Bookshelf: SEALAB

SEALAB – Ben Hellwarth


In the 1960s the US Navy developed three undersea habitats, in order to experiment with saturation diving and to explore the possibility of humans living on the ocean floor. Of necessity, any group of people engaged in this pursuit would be separated from life on the surface, in some cases by days or weeks of decompression obligations. SEALAB I, II and II were progressively deeper and more complex habitats. Developing them was a technical challenge that led to many advances that we benefit from today. The experiments also provided an opportunity to study the psychological and physiological effects of isolation, and of long periods of breathing mixed gases under pressure.

The SEALAB experiments took place during the same era as the efforts by NASA to put a person on the moon, and received far less attention. Jacques Cousteau was interested in the project, and himself experimented with underwater habitats called ConShelf I, II and II. These habitats were far better publicised than the US Navy’s efforts, even though their aims were more modest.

Author Ben Hellwarth does not confine his attention to the habitats, but also provides a fairly detailed history of decompression theory and diving history. Like Neutral BuoyancySEALAB might provide a relatively painless introduction to dive theory for Divemaster candidates. In fact, this book reads like a thriller at times! Some photographs from the SEALAB projects are available on the US Navy website, and in this slideshow. To our modern eyes, the clunky and primitive appearance of some of the gear is a reminder of how pioneering the now 60 year old work to allow humans to live and work in the sea was.

If you’re interested in the history of saturation diving, I recommend this article, which covers some of the ground that Hellwarth does in SEALAB. If you want to see it in action, check out Pioneer (fictional movie based on actual events) or the series Deep Sea SalvageYou should also check out this article by Hellwarth, entitled The Other Final Frontierand this podcast/radio show. If you are EXTREMELY interested in this subject but don’t want to read a book, try out this hour-long lecture video by Ben Hellwarth.

Experiments with underwater habitats are ongoing.

Get a copy of SEALAB here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.

Movie: Pioneer


In the late 1960s, massive oil and gas deposits were discovered in the North Sea, transforming Norway into one of Europe’s wealthiest nations. Pioneer depicts some of the early, feverish oil-related activity during the 1970s. The Norwegians needed to build a pipeline to bring the oil to land from depths of up to 500 metres. Lacking the technical expertise – particularly with respect to the underwater work that must be done by saturation divers – they bring in American assistance.

Norwegian divers (so-called “pioneer divers“) dived to depths that are now considered unsafe, even for saturation divers, and a group of them have sued the Norwegian government for compensation for damage incurred during their careers in the early days of the oil boom. Pioneer tells the story of Petter, a Norwegian diver who is present during a diving accident and embarks on a search for the cause, believing that human error was involved and that someone must take responsibility.

I enjoyed the film enormously, but most of the reviews I have read found it a bit turgid. The milieu is evoked with incredible attention to detail, including the awful 1970s moustaches and unfortunate hairstyles. The dialogue is in both Norwegian (subtitled) and English. It is beautifully filmed, with clever camera work mimicking the limited view that the divers have while working underwater and in the saturation chamber. The underwater scenes are excellent, reminiscent of those in For Your Eyes Only (I’m joking – they genuinely are extremely convincing and quite magnificent). Tension is maintained throughout, and the action takes places over a fairly short period of time.

You can get the DVD here (South Africa), here or here.

Diving with an alpha flag

The vast majority of new divers in Cape Town know where Long Beach in Simon’s Town is. Irrespective of the dive school you choose for Open Water training it is in most cases quite likely you will do at least one dive at Long Beach. There is a very good reason for this: it is diveable in most conditions as is usually the last place on the coastline to be blown out. It is a safe environment and a perfect place for training as it is by far one of the easiest shore entries around.

Divers enter the water as a rubberduck speeds past
Divers enter the water as a rubberduck speeds past

Although it is known to all dive trainers as a training site, very few visitors know this and not all water users (boaters, kayakers and paddle-skiers) are aware of your presence in the water. The average boater does not know the tell-tale signs of bubbles divers make, and why should he? But being struck by a paddle-ski, a propeller, or the keel of a sailboat is going to hurt you and it could easily kill you.

It is not too often that boats buzz by the beach, but on occasion the Navy boats as well as paddlers, and fishermen drive by as well as visitors to the coast with their recreational boats. Even the NSRI uses this beach for training of their boat crews on occasion. Part of a skipper’s training is to be aware of things floating on the surface: buoys could indicate nets, for example, that would snag the propeller, and thus boaters are trained to avoid or approach carefully any such flotation device.

