The SUSiE Chronicles: Hookah Diving for Science

The SUSiE Chronicles: Hookah Diving for Science

My name is Mallory Morgan and I recently graduated from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. This past July I joined the Science Under Sail Institute for Exploration (or SUSiE) as a SEAmbassador.

Welcome to this series of articles from my time with SUSiE – The SUSiE Chronicles!

You can read more, during the course of this week, by clicking here.

Hookah Diving for Science

Science Under Sail Institute for Exploration (SUSiE) conducts cutting edge marine scientific research around the world, with a current focus on the Caribbean. This past summer, SUSiE conducted expeditions in the Exuma Cays of the Bahamas, executing scientific experiments, coral restoration at a vessel grounding site and exploration of uncharted reefs. This expedition is part of a larger research effort to collect critical data and establish long-term monitoring stations, all while educating collegiate scientists.

The lifeline of the underwater aspect of the mission? Brownie’s third lung hookahs.

Surface supplied air diving, or hookah as it is commonly referred to, is suitable for exploration science for a number of reasons. For working and exploring coral reefs in remote locations, third lungs fit the bill.

Hookah systems utilize a small air compressor located at the surface, either on a buoy or a boat. It is typically powered by either a gasoline engine or electric motor. Breathing air is delivered via a durable air hose which is always connected to the compressor. In this manner the diver has a virtually unlimited supply of air that only stops when the engine stops. This makes for an economically feasible air system. SUSiE uses a unit manufactured by Brownie’s Marine Group powered with a 4-cycle OHV gasoline engine. These systems offer about three hours of air for less than one gallon of gas. As you may notice, this is less than the cost of filling a SCUBA tank.

Brownie’s third lung has a max depth of 30m. Most in-water work on the expedition occurs at an average depth of only 6m. This is a reflection of the natural shallow existence of coral reefs, an accessible and desirable ecosystem to study. Since complete freedom is not required when working at a restoration site, self-contained systems are unnecessary.

Next, let’s consider available space.

The 18-day expedition is conducted on a 50’ catamaran which holds food and personal supplies for 12 people. The boat carries 200 gallons of freshwater, 20 buckets of freeze-dried food, luggage for 12 people, 8 large action packers of scientific equipment and an extensive reference library. There is no room for a heavy, expensive, and noisey compressor. There is no room for numerous tanks and tank racks. And there certainly is no room for bulky SCUBA gear for 12 people.

For students who have never done SCUBA before, third lung diving is a good transition. Similar to snorkeling but without the need to constantly surface for air, hookahs allow the diver a very free, lightweight diving experience. It cuts down weight on your belt and eliminates that heavy tank on your back. In addition, it truly facilitates constant communication and requires your buddies nearby. Four divers are attached to a single hookah at a time. Their regulators are attached to the same compressor on a buoy at the surface, assuring nobody in the group gets lost or separated. Visual contact is always maintained. Yet, adequate space for independent work and exploration is still facilitated. In fact the system allows up to 10m of space between buddies.

Of course, every piece of equipment has its nuances, especially when you’re doing fieldwork in and under the salty ocean.

First, it may be tricky at times to start the engine of the hookah once you are already in the water. You must sharply pull the handle to start the gasoline engine, much like that of a lawnmower. In one instance, the dive site was a 500m swim from where the catamaran anchored. Students towed the unit by snorkel to the dive site and anchored the unit in the sand. They then had to hoist themselves up to pull the handle. Tricky, but entertaining.

Another issue is entanglement. With four people swimming around focused on a task, attached to 20m hoses, students sometimes happen to cross, intersect and tangle the hoses above. To mitigate this problem Brownie has developed a unique patented Peleton Hose System to enable optimum efficiency of each diver while maintaining diver freedom. Brownie compares this to bicyclers, who reduce effort by riding in a pack. This hose system disperses the workload required by any one single diver, amongst the entire group.

The SUSiE Chronicles: Hookah Diving for Science

Most importantly, let’s talk safety. Unlike SCUBA diving, there is no requirement for a formal training certification. This is a major contributing factor to accidents regarding recreational hookah diving, and divers should educate themselves on standard SCUBA diving techniques. SUSiE employs a Dive Safety Officer to train students, perform check out dives and maintain safety at all times during the expedition during in-water operations. Hookah diving is perhaps more safe than conventional SCUBA because of depth restrictions. However, if there is a malfunction in the equipment and a diver must rush to the surface for air, an air embolism may occur. Also one need be cautious of carbon monoxide poisoning. Adequate air filtration at the surface should always be monitored.

These hookah systems are generally reliable, easy to maintain, and easy to deploy. For scientific diving expeditions in shallow, remote locations this is the most sensible and convenient method. Students at all levels of comfort with diving can participate without extensive training.

Brownie’s third lung retails for about $2,877USD on Amazon. Visit their site at www.browniesmarinegroup.com to learn more.

You can read more, during the course of this week, by clicking here.