Mark Caney, author of Dolphin Way, profiled in DIVE

From DIVE, published 12 May 2015

Mark Caney and Dave Griffiths in Egypt
Mark Caney and Dave Griffiths in Egypt

Joe Cocozza meets Mark Caney to discuss the future of rebreather diving 


A diver since 1976, Mark Caney is a renaissance man of diving. After serving in the British Military in Cyprus, Mark established a dive centre and was based on the island for 18 years. He started out as a BSAC instructor; however the school started getting American GIs asking for this thing called PADI. He checked out the PADI system and liked it so much he became one of the first PADI Course Directors outside the USA. He was also one of the first dive instructors in the Mediterranean to embrace technical diving and he became a tech diving instructor trainer. In the early 1990s he sold his interest in the dive centre and travelled throughout Europe and the Middle East teaching PADI instructors and setting up technical dive centres for nitrox and trimix diving. In 1996 PADI offered him a job in its UK office. Today he has two jobs at PADI: first he is the VP of training and customer services for PADI Europe/Middle East/Africa; and second he is the VP of rebreather technology for PADI worldwide.

You started scuba diving when you were in the British Military?

MC: I was not a military diver but I learned recreational diving while I was in the military. I worked in Military Intelligence, so I have to be careful about what I say here. I started diving while in Northern Ireland. After that I went to Cyprus and there was great diving there and I decided to leave my military career and start a dive school.

Currently you are a PADI VP for Europe/Middle East/Africa. That is a big office area.

MC: It is about a third of the world and it is a job that requires I travel a lot. But I also have a global job for PADI in the technical diving division, which covers the tech diving range of courses. In that area, I am the vice president of rebreather technology.

Recently PADI has embraced technical diving, but it was not so long ago that PADI seemed to be ‘anti tech’. I am a New Jersey wreck diver and since the 1980s we were doing deep decompression shipwreck dives.  At that time, I was a PADI Divemaster and I was not allowed to even mention to Open Water students that we were doing deco dives. It was off the grid. But then in the mid 90s PADI introduced their EANx course, and I thought ‘Wow, this is what tech diving educational materials should be like’. Can you address that in the early days, PADI seemed to be anti tech diving?

MC: I think a lot of people got the idea that PADI was anti tech diving, but in fact if you look back to what was said, that was not the case. PADI has always had a cautious approach to these developments but was not opposed them. You have to understand, PADI trains huge numbers of people (PADI issues nearly a million certifications a year). We didn’t want to get involved until we were sure that we could make our tech courses as safe as practicable. With new technologies evolved to a reasonably mature level, we made the decision to support tech diving education and do it in the most professional and educationally sound manner in the industry. You mentioned our introduction of nitrox. Our current nitrox program is our most popular specialty course. And likewise, we now have a full range of technical open circuit courses, and now our technical rebreather and recreational rebreather courses. So we have the full spectrum of programmes.

So how long have you been diving on rebreathers?

MC: I started diving with rebreathers in the early 90s. First with a semi closed rebreather (SCR) and soon progressed to fully electronic closed circuit rebreather (CCR) by the mid-90s. My first CCR was the AP Diving Inspiration. However, now I dive many different rebreathers. If you need to stay underwater a long time, a rebreather is a wonderful tool. And it is not necessarily a tool exclusive to tech divers.

Yes, you mentioned that there are now two different types of rebreathers: the R-CCR (recreational rebreather) and the T-CCR (technical rebreather). Explain the concept behind the recreational rebreather or R-CCR.

MC: In the past there had been a small tech rebreather market but not recreational. We at PADI felt there could be both. In our tech diving division, we have been following rebreathers for many years. PADI wanted to get involved in rebreathers when there was a clear technical and recreational rebreather market. Several years before, I designed a list of features and requirements that a recreational rebreather would need. This was a Cinderella glass slipper situation – we were waiting for the right size foot to come along. Four years ago, I was approached by Poseidon and they asked me ‘What are the requirements for a recreational CCR?’ I gave them my list and a year later they came up with plans for what would become the Mk6 R-CCR. This is the first CCR designed from the ground up for the recreational diver market.

Mark Caney in Caymans - photo by Kevin Gurr
Mark Caney in Caymans / Kevin Gurr

So what is the difference between the T- Rebreather and the R-Rebreather and the subsequent training?

MC: A technical rebreather is a demanding unit and requires very extensive training, because there are a myriad of different situations where the unit could malfunction and/or the diver make a critical error. So the diver needs a range of solutions to the different problems. This is technical diving and the diver has to be highly trained and prepared to follow a lot of very rigid protocols prior, during and post dive.

The recreational rebreather diver mindset is quite different. We use the traditional recreational diving envelope, that is maximum depth is 40 metres, no decompression stops and no significant overhead penetration. The recreational diver stays within the recreational diving envelope and if everything or anything goes wrong, the diver can simply bail out to open circuit and ascend to the surface. The upshot is there is one solution to all problems a diver will encounter underwater. Because of the limited operating environment, it limits the complexity of issues that the diver has to handle. But that puts a greater demand on the engineering/design of the rebreather.

