world and had precisely zero problems. No cell issues, no battery problems, no software to kick up a fuss, nothing broken or misplaced, and no lost time fiddling with distractions. Score a huge positive mark.

Andy Fritz’s design allowing for the Pelagian to use any sized bottle without the need to buy a special frame or to make any adjustments – other than the cam straps – is a brilliant innovation for a travel CCR. The fact that we did not need to carry bottles with us, and that the boat could provide us with a bottles that held enough oxygen and dil to last for several dives, cut our prep time considerably. On a live-aboard offering several dives a day, this is a very nice bonus, so score another big positive point.

The unit’s compact profile and lightness – a real boon for airline travel – also translates into comfort in the water and stability while moving around on deck and on the dive platform. This trip was the first time for any of us to dive the unit in a wetsuit and of course, compact and light really shine when all you have on is booties, fins a mask and a 3 mm suit and hooded vest.

Erik and I use a HOG single-tank 34 pound lift wing. This configuration with a steel backplate and 2 kilos of lead balance weight provided enough lift with a single aluminum stage; but I would suggest more lift to carry additional bottles safely.

The dives themselves were spectacular. The wrecks are littered with the detritus of war; the holds filled with fighter aircraft, tanks, bulldozers, railroad cars, motorcycles, torpedoes, mines, bombs, boxes of munitions, radios, spare parts, and god only knows what else. Hulls, decks and superstructures are coated with sponges, corals, and invertebrates. Tropical fish, turtles, rays, sharks and jelly fish completed the picture. My logbook contains a fair number of expletives, all of a very positive nature.

I have dived in Truk before on open circuit, and it too was spectacular. It also presented less logistical challenges. No matter how you cut it, lugging a rebreather, even one as portable as the Pelagian, across 15 time zones had better have a payoff that makes up for the effort.

In my opinion, it did. Dave, Erik and I made dives that would have been impossible on OC. Always mindful of the limits of our bailout and experience, we pulled nothing epic, but a two and a half hour bimble at 35 metres would simply be impractical wearing doubles. We explored engine rooms for 40 – 50 minutes at a time. We went places where exhalation bubbles would have trashed the visibility in minutes, but exited without leaving a trace of silt. We were warm. Our dives were peaceful, and our decompression short. We left the water feeling great and had to invest little time setting up, refilling, disinfecting and rinsing our rebreathers.

I will return to Truk and so will the Pelagian. It will also be my companion on lots of other adventures because this trip underscored two things:

  1. diving CCR on a multi-day trip offers huge benefits
  2. the Pelagian is a very practical solution to travelling with a CCR

All photos are copyright Bill Downey

For information about Odyssey, visit http://www.trukodyssey.com/