Amazing Diving Stories

  • Ocean Leisure Does Not Sell Rebreathers

    There’s a good reason for this but it may come as a surprise when I was at the forefront of promoting this new way of diving as far back as 1993. In those days I had the privilege of using a prototype PRISM rebreather, taught under the auspices of its inventor Peter Readey. I wrote an article for Diver Magazine (UK) that was entitled “I have seen the future and it works”.

    However, the units we used had neoprene counter-lungs and we even dried out our scrubber material in the sun before repacking it, promising CO2 poisoning. How we were not killed was down to luck.

    The author with Peter Readey 1993 The author with Peter Readey in1993 (note the stylish wetsuit!)

    I experimented on terra firma with hypoxia by breathing from the unit with the O2 turned off. I wanted to know what the symptoms of oxygen starvation were. I discovered there were none. I simply went out like a light. If I was underwater I would have drowned but luckily I only suffered a severe headache for a day.

    Next, I was certified by Rob Palmer as TDI SCR diver No4 on the Dräger Atlantis, even though during the course one of the other trainees suffered a bad soda lime influx.

    My introduction to closed-circuit came courtesy of Martin Parker and Dave Thompson who had made some prototype rebreathers that were the forerunners of the Inspiration. Every time we surfaced, we joked it was amazing that we were still alive, we used so little gas. An article in Diver Magazine (UK) followed. I couldn’t wait to get to use a production model and within a couple of years, I found myself away in the Maldives with Martin with the very first units.

    Dave Thompson and Martin Parker with prototype Inspirations Dave Thompson and Martin Parker with prototype Inspirations.

    I was so excited about the performance possible that I wrote about this too in Diver Magazine (UK). We didn’t have any dive computers that were appropriate for closed-circuit diving so we introduced a bit of guesswork into the dives by setting the equivalent nitrox mix on our OC computers for the planned deepest part of the dive. One dive did not go as planned!

    I became certified as APD CCR Rebreather Diver No4. It seemed No4 was my lucky number. At that time, the duration of the Inspiration scrubber unit was thought to be to be 6.5 hours but the manufacturer had not considered how mean divers were and there was one notable death caused by running the same material for more than 10 hours. The manufacturer’s specification for the duration was soon changed to 3 hours to accommodate this phenomenon. That’s the duration at the CE test rate - 40RMV in 4°C. Later, the manufacturer introduced a temperature stick that gave an indication of scrubber efficacy. Nevertheless, divers still had to pack and manage their CO2 scrubbers efficiently.

    I then took an Inspiration on various diving trips and boat owners were very accommodating, allowing me to dive alone since CCR divers were few and very far between. The popularity of CCR seemed assured.

    It was in Cocos when I managed to do a dive and, being distracted by a whaleshark, failed to set my high set-point and could have seriously injured myself if I had not opted for in-water recompression (using the unit as an oxygen rebreather). Later, manufacturers introduced automatic set-point switching after they realised there were stupid people like me using them! Nowadays the calculations of deco computer built into the units take care of that sort of error too.

    The author with a Sentinel CCR (photo: Kevin Gurr) The author with a Sentinel CCR (photo: Kevin Gurr)

    However, during this earlier time there were some mysterious deaths by early adopters, all very experienced divers. Some had turned off their O2 supply in the shallows (to save gas?) not realising that the body needs a greater volume of oxygen as the ambient pressure decreases. Some were simply unexplained. I gained my own theory about these unexplained deaths when away in the Sea of Cortez with a closed-circuit PRISM. I found that it was possible to install the scrubber canister upside-down in the darkness of early morning and thereby by-passed it. I suffered a CO2 hit on the surface before diving but managed to still jump in the water, I was so confused. Recovered to the boat, I nearly suffered a heart attack but survived after a full day’s rest. It was devastating. If it had happened during the dive, I would have been credited with having had a heart attack. The scrubber canister was redesigned!

    The author and Dave Thompson with JJ rebreathers. The author and Dave Thompson with JJ rebreathers.

