August 17, 2016
Written by: Sophie Gaze
Dive Immersion Senior Divemaster
Our Dive Immersion Program began operation in 2008 and we have facilitated more than 40,000 divers and snorkelers of all abilities in experiencing Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager habitat. At the conclusion of each dive, our staff has distributed surveys to our open circuit divers. Some of the most common suggestions for improvement over the years were to provide underwater photos in addition to the video and extend the bottom time. Enter: Rebreathers. The Closed Circuit Rebreather Program allows guests to deepen their experience and extend their bottom time in a try rebreather dive experience. Now guests can enjoy our majestic whale sharks, manta rays, and other exotic species while donning some of the newest and most innovative rebreather equipment to date: The Poseidon SE7EN.
The all-inclusive experience with over an hour of dive time is a more intimate and luxurious option to our standard 30-minute open circuit dive. All equipment is provided, however, divers are encouraged to bring their personal masks. As the recreational world of diving begins to blur the lines with technical diving, this is the perfect opportunity for recreational divers to get their feet wet with a rebreather in a safe and controlled environment under the supervision of a well-trained staff.
The program is held on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:45 AM. Guests are greeted in front of the Ocean Voyager exhibit by their RAID Sport Rebreather Instructors for the day. The divers go over paperwork and head upstairs to the deck of the exhibit for an introduction to the environment. The first ten minutes of the orientation are composed of a typical dive site briefing. The instructors introduce the divers to the exhibit and the animals, and this also serves as a photo opportunity from the dry, topside view of Ocean Voyager. Guests can ask questions about the exhibit and learn a great deal about what types of aquatic life they can expect to encounter on their journey through Ocean Voyager.
The next section of the orientation is dedicated to the equipment. The program is open to divers who are Open Water Certified and higher and we structured the program anticipating that most of our guests probably have never had the opportunity to dive with this type of equipment. We understand that the rebreather units can seem intimidating at first. Trust me, we were there once, just read about it in our training blogs! This part of the program is designed to ease that apprehension by covering the basics and familiarizing the divers with their gear. Before we launched the official program, we ran mock programs with our volunteer divers to gather feedback and build the best pre-dive gear orientation that we could in order to make sure our guest divers are confident and well informed before donning the equipment.
The equipment is referred to as a closed-circuit rebreather, and it allows for a bubble-free dive! Why is a bubble-free dive so appealing? The bubble-free diving allows the diver to more naturally blend in with the aquatic life. Other benefits of rebreathers include longer dive time, warm and moist breathing gas, and decreased nitrogen off-gassing. In my opinion, they are definitely the future of the sport of SCUBA diving.
So how does it work? The rebreather has two separate tanks, one filled with 100% oxygen and another filled with a diluent, which is essentially just air (79% nitrogen, 21% oxygen). The diver has a breathing loop where the air is circulated rather than expelled from the system. The purpose of a rebreather is to recycle the air that the diver exhales. Inside of the canister, an absorbent scrubs the carbon dioxide from the diver’s exhaled air and cycles the oxygen back around. The tank adds additional oxygen to this “rebreathed” air to compensate for the oxygen lost when it was metabolized by the diver. The diluent is automatically added when necessary to keep the gas components balanced. The technology of the system is very advanced, but Poseidon has perfected the model to be extremely user friendly. The rebreather model that we use is a Poseidon SE7EN and they were developed from the world’s first recreational, fully automatic rebreather, the Poseidon MKVI. To learn more about this model, visit Poseidon’s website.
Once the gear orientation is complete, the divers enter the classroom to view a PowerPoint presentation which solidifies the dive plan and provides a more extensive orientation to Georgia Aquarium, rebreather safety and skills, and the exhibit in general. After the classroom session, it’s time to get suited up and get in the water! The rebreather units require a series of computer-run tests before they can be taken in the water which the instructors walk the guests through. We then have the guests do a dry-run of the rebreather-specific skills that will be practiced at 20 feet before the divers enter the water. When everyone is comfortable and ready to get in, the dry staff assists with a ladder-entry into the Ocean Voyager exhibit.
The dive itself is separated into two sections. In the first part of the dive, the guests practice skills with the instructors and then do a few loops of the 20-foot section of Ocean Voyager to become acquainted with the equipment. Even the most experienced open-circuit divers can expect to have buoyancy issues during their first dive on a rebreather as the mechanics are different. It is also a bit challenging at first to get used to the recycled breathing. Whereas in open circuit, divers are encouraged to take long, slow breaths, on a rebreather it is actually a lot more like breathing through a snorkel or just normally like you would at the surface. This is a difficult habit to break if you’ve been diving for a long time. After the 30 minutes are up, all divers surface and guests have the opportunity to ask questions about the equipment that could not be communicated underwater. If they are uncomfortable on the rebreather for any reason at this time, they also have the option to switch to an open circuit dive.
The remainder of the dive is a leisurely tour of Ocean Voyager. This is the culmination of the program as guests have the opportunity to put what they have learned into action and get really comfortable diving the rebreather equipment. The silence of the unit allows for the animals to get a lot closer to the divers than on the open circuit dive, in particular the species of sharks and smaller reef fish. The bubble-free dive is also a very peaceful experience. The silence of the unit accompanied by the simple sensation of being underwater is truly magical. Our mock guest volunteers, who have logged hundreds of dives in Ocean Voyager, provided us with positive feedback about how unexpectedly different it felt to dive in the exhibit on this new equipment.
The last ten minutes of the dive guests have the opportunity to hang out in the top third of the water column where our majestic whale sharks spend the majority of their time. This is the opportunity to have an up-close encounter with our four gentle giants and the perfect way to end an epic dive in Ocean Voyager.
The program concludes with a nice warm shower in our locker rooms and lots of fun take-home items to look forward to! We take about a week to edit the video of your dive and generate still photos that are mailed to you on a USB drive as your personal keepsake. Participants also receive a certificate of participation and an exclusive Georgia Aquarium Rebreather Program t-shirt. All souvenirs are included in the price of the program.
Whether you’ve never had the pleasure of diving in Ocean Voyager, or if you’re a repeat diver who is even remotely curious about what it’s like to dive a rebreather, I highly recommended the Rebreather Program. It is the first experience of its kind and a once in a lifetime opportunity to get an extended, incomparable dive in the beautiful Ocean Voyager habitat.
To reserve your spot in our Rebreather Program, click here!