Technical Diving – A Definitive Guide

Technical Diving

If you are like many divers, after experiencing your first dive, you wonder just how far you can push things. You want to dive every day and jump at any chance you get to don your gear and get in the water. But, after a while, the limitations of your current training become quite clear. You’ve dove to the limit of 40m (130ft) and explored everything from wrecks to caves. What’s next?

This is where technical diving comes in. It isn’t for the faint of heart. But, if you get into the extreme end of diving, you will explore places that your fellow divers can only dream of. Let’s take a look at what technical diving is, and whether you are the right fit for this advanced level of training.

What is Technical Diving?

Technical Diving

The path for most scuba divers is quite clear and consistent. It usually follows something along these lines:

  • Open water diver certification
  • Advanced open water certification
  • Rescue diver
  • Master scuba diver

After obtaining a master scuba diver certification, many divers will usually stop. Those that keep going generally get into the commercial side of things. Usually, they will continue on to become a divemaster or dive instructor.

There is another option. Though, it is significantly more hazardous and rarely pursued by the average diver. This is where technical diving comes into the picture.

Different diving organizations have different definitions for technical diving. But, there are some characteristics that are generally agreed upon. Some standard definitions include these characteristics:

  • Usage of mixed gasses (trimix, nitrox, heliox, and heliair)
  • Decompression dives (planned stops allowing the release of inert gasses from body tissue)
  • Diving beyond recreational limits of 40m (130ft)
  • Switching gasses (multiple tanks with different gasses for different parts of the dive)
  • Deep penetration wreck and cave diving
  • Rebreather usage (most diving organizations consider rebreather usage as technical diving)
  • Some organizations also include ice diving in the category of technical diving

Technical diving lets you exceed limitations placed on the average recreational scuba diver. Even divers who have reached the level of master scuba diver. The depth range for technical divers ranges between 51m (170ft) and 106m (305ft). Sometimes, depending on the reason for the dive, technical divers can go even deeper.

But, as the name implies, this requires a very high degree of technical understanding. You can’t rely on following a divemaster around a dive site and being okay. The margin of error when it comes to technical diving is extremely small.

In fact, it is estimated that 20% of diver fatalities in the United States are from technical diving. This is according to a 2003 report from the Divers Alert Network (DAN). The exact numbers are unknown. But, the hazards associated with technical diving are many and the risks great. Some of these include:

Technical divers must handle multiple gas mixtures at different stages of a dive. They need to be able to manage all the equipment such as a technical dive computer, rebreathers, and so on. They must prepare for situation such as silt outs, zero light, and equipment failure. They must also learn to calculate bottom times, decompression stops, and more.

Who Should Get Into Technical Diving?

Technical Diving

As you can figure out from above, technical diving isn’t for everyone. If you are the average diver who enjoys the occasional vacation, this probably isn’t for you. Technical diving is an expensive hobby. Both for the training as well as the equipment and the diving. In fact, basic technical diving equipment can run many thousands of dollars.

Technical diving is for divers who are serious about the discipline. It’s for divers who want to push new depths and experience the most remote dive locations.

TDI, the largest technical diving organization around, issues 14 thousand certifications each year. When you compare this to PADI, which certifies over 900,000 people each year, you can tell this is a small fraction of the total dive community. But, it is a growing one.

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If you have the time and money, technical diving is an area that you should explore. But, there is another group of people that should consider technical diving. People who want to get paid.

One of the first things new divers think about is how they can make a career out of scuba diving. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to dive every day? For most people, this means working as a divemaster or dive instructor or opening a dive shop. But, there is another option for divers with specific skill sets. That is commercial diving.

There is a difference between commercial diving and technical diving. Commercial divers get paid to dive and technical divers pay to dive. Technical diving is still recreational in nature. But, commercial divers often use the same equipment and work at similar depths.

Before getting into commercial diving you need one or more skills though such as:

  • Welding
  • Demolition
  • Search and rescue
  • Underwater construction
  • Underwater pipe fitting

In the end, there is significant money to be made as a commercial diver. The median salary is around $50,000 with the top percentile making over $90,000 each year. So, if this is something you are interested in, taking a few technical diving courses can be a great start.

