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March 2001 Vol. 27, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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PADI Brings Tech Diving to the Masses

Where Fatalities are the Accepted Price for Adrenaline

from the March, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Forty-seven-year old triathelete Jane Ornstein was likely unconscious when she inhaled her first mouthful of seawater at dive off Pompano Beach, Florida. Already debilitated — probably by the effects of oxygen poisoning — Ornstein succumbed and died with merciful swiftness.

Things began to unravel at one of the first decompression stops as Ornstein, 33-year-old instructor Derek McNulty, and three other students ascended from a short trip to the murky 275-ft. bottom on that day in May 1998. Investigators believe she mistakenly switched her breathing supply over to an oxygenrich mixture highly toxic at great depths .

McNulty later told investigators that Ornstein continued ascending with him and three other students until she was just 40 ft. shy of the surface. At this point, he said, she signaled to him that she was out of air. He instructed her to switch to another tank and head up another ten feet, then went to help another diver who had entangled himself in a safety line. But Ornstein overshot the 30-ft. mark and floated up to a depth of 20 ft. Apparently suffering from the onset of oxygen poisoning, which can cause visual disturbances, nausea, or disorientation, she struggled to cope with her BC, which was later found to have malfunctions. With the surface just a few feet above her, she lost consciousness.

Twenty-eight out of the nation’s 161 diving facilities, or roughly seventeen percent of the total, were techies.

McNulty told Broward County homicide detectives that he saw a burst of bubbles from Ornstein; then he watched her limp body, saddled with more than 250 pounds of gear, begin to plummet toward the bottom. Another student swam down after her, but couldn’t catch her. Daniel Mitchell, himself a diving instructor — but only a student on this trip — told investigators that there was no physical way anyone could save Ornstein and stay alive.

When Ornstein’s body was found on the bottom the next day, her face mask was off and her regulator was out of her mouth. One of her tanks still contained breathable gas.

The Pompano Beach incident resembles any of a dozen fatal accidents that occur each year in the high-risk world of technical diving, which involves descending beyond 130 feet, often in shipwrecks and caves, at times using combinations of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen. And it is precisely the kind of event that throws the diving community into a fit of pained self-examination. Only now, the internal debate is being fueled by a broad institutional change: In January, an arm of PADI rolled out its first technicaldiving training program. Their new courses will make what many consider to be the hazardous fringe of the sport more accessible to millions of sport divers.

This scenario — which concerns many veteran tech divers — could scarcely have been imagined back in the mid-1980s, when Bill Stone, a structural engineer from Gaithersburg, MD, first began experimenting with helium-based gases to explore deep caves in Wakulla Springs, Florida. Stone and his team ventured more than three miles into underwater cave passages at depths exceeding 300 ft. Though commercial and military divers had breathed “mix” for decades, and Jacques Cousteau had used it to reach 400 ft. in 1976, Stone was one of the first to apply it to recreational diving. By the early 1990s, with the support of a handful of specialized training and equipment vendors, the fledgling sport of technical diving began to take hold among more adventurous scuba fans. Today it is arguably the highest-profile segment of the sport.

PADI estimates there are 3 million sport divers in the U.S., but Technical Diving International, a school based in Maine, says that there are only about 200,000 technical divers in the entire world. Still, techies make a dent in the market disproportionate to their numbers. Each commonly spends as much as $5,000 on gear, including a specialized buoyancy-compensator and sometimes an underwater scooter. (A typical sport diver owns about $2,000 worth of equipment.) Tech divers also invest heavily in training courses. Which is where PADI comes in .

PADI claims to certify 70 percent of all new divers in the United States, and 60 percent of all divers worldwide. Its global network of about 100,000 retailers and instructors dwarfs that of NAUI, the firm’s nearest competitor. Some 200 staff work for PADI, a privately owned company. In a 1996 interview, PADI president John Cronin said PADI pulls in more than $30 million a year from certification fees and the sale of instruction books and videos in 24 languages. It is a finely-tuned marketing machine, built on untold scores of regimented dive classes.

