Today I’m super excited to announce a new series called #WeArePADIWomen, a collection of stories and secrets from some of the most inspiring women in the scuba diving industry. If you followed Women’s Dive Day coverage in July, you know that there are plenty!
I’m kicking off this series with the wise words of a woman I’ve been lucky enough to share a dive boat with once before, Allison Vitsky Sallmon. Allison is not only a talented professional underwater photographer and PADI Rescue Diver but also a breast cancer survivor who founded Dive Into The Pink, a nonprofit that mobilizes the dive community to raise money for breast cancer research and patient support.
Allison and I and some of our fave dive buddies!
As a Florida native and resident of Southern California, Allison has always been near the ocean. After twenty years of diving, Allison picked up a camera in 2006 and within a year had purchased a dSLR and started a second career diving and shooting alongside her husband, fellow underwater photographer Andy Sallmon. Today, Allison has a wide portfolio of unique perspectives from around the world. I look at a lot of dive photography and much of it runs together. Allison’s work, I can spot before I see the watermark!
Allison and Andy took me out for a day of diving in San Diego a few summers ago, and I was truly touched by their words of encouragement to an amateur photography enthusiast like myself, their enthusiasm for sharing their knowledge of the industry, and their patience for watching me flail around like a manatee in a 7mm wetsuit for the first time.
Now, over to Allison. Thanks for joining me for this celebration of women underwater!
When did you start diving and what was your motivation for doing so? What eventually inspired you to first pick up a camera?
OK, first of all, you didn’t flail like a manatee. That’s just nonsense. You looked fabulous above and underwater, and the sea lion pups loved you! (Second of all, I dived for 15 years before the camera came into things – I wish I’d started earlier!)
I got my first certification in 1992 in Gainesville, Florida. Diving wasn’t even on my radar. My mom actually gave me the class as a gift – she was planning a family trip to Cozumel, and she wanted a dive buddy. By the time we went to Cozumel six months later, I had done over 100 dives and was signed up for my cave course.
For the camera, at first, I just had a little point and shoot, a cast-off from an ex (if he hadn’t given it to me, I don’t know that I’d ever have started shooting). I was living in Boston at the time, so my first dives with a camera were in cold, green water. I didn’t know what I was doing with it, and that was a tough place to learn. But we took a trip to the Solomon Isands that year, and there were two amazing photographers on the boat. They inspired me, and by the end of that trip, it was all over. I was doomed to sacrifice my time, income, and sanity at the altar of underwater photography.
I am ashamed to say that I don’t log my open circuit dives, but I know I’ve done more than 2500-3000. I do log my closed circuit dives – the last time I looked, I had about 200 hours. I’d like to get more time on closed circuit, but it isn’t practical for every dive I do, so it’s incremental.
Oh man, I regret not logging my dives more religiously too! How did diving go from a hobby to a career for you?
Well, in fairness, I have a day job as a scientist that has nothing to do with diving. It’s been helpful because it ensures that I’m financially independent and can pick and choose the work I do in the dive industry, giving me the luxury to accept only those projects about which I’m passionate.
It’s been gradual – I’ve always enjoyed writing (my undergraduate degree was in communications), and that enthusiasm and a solid work ethic helped me get into editorial work and develop a reputation (hopefully a good one!). As for Dive into the Pink, it was a bit of an accident. I thought I’d run a single charter to raise some money, and it snowballed from there once we saw how enthusiastic people were about it.
Have you faced any obstacles in your diving or photography career? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest challenge getting started in this industry?
The biggest obstacle for me is TIME! Juggling my day job, editorial work, Dive into the Pink, and regular (weekly or more) local California sanity dives with a marriage (even to a pro shooter in the dive industry) and home can be tricky. It’s a delicate balance, and I’ll admit, I have a tendency to take on too much. I am trying to get better about spacing things out in a way that allow for down time. Sadly, the last few transpacific trips I’ve taken, I’ve been almost as excited about the flight as the diving because of the opportunity for uninterrupted sleep.
I feel you — I always look forward to my long flights as a time to rest! What do you feel are the most important challenges and opportunities facing women in diving?
