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Scuba Diving Inaccuracies in Films and TV Shows

Scuba Diving Inaccuracies in Films and TV Shows

Written by Urve Patel, 2 Nov 2023.

I love watching films and TV shows as much as the next person. At its core, they are a form of storytelling. They allow us to explore different perspectives, experiences, and ideas, and can challenge our beliefs and expand our understanding of the world. To some they simply provide a form of escapism, temporarily allowing us to forget our stressors and connect with compelling characters and storylines. To others, films and TV shows can inspire, teach and help us to see the world in new and different ways.

However, one of my major pet peeves (and possibly greatest pleasures – deep down) when watching any films or TV shows are scientific inaccuracies. Now I am not saying I know every single exoteric or esoteric scientific knowledge known to man! On some topics I know jack all. But I do know a lot about two topics – geology and scuba diving. Unfortunately, very rarely does any real science makes it into film or TV shows that deal with geological events or scuba diving activities. Let me focus on the latter of the two topics and describe how Hollywood, Nollywood, Bollywood, and other ‘woods’ have got it so wrong when it comes to scuba diving.

Films and TV shows have featured scuba diving almost since the very beginning the sport began. It is an exotic and adventurous activity, that have peaked the imagination of many screenwriters and directors. Notable films that include thrilling scuba diving scenes include James Bond films ‘Thunderball’ and ‘License to Kill’, to James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss’, and of course Steven Spielberg’s classic ‘Jaws’. However, just because these films have high ratings on IMDB, does not mean they get it right. Here are some of the things that films and TV shows get wrong about diving.

1.Sharks are diver’s worst enemy! As soon as a you put our protagonist into a wet suit, they are sure to be attacked by a shark. Films such as Jaws, Into the Blue, 47 meters down, Deep Blue Sea, and most recently Meg (and Meg 2) seem to show sharks have in for divers. Shark attacks are not unheard of. However, the statistics speaks loud and clear. Shark attacks are rare and even rarer when it comes to scuba divers. Maybe scuba divers look weird with all their gear and bubbles – no one really knows. What we do know is that sharks, while they must be respected, are not deserving of our fear towards them. In fact, shark sightings are the highlight of a dive for most of us.

2.Explosions are not a problem underwater! Bonds gets bombed with explosives in ‘Thunderball’, an explosion engulfs a submarine in Godzilla – King of monsters, Mattew McConaughey get thrown out of the water and onto the deck of a ship by a dynamite explosion underwater. All of these scenes have one thing in common. The people all survive! In real life, they would be sleeping with the fishes. There are two ways explosions can kill: shrapnel and pressure. While the former may not be a major issue underwater, the rapid density increases in water compared to air means that a pressure wave of an explosion is far deadlier underwater than above.

3.Water is as clear as bottled water! You will notice that in all dives scenes in films and TV shows, the visibility is excellent with not a single sediment floating around. All divers know that crystal clear water is extremely hard to come by.

4.Air lasts forever! As recreational divers we are all taught that pressure, depth and density are fundamentally related. There is a complex relationship between these three properties, but generally speaking, the deeper we go underwater, pressure and density increases, and volume decreases. The increasing pressure affects the volume and density of air you breath, such that ultimately, we have less time underwater the deeper we go. So can someone tell me how is it possible that films fail to grasp this very important point of recreational diving. The disaster of a film that was 47 Meters Down proves my point and beggars even the scarcely competent diver. At 47 meters down, your tank will last you a few minutes, 15 at best. So how is it that two barely competent divers under very stressful conditions have SAC rate better than any recreational diver I have ever met!?

5.Rapid ascent without degassing! In ‘James Bond: License To Kill’, our protagonist is scuba diving when some bad guys arrive and start to beat him up! They cut his regulator hose and he somehow also manage to lose his BCD. Before he can drown, he acquires a spear gun and shoots at a passing water plane on the surface, which swiftly carries him to the surface and then possibly >300 m in the air. Clearly our intrepid hero’s body does not obey the laws of physics. Rapid ascents to the surface and then flying soon after diving (<12 hrs) can lead to decompression sickness (i.e., bends). This is caused by rapid degassing of inert gases from your tissues, which may form bubbles in your body (e.g., blood vessels, muscles etc.). Sever decompression sickness can be debilitating or life-threatening condition. Therefore, it is essential that divers ascend slowly to manage their decompression and avoid any excessive bubble formation.

6.Anyone can dive and at any depth! If a plane or ship goes down in a movie, the hero straps on a scuba tank and goes diving for it. “Into the Blue” and another Bond movie, “For Your Eyes Only” are great examples. However, scuba diving requires training and the oceans are deep. Really deep. And only a tiny fraction of the world’s ocean floors lies at dive-able depths. Chances are high that whatever goes down ends up at depths far out of reach of our scuba-diving protagonist.

7.Exploding tanks. The bad guy in the original Jaws film (i.e., Bruce the Shark) is swimming towards the protagonists with a scuba diving tank in its mouth. The protagonist shots the tank and it explodes, killing our friendly neighbourhood shark. In reality, scuba diving tanks do not They can rupture or if you manage to put a hole in it, it will likely spin and move around (leading to injury to anyone nearby if they are unlucky), but it will not explode.

8.Breathing liquid and not air. In the classic James Cameron film ‘The Abyss’, our hero needs to disarm a nuclear bomb at more than 2 miles depth and uses an experimental liquid breathing apparatus. A liquid breathing system is a novel and theoretical idea. It is a form of respiration where we would breathe oxygen-rich liquid rather than air, thus removing the partial pressure element of the risk factor out of scuba diving. However, someone forgot to tell the fine director that this is not a practical idea as no gaseous exchange occurs and thus no CO2 is removed from the blood vessels, leading to blackout underwater. The end result is a dead diver!

9.Home-made gear! In the ‘Journey 2: The Mysterious Island’ Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson channels his inner MacGyver and builds a pony tank out of a plastic bag and a snorkel, and goes diving to a depth of +50m. While the idea of a pony bottle for emergency air is fairly well established, a plastic bag ‘filled’ with air and attached to a snorkel does not work. At +50m the volume of air in the plastic bag would be 1/6 it was at the surface and will not contain enough air to sustain a prolonged dive at +50m. Nor does the snorkel make an effective regulator for the simple reason that a snorkel is a glorified tube that you use to breath air at the surface!

Despite these and other glaringly bad representation of scuba diving in films and TV series, there are some really enjoyable diving films out there.

Here are my top picks: The Abyss (just ignore the liquid respiration system); The Dive (about a duo of commercial divers facing disaster in the North Sea); The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Bill Murray is comedically hunting a mythical shark); The Last Breath (a documentary based on real life events); The Deep (a sunk WWII ship, drugs, Haitian black magic, what more do you want in a diving film); and The Odyssey (based on the life of Jacques Cousteau). Since the holiday season is close by, be sure to check it out!

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