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Helium shortage impacting scuba diving industry

Posted: 5:48 PM, May 13, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-13 21:59:23Z
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STUART, Fla. — You’ve probably heard all about the helium shortage going on right now and how it is impacting daily life.

It’s forced many parents for months to change birthday and party plans due to stores running out of helium for balloons.

But it's also affecting more than just celebrations — it’s also impacting the scuba diving industry.

For deep sea scuba divers, helium is needed to protect themselves in deeper water. Those diving 190 feet or deeper mix helium into their tanks but some use it even at 150 feet.

“78 percent of the air we breathe is nitrogen. The deeper you go, it becomes narcotic,” said Peter Friedman owner of Stuart Scuba . “So we are taking the nitrogen out of the gas we breathe and putting helium in, which tends to be less narcotic.”

Stuart Scuba is a hot spot for deep sea divers like Shawn Robotka to get everything they need. The shop even helps train and educate BBC and National Geographic photographers when they need to document the environment underwater.

“There are actually dives in this area — which is one of the reasons why I like teaching down here — that range anywhere from 198 feet to 330 feet,” said Robotka.

Helium helps prevent nitrogen narcosis in divers.

“As you can imagine when doing deeper dives having a clear head is really important,” said Robotka.

Due to the helium shortages across the world, some local shops said they're having to switch vendors because finding the gas is getting harder.

“Helium is the most abundant gas in our universe and there’s not a lot of it on Earth,” said Friedman.

Friedman said luckily, he uses enough helium that he has no problems obtaining it from a good source he has directly through a distributor.

“The nice thing is we use Matheson Gas, that is a major distributor here. They have a cracking plant here,” he said.

But costs are going up, which can’t be controlled.

“It’s getting to a point where it’s getting fairly expensive to fill up a set of double [tanks],” he said. “Some shops are no longer carrying helium."

Friedman said he typically pays between $150 to $170 for a 220 cubic feet tank of helium. He used to pay $70 at one point. Now, some tanks of the same size can cost as high as $300 as the shortage continues.

To help save on costs, divers are switching to a device called rebreathers, which uses one smaller tank of helium and recirculates it during the dive.

“It constantly uses the same gas over and over and over again,” said Friedman.

Divers are able to get two or three dives out of one re-breather, whereas a double tank of helium mixture lasts for just one dive.

It's not just party balloons and scuba tanks that use helium:

  • Scientific research
  • Airbags
  • Cryogenics
  • Rocket fuel
  • Weather balloons
  • MRI machines (one of the biggest users in the world of helium)

Divers say for now, they hope the shortages won't stop their way of life.

“It’s not something we can do without and it is definitely something we are concerned about,” said Shawn.

Alternatives to helium in the scuba include neon or hydrogen, which has been used in the military and commercial diving industries. However, those gases are either more expensive or not as safe as helium, Friedman said.