There are very few challenges for women now, I think — they exist, but they are really the exception more than the rule. We are our own worst enemies; in my opinion, women have a tendency to be hard on themselves in a way men aren’t. We judge ourselves (and compare ourselves with others) to an extreme on everything – intelligence, success, appearance… I think this is true of women in all fields, and it’s a shame. We need to support and encourage each other, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable to do, because nine times out of ten, the person you’re encouraging isn’t being so kind to themselves.
Certainly, individual women have always been recognized for their impact on diving, ocean conservancy, scientific research, and media, but I think there’s more awareness of women’s impact than ever before – I think the opportunities that are currently available have perhaps always been there, but there’s increased visibility, in other words.
There are so many aspiring underwater photographers out there! What should shutterbugs hoping to follow in your professional footsteps have on his or her resume?
Hard, hard work is more important than any resume – exceed deadlines, don’t make excuses, and turn in great stuff. There is too much competition to approach this any other way. Constantly look to grow and improve — ask for criticism and learn from the advice you get.
Also, have a realistic attitude. The number of photography jobs is finite and the money isn’t exactly amazing or consistent. The vast majority of people who do this juggle shooting with a day job – some in the dive industry (sales representatives, for example) and some, like me, in completely unrelated fields.
Perhaps most importantly, be judicious about giving away work in exchange for personal “exposure.” Your gear, travel, and time is worth a lot, and there should always be some give and take involved when you’re providing images to a commercial business. If you ask for nothing in exchange for your work, it sends a powerful message that you think your work is worth nothing.
I know you too started out with a point and shoot camera. Do you have any tips for divers just looking to improve their underwater photography skills, especially those that might feel their equipment is lacking?
Well, you’ve heard about the number one peeve of photographers, right? You have a beautiful photo displayed somewhere, and some buffoon walks up to you and says, “Wow, you must have a nice camera!” In other words, amazing images come from the shooter, not the equipment. Sure, you can be limited by your equipment, but you should be able to squeeze a hell of a lot out of it before that happens.
First, take a class from a pro who has a documented success record – publications, for instance – and preferably a private class where you’ll spend time in the classroom AND water. Then, take what you’ve learned and practice, practice, practice. If you aren’t in the position to travel constantly (and the vast majority of us aren’t), find the best option for diving near your home, and go for it. Nothing beats time in the water for improving your skills.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
As a photographer, I recently had a photo displayed in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as part of the Windland Smith Rice photography competition. Of all the times I’ve been lucky enough to place in a competition, this win and exhibit was very meaningful because I visited that museum a lot as a little girl and marveled up at the blue whale suspended from the ceiling!
It’s not as showy, but I’m as or maybe more proud of what we’re accomplishing with Dive into the Pink. Watching people respond to the idea of diving for a cause with joy and gratitude has been rewarding in a way I never could have imagined.
What’s been your most special dive?
My most memorable in-water experience took place near home a few years ago. We were offshore, free diving near kelp paddies to photograph the life beneath them, and a blue whale surfaced and descended right in front of me. For a moment, I was eye to eye with the largest animal ever to live on the earth. And it was AMAZING!
Is there a piece of dive gear or accessory you can’t live without?
My drysuit. I have a backup for when my primary’s in the shop. With all the California diving we do (and given my wussiness), this is one thing I can’t do without. (I hate to insert branding here. But I have DUIs, and I love DUI! No brand I’ve tried fits a woman’s body better.)
I know we share the belief that divers are some of the greatest ambassadors of our oceans! What are some small ways those reading today can make a difference, divers or not?
Two things I try to be religious about are avoiding single-use plastic items and keeping consumption of fish (especially non-sustainable fish) to a bare minimum. These are easy things we can all do to make a difference.
I so admire the work you’ve done with Dive Into The Pink. As a cancer survivor, how did diving or the ocean bring you peace during a difficult time in your life?
