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    How Did We Get Here? 

    A Short History of Diver Travining

    By Alex Brylske


    Just for a moment, indulge me and take a short two-part quiz. Can you recite Dalton’s law of partial pressures, or explain the significance of the equation P1V1=P2V2? Probably not. But if you’re one of the minority who can answer either or both questions, I’ll wager that you’ve taken a technical diving course or that you’re a dive professional.

    OK, here’s part two. Can you explain, in the context of diving, the terms bailout, station breathing or ditch and don? This one I’ll bet, even if you’re a young techie, you won’t know. In fact, unless you’re a student of the history of diving, or have more volumes to your dive log than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I suspect you’re completely clueless.
    The reason for this test is to demonstrate how much diver education has changed over the years. Twenty-five or 30 years ago even a neophyte fresh out of his entry-level scuba course would have passed this quiz with flying colors. The reason is simple: These subjects and skills were a part of almost every scuba course in existence. But not any longer.
    Like all things, scuba training has evolved. It has responded, and has been fundamentally reinvented, in response to a myriad of factors ranging from technological innovations to improvements in educational theory to shifting participant demographics.
    Occasionally, it’s instructive to look back as a way to understand how we got to where we are today. Such perspective enables us to appreciate why learning certain concepts or skills are so critical to our safety. It also gives us insight into how diver education has improved its methods and effectiveness. Plus, to many, knowing how things were done in years past is just downright interesting, and demonstrates that all divers are part of a community with a rich history.

