James Neal - Diving Officer
James is a highly qualified (view qualifications) and passionate technical diver and instructor for multiple agencies, including PADI, TecRec, SDI/TDI, SAA, CMAS, BSAC and RAID. He has a passion for wreck diving and a 'lust for rust'. He enjoys diving sidemount and finds teaching sidemount and tec sidemount particularly rewarding. James is also Enhance DBS Checked for our Approved Youth Training Centre status. His DBS Certificate Number is: 001750144981
James is also a global 'Brand Ambassador' for several high-quality scuba equipment brands, including Atomic Aquatics, BARE, HOLLIS, Zeagle, Oceanic, Stahlsac and KUBI. You can view James's Brand Ambassador profile from this link >>
James is also an avid underwater photographer and enjoys taking his camera rig on all his diving adventures. With over 1,500 dives logged in a variety of locations and conditions around the world, James is a highly experienced diver who has seen some incredible things, he's dived hundreds of wrecks, and been up close and personal with sharks, dolphins and manta rays in locations like Egypt, Jordan, Malta & Gozo, Mexico, Dominican Republic and the Maldives!
James is also a fully initiated member of the MARU Diving Club, his given MARU name is 'Wooden Spoon MARU' because he does like a good wind-up!
But of particular note is the fact that James suffered and fought his way back from a 'Grade 4' aneurysmal subarachnoid haemorrhage at the end of 2013, fatal in 80% of cases. He returned to scuba diving a year later and has completed over a thousand dives post-SAH.
James promotes Headway, the Brain Injury Association, in order to help raise awareness of the hidden disabilities associated with 'ABI" (Acquired Brain Injury) and the discrimination that he often suffers as a consequence of having such disabilities.
James is a 'West Country Boy, born and raised in Somerset, he grew up watching Jacques Cousteau and Robinson Crusoe on television and he spent much of his childhood on the South Coast, his grandfather taking him on frequent trips to Lyme Regis, West Bay, Weymouth, Beer, Paignton, Torquay, Exmouth and Lynmouth. He attended Wadham School and Yeovil College before embarking on a career as a buyer in the civil engineering sector for Balfour Beatty, Wimpy and Colas. His job took him around many parts of the south of England and consequently, he lived in several different areas, including London, Maidstone, Southampton and Wareham. He has a particular affinity with Wareham and the surrounding areas of the Purbeck Isles, Swanage, Kimmeridge, Weymouth and Portland. He bought his first set of scuba equipment back in 1988 when he lived in Wareham and was working on the BP Wytch Farm oil refinery contract, at Corfe Castle, with Balfour Beatty.
James has been asthmatic since birth, a condition he sadly inherited from his maternal grandfather. Back in the late 1980s diving medicine was still very much in its infancy and there was little understanding of how scuba diving might affect asthma. Consequently, James was told it was probably best that he didn't scuba dive, and so he was forced to give the sport up... for a period of time!
In the mid-90s, James returned to Yeovil College and completed a couple of A-Levels, one in Law and the other in English Literature as well as a diploma in sports education and another in art & design. He then secured a place at Gloucestershire University and moved to Cheltenham, where he undertook a BA (Hons) degree in Art & Design. Whilst at university he also set up his own web design company and upon graduation, he simply remained in Cheltenham and continued with his own company working for many large blue chip clients, ultimately he developed a search engine called 'Go4.it' and specialised in SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).
During this period James spent a great deal of his free time at Lyme Regis, where he was a member of the Lyme Regis Powerboat Club. He owned several powerboats including a 14' Formula 1 catamaran, a 20' Ring Powercraft with a race-tuned XR2 outboard, a 25' Phantom with twin 200 hp outboards and a 36' Extreme with a marinised V12 Lamborghini inboard. It's fair to say that James knows how to handle a boat... he also holds several RYA powerboat tickets and is presently undertaking his powerboat instructor course.
After his business partner passed away in 2006, he decided to change direction again and focused his digital publishing skills back towards traditional publishing. He was still living in Cheltenham and so he launched 'The Cheltonian', a local glossy lifestyle magazine that he published for several years. He also franchised the title and had a small interest in the printing firm that he used to print all of his titles.
