The discovery of a huge helium field in Tanzania this past summer made headlines around the world. Why are scientists, doctors, medical researchers—and yes, tech divers—so thrilled? Is the much-debated world helium shortage over? Does this mean we can all look forward to ample helium supplies at reasonable prices?
Well, maybe for a while…the Tanzania helium field, which BBC News has called “a game-changer,” was estimated at 54 billion cubic feet, making it many times larger than the U.S. National Helium Reserve has ever been, even at is peak. So while this discovery is certainly good news, helium remains a finite resource, since it can’t be manufactured and, despite this unusual find, is quite difficult to locate and preserve. And while helium is currently “on sale” relative to last year’s prices, demand is also on the rise.
Helium in Technical Diving
Quartz published a great summary that explains why helium is so critical in medicine and other industries, what it’s used for (primarily as a coolant), where it comes from and why mining it—a relatively new idea—may be the key to maintaining a readily available supply and keeping prices stable.
The use of helium in diving is fairly straightforward. As you may know, technical divers use various, specific gas blends to extend our bottom times and reduce decompression requirements. These different gas mixes have different benefits and risks.
“Technical dive training includes detailed procedures to avoid potential hazards, instruction on proper gas management, and information about gas selection and dive planning. Tech diving students learn how to calculate tolerable levels of helium and nitrogen, as well as how to plan dives using different Trimix and Nitrox blends properly for accelerated decompression.”
– Mary Peter, Trimix and Technical Diving Instructor
In Trimix blends, helium is added to reduce the proportion of nitrogen and oxygen, thus minimizing the risks of narcosis and toxicity. You can read more about this effect, and the benefits and hazards of using different gas blends, from XTC’s Mary Peter, an accomplished Trimix and Technical Diving Instructor. Mary is also the General Manager of XTC Dive Center and was instrumental in designing our state-of-the-art technical diving room:
XTC’s dedicated technical diving facility—the only one of its kind in our region—is a one-stop shop. We have everything the modern tech diver needs in one place, including a custom gas-blending and fill station. We can pre-blend any Nitrox or Trimix with an oxygen content of less than 40 percent using a blending stick and Bauer compressor, and bank it in our 49-tank bank system, which is configured into four different banks that can hold as many mixes for clients.
There are several advantages to owning all our facilities, tanks, fill/blending station, classrooms, resort and boats. Quality control is a big one, but also, it means we can offer competitive pricing on diving packages that include all gasses, as well as lodging and some meals, for certified Technical Divers and students alike.
More Helium Is Good, but More Rebreather Is Even Better
As technical diving becomes more accessible and available to a wider market, relying too heavily on a finite resource like helium becomes untenable. XTC Tec Diving offers world-class technical diving and training, up to and including full Trimix Instructor and Rebreather training on the SF2, Megalodon and JJ Rebreathers. While we’re happy to see the world’s helium supply replenished, at least for now, there are a number of reasons we’re moving toward Rebreather for Trimix diving here at XTC.
“To put some numbers on it, a 300-foot dive on open circuit can cost $120 U.S. in gasses, 90 percent of it helium, while the same dive on a Rebreather costs $20 U.S. in helium. So, cheaper helium is good news, but saving helium is even better.”
– Javier Salas, Trimix and Technical Diving Instructor/Owner, XTC Dive Center
Gas costs aside, some experts say Rebreather technology today is more sustainable and safer than ever—advantages that can benefit the entire industry. However you choose to dive, we can all breathe a little easier knowing the world’s helium supply has been reinflated.
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XTC Tec Diving is the dedicated technical diving arm of XTC Dive Center, located in Xcalak, Mexico. We offer the full range of PADI and TDI Technical level courses, from entry-level training all the way up to advanced instructor internships.
Since hosting our first TDI SF-2 Rebreathers course a few weeks ago, we’ve heard from instructor Mathew Partridge about the increased demand for Rebreather training and the advantages of the SF-2, and from Mary Peter, XTC’s General Manager, on the current and future Rebreather offerings here at XTC. Today we’ll get a photographer’s perspective on the course from Rodrigo Friscione—enjoy the eye candy!
An experienced diver, instructor, expedition leader, underwater photographer and videographer based in Cancún, Rodrigo Friscione runs all of our whale shark, sailfish, manta—and coming soon, mako shark—tours.
Rodrigo, why did you want do this SF-2 course with XTC? What interested you most about learning Rebreather diving?
I’m an underwater photographer, sort of an “advanced amateur” right now and trying to take it to the next level.
Rebreathers offer several advantages for photographers: First, there are no bubbles and no sound, so you are able to get closer to fish and other animals, and second, more bottom time—meaning, when you are far, far away from the surface you are still bounded by deco law, but your air consumption doesn’t matter anymore. You can take it to the limit as far as deco and not have your dive restricted by air.
Rebreather diving is growing fast in Mexico and elsewhere. What makes it worth coming all the way to Xcalak to do this course?
XTC has created an ideal environment for tech diving and for advanced teaching. Their facility is fantastic and truly full-service.
