Just a few timeless technologies bring a glint of mystery to the wary eyes of scuba divers worldwide. Consider air-recycling rebreathers— tech-laden, costly, yet older than scuba itself by at least 40 years. Hard-hat diving suits? Used by the Navy, these full-body tools helped divers explore the fathomless depths far back in the 1800’s. Simple diving bells and archaic air pumps are even older. All offer proven utility.
Indeed, before Gagnon ever met Cousteau and scuba was born, brave men fought for breaths of air hundreds of feet underwater with a diverse array of emerging technology. Their pursuit of underwater exploration knew no bounds. An important tool they often used: surface supplied air systems, now popularly known as hookahs.
Here in the Florida Keys, divers are often surprised to learn that hookah diving is a useful alternative, and can even compliment scuba.
Erasing the need for bulky, personal equipment, costly tank fills and gear storage issues, diving with a hookah rig means a virtually-unlimited air supply. The shared air compressor used by the motorized system also keeps buddy divers in constant contact creating a bigger safety margin than traditional scuba.
Indeed, armed with a hookah in the Keys, you can power dive the shallows with ease, locate and capture countless lobster, and scan wreckage sites with a handy surface platform for stashing lucky finds.
They even include handy dive flags mounted on top for safety.
Your new hookah vocabulary
The Hookah air system uses no high pressure air like those commonly found strapped to a diver’s back. Instead, it uses a small air compressor which is located and commonly powered by a portable gasoline engine or electric motor. Air from the compressor is delivered to the diver via a floating air hose. Other features include a small reserve tank of air for additional safety.
Typical scuba regulators cannot be used for hookah applications without special modifications. Since most hookah compressors operate in an average pressure range of 30 to 50 p.s.i., their corresponding regulators must employ a tilt,” or “pin” valve, which delivers a full air flow at pressures much lower than that of a variable pressure scuba system.
The regulator-wrangling hookah harness serves three principle functions: it keeps the air hose from getting in the diver’s way, absorbs any shock on the regulator and prevents it from being jerked from the diver’s mouth, and finally acts as “safety gate” by shutting down the air system, allowing the air to travel in only in one direction.
Tremendously popular with local lobster hunters, useful hookah models like the Brownies Explorer featured above utilize simple, gas-powered compressors mounted on sturdy inflatable tubes. Because they pump for several hours on a single gallon of gas, these small, portable units are easily pulled through the water by one or more divers and eliminate the need for tanks and BCD’s.
Another advantage gained by diving ‘on the hookah’ comes from an improved ability to stuff more lobsters in goodie bags while maximizing time spent underwater hunting for tasty bugs. Because most recreational dive tables allow divers to safely stay at 35 feet (lobster territory) for more than three hours, hookah hunters don’t need to change out tanks like those on scuba do, they simply let their compressor supply them air. This avoids time spent on the surface, the hassle of changing tanks, and usually spikes the amount of lobster tails boated by a successful diver.
Finally, most hookah divers who spend tons of time underwater will enjoy the cash it saves and avoid last-minute trips to the local fill station. Here, the diver has an unlimited and nearly “cost free” air supply which will only stop flowing when the engine or motor that powers the compressor ceases to operate. This makes for a truly economical air system, which will quickly pay for itself when compared to the cost of refilling a single scuba tank every hour or so.
* Even though no formal instruction is required to use hookah equipment, here at the Weekly we strongly recommend that all divers should take a certified scuba course at a reputable local dive center.
Divers using time-tested hookah technology often realize a surprising freedom of motion and extended time underwater. They’re also perfect for time spent lobster hunting.