Jules Verne thought we'd cruise the oceans in submarines, cultivating huge vegetables on the seabed and battling giant squid. Cousteau believed we would construct underwater cities and graft on gills. Marine Boy simply stuck to oxygum, jet-boots and rescuing mermaids from baddies. Reality may have proved a little disappointing for visionaries and fantasists, but what does the future really hold for divers - and where does Raquel Welch fit in? Louise Trewavas peers ahead |
Back in the '70s, Diver magazine's predecessor Triton published an article by Chris Holwill called A Look Into The Year 2003AD, about what diving would be like in the future. Reading it now is an entertaining, if poignant, experience.
Hideously inaccurate, it reveals far more about the prejudices, vanities and aspirations of divers then than it does about diving (membership of the BSAC by 2003 was predicted as 3.5 million, and that's just the first paragraph).
Unless you're selling science fiction/fantasy novels, writing about the future is a mug's game. All you can do is imitate Nostradamus and introduce mysterious ambiguities and riddles that can mean whatever the reader wants them to mean.
Today the only people who can get away with writing that way are financial auditors. So who would be daft enough to expose the sad limits of their imagination to the ridicule of future generations?
If anybody should know about the direction of UK diving, it's skippers. Unfortunately, their collective verdict is damning: divers today are more ambitious and demanding in terms of the wrecks and depths they want to dive, but far less skilful and physically fit than divers previously.
Old school and not afraid to say so: Pat Dean, skipper of mv Lodesman, the dive boat with the most formidable ladder on the south coast.
Nostalgia mixed with prejudice? "Training standards today are rubbish!" is the common refrain. Isn't that what they say about today's GCSEs and A-Levels?
"We get a lot of people coming to sea who are not adequately trained to cope," Paul Childs, skipper of Defiant - a modern catamaran-style dive boat operating from Littlehampton - told me.
"PADI seems to be the worst offender, because while it has good-quality diving courses, it doesn't teach sea skills. All agencies seem to teach the process of diving without giving people the skills to enjoy the diving - the emphasis is all on collecting certificates rather than gaining diving experience."
Pat Dean, skipper of mv Lodesman from Salcombe, has been working with recreational divers for more than 25 years. "Divers have changed. I used to get lots of craftsmen - plumbers, carpenters - who were very capable and fit. These days you get all kinds, and you get these women divers who cannot climb up the boat ladder in their equipment." Well, there you have it, women have ruined the sport of diving!
Diving incident statistics do not support these views, however. Diving fatalities have declined both in real terms and in proportion to numbers diving, but those who are dying are predominantly the experienced "old-school" divers - men in their 40s and 50s.
Most skippers also happen to be men in their 40s and 50s, but much as I'd love to dismiss them as a bunch of bigots, I suspect that there is an element of truth behind what they say.
Over the past 40 years, the type of jobs people do, their lifestyles, incomes and expectations have all changed. Diver training has changed to appeal to a mass market, with less emphasis on discipline, endurance and fitness. Most divers train with professional instructors rather than in a club environment.
The type of equipment we use has changed, quality standards are enforced, there is far greater choice, and divers are more likely to carry cameras than crowbars or spearguns.
And what happens in the future is likely to be determined by the same forces that have brought about these changes.
In forty years, diving has grown from an activity indulged in by a tiny minority of determined enthusiasts in homemade equipment into a leisure industry with specialist shops and services, CE-approved equipment, professionally organised trips and holidays, plus ranges of books, magazines and videos.
The growth of diving parallels other social and economic changes. Higher incomes encourage people to spend money on their hobbies and interests. Widespread car ownership (and better roads - sorry Swampy) allow them to move around the country easily.
Women are a major force in the workplace and activities such as diving are no longer a male preserve. More leisure time, cheaper foreign travel and paid holidays allow people to get away and try out new activities such as scuba- diving in warmer climates.
But continuing improvements in economic and social conditions do not necessarily mean that people will pick diving above the growing number of other activities on offer.
