Oceans of Opportunity

from tektite to ‘tek-lite’

'A New Life in the Sea' by Michael Lombardi

It’s all too easy to get ‘stuck’ in the day to day grind and lose sight of the bigger picture – yet having this bird’s eye perspective is often necessary to interject, capitalize, and make change.

I recently stepped back to take a closer look at the then and now of scientific diving – or using diving as a tool to carry out underwater research – and carefully consider my own motives and intentions as I continue living the dream of the life aquatic.

More than 40 years ago, scientists considered it essential to spend more time on the seafloor to gather a better understanding of the marine environment. Putting a person underwater was absolutely essential. Just one piece of evidence was the Tektite program, circa 1969/1970.
Tektite was one of the many life in the sea programs during the era that sought to get to the bottom of human performance and limitations while living underwater. While Tektite afforded scientists the opportunity to study like never before, almost more importantly was the emphasis on studying the human element itself – physiology in particular.

During this era, something interesting happened – we went from the freedoms afforded by SCUBA courtesy the likes of Jacques Cousteau and others, to another extreme – living on the seafloor. In the end, the seafloor living paradigm largely failed us. While we learned much, it was perhaps too much – and various incidents lead to related efforts’ demise within the scientific community. The programs certainly served great purpose while aligning well with needs in manned space exploration, and resting at the doorstep of what would become a booming offshore oil industry which indeed requires these types of diving operations.

But what happened to the improving access to the seafloor for the diving scientist?

Well, the remnants of those early programs spawned Aquarius in the Florida Keys. Aquarius went well used for a couple of decades, though did little to vastly improve or change the human experience on the seafloor…the limitations exposed some four decades ago remain limitations today, and we are left still with options of a short foray via scuba, or an extended stay in a fixed structure (restricted to one location).

Now, back to this bird’s eye view – the one very positive contribution of Tektite and related programs was an improved understanding of decompression, or the human body’s ability to release absorbed gas with a reduction in atmospheric pressure. As such, other industry sectors have benefited considerably.

In the late 1990’s, we began to see a boom in ‘technical diving‘, or diving beyond conventional scuba depth and time limits using equipment and techniques that take advantage of our new found knowledge in decompression theory. That tool, to stay underwater for just a little bit longer, or to explore a slightly deeper depth, was now in the hands of many. Today, technical diving is within reach of probably hundreds of thousands of individuals – another paradigm changed.

While there are of course many pushing limits of depth and time in various environments and for various purposes, what I call ‘tek-lite’ is here to stay, and represents the new norm for routine, commodity style approaches to diving where we can literally pick up and go diving. Accepting the challenges that come with a few tens of minutes of required decompression comes with some training and discipline, but is well, well within reach.

As a diving scientist, this is exciting! Consider vastly new regions of ocean space that are now accessible  – the product of more than 40 years of innovation and applied knowledge.

What this bird’s eye view leaves is a H-U-G-E gray area. There is so very much to do, and so much of ocean left inaccessible that lies between tek-lite and full blown saturation diving. The tools to get there may indeed be here – namely closed-circuit rebreathers – but these have yet to be applied to their fullest potential in a scientific capacity, and certainly have not been applied routinely.

I’ve seen this gray area of ocean space firsthand, and the potential is overwhelming. My hope is that it will not take another 40 years for innovation and a body of knowledge to be incubated and applied. The limiting factor will be program related investments – topic for another day.

Until then, recognize limits, experience limits, and don’t be afraid to find solutions to reach just a little bit further. After all, that’s why we’re here.

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