Commercial diving schools are expensive. By going through basic technical diving, you can figure out if you enjoy diving at this level. You can also evaluate whether it is the right career choice for you.

How Do I Get Into Technical Diving?

Technical Diving

For starters, you need to have significant experience as a recreational scuba diver. Technical diving isn’t something you start from the beginning. This is the highest level of diving. Different organizations will have different requirements. But, we’ll go with PADI’s requirements as they are the largest scuba organization in the world.

Before you start getting into the serious courses, you will want to do a Discovery Tec dive. You must be at least an open water scuba diver to do this. You also need at least 10 logged dives and must be at least 18 years old.

The benefit of doing the Discovery Tec dive is that you can see if it is right for you. This is before you start spending large amounts of money on advanced courses. You will also be able to count the Discovery Tec dive as credit towards the first tec diving course, the PADI Tec 40.

Once you get into the technical diving courses, the flow looks like this:

  • Tec 40
  • Tec 45
  • Tec 50
  • Tec Trimix 65
  • Tec Trimix Diver
  • Tec Gas Blender
  • Tec Sidemount
  • Discovery Rebreather
  • Rebreather Diver
  • Advanced Rebreather Diver
  • Rebreather Qualifier
  • Tec 40 CCR (closed circuit rebreather)
  • Tec 60 CCR
  • Tec 100 CCR
  • Tec CCR Qualifier

There are also refresher courses for people to keep up to date with new developments.

To get started in the Tec 40 course, you need to meet certain requirements. These include:

  • Advanced Open Water Certification
  • Enriched Air Diver Specialty with at least 10 dives past 18m (60ft)
  • Deep Diver Speciality or 10 logged dives past 30m (100ft)
  • At least 18 years old with a minimum of 30 logged dives
  • A medical statement from a qualified physician dated within 12 months

The Tec 40 trains you to do limited decompression dives up to 40m (120ft). You will also get experience using common technical diving equipment and planning dives. After you’ve completed the Tec 40, you will be well on your way to the wide world of technical diving.

You have probably noticed that there are a lot of courses. As we’ve stated throughout this article, technical diving comes with numerous hazards. The only way to mitigate these hazards and reduce the risks is through training.

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PADI designed their technical diving program to introduce each concept in stages. This allows you to master each concept and all of the safety procedures before moving on.

What Kind Of Equipment Is Needed?

Technical Diving

The equipment used depends on personal preference and the specifics of each dive. Most of the equipment is the same as you would use when recreationally diving. The different being it is modified for extreme depths.

Technical divers usually use one of three setups when diving. The first two options are a sidemount setup or a twinset setup. Divers commonly use the sidemount setup during cave dives and similar environments. This makes it easy to remove the tanks to squeeze through tight spaces. Twinsets are more commonly used when tight spaces are not a factor to contend with.

The third setup is using a rebreather. This is a device that recycles the air a diver uses by removing carbon dioxide from the spent gas. Oxygen is usually added into the recycled air and reused by the diver.

Aside from these setups, which require unique equipment, technical divers use special computers. These computers are similar in function to normal dive computers. But, the difference comes in how much more powerful technical diving computers.

Technical divers need to manage multiple gasses and different decompression stops. The margin for error in each of these calculations is unforgiving. Even the slightest of mistakes in these calculations can have dire consequences.

So, technical dive computers handle all these calculations with extreme precision. They are able to manage the different gasses and time decompression stops. They also handle normal functions like monitoring direction and temperature.

It is important to purchase quality equipment when getting into technical diving. This often means you will be spending large amounts of money. It’s worth it though.

As a regular recreational scuba diver, you can often spring for budget equipment and get away with it. But, the last thing you want on a deep penetration wreck dive is equipment failure. As we mentioned above, these conditions are unforgiving.

Budget shopping when it comes to technical diving equipment can be fatal so don’t do it. Always go with trusted brand names with a proven background.