    I then went on to use the Sentinel rebreather under the watchful eye of its inventor Kevin Gurr, and the Scandinavian-made JJ Rebreather with Dave Thompson. Articles in Diver Magazine followed. Advances in oxygen cell technology and electronics had made oxygen level management a cinch. There were also adventures with the Evolution, a travel version of the Inspiration and Recreational versions of both Evolution and Inspiration that promised to take all the errors out of practical use. I then tried the user-friendly Poseidon Mk6 under the guidance of Jack Ingle. That company hoped to start a mass market for ordinary leisure divers. A vast number of divers have taken to rebreather diving.

    Technical divers began doing dives that were unheard of using traditional open-circuit scuba due to the amount of gas they would have needed to carry. However, obsessed with hypoxia as a danger, we had all overlooked hypercapnia or CO2 poisoning, another real killer. It had taken a back seat as a danger from the past.

    Familiarity can breed contempt. Confident divers were still coming to the surface with counter-lungs inflated as their unit attempted to give them more oxygen in the shallows than they needed at depth. This meant they could float comfortably without resort to their BC. If they closed the mouthpiece and breathed fresh air, I suppose there was no problem. However, many stayed breathing from the unit and if they turned off their O2 supply, as a prelude to getting out of the water, unconsciousness followed by loss of buoyancy as the mouthpiece fell from the mouth. It could occur almost within seconds, followed by drowning.

    Whether this was actually what happened or not, one could easily imagine the Sharkwater film director doing something similar before he dropped and died in the first days of February 2017. He had surfaced and given an OK signal when his buddy went unconscious. The boat crew, distracted with saving his buddy, took their eyes off Rob Stewart who was found drowned in the seabed directly below where they were, some days later. It was a tragedy.

    The author with a modern Inspiration The author with a modern Inspiration/Evolution CCR

    Modern CCR units have many convenient features built-in, unlike those early prototypes. However, there will always be the insidious dangers of hypoxia and hypercapnia, both unforgiving in a water environment. People often obsess with oxygen toxicity but subject to effective oxygen cells being employed, this rarely happens. Nor has any CCR manufacturer been successfully sued for making a faulty unit although one manufacturer found all its profits going to lawyer’s fees. Many CCR users have personally modified their units from the manufacturer’s specification and some have paid the ultimate price for that.

    Unlike conventional open-circuit diving, rebreathers leave little room for mistakes. The fact I got away with it in the early days, I put down to luck and nothing more. In the meantime, Ocean Leisure prefers not to supply such equipment. It’s not for every diver.

  • Ethics in Super-Macro Photography

    The on-line-by-subscription newsletter Undercurrent.org recently reported a conflict between winners of the super-macro photography category of the World ShootOut. One contestant alleged that the winner had cheated by herding two commensal shrimp into position on the back of a nudibranch. As a senior journalist on the newsletter, I was tasked with finding a qualified expert to give an opinion on the winning picture but could find none who would be prepared to be drawn on the matter. The judges of the World ShootOut insisted that it was impossible to tell by looking at a single photograph one way or another, yet suspicions remained. However this subject has spawned a bigger issue that may have become important with the massive growth in the popularity of macro photography underwater. There was a time when an underwater photographer may have been an unusual character on a dive boat. In the days of film, it was a difficult and often frustrating activity but nowadays, thanks to digital technology, anyone can go into the water equipped with a camera fitted with a high-powered macro lens and powerful light and record stunning images of the minutia of animal life we have only recently been made aware of.

    A typical high powered macro lens (AOI) that is proving very popular. A typical high powered supplementary macro wet lens (AOI) that is proving very popular.

    This in turn has led to a growth within the diving industry of resorts that specialise in muck-diving. Large numbers of local people who, in the past might have made a living fishing, now work as dive guides and invertebrate-spotters. Every guest diver seems to be armed with a camera of some sort. The problem arises when in their enthusiasm to secure great images, people interfere with nature, moving animals from where they would naturally hide and exposing them to their lenses. Not only that, but they then tend to stay with those subjects for long periods in an attempt to catch the best moment, subjecting these animals to loss of cover in bright light and even damaged habitat.