There is no evidence of a surface marker buoy
There is no evidence of a surface marker buoy

So why do most divers dive without any form of warning to a boat that they are there, and why would they do so when part of what they are teaching new divers involves ascending in random spots all over the area? “We seldom ascend during a dive” is most often the answer as to why yet there are several surface skills, training ascents and the constant risk of an unplanned ascent by a new diver coming to terms with buoyancy (or in some cases having a mild panic attack and dashing to the surface).

The simple answer is that it is not required by law in South Africa to tow a buoy or alpha flag… But then it’s not law that as an Open Water diver you can’t go to 50 metres during a dive. You are taught not to exceed your training level, your logic will also most likely tell you it’s a risky plan, but if you are foolish enough to try who would stop you?

More divers entering the water without a buoy or flag
More divers entering the water without a buoy or flag

It is fortunate that the dive industry is largely self-regulated and as divers we are free to explore the ocean at will. Scuba diving is a very safe sport and provided you stay within the guidelines of you training agency you will have thousands of safe and enjoyable dives. When doing a boat dive, the skipper will typically erect an Alpha flag to indicate to other boats that he has divers in the water (if your skipper doesn’t do this, it’s time to switch dive charters to one that’s more safety conscious).

You could dive without a pressure gauge – but that would be foolish – you could dive without a mask, but then you would see very little, and you could also dive without an alpha flag, but none of the surface water users would see you or know you were there. Would that not be foolish?

Bookshelf: Diver Down

Diver Down: Real-World Scuba Accidents and How to Avoid Them – Michael R. Ange

Diver Down
Diver Down

This book should be compulsory reading for all careless, lazy, poorly-trained, slapdash or happy-go-lucky divers out there. In fact, for all divers.

This book is short with lots of sidebars (I don’t like these in books – they make it hard to read smoothly). Each chapter starts with an account of a diving accident (not all of them fatal). An analysis of what went wrong follows, as well as a short checklist of what you can do to avoid a similar fate.

I was at first reluctant to read this book because I thought it might scare me, but Tony devoured it and suggested I read it. It was disturbing, but didn’t give me nightmares. Michael Ange doesn’t write in a prurient or senstational manner – he just presents the facts. He has ample experience reviewing diving accidents.

Most of the time it was really simple things that caught people out, or a cascade of trivial compounding errors or problems. Often it was ego or over-confidence that led to the problems. Controlling partners or well-meaning parents who pressured their loved ones into doing things they shouldn’t also feature strongly.

The emphasis is on training, experience and common sense – every single thing you learn in your dive courses is vital. PADI and friends want to make diving fun and accessible, and they’ve pared down the manuals to be as concise and un-intimidating as possible… So EVERY SINGLE WORD counts. This is both a good thing (no scary huge textbooks) and a bad thing (you NEED to pay attention when you read and watch the DVDs and spend time with your instructor).

Dive briefings are also important. Your local Divemaster isn’t trying to dampen the mood by warning you not to surface without an SMB – he’s ensuring that you don’t end up out at sea without a signalling device, or with an unwanted Yamaha haircut. When the skipper and Divemaster speak they’re doing it out of a wealth of local (and that’s important) experience. Pay heed.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here otherwise. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. If you dive, you should read it. And you should do a Rescue Diver course.

Diving medical insurance

A large part of diving training involves making sure that you are a safe, competent underwater adventurer. You learn the consequences of various actions on the air spaces in your body, and the physiology related to breathing compressed air at depth, including how long it’s safe to stay down, how fast to ascend, and all about safety stops. The training you will do teaches you to manage your buoyancy so as not to make uncontrolled ascents or descents. All this minimises the chance that you will need emergency medical care after a dive.

Diving accidents are uncommon, but when they do happen, the cost of treatment is likely to be high. In the event that you’re bent – or possibly bent – you’ll have to go to a hyperbaric chamber for recompression treatment. For some perspective on what this involves, and what this feels like, I spoke to Alistair Downing of Underwater Explorers, technical diver extraordinaire. He’s been bent twice – here’s how he describes the first time (in 2003), after a deep dive on trimix out of Hout Bay, involving numerous long decompression stops:

The dive and deco went great. No problems at all.

On my final ascent from 6 metres (doing 1 metre/minute ascent rate), I felt a slight twinge in my thigh muscle, but put it down to being really cold and immobile for such a long dive – roughly two hours!

Finally surfaced and felt a little dizzy, but assumed with the rolling seas, it was a little seasickness (not that it is usually a problem…).

By the time the boat picked me up, I was exhausted. I couldn’t unkit and needed the safety diver to get my gear off me.

I just made it into the boat and needed to lie down. Just felt really, really tired. Again put it down to exhaustion, having just done a massive dive.