In 2011 he sold 'The Cheltonian' to one of his competitors whilst he was on his honeymoon with his wife, whom he had met at university. And it was whilst on his honeymoon that he returned to scuba diving...
Finding it extremely difficult to 'switch off', having gone from 100-hour working weeks to being sat on a beach twiddling his thumbs, he decided to enquire with the 'pool guy' about the scuba diving, the next thing he knew he was enrolled on a course, having been checked out by the local doctor, reading the 'open water' manual, learning about diving physics and physiology whilst swearing a bit as he grappled with the 'dive tables' in between G&Ts!
Confined water training ensued and before he knew it he was rolling off the side of a RHIB into the warm blue Caribbean waters of the Dominican Republic. And it was from that first backward roll into the depths that James was officially addicted to scuba diving and the course of his life would be forever changed.
Returning to the UK James then joined Cheltenham Sub-Aqua Club and enrolled on several PADI courses with a variety of dive centres, including Dive 90, Seastyle and AquaSport. He dived and trained as much as he could over the years that followed. He gained his PADI Divemaster qualification in November 2012 and his Open Water Instructor qualification in May 2013.
On the 22nd December 2013, he suffered a grade 4 bleed on the brain, known as an aneurysmal subarachnoid haemorrhage, and he was found by his wife, approximately 10 hours later, unconscious on their living room floor. She had been away, visiting her family to drop off Christmas presents, and she 'had a feeling' that she needed to go home and decided to return a day earlier than planned, only to find James critically ill. Had she not returned that night, James would not have survived until the morning, let alone the following evening when she was due to return!
James was rushed into Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in the early hours and, because his wife had the presence of mind to say to the operator that she suspected he had had a stroke, he was put straight into an MRI scanner whereby they discovered the bleed and immediately transferred him to Frenchay Hospital for emergency surgery at 3 am that saved his life.
But he wasn't out of the woods yet, he then spent a month in Frenchay Hospital, where he underwent a number of procedures, the main one being an operation to 'coil' his ruptured aneurysm. He also needed to be treated for several life-threatening complications, including both vasospasm and hydrocephalus. And he had to relearn a great many skills that most of us take for granted, how to walk and talk and one of the most challenging for him has been understanding non-verbal communication. Eventually, he did return home, and for the first three weeks, he had to be woken up every 4 hours, day and night, for medication.
The journey back to scuba diving was a difficult one, and by no means certain. James was initially told by his surgeons that he would never dive again, their concern was 'pressure' on the aneurysm, and whilst his surgeons are highly skilled in their field, what they didn't appreciate was that the pressure associated with scuba diving primarily affects the body's airspaces and not the vascular system, consequently, the pressure associated with scuba diving literally has no effect whatsoever on his coiled aneurysm. Once the surgeons understood this they were happy to entertain the notion of James returning to diving, but only if a specialist diving physician was prepared to sign off on it being safe for him to do so. And so James contacted Dr Oliver Firth who, at that time, was the Medical Director at the London Diving Chamber. After an initial consultation, Dr Firth advised James that he would consider his case if the DVLA were happy for him to return to driving. James had surrendered his driving licence, as legally required, and had to undergo a medical assessment in order to have his licence reinstated. This process took just under 8 months as there is a mandatory 6-month period whereby the patient is not allowed to drive.
Once assessed, James's driving licence was returned and at that point, he contacted Dr Firth again. He was then told that Dr Firth had already been very busy discussing his case with a number of his colleagues, including vascular neurosurgeons, and that the consensus of opinion was that he should undergo a basic 'Fit to Dive' medical and a phased return to diving. James duly completed a 'Fit to Dive' assessment and did his first post-SAH dive at Cromhall Quarry on the 17th of July 2014. Understandably he was a little anxious! In the 12 months that followed James completed a total of 192 dives, the majority of which were deeper than 50 metres.
He then returned once again to Dr Firth in 2015 and asked him if he could undergo an HSE medical intending to return to instructing. It should be noted that James didn't need to do this, he has only ever taught for fun and not for commercial gain. But he elected to go down the HSE medical route entirely to prove to others in the dive community that he was medically cleared to dive and deemed safe enough to dive commercially.
