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the splurge

Envirolights Manufacturing’s Doug Nayler explores the Arabia shipwreck in Georgian Bay near Tobermory, Ont.

This continues our series called The Splurge, where we take a look at how entrepreneurs have spent their money on indulgences – purchases that may be interesting, fun, satisfying or enjoyable, but not necessary!

As a teenager, Doug Nayler spent summers at his family's cottage with fins on his feet and a snorkel mask strapped firmly around his head.

Two years ago, he decided to take his childhood love affair with the underwater world to its greatest depths, and become certified in technical scuba diving.

Once he has passes his certification exams this summer, his $18,000 splurge on courses and technical equipment will allow him to dive as deep as 50 meters (164 feet) below the water's surface in a sport that is far more demanding and more dangerous than traditional recreational scuba diving.

Only about 1 per cent of divers are certified for technical diving, which takes them into potentially deadly underwater territory from which there is no direct escape, said Norbert Pietkiewicz, co-owner of the Aquasub Scuba Diving Centre in Richmond Hill, Ont., and Mr. Nayler's trainer.

"When I was a kid, you couldn't do this kind of thing. It was mostly reserved for the military," said Mr. Nayler, co-founder and president of Concord, Ont.-based Envirolights Manufacturing Inc., which manufactures industrial bug zapper lights and bug glue boards.

"It is more dangerous [than sport diving]. You have to have more skill and more comfort in the water. Part of the beauty of it is in the complications," he said.

Mr. Nayler, 53, first started his sub-aquatic explorations as a child while spending summers at the family cottage on Little Lake Joseph, a small lake at the edge of the much larger Lake Joseph, in the Muskoka area north of Toronto, where snorkelling was "part of everyday life."

At the time, he said, people used the lake "as a kind of dumping ground." The wreck of the Nipissing, a steamship that caught fire and sank in Lake Joseph in 1886, was also easy to explore with a snorkel. Mr. Nayler and his friends spent their summer days searching out lost treasures. They found everything from pots and pans and old bed frames to a $10 gold coin and a small trunk filled with late 19th-century coins, he recalled.

Mr. Nayler became a certified scuba diver when he was 18 and instantly got hooked on the "beautiful, peaceful" green, grey and black underwater world he discovered in scuba diving locations around Ontario's cottage country.

He continued diving into his mid-20s, and worked as a plant manager for Air Guard Control of Canada Ltd., a company in Concord, just north of Toronto, that made devices to control bugs in commercial and industrial settings, such as bug zapper lights and aerosol pesticide dispensers.

Air Guard was eventually purchased by the custom packager CCL Industries Inc. In 1985, CCL decided to sell part of the business that made bug control products. Mr. Nayler and his father, Ken, bought it and formed Envirolights, which currently has three full-time employees and brings in about $1-million annually on sales of its industrial-grade bug zapper lights and bug glue boards.

As the company grew and Mr. Nayler married and started a family, time constraints forced him to give up diving. He returned to his favourite sport during a vacation to Jamaica six years ago.

He said he intended to scuba dive but was surprised when the dive leader told him his certification was out of date and that he would have to stay with a group of novices. He took up-to-date courses for open-water recreational diving while on vacation, and continued to dive once he got home.

Three years ago, he decided to start training and equipping himself for high-risk technical dives. He took the first steps in 2010, when he passed exams that qualified him as a rescue diver, and then started studying for exams that will qualify him to go deeper.

Mr. Nayler said he was drawn to the sport because of the technical skills it requires.

"There is an extra challenge. I love the equipment that goes with it. I love the depth. I love the fact that it's complicated and that you can go places where no one else can go," he said. "It's also learning the system of keeping yourself alive while you're doing it."

Technical divers can go deeper and stay underwater longer than recreational divers who take their plunges in "open water." They also need more advanced training and specialized equipment not required for an ordinary recreational dive.

The limit for open-water recreational diving is 40 meters (130 feet). Mr. Nayler hopes to dive to 50 meters (164 feet). As a technical diver, he will also be allowed to explore enclosed spaces, such as underwater caves and the interiors of deep-water ship wrecks.

The main difference between open-water recreational diving and technical diving is that open-water divers must be able to rise directly to the surface without stopping to decompress. Technical divers cannot rise directly to the surface, either because they are in an enclosed space or because they have to decompress, and they dive wearing several tanks controlled by multiple regulators.

As divers go deeper, the water places greater pressure on their bodies. Nitrogen and helium, which are inert gases, start to dissolve in body tissues. Divers must stop as they rise to the surface, a process known as decompression, so their bodies can release the gases slowly. Otherwise, gas bubbles form in the blood stream, which can result in the bends, a condition that is extremely painful and potentially deadly.

With so many challenges, a successful dive requires a cool head and a high level of expertise, Mr. Nayler says.

"In sport diving, you can abandon and go to the surface if you have a problem. In technical diving, you can't just leave. You have to figure out how to solve the problem," he said.

To prepare himself for his technical diving certification, Mr. Nayler, a high school dropout, has been studying algorithms and chemistry to help him understand how to properly mix breathing gases and to plan his dives. He has also been practising underwater skills, such as handing off breathing tanks to a diving partner in trouble.

His equipment purchases include specialized backpack harnesses to carry breathing equipment, a double set of breathing gas tanks, an extra 40-cubic-foot bottle for decompression gases, two tank regulators, a computerized diving watch that monitors gas levels and could help Mr. Nayler get back on course if he deviated from his planned dive, and a much thicker, heavier dry suit that will allow him to stay underwater longer than his current suit does.

If he passes his exams, he plans to take his first technical dive this summer among shipwrecks off the coast of Newfoundland – the first of what he hopes will be a series of thrilling sub-aquatic experiences.

"With a small business, you don't get the time off that a lot of people do, but ,when I'm not working, I've decided I'm going to put more into it," he said. " This is one of those great pleasures in life that makes it worth living."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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