My (lengthy) Review of my Helitrox Deco CCR Course on the Choptima

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HeyCatfish!

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Location
TX
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None - Not Certified
I know that no one here knows who I am, but I'm hoping to be a bit more active poster now. I joined ScubaBoard in March of this year as I was getting interested in rebreather diving. This meant I became a pretty heavy lurker, reading as much as I can while I saved those pretty pennies for my jump into the CCR world.


My lurking paid off, because I ended up doing what I imagine is an all too familiar dance of "which CCR should I get when I finally have the money." My LDS was pushing the Prism 2 hard. It seems to be the most common CCR down here in the Houston area. Something felt off about it though, because I remember seeing one of the Prism 2 advocates on a fun dive diving a completely different unit. That made me think long and hard about the optics of whether the Prism 2 was actually a good choice, or just good marketing.


I ended up dancing around the Meg, JJ, Fathom, and the Choptima. I have no idea if I made the right choice, but as a newly minted CCR diver I'm pretty happy with the choptima. It travels light - and I already have a severely bad habit of overpacking for trips (sorry JJ, you really were my second choice). As a new rebreather diver, I couldn't really find a lot of info about the Fathom which made me remove it from consideration for now.


The choptima felt a lot more approachable as a beginner diver. I could dive it in my current back-mounted doubles configuration, something I'm already familiar and comfortable with. The versatility seems unmatched (which doesn't mean much coming from someone with literally no rebreather experience). And, to be quite honest, the price gave it a lot of brownie points from the wife.


I contacted a few different instructors outside of my local area who I could actually talk to about different units, and those who were diving the Choptima all had very good things to say about it. I ended up clicking well talking with Ben Lair from Paragon Dive (@DiveTucson) about the unit. We discussed pros and cons of the choptima vs other units he's familiar with such as the Prism and the Revo (even thought the Revo wasn't on my list). I got to know his teaching philosophy, and decided to pull the trigger. He had two courses available later this year, one in Playa del Carmen and one in Florida. Playa seemed like a lot of fun - getting to do some dives in the Cenotes seemed like a great place to learn how to dive all over again.


Going into the course I was a bit intimidated. My classmate was a Trimix diver and I'm just a lowly Helitrox diver. Ben did a great job of making me feel comfortable and invited from the get-go, despite having a slightly lower certification level than the other student. He did a great job of teaching to all levels - when I needed more it wasn't condescending. When the other student needed more help, I never felt left out or like the course was being taught "down" to the lowest denominator. There was always something to learn, even if it wasn't directed at me.


I just finished last week, and really had a great time. I'm really happy so far with my choice of the Choptima, and the experience of learning to dive it.


Our first day was some theory, along with a few hours of building the unit. Learning the ins and outs of how it works, what to always inspect for, working through the checklist step by step with critical details and emphasis applied. I still will always use my checklist, but I felt like I got way more than just a "do this." Everything was taught with a "do this and here's why, here's what may happen if you don't, and here's where to look if you experience these types of issues." I like to believe that all instructors teach this way, but I know from experience that many are just looking to check off boxes. This gave me a lot of confidence going forward.


The second day, we went to Chikin Haa for our first dive on the unit. I felt like a brand new diver again, my buoyancy was an absolute mess. One thing I noticed while attempting to get an optimum loop volume was that on every inhale the ADV would fire, despite feeling like there was still a bit more air in the loop. When exhaling, I would have a lot of pressure and the work of breath just felt like a real struggle. Call me a stickler, but while my thought was to turn off the ADV, that wasn't something that we talked about doing. After our first dive, I mentioned this to Ben along with my thought of turning off the ADV once at depth and he agreed that it is a useful solution. I'm a pretty big guy with pretty large lungs (I have to do a lung volume test for work every year). I know that my lung volume is around 8.5L, and the choptima has a total loop volume of 6L. I knew this going into it, but figured it would be okay. Getting the full 8.5L takes a lot of feeling like I'm totally out of breath when doing my annual physical so I thought 6L would be okay. On the next dive, I did turn off the ADV and it helped tremendously. When I took even a deep breath I would just start feeling the counterlungs collapsing, and when exhaling deeply I would just start feeling the pressure on the BOV. Ben did tell me that Diverite is working on some larger counterlungs, as I'm not the first person with this problem. While I definitely think I'll go this route, I did find that with the ADV off once at depth, it wasn't really an issue with the current counterlungs. More practice and time will tell, but I was glad to be able to get that resolved.


