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Detachment and Involvement: the Diver Must Have Both

I've been involved with technical diving for about 15 years.

Some people look at that and go, "Wow! Cool!" Plenty more snort and think, "Rookie."

For my part I think it's just about the right number of years, because I'm pretty damn happy with where I am along the path of this particular game of Candyland.

I bring it here simply as a vantage point. One from which I've seen a phenomenon play out over and over again. Something that most "lifers" recognize happens, but many of us only idly speculate about the causes of, then shrug and reconcile it as acceptable losses.

5-year heroes.

The general arc goes like this: Year 1 - OW certified and immediately hooked on diving. Year 2 - Have taken every single class at the recreational level and started in at the technical level. Year 3 - Tech and/or Cave certified and diving like crazy. Very possibly bought a rebreather. Year 4 - Diving all the time. Becoming a fixture on boats or in cave country. Doing some pretty aggressive stuff. People are probably telling them to slow down all the time. Year 5 - They are seen less frequently, always have something else going on. But still show up to do major dives from time to time.

And after that... occasionally someone will ask, "Hey, whatever happened to XXXXX?"

And everyone will look at eachother and mumble. Maybe someone will know what they're doing from Facebook. But for the most part, you never hear from them again.

This is, obviously, not a strict or uniform timeline. But it's accurate enough, having been repeated enough. This is clearly evidenced any time someone asks, "How many cave divers are there?" Well, TDI (the one agency that is very open with their numbers) issues something like a couple thousand a year... but there certainly aren't tens of thousands of cave divers out there. They're either never using them or cycling out.

But why? Why do we lose divers out of the sport?

There's a couple of possibilities, or combinations of these possibilities. Some of them we have no control over - some we can change. And change for the better for all of us.

Time, we have no control over. (And a good thing, too; because the way humanity tends to think - we would totally go back to the Permian period and stomp all the butterflies we could find, just to see what would happen.)

So when someone takes a new job, or they get married, or have a child, or go back to school, or whatever else... their priorities change. Diving takes a back seat. And, perhaps, as all that enthusiasm and energy and attention they poured into diving gets redirected into whatever their new endeavour is they start to forget what was so exciting about floating around like a manatee. They start to question whether it was ever worth getting up at 4AM to do it in the first place.

They may also start to wonder whether it was worth all the money. Because, let's face it, diving at this level is expensive. You hit a point where you have already spent tens of thousands of dollars on kit... but then you start tabulating, "I want a rebreather, and a scooter, and a backup scooter, and a new drysuit, and booster, and 6 more regulators, and ...." The reality of that "and" is that it never, ever ends.

When you start wondering about asking your boss for three raises in a year so you can get the toys you want... it's almost oppressive.

(Nelly and I only ever bought a car in NY so we could go diving. Then we bought a house in Mexico. We joke that our home is actually dive gear.)

Time and money. Money and time. The two things there is never, ever enough of. And, for the most part, there isn't much we can do as a community to substantially ease those factors in divers' lives. But we can alter the way we think about what follows.

Time and money are also intrinsically related to challenge.

What I mean by that is that as your diving progresses, eventually you hit a wall. You have, you all have. You have already done all the dives at a particular level... so you feel the need to progress.

So you take a class. And a new depth limit is opened to you. Or deeper penetration into the cave. A barrier gets removed. There are lots of new dives ahead and now you can grow and flourish more with fresh challenges.

Eventually you will hit that point, however, that to go further or to go deeper or to do The Big Dive you actually need to have a rebreather and a pair of scooters. So without the buy-in, you're SOL. And it is not an insignificant buy-in.

Let's assume you've got the bank to pick them up without even making a dent in the checkbook. Well... if you've got that kind of money, I'm guessing that means you've got a pretty demanding job... which means you're a little short on time. So maybe, while you have the toys, you can't really be out practicing and practicing and practicing so that your skills are up to The Big Dive.

OK, groovy, you have both and you did The Big Dive and it was awesome. Eventually you are still going to wall out.

There hits a point where the only way you're going to do certain dives or get to certain places is if all you're doing is diving all the time. Basically, live in the area, possibly even work as a dive pro.