When I went through my treatment, I was living in Boston, and it was wintertime. I hadn’t gotten my drysuit certification yet, so local diving wasn’t a terribly appealing option. I had some issues with my white blood cell counts getting very low, so although I felt fine and was able to work during most of the process, I avoided remote travel. What I did do was pore over dive magazines, admire images (and begin to notice who had taken my favorites), and dream about the places I’d go when I was finished.
I’ll never say that I was lucky to have faced cancer, but certainly, it has enabled me to view my life from a different perspective and with a little more of a “what the hell, let’s try (insert harebrained scheme)” attitude.
What advice do you have for new divers, or those who might be nervous to get started?
Give it a try before you get scared off! I loved my pool sessions, but I was freakin’ terrified before I descended for my first checkout dive. I was practically in tears, and I came very close to getting out of the water and going home. But once my head was under the surface, it was all over for me.
There are lots of technical diving images in the media, and there’s tons of hype about intense diving/training or gear, but this sport is very personal. Diving is what you make it, and it is perfectly acceptable not to pursue extremes in diving. Make sure you are comfortable and enjoying yourself, make sure that your skills are solid, and then have fun. Be true to yourself, and don’t succumb to pressure.
Do you have any words of inspiration for women in particular seeking a career in this industry?
The same words I’d give anyone – woman or man – in any field. A solid work ethic is critical. The dive industry looks like a big vacation from the outside, but I have never come across a group of people who are more dedicated or who work harder. Get the training and skills you need, be authentic, be honest and modest about your accomplishments, and keep at it. Steve Martin once said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This applies triply to those hoping to make a name for themselves in diving. Exaggeration and ego will only take most people so far before others see through it.
It’s easy to feel like you’ve been everywhere but I’m sure that’s not true! What’s that big dive or trip that’s still at the top of your bucket list?
Ha! I don’t remotely feel as if I’ve been everywhere! I still haven’t been to the Galapagos, and that’s obviously on the list. I haven’t been diving in any polar areas, clearly on the list. Never dived the Azores, South America, the South Island of New Zealand, the south or west coast of Australia, British Columbia, Alaska, Washington state, North Carolina…. You know, I have a very long list, and it gets longer every year — and it doesn’t include the hundreds of places I’d like to return to!
What are you working on now? Where will your next adventure take you?
Fall/early winter is our key time to work on local stock images and stories, and our weekends are booked solid with South and Central California diving until the end of the year. We are fortunate enough to have some remote assignment trips for for 2018, but I’ve always found that it’s better not to speak about those trips in detail beforehand – it jinxes conditions!
For Dive into the Pink, we have a Pink (great white) Shark trip to Guadalupe in August, and we’ll hold several California-based Pink Charters and our annual online auction (including amazing trips, gear from companies like Scubapro, Fourth Element, DUI/OMS, and Shearwater, as well as beautiful apparel and jewelry) in October. After that, who knows? But it will definitely involve being in the water 🙂
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!
I didn’t get to hit up many bucket list dive destinations in 2016. While I absolutely did some very cool dives — in Thailand, Brazil, Jamaica, and Hawaii! — I didn’t go on any dedicated dive trips and didn’t check off any dream dives. And so, as many of you know, I instead focused on keeping myself engaged and excited about diving by jumping headfirst into a trio of continuing education courses.
So, my fellow dive enthusiasts may know that there is kind of a catty term in the scuba community which refers to someone who is obsessed with racking up specialty certifications — “card collectors.” Well, I’m saying loud and I’m saying it proud — I am now officially a certified card collector. If I could take a PADI specialty in getting PADI specialities, I would probably enroll right now. I loved these courses!
I kicked things off with the Self Reliant Diver course at Master Divers, then made my way to Ban’s for an Enriched Air certification, and finally rounded it out with a Sidemount Diver speciality at Sairee Cottage.
So um, what the heck is sidemount? It’s basically a new gear configuration — it simply means that you carry two tanks at your sides instead of one on your back. I’ll get into why you’d want to do that in a bit! Sidemount originated with cave diving in Europe, where pioneers realized moving their tanks alongside their bodies allowed them to keep a lower profile, and to remove one or both cylinders as needed to squeeze through tight passageways. The modern sidemount configuration as we know it today mostly evolved in communities of cavern and cave diving enthusiasts in Florida and The Yucatan. And now it’s spreading around the world.
