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Gearing up to go down

Divers descend upon Tampa Convention Center for this week's Underwater Intervention Conference in search of state-of-the-art diving equipment.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2001

TAMPA -- Scuba divers are gearheads. If it is bigger, better, badder ... they have to have it.

[Times photo: Chris Schneider]
Gordon Watts tries on a neoprene hood at the Viking Diving Equipment stand at the Underwater Intervention Conference at the Tampa Convention Center Tuesday. The hood is part of a dry suit.
They want to dive deeper, swim faster and stay down longer. Heck, if doctors found a way to surgically implant gills, there would be a waiting list a mile long.

The sport has come a long way in recent years. A decade ago, the only people using mixed gas outside of a few cave and wreck explorers were military and commercial divers.

And it is those professionals who still spearhead the development of the most technologically advanced and exotic gear.

"How much for that rig?" I asked David Smith, a salesman for DIVEX, a British firm in town for this week's Underwater Intervention Conference at the Tampa Convention Center. "Looks like it would be great for spearfishing."

The Stealth SF mixed gas rebreather allows a diver to descend to 300 feet. The unit's "scrubbers" clean and recirculate the gas, which allows a diver to stay underwater for 3-6 hours without releasing any telltale bubbles to scare fish.

"It would be great for spearfishing," I said. "In fact, I've got a few buddies who would probably take one off your hands right now."

Smith laughed and said the SF Stealth was designed for the military, because commandos, like spearfishermen, are sneaky.

"At $32,000 a piece, we don't get much business from the recreational sector," he said. "But spearfishermen, eh? That could be a new market for us."

Most of the folks who visit these trade shows work on oil rigs, deep-sea wrecks and other salvage operations. But there are still plenty of bargains to be had for regular folks, if you have the cash.

In the market for a good submarine? Stop by the Kokes Marine Technologies booth. They have an underwater boat for hire. The diesel-electric powered U.S. Corsair can be transported to any location for habitat studies, sonar surveys, ecosystem monitoring, salvage operations and archaeological work.

"Can I just rent it for a day?" I asked the firm's president, Gregory Kokes. "You know ... throw a party for my colleagues in the sports department."

Kokes said for $10,000-$35,000 a day, he would be happy to oblige, as long as we left from the sub's home port in New Jersey.

But while technology is the focus of Underwater Intervention, there were a few people more concerned with the basic tenets of diving.

"It all comes down to training," said Petty Officer 2nd class Tim Alexander of the U.S. Navy's Experimental Diving Unit. "The best equipment in the world isn't any good to you if you don't know how to use it."

The focus of many diving instructors is selling equipment, not training safe, competent divers. Computers have become so commonplace that many divers enter the water without understanding the basics of the U.S. Navy's diving tables.

The dive tables that most computers are based on were developed by men like Alexander ... young, fit and at the top of their game. Most recreational divers, however, hardly fit that description. That is why relying on any one piece of equipment, especially a computer, can be so dangerous.

"Some people might think that diving in a nuclear reactor is dangerous," Alexander said. "I don't, because that is what I am trained to do.

"But ride a motorcycle, now that would be dangerous for me," he said. "I don't have the training."

Recent coverage

When bare bottom's a necessity (October 6, 2000)

Scuba class teaches kids how to take the plunge (May 26, 2000)

Divers brave hazards to bring closure (July 22, 1999)

Divers' rule No. 1: Never leave your buddy behind (January 10, 1999)

Diving into the past (May 8, 1998)

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