“If you were to go tech diving in Playa del Carmen, for example, you would have to go to several different places to get set up, and deal with several different vendors. XTC is a one-stop shop; they have thought of everything and they have it all. Their tech diving facility is just incredible—there is nothing else like it on the entire coast.”
Beyond that, I like how remote and secluded it is in Xcalak. Your cell phone mostly doesn’t work down there; there are no bars or other distractions, so you can put your mind fully into what you’re doing and focus. As a serious diver, I appreciate that. Also, the XTC staff is truly committed. They are not seasonal workers like you have in some places; they are a dedicated, full-time crew.
How did it go for you? What was your previous experience with the SF-2?
I had never dived on the SF-2 before; I was an absolute rookie where that was concerned! That was a steep learning curve for me, but the SF-2 is very nice to dive on, and easy to use once you learn how.
Rebreather diving is very challenging on the technical side, and completely different from regular, recreational diving in that the buoyancy is reversed, so that’s a little tricky. You have to be sharp on your partial pressures, gasses, deco theory, all of it—and the equipment is specialized, too. I’m an experienced diver, but not a technical diver. I had to prepare and study to refresh my memory and theory.
It all went really well! This course was extremely well organized and delivered by Matt Partridge, who asked each of us at the beginning what we wanted to get out of it. Of course, we each had different objectives, and our entry levels were different. Matt was adept at addressing those differences while still covering all of the many foundations of the course. It was definitely on the very edge of my knowledge as a diver, though not above it.
Sometimes with tech diving, you get people who are really into it and want to jump right into a cave dive or whatever; I am not about that. I always want to take my time and be prepared.
“It was a great course and great experience all around; XTC was an amazing place to do it, and Matt is an incredible instructor and diver. I hope I get to dive with him again. I plan to do a lot more Rebreather diving and am looking forward to that.”
What’s next for you, Rodrigo? How will you put this training to use in your own diving and photographic adventures?
I’m sure I’ll use it here in Cancún a lot—we have some good dive sites that are quite far, in the Nitrox range, where you would otherwise go through your tank very quickly. Those sites are two or three hours away by boat, so you really want to make a good day of it when you go out. Rebreather will make those trips a lot more fun and satisfying.
I’m also looking forward to diving the Socorro Islands on the Rebreather! I go there every year; it’s my absolute favorite spot, about 250 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas. The main attractions are the giant mantas—it is the best place in the world to see them. There are many humpback whales and dolphins out there, also a lot of hammerheads, which are shy of scuba divers, but more approachable with a Rebreather. It’s definitely a big animal dive—I can’t wait to try it with the Rebreather.
Rodrigo, many thanks for your time and for generously sharing your beautiful images with us!
XTC Dive Center’s technical diving facility is custom-built to accommodate Rebreather divers at every level, and we’ll soon have packages and pricing available on the new XTC Go Tec website. Until then, please contact us for more information.
If you caught our latest post, you know that we recently held our very first TDI SF-2 Rebreathers course, expertly led by Mathew Partridge and assisted by XTC General Manager Mary Peter, who handled setup and logistics. Also participating in this course were XTC owner Javier Salas and dive instructor/underwater photographer Rodrigo Friscione.
Here’s a short time-lapse video of the SF-2 unit setup in action:
An accomplished Technical Instructor Trainer who is working toward becoming a Rebreather Instructor, Mary handled the logistics (boats, captains, timing, fields, etc.) and assisted Matt with teaching the course. She also used this opportunity to fine-tune the protocols and checklists for future Rebreather courses here at XTC.
Hi Mary! Please tell us more about your role in this SF-2 course:
This course was one of the most challenging I have ever done in my diving career. It was my first “assist” as part of my instructor training. I have some experience diving with Rebreathers and the SF-2, so Matt increased my level of involvement in the class, kind of on the spot. I ended up explaining theory, helping to set up equipment and helping to build the units. I was diving on my own SF-2 Rebreather and demonstrating some of the skills we were learning.
What’s your background in Rebreather diving?
I’ve been diving on Rebreathers since 2011 here and there, and now I’m moving toward doing it professionally. Javier [Salas, XTC Owner] is the one that turned me on to the SF-2. I was first trained on it in Germany by the SF-2 manufacturers directly. The diving there was not spectacular, but the training was very good. The factory won’t sell this equipment to someone who isn’t trained on it; they require proof of certification, or they will train you themselves before they will sell it to you. I think that’s a good way of making sure people are staying safe with it—it’s something that requires your full attention and focus.
What is so different about the SF-2?
Every Rebreather course is unit-specific, and the SF-2 is much more technical than some units. Matt is the expert and I don’t want to duplicate too much of what he’s already said, but you program it yourself and it will let you do almost anything with it. So, it requires specific, in-depth knowledge because the unit itself will not prevent you from doing stupid things.
To set up the SF-2, you have to first think through the dive you want to do: how deep, how much deco, etc. Once you know what your dive will look like, then you can plug in the necessary parameters.
“I like to compare it to flight lessons: Just because you can fly a Cessna doesn’t mean you can fly a jumbo jet. You need specific training on the jumbo jet even though certain aspects of flying are the same.”
What’s exciting about bringing these courses to XTC?
