The Anatomy of an Effective Wreck Diving Course
by Andy Davis, PADI/TecRec/ANDI Sidemount Technical Wreck Instructor
In this article I will be looking at what differentiates basic wreck diving courses – the good, the bad and the ugly. In particular, I want to examine specific wreck penetration issues, so that the reader may find some guidance in their selection of a potential wreck diving course provider.
The discussion will describe how the wreck penetration environment is similar, in risk and necessary training, to other overhead environments, such as caves or caverns. It will compare how training, certification and instructor standards can differ drastically between those cavern and wreck environments. In doing so, I hope to present a compelling case for the need for high quality training for safe wreck penetration.
I will then cover specific factors that determine the likely quality of a wreck diving course; the instructor, the training location and the wreck diving course structure. Don’t be under any illusions that all wreck instructors and wreck qualifications are identical. There is a wide variation between otherwise (on paper) identical wreck diving courses. I will describe what could, or should, be taught – so that the reader is better educated to determine the relative value of any course they might consider enrolling upon.
Overhead Environments – Cave, Cavern and Wreck Diving Courses
Unlike cavern and cave diving, which present similar risks to entering a shipwreck environment, wreck diving is not sanctioned by any official or specialist body. Organizations like the NACD and NSS-CDS have always set a benchmark for cave related training – and this benchmark has typically been respected by the mainstream scuba training agencies.
Access to cave systems is relatively easy to limit – and ‘site rules’ are often put into place to prevent untrained divers from attempting penetrations into cavern or cave areas. No such regulation or control exists with ship wrecks – divers are free to explore inside without demonstration of adequate training or experience. There is no mandatory use of guidelines, nor insistence upon effective equipment redundancy or team procedures.
Wreck diving has no such community-wide benchmarks. The major scuba agencies have set a very low ‘bar’ on what it means to be a ‘wreck diver’ and actively encourage divers to penetrate wrecks, based upon the most meager overhead environment training. Often less than than 2 dives total exposure to penetration specific skills.
In contrast with a cavern instructor (who invariably must be a fully trained cave diver, or instructor), a wreck instructor might only have the most basic wreck diving experience – as little as 25 dives (no penetration required) to self-certify for an instructor rating with their agency. Those instructors may have never laid a guideline inside a wreck, experienced a silt-out or had to deal with a light failure. That should scare people…
Overhead Environments – The Risks You Face
An overhead environment is defined as a scuba diving location where the diver does not have immediate access to the surface via direct ascent. One of the biggest factors pertaining to diving inside an overhead environment is that it can look safe to those uneducated in the risks. What may seem benign upon entry can rapidly turn into a potential death-trap through natural occurrences, unintended error or an equipment-related failure. The danger to untrained divers is that they often ‘do not know, what they do not know’. This prevents them making a reasonable risk assessment for the penetration.. and gets them into trouble. Cave diving agencies and divers devote an enormous effort into educating divers about the risks of caves… little comparative education occurs for wreck diving.
Here is a summary of the primary risks involved with entering an overhead-environment. Any course that qualifies divers to enter that environment must provide those divers with the necessary knowledge and procedures to survive those risks:
- Failure of gas supply – through equipment malfunction, damage, negligence or poor planning
- Disorientation – the inability to remember the way out
- Silt-out – disturbing silt, causing zero visibility and an inability to see the exit
- Lost buddy or team separation
- Collapse - disintegration of unstable structure that physically entraps divers or obstructs their exit
- Entanglement – with environmental objects or own guideline
- Entrapment – through physical obstruction or water movement (current/surge) preventing exit
- Loss of weight-belt – causing diver to be pinned against the ceiling
- Explosion – wartime shipwrecks may contain unstable munitions and explosives
“Environmental causes: Factors such as current, visibility, surface conditions, and overhead barriers figure prominently as the triggering factors for fatal accidents. Many of these conditions are handled well by experienced, fit divers. For others, these same conditions lead to panic and actions that lead to death, not safety.”
Scuba Diving: How High The Risk?, Journal of Insurance Medicine, Volume 27, No.1. by Nina Smith MD
The risks associated with overhead environment diving are highlighted within the plethora of materials produced for the cave and cavern diving communities. Very little of that material is presented to students on wreck diving courses.
This video, by Lamar Hires, a noted cave explorer, is watched by probably every student who enrolls on cavern or cave training. It is understood to be a necessarily serious message – presented to divers because of the well understood risks. Risks that are substantiated by known trends in scuba accidents.
