An interview with Joshua Hotaling, a double amputee who found a love for technical and cave diving
Could you tell us about your story before you became a diver?
Before I started scuba diving, I spent seven years in the Marine Corps Infantry. My first duty station was Presidential Retreat Camp David, which I did site security for President Bush, followed by President Obama. I was stationed with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) in southern California. Shortly after joining 1/5, I had my skull crushed in a training accident, which required eight titanium plates and 40 screws on the skull to repair it.
After eight months of rehab, I was able to re-enlist in the Marines to go to Afghanistan. On May 13, 2011, I stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) while sweeping for IEDs on a foot patrol, resulting in losing both my legs, my right thumb m and partial index and middle fingers.
How did you get into scuba diving?
I took up scuba diving as part of recreational therapy while I was recovering at Navy Medical Centre Balboa in San Diego. I was certified by a non-profit organisation, Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS).
What do you like about scuba diving?
After my Open Water certification, SUDS took me to Fort Lauderdale and I was hooked after my first wreck dive. It was just a recreational swim through an artificial reef ship at a depth of 30 metres, but being able to swim through it on neutral buoyancy was life changing.
Before I lost my legs, I enjoyed running and up to this point, I was a little disheartened at the difficulty and pain of walking in prosthetics. They felt awkward and foreign, and mu ability to get around on dry land was definitely hampered due to the prosthetics. In the water, it was as if my injury disappeared, and I was free to move again. I must thank SUDS for bringing diving into my life.
Technical diving filled the void that I missed from not being an active duty infantry marine. Many approaches of technical diving are similar to how we did things in the military; doing drills like valve shit down and S drills is a common approach used in the military. Spending hours prepping gear before a big dive brought me back to the times we would prep gear before a mission or patrol in the marines.
Could you talk us through what it feels like when you descend underwater?
When I start a dive, I feel a sense of calmness wash over me. When I’m on land, moving around in prosthetics, I look awkward, and you can definitely tell I have a hitch in my step, but diving makes me feel like I am gliding through space. Scuba gives me the opportunity to better myself; it’s something I can still pursue and be good at regardless of any previous injuries I may have had.
What made you want to pursue technical diving?
When I was on that first SUDS trip to Fort Lauderdale, I was paired up with one of the volunteer instructors who ran a technical dive shop in Puerto Rico. His name is Tony Cerezo, and we quickly became good friends. He took me under his wing and taught me cave diving, CCR and trimix diving.
How is technical diving different from open-circuit diving for you?
For me, the main differences between technical and recreational diving is gear setup and level of activity involved. When I do a standard single-tank dive, my gear is like everyone else except that I use webbed gloves instead of fins, but technical diving requires a lot more thought and non-standard gear configurations. For example, I use suicide clips for my stage bottles on the right side so that I can get them off quickly even with webbed gloves on and missing fingers.
I am also very lucky to have met some great people in the diving community. One of those is Mike Young. After I expressed my interest in sidemount CCR, Mike custom designed and developed the Sidewinder rebreather for my diving style. I’ve used several back-mount units, but once I tried the Sidewinder, I was hooked – it made diving much easier and was perfect for my caving style. With a rebreather designed around my diving, it is easier to pursue my diving goals.
What was the training process like? Any difficulties you faced?
I’ve only taken technical dive courses from two instructors, the first being Tony Cerezoa and the second being Mike Young. To pass the courses, I still need to complete the same skills, though some are done differently from others. One of the rules in cave diving is to always keep moving when taking off stages or passing bottles, but I swim with hands, I wear the main light on my helmet instead of holding it in my hands so I won’t be flashing light all around. I think the hardest part of the technical courses is exiting a cave in darkness as with one hand one the line, I only have one free to pull myself along or swim.
What had been your most memorable dive so far?
One of my most memorable dives is when I dove Rubidoux Springs last December. That was my first time diving the Sidewinder, and exploring what I could do in a sidemount unit was amazing.
Could you share some of your future goals with us?
Some of my goals in diving is o become a recreational instructor, I have a small dive club for veterans in northern California as part of a non-profit Ranger Road. We dive the mountain lakes but I’m not qualified to train new divers yet so it would be nice to have my instructor certification.