    The Early Days

    Understanding the evolution of scuba training in North America is impossible without first exploring the evolution of its predecessor, free diving. That is, diving without the aid of scuba. While free diving certainly took place here on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps the most significant events driving it forward occurred in post-World War I Europe. And while many anonymous free divers no doubt braved the world beneath the waves, it was one intrepid American who brought free diving into public focus. He was a World War I aviator and expatriate named Guy Gilpatric who started diving to catch fish while living on the French Riviera. Aside from a crude pole spear, Gilpatric’s gear included only a pair of his flying goggles that he had sealed with putty and paint. He didn’t even have a pair of fins. What brought Gilpatric to a role of prominence was not necessarily his prowess but the fact that he wrote about it. As a freelance journalist he published a series of articles about “goggling” in the widely popular Saturday Evening Post magazine, giving folks on this side of the pond their first exposure to what we would later term recreational diving. In 1938, his articles were compiled into what is now an obscure but important book, which some describe as the real catalyst of recreational diving. That book, “The Compleat Goggler,” has long been out of print, but you can still find copies for sale occasionally on eBay. (An interesting side note is that Gilpatric was nominated for an Academy Award in 1943 for penning the screenplay for the Humphrey Bogart classic, “Action in the North Atlantic.”) By the early 1930s, pioneers like Californians Glen Orr, Jack Prodanovich, and Ben Stone formed the first spearfishing club in the United States — the famous San Diego Bottom Scratchers (which still exists today).
    What Gilpatric started these pioneers refined. The Bottom Scratchers developed improved equipment, refined free diving techniques, and by sharing their knowledge, provided what amounted to the first diver training in America. But the device that was eventually to liberate free divers from the constraints of their lung capacity was still a few years — and another World War — in the future. This story, too, begins in Europe.
    One of Gilpatric’s protégés was a young French naval officer who took up free diving as therapy in recovering from a near-fatal auto accident. From our perspective as divers, this was clearly the most significant auto accident in history because the victim was none other than Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Rather than merely spearing fish, though, Cousteau had a passion for filmmaking; and an obvious film subject was the undersea world to which Gilpatric had introduced him. The problem was that filmmakers had to remain underwater longer than spearfishers, and the time limitation imposed by breath-holding just wouldn’t work.
    Being a naval officer, Cousteau was already familiar with a self-contained diving apparatus developed a decade earlier by another Frenchman named Le Prieur. So, Cousteau went to Paris in the fall of 1942 to meet with Emile Gagnan. A talented engineer whose specialty was valves, Gagnan agreed to help Cousteau. He proposed a valve based on a design he had invented that would convert automobiles from gasoline to natural gas.
    Their original design was only marginally successful, and Cousteau almost drowned during a test dive. But after significant retooling, the device was pronounced a success in the summer of 1943. With a simple, safe and reliable breathing apparatus, the stage was set for the creation of the new sport of scuba diving. All that was needed now was a way of training people how to use it. For the next chapter in our story we return to America.
    While the actual events are sometimes disputed, most believe that the new “aqualung” was brought to the United States in 1948 by a Navy UDT commander, Doug Fane. The next year, Cousteau sent six units to a friend, Rene Bussoz, who owned a sporting goods store near the UCLA campus. Seeing the potential value of scuba for scientific investigation, a young graduate student, Conrad Limbaugh, convinced his professor to buy two of the units. Soon after, Limbaugh, along with an associate, Andy Rechnitzer, began diving along the Southern California coast.
    In 1950 the two enrolled in the Ph.D. program at San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and the first scuba training in the United States — the informal tutoring Limbaugh and Rechnitzer did for their colleagues — had begun. The need for more formalized training was soon apparent when in 1952 a student at another California university died in a diving accident.
    Alarmed by the death, the Scripps administration asked Limbaugh to create a training course and manual. The result was the first formal scuba training program and textbook in the United States. In 1954, also concerned over the potential hazards of this increasingly popular sport, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation sent three representatives — Al Tilman, Bev Morgan, and Ramsey Parks — to San Diego to take Limbaugh’s course. This became the first formal scuba instructor program conducted in the United States. Returning to Los Angeles, the trio formed the nation’s first recreational scuba training program under the auspices of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, a program that still exists today.
    In December 1951, two of diving’s earliest and most influential enthusiasts, Chuck Blakeslee and Jim Auxier, published the first periodical devoted exclusively to the sport, Skin Diver magazine. At first it was geared toward spearfishing and free diving, but soon turned its attention to the increasingly popular activity of scuba. Part of its mission was to enable divers from throughout America to share information. As training was one of the most important areas of concern, Skin Diver began a column encouraging instructors to share ideas and techniques on diver training. Written by Neil Hess, “The Instructor’s Corner” was an instant success, and any instructor who submitted a course outline for review was listed in the column as a training source.
    While California was the center of the country’s diving community, events were occurring elsewhere that would have equal influence on diver training. In 1956 the National YMCA formed a committee — headed by National Physical Education Director Bernard Empleton — to publish a textbook based on the then-available resource material related to scuba diving. The committee published the results of its work under the auspices of the Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics (CNCA) — a textbook called “The Science of Skin and Scuba Diving.” Although significantly revised, this text is still in print today (retitled “The New Science of Skin and Scuba Diving”) and used in some diving programs. In August 1959 the YMCA conducted America’s first national instructor training program.
    By 1960, Neil Hess felt that diver training should be more organized, and instructor training more controlled than could be achieved through the informal process of his Instructor’s Corner column. His idea was to start a national training organization using Los Angeles County’s diver training program as a model. For guidance Hess turned to Al Tilman, who headed the Los Angeles program. The two organized an instructor certification course in Houston in 1961 that attracted more than 60 of the top diving educators in America. Initially, Hess planned to call the new group the National Diving Patrol, a tribute to the highly successful National Ski Patrol. But that name had already been taken by another entity, and it was decided to call the fledgling organization the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). Many participants of that first instructor course would eventually go on to make significant contributions to diving, and a few are still active even today.
    Over the next few years a small contingent of divers from the Midwest grew increasingly dissatisfied with the existing diver training infrastructure, contending that it was unresponsive to the needs of inland instructors. In response, Ralph Erickson, an aquatics instructor from Chicago’s Loyola University — and graduate of the first NAUI Instructor Institute — along with his friend and diving equipment sales representative, John Cronin, formed the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) in 1966. In 1973, seeking to establish a more national perspective, PADI moved from Chicago to the Mecca of the American diving scene, Southern California.
    Meanwhile, believing that their needs were not being addressed by the existing training programs, a group of diving retailers led by John Gaffney formed the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools (NASDS) in 1967. Three years later, after an internal dispute, a group within the NASDS organization lead by Bob Clark broke off to form Scuba Schools International (SSI). The landscape of recreational diver training as we know it today had been formed. (Incidentally, in 1999 NASDS remerged with SSI.)