The most popular participatory sports in the UK are walking, swimming and football. The adult population is just under 50 million, so diving, with 250,000 participants at a generous estimate, involves no more than 0.5% of adults, whereas another minority, equipment-reliant sport such as golf can boast7-8% participation.
Of the 250,000 people interested in diving, fewer than 50,000 will carry out more than 80% of all dives. Most people who can dive will do so only occasionally, usually on holiday abroad.
A survey by City & Guilds University in June 2003 into what people like to do on holiday revealed that most people prefer activity to simply lying on a beach. Almost one in four of those questioned express an interest in diving or learning to dive while on holiday.
QinetiQ (formerly DERA) is developing a sonar-scanning device that will enable divers to be tracked under water. You won't be able to get lost if you try!
While this indicates that interest in diving is high, membership of UK-based diving clubs (BSAC, SAA) has been falling steadily since the mid-1990s. Are we becoming a nation of holiday divers?
Not necessarily. Over the past 20 or so years, key centres of UK diving activity have developed. Anyone queuing to get into Stoney Cove carpark at 6am on a Saturday will attest to this, even if most people there are involved in dives for training purposes.
The number of UK inland sites has increased, yet many are often filled to capacity. Divers have significantly contributed to the local economies of Seahouses (Farne Islands), Portland/Weymouth, Plymouth, Oban and Scapa Flow.
So UK diving is doing fine, it is just the membership organisations designed to attract divers that are failing. The development of a diving economy has freed divers to go diving without the need to join or remain in a club. Most UK divers now dive outside the traditional club system and this trend appears set to continue.
For many divers, the future is all about gorgeous gadgets and gizmos. But diving has a proud history of largely useless gadgetry, because having the technology does not guarantee that divers will use it.
Even useful developments fail to take off if price exceeds perceived benefits. Air-integrated computers were a great idea, but most people prefer to look at their far cheaper contents gauge. Do electronic compasses enable navigation numpties like me to know where they're going? Nope, because they require more intelligence to operate than a video recorder - that is, above the capabilities of the average adult.
Underwater beacons that allow divers to detect and return to a known point are fantastically useful but few divers are prepared to pay the price - or to admit that they lack the navigational skills.
The introduction of any significant new diving technology has generally been accompanied by a series of accidents, followed by consternation, rows, warnings, restrictions and even banning by diving agencies.
Divers then largely ignore this and carry on until even the most stubborn critics do a U-turn. Drysuits, BCs, computers, SMBs and nitrox have all been through this process. Inspiration rebreathers are just about emerging from the fracas.
As change becomes more common, it will be more easily accepted by the modern diver. So few of us now have regard for what training organisations dictate that soon they'll only have other members of their working parties to make rules for.
Neoprene compresses at depth, producing variable buoyancy and variable heat retention properties. It's not that sensible for diving. Fabrics designed to be stable in terms of buoyancy and which can absorb and re-emit the body's heat to maintain a comfortable body temperature are likely to take over.
Rapid advances brought about by the mobile phone industry will mean more power and flexibility from smaller, lighter batteries, enabling developments such as safe, intelligent undersuit-heating, better torches and even propulsion.
Most divers can't be arsed to drag an underwater scooter around, but Marine Boy-style jet-boots are a distinct possibility (see What's Bubbling).
Email, mobiles and the Internet have already transformed diving, allowing divers to discover information independently of instructors or travel agents. They can also select dive centres, plan dives and network with other divers independently of traditional clubs and the trend continues.
"Bluetooth"-style gadgets that know exactly where they are in the world and monitor and communicate with other devices around them will also have an impact. A small chip embedded in your dive kit should be able to communicate who you are, where you are, and what is going on around you.
That's a nightmare for divers who like to do their own thing undetected but it will help the Coastguard locate lost divers.
Your kit will tell you when it needs servicing or when an update or enhancement is available. It may also feed data to manufacturers about how their kit is being used.