About two minutes later I called for the O2 – thought it can’t hurt.

A few minutes onto the O2 the pins and needles all over my body started – time to go!

We were all DAN members and as per DAN’s protocol, we contacted DAN first. They then contacted Kingsbury Chamber and we were advised to proceed there. At this stage, I was aware of my surroundings and besides the pins and needles, was doing OK. We were 16 kilometres out to sea from Hout Bay and en route my condition deteriorated. Some of these I can recall, but others were relayed to me after the fact. By the time we got to Hout Bay harbour I was paralysed from my waist down, had lost sight in both eyes, apparently had stopped breathing on several occasions and was basically out of it!

They had initially arranged for an ambulance to collect me at Hout Bay, but there was a delay so my crew decided to transport me in the back of a bakkie – I have only one fleeting memory of the trip from Hout Bay to Claremont.

DAN had put Kingsbury on full alert and soon after I arrived, Dr Rosenthal arrived. I basically went straight into the chamber and was there for about 8 hours. I forget the exact details of the treatment, but Rosenthal has all these details. What I can recall is that it was not a pleasant experience. Lots of pain, confusion, too hot, too cold, thirst, nausea, and feeling very uncomfortable. That evening I was admitted to High Care and spent the night there on oxygen. At this stage I was generally pain free, except for one mother of a headache… and a general ‘pap’ feeling.

Over the next several days I went for about five follow up treatments of about two hours each. I was also on massive doses of medication, specifically to reduce the swelling of my brain. I was not allowed to dive for a year, which in itself almost killed me! It also took about 6 months before my headache went away…

I was diagnosed with neurological bend, most likely caused by a helium bubble. After the year, I passed my medical and it was all systems go again.

Alistair dived with the same buddy both times he got bent, and his buddy experienced no problems either time. Alistair was later diagnosed with a PFO (patent foramen ovale, or hole in the heart that did not close completely at birth – about one third of people have them) which may have  predisposed him to getting bent despite meticulously following safe decompression schedules and experiencing nothing untoward on either dive. He had this surgically repaired and since 2009 has been back in the water with no problems!

DAN emergency noticeboard at Long Beach
DAN emergency noticeboard at Long Beach

DAN stands for Divers’ Alert Network. They’re an international organisation that provides top-up medical aid cover for divers, as well as diving medical information and research, evacuation services, and training in diving safety.

Alistair’s treatment for the bends he’s experienced cost between R30,000 and R40,000 each time – and if a helicopter evacuation had been required, that cost would have increased sharply. Here’s what he said about the extent of the cover by DAN:

DAN covered me in full for both bends – picked up all the bills, including medicine. I basically did not pay a cent and as a DAN Business member, was really happy about this. They however did not cover anything linked to the PFO operation, as it is post injury elective surgery, not bends incident related.  All in all, a good showing by DAN and reason enough to get cover from them.

While we trust medical aids to provide the peace of mind that your costs will be covered when you require hospitalisation or emergency treatment, the truth is that in many cases they will do everything they can to avoid paying out your claims. You should be certain that the medical aid cover you have will pick up the tab if you incur an injury while diving – many medical aids classify scuba diving (even recreational scuba on air to less than 40 metres’ depth) as an extreme sport, and treat associated claims accordingly – in other words, with great reluctance.

(As an aside, if you have life cover, you should make sure that the life insurance company is also aware of your diving activities for their records.)

Learn to Dive Today is a DAN Business Member, which means that we are able to supply you with application forms and membership information, and have access to DAN training on emergency procedures and management. It also means that we are kept up to date with developments in diving medicine, and have access to the extremely efficient DAN team in South Africa for any assistance we require.

If you dive frequently, if you like to dive in remote places, if you have a penchant – or desire – to push the limits of recreational scuba, and especially if you fit into one of the risk categories for diving (old age, overweight, heart problems), you should have this kind of insurance. If you want more information or to discuss the various options DAN offers, email Tony or contact the DAN Southern Africa office. They’re very friendly and super efficient!

The reason I’ve been wearing flip flops to the office

It’s been a while since I put a picture of my feet on the internet, and this is my first diving injury to speak of in almost 110 dives. So this is to demonstrate that fifteen litre cylinders do not mix well with feet, even feet wearing 5 millimetre booties.

Nicely bruised foot
Nicely bruised foot

Excuse the brutally chopped toenails. I put the cylinder down on my foot while unpacking the boat after our dive on the Cape Matapan. Next time I’ll just take my own kit (with my 10 or 12 litre cylinder) off and let Tami carry her own fifteen!