Cave and cavern courses address those risks through extensive training; that is focused and dedicated to developing appropriate survival skills and strategies for the overhead environment. Wreck diving courses typically fail to do that.
Does your potential wreck diving course fulfill those critical requirements? Keep reading…
Wreck Diving Courses – And Their Limits
In the excellent and highly recommended ‘Advanced Wreck Diving Handbook‘, famed wreck diver Gary Gentile differentiates wreck diving into three specific categories:
- Non-Penetration Diving – swimming outside and around the wreck
- Limited Penetration Diving – entering the wreck, but remaining within the “light zone”
- Full Penetration Diving – penetration without restriction; beyond the “light zone”
- Remaining in the “light zone” – illuminated by ambient, external light and in visual sight of the (illuminated) exit
- Not passing through restricted/confined areas, where 2 divers cannot pass simultaneously, whilst sharing air
- Not entering areas of unreasonably high risk of silt-out or visibility degradation
“Upon successful completion of the course, you will be awarded the PADI Wreck Diver Specialty certification. Certification means you’re qualified to:
Make limited penetration dives into suitable wrecks, staying within the natural light zone and not penetrating more than 40 linear metres/130 linear feet from the surface.”
Reference: PADI Wreck Diver Specialty Course Instructor Outline, Rev (5/05) Version 1.06
“Be trained in cavern or cave diving and dive within the limits of your training.”
Wreck Instructor Credentials and Experience
The first step to locating an effective wreck diving course is to consider the specific instructor who will run that course. Most experienced divers will understand the logic that an instructor can probably offer more value to a training course if they are qualified above the level that they will teach you. That means, you should look for a recreational/basic wreck instructor who is qualified at technical wreck diving level. Technical wreck diving is on a par with cave diving – with a very similar skill-set, protocols and standards of tuition. If you have a technical wreck qualified instructor, then you are on a par with cavern/cave diving standards – in that your instructor is deemed proficient and fully skilled for diving into an overhead environment.
Secondly, consider the relative experience of the instructor. As mentioned, just about any Joe open-water instructor can self-qualify themselves as a wreck instructor on the basis of a handful of dives, with no specification on the nature or conduct of those dives. Swim around a sunken kayak on 25 occasions.. it’d be enough, as long as they logged it as a ‘wreck dive’. Many instructors ‘pick up’ the wreck instructor rating because it’s known to be a ‘big seller’ – but only a relatively small percentage of those instructors would honestly describe themselves as ‘experienced wreck divers’. Ask yourself… how can they honestly teach a subject that they have no breadth of experience in, or passion about?
You should be investigating whether your potential wreck instructor is truely passionate and experienced in diving wrecks. Talk to them about it. Ask questions like:
- How many different shipwrecks have you dived upon? Where, when and how?
- Do you penetrate wrecks often.. and to what degree?
- What equipment and procedures do you use for penetration dives?
- What lessons have your learned from actual wreck diving, as opposed to wreck courses?
The Wreck Diving Course Location
This may sound obvious but… You need to complete training dives on wrecks, if you are to become a competent wreck diver. You need to complete penetration dives in wrecks, if you are to learn wreck penetration.
You might be surprised to learn that few agencies actually define what a “wreck” is. It can be interpreted widely, depending upon how desperate an individual instructor or dive school is to sell wreck courses. I’ve seen wreck diving courses completed on sunken VW mini-vans, scaffolding structures…and the worst, a sunken wooden kayak.
A wreck doesn’t need to be a ship wreck, but it does need to offer a suitably compatible experience for the the fledgling wreck diver. If your goal is to experience wreck penetration, and the skills which apply to that, then you need to conduct meaningful penetrations under realistic conditions.
Bear in mind that the (other) golden rule of scuba training applies in this instance: You are only qualified to dive in conditions under which you have trained. If you’ve trained diving on a sunken bus, or small motor yacht, then there will be a significant experience deficit should you subsequently dive on/in a large ship wreck.
My advice is to research an area that offers convenient and regular access to ‘proper’ ship wrecks. Confirm what wrecks exist to be dived upon…and that you will actually be diving on those sites during your wreck diving course.
Further to that advice, ask yourself… if a dive instructor/center doesn’t have convenient and regular access to a ‘proper’ ship wreck, then what sort of wreck diving expertise are those instructors likely to have accumulated?