    Time Marches On

    Throughout diving’s early and middle history, participants were a macho crew of daredevils whose activities, like their free diving predecessors, centered primarily on killing fish. As might be expected, their training programs reflected this commitment to hunting and other testosterone-enriched activities. Many early instructors were ex-military, and, not surprisingly, modeled their courses on the requirements, content, and activities used in military training. For example, diving’s most popular (in fact, only) instructional films were U.S. Navy productions. Featuring about as much staged gore as a downtown hospital emergency room on Saturday night, these classic films painted vivid impressions in the minds of divers and went a long way in establishing the “deep, dark, and dangerous” image of diving in its early years. I know when I saw them even as a swaggering 16-year-old, they scared the bejesus out of me.
    Reflecting the rigorous nature of early scuba training, students were required to undergo long hours of esoteric classroom instruction. In fact, by the time these students earned the coveted c-card, they had likely spent 30 or more hours in the classroom exposed to discussions ranging from in-depth physics and mathematics — complete with more than a dose of algebra — to enough equipment mechanics to qualify graduates for admission to engineering school.
    As if that wasn’t enough, there was even more in store when it came to skills training. If fun was what you were after, an early-day scuba course was not the place to go. Many exercises, lifted right out of military course curricula (remember the skills I mentioned in the introductory quiz?),
    required the stamina and the watermanship skills of a Navy SEAL. The highlight of many programs was the ubiquitous “harassment training” in which the instructor and gleeful staff would swim around a group of students turning off air, releasing buckles, and flooding masks to “simulate” the reality of an unexpected emergency. To add yet more flare to the exercise, some instructors — myself included — required students to wear blacked-out masks during this exercise.
    The idea of early diver training was simple: Before you could call yourself a diver, you had to prove you had what it takes. And what it took was surviving training. Diving might be fun, but fun had no place in learning to dive. Adopting the mantra of the Marine Corps, as we told our students unapologetically, “the more you hurt in training, the less you bleed in battle.”
    But before you look back with twenty-twenty hindsight and write this chapter of diving history off as a huge mistake, think again. There was, in fact, a clear rationale for such a militaristic approach at this time. After all, equipment was unsophisticated and notoriously unreliable; much of it was homemade or surplus military issue. There was no such thing as a buoyancy compensator (BC) or submersible pressure gauge. (Part of the math learned in training was supposedly to teach a diver how to calculate how long an air supply would last.) The complete diver’s ensemble was considered to be a mask, fins, regulator, and tank (and maybe, if you were lucky, a depth gauge). In colder water, an exposure suit was handy, but that was something you might have to make yourself, assuming you could find enough neoprene rubber and a pattern. It was little wonder then that divers often encountered situations where the only thing between survival and death or injury was their own stamina and physical prowess. Fortunately, that situation was not to last for long.
    By the late 1960s the loose confederation of amateur aficionados and garage mechanics had evolved into a true industry. Several full-time diving equipment manufacturers were producing reliable equipment, and technology had improved to the point where the diver no longer had to assume that the gear would eventually malfunction.
    The problem was that education did not keep pace with advances in technology. Divers were still being trained in the late 1960s and early 1970s in essentially the same way they had been a decade earlier. Still, modern technology — as well as a burgeoning interest in diving among the general public — was not about to be held back by antiquated instructional methods. By the mid-1970s, the face of diver training began to change.
    When scuba training was first formalized, learning to dive involved
    classroom and pool instruction only. Training in open water was considered an afterthought and was not even required (although many instructors did choose to include a checkout dive in their classes). By the late 1960s, this concept of a checkout — a single brief dive where the student could demonstrate a few rudimentary skills — became a standard practice.
    By the 1970s, realizing the true importance of training in the actual environment where diving takes place, a second open-water training dive was added and even more were recommended. By the 1980s, the current standard of four training dives for entry-level certification had arrived, although some organizations implemented this idea of expanded open-water training several years earlier.
    Likewise, instruction began to change in the classroom and pool. Classroom instruction was revised to reflect not only changing technology, but also that much of the esoteric training of earlier days was not necessary or even relevant to the modern diver. Subjects such as rote memorization of gas laws, confusing medical jargon, and manipulation of complex formulae soon were replaced by basic, relevant nuts-and-bolts information. Less time was spent with theory and more in practical application.
    In the pool, buoyancy control devices (BCs) and alternate air source regulators (AIRs) — both inventions of this period — caused a revolution in how divers maneuvered in the water and handled out-of-air emergencies. Soon, training programs began to de-emphasize rigorous, irrelevant skills of the past and concentrated on the essence of what a good diver needed to know — buoyancy control, equipment familiarity, and how to deal with problems in a thoughtful, relaxed manner. Without these changes in teaching practice, scuba diving certainly would not have become the mainstream activity that it is today.

    Diver Training Today

    Today, diver education is a far cry from what it was in the past. These changes haven been driven by two factors: consumer demand and advances in educational technology. The hectic lifestyles of today have made the traditional format of diver training — sitting in a classroom for much of the time — less popular. Furthermore, would-be divers are seeing for themselves how modern technology is freeing learners from the burden of sitting through traditional lectures and grouped-paced instruction. Not surprisingly, the response by many of the diver training organizations has been a move to more individualized, self-paced approaches. Many organizations now have CD-ROM-based programs that cover most, if not all, of the academic training component, and even provide a thorough highlight of skill training (although skill training is still the primary realm of the instructor).
    But regardless of the advances in educational technology, there’s one aspect of learning to dive that will surely never change, and that’s the role of the instructor. Diving is, after all, a skill, and no machine can replace the experience and insight of a seasoned instructor. There’s also nothing that will ever beat a live human being at teaching the most important lesson in diving: judgment. Unlike the raw content of a course, judgment is an attitude developed through the guidance and modeling of a professional educator. It can’t be programmed into a computer, and no amount of technology can take its place. It is now, and will forever remain, the most vital and most human part of diver education. It only goes to show what we probably knew all along: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    The idea of early diver training was simple: Before you could call yourself a diver, you had to prove you had what it takes. And what it took was surviving training.