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Cellphones take a dive -- literally

Norman Gidney
Times Colonist

Friday, December 13, 2002

Automobiles, restaurants, on a bus, in any city park -- and now you can add deep underwater to the list of places where you can't get away from cellphones.
But that's a good thing for divers engaged in sometimes risky work below the surface.
"It's clear as a bell," said Saanich police diver Todd Lamb, describing his cellphone conversation from almost six metres under water in the saltchuck inside the Ogden Point breakwater.
At a demonstration of the Victoria-made Divelink Thursday afternoon, Const. Lamb did interviews with a radio show in his downtown studio and TV reporters on the surface.
The force's dive team has used Divelink equipment for several years to communicate from diver to diver underwater, or with a supervisor on the surface.
Adding a cellphone connection extends their reach, says dive team supervisor Sgt. Barry McLachlan. One scenario might have police divers in an intensive search for a weapon or body, and needing to talk to a forensics expert.
By cellphone, the diver could get a description of the kind of evidence required, or a more precise picture of what they're looking for on the bottom, he said.
The conventional Divelink system has been in production for more than a decade and was a big advance over other non-verbal methods, such as tugging on a rope.
It allows wireless hands-free communication between divers up to two kilometres apart through a mouthpiece. Divers can also communicate to a supervisor on the surface using a headset and an antenna dropped into the water.
Divelink vice-president Pete Devine said they developed the cellphone version for a Florida radio station which airs a daily dive report and wanted a diver to be able to describe live the conditions from different underwater dive sites.
Company founder Mark Stone modified the circuitry to allow a cell phone to be patched through a Divelink headset. Communications from a diver below the surface is by sound waves, the way whales and dolphins talk. Electronic transmissions, such as radio or cellphone communication, won't work as most radio waves won't penetrate water.
There are 9,000 Divelink units in use worldwide, mainly by police and fire department and sport divers. Sales have been increasing steadily, says Devine.
He's a commercial geoduck diver who Stone relied on for product testing and advice who later invested in the company.
This year, Divelink equipped Malaysia's search and rescue divers with their communications gear, an order worth $1 million.
The company also shipped a customized floating radio transmitter-receiver to a U.S. Air Force para-rescue unit based in Florida -- the same guys shown in the movie, The Perfect Storm -- that will let a rescue diver talk via Divelink to a circling aircraft or through a satellite.
Its latest order is from Florida State University which plans to use the headsets in an underwater crime scene course.