Including to Thailand. My friend Gordon is a long-time PADI Instructor who got super pumped about sidemount after traveling to Egypt to continue his advanced Tec dive training. He enthusiastically brought a set of the specialized gear back to Koh Tao and started singing the sidemount siren song! I’m so grateful that he did — I have to admit that not long ago, I wanted nothing to do with sidemount. Tec related courses are kind of intimidating to me, and I just didn’t get what the point was. But after a year or so of watching so many of my close diving friends take Gordon’s course and rave about it, I just had to join the club and see what all the fuss was about. And it turns out I really had nothing to be intimidated by — it was the simplest of the three courses I took in 2016 and required only an Open Water Certification and twenty logged dives to begin.
You have two choices when it comes to sidemount training — the PADI Sidemount Diver course introduces divers to sidemount techniques for recreational scuba diving, while the Tec Sidemount Diver course teaches technical divers how to mount at least four tanks for their technical diving adventures. I enrolled in the former.
One of the best things about my little continuing education experiment here on Koh Tao was finding a new dive shop that was the perfect fit for me. I get asked for advice on this constantly and I now have a much wider range of personalized recommendations to dole out. While I had excellent experiences at all three of the dive shops I studied at, it’s Sairee Cottage that has become my go-to for fun diving with friends ever since.
For me, it’s the perfect size — not so big that you get lost in the mix, but still buzzing enough that there’s always someone to grab a coconut with at the swim-up bar after a dive. What’s that? I should have just opened with the swim up bar? Tell me about it! Between the fabulous pool, the coolest classrooms on the island, and a great team of instructors and divemasters — many of whom are my close friends! — I know where I’d sign up to do my Open Water if I was doing it all over again.
The PADI Sidemount speciality consists of one confined and three open water dives. For Gordon and I, that translated to one pool session, one shore dive from the beach right in front of the dive shop, and two open water boat dives that we checked off on a super fun trip to Sail Rock! We spread that out over three days, but some people do it in two.
The speciality also consisted of coursework from the PADI Sidemount and Tec Sidemount Diver Manual — section one pertains to PADI Sidemount Diver, while two and three are for Tec Sidemount Diver. I carefully read section one of the manual, completing quizzes along the way, and wrapping up with a knowledge review to ensure I’d absorbed the information. Of my trio of courses it it was the least time in the classroom, as there isn’t really any complicated dive theory behind sidemount.
Instead, the primary focuses of the course were learning a new equipment setup, perfecting “trim” (your underwater body position and posture) and practicing “back-finning” (swimming backwards using just your feet and fins), learning gas management, and practicing emergency procedures. When I first jumped in that pool with this strange new gear setup I had a flashback to trying drysuit diving in Iceland. After being a certified diver for eight years a lot of my dive routine is on autopilot, but not on these days! My whole body was like, whoa, what is this crazy thing we are doing! If you need to be shaken out of a dive routine — this is one way to do it.
I actually found the trim and backfinning focus to be among the most challenging and the most interesting of the course takeaways, considering those are both important skills that can be used on any dive. Your trim underwater is as important as your posture on land, and though back-finning is primarily of interest to cave divers who need to be able to negotiate tight spaces, it is also a fabulous skill for underwater photographers and videographers who need to nail the perfect composition, too.
After a long day in the pool and digging into my manual and another day putting our skills into practice with a sixty minute shore dive, Gordon and I were joined by several of our friends for the final day of our course on Sairee Cottage’s popular weekly trip to Sail Rock, where I’d really get the chance to put the pieces of the course together and see how I felt about this whole sidemount situation once and for all.
I was absolutely thrilled to be out on the water and surrounded by so many of my favorite people. The Sail Rock trips typically consist of two dives at Sail Rock followed by a third back closer to Koh Tao. One of the biggest pros to diving sidemount is having double the air, which gives you a significantly longer dive time –of course you still need to follow your dive computer’s limits closely to avoid decompression time.