He took his log books with him for the preceding 12 months and upon inspecting them Dr Firth chuckled and commented that he didn't see much point in depth limiting him! James passed his first post-SAH HSE medical and returned to teaching, purely for his own enjoyment and to give him a sense of purpose in life as he continued to recover from his haemorrhage and come to terms with the limitations that had been put on his life as a consequence of that life-changing incident.
It would be nice to say... 'and he lived happily ever after'.
However, subarachnoid haemorrhage, vasospasm and hydrocephalus don't leave their victims unscathed and sadly society and human nature can be extremely cruel, especially towards things that scare them or they don't understand. Hidden disabilities can be the hardest to adapt to and live with and society is often all too quick to judge, as a result, James experienced an enormous amount of prejudice and discrimination, particularly from amateur dive clubs and even from his business partners and some so-called friends. He also struggled with loss of identity as the damage caused robbed him of the ability to continue to run his own publishing business. He was left a shadow of his former self and had to not only come to terms with that, but rebuild the shattered remains of his life whilst not really knowing who he was any more! A lay person reading this is unlikely to be able to comprehend, but this Headway Factsheet on 'Loss of Identity' is extremely good at explaining some of it.
Fortunately, he did have several close friends that supported him and one of the extremely positive things that came out of the early discrimination was the idea to try and complete a 24-hour scuba dive to help raise awareness of the issues associated with acquired brain injury and raise much-needed funds to support Headway Gloucestershire, the regional branch of Headway.
The 24-Hour Scuba Dive was months in the planning and supported by many of James's friends within Cheltenham Sub Aqua Club and by several of the major equipment brands. The National Diving & Activity Centre (NDAC) hosted the event on the 16th / 17th of September 2017 and it was an enormous success. Many of the region's newspapers ran articles about the event, the newspaper from James's home town, the 'Chard & Ilminster News' dedicated the front cover to the event as well as an article within the newspaper itself.
The article can be viewed on the Chard & Ilminster News website HERE >>
In addition to this article, there were dozens of other articles published in multiple newspapers and magazines, one of which included a feature in 'Tanked Up' magazine, seen below, which can be viewed online HERE >>
Following the success of the 24-Hour Scuba Dive to raise awareness of brain injury, James concentrated on his ongoing recovery and settled back into teaching people how to scuba dive and helping others who had suffered subarachnoid haemorrhage whilst still actively recovering himself. His efforts and his drive got him nominated for one of Headway's Annual Awards, the Alex Richardson Achiever of the Year 2018. Click the highlighted text to view the write-up on Headway's website. Below, you can also watch the video that some of his nominees put together and was shown at the awards ceremony held at the prestigious Dorchester Hotel.
Ultimately James was the runner-up in Headway's 2018 Alex Richardson Achiever of the Year Award and, to date, he has helped raise just over £10,000.00 for Headway Gloucestershire.
For more information on acquired brain injury and its hidden disabilities, please read this excellent Headway fact sheet >>
James is not the sort of person to simply be content with where he is in his post-subarachnoid haemorrhage recovery, he is incredibly driven and will push himself well beyond his physical limits and frequently has to pay a heavy price for failing to manage his neurological fatigue properly.
The hidden side of his condition can be extremely debilitating, and James struggles with this, the side effects of SAH are numerous and can be very difficult to overcome. Fatigue is a constant reminder and when this starts to get bad he then has to deal with 'aphasia'. James has learnt that this is a 'telltale' sign that he needs to rest. Despite his condition James refuses to be defined by his disabilities, subsequently, James has suffered a great deal of discrimination over the years, even by people he thought were his friends. This is a very informative fact sheet on SAH & relationships >>
PADI AWARDS & ACCOLADES
Given James's nature and that 'drive' that he is so well known for, it should come as no surprise that once allowed to scuba dive again, James was one of the very first instructors to sign up for the inaugural PADI Advanced Training Academy that took place in August 2016. To date, he is one of just eighteen PADI Advanced Instructors!
