• Tony

I am a horrible diver - confessions of a rebreather instructor



I just finished a lovely Christmas ‘staycation’ on the quaint island of Little Cayman. Little Cayman is known for its deep sea fishing, stellar scuba diving, and little else. I've been a rebreather diver since 2006, and in the 2,500 or so dives I've done since then, I've used nothing but closed-circuit equipment. In order to enjoy Little Cayman's underwater world, I was forced to dive a traditional tank for the first time in a long time. The boat crew was great, the diving site was amazing, but the diving itself - well, it sucked. That is because I am a horrible open-circuit diver.


I became a dive instructor in 2005 on a whim. I found myself at a crossroads in life, having recently moved to Fort Lauderdale with a few months before my next job began and decided to take the Divemaster course and complete my IDC at the now defunct ProDive instructor training center. After getting my newly-minted instructor card, my “real” full-time job began. For fun, and to supplement my income, I began working part-time for one of the many dive shops that litter South Florida’s coastline. Over the next 18 months, I taught a handful of open-water divers, worked as a Divemaster on one of the local boats, and conducted hundreds of professional dives - all while hiding my dirty little secret.


I am an air hog.


My first ever dive in Fort Lauderdale, on the wreck of the Ancient Mariner. 2004.

For some reason, I’ve always been a heavy breather underwater. Someone once compared my breathing rate to that of “a sexually aroused hippo.” I was always the one to turn the dive, and come back to the boat early. I’ve tried every bit of advice offered over the years (of which there is no shortage,) without luck. Sip the air, exhale slowly, pause between breaths, skip breathe - with the exception of freediving classes, (I draw the line there,) I’ve tried it all. Lesson 1 in your open-water course is to ‘breathe normally’ but the truth is anyone who has good air consumption underwater, does anything but breathe normally.


I’m in good shape - I’ve run marathons. I’m not overweight (sort of.) I don’t smoke or have asthma. Dr. Neal Pollock once told me that some people are just more sensitive to CO2 than others. I guess this is me.


Now my atrocious air consumption rate is something I had concealed from my students and co-workers by using a very large tank - usually an overfilled Worthington HP-130. Owning your own tanks is the norm in South Florida diving, so the only person who really knew my secret was my friend Ricky who filled them. He was someone I could easily keep quiet by buying him cheap beer after work. My students had no idea I was carrying almost twice the breathing gas they were, and the rest of my co-workers - well they wouldn’t have noticed if I walked into the shop naked with my hair on fire.


Despite my love for the underwater world, diving for me really was an arduous task. Even with a huge supply of air to breathe, I’d still be trying to ration my breaths. But the biggest issue for me was the damn buoyancy. I’d breathe in, and go up. I’d breath out, and go down. I've also been told I have a large tidal volume, and deep breaths in and out would result in massive buoyancy changes for me. No matter how I controlled my breathing, periodically I’d feel like I was suffocating and need to take a big breath in and out. The result was I'd frustratingly swing wildly up and then down in the water column.


I get that most of you are reading this confused, scratching your head, or maybe even laughing at me. Buoyancy is supposed to be easy for an open-circuit diver for its ability to fine tune using breath control. That’s fine that you laugh, I’ve long grown comfortable with being the oddball. The takeaway here was that the actual act of diving for me was quite miserable. It was something I put up with to feel weightless, and see the underwater world. And then I discovered rebreather diving.


It was 2006, and I had moved - quite willingly, to a non-diving management roll for a dive shop that specialized in high volume tank filling, as well as online dive gear sales - Fill Express. Fill Express was described as "if Tim the Tool Man Taylor bought a dive shop.” It was an amazing place, featuring 4 compressors, 4 Masterline boosters, miles of stainless steel tubing, and over 300 bank bottles. Fill Express had over 15 different pre-blends of nitrox and trimix on tap, and this shop would later evolve into the world-famous Dive Gear Express. The owner, Mark, had a rebreather on display that caught my eye from the first moment I walked in the front door. It was a Dive Rite Optima, one of the early units created by Lamar Hires for cave exploration. Mark was an early adopter of the technology and was one of the first instructors on the Optima. Mark was kind enough to let me sit in on his rebreather class lectures, and let me read every bit of rebreather literature he had lying around.


By the summer of 2006, I had completed my IANTD open-circuit trimix class. I had finished a dive on the amazing site known as the RBJ, which is short for Ronald B Johnson. This ship was sunk intentionally as an attraction for fishermen and divers. In a most fortunate and amazing accident, the RBJ sank directly on top of another wreck called the Corey N Chris. The two wrecks together sit in about 270 feet, and form a massive cross. The pinnacle of this dive is swimming under the hull of the RBJ, where she sits perched on top of the Corey N Chris.


The wrecks of the Ronald B Johnson and Corey N Chris. Image from Art2Media.

After completing my second dive on this incredible wreck, I was climbing the boat ladder (barely) with double HP130’s, and 3 deco bottles - over 220 lbs of gear. As I fell back into my station, I groaned, thinking of not only the massive weight I was hauling, but the massive cost in helium I had just paid - something on the order of $300. My boss, Mark, who was also on the dive, smugly pointed out that his dive had cost about $8 in helium.