Which is, in the eyes of many, exactly the problem. Making tech diving more accessible to a mass market is “like putting a civilian behind the controls of an F-14,” says attorney Bobby Delise, whose Metairie, LA firm built its practice on representing families of those killed in diving accidents. “ You can’t market life-threatening activities like tech diving and BASE jumping the same way you market other services. You have to play by different rules.” He is concerned that would-be techies already take so many classes that they don’t get enough realworld diving experience. “It doesn’t make any sense for students with fewer than 100 dives to be taking a mixed-gas class,” he says. “The bar is too low, and when a mistake occurs the price is too high.”

Like alpinism, tech diving is brutally unforgiving — participants risk such physiological disasters as nitrogen narcosis, oxygen poisoning, and the bends. In 1998 and 1999, 28 out of the nation’s 161 diving fatalities, or roughly 17 percent of the total, were techies. If that sounds unimpressive, consider that tech divers constitute a very small slice of the overall diving population. “I lose two friends a year, ” says Bridgeport, CT-based technical diving instructor Joel Silverstein. (He’s never lost a student or partner.) “Fatalities are part and parcel of technical diving.”

PADI acknowledges that it is plunging into treacherous waters. “Our philosophy is that tech is not for everyone,” says Karl Shreeves, a vice president of Diving Science and Technology, the arm of PADI that will run the new techie program. “We’re not going to market it that way. We don’t expect huge numbers.”

But many tech trainers have profound philosophical issues with the firm’s approach. PADI students progress through a sequence of written exams before advancing to the next level. Instructors must stick to the book and are given little or no leeway to improvise. By contrast, old-school tech trainers believe religiously that the experience of the instructor is everything and that rote rules just won’t help beyond 200 ft., when problems must be solved quickly and instinctively.

Though Shreeves says PADI won’t oversell the tech program, critics fear the firm’s mass-market focus. “Tech diving is completely different [from sport diving],” says Dave Mount, the general manager of the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD). “It requires an exceptional instructor with tremendous experience and currency.” Shreeves counters that PADI has a proven track record and offers the indust ry ’s best quality-assurance program — asking students to critique their instructors. Further, he stresses that the new program will only accept students who have logged more than 100 dives, trained in specialities such as night diving, and have several certifications above the basic open-water level.

The Pompano Beach incident arguably demonstrates that not even the training organizations that specialize in tech diving have spotless records: At the time of the tragedy, Derek McNulty was an IANTD-certified instructor.

In some respects, PADI may usher in a higher level of professionalism for the sport. “PADI has a long history of creating outstanding [classroom] materials,” says Bob Decker, the training director at Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, N.C. “In that manner they will raise the bar.” But he also charges that the company has in the past been guilty of taking what he calls a “fast-food approach” by not insisting divers put in the time to pay their dues and gain critical experience.

It is difficult to say whether the first large-scale foray into training beyond 130 ft. will mean more divers will die there. “Tech is more risky than recreational diving, but to be honest, that’s part of the appeal,” says PADI’s Shreeves. “Extreme-sports enthusiasts appreciate the challenge of managing that risk in exchange for the experience that few people get to have.”

By virtue of its sheer size and resources, PADI will undoubtedly open the dark depths to throngs of adventure seekers, and if not launch a trend, then tap into one that is already growing. “People treat tech diving as if it were just another recreational specialty like night diving,” says Florida-based Jarrod Jablonski, one of the top tech divers in the world and holder of the record for the deepest underwater cave penetration, just over three lateral miles. “But it isn’t.”

Michael Meduno ( , was the founder of the first tech-diving magazine, Aqua Corps. His stories have appeared in Wired, Scientific American, PADI Undersea Journal, and elsewhere. The article , which originally appeared in the January issue of Out side, was reprinted by permission from Outside magazine. Copyright © 2001, Mariah Publications Corporation.

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