Rebreather Underwater Filming

The Benefits of using a Rebreather for Underwater Filming

Extended decompression times and no bubble diving make using a Rebreather for Underwater Filming the first choice for professionals. It is immediately attractive to the underwater wildlife camera operator. It’s only after you experience the difference in wildlife behaviour between Open and  Closed Circuit do you really see the benefits.

Increased prep time and additional training are two of the downsides of using Closed Circuit Rebreather (CCR) equipment but the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

Richard Brooks has been diving Closed Circuit Rebreathers for 5 years and holds the HSE Part 4 Diving Certification for Professional Underwater Diving in the UK.

How much does a Rebreather cost?

There is a large range of manufacturers these days offering units. Some are more fully integrated and automatic and some are more manual. They all pretty much do the same basic job. Like anything there is a sliding scale in cost, durability and function. Aside from buying the unit you will also need to be trained and this adds to the initial start up cost. 2nd hand units are a great way to reduce this but choose wisely. Get a unit checked and serviced properly before you use it.

Peripherals like bail out tanks, sofnalime, Oxygen and an O2 booster pump add to the already high financial outlay.

Richard uses an AP Inspiration system, a British manufacturer and one of the first to make commercially available units. Their track record and longevity in the Rebreather industry is a major factor in why many professionals choose this brand.

With all this taken into account the cost of hiring a Rebreather Underwater Camera Operator is higher than a regular SCUBA Diver but the footage attained is more often than not orders of magnitude better.

What is it like to dive with a Rebreather?

Basically CCR is to SCUBA what SCUBA is to snorkelling. It’s the next level.

Gas supply is no longer the limiting factor but rather the duration of the scrubber which can exceed 5 hours. Your decompression limits are also greatly extended. Then there is the ease of breathing. The gas instead of being cold and dry is already warm and humid because you’ve already exhaled it. You are warmer and less dehydrated during your dive as a result.

Your buoyancy doesn’t change as with SCUBA. This is a good and not so good thing. You will have learnt that breathing in causes you to rise, but not so with CCR. Your gas volume stays the same because you exhale into counter lungs. So you have to relearn your buoyancy control.

Rebreather divers swim in open blue water. Rebreather underwater filming

It’s a little more bulky than a single SCUBA tank, you carry additional bail out cylinders with you too. This does cut down on your flexibility underwater, but this in turn forces you into a calmer range of movements.

Rebreathers and Bubbles. The best for underwater filming.

The lack of bubbles has an enormous impact on how animals perceive you. Depending on where you dive. If the underwater residents are used to seeing bubble blowing humans, having one that doesn’t really piques their interest. Manta Rays especially are very curious of a rebreather diver. Fish are not put off and will let you get closer. The lack of noise and the bright bubbles must be very odd for a fish after all. Sharks in particular are interested in what you are and this makes for some incredible interactions.

This short film here was shot whilst using a CCR. Both the fish and Bull Sharks are much more tolerant of me on CCR than with OC.

You can see from the above film how close it is possible to get to the fish and sharks.  Shots like that would have been impossible on regular SCUBA.

Are Rebreathers Safe? The Yellow Box of Death...

CCRs require discipline. Preparation takes a lot longer than SCUBA and during use a constant mindfulness of breathing gas and the unit’s status must be maintained. “Cute” nicknames are given to units like “YBD” the Yellow Box of Death. And for good reason. Rebreathers take humans further into an alien world that will kill them. They are designed to take you there and bring you back, but they are not infallible.

A valuable lesson to keep in mind is that CCRs are not 100% reliable. Diving to great depths and accumulating vastly increased dissolved Nitrogen in your tissues is a risky undertaking. It is up to the operator to train, practice and dive safely. Bail out cylinders should always be ready if the unit fails in any way. Switching to backup cylinders and ending the dive safely should always be considered if a situation arises that cannot be resolved in situ.

Preparing a Rebreather with Carbon Dioxide filter and cylinders of compressed gas

Is Rebreather Diving Addictive?

After diving for any length of time using SCUBA you get used to its limitations. Once you start using a CCR and become comfortable with it, a whole new level of underwater exploration becomes available. If you are prone to exploration and discovery it’s extremely attractive. If you want to get the best underwater footage possible, you need to use the best technology to do it. 

Consider filming cetaceans. Many species are disturbed by a large number of bubbles in the water. It is considered by them a threat or display and they do not stay in the area with SCUBA Divers. Using a rebreather shower allows the camera operator to immerse himself silently with these amazing intelligent social animals and that leads to footage not possible with any other method.

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