You can visit the PADI Advanced Instructor Program >>
PADI ELITE INSTRUCTOR
James then set his sights on achieving 'Elite Status' as a PADI instructor and he gained this accolade in both 2016 and 2018. To be recognised as a PADI Elite Instructor, an individual must be a renewed PADI Professional with a minimum rating of Open Water Scuba Instructor, with no quality management violations and train frequently.
PADI Certificates of Excellence.
PADI recognise excellence in their instructors and runs a programme that rewards them for their efforts. Instructors gain this recognition through the quality management department when students respond favourably to a randomly sent 'Customer Evaluation Questionnaire'. Students, fellow instructors and PADI staff can also email the PADI QA department directly and send in their comments and feedback; the quality management team then review and, where deemed appropriate, an instructor may be fortunate enough to be selected for recognition.
These awards are not given out lightly and they are certainly not easily attained. Remarkably, to date, James has been awarded 5 Certificates of Excellence!
Pictured, James with 3 of his 5 Certificates of Excellence. He was awarded these accolades on the following dates:
13th November 2018
4th July 2019
12th February 2020
3rd April 2020
4th November 2021
Before the sad demise of 'The Dive Show' at the NEC, James was a regular speaker on the SDI/TDI TecDeck.
As well as talking about technical diving, he would often talk about scuba diving after a subarachnoid haemorrhage, which helped several other people return to diving after serious illness as a result of these presentations. He had one friend in particular, Mark Raines, who was a fellow diver and SAH survivor. Mark and James would meet up at the Dive Show, often arranging to jointly meet someone else who needed help with their return to diving. Sadly, on the 13th of January 2022, Mark suffered a 2nd massive bleed on the brain and passed away.
"Your life is made of two dates and a dash. Make the most of the dash."
JAMES - THE PUBLISHER
As mentioned previously, James's day job, before his haemorrhage, was publishing and printing and he was often spotted at the NDAC, mid-week, with his dive kit on and his mobile phone welded to his head as he put together various deals in between dives! He enjoyed his work almost as much as he loved his diving, mixing the two was only a matter of time. Wanting to try and keep his design skills up to speed, despite not being able to do the things he used to do, was important to help with maintaining his identity as a person, and so his first title, post-SAH, was Club Diver Magazine. He produced this title to help promote Cheltenham Sub Aqua Club and it was launched at the NEC Dive Show, on the BSAC stand, in 2015. The cover image was kindly supplied by Jason Brown of Bardo Photographic.
In 2016 James set up his own dive centre and in 2018 he agreed to have three others join. It was only ever envisioned as being a part-time operation, weekends only, and something of a hobby. For his part, it was to aid in his ongoing recovery. Sadly, what ultimately ensued proved to be 2 years of utter misery for James as he struggled with a profoundly toxic environment and ultimately he walked away from it; only to be offered Livox Quarry by the owner of NDAC as a base of operations for a new centre, InDepth. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic shut the world down for a year or two, and that pretty much put everything on hold.
What the pandemic did do though, was give James the time to develop both the InDepth Dive Centre and InDepth Magazine. And whilst the world was in lockdown and James was put on the shielded list and confined to his home for almost two years, he busied himself in the Dive Den writing editorial for his Brand Ambassador role and for InDepth Magazine, as well as developing the new Dive Centre & Club.
InDepth Dive Centre & Club has very much become a happy place, it is everything that his old dive centre wasn't. Taking away the abject lessons learned as to how not to run a dive centre, he put in place a structure of inclusion and value. One of the first things done was the purchase of a dive centre van, so that no-one was exploited for the use of their own commercial vehicle. An atmosphere of inclusion, value and respect was embedded into the core values of the dive centre and in the club's constitution and code of conduct.
Consequently, everyone gives freely of their time to help and look out for others, the club has a number of disabled members and all are made to feel welcome. The club embraces adaptive teaching techniques and an atmosphere of equality. James, rightly so, is extremely proud of what he has created.
“HISTORY WILL DICTATE WHAT MY LEGACY IS.
AND 'MAVERICK' IS FINE, BECAUSE I AM.”
— Al Davis