This week, we were joined by Ismail from Jakarta, who specifically travelled to our Bunaken resort to get started on the route to technical diving. So far, so normal. Asked about his diving experience to date, Ismail said he had completed just under 30 dives, prompting the question what time is the right time for a diver to start technical diving training.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, unfortunately. Despite standardised diver training, skill level and ability vary greatly among certified divers, whether they have 20 or 200 dives. Despite this, the diving industry from liveaboard operators to training agencies uses dive numbers as prerequisites for diving certain dive sites or joining selected courses.
Looking at entry-level courses, divers can join TDI’s Intro to Tech with as little as 25 dives, and it’s not wrong. On land, Intro to Tech focuses – among other subjects – on the differences between technical diving and sport diving, the higher degree of planning required and introduces the student to potential technical diving activities including cave diving and wreck penetration. And why wouldn’t we want to excite new divers about these possibilities? After all, it gives divers something to aim for and work towards. Nothing wrong with setting your sights high!
In the water, the course focuses on developing exact propulsion techniques to match the conditions and location a diver finds themselves in. Plus, there is work on improved buoyancy control, we re-visit basic mask skills and start looking at advanced emergency procedures – all in a twinset. What’s more, divers learn to work out how much gas they breathe per minute, extremely helpful in all diving situations. Even if you decide that lugging additional equipment to depth is not for you, I promise you will emerge as a better diver after this 2-3 day course.
But back to Ismail: he is a geologist and, you guessed it, interested in cave diving. Now, nobody in their right mind would suggest taking him into overhead environments, away from the light zone at this point. However, why not look at a basic Sidemount course and take it from there? We decided to go for the PADI Sidemount Speciality, introducing an additional tank, handling two regulators and working with different buoyancy compensators. Technical or not, two-tank Sidemount is one of the most comfortable ways to dive – plus, there is additional gas available, redundant equipment etc. All of them are ultimately advantages, although they will pose some challenges for beginners.
For this course, there is a bit of theory as well, but really, the work is done in confined and open water. And we faced our challenges – long hose routing and stowing is not for the faint-hearted, especially if you’re still coming to terms with buoyancy and breathing control. Swimming with extended cylinders requires dexterity and buoyancy control, which means a bit of work, but ultimately it’s a lot of fun! Managing propulsion and trim in changing currents did a lot to improve Ismail’s buoyancy overall and our final dives after a few days were fun, relaxed and controlled all at once.
Is he ready for decompression diving? Not just yet. But does he have a much better idea of how to develop his diving to reach his goal? I sincerely hope so.
What is crucial is that as instructors we are honest with our students. This includes showing them ways of reaching their goals, but it also means saying no or not yet. It means not being blinkered by dive numbers certification agencies set both as a prerequisite and for the course itself, but instead looking at them as minimums and, if in doubt, adding to them when required. Just like open water diver students, some tech diving students take to twinsets and sidemount quickly and others need a little more time and practice. That’s not to say they won’t turn into good divers after all.
Coming back to our original question, I believe it’s never too early to teach good diving techniques and procedures and simply open students’ minds to all that’s there to be discovered. However, readiness for decompression and overhead diving is another matter that requires a high degree of skill mastery and thorough understanding of theory, both of which simply take a bit of time to develop.