In many cases, it is worth procrastinating your wreck training until you have the opportunity to visit a truly ‘wreck orientated’ diving location – either on holiday or save up and make a special trip for it. The value-for-money offered by that patient strategy is likely to pay long term dividends in your skill level and experience.
The Wreck Diving Course Structure
Finally, let’s examine the wreck diving course itself – what is taught, to what level of expertise and what is omitted. In doing so, we must bear in mind the wreck diving hazards listed earlier; because those are the issues that need to be mitigated by the training provided.
When discussing wreck training with a prospective instructor, try to evaluate their approach to the course and what level of tuition will be provided in the following aspects.
Most entry-level wreck diving courses provide some theoretical knowledge on general issues surrounding ship wrecks. For instance, the legality of diving certain sites, the issue of artifact recovery, the historical and cultural significance of wrecks, the preservation of marine ecosystems that often thrive around the ‘artificial reef’ that wrecks become.
This knowledge adds interest and flavor to a wreck diving course, but it does not contribute to the practical application of wreck diving skills or diver safety in the wreck environment.
Consider how this ‘wreck interest’ theory applies to the wreck sites you will be diving. It’s hard to substantiate ‘cultural and historical significance’, if your training dives are conducted on a mini-bus in a fresh-water lake…
Navigation and Mapping
A wreck diving course may offer some translation of basic scuba skills for the wreck environment. It is typical to repeat navigation exercises, as practiced on Open Water and Advanced Open Water courses, on wreck training dives; the use of basic compass and natural navigation skills to ensure that divers can ‘return to the line’ at the end of the dive. In truth, very little ‘translation’ of those skills is needed for the wreck environment. A compass is a compass. North is north.
A good wreck instructor will emphasize the need to research and understand wreck layout and structure, as the primary factor to ensure navigational awareness during the dive. They will educate divers about key features in ship design – and how those features can be identified on a dive and used to maintain an understanding of your relative location.
Most wreck courses also feature a ‘map making’ dive – where the students have to create some form of map during a wreck dive. There are often different goals attributed to this exercise. Some instructors use it as an adjunct to the navigation training. Others might use it to develop later research on the wreck – a technique that can help identify unknown or un-named wrecks you may, one day, encounter. This, of course, needs some education about ship features and layout as a pre-requisite. Some instructors might use it as reference for future dive planning – for instance, planning a penetration on the final course dive. Last, but not, least, some wreck instructors might simply go through the motions, hand you an underwater slate and ask you to ‘draw the wreck’, for no definable benefit….just because it is a course requirement.
As a reminder… you can see here how conducting the course on meaningful ship wrecks is definitely beneficial in respect of training value…
Wreck Penetration Skills
Most wreck diving courses feature a single dive to teach ‘penetration’ skills. Those skills may, or may not, be developed through the conduct of an actual penetration dive. If they aren’t… then you need to ask yourself why..
These two dives are critical, given that the student concerned will shortly afterwards be in proud possession of a qualification to “make limited penetration dives into suitable wrecks, staying within the natural light zone and not penetrating more than 40 linear metres/130 linear feet from the surface“.
I can only fathom two reasons why an actual wreck penetration dive wouldn’t be conducted:
- The instructor doesn’t have access to a dive site where a penetration can actually be conducted. If so, are they really in a position to offer a ‘Wreck Diver’ qualification to the stated training expectations?
- The student is not confident or competent to conduct an actual wreck penetration – and either the instructor, or the student themselves, elects not to complete the optional penetration dive. If so, is that student really deserving a qualification that states they are qualified to conduct wreck penetrations?
Wreck Penetration Survival
As I’ve discussed, wreck penetration is diving in an overhead environment. That environment poses specific hazards that need to be adequately addressed in training. When considering a wreck diving course provider, be sure to investigate exactly what wreck penetration survival skills they will teach you.
Based upon the known hazards, here is what I believe every ‘qualified’ wreck diver needs to know:
Buoyancy, Trim and Propulsion
Silt-outs, entanglement and entrapment are killers in the overhead environment. Every wreck diver needs a higher than average degree of buoyancy control, horizontal trim and effective non-silting propulsion techniques. If these are not taught, then the diver is not able to mitigate against the most serious of wreck penetration hazards.