I mentioned I had a list of features/requirements that an R-Rebreather would need. The list was based on analyzing rebreather incidents. Every item on the list was there to counter any of the likely errors a diver might make. I will give you an example of this. Let’s say it is possible to put the CO2 canister in a rebreather two different ways and if the diver put the canister in backwards it would be dangerous. That is an engineering error and that could be fixed by design. Another example: is it possible to enter the water without turning on your CCR? Now we expect a technical rebreather diver to be disciplined enough in his pre-dive procedure not to have this happen. However, with a recreational diver, it is foreseeable that it will happen, so a fundamental requirement of the recreational rebreather is, if you jump in the water with out turning on the unit, you either get a loud warning or the unit itself makes it impossible for you to dive.

The flip side of the coin is that while the type R-CCR is easier to use, it is also more complicated to make. This is analogous to the modern automobile. A modern car has automatic lights/wipers, cars that park themselves, auto transmission, ABS brakes and computer controlled everything.

Now the type T-Rebreather is more complicated to use, because it has to be. In technical diving, you will be doing decompression, penetration and deep diving.  Just as in open circuit technical diving, the diver does not always have the option to bail out and ascend directly to the surface. The diver has to be trained to execute many solutions to many possible problems.

You recently spoke at Rebreather Forum 3. This was the first time in many years that all the world’s rebreather experts got in one room to brainstorm. What do you think was accomplished? 

MC: It was great to get all the key experts in one room to benchmark the whole state of the art. And to say what is working and what things that we as an industry need to do to move forward.

And as far as the R-CCR side goes, I think it was historic because we clearly identified this whole Recreational Rebreather concept and that the recreational rebreather diver has different needs to a technical rebreather diver. It was a very useful conference in both those respects.

So what do you think the future is for rebreather diving?

MC: I would not see the need for a rebreather in every diver’s kit. However, it’s likely that rebreathers will be more widely used by more divers. There will be a wider spectrum of rebreather divers. And we will see a clear delineation between types T-CCR and R-CCR divers. Just as now you go on a boat and see both technical and recreational open circuit divers.

Getting off the subject of the technology: you have been diving for 30 years and are a very keen advocate for protecting our oceans. What are your observations?

MC: The fact is that I have been diving for a long time. If you ask anybody who has been diving a long time, and particularly diving a long time in the same location, how the diving in that location has changed over the last 20 years, you will often hear that it has gotten worse. So we scuba divers are the eyes of humanity when it comes to the marine world. Think of it this way, only a tiny number of human beings actually scuba dive compared to how many of us live on this planet. And when you consider that water covers 70 per cent of our planet, scuba divers have a pretty crucial role in reporting back what we see. So if we are noticing problems, we have the responsibility to tell people about it and to get them to understand.

I’m very fortunate because of my job with PADI and we are able to do a lot of good work with Project Aware. One particular project we are working on involves protecting sharks and rays. It is important that scuba divers tell people how very important sharks are to our world. Also, I am very involved with educating the public about dolphins. These are the issues close to my heart.

You mentioned dolphins. You authored the book Dolphin Way. When I was first given a copy of your book, I thought it some New Age fairy tale or an anthropomorphic story about Flipper’s cousin. I was wrong. The novel is an interesting look into way another species, with intelligence comparable to our own but evolved in a completely different fashion, would perceive what is going on on this planet. What was the inspiration for the novel?

Early in my diving career, I had a very close personal encounter. I was in the Red Sea and there was a lone dolphin that kept regularly appearing in a bay. I got there at night, it was a flat calm sea with a full moon. I snorkeled out and spent several hours playing with her, to the point where she actually let me touch her. So for two days we swam together and I felt this connection. But I, like everyone else, had the notion that dolphins are happy, smiley, gentle creatures and that everything is perfect in their world. Then I read this story about these porpoises that were dead and it was dolphins that killed them. So I realized that everything is not perfect in their world.

There was something there that was causing that conflict in the dolphins’ world and that got me thinking, ‘What could that be?’. So that got me thinking on the storyline of the book. People always talk about an intelligence from outer space visiting earth and how we would treat alien visitors. But the fact is we already have another intelligence right here on this planet. It is a different kind of intelligence and it evolved in a different way. Humans have evolved to manipulate the environment with technology and that is not always a good thing – we have caused a little bit of harm here and there. So here are the dolphins, another species and another society with comparable intelligence but they use it in a completely different way. Maybe dolphins have a harmony with their environment that our species lacks. So we are already in contact with an intelligent species and how do we share our planet with them? I look at how we treat this intelligent race that lives in our midst and it does not bode well for any extraterrestrial visitors to earth.

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