Our friend Brian joined Gordon and I on sidemount, and so while a big group of us all kicked off the dive together, when the single-tank crew surfaced the three of us on sidemount were able to stay down and complete one super-long dive instead of popping up, taking off gear, having a surface interval, putting gear back on and descending a second time. One point for sidemount!
We set a goal of a 100 minute dive time — crazy, right?! — and while I admit I was getting a tad chilly towards the end, it was a pretty fun milestone to cross. The average dive time, at least on Koh Tao, is around 45 minutes, so more than doubling that at the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand was a huge deal. Over and hour and a half kicking it with these amazing underwater critters? Who wouldn’t love that!
Eventually we remembered that we hadn’t grown gills, and returned to the surface.
After our amazing underwater marathon at Sail Rock we took it easy and did a typical 45-minute dive at the third site for the day, my beloved Shark Island. I was amazed by how quickly I’d taken to the sidemount procedure. While I did struggle with getting the gear on at time, once I was underwater it felt incredibly natural, and after just a few dives my muscle memory had already picked up the habit of switching between air sources every 50 bar or so — you don’t want to just let one tank empty all the way before switching to the other, as that would leave you lopsided — as the empty tank grew lighter — and without a backup tank.
It was a beautiful dive and the perfect note to end the course on.
Well, that and the swim up bar drinks we had when we were back on dry land!
So after three days and many, many hours underwater, I definitely got a feel for what all the fuss is about when it comes to sidemount. The benefits are significant — increased air supply (which increases dive time), accessibility of all stages and gauges (as they are under your arm instead of on your back), self reliance in out-of-air situation, a more streamlined underwater profile, easier equipment transport (with two small cylinders as opposed to one big), and versatility (it’s great for those with physical challenges that prevent them from diving a traditional configuration).
What are the drawbacks? Well, you do have to switch between tanks throughout the dive, which make it a more complex gas management system. Also, since sidemount is still fairly rare, you’re unlikely to find a buddy who’s familiar with the equipment unless you BYODB (Bring Your Own Dive Buddy, duh). But mostly, it’s just plain cost.
Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!
I’d recommend this course to potential tec divers who want to get their feet and fins wet,those interested in cavern and cave diving, those who blow through air quickly and long for longer dive times, petite divers who struggle with a traditional configuration, and anyone who wants to shake themselves out of a diving rut.
There are only a few schools on Koh Tao currently offering the PADI Sidemount Diver speciality. The course generally lasts 2-3 days and costs 12,000B. I can’t recommend it — or Sairee Cottage — more highly.
portrait by my friend Paddy of Peach Snaps
Personally, I loved the sidemount configuration. While I have no problem with running out of air (I’m almost always the last person to hit a half tank!), I do have issues with the size of a traditional scuba cylinder compared to the size of my body.
As a 5’1″ woman, I often struggle with the traditional tank-on-the-back setup. Between the system of attaching weights to the tanks and getting the tanks off my back and under my arms, the lower back pain that normally plagues me after a day of diving was completely non-existant! And with slightly smaller cylinders, I’d have even more mobility both above and below the surface. I greatly look forward to sidemount configurations becoming more widely available as I personally would be thrilled to dive this way more often.
I had a blast with this course. Between our hundred minute dive record, the skills I learned, the amazing day I shared with my friends and the absolute badass I felt like underwater, it was not a course I’ll forgot anytime soon.
Divers, would you consider a PADI Sidemount speciality? What should I do next?
All underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.
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It’s pretty much a guarantee that when Alex in Wanderland regular Heather and I do a trip together, we’re going to find somewhere to go diving together, even if it’s the inside of a particularly spacious bathtub. Thankfully it hasn’t come to that quite yet, but suffice it to say these two PADI aqua-addicts love to get their scuba on.
While Brazil has some five star diving destinations like Fernando de Noronha and Bonito, neither were on our original itinerary due to that ever delicate balance of time, location, budget, and season.
