By Kaitlin Mogentale and Nicole Matthews
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
We recently sat down with Karl Huggins the director of the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, located at the USC Wrigley Marine Institute on Santa Catalina Island to discuss his scientific contributions to diving. Mr. Huggins developed an set of decompression dive tables he titled “New No-Decompression Tables Based on No-Decompression Limits Determined by Doppler Ultrasonic Bubble Detection”, renamed the “Michigan Sea Grant Tables” by the Scientific Diving community, and then the “HUGI Tables” by his friends.
Karl is an esteemed member of the diving community. He also developed the decompression algorithm that was used in the EDGE, the “first modern commercially successful microprocessor-based electronic dive computer,” (Barsky, 19).
In high school, he spent a considerable amount of time in the water– with the swim team and serving as a lifeguard. He found an air compressor and mask and used them to clean the high school pool; thus beginning his diving career. After high school Huggins enrolled at the University of Michigan with a focus on biological oceanography, where he was able to take a SCUBA diving course in 1976. The course was taught by Professor Lee Somers, who played an influential role in Huggins’ life — acting as his mentor.
After receiving basic SCUBA training, Huggins enrolled in underwater technology and hyperbaric chamber operation courses. These courses introduced Huggins to the complicated concepts of decompression He soon realized that he had a specific interest in decompression theories. Professor Somers provided Huggins with papers on decompression, enabling him to fiddle with decompression calculations. He also acquired a Navy Diving Medical Officer’s Student Guide, which he used to learn how to calculate the Navy Tables.
While playing around with numbers, Huggins concluded that he could enter the equations from the manual into the newly developed personal calculators of the time to come up with decompression schedules for any dive. He spent afternoons in the campus bookstore using one of the calculators on display to punch in numbers and equations, to see if he could manipulate the calculations to work for real diving situations.
On a diving trip to the Bahamas in 1979, Huggins was taught to do calculations for multi-level dives using the Navy dive tables. By Navy methodology, the 120-minute “tissue” compartment was always used as the controlling compartment for a repetitive dive (or a multi-level dive). Based on the calculations he had done before, Karl was uneasy about the results he was getting from the Navy tables. He found that many times the Navy method for repetitive dives placed a diver at higher risk for decompression sickness.
Encouraged by Professor Somers, Huggins began his work on his own tables, the HUGI Tables, which regarded all six compartments when deciding proper repetitive dive groups. Scientific programs picked the tables up, including the program at Catalina Island. At that time, Mr. Huggins had no idea that he would be involved with the facilities on Catalina Island in the future.
Following the success of the HUGI Tables, Huggins would give talks dealing with decompression models and tables. It was after these talks during an instructor-training course where Craig Barshinger, the founder of Orca Industries, approached him. Craig sought to employ him to aid in the development of a new and innovative dive computer. And so, Huggins formulated the decompression algorithm used in the dive computer’s functioning, and the first prototype of the EDGE dive computer was born. In fact, the EDGE dive computer was the first commercially viable dive computer to use algorithms (as opposed to dive tables) to solve for decompression schedules and limits in various diving situations.
In order to deploy the decompression device into the diving world, Huggins came up with test protocols for the computer. The hyperbaric chamber on Catalina Island best suited their needs and cost limits for testing the computer. He spent two weeks on the island in 1983 testing the decompression model in the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber. This is where the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber became an important part of his life. Following the tests he returned to the facility to help teach classes and participate in workshops. In October of 1992, he was encouraged to apply for the job of director of the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber.
Aside from his daily duties as director of the Chamber, Karl Huggins focuses much of his energy on educating others about dive safety, especially as it pertains to diving accidents. After years of observing and treating various dive accidents, Mr. Huggins is quick to note that one should never rely too much on the numbers. The many evolving variables going into a dive can affect divers in ways that may not be predicted mathematically.
As new divers, Huggins advised us to know our comfort level and recognize when we encounter situations that exceed our skills. He urged us not to “push the limits” of the dive tables and our dive computers. He noted that most people encounter diving accidents after bolting to the surface due to panic.
Barsky, Steven M. “Karl Huggins’ Journey to the Edge: The Development of the World’s First Commercially Successful Dive Computer.” The Journal of Diving History 19.2 (2011): 19-23. Print.
Huggins, Karl. Personal interview. 18 May 2012.
Kaitlin Mogentale is a freshman (rising sophomore) at USC pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies. She also looks to complete minors in Urban Policy & Planning and Spanish. She plans to use her interest and knowledge in the field of environmental science to serve as an advocate for businesses and developers, focusing on the importance and pertinence of environmentally sound practices.
Nicole Matthews is a freshman (rising sophomore) working toward a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College. After graduating, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in environmental law and policy.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.