Bluetooth technology is great, but may have a few problems working effectively while you're submerged. Sonar scanning technology is already being developed by QinetiQ - formerly the research people for the MoD - which allows boats and harbour entrances to monitor movement of divers in the water.
As with CCTV in shopping centres and car parks, being watched underwater - even in darkness or rubbish viz - is likely to become possible.
Gear will be increasingly tailored to individuals. For example, dive computers will come in "shell" format - download your own medical and physiological data, and your choice of deco software, all easily updatable and linked to your other devices.
Scanning technology already allows the shape of a person's body to be stored so that items can be made to fit perfectly. Your choice of mask could be made to fit your face alone, and there'll be no excuse for your drysuit to resemble a baggy sack - unless you do.
Digital technology and advances in imaging will transform the humble diving mask so that you can see all the information you need without having to look down at your wrist. Primitive versions are already available. Most divers will manage without them until the price drops, but the technology is likely to be taken up by tekkies and photo/videographers.
Digital technology is revolutionising our ability to capture and transmit images. It will be cheap and simple to carry devices which take underwater images - either still or moving - which can then be stored, sent, edited, or printed out. Your logbook could be transformed into a video diary of your dives, with accompanying info about depths, times, temperatures, and auto marine identification mode. Yes, it was yet another wrasse!
Will rebreathers take over the world of diving? Probably not. The introduction of oxygen cells and electronics have transformed their capability, while availability of oxygen and helium have brought a new dimension to diving. Improvements in the capabilities of scrubbers and better integration of deco software are coming. But ultimately, no matter how much smart technology you stick on rebreathers, they will always be more involved than open-circuit diving.
Air is not an ideal breathing gas under water but it is familiar and readily available. Most divers - casual, holiday-oriented - will stick with open circuit. Hardcore enthusiasts will become increasingly involved with rebreathers and diving will fragment.
Finally, why bother to get wet when your own little underwater robot can do it for you? Equipped with camera, lights and tools, it can find stuff to collect or film, respond to your commands, and return with the goodies.
Many commercial divers are being made irrelevant by sophisticated remotely operated vehicles, and as this technology reaches the recreational market, exploring the underwater world will become risk-free - except when you manage to lose your robot. Then it'll get expensive.
Diving are already splitting into "mass market" and "special interest" as differences between divers become more extreme.
The Mini-B is one example of devices aimed at making initial underwater experiences as non-intimidating as possible
On the one hand, you have the increasing casualisation of diving: simpler, holiday-oriented, family-oriented diving with smaller, lighter kit, exemplified by Discover Scuba courses and gear such as the Minibreather.
On the other hand are the various enthusiasts. Hardcore technical divers are going deeper for longer with mixed gas, rebreathers and advanced decompression modelling. UK recreational divers with fast, well-equipped dive boats are increasingly using twinsets, lifts on boats and improved wreck-finding technologies.
Photography and video enthusiasts spend lots of money on their cameras, and on luxury liveaboards to exotic locations with abundant marine life to capture on film. Then there are the conservation activists, divers who carry out sea surveys, assist with environmental projects, and help rescue stranded dolphins and whales and sick seals. There are plenty more.
Training is the cash cow of diving, and to sustain and grow the industry, the professionals must bring more people into diving. This means appealing to people who may not traditionally have been interested, and women form the biggest potential market. The future of diving is female!
Not everyone welcomes such changes. If the image of diving changes from rough and tough to open and accessible, where does that leave the male ego?
Attracting women has the bonus of bringing children into diving, hence the rapid development of Bubblemaker and Scuba Ranger-style courses by commercial agencies.
This trend is likely to increase as the barriers to learning to dive are minimised. Agencies that fail to take advantage will lose market share as others exploit the opportunities.
The other key to diving-industry survival is to sell an increasing range of new courses to existing divers. This encourages further diversification and specialisation, and an advanced or technical course is a great way of handling men who feel that their diving qualification is less respected than it should be! Hence the introduction of PADI's TecRec course.