Lastly, remember that redundancy is important when it comes to tech diving equipment. You want backups for everything from your diving mask to your regulator hoses. The better prepared you are in an emergency, the more likely you are to stay alive and injury-free. Or, at the very least, with minimal health complications.

After all that, why should you even get into technical diving? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular dive spots that can only be accessed by technical divers.

#1 Wreck of the SS Andrea Doria

This won’t be the first site you dive as a new technical diver. In fact, even as an experienced technical diver you probably won’t dive this. But, it’s worth mentioning due to its significance in the diving community.

The Andrea Doria was a luxury cruise liner that sank after colliding with another ship. Its final resting place is at around 76m (250ft). This dive site is to scuba diving what Mt. Everest is to mountain climbing. Over a dozen divers have lost their lives to the wreck due to the extreme conditions.

The conditions at this site can change without notice. Low visibility and strong currents are a small part of the problem. Divers must also contend with deterioration of the ship which has made penetrating the wreck dangerous. Here is a video from the early ’90s showing the inside of the wreck.

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Location: Off the coast of Nantucket Island, Massachusets

#2 Dahab Blue Hole

Like Andrea Doria, the Dahab Blue Hole has become the final resting place for many divers. The difference though is that the blue hole doesn’t have to be as dangerous of a dive as it often becomes.

The appeal of the blue hole is the arch. This is a giant tunnel, which leads out to the open sea. It begins at around 55m (181ft) deep.

It is a bucket list item for scuba divers around the world to enter through the blue hole and swim through the arch out to the open sea. The tunnel is a total of 26m (85ft long). Many divers have died trying to make this swim. This is usually because they attempted it using regular air.

For a well trained and prepared technical diver, this doesn’t have to be such a dangerous dive. It’s just one of many awesome things you can do as a technical diver. This video shows off divers swimming through the arch.

Location: Dahab, Egypt

#3 San Francisco Maru

This is one of the more interesting World War II-era wrecks. The San Francisco Maru was a Japanese ship that went down after bombing by the Allied Forces. It was one of dozens of ships and aircraft that sank in this spot.

What makes this wreck interesting is the variety of sights you can see around the wreck. The ship went down with cargo holds filled with landmines and torpedos. There are also a few tanks that have become enveloped in coral. The wreck sits at a depth of around 53m (173ft). Here is a video showing off the wreck.

Location: Chuuk Lagoon, Federated States of Micronesia

#4 USS Saratoga

This is one dive that very few people will ever get to experience. Even among technical divers, this is a bit of a unicorn. The USS Saratoga was a United States Navy aircraft carrier. It sank off the coast of Bikini Atoll in the 1940s. The cause was collapsing from the impact of the atomic bomb testing which happened on the island.

The wreck is the only diveable and penetrable aircraft carrier in the world. To add to that uniqueness, less than a dozen people can dive the waters around Bikini Atoll each week.

This means that even if you want to dive this site, you will likely be on a waitlist for permission to make the dive. Here is a fantastic video showing a penetration dive of the wreck.

Location: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

#5 S.S. Gunilda

This steamship is considered one of the best-preserved shipwrecks in the world. The wreck sits in over 79m (260ft) of water. Its final resting place is in Lake Superior, one of the great lakes between the United States and Canada.

What makes this wreck so amazing is how old it is yet how well preserved the wreck has remained over the years. This is due to the extremely cold freshwater that makes up the great lakes.

You can expect some awesome photo and video opportunities around the site. Here is a great video showing off some of the more interesting parts of this wreck.

Location: Rossport, Ontario, Canada

Wrapping Up

Are you interested now?

Technical diving can be an amazing opportunity if you are a dedicated diver looking for more. As we stated above, it isn’t for everyone.

Remember that it is very expensive to both learn and participate in technical diving. There are also many hazards and increased risks which can turn many people off from it.

Do you think you’ve got what it takes to become a technical diver? Or, are you already a technical diver? If so let us know what you think and share your experiences. You never know how your comments might help your fellow divers.

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