Technically Speaking: Support Diving: It’s Not All About Carrying Tanks

Being a support diver with the Sydney Project comes with mixed blessings. On one hand, being part of a team of divers and non-divers who are passionate about the search and location of undiscovered wrecks and pushing dive limits is a rush. On the other hand, cynics label the job of support diver as ‘tank carrier’, ‘lackey’ or worse,

As a support diver, I concede that that carrying tanks is part of the JD. When there are up to 8 CCR’s, 20 variously sized cylinders of mix and O2, shot line, deco station, first aid and O2 kit, along with personnel gear to load onto a charter, no one in the team escapes the role of being a tank carrier.

A Sydney Project support diver is anyone on the team who has elected to provide a supporting role to divers on a deep dive expedition.  The team has divers who are primarily Support Divers (or as with myself a support diver and dive supervisor), and  we have deep divers who regularly contribute as a support divers - it is not unusual for existing deep divers to voluntarily rotate between deep dives, support and supervisory roles.

I recently read an article written sometime ago by the South African Cave Diving team Xtreme Dream who noted that ATTITUDE is what is required to be a good support diver. Attitude that is ‘CAN DO’. I’d take that further and also included an attitude that is positive and orientated to achieving the goal of the expedition. An attitude has the ability to think through, around and over problems as they arise, and as the article also noted – problems do arise.

Support divers preparation starts before the dive, involves a thorough understanding the type of dive that is being carried out and preparing own dive equipment.

A support diver’s role is to alleviate the peripheral pressures on expedition divers allowing them to focus on successful completion of the dive at hand.

Being familiar with dive plans, emergency protocols and equipment being used by deep divers is necessary. Deploying shot lines, deco station and running the cross over line – in strong current it tests your endurance, tenacity and dive abilities.

Knowledge and understanding of each deep diver’s preparation and routine is an advantage of being a regular Support Diver for the same team of deep divers. Although pre-dive preparation is similar for each deep diver, the divers themselves are quite different. Requests for assistance can range from capturing the moment with a photo, securing off-board tanks, cooling down overheated divers with buckets of water and providing drinking water to handling scooters, video and photographic equipment as divers prepare.

The more equipment a deep diver dons the less mobile and more unstable they become while out of the water.  Helping to stabilize deep divers on deck in rolling or rough seas requires more than one person and can be a challenging and daunting task.

Once Deep Divers are in the water, our Support Divers spend time up top preparing the deco station with rehydrating fluids, 100% and 40% O2 cylinders and shark pods – these are the essentials. Depending on which deep divers are on expedition, other items that maybe requested include MP3 players (Andy can’t be away from his classical music for too long), magazines, books and lollies.

Personally I adore being on, in or under that ocean, and there is a period of quietness waiting for deep divers to reach the 40m mark on their ascent. Support divers may still be busy on the lookout for deep diver SMB’s and preparing for deco, but there is something special about being off-shore a calm day.  It’s not unusual for marine life such as seals; sunfish, dolphins and the odd passing whale to glide by. It’s an aspect of expeditions that I find enjoyable and a time when I take stock of just how fortunate we are to be able to venture out and explore the oceans mysteries.

During decompression support divers are constantly in the water retrieving unneeded tanks and equipment, supplying additional weights, clipping up loose fins or tightening gloves and assisting where ever possible.
Support Divers also provide an invaluable line of communication between the Dive Supervisor and the returning deep divers. Support divers delivered information to the skipper and dive supervisor. Monitor the condition of deep divers during decompression and hang around in the water for the last of the returning deep divers providing a bit of company – this kind of support is not technical, it’s human.

As divers finish their deco, support divers are still in action assisting Deep Divers back onto board the charter. Ease of getting back on the boat depends on a number of factors, primarily the surface conditions. Timing is everything, not only in getting divers back on deck, but also getting scooters, video and photographic equipment on deck unscathed.

As the last of the deep divers surface, one of the final in-water tasks Support tend to accomplish is retrieving O2 cylinders, pods and anything else that can be removed easing the retrieval of the station.

The upside to all this work is being part of a team who is passionate about researching, locating and diving deep wrecks.  Spending days at a time away, several times a year with similarly crazy people tucked up in sometimes questionable accommodation, long winter days (dawn to dusk) miles and miles off-shore hoping to hit a wreck and get divers back in the boat before the southerly hits. Being there when the proverbial hits the fan, and enjoying the success when it all goes right.

Support divers may not be on the front page, they may not see the actual wreck or break the record, they are there none-the-less. They have proven to be an integral part of many expeditions over time, contributing to team successes in cave diving, deep wreck diving, maritime archaeological surveying, free-diving, filming and other projects that require an underwater support network.

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