Expect an increasing smorgasbord of diving adventures and specialities being developed as courses.
Fun-loving, thrill-seeking, free-spending - it's no coincidence that diving took off in the 1960s, when people threw off the shackles of duty, stability, self-denial and authority. People dive because it is a sheer pleasure, and the freedom to spend your money on what you enjoy - without being penalised or sneered at for doing so - is the basis of our modern society.
Anyone who watched the Channel 4 TV series That'll Teach 'Em, which followed a group of modern teenagers sent back to a 1950s-style school, had to be struck by the profound changes in attitude between then and now. Enforced miserableness and the crushing of individuality were the order of the day, yet the discipline appeared to offer certain advantages when it came to learning and behaviour.
The demands of the MTV generation - kids who have grown up expecting instant gratification for the minimum effort - are problematic for diving, which requires involvement in training and the gradual building of experience.
Teenagers with short attention spans, unable to concentrate on boring details such as contents gauges, will not make good divers. The modern approach to sport is to engage superficially with the latest fad - be it snowboarding, sky-diving or surfing - buy the threads, experience the adrenalin hit and then move on.
So while diving can offer adventure, attracting future divers into the sport has involved, and will increasingly involve, simplification and fast-tracking. Good grief, all those dreadful warnings from skippers might just come true! But attitudes, rather than women, are at the root of this trend.
In the future, many people will use diving simply to experience being under water, rather than actually becoming divers.
Diving inside the human body - a futuristic submarine and crew is miniaturised and injected into a human body to tackle an inoperable malignant brain tumour.
Funky white diving/space-suits with (presumably) built-in rebreathers enable the crew to leave the ship and move around in bodily fluids.
Memorable scenes include the luscious Raquel Welch getting attacked and constricted bondage-style by antibodies, and villain Donald Pleasance having his head eaten by a white corpuscle.
Great for biological detail - the film won a special effects Oscar - but not so believable in any other respect.
REALITY CHECK Scientists predict that technology will enable the building of tiny robots able to enter the human body to carry out micro-surgical operations.
A team of people are stranded hundreds of metres under water on the edge of a massive underwater trench, encounter aliens and manage to lose a nuclear warhead over the edge. A diver is sent into the deep to retrieve it, after filling his lungs with a breathable liquid - very handy if you want to avoid carrying huge quantities of highly compressed gas.
He meets up with deep-dwelling aliens who have found a magical technique for overcoming the need for decompression and manages to bring the entire crew safely back to the surface. Directed by underwater enthusiast James Cameron.
REALITY CHECK Development and use of breathable liquid is still being researched for possible military use.
An apocalyptic vision of the future in which all land has disappeared and the remaining people are left clinging to various wacky floating structures and Mad Max-style speedboats and jetskis.
All but Kevin Costner, who has an eco-friendly catamaran and has evolved gills behind his ears, enabling him to dive down to the flooded cities and retrieve useful stuff - like handfuls of earth.
He even manages to take Jeanne Tripplehorn diving with an upturned bucket on her head so that she can see the lost city for herself. Cleverly she manages not to use up any oxygen or produce any CO2 during the dive. Well, it saves a packet on dive kit, doesn't it?
REALITY CHECK Cousteau predicted the evolution of Homo Aquaticus in the '60s, and speculated that human beings may be able to graft on gills surgically.
In one memorable scene Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor plunge to the depths with little more than a glorified mouth-organ for company. Presumably this converts the surrounding water into a breathable volume of gas (at ambient pressure, naturally) every time you inhale. And being Jedi Knights, they can see perfectly without masks.
REALITY CHECK Research by Swedish scientist Anna Gislen published in Current Biology suggests that children of the free-diving, island-based Moken tribe have evolved better underwater vision.
So it seems that even the most ridiculous ideas appear to have a tiny element of truth in them. Or, as Arthur C Clarke said in his essay Technology and the Future: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."