Surface supplied air (SSA) as a means of diving is one of the oldest methods of diving. Centuries ago, men operating hand pumps supplied air to divers working underwater. The deep sea diver with hoses for air and communication is known to anyone that watches WWII movies with the Navy being featured. In 1904, the US Navy adopted a hard hat deep diving suit that they used until the late 1980s. In the late 1960s, a system was designed that brought surface supplied air to recreational user. Called hookah, The primary target was boat owners. The could use these systems to quickly go overboard to examine the hull or clear a fouled prop. The systems were a bit unstable when used in the water so they remained in just a small market for boat owners.
Improvement in technology has lead to improvements in the hookah systems and as a result they are gaining popularity. Hookah systems are fairly basic. The key elements are a compressor, down-lines and a low pressure regulator. Systems can be either gas powered or electrical powered. The electrical can be by connection to an external source or by built in batteries. System running on a gas engine and those running on batteries can be mounted in a float. The average system will support two or three divers at a maximum depth of 20 to 40 feet. Diver using hookah enjoy the same experience as scuba divers at that depth, however, they are not burdened with the tank strapped to their back. The systems have often been called an extended snorkeling, stating if you can snorkel then the next step is hookah
Many resorts are now offering hookah diving to their guest. Most of the regulations and requirements for scuba diving are industry regulated. The scuba industry requires training before you can join a dive or fill a tank. Not so with Hookah. There is nothing stopping a resort to offering someone a chance to go diving. A simple five minute orientation and the guest is diving. Preparing to go diving on hookah also takes less set up time. This allows the resort that has a house reef to turn over a number of guest a day. Many dive resorts are finding that the hookah experience is eroding the number of guest who try the discover dive. The discover dive is an excellent introduction to diving and is often the lead-in to taking an open water course.
In both hookah diving and Scuba diving the diver is breathing compressed air. Physics does not care if the air is being supplied on your back or from the surface. The risks are the same. Hookah manufacturers claim that it is a relatively risk free activity, and most statistics bear that out. However, bear in mind that most hookah diving is in less than 40 feet and virtually all the diving offered by the resorts are in less that 30 feet of water. At this depth DCS is uncommon for both hookah and scuba. An interesting statistic has come out of Tasmania. A recent report showed that the number of DCS treatments were about equal for scuba divers and Hookah divers. However, there was an estimated fifteen times more scuba divers. When interviewed over 90% of the hookah divers knew nothing of the risk of diving deep and no knowledge of what DCS was. None of that 90% had received any type of training.
The question becomes what is the future role of Hookah and how will it effect scuba diving. Those who content with depths of less than 40 feet may not feel the need of becoming certified divers. The cost of a typical hookah outfit designed for two is about the same as it would cost two people to become certified. Further, a charged battery on the electrical models or a liter of gas for the gas powered will provide a days worth of diving, without the need to haul your tanks to a refill station and pay to have them filled. Hookah diving is good for shallow water but because you are trailing the hose it is not suitable for wreck diving nor any other environment where the hose can tangle. I do not want to sound like a traitor, but I do foresee some hookah diving in my future. While traveling on a non dive vacation, I sometimes squeeze in a dive or two. Most of the time when I do, the dives are shallow. So the hookah will allow me to get in the water faster which means I might be able to get in an extra dive.