Sadly, there is a very top heavy age (and size) bias in technical diving, with it being seen as a big macho pastime for middle age blokes. This stigma needs to be broken…
Underwater360 interviews Edd Stockdale about his career and the current issues surrounding technical diving
To reach the depths of the ocean, one needs a wealth of experience, technical expertise, the guts to take on a potentially hazardous mission, and of course, that spark of adventure needed to explore the deep and find places no human being has yet discovered.
It was that sense of reaching the unknown – the curiosity, as it were, to discover new places in the deep yet untouched – that drove Edd Stockdale to pursue a passion for technical diving. But it’s not simply a personal thrill for Edd. As a technical diving instructor, he educates others in a field he loves, and alongside his background in marine zoology and biology, he dives on behalf of institutions and organisations (such as the University of Oxford and Malta) – carrying out field research and discovering new wrecks.
Edd has been all over the world: from diving in Scotland at the age of 12, to exploring Asia as a full-time professional diver in 2008. He has participated in various expeditions and projects, including the Thinking Deep research project for the University of Oxford, Project Shadow (as a core team member), and Heart of the L72 expedition (as a dive safety and logistics officer).
His hard work has earned him recognition: he is a member of the Explorers Club, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and he was a nominee for the Eurotek Discovery Award in 2016.
In recent times, he has turned his attention towards Thailand and the cave systems in the Karst Plains. When not teaching, you can expect to find Edd exploring new wrecks or caves – or planning his next big adventure.
What got you into technical diving?
Funnily enough, I originally had no interest in technical diving, as I was concentrating on macro diving and photography. That changed when I started looking below at deeper sites and wondering what was down there. This developed into a greater need to explore – to go deeper into underwater wrecks and caves. It now consumes my life, in a good way.
Any notable moments while technical diving?
It’s hard to say. Any occasion when you dive to a site and are the first human to ever see it or be there – whether it’s a wreck, cave or a new deep reef – is notable. Finding these places is the main drive behind diving and using technical skills or equipment. But the times that stand out to me include finding new wrecks around Malta or exploring new caves in Indonesia. Testing new deep sampling techniques with the University of Oxford would be up there as well.
What are your favourite dive destinations?
Overall, the Southern Ocean off Victoria and Tasmania in Australia. Diving there is epic at all levels, whether it’s shallow or deep, wreck or reef.
As for a wreck diving destination, it would have to be Malta. I have dived most of the known diveable wrecks, as well as many of the unknown ones, including some I have helped discover with Project Shadow. The fact that there are more unexplored wrecks than explored ones just makes it an easy competitor for the wreck diving capital of the world.
The site you’d most like to dive but never have?
I have a bucket list that is a mile long. There is just not enough time to dive all the places one would want to. Funnily enough, the more you dive, the longer the list seems to get, especially when you start researching places that people haven’t been to yet.
Top of the list though would be the Malin Head region of Ireland for wrecks, as well as the Baltic – another good one to look for wrecks. There’s also the Ojamo Mine in Finland, and funnily enough, after ADEX TekDive 2017, the Great Lakes in Northern America. But the list is endless.
What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment, the main one is with the Project Shadow team in Malta. We are an international team of explorers whose aim is the discovery, identification and protection of wrecks in Europe. The team works with the University of Malta and Malta Heritage to facilitate deep range archaeological research.
Other work includes a cave exploration project based in Sulawesi that has been going on for a few years, and the Thinking Deep project, which investigates mesophotic reef ecology, with the University of Oxford.
What has been the highlight of your career?
That’s a hard one. There’s a lot to go – my first dive and my first wreck stand out to me. In recent times at least, it has been my acceptance into the Explorers Club, carrying out the field research with Oxford, developing new rebreather-based survey techniques for deep reefs, and the growth of Project Shadow. When you have spent your adult life diving, teaching and exploring, there are too many great memories. Almost every day has been a positive experience.
Technical diving has a “danger” stigma. Is it safe and how do we overcome that image?
In all honesty, no diving is “safe”. You are immersing yourself in a hostile environment where you cannot survive without the equipment you are using. It is, though, very well risk managed to make it as safe as it can be, though proper training and correct procedures help. Technical diving is no different.