But we were hopping along the coast, after all, and spots we were stopping in like Paraty, Ilha Grande, and Buzios all had diving on offer — each of which we were keen to try. Unfortunately it rained non-stop for our time in Paraty, and by the time it cleared up and we reached Ilha Grande, the local divemasters assured us the visibility was so torn up from the storm we might as well be diving in pea soup. So Buzios it was!
From our research, we knew that while there are local dive sites in Buzios, most hardcore divers head to nearby Arraial do Cabo, about an hour west back towards Rio. We called around to several local dive shops in Buzios and ended up booking with P&P, who promised to whisk us to Arraial and back for two dives plus equiptment rental for 320R ($104), or 290R ($94) if we paid in cash — an upcharge for using plastic was common throughout Brazil, unfortunately.
The morning of our dive we were met by a fairly surly dude who refused to make conversation even when I dragged out of him that he was in fact Argentinian and excitedly attempted to speak Spanish. By the time we arrived in Arraial we weren’t super excited to spend the day with him so we were actually fairly happy to realize we were being handed off to another dive operation entirely, Seaquest.
We hopped aboard with Seaquest and were immediately impressed with the organization and cleanliness of the boat, and the friendliness we were greeted with. Within seconds of stepping onboard we pulled away from the harbor, we went to set up our gear and realized that we had been assigned large and extra large wetsuits — we laughed as I held mine up to myself, the legs spilling over a foot beyond my short frame.
We waved over a divemaster who pulled an “oh shit” face before revealing those were the wetsuits they’d been given for us by P&P, to whom we had given our height and weight as requested. Considering an oversized wetsuit is not only ineffective (unless it sits firmly against your skin, cold water will seep in rendering it useless) but can also be dangerous (that water trapped between you and your wetsuit can create drag that restricts mobility), we both immediately refused to wear them and requested that we be brought back to shore rather than sit on the boat for two hours waiting for the other divers to have their fun.
We called P&P en route to ask what had happened, and were shocked when we were indignantly told that based on our weights, they had given us the correct sizes. I replied that with a couple hundred dives under my belt oh and uh, twenty-seven years living in my body I was pretty sure that I knew what size I wore and this enormous mess of unisex neoprene I was holding wasn’t it. We can only assume that they didn’t have enough small wetsuits — a common issue at dive shops everywhere — and were too embarrassed to say so. But we were pretty livid.
At that point, Seaquest radioed back to their shop and asked them to rush a small and medium wetsuit to the dock, and turned around for us to get them. We were embarrassed to delay the whole boat but incredibly grateful to Seaquest for saving the day for us. Lesson learned — I certainly will never leave the dock without checking my equipment again.
Suffice it to say, it was a very dramatic start to the morning! However, once we had two properly fitting wetsuits we decided to leave our frustrations at the surface and enjoy every second of our long-awaited first dive in Brazil.
And oh, how much there was to enjoy! Teeny tiny starfish, curious boxfish, arrow crabs, pufferfish, and my absolute favorite, flying gurnards — a fabulous new-to-me species that was literally everywhere I turned on the dive site. As we began to ascend for our surface interval, I already couldn’t wait for the second dive.
There were even more sea surprises awaiting us at the next dive site. This time, Heather and I had our divemaster to ourself, and he waited patiently while we oohed and ahhed and snapped a million photos of spotted drum, more flying gurnards, and then finally, my favorite find of the day, a colorful spotted eel who bravely darted from coral to coral, letting us admire every inch of his bright pattern.
Turned out Brazil was as colorful underwater as it is on land.
We giggled into our regulators when our divemaster pointed out a man-made wonder — a tiny replica of Rio’s famous Cristo Redentor statue, sunken by what we can only assume was an enterprising local dive shop.
Just as our dive computers began prompting us to make our way back to the land of air-breathers, we spotted one last wonder of the deep — two perfectly posed batfish (different from the orbiculate batfish I know and love in Thailand) practically preening for our cameras.
We had the best time diving with Seaquest — the owner Gabi in particular was an absolute gem! Unfortunately, based on our multiple negative experiences with them, I cannot personally recommend P&P, though perhaps they were just having a really bad day. We left Buzios at 8am and were back by around 2pm. The water temperature was around 73 degrees fahrenheit in May.