This is very exciting for me personally—it’s a new challenge. It’s always good to build new skills and learn new things. Rebreather training is very technical and not something you can do quickly—it takes a lot of work and a lot of focus.
Coming here to work at XTC two-and-a-half years ago was exciting because I got to be involved in starting something new and helping to build it. Javier designed the technical facility and I was actively involved in building it, everything from the blending stations and rinse stations to how much rack space divers need. There was a lot of trigonometry involved!
Javier and I both have the highest qualifications and experience and are both very passionate about what we do. Often in this business, you have a dive shop manager running the business end of an operation and building things out, but they aren’t always the most experienced divers. Here at XTC, we don’t have to “make things work,” they are already designed to work perfectly.
“This facility was custom-built by people who know exactly what tech divers and Rebreather divers need.”
Course instructor Matt Partridge agrees: “It highlights the importance of choosing the right dive base. A lot of dive shops promote their setup online, making it sound as if they have it all, but then you get there and they really don’t—they are just not that well prepared.”
“In part because of their remote location, XTC takes nothing for granted—they have reserves upon reserves. They have thought of everything you need and more. As a diver, you can just rock up and know that it’s all taken care of; it’s all there. They have a ‘big city’ protocol in a really special and beautiful environment.”
Mary, when will this course be offered again at XTC?
Right now we can offer the course with Matt as the teacher and me as the co-teacher. My goal is to finish my instructor training this fall, and then we can run these courses regularly with me as the instructor.
Great news! Thanks, Mary.
Rebreather training opens up new worlds for dedicated divers to take their passion to the next depth. Coming up next on the XTC Go Tec Blog, we’ll catch up with Rodrigo Friscione, an underwater photographer who completed the SF-2 course with us for exactly that reason…
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XTC Dive Center’s technical diving facility is custom-built to accommodate Rebreather divers at every level.
We’ll have packages and pricing available on the new XTC Go Tec website soon. Until then, please contact us for more information about Rebreather diving and training.
Welcome to the XTC Go Tec blog! We have lots of news to share about our current and upcoming Tec programs, and we’re working on a new website dedicated entirely to Technical Diving that will launch soon.
XTC has the only dedicated technical diving facility on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and we’re very excited that Mathew Partridge, a well known Technical, Rebreather, and Cave Instructor Trainer who teaches all over the world, was available to come to Xcalak and lead this course. Matt was assisted by XTC’s General Manager, Mary Peter, who is also an accomplished Technical Instructor Trainer working her way up the Rebreather training ladder.
One reason for holding this course now is the huge growth in demand for Rebreather training at all levels. As Matt points out:
“What was once considered a very extreme sport is now available to any serious diver as a holiday experience. More people are trying it out and ‘tasting it,’ so to speak.”
Is Rebreather really for everyone?
“I tend to have to spend some time dispelling the myths about Rebreather,” says Matt, “Some people do a lot of prep in advance, while others are simply experimenting based on what they have heard or an instructor’s recommendation. Those who are well prepared tend to have a better experience.”
“There is a ‘cool toys’ appeal to it sometimes, and that attitude can be kind of dangerous…divers need to have the right mindset and the right foundation in diving to be successful with Rebreather.”
All of us here are especially geeked—while still taking it very seriously—about trying the SF-2 Rebreather, a lighter and more streamlined version of the SF-1 with more configuration options. Rather than wax philosophical about all the sexy features on this piece of gear, which Matt has reviewed on his site, we asked him to tell us:
Matt, what’s so exciting about the SF-2?
The biggest change with the SF-2 is that it allows multiple configurations—it is modular and lightweight. Also, this design happens to dive really well. Where a lot of Rebreathers tend to ‘dive you,’ rather than the other way around, this one puts the diver in complete control.
Rebreathers are not new technology—they were the early ‘Aqualungs.’ Most people that were diving back in the 60s and 70s were using military Rebreathers, not scuba equipment. The change over the last two decades is in the product design and materials, with technical advances making Rebreathers more affordable and safer. There are many of them out there now. However, traditional Rebreather manufacturers sell a full system that is not very flexible; it is meant to do only one thing.
What interests you about Rebreather and SF-2 personally?
It’s always more about the dive for me; I look at the environment and what I need to achieve. I’m very interested in deep and long dives. I started my journey a long time ago with Rebreather, just based on the dives I wanted to do and what I needed to accomplish them.
Xcalak, for example [where XTC is located], has so much diversity—there is cave diving, reef diving, croc diving, deep ocean diving—and the SF-2 Rebreather allows someone to use just one set of equipment for all of it. You can show up, get a set of tanks and be ready for all of these very different and extraordinary environments. With other Rebreathers, divers would have to haul 40-plus kilos of luggage for all the possible configurations. But the SF-2 is travel-friendly and lightweight, without compromising high quality.
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Many thanks to Matt Partridge for sharing his expertise with us! In our next post, we’ll hear from the other course participants about how it all went….
XTC Dive Center’s dedicated Tec Diving facility is designed to accommodate Rebreather divers at every level, and you’ll be seeing a lot more Rebreather action at XTC from here on out. We’ll soon have packages and pricing available on the new XTC Go Tec website, but until then, please contact us for more information.