When I first started diving over three decades ago the thought of a “dive computer” never even crossed my mind! Such things were the stuff of science fiction writers and fit solidly into the realm of “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space”. As divers we were all trained thoroughly in the use of the US Navy Decompression Tables and used them to plan our dives – after all, what more could we possibly need than that?
As it turns out, we needed a lot more…..we just didn’t know it yet!
When dive computers began to make their appearance on the market, I was hesitant about them at first, laughing at their bulkiness and quirkiness, and recoiling from them after hearing stories of their failures that gave them such nicknames as “bend-o-matic”. However, where there is a will there is a way, and like all technology spawned by popular demand, dive computers evolved and improved – slowly at first, but eventually surging ahead at an astonishing rate of speed. Over the years I have owned and actively used many different dive computers, ranging from your basic air-only “hockey puck” to extremely advanced mixed-gas computers specifically designed for deep technical diving and Closed-Circuit Rebreathers. The advances in the industry have been absolutely astonishing!
Recently, due to a “top-side” accident involving my own gross stupidity, I managed to destroy the technical dive computer that I have been using for the past few years, and found myself in immediate and desperate need of a replacement system. It must have been fate, because right about that time the highly innovative Canadian company, Shearwater Research, Inc., was announcing the release of the newest member of their dive computer line, the “Predator”. I have had my eye on Shearwater computers for quite some time, and have very much admired both the features that they offered and the utter simplicity of their operation. Some may call me timid, but to me a computer that is simple and easy to operate when disaster looms at depth is an EXTREMELY good thing!
At this year’s Pacific Northwest Dive Expo in Tacoma, Washington, I spent a great deal of time hanging out at the Shearwater Research booth asking many questions of owners Bruce and Lynn Partridge about their newest release. What I saw and heard was intriguing, and within a couple of days after the end of the show I ultimately found myself pulling out the “plastic” to place my order!
The Predator had many features that attracted my attention. For ease of reading, the Predator has one of the largest color OLED displays in the industry, which is just perfect for my old tired eyes, (I have bi-focals etched into my dive mask!). Unlike many other computers, the face is NOT back-lit, but instead is solid black with the information itself being displayed with bright green letters and numbers, making the display astonishingly easy to read in low-light situations, such as at deep depths or in poor-visibility conditions as you might find in the Pacific Northwest. The data display also makes use of bright alternative colors – red and yellow – to increase the diver’s awareness of important information that requires attention. For example – the stop and depth time will flash red if the diver has missed a stop, or if one O2 sensor is reading significantly different than the others, that sensor’s reading will be shown in bright yellow.
Some of the dive computers that I have used in the past have required me to scroll through various screens, usually involving several button pushes, to get some of the basic information that I needed during the dive. Not so with the Predator, which constantly displays all the basic information that you require on one screen – depth, dive time, decompression stops, stop time, type of gas used, PO2 displays (if on CCR), No-Decompression Limits and “Time to Surface”. Both at the Dive Expo and later after I received it and “monkeyed” with it at home, I found the Predator to be extremely simple to use and user-friendly – easy to program and operate. Since I am FAR from being an electronic genius, those attributes are extremely important to me.
In keeping with the “simplicity” philosophy, the Predator features a user-replaceable battery, using a Saft LS14500 battery that is readily available, (Can you say, Radio Shack”?), with a long battery life of approximately 100 dive hours. There are four different versions of the Predator, and with the various options available the Predator can be used by both Open-Circuit divers and those using Rebreathers for any mix of Nitrogen, Oxygen and Helium. Dive Log software is included, with dive data easily downloaded via a Bluetooth USB Adapter that is also included, (more about that below!). Free firmware updates from Shearwater are simply downloaded over the internet, also using the built-in Bluetooth capability.
Since I dive a CCR exclusively, I chose Shearwater’s top-of-the-line model, the Predator OLED PROCTE. This computer allows the diver to choose up to 5 gases on Closed Circuit and up to 5 gases on Open Circuit bail-out, while allowing for externally monitoring the individual O2 sensors in the CCR. I also chose to have my Predator “hard-wired” to a “KISS Kidney” that fits tightly into the head of my KISS Classic CCR. As such, my CCR and my Predator are now a “matched set”. I also ordered a Shearwater “Heads-Up-Display” (HUD) that provides the diver will real-time PO2 information from the O2 sensors directly in front of the dive mask. Upon receiving my package from the Shearwater factory I gleefully tore it open and began playing with my new toys!