If I could do it all again, I’d rent a car for the day and drive myself to Arraial do Cabo (while the diving there was amazing, from our quick glance around town I was glad we were staying in Buzios). Seaquest’s rates are cheaper than those we were quoted in Buzios, so depending on what kind of deal you can get on transportation, it might work out to the same price.
Bottom line? Regardless of how you get there, don’t miss the opportunity to blow bubbles in Brazil!
Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!
Next stop, back to Buzios for one last land-based adventure!
Fellow scuba enthusiasts, do you want your dives to be safer, to stay down longer, and to have more energy for celebratory drinks after rinsing out your gear? I’ll take that as a duh — which is why it’s so crazy it took me so many years to get my nitrox certification.
Earlier in 2016, before leaving Thailand for the summer, I realized I’d hit a bit of a diving rut. My solution? I signed up for three different continuing education courses at three different dive schools on Koh Tao to shake myself out of it! And I chose topics that challenged me. After tackling the Self Reliant Diver certification at Master Divers — which you can read about here — I moved onto the Enriched Air Diver certification course at Ban’s, the largest dive school in the world by volume of divers certified.
The Enriched Air Diver course, also often referred to as “nitrox,” is PADI’s most popular speciality — and it’s easy to see why. (I’ll use the two terms interchangeably throughout this post.) This simple one-day course can be done and dusted in a matter of hours, and in fact as a “dry course,” it can technically be completely without stepping a single fin underwater — though, ahem, why would you want to miss the fun part?!
I chose to take this certification quite seriously. As a PADI Divemaster, I have always felt self-conscious about the gaps in my understanding of dive theory, and I figured this course would be the perfect opportunity to fill them out. And so I turned to my longtime friend and Senior Instructor at Ban’s, Chris Pearson.
As the local coordinator at Hyperbaric Services Thailand, a key member of Koh Tao Rescue, and a PADI Staff Instructor, he was almost over-qualified to certify little ‘ol me in a simple Enriched Air course. I mean, just look at this list of qualification!
• PADI Staff Instructor
• Diver Medical Technician (IMCA)
• Emergency First Responder Instructor Trainer
• C.E.E.R – (Chalenging Environments Emergency Responder) Instructor
• M.I.R.A – (Medicine In Remote Areas) Instructor
• DMR Level IV – (Diver Medical Responder) Instructor
• Hyperbaric Chamber Tender & Operator (SSS Recompression Chamber Network)
Phew! Thankfully, Chris was more than willing to take me on as a student. I knew he’d know exactly how to get the information through to me — Diet Coke lecture analogies, coconut quiz-passing bribes and all.
So, let’s start with the basics. What is enriched air? It all comes down to what’s in the tank. A standard scuba tank is filled with compressed air identical to what we breathe on land, which is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Nitrox tanks on the other hand have an oxygen content of 22-40%, with 32% and 36% being the standard mixes.
Don’t worry, this blog post does not require a calculator — I just wanted to impress you all with the use of fancy fractions. (Did it work? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Yet the real benefits of diving nitrox go beyond wowing your friends with math and the fashion potential of coordinating with those sassy green and yellow tanks.
Less nitrogen is, for the most part, a good thing. Nitrogen is enemy numero uno when it comes to decompression sickness, long breaks between dives, post-diving naps and something called “no decompression limits,” which calculate how long you can stay at certain depths. Diving enriched air allows you to dive longer (due to less nitrogen exposure), safer (you can dive an air profile on a nitrox tank for super conservative dives), with shorter surface intervals (as there’s less nitrogen to off-gas) and with less fatigue (yup, you guessed it, another byproduct of less nitrogen exposure).
So what keeps the entire dive community from ditching standard air and breathing nothing but nitrox? Good question. The answer, for most divers, is simply price. It’s more expensive! Other factors include limited availability, the hassle of checking the blend in your tank for each dive, and stricter depth limits due to the increased risk of oxygen toxicity (there’s always a trade-off, eh?).