For the second day of diving, we went to Cenote Angelita. This was a really neat Cenote with a layer of sulfur gas, and one I'd get to see a few more times on the trip. This time, once we got to depth, I turned off the ADV and felt much more comfortable on the unit. I did learn that this meant when bailing out, I needed to turn it back on in order to do a dil flush, but this was an experiment I'd get a lot more practice with. Unfortunately, the other student had some equipment malfunctions with his new sidemount setup, and resolving it would take some time. Our guide assisted him while Ben and I went on a dive. I got to dive with a failed controller, lost mask, and a number of other skills. For the second dive, my classmate's gear was fixed and we went and did more skills.


What I really enjoyed was Ben didn't just ask us to do a skill. Rather, he threw scenarios at us and we had to react appropriately. Instead of telling us our PO2 was high and to bailout, he would show us cards with cell readings. It was up to us to react accordingly, but there were definitely some times when I could hear Ben laughing (in good nature) at the struggles of new rebreather divers. It wasn't mean, and in fact it was light hearted and made the whole experience more fun and a bit relaxed knowing that we weren't going to be scolded or shouted at for making a mistake. We all struggle, and as long as we weren't a danger to ourselves Ben wanted us to develop the troubleshooting skills based on information rather than instruction. After all, during a real dive you won't have someone else telling you to bail out, you'll have to rely on the information available to you on the controller. After each dive, we debriefed and us students tried to point out or mistakes first and ask questions. Then, Ben would discuss other issues that he saw or ones that we missed.


We had some ocean dives planned, but unfortunately ports were closing due to Hurricane Grace so we only got one day in the ocean. The first dive went, best I can put it is... no one drowned. There were some issues with SMB deployment and other skills, including the operator dropping us in fairly shallow (approx 15m) water when it was supposed to be deeper.


The second dive, well again no one drowned, thankfully Ben had already built in some extra dives in case there was extra work that was needed. To better assess, we did the second dive open circuit. He wanted to be sure we could actually do a deco dive safely, in current in the ocean, while performing skills. At this point, I thought Ben may just fly back home and be done with us. It felt like one issue after the other was hitting us that day. After doing a bubble check at 6m, my right post start leaking. Literally right after checking. I shut down the right post, and although the leak stopped I thumbed the dive, but Ben quickly identified a protruding o-ring, fixed it, and we opened the right post back up to no leak. We gave it a minute or two to be sure that it was okay, he signaled me if I was okay to proceed the dive and I felt comfortable so we continued the dive.


We descended to about 40m and had a nice little drift dive. Ben tested a few standard open circuit skills, and we rode the current for a bit before beginning our deco. Once we hit 15m, Ben first had me send up my SMB then the other student, then he sent his up. As we hit our deco stops, and reeling in I stayed with the current while the other student was swimming against the current. I noticed, and I could still see Ben about 25 feet behind me so I started swimming back towards him into the current. Once I caught up, we finished clearing deco but the other student wasn't able to stay with the group. We got to the surface, me, Ben and our dive guide, and couldn't find the other student. Thankfully he could see our SMBs (we could not see his) and swam over to us as the boat was pulling up.


Honestly, I don't think I'd have the patience at that point. Even open circuit it felt like a calamity of disasters. At least the ports were closed, so we went back to the cenotes to continue working on our skills.


(continued)
 
OP
HeyCatfish!

HeyCatfish!

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Day 4 in the water, despite ports being closed the skies were clear and blue so we headed to Cenote Azul Haa. This was the day when a lot seemed to really start clicking for me. I could tell now that I was a bit negative, a comment Ben made to me on day 2. Getting used to the buoyancy of the rebreather feels so odd. Being neutral and not floating up or down even a bit felt weird at first, but I started getting more accustomed to the feeling of no depth changes as I breathe. We took more time to just be comfortable in the water, with some problems still thrown at us. Even though my classmate had to make up a few skills that were missed, Ben still gave me fair attention. In fact, at one point I saw his wet notes out that read 2.55/2.55/2.55, so I bailed out, shut off the O2 and disconnected dil. He was looking at me, and I still saw 2.55/2.55/2.55. We had briefed the stuck solenoid drill and he had already given me this scenario earlier in the dive, so I thought this was what he was giving me again as a challenge. I reconnected my dil, did a dil flush, and then started feathering the O2 valve. Turns out, he was readying the note for my classmate, but a little extra practice never hurts! I pulled out my wet notes and wrote to him to communicate since he thought I had a real scenario, and he cut the drill.


