Hookah or Surface Supplied Air for recreational divers has become very popular in many locations around the world. The resorts market the activity as a mix between snorkeling and scuba diving without the requirements for certification. While different equipment providers may add their own name for the activity, overall hookah is the name that is used. Basically a hookah provides someone underwater with a source of air that is located on the surface. An air hose running from the air source to a regulator keeps the person tethered to the system. There are different variables that can be seen in the systems available.
The broadest difference is whether the systems are dynamic or static. A dynamic system uses an air compressor to provide the air that is needed at the proper pressure. These systems often have a small holding tank to ensure that the pressure is constant. As air is removed from the holding tank, the compressor adds air to maintain the pressure. The compressors can be floated or fixed. They can also be gas powered or electric. A static system uses a cylinder of compressed air as the source of air for the divers. In many static systems, a scuba tank is the item used to provide the breathable air.
The systems can be either fixed or floating. A fix system can be placed on a dock but more often than not are mounted on a boat. Many yachts, that use high pressure air for different systems, have outlets to connect Hookah down lines. Hookah diving has been found very convenient to inspect boat hulls, clear prop lines and other routine maintenance activities. A floating system has the air source in a float that the divers can pull with them. An article published last year on this website, The SUSiE Chronicles: Hookah Diving for Science, gives some insight into the advantages of using Hookah systems for shallow water research.
How a Hookah System Works
Very basic, a breathing hose connects the air source to a scuba regulator that provides the air to the diver. Some systems provide one air hose, often called a down-line, for each diver starting at the air source and ending at a regulator. Other systems provide one down-line from which an air hose and regulator for each diver is connected. This system gives each diver a little more freedom and reduces the risk of down-lines becoming entangled.
Let’s start with the diver and work up. The diver will wear a standard mask and fins. The hookah diver does not wear a BCD, instead they wear a harness. The primary purpose of the harness is to provide an anchoring point for the down line. If something were to grab the down line it would yank the harness and not the regulator which could be pulled from the mouth. The diver also wears a weight belt. The most common design uses ditchable weight pockets. Divers are weighted to maintain neutral buoyancy. Since they are not carrying an air tank that will change buoyancy the longer you stay down, the buoyancy does not change.
Generally the diver uses a standard second stage regulator to breath from. You can get systems designed for one to four divers.
A Typical Resort Hookah Dive.
In many ways a hookah dive at a resort is very similar to the try scuba dive or discover dive. Participants start with a short lesson that covers what to expect, safety requirements, and a few skills such as mask clearing. Then with an instructor they descent to about 6 meters/ 20 feet. In some locations, local regulations require that the guide be license and be using scuba gear. Since they are tethered to the float, there is less risk that the participant can become lost or go to deep.
Personal Hookah systems
Hookah systems have a great deal of flexibility outside of the resort dive arena. The most common configurations allow up to four divers to descend to 18 meters/ 60 feet. The equivalent to an Open Water Diver. Some units may be equipped to allow two divers to descend to a depth of 30 meters/100 feet, the depth of an advance Open Water diver. The initial cost of a hookah system for one diver is about the same as an Open Water Diver’s initial kit. However, a hookah system for two or even four divers is not significantly more. This makes them less expensive that multiple kits. Operating expense is also low, a gallon of gasoline can run most compressors for five hours while supplying air for four divers.
Hookah Systems Dangers
Hookah diving and Scuba diving are both using compressed air. The risk of using compressed air at depths remain the same regardless of where the source is located. The hookah resort operators are quick to point out how safe they are. Hookah manufacturers claim that it is relatively risk free activity, and most statistics bear that out. However, bear in mind that most hookah diving is in less than 40 feet and virtually all the diving offered by the resorts are in less that 30 feet of water. At this depth DCS is uncommon for both hookah and scuba. There are some additional major safety concerns.
The first and what may be the leading concern is an issue of training. Scuba divers need to be certified to dive. Granted there are many divers who have not been certified but they are a minority. The major manufacturers and distributors of hookah systems recommend training and some even have online training programs. Some scuba certification agencies have in water training for surface supplied air for recreational divers. However, there is no mandatory training.
An interesting statistic has come out of Tasmania. A recent report showed that the number of DCS treatments were about equal for scuba divers and Hookah divers. However, there was an estimated fifteen times more scuba divers. When interviewed over 90% of the hookah divers knew nothing of the risk of diving deep and no knowledge of what DCS was. None of that 90% had received any type of training. Remember that the amount of air a hookah user has at depth is controlled by the fuel of the compressor. So two and three hour dives are possible. Hookah divers following the same procedures as a scuba diver, dive planning and a dive computer, can reduce their risk of DCS.
A second major concern is the availability of equipment. The concept is hookah is very simple, not much different from when it was introduced in the 1700s. Improvements in compressors have certainly been made and the demand regulators that are also used in scuba diving helps. However, there are many do it yourself people who put together systems that have fatal flaws. Also, the internet have people making their own systems and selling them. They are not always safe. Some uses low quality air hose to provide air to divers, and others might not protect from Carbon monoxide entering into the intakes.
The Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme (ADAS) is a government organization that governs commercial diving in that country. Here is what they say on the topic:
“Some recreational divers may use Hookah, a crude recreational form of surface supplied breathing apparatus. Hookah diving is over-represented in both recreational and occupational diving fatality statistics, with the main cause being carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from exhaust fumes being sucked into the compressor intakes left unattended on the surface.”
Scuba diving offers more freedom underwater since you are not tethered to the float. To some divers that restriction is not an issue. In that case, a hookah system might be better for you. If you do try hookah, just remember that moving the location of the air does not change the risk. Some Hookah dealers recommend that those using the configurations that dive deep use a dive computer and a harness equipped with a pony bottle back up system.