The term technical diving refers to diving that is neither commercial in nature (i.e. without pay) nor military in application. In some ways, the formulation "technical diving" resists easy description; a number of divers assert that dives using gasses other than air are technical, while others insist that deep and/or complex dive plans are technical dives.
In truth, the lines demarcating the field of technical diving are blurred; precise definition is arbitrary and pointless. Commercial and military diving are distinct activities in which superiors require mission-specific activities generally beyond the control of the diving team. Recreational or sport diving is usually for fun, but divers would do well to learn from the precision of military and scientific operations, particularly as the recreational activities become more risky.
Calling a form of diving "technical" arbitrarily attempts to outline a different level of diving risk when that risk does not actually exist. Diving risk is part of a continuum, and technical divers are not necessarily more at risk than recreational divers. As depth and task-loading increase, divers must be better prepared, with more experience and proper training to handle the risks. But there is little risk if one is trained to deal with the task at hand. What this means is that risk should be understood in terms of attitude, experience, and training, not in terms of the type of diving. Too many individuals view diver training as a list of accomplishments that should be checked off as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, diving educators sometimes encourage this perspective. In truth, training is what supports individuals in being able to safely pursue diving. Diving is actually where individual emphasis should lie.
Generally speaking, technical diving has not been proven to be inordinately more dangerous than recreational diving, and insurance organizations have been willing to insure most forms of technical diving. Early predictions that technical divers would expose organizations to substantial liability have not been realized. Therefore, technical diving now enjoys things that seemed nearly inconceivable in the early 1990's: a growing market share, profitability, and liability protection.
The Fate of Technical Diving
Change can come so quickly that sometimes it can go unnoticed. Not too long ago, groups like PADI marshaled to ban technical diving from the SCUBA industry's largest annual trade show. Today, these same organizations are proud to embrace technical diving with a new-found fervor. The motivations behind this change of heart are unclear. If they are financial in nature, then it is uncertain whether this change of heart is consistent with the best interests of those involved in technical diving.
As a market, technical diving has now become commercially viable; the growth of companies and services catering to the interests of technical diving attests to that. This is evident also by the attempts made by solidly recreational manufacturers to make inroads into the technical diving market. Nonetheless, manufacturers of SCUBA equipment are not the only ones seeking to capitalize on this new and growing market; open water training agencies seek to do so as well.
Initially, one might assume that this change is for the better, that by bringing their financial might and varied resources to bear on the technical diving market (e.g. by helping to create new training materials as well as a much larger market), open water agencies will help promote the interests of technical divers. That is debatable. Not only are those agencies' motives for entering a domain against which they fought for years questionable, but so is their competence to teach technical diving.
Surely the standards by which one might evaluate the qualifications of individuals or organizations to train divers are fraught with personal opinions and bias (technical diving). However, diving in general, and more particularly technical diving, is a self-regulated activity that allows business entities to regulate, and thereby limit, their own industry. It follows, then, that these same entities will favor relaxing diving standards in order to stimulate the growth of their consumer base. In turn, these relaxed standards translate into less-competent divers. Today, easier courses and more "streamlined" training are the rule rather than the exception in the open water market. Courses are becoming shorter and less academically robust every year.
Diving on a calm day in warm water on a 30-foot reef is not likely to involve many difficulties. This perception has revolutionized novice training; today, students are only given the most minimal training before they are allowed to begin diving. Some groups have even gone so far as to eliminate from their training curricula many of what, in the past, were considered fundamental diving skills. Though this kind of training, and the underlying philosophy supporting it, may work well for recreational diving, it does not work for technical diving. Many diving educators argue that, because of the brevity of their training, new recreational divers are becoming less capable and less comfortable each year, thereby making them poor candidates for technical training. It is unlikely, then, that recreational diving organizations will be able to produce competent technical divers, when said agencies are having difficulties producing divers who qualify as viable technical diving candidates. This raises serious questions regarding the competency of open water agencies to branch into technical diver training. Even though what makes a student a "qualified" open water diver is debatable, what is not is that competent technical diving is not supported by such training practices.
Few would blame a business for making choices that would make that business more profitable. However, SCUBA diving in general, and technical diving in particular, are different from most other activities in that the quality of one's training directly impacts on one's likelihood of survival. Whereas most recreational activities penalize mistakes and accidents with sprained ankles and broken bones, SCUBA diving penalties can easily be much more severe. This, coupled with the greater demands imposed on one by technical diving, forces one to question whether this expansion in technical training serves the best interest of technical divers. It is not inherently wrong for companies to seek profitability. Divers are actually rewarded by the growth and expansion of successful diving companies. However, this profitability cannot be sought at the expense of training proficiency or diver safety. In the end, it is the student who has the most control over the type of training he or she receives. Individuals seeking bargain training usually get exactly the kind of training for which they pay.