At a minimum, the instructor should be teaching wreck students how to effectively utilize the ‘frog kick’ propulsion technique. A well-versed wreck instructor will go beyond this, introducing propulsion techniques that are typically only encountered at more technical levels – such as; the modified flutter kick, the modified frog kick, the shuffle kick, pull-and-glide and finger-walking techniques.
They should also spend time, on the introductory course dives, ensuring that the student has proper weighting, flat trim and precise buoyancy control.
Where those core skills are deficient – and likely to pose an unreasonable risk to the future wreck diver, the instructor should set aside training time on the course to rectify foundational scuba skills.
This assumes, of course, that the instructor themselves possess a high refinement in those skill-sets. Whilst precision fundamental skills are rigorously honed in technical diving level courses, they are not developed on any divemaster or instructor level training course.
Don’t make assumptions about your potential instructors capability to teach, or refine, fundamental skills to an overhead environment standard.
Air Sharing Protocols
Air-sharing is a critical scuba skill. When penetrating wrecks this skill takes an even greater emphasis – because the diver is unable to directly access the surface. There is little, or no, option for a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent (CESA). Without the fail-safe option of completing a CESA, the wreck penetration diver is absolutely reliant upon their buddy for air-sharing should they experience a problem with their gas supply inside the wreck.
Wreck divers are (should be) counselled not to proceed into areas of the wreck that prohibit a simple air-sharing exit with their buddy.
That counselling should be reinforced with some practice of air-sharing techniques suitable for exits in different orientations – vertical or horizontal. Invariably, wrecks are entered through doorways or windows – however, the wreck may be upright or on its side. This will obviously necessitate different air-sharing techniques.
These must be practiced on the course. It is not sufficient to allow divers to ‘work this out’ at a later date, should a real gas emergency arise. If that happens, there will already be a high degree of stress – and further adding to that psychological burden may prove sufficient to push a diver into panic. Inside wrecks, panic kills.
At this time, we also need to consider the impact of ‘skill deficit’ relative to the other critical hazards common to wreck penetrations. If the divers are struggling to establish an effective air-sharing technique for the confined space they find themselves in, then it is a high likelihood that the subsequent task-loading and necessary maneuvering will begin to stir up silt.
As the silt rapidly diminishes visibility, it adds further anxiety – and severely increases the danger of the situation. The divers are now out/low-on-gas…and may increasingly struggle to orientate to the exit. Like dominoes, one problem can easily lead to further complications.
A very experience wreck diving instructor may educate students about the benefits of ‘long-hose’ alternate-air-sources. The use of a long (5-7″) hose for air-sharing originates from cave and technical wreck level diving. Divers at that level may have progressed beyond ‘restrictions’; confined spaces where two divers cannot pass through together. The longer hose permits divers to continue sharing air, even if travelling through tight spaces one after the other. There are specific strategies for stowing, deploying and utilizing a long hose air source. Even if not chosen as a personal solution, the wreck diver should be educated about those options.
It is critical to lay a guideline whenever entering an overhead environment. In his seminal work on cave diving safety and accident analysis, ‘Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival“, Sheck Exley summarized that “failure to lay a guideline” was one of the leading contributing/causal factors in overhead environment diving deaths. Laying a guideline is one of ’5 sacred rules’ for cave diving – and is equally applicable to wreck penetration.
Laying an effective guideline is an art. It is also an activity prone to risks – the biggest being that the diver themselves gets entangled in their own line. There are specific techniques and considerations for use of a guideline – and the instructor’s expertise and knowledge is essential if these are to be taught properly and completely.
Ideally, comprehensive training on guideline deployment should include the following skills:
- The retention of buoyancy, trim and control whilst task-loaded with a reel and line
- How to perform a double tie-off outside the wreck
- How to create tie-offs and placements at appropriate intervals and locations as the penetration progresses
- The dangers of ‘line-traps’ and how to avoid them
- Routing a guideline so that it can be easily followed to the exit in zero visibility
- The roles of the ‘reel diver’ and other team members
- Contingency procedures for a ‘cut/snapped’ line and a diver entangled in the line
- Maintaining appropriate tension on the line, during deployment and retrieval
- The use, selection and stowage of primary reels and safety spools
- The calculation of ‘turn-points’ based up precise gas management and accurate dive planning
Wreck penetration demands certain equipment configurations. A competent wreck instructor should be capable of advising you on equipment selection and modification. These considerations might include:
- Redundant gas supplies, their configuration and use – pony cylinders, doubles and sidemount
- Effective lighting options and the use of 1-2 back-up lights – another of Exley’s “5 Golden Rules”
- Streamlining your scuba equipment to reduce entanglement hazards
- Optimal fins for non-silting propulsion in confined environments
- Storage of, and access to, essential accessories and tools
- Cutting devices, their location for stowage and critical factors for selection
- Regulator hoses, lengths and hose routing
- Minimalism and the ‘Keep It Simple’ philosophy in relation to wreck hazards
The loss of visibility is the single biggest risk to the wreck diver. Most wrecks are full of silt and sediment – and a single ill-considered fin stroke may be sufficient to raise a ‘black-out’ cloud of particulate matter that swallows all light and reduces the diver to touch-feeling their way out of the wreck.