Lacking the availability to do that, there are no more challenges ahead. No more progress available. You shall not pass.

Here's a key point: This is one place where we can make a change. Possibly make a change to keep divers around and keep them involved in our community.

Why the fuck does it always have to be about deeper or further or longer dives? Why don't we shift our focus to better dives. I mean better AS divers. Work on trim. Work on propulsion. Work on buoyancy. Play with simply floating in a semi-meditative state, just being underwater. instead of needing to gain the bragging rights of, "I did the Grand Traverse" or whatever... simply be.

A few years ago it became very en vogue to post screenshots of your Shearwater after 8 hour dives (yeah, of course I did it, too). But a few friends, some top-notch divers, took the very sensible step of starting to post screenshots of 45 and 60 minute dives. The explicit message being, "It's still diving and it's fun and awesome. Enjoy the dive, not the bragging rights." They were trying to encourage people to stop striving after The Big Dive as an end-goal, something to be checked off a list.

What they were doing was a great example of what I'm talking about. Let's try to avoid an environment of "been there - done that." Because no matter who you are, there will eventually hit a point where there are no hills available to you to climb.

When that happens within 5 years, our heroes move on to mountain biking, or skiing, or sky diving, or bull-riding, or some other damn fool thing that is probably boring because it isn't diving. But there are fresh challenges for them to overcome.

The fourth factor, to my mind, of why we may lose divers is DEFINITELY something we can change. But it won't be any fun.

It's an old story: kid waits outside the locker room, or writes a bunch of letters, or stands in line for hours in the rain... just waiting for the opportunity to meet their hero. And the moment comes, a moment they've been waiting for and daydreaming about for years... and it turns out their hero is a drunken asshole who says something shitty to them.

Every diver I know everywhere in the world is in this sport just as much for the community as for the bottom time. We like being around other divers. We like to feel a part of something. We're a tribal species and we like to be around "our people."

As we move "up" through the various certifications and levels, the community gets smaller and smaller. It gets to where it feels like you know damn near everyone.

And everyone, it suddenly seems one day, is kind of a dick.

THIS is where we can really affect a change.

We're all kinda type-A. We wouldn't have gone through all that time and energy and effort to challenge ourselves and work as hard as we all have to do the kinds of dives that we like to do otherwise. Technical diving is not exactly the XTREME! sport that "outsiders" frequently think of it as - but there is a grain of truth to the myth. We're not adrenaline junkies, but we're certainly not averse to the odd adrenaline spike.

When you get a bunch of type-A personalities in a room together... they clash. The next thing you know this one isn't talking to that one and neither are any of their friends. Then you have these years-long clan feuds that started over where to clip a fucking boltsnap.

Knock it off. Be mindful of it and avoid it. It's an obvious shortcoming.

All the shit talking. All the backbiting. All the, "Oh you should never go to that shop, those owners are poo-poo heads."

Yeah, it's fun to talk shit and feel all righteous (there actually is a little surge of adrenaline and dopamine when you're "right," which feels good). But it is completely pointless and actually damaging, both personally and communally.

Because how does all that sound to someone new to the sport? Someone who is excited to be part of a welcoming, well-functioning community? Someone who already has the time factor and the money factor and the challenge factor all loading the scales to bear...

Which do you think is going to be a more effective way to help a person keep everything balanced? To give them the opportunity to think all that other stuff is worth the effort? - Being cooly cynical about everything in the dive world? - Being inclusive and community-minded?

I'd propose we've demonstrated that the first option doesn't work. Because of all the 5-year heroes.

Let's try the second.

Keeping people around for longer, keeping them engaged and active, would strengthen our global community in a multitude of ways. Getting people to think about diving as the thing itself to be polished and savoured, not just a set of goals to meet. Giving people something worthwhile to balance against their valuable time and money.

Lets work towards more "lifers" and fewer 5-year heroes.

Or not. That would also mean more divers in the cave I want to go be alone with my team in. And that would suck.

Nevermind. Go back and don't read any of this. Just check out this picture of people enjoying eachother's company as much as they enjoy the dive by SJ and move on.

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