The next morning, I was in Mark’s office asking “How can I get on a rebreather?” There were hundreds of wrecks to explore in the Pompano area, and my knees, back and wallet were not up for any more doubles diving. I had some money saved up for the down payment of a home. In 2006 the US housing bubble hadn’t yet burst. South Florida real estate prices were out of control and I had succumbed to the idea that maybe buying a home wasn't in the cards for me. Perhaps this money would be better spent on happiness in the form of a new rebreather. Mark went to bat for me. As an employee, he offered to train me for free. He even let me do it on company time. He went to Lamar Hires, the owner of Dive Rite and made a case for me to get a keyman deal on a new Optima. To my surprise Lamar agreed and sold me a brand new unit at an amazing price. Mark even offered to front the money and let me pay it off over 6 months so I didn’t have to tap into my savings. Although for the next 6 months I ate mostly ramen noodles, I never touched my savings, and after the housing crash was able to buy my first house. Win!


Mid to late 2000's, Optimas were all the rage in South Florida. From left to right, Lee Waggener, Mark Derrick, Adrian Soler, Howard Packer, myself, Ricky Lebaron, Jeff Addis, Don Six.

Seconds after submerging my head on the first pool dive, I was hooked. Despite the increased complexity and added attention I had to pay to the rebreather, the benefits clearly outweighed the risks. I could breathe as much as I wanted and not worry about running out of air. My buoyancy was spot on regardless of how deep I inhaled or exhaled. The air I was breathing was warm and humid. It was quiet. I felt like I was made to dive a rebreather. It was wonderful. And from that moment on, I never dived anything but a rebreather again. I sold all of my open-circuit gear. If I couldn’t travel somewhere and dive my rebreather, I wasn’t interested in going. I found myself making frequent trips to areas I knew that could support me - North Florida’s Cave Country, Tulum Mexico, The Bahamas, and Grand Cayman.

Setting up my Optima rebreather in the back of Fill Express, while being supervised by the famous Don Six.
A group of South Florida rebreather divers on the wreck of the Tracy. After this photo, we became known as "The kneeling and standing on the reef dive club." It was 2008 and we were all still learning.... From left to right, Don Six, myself, Adrian Soler, Eric S, Howard Packer.

Which is how I found myself in May of 2016, getting off a plane with all of my worldly possessions in 4 suitcases, (3 of which had been mis-directed to Cuba,) to begin my new job with Divetech Grand Cayman. It’s a common misconception, due largely to our name I suppose, that all Divetech does is teach and support technical diving. Nothing could be farther from the truth - 98% of our business is recreational, open-circuit divers. At least half of these are brand new divers with little to no experience. Despite this, my employment agreement with Divetech’s new owner was that I could use my rebreather exclusively for all work-related diving. Even though I was still technically an open-circuit instructor, I would do nothing of the sort. It was really for the safety of everyone involved I explained, as I would likely be a complete disaster when it came to bubble blowing.


So aside from the occasional boat maintenance task, or 10-foot photography dive at Stingray City, I had not strapped a tank on my back for the better part of 14 years. Until Christmas of 2020 that is.


With Cayman’s borders firmly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my holiday travel options were precisely limited to Grand Cayman’s east end, and the sister islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. For a Christmas break, my significant other and I decided to take a trip to Little Cayman. Little Cayman is a tiny island of about 10 square miles, with a permanent population normally around 160 people. With the COVID crisis, that population had dropped to about 60. The only way to get there is via a tiny 19-passenger Havilland Twin Otter DCH-9. The airport building is about the size of my living room, with an airstrip that could easily be mistaken for a driveway. Little Cayman has one store, about the size of a corner bodega. There is nothing to do on Little Cayman but dive, eat, drink, and stare at the ocean, all of which sounded great to me. The downside though, was no rebreather support. If I was going to dive, it meant I would have to use my old nemesis of open-circuit. That shouldn't be that hard.... Right?


Wrong. I had assembled some open-circuit gear, putting together a reg set from my bailout regulators. I clearly screwed this up with 3 different leaks, requiring the assistance and spare parts from my eye rolling boat crew Bernie and Josh. The third time I humbly asked for pliers, Josh lamented “Boy you’re a real disaster today.”


Gearing up gave me a whole new appreciation of how rebreather try-dive participants and students feel the first time they strap the rebreather on. I was convinced I was forgetting something important. My pre-jump routine was totally messed up. Descending in the water, my muscle memory was completely off. Normally I use my counterlungs for buoyancy, and I found myself repeatedly reaching for a gas addition valve which wasn't there. I was so engrossed in trying to get myself squared away underwater, that I hadn't even noticed the Caribbean Reef Shark that had been circling our group. My dive guide Bernie pointed it out to me, no more than 10 feet away, with a quizzical look in his eye. (Bernie, not the shark.)


From regular bailout drills, I knew my exhaled bubbles would be loud. But on bailout drills, after a few moments I would go back on the silent loop. I forgot how annoying bubbles are. And not just the bubbles, the sound of gas flowing through the second stage is aggravatingly loud.


My buoyancy was complete crap. I'm used to breathing slowly and deeply - on open-circuit this is something I can't do without crashing into the reef, and I found myself fumbling along like a brand-new discover scuba participant.


However the worst for me was yet to come: the dry mouth. Holy crap, I'd forgotten about this. After 10 minutes I found my mouth and throat incredibly dry. 20 minutes into the dive, I was really uncomfortable. By the end of our 50 minute dive, I was ready to drink my own urine, Bear Grylls style.


My experience was uncomfortable enough that when I surfaced after my 2nd dive, I canceled my second day of diving, much to the dismay of my girlfriend. When I'm working, I'll put up with all sorts of misery, but when I'm paying to dive, I want it to be fun. Open-circuit is just not fun for me, and sitting on the oceanside patio with a fresh coffee and good book was far more enjoyable. My co-workers laugh at me for being open-circuit challenged and now you can too. I'm ok with this.


Or maybe come visit us and see how awesome closed-circuit is. Happy new year, and we hope to see you diving with us soon!

Far more relaxing than that bubble blowing stuff!