The course itself is straightforward. In fact, it is the only PADI dive course ever to be streamlined rather than expanded. Why? Because, dive computers! In some ways, these magic little wrist machines have made diving nitrox as simple as the touch of a button.
But yet you still need to understand the concepts behind the calculations, and that’s where the certification comes in. Things like partial pressure and oxygen toxicity are, in my opinion, quite complicated, and I didn’t want to just pass the test and move on. I really wanted to understand. And so I didn’t move past a single sentence in the course manual until I felt confident I could explain it to a child if necessary. Bottom line? Praise Chris for his patience.
The course kicked off with an introductory video by PADI followed by a custom lecture from Chris and many interruptions by me to ask questions. Next, I sat down for some quality time with my manual, completing a simple knowledge reviews at the end of each chapter to seal in new concepts. Finally came the exam, which I aced with the humble pride that some accept PHD’s with.
And then we put it into practice. After learning to set my dive computer for various nitrox blends, I mastered how to check tanks with an analyzer tool and record my findings, and finally how to read the markings on a nitrox tank. One thing I didn’t realize before taking this course is you MUST check your own gas blend each and every single dive so you can plan accordingly. While oxygen poisoning is incredibly rare, it is serious, and thus divers have to be vigilant about checking their air blend, making a dive plan and staying within their computer’s dive limits.
Ideally, though this step is technically optional, you’ll conclude your course with a dive or two on nitrox so you can see what all the fuss is about. Which is exactly what Chris and I did, to the HTMS Sattakut, one of my old favorite dive sites on Koh Tao.
While it was interesting to note the different readings on my dive computer and to see the different markings on my snazzy new tank, the contents were indiscernible otherwise from standard compressed air — it doesn’t taste, feel, or smell any differently.
Thanks to our longer dive time and shorter surface intervals, we were the last ones back on the boat from the first dive and the first ones back in the water for the second, at good ‘ol White Rock dive site.
And then I was certified, sealed with a high-five at the surface! As we hopped off the dive boat, I felt ready to take on the world — a far cry from my normal post-dive sluggishness.
So what divers should consider getting their Enriched Air certification? Anyone who wants to dive longer and feel sprightlier! Those doing multiple dives over multiple days — on liveaboards, at dive resorts, etc. — are the primary targets. Those looking to brush up on certain dive concepts (like me!) will also find it a great catch-all little course to really check your comprehension of dive theory, with the right instructor. And finally, those pursuing other specialities like Intro to Tech, Photography, Sidemount, and other courses that involve staying underwater for longer will find nitrox to be a natural step in their continuing education.
If you too are considering this course, you’ll walk away with a comprehensive understanding of what nitrox is, when and when not to dive it, what the risks are, and how to plan for enriched air dives.
I feel strongly that finding the right PADI dive shop and instructor are key when it comes to this course. I’ve heard it described by so many in the diving industry as “an easy sign off” and “a throwaway course” and while I don’t want anyone reading this to be discouraged or intimidated from signing up, I also don’t like to see it treated dismissively. So look for the right fit.
Only a handful of shops on Koh Tao compress their own enriched air. I recommend taking the course at a school that does, and asking your instructor if they actually use it. Ban’s is one of those schools, and Chris is one of those instructors. Clearly, I was thrilled with my experience and can’t recommend Chris more highly. If you’re looking to take this or any other recreational diving or dive medic training course on Koh Tao, reach out to him!
Personally, I’ll be diving nitrox whenever it’s available and affordable to me from here forward. It just feels good!
And as someone who used to joke that I had to stop watching Bill Nye the Science Guy because all the theory was a bit over my head, I was proud to really wrap my mind around this course. If these things come easy to you, kudos! If not, don’t be discouraged. Science has never come easy to me, and for too long I let that mental block dictate what I thought I could and couldn’t achieve with diving. These days I know that with the right instructor, the right attitude, and a bribe of one fresh coconut for passing my final exams, there’s little in diving I can’t do.
Do you dive nitrox? Let’s get gassy in the comments!
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!