Rather than spend all of our time on skills, we also got to spend some time just swimming around a bit. Having never dove in a cave, I'm not used to silt, but we did one lap and by the time we got back it was evident the silt that had been stirred up. We could still see alright, but there was no hiding it. Ben gave me some tips, notably when going up and over some rock formations and paying more attention to my body positioning. He also provided feedback for my classmate. We also spent a good amount of time on buoyancy work on the rebreather. Ben sent up an SMB and marked a few different depths. We would go to one, do a skill, then adjust our depth and have to get neutral. Finally, we did a b/o deco scenario to end the dive.


Being able to do the course in the cenotes was just a really fun experience. I'd never been to the Yucatan, and being out in the jungle made it more fun. We saw a giant spider, and neither Ben nor my classmate had their phone on them so I went to take the picture. I kept my distance, but the spider was apparently camera shy and decided to chase after me a little bit which got more of those familiar laughs out of Ben. We also witnessed a snake eat a frog during the surface interval, definitely not something you see every dive.


For our fifth and final day in the water, sixth total day of the course, we went back to Cenote Angelita. This was a really neat Cenote, since it has a sulfur layer around 25m separating the fresh water from the salt water. For dive one, we had to plan and execute the dive. Ben was there, but we were told to act as if he wasn't. We had planned the dive with two turn points: 31 minutes of run time or TTS on B/O with a 21/35 mix of 31 minutes. I checked periodically, but around the 28 minute mark my standalone in B/O showed TTS of 31, so we turned the dive there and ran all the way to the surface. The only issue was my classmate's mouthpiece came off during our 3m stop and he had to bailout. This was right at the end with only about 1m of deco left, and when he changed his computer and controller to B/O it didn't really change anything.


We got to the surface, debriefed and had some snacks (pro tip, if Ben is your instructor and you're in Mexico he loves pineapple cookies, this is a good way to keep him happy). For the last dive, Ben had my classmate run it down to 25m and he took over as we went into the deep portion since there were still a few more skills that he had to finish with my classmate. On the way up, there's a nice little swim through at about 15m that we got to enjoy during our deco stops. Ben must have taught me some good awareness, because on one of the swim throughs his paralenz fell off so I grabbed it off the bottom and returned it to him, after all it had all our photos and videos that we used throughout the course to debrief and go over what was working and what wasn't.


I was looking forward to an extra day of diving, but Hurricane Grace had other plans for us. We rode through the storm, no problem since it was just a category 1, but it did mean no more diving. At the end of it all, we finished with about 530 minutes of bottom time and I came out of it a Helitrox certified CCR diver.


I really felt like I learned a lot, and still have a lot to learn. But a lot of that credit goes to Ben. He made the class fun, but educational. His instruction was focused on practical application of the skills rather than just telling us what to do. Not once did he say "do a bailout due to low PO2" it was always "here's your cell readings, now solve the problem." The application based learning really makes you think about what you're doing. Ben makes certain that his students are truly improving, rather than just ticking boxes. I was challenged to become a better diver throughout the course, and I confidently believe I came out better.


The certification definitely wasn't given, I had to work hard for it and demonstrate to Ben that I was a safe and proficient diver capable of managing both the rebreather and deco obligations on the unit. Outside of my AN/Helitrox class, this was another great time where my certification wasn't just given to me, it had to be earned. But Ben conducted the course with the expectation that I perform and operate the Choptima safely, while having the expertise and mentorship to guide me to success.


And I'm still excited about my choice, who knows if I'll still be on the Choptima in a few years from now, but for now I'm just looking forward to getting it wet again. Just not in a hurricane.



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azstinger11

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Can't wait for our rEvo course with Ben. We had a hope it would be in Florida springs in Jan/Feb but it got delayed (our end, not Ben's). We did our into to tech with him and it was a great course.
 

kammel78

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@OP

The ADV on the chop is just a demand valve regulator, just like your standard 2nd stage, and can be adjusted so that it only fires when you pull a decent negative. Mine was the same out of box - 1/8 of a turn later and it was solid.
 
OP
HeyCatfish!

HeyCatfish!

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I need to play with it some to see if I can get it tuned just right. Thanks for the heads up!
 

kammel78

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I need to play with it some to see if I can get it tuned just right. Thanks for the heads up!
Sure, just let me know if you need any help with it. FYI, it's a 3/16" hex to adjust the orifice but the cap I think is metric for some reason.
 

DiveTucson

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Sure, just let me know if you need any help with it. FYI, it's a 3/16" hex to adjust the orifice but the cap I think is metric for some reason.

Just be careful “detuning” it too much as you can make a diluent flush not effective especially at depth. I have found that as you get more time on the unit that you can feel it before it engages and adjust accordingly.
 
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