But yes, there is a high risk element associated with the more advanced aspects of diving. However, good training and rigorous application of it do in fact make it safer than what many people would think. Sadly, the deaths we see in this area of diving are often caused by people applying bad training or adopting methods that deviate from the training they had in the first place, whether it’s being not using CCR checklists or skipping steps in a skill.
Overcoming this image of a highly dangerous pastime is always going to be tricky, but in my opinion, the more people actually take courses – good ones, that is – and see the factors involved in proper technical diving protocols, the more this image will be shifted towards discipline and skill.
What are the challenges that you think technical diving faces?
I think the biggest issue facing the technical community is the low numbers, relatively, of younger divers coming into the game. Sadly, there is a very top heavy age (and size) bias in technical diving, with it being seen as a big macho pastime for middle age blokes. This stigma needs to be broken and younger – and female – divers need to be brought into the sport. If not, we are facing a state where there won’t be a next generation of technical divers or educators/instructors.
Part of this is caused by many of the older instructors being stuck in their ways from the old days and not developing. Their attitude can be “I’ve been doing it for 20 years” and “How is that young upstart going to teach you more than me?” Suffice to say, that approach isn’t helping the community and making it grow.
Remember, selection of a technical instructor should not be based on how long they have been teaching the same thing, but rather how they update as new techniques are applied and research is carried out in the field. Instructors need to be continuously updating, especially in the last few years when our understanding of deep diving physiology has rapidly grown.
The other factor is the macho attitude many technical divers seem to have regarding their pastime. People seem to forget that we are just diving – yes, with more equipment and training – but it’s still just diving.
Funnily enough, the high-end technical explorers and educators are often found to be very relaxed, and in many cases, dive with single tanks and support new divers. Yet at the mid-range – those who have a reasonable amount of technical training as part-time weekend divers – many divers pile on the kit even for a recreational dive. This “showing off” strokes their egos and obviously alienates potential newcomers. With so many other pastimes on offer these days, it’s very easy to lose the next generation to areas that have less of this negative attitude.
As a technical diver you should remember it’s just diving – enjoy it and try share your passion and excitement. That way, we will have a new generation.
Any advice for aspiring technical divers?
The first thing to do is find a good instructor who teaches up-to-date training techniques and in-depth courses. After that, practise as often as you can to make the skills you learn on the training courses second nature. Too often, people do a course then don’t actually dive for ages after and forget the skills or lose the fluidity needed to be a proficient technical diver.
Go slow and enjoy it – don’t set a goal at 100 metres or a massive cave push and then miss the intermittent amazing opportunities and dives that are in the shallower ranges. They are not only fun, but they develop your skills so when you do go further, they are ingrained.
One last aspect in technical diving, often overlooked, is fitness. You need to be physically fit, not as a world-class athlete, but you need to maintain a level of personal fitness to make all the technical diving both more enjoyable and less risky. Maintain a training schedule both for mental and physical fitness. This point kind of applies to sport diving as well, where it is also overlooked.
What are your plans? Any upcoming adventures or projects?
Life these days seems to be one big adventure, which is great. After an injury put me out for six months in 2016, I aimed to seriously make this a year of diving – teaching and diving myself.
This month, I head off to Scandinavia to do some wreck diving and maybe a bit of exploration before heading to Malta to continue with Project Shadow work for a while. Notably, I’m heading to Budapest for cave diving, which is something that has been on my list for many years. I may also be heading to Thailand for some cave exploration, too. Aside from that, I’ll be teaching courses and promoting the new XCCR rebreather in SE Asia. There are also other things on the cards but they are “hush-hush” for now.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
All I have to add is my thanks to my parents for not seeing it as a problem when I chose to follow this path, a thank you to my team mates, Steve Wilkinson and Kalle Selin, who are the core of Project Shadow, and one to all my instructors, mentors and friends who have helped me develop into the diver I am today. Also, an insanely huge gratitude to Fourth Element who support my endeavours, thereby allowing me to do what I do.