Look Who’s Talking Now
Since the early days of Scuba, recreational divers have dreamed of communicating with more than hand signals or expensive, awkward contraptions. And since those early days, people have said it can't be done. For example, on page 101 of the PADI Open Water Diver Manual it says,
"Although sound travels well in water, voice communication is virtually impossible under water except with elaborate electronic communications systems. Due to the expense and other drawbacks of these systems, they are not commonly used by recreational divers. As a result, nonverbal methods of communication must be used." Page 101, PADI Open Water Diver Manual
It’s time to tear page 101 out of the manual, because this is no longer true.
Neal Pounders, a diver and physicist in Bossier City, Louisiana, has done the impossible and developed a low cost apparatus that allows divers to truly and easily speak underwater. The device, called the Aqua Voice, has no electronic receivers, awkward straps, or Darth Vader looking face masks. The best part is, it is totally non-electronic. It transmits sound waves through the water via some sort of mechanical mechanism.
I would write all about the mechanical mechanism, but I don’t know how it works. Neal won't say, holding this secret tighter than a royal flush at a high-stakes poker game. "If you tore it apart and looked at it, you couldn't figure it out," he says. It took his degree in Physics to design it, but it does not take a rocket scientist to see it works. Not only does it work, but it also surpasses the expectations of even long time divers like Paul Olbely, veteran diving instructor and owner of Venture Scuba across the river in Shreveport.
"I've seen this kind of stuff come and go, but everything so far has been a hassle, more trouble than they are worth in the water," Paul says. "There is no question this thing works. Even with my bad hearing, I can hear about seventy-five percent of what is said. The most remarkable thing is it's so simple. You think about the things that have come out like the self draining snorkel and inflating diving vest. At first, people resisted them, but now they are standards."
"So, you use it?" I ask.
"I wish I had thought of it. I know I'll sell 75 or 100 a year out of this shop alone. The hardest part will be convincing the old divers like me. I think the new divers will go for it first."
Back in the workshop, Neal pops a cassette into a small TV/VCR of an open water dive off Cosamel, Mexico. In the tape, he swims up to a group of beginner divers who have been told someone will be testing some new equipment but not given details. He asks a woman, "Can you hear me?" She nods her head. I hear him clearly as well on the tape, despite the boat and respirator noises. He apologizes for the sound quality. Since this is a new field, most underwater microphones are not filtered to overcome underwater ambient sounds. But he's working on it.
Neal leans back in his office chair in what has to be the cleanest workshop I've ever seen. One of his Nikes is split in the back to keep the shoe from rubbing an injured heel. "I've managed to turn a two-month sports injury into a 16-month injury," he says. "I didn't give it time to heal before running again." At 48, he is in excellent shape and chides a friend for the cigarettes in his pocket. "I buried both my parents to cancer," he says, looking stern on the subject. It’s clear his character is to speak his mind, equal to his character to defy the naysayers and find a way to get things done.
In the late 70s and early 80s, he made millions in real estate, losing it all in 1987 to economic conditions beyond his control. On one particular project, he wanted to build a long but shallow dam to create a lake. Not able to find anyone to do the job in less than six months, he got the license himself and finished the dam in 31 days, working around the clock.
It is this kind of bullheaded determination that has allowed him to ignore the "virtually impossible" and develop the magic mechanism that transmits vocal sound waves through water.
Smiling, he tells me what started it all. "A couple of years ago, I was diving with a group at about 70 feet. A barracuda swam by, and I tried to get my friend's wife's attention. She looked the wrong way; so I tried to turn her around, and she struggled, turning completely around the wrong way. When her mask got ripped off, I thought, 'Oh, my god, I've drowned Donna.' I developed the Aqua Voice to say two words--'Donna, barracuda'."
Neal immediately began working on the problem. He ran into the problems other designers had experienced. "I kept trying to push water, but it's too damned heavy. You don't push water." After nearly quitting twice from frustration, he finally solved the problem and began adjustments for quality and volume. In another videotape, he approaches Paul Oberle with an early prototype. "Can you hear me?" Paul's reaction creates a brand new hand signal. He jerks his hands up to his ears then gesturing for Neal to back away. Although Paul is hard of hearing and wearing a hood, the prototype was simply blaring. "It was so loud, it was offensive," Paul later told me. It is the kind of problem that adds enthusiasm to the project.
