There seems to be a question regarding rebreathers, that comes up from time to time and I was recently asked my opinion again.
Some divers that are ready to advance into the realm of technical diving are wondering if they should take their training in open circuit first and advance to a rebreather later or if they should just go straight to the rebreather.
This is a complicated question and there are many aspects of this to consider before an informed decision can be made. One must consider the type of diving that is in the divers’ future first and foremost, along with the many others. I will attempt to address most of these concerns in a fair and unbiased manner.
1 - Type of diving that is expected.
If you plan to stay within recreational diving limits, then the whole question is a moot point really. There is absolutely no need to go through with your training and incur the additional expense if you never intend to use it. The learned skills will deteriorate, if not practiced on a regular basis.
Will you be diving deep or within the cave systems? This might be a justifiable reason to go to a rebreather. If you will only be doing the occasional tech dive, then maybe the open circuit approach would be of the most benefit in both cost and proficiency. If you will doing frequent dives where the risk / reward (more later) can justify the rebreather, then it might be time to look in that direction.
2 - Peer Pressure.
This is completely the WRONG reason to go to a rebreather. If you can do the dives that you want to do with either the gear you have or upgrading to doubles (with proper training of course), then there is not much need to let the influence of those around you dictate your path.
I know more than one person, that went to a rebreather just because those around had done it. Most of those divers have since sold the units and went back to OC. They just could not justify the rebreather for the type of diving that they were doing. I actually offer a “tip of my hat” to those that broke free of the crowd.
3 - Rock Star status.
I have often been amazed at how many people on the local dives boats will look at a rebreather diver as some sort of “rock star” just because of their dive gear. Granted, it is nice to have so many people interested in what you are doing, but when you hear very young and inexperienced divers saying that they are looking to get into rebreathers and want you opinions, it can be disconcerting at times. “Chicks dig dudes with rebreathers” or “All the cool kids have em” are the absolute worst examples to let other hear, even though they are tossed around quite a bit.
4 - Training.
Training will be needed to move into the technical aspect of diving. There is the school of thought that says a diver needs to be proficient with OC technical diving before he should ever move to a rebreather. The reasoning for this is very simple. If there is ever a problem with the rebreather and the diver is forced off the loop, he is instantly on OC with his bailout gas. The diver will need to be confident and comfortable with the OC, both to control the breathing rate and to safely manage any needed gas switches.
Do you need to train in OC before you can take a rebreather course? No, but you need to make sure that you are extremely comfortable before making that choice. Many rebreather divers who once felt that OC training should be done first are now seeing that the skill from that training have now diminished due to lack of practice on OC. One such diver recently stated that if he could do it all over again, he would skip the OC stuff.
I made my decision with the help of an instructor friend of mine. Even at the loss of revenue and a student, he recommended that I skip the OC and save on the gear and training costs. I went straight to the rebreather and am still happy that I did do. I feel that I must also mention that I do have one annoying voice in the back of my head because of this. I do not have much real experience with OC deep dives and gas switches. I have done it multiple times in courses but not in a real life scenario. Thus, I am always concerned with doing proper gas switches. I am confident that I can manage and maybe these voices are a good thing. Remember this – Just because you are paranoid, does not mean that they are not after you.
5 - Cost.
This is a basis no-brainer. If you train on OC and then train again on a rebreather, you will obviously incur more cost than only train on a rebreather. There is not any waste in gaining knowledge, but you will need to justify to yourself by what your timeline is and you end goal. Perhaps OC for a few years to gain experience while saving money for the purchase of a rebreather is the route you might want to consider.
Do not be misled into thinking that once you purchase a rebreather that you are set. There are also consumables that will need to be taken into account also. Sorb, batteries, and sensors are a few of these. You will still need OC tanks and regulators for your bailout. The lower cost of gas fills will help to offset these new costs, but do not think that it is going to be cheaper than OC. It will become very cost effective if you are diving deep and using helium, since the OC gas costs are just ridiculous.
6 - Safety.
OC gear has a very long and proven track record of reliability and safety. This was not always the case, but modern gear has advanced a long way and has proven itself to both the general public and the diver. If OC was not reliable, it would seem rather foolhardy to use it a bailout for rebreather diving, am I wrong?
Rebreathers, on the other hand, have been given a very bad reputation by the uniformed public. Rebreathers are definitely much more complex and take a greater degree of both time and discipline to use safely. There are many aspects of rebreather diving that can be potentially hazardous, if not fatal. I will not dwell on this as it will be covered in depth during training. It is my opinion that as a rebreather diver, we are trained to deal with any and all of the possible issues that could arise and we are safer due to the fact that we also have a completely redundant OC gas supply.
7 - Parts and Service.
You will need to be able to get both parts and service for any dive gear you have. It would be very advantageous if it could be done local to you. If others around you have the same gear, it will make it easier to locate emergency spare parts and possibly a bit of assistance with your gear if needed.
8 - Photography.
I have heard some OC divers try to tell me that they can interact with marine life just a easily and get just as close as I can with my rebreather. I think they are misguided and have not have the luxury of seeing what can actually be accomplished with a rebreather. I have been taking pictures long before I ever got my first rebreather and quite frankly, I don’t know how I ever managed to get the shots I did back then.
9 – Consideration to others.
Regardless of which route you decide to take, make sure to talk to other important people in your life and make sure that they know exactly what you are doing. Do not try to comfort them with lies of how safe this sport is or how you will be OK. Remember that when we go under the surface of the water, we have just entered a hostile environment that we are not meant to be in. Things can and do go wrong, the odds are definitely in our favor, but the brown stuff does fly once in awhile.
Please take the time to weigh out the risks of your choices and balance them against what you will take away from the experience. Share this with your loved ones and be forthcoming with all the facts. It is far better for everyone involved (even if they do not dive with you) to have all the information.