The makers of ancient navigational charts had it easy: whenever they ran out of information on the boundaries of the known world they just scrawled quick and convenient warnings like, “Here there be Monsters”, around the edges of their maps before poddling off to the local Cartographers Club for a glass of sherry with their mates.
With few entrepreneurs prepared to underwrite the costly risk of exploration beyond the known limits there were no requirements to write more detailed explanations like, “I’m sorry but I don’t really know if there’s anything worth visiting beyond this point but I don’t think that there is so you’re really better off not bothering to find out but if you insist on doing so then it’s your problem not mine.”
Diving into the internet is similar to putting to sea with one of those early charts. You never know what you may discover … or whether you’ll return unscathed? (Even the “Monsters” have only undergone a minor upgrade to “Virus” status.)
Now just a mouse-click away from the computer screen, information on every aspect of diving is closer and, for many internet users, more convenient than a visit to the local dive shop.
Usually accompanied by stunning graphics and a wealth of mind-boggling material, some sites are as huge and varied as big city department stores – and equally well stocked with goodies that you didn’t realise a need for until you accidentally stumbled across them.
Others – particularly the thousands of home pages maintained by individual divers – are like market stalls where, if you devote sufficient time and patience to rummaging through the bric-a-brac, you’re bound to find something of value. Rarely repaying the time and effort spent in searching for them, however, many of these treasures only come to light after wading through pages of gibberish and dank tales littered with phrases like, “We sank down through the azure blue, our bubbles rising above us like a silver screen as we descended onto the pristine reef below where our arrival was greeted by a myriad of kaleidoscopically-coloured fish.” (Dive sites are, apparently, not worth visiting unless they’re described as being ‘pristine’.)
The problem is that with hundreds of thousands of sites devoted to scuba diving alone, a journey through cyber space can be as unpredictable as diving in the middle of a shark-run with a dead mackerel strapped to each fin – or a midnight stroll through a bad part of town while clutching a wad of fifty-dollar bills. Take the wrong path while looking for information on wet-suits and you may wind up in out-of-the-way places with names like, “Naughty Nina’s Rubber Dungeon”. Obscure locations filled with the ever present risk of contracting bugs and viruses that you won’t find mentioned in any diving manual.
Even restricting your internet activities to talking about diving is fraught with risk. Pick a diving related topic – from underwater photography through to hyperbaric medicine or rebreather technology – and the chances are that there’s a specialised forum or newsgroup providing opportunities for people in countries as far apart as Finland and Patagonia to air their views, opinions and prejudices.
Not recommended for the sensitive or faint of heart some forums, particularly those dealing with the more esoteric aspects of technical diving, are notorious for the ferocity of their debates and the savage, often uncomfortable and physically impossible responses that follow questions like, “Where should I stick my snorkel when cave diving?”
Reduced to words on a computer screen – and with none of the inhibitions imposed when physically confronting a 250-pound giant who adds emphasis to each dogmatic opinion by smacking one clenched fist into the palm of the other while looking you straight in the eye – there’s a low signal-to-noise ratio; a lot of talk with very little substance, and all of it passing around the world in just seconds. And anyone can play. “Hey! I’m a Doctor and my research shows that the absorption of nitrogen into the tissues of the body is slowed dramatically after ingesting a handful of roast coffee beans followed by 10-minutes immersion in a bath of gin.” Great news if you happen to have shares in a coffee bean plantation or a distillery but otherwise of doubtful value.
The sad fact is that the internet is strong on information and sometimes light on wisdom, whereas a trip to the local dive shop usually reveals a wealth of acquired diving knowledge, a place where any bugs that you might catch can usually be cured with an aspirin.
(The above article was first published in Asian Diver Magazine in March 1998.)