     

    Halemeda ghost pipefish photographed away from its disguising halemeda algae. Halimeda ghost pipefish photographed away from its disguising halimeda algae.

    Dr. Alex Tattersall, a leading exponent of super-macro photography, is campaigning for better ethics in underwater photography and asking divers to sign a petition, which, I assume, will be presented to those operating muck-diving resorts, magazine publishers and underwater photography competition organisers in the hope of changing behaviour among those using super-macro equipment. His petition (illustrated with one of his own pictures)  reads: “We are seeing more and more manipulation of wildlife to attain award winning images in competitions. Such images are winning competitions and becoming role model for future UW photographers. The UW photography community needs to act responsibly and promote conservation effort. A cultural shift is necessary at all levels and those with influence such as competition organisers and dive magazines should promote more responsible UW photo behaviour.” (If you wish to sign this petition, go to www.change.org and search for “More Ethics in UW photography.”) Some people on social media have even responded to this by suggesting that these animals should be given the choice as to whether they are photographed or not. I suggest that were they capable of making such a choice, they would prefer to remain undisturbed and well-camouflaged where they live, going about their business un-noticed. Seeing a hairy frogfish surrounded by half-a-dozen photographers crowding it and firing their strobes (flashguns) repeatedly can give cause for concern but it is now a daily occurrence where these animals are to be found.

     

    _DSC5057 A dive guide rummages in a gorgonia fan, searching for pygmy seahorses.

    Pygmy seahorses, dug out by willing dive guides with pointer sticks from where they have been hiding unobserved for centuries within the fronds of a gorgonian fan, would probably prefer to maintain their anonymity and certainly prefer not to turn to face a perceived predator such as a big camera lens staring at them. The list goes on. Maybe there should be a rule that no photographer makes more than a few exposures of one subject in order to record its image. Maybe there should be a rule that no underwater photographer stays with one subject for more than a couple of minutes. Some dive centres once tried to ban the use of bright lights by underwater photographers but their loss of business to rival operations soon put an end to that. You may think that concern for the well-being of animals as small as hair lice (animals you would be happy to kill if you found them on the heads of your children) may be trivial in a world where so many bad things are happening. Divers are also concerned about the finning of thousands of sharks, the intentional destruction of reefs in the South China Sea for political reasons, the mass harvesting of sea cucumbers, the unintentional yet effective nevertheless destruction of coral reefs both directly by industry and indirectly by global warming, for example. However, sixty years ago it was thought OK for divers to ride turtles and manta rays and people even thought it was OK to slaughter sharks -  as featured in films by Jacques Cousteau. The maestro of diving even said himself, “Sometimes, for reasons of conservation, it is necessary to use dynamite” which he frequently did. Attitudes change. The mass popularity of extreme macro equipment with today’s underwater photographers may give cause for concern. This is not so much about preserving the life of shrimps but the morality of mankind. I’d like to think that underwater photographers go into the water to record things as they are rather than as they would like them to be. The mass destruction of larger pelagic species by industrialised fishing has left the oceans palpably bereft of fish and those of us who have been divers over a period of thirty years or more can testify to that. Soon there may only be the tiny animals left for us to enjoy. Let’s not spoil it by over-zealous behaviour with our cameras.

     

    Tiger shark lured to the camera with a box of bait. Tiger shark lured to the camera with a box of suitable bait.

    I normally illustrate these blogs with examples of my own photographs but my long career as an underwater photo-journalist has left me with few examples of my own manipulation of small subjects, since I was always briefed to report of what actually happened rather than construct pictures to win competitions, although one could say that seducing a large shark to come close to one’s camera by offering a tidbit to eat is simply manipulation on a larger scale, but sharks can fight back! You may