I found that the Predator was just as easy to program on my living room couch as it had been at the Dive Expo, and following the instructions in the manual within a few minutes I had personalized my computer to exactly how I wanted it to be, plugging in my open-circuit bail-out gases and quickly going through the system set-up. Calibrating the Predator with the O2 sensors in my CCR had always been a true pain with my previous computer. In less time than you could shake a stick, I had my Predator set up, calibrated to O2 and ready to dive…..something that had seemed to take forever with my “old” computer! In case you’re wondering, at this point I was both digging it and kicking myself in the ass for taking so long to make the switch to a Shearwater! The bruises on my butt will probably be there for a long time…
The next morning, I met my dive buddy at a local shore site for a “test drive”. He had also just upgraded from the Shearwater “Pursuit” to the Predator and we were both anxious to put the computers through their paces. It being the Summer months, we had to deal with the typical Pacific Northwest Plankton “Bloom” that arrives along with the heat and direct sunlight. Each square foot of water literally contains thousands of microscopic animals, and as such for the first 20 feet or so of our descent we had to deal with extremely poor visibility conditions. I took advantage of those conditions, though, and paused to see what my Predator looked like in such poor “vis”. The fluorescent green data on the black background almost seemed to glow and was marvelously readable. I tried turning my wrist this way and that in an effort to see how much of an angle was required to make the face of the computer unreadable, and I found that I actually had to twist my arm to the point of discomfort before clear readability was lost – something that I am extremely unlikely to do during a dive. My dive buddy during this time was a few feet away, quizzically observing my shallow water antics. I glanced over at him and was able to read the face of his Predator from several feet away, even in the “pea-soup” we were diving in at the time. I flashed him the OK signal and together we continued our descent, reaching the bottom layer of the plankton bloom at approximately 25 – 30 feet. Passing through this layer, we were pleased to discover that visibility suddenly opened up to 25 feet or more. Most of the daylight, however, was blocked by the thick layer of goo above us, so we continued down into darkness, the beams of our canister lights shooting out into the blackness like light sabers. Again, I could clearly see the face of my buddy’s Predator from as much as 10 – 15 feet away, and the color of the bright green numbers indicated to me that all was OK with him and that things were proceeding as per plan. On the brief occasions in which a cell might lag behind the others for a second or two, the red numbers stood out sharply in contrast to the green and immediately attracted my attention, whether on my wrist or his. The quick return back to green indicated that all was well and back on track to where things should be – an advantage that I hadn’t considered that much when going through “drills” on my living room couch the night before.
This was a nice, leisurely dive at one of our favorite local haunts, so we took our time and visited various spots to see who was “at home” – finding collections of Rockfish hovering over bottom debris, a Giant Pacific Octopus beneath a sunken boat, isolated Lingcod waiting patiently for their next meal to swim by, and an assortment of various species of crabs. I frequently paused to look at my computer screen to see what it was telling me about the dive and my personal condition, and was struck by how easily understandable it was and how simply presented. The menu system of the Predator adapts to your actual dive status – some menu options available on the surface but not needed during the dive, disappear underwater and other options become available during the dive as the situation changes with depth, time and decompression obligation. At one point I decided to practice making a switch from Closed-Circuit to open-Circuit bail-out. One quick push on the left button (menu) took me to the select gas screen, a second push took me to the switch OC->CC screen, and then a quick push on the select button made the switch to the open-Circuit bail-out gas that I had programmed into the computer before the dive. If the diver is carrying more than one bail-out bottle, the Predator will automatically select the gas for bail-out that has the highest PO2 less than 1.6. Making this switch literally took mere seconds to do and not much concentration at all – very fine features to have if a bail-out is actually vital and moments matter a great deal! Having satisfied myself concerning the bail-out feature, switching back to Closed-Circuit was just as simple and we continued with our dive.
Beginning our ascent allowed me to observe the ascent rate monitor go through its paces. A rectangular series of bars displayed at the top center of the screen, each bar representing an ascent rate of 10 feet per minute. The rectangle shape will expand or shrink as the diver increases or decreases his/her ascent rate, again with fluorescent green being the normal color and red showing if the diver is ascending too fast. The “Time to Surface” (TTS) feature is also extremely useful – constantly giving the diver information on how much time he/she will require to reach the surface based on the actual situation, including stops and making use of a safe ascent rate. When we ultimately hit the surface we had huge goofy grins on our faces, both of us extremely satisfied with the manner in which our Predators had performed during the dive – accurate, clearly readable in even poor conditions and extremely simple to use and understand…basically all items from my dive computer “wish-list”!
In summary, the primary features of the Predator include:
- Depth, time and oxygen sensor display.
- Buhlmann algorithm with adjustable gradient factors conservatism.
- Imperial and metric displays.
- Two set-points, each of which can be set between .4 and 1.5.
- A menu system that adapts to diving status.
- Automatic Turn-of after 30 minutes on the surface.
- Depth sensor rated to 450 feet.
- Can be used with any combination of oxygen, nitrogen and helium.
- Both open and closed circuit, switchable during a dive.
- Can be used with up to 5 closed circuit and 5 open circuit gases.
- Gases can be changed and added during a dive.
- CNS tracking.
- No lockout.
- Automatic set-point switching.
- Battery life of over 100 hours of diving or 1 year of standby.
Once back at home and with the dive gear all cleaned and stowed away, I decided to try out the Dive Log Download feature. A Bluetooth dongle is included with the Predator, and is used to both download updates from Shearwater as well as download dive log information from the Predator to a PC or Laptop. Holding my Predator close to the dongle, I used the Dive Log menu on the Predator to select “Upload Log” and within moments my log entry data from the dive was being transferred. Switching over to my laptop, I accessed the Shearwater Desktop menu and pulled up the data from our dive. Here’s what was displayed:
In the illustration above the actual dive profile is shown in black, decompression obligation at any point in the dive is shown in bold red blocks, the inspired Oxygen, Nitrogen and Helium is shown in green, brown and blue, respectively, and the temperature at any given time in the dive is shown in a continuous dark blue line across the screen. The diver may choose to accompany this graphic data with any type of information he/she wishes to enter as part of a permanent dive log entry. Like the Predator itself – simple to use and understand, yet providing the diver with what is both needed and desired.
In case you are wondering at this point, yes…I am in love with my new Predator. After the tragic demise of my old computer system when out on assignment I feel like I suddenly have a new lease on life! I eagerly await future dive trips and using the capabilities that this system adds for me.
Shearwater Research, Inc. is a very innovative and progressive company located in Vancouver, Canada, with service centers in the USA, the UK and now New Zealand. The company has thrived by offering both outstanding products and fine customer service that is second to none. Divers choosing their products will be beginning a working relationship with the company that will be increasingly valued over time. Frankly, you can do no better.