"I've had master divers swim up to me and take it out my mouth." Neal shows me the divers' curious and surprised expression, staring wide-eyed across the table at me. "As I struggle to find my alternate air, they put it in their mouths and try to talk."
Although it's quit simple, you have to know something of how it works. If the new mechanism is the flower of this device, the mouthpiece is the root. It attaches to your regulator normally. Otherwise the difference is radical. Rather than a tooth guard styled mouthpiece, the Aqua Voice has two elongated pieces of rubber, which you grip between your back teeth.
Imagine talking through an empty birthday wrapping tube. The diver talks through the mouthpiece the same, the mouthpiece over the mouth. The diver can breath this way exclusively or put his lips over the mouthpiece while not communicating. I find breathing either way easy.
The Aqua Voice speaker attaches to the side of the new mouthpiece. At this time, the prototype is about 5 inches wide. At first glance, this may seem cumbersome, but it is unobtrusive. The production model should be about half this size.
Neal invites me to Scuba Ventures' swimming pool in Shreveport to try the Aqua Voice in the water. Nicki Brown, his beautiful young assistant, joins us to help with the underwater video equipment.
We descend to the pool's deep end. In open water, the Aqua Voice has about a 20-foot range. This creates an acoustical problem in the pool as sound waves bounce off the walls. But this doesn't seem to bad a problem, because I not only understand what Neal says, but I hear him clearly. It is odd having someone speak to me underwater. He has had a year's practice, though, so I want to see if I can do it on the first try. We surface, and Neal replaces my old mouthpiece with the Aqua Voice.
"Have you used this?" I ask Nicki.
"Do you find it more difficult than regular regulators?"
She shrugs her shoulders. "I don't know. I've never used anything else." Hum, I think. If this thing drowns me, I'm going to be really embarrassed. We re-submerge in the shallow end, and I adjust to the new mouthpiece. Although unconventional, it isn't difficult. We head to the deep end again.
If you are looking for the voice quality of digital audio, the Aqua Voice will disappoint you. You're talking underwater, which distorts the sound. Yet, on the first try, I speak clearly enough to tell Neal my left ear won't clear. I have to surface for relief.
There are a couple of variations to the original design. There is a hand-held model to share with those still living in Scuba's stone age. On the video, I watch Olberly's son, Paul Jr., use it to tell the group of a crab they had all missed, shifting between his regulator and the hand-held Aqua Voice. This dive is the first time he has ever seen the device; he hadn't even seen it on the boat. "He just took it out of my hands and told us about the crab," Neal says. "He acted like he knew just what he was doing."
In the pool, my mustache gives me some trouble, breaking the seal over my mouth. Others with mustaches have told me they had no problems, and the little water that seeps in isn't enough to get me excited. I find holding the regulator while I talk helps, but I soon learn to grip the rubber loosely with my back teeth and talk hands free. Audio feedback, hearing your own voice while talking, is different underwater, like talking with your ears submerged in your bathtub. It takes some time to figure out what sounds right. After two or three dives, anyone should become very comfortable with it.
Regulators and the exhaust bubbles are noisy and interfere with hearing. On exhalation, you can't hear a thing. Again, with practice, you lean to talk to others and listen between breaths.
The Aqua Voice isn't meant for long conversations. "I didn't design this for Scuba instructors or Navy Seals," Neal says. "I designed this for Sunday divers to say, 'Look at that'." He may say he designed it for two or three words; but, as I discover diving with Neal, he talks almost constantly. Saying the Aqua Voice was designed for two are three words is like saying a Ferrari was built to drive 35 miles-per-hour. I can't hold my breath long enough to listen to all he has to say.
On a personal level, I am speaking in an environment that has been hostile to verbal communication. A strange feeling surges through me, the same emotion I felt on my first dive, a daydream I don't want to end.
For the world of Scuba, the Aqua Voice is like Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone. After years of hearing only breathing and regulator noises, voices will now fill coral reefs and ship wrecks, opening a whole new dimension to the sport. Neal's enthusiasm is contagious. "Now, I cannot imagine Scuba diving without talking," he says. "It's like when divers went to the single hose air supply--once you've used it, there's just no going back."
RichPS: August 16, 2013 – When I wrote this article over ten years ago, I was certain this device would sweep the SCUBA world. It did not. I’m working to contact Neal Pounders to discover what happened. When I do, I will update this article. The device used to be called Aqua Voice. It's now called SCUBA Voice, a much better name.