An experienced wreck instructor will make sure that their students understand the implications of a ‘silt-out’… because most divers have difficulty comprehending exactly how debilitating this event can be.
Even the best trained divers can accidentally cause a loss of visibility. One should never be complacent or assume ‘it won’t happen to them’.
Even with a guideline in place, exiting a wreck in zero visibility is a time-consuming, stressful and challenging proposition. For some, it is terrifying.
Wreck divers lay guidelines to mitigate against the known risk of silt-out and disorientation. Therefore, there is a logic that says we should practice all of our wreck skills under those ‘blind’ conditions. Familiarity breeds comfort.. and, trust me, you won’t feel comfortable on your first exposure to reduced visibility inside a darkened ship wreck.
Your potential wreck diving course instructor might take the time to explain and practically demonstrate the ease with which different silt can be disturbed. They will make sure you understand the difference between mud, sand, sediments, clay etc. They will highlight that silt-out can occur from elements of the wreck itself… rust flakes falling from the ceiling due to your exhaled bubbles, wooden structures disintegrating into a fine cloud of particles, disturbed containers or pipes giving off an underwater ‘smog’ of diesel or oil into the water..
The instructor may also prime you to operate under those conditions. That may include the use of a ‘blacked’ mask (blind-fold) during repetitions of wreck diving course skills; such as guideline exits, air-sharing or entanglements. They might emphasize the need for team coordination under those conditions. They might even teach tactile hand signals and touch-contact communciations to that end.
Those drills are always challenging – most divers underestimate how loss of vision will detract from their ability to perform even the simplest tasks underwater – but they are always fun, rewarding..and most importantly, will prepare you to remain calm and objective if the worst-case scenario ever arises.
Quiz your potential instructor on how he plans to train you to function in a silt-out. It’s important if you want to penetrate wrecks. Let no one tell you otherwise..
Finding Yourself a Wreck Diving Course
Hopefully this discussion has helped you understand some of the issues involved with overhead environment wreck diving, along with the training ‘essentials’ that should be provided in response to those demands.
Be under no illusions that wreck penetration is just as risk-laden as cavern diving. The training for those environments should be of comparable quality; with an equal focus upon safety and the development of critical techniques and knowledge.
Choose your future wreck instructor and course location carefully – based upon educated research and interview. Don’t be shy to ask detailed questions and expect clear answers before booking – you need to confirm the ability of an instructor to deliver a high quality wreck diving course. It’s sad, but true.. many scuba diving instructors aren’t sufficiently experienced or trained to deliver what is, in essence, an advanced-level specialist environment course.
Be mindful that most wreck courses only consist of 4 training dives. These are the minimum requirements set by the training agency concerned. There is no maximum requirement – seek quality and focus upon the results, not the certification card received.
Choosing the quickest, most convenient and cheapest wreck diving course is often proven to be a very false economy, because it inevitably results in a woefully inadequate skill-set and experience level for wreck penetration diving.
Experienced wreck diving instructors tend to offer training beyond the minimum requirements – seeking to address the provision of a critical skill-set, rather than just completing a ‘tick-list’ of activities and handing out a certification card. They do so because they inherently understand what is required to be a safe wreck diver.
Wreck penetration diving is a very safe activity IF all the associated risks are mitigated through effective training, adequate equipment and the implementation of appropriate procedures. If a wreck diving course fails to provide the diver with the experience, knowledge and competency to mitigate those risks, then it is failing to deliver what it promises – and that is short-changing the student at the expense of their safety.
Thanks for taking the time to read this article – I do hope that it provides you with some valuable guidance on becoming a wreck diver. If you have any questions relating to this topic, please feel free to CONTACT ME for a chat.
More about me: Andy Davis: Personal Profile