Tech diving has become increasingly popular and accessible, with most organizations offering tech diving training and more and more producers making products that cater to the needs of tech divers. But when does diving become “technical”? Read on as we attempt a definition. The definition of tech – or technical – diving is surprisingly vague, considering its popularity. Most organizations simply define it as “any diving activity that exceeds the limits of recreational diving,” but this is a definition that is somewhat unspecific. This holds particularly true with the increase of recreational specialty courses encroaching on tech turf by offering certifications in caves, wrecks and exotic breathing gasses. So when is diving truly tech? We take a look at some of the most popular definitions and suggest our own, as well.
A lot of divers define technical diving by the use of the gear associated with it. Technical divers use double tanks, long hoses on the primary regulator and a wing-and-backplate BCD. And while it is true that this is often the easiest way of spotting a technical diver, it is not itself a determinant of technical diving. Most of my dives are done using the previously mentioned setup, even if they are relatively shallow pleasure dives, guided dives or even dive courses that I teach. I use the double tank setup for both convenience and redundancy. It’s convenient because with a single tank I typically get two dives per tank, which means with two tanks I get four dives. As a result, an entire dive course weekend can be done without changing tanks. And the redundancy comes into play because I like having the extra tank for courses or solo dives. But that doesn’t mean that a dive to 30 feet with a bunch of untrained divers taking their first course counts as a technical dive just because I’m sporting the gear. Conversely, I once did a dive in Indonesia to a depth of 50 meters, with multiple decompression stops – a classic technical dive, in other words – using a single tank and jacket BCD (but a number of stage bottles suspended under the boat). Training Some claim that a technical diver is someone who has taken a course in technical diving. Fair enough – that would certainly qualify that diver as such. But that doesn’t mean that every time this diver dons his or her gear and sticks their head under water that they’re doing technical diving. So while training might define a diver as technical, it still doesn’t determine when the dive itself can be considered technical (and thus require certification). Environments Technical divers are often identified as those who dive into caves and wrecks. However, there are quite a few specialty courses, as mentioned above, that prepare recreational divers for just these situations. And if you’re diving around inside a partially submerged cave with easy access to the surface (even though you’re inside a cave), and easy access to the open water outside the entrance, perhaps in water only 30 to 40 feet deep (such as the cenotes in Mexico), this is about as recreational as a dive gets. So as a main determinant, this doesn’t work either. Exotic gasses Technical divers are divers who use breathing gasses other than surface air. I’ve heard this used as a definition a number of times. But with the increasing popularity of Nitrox – an exotic gas that may contain only elements known from surface air (Nitrox is made simply by adding extra oxygen to a surface air filling – more on Nitrox in another blog post) – this is hardly a valid definition. Nitrox training is actually quite technical, and requires knowledge in gas mixtures, partial pressures and many other things that typically belong within the technical sphere. And yet Nitrox use is still considered within the realm of recreational diving. Depth While it is true that diving deeper than recreational diving limits does constitute technical diving, that’s not the whole story. Some of the most advanced technical diving in the world takes place in the Florida cave exploration projects, most of which are in less than 40 feet of water, yet this is among the most demanding of all diving out there. And even if we count vertical distance combined with horizontal distance – meaning how far we need to swim to get out of the cave we might be in – plus the depth to make it from the exit of the cave to the surface, it would be my claim that there are caves out there where we may find ourselves well within the limits of recreational diving in total distance to surface yet still taking part in diving that is technical. A potential definition One definition I’ve used a few times when people have asked me the difference between recreational and technical diving is the following:
Technical diving is a diving activity conducted in such a place or in such ways that it places the diver in a situation where immediate access to the surface is not possible.
One of the things recreational divers are told time and time again is that if all else fails, as long as we’re within the limits set by our dive tables, we can always swim for the surface. It’s the catch-all for any problems we might encounter underwater. Yet with advanced wreck or cave diving as well as with deep diving, this is not the case. With cave and wreck diving, navigating your way back into open water might take so long and be so complex that it is not a feasible solution to a problem. And with deep diving, decompression stops will be mandatory on the way up. This puts very high demands on the diver’s skills (not the least of which are planning and problem solving skills), experience, training and equipment. And in my opinion, this is what takes the diver from the recreational realm into the technical one. A simpler version of the definition could be that technical diving is a diving activity where there’s a roof overhead – something that stands between you and the surface. That could be a physical roof such as that of a cave or wreck, or a virtual roof, such as a mandatory decompression stop. While this definition is not perfect, I do believe that it encompasses more of what technical diving is than using equipment configuration, depth, or certification levels as determinants. How would you define technical diving?