"Welcome to Los Angeles International, this is your captain
speaking. We’re going to be sitting on the tarmac for a bit due to the fog, but
we’ll get you to your gate and on your way as soon as possible.”
The fog is a by-product of the unusual weather that
California is experiencing during one of the wettest winters on record. It’s
keeping me reaching the town of Thousand Oaks, where I’ll be participating in
the SSI Extended Range Nitrox Diving Instructor program. Over the course of
three days, my abilities as an instructor, both in the classroom and underwater,
will be developed and evaluated by a pair of XR Instructor Trainers.
After collecting my baggage and a rental car, I head north
through driving rain to reach Thousand Oaks and Channel Islands Scuba, who will
be hosting our training for the weekend. The evening quickly disappears in a
blur of unpacking and equipment assembly. Although a dry suit isn’t required
equipment for XR divers, water temperatures off the coast linger at about 55°F
(12°C), and I will be teaching the program to students in Colorado, where temperatures
can drop even lower.
The Extended Range Nitrox Diving program is my first step
into the world of extended range diving. In contrast to the traditional view of a
technical diver, who is covered in hoses, gauges, and cylinders filled with
exotic breathing gases, this program can be completed by students wearing a
traditional single-cylinder configuration. Students learn the skills necessary
to plan a dive with no more than 15 minutes of decompression, using one stage
cylinder, and planned using only the gas in their back cylinders.
Along with my dry suit, I’ve packed an Extended Range Nitrox
Total Diving System. Two regulators, one rigged with a seven-foot long hose,
and another with a long hose and SPG that will be used for a staged
decompression cylinder, my Mares Power Plana fins (weighted to be slightly negatively
buoyant – a blessing for a dry suit diver with a tendency to float his feet),
and other odds and ends complete the setup.
The first day of class is entirely about the academics and
training techniques used by Extended Range instructors. We cover the format of
the program, the SSI Training Standards, and the academic training, which
includes gas management and dive planning for extended range dives. Our
afternoon is filled with an equipment configuration workshop, where our
instructors explain the benefits and limitations of the various configuration
options available to Extended Range Nitrox Diving students.
The California monsoon continues throughout our second day
as we assemble our equipment for our in-water training session. SSI’s XR programs all require a pool/confined water training session, where we review
skills like the S-Drill, which verifies that the diver’s regulators and
cylinders are operating properly, and the Decompression Gas Switch, which
ensures that the diver safely switches from the gas in their
back-mounted cylinder to the gas in the stage cylinder slung underneath their
left arm. This skill also tests my ability to maintain neutral buoyancy in
shallow water with a dry suit, and put a serious dent in my personal ego.
Our third day starts well before sunrise, with a full moon
burning down from a cloudless sky as we drive out to meet the boat that will be
taking us to Anacapa Island for our open water training. The sun begins to rise
as we motor out of the harbor, and we are escorted to the island by sea lions,
dolphins hunting a bait ball near the surface, and even a couple of migrating
As we don our equipment, I jealousy eye the XR dry suits
that our instructors effortlessly slip into as I sweat my way through the
suiting up process. A pre-dive briefing covers the duties of each team member,
the environmental conditions, the configuration of each team member, and the
Rolling off the side of the dive boat is like returning
home. Splashing down through a waterfall of bubbles into the cold Pacific Ocean,
memories of past dives flood into my mind. The coastal waters of California are
filled with amazing kelp forests that house an incredible diversity of life,
from the tiny little crabs that live their entire lives on a few blades of
kelp, to the six-gilled sharks and sea lions that dart amongst the kelp
holdfasts in search of prey.
We’re not here to sight-see, so we perform our S-drills and
head deeper, adjusting our buoyancy and dry suit inflation for the depth and
finning into the current. Once at depth, we run through a sequence of drills
that test our ability to manipulate our stage cylinders with gloves on, team management during the bottom, ascent, and decompression phases of the
dive. A couple of playful sea lions glide by to check our progress, and an
inquisitive harbor seal gives me a critical eye as I work through the
decompression gas switch exercise at our 6-meter (20-foot) stop.
The diving passes all too quickly, and we’re soon back in the
classroom for a final exam and review of dive planning software programs. The
SSI philosophy of “comfort through repetition” means that we initially learned
how to plan dives by hand with gas planning sheets. Once we were comfortable
with the theory and equations behind the planning process, we could graduate to
digital software that follows the same algorithms, but makes the process much
quicker, and reduces the likelihood of math errors.
As I board the plane for home, it’s hard to believe that so
much has happened in such a short period. My head is filled with gas planning
equations, skill demonstrations, and the constructive criticism that I can use
to improve my teaching techniques for both recreational and XR training
programs. I’ve only scratched the surface of what XR offers, and I can’t wait
to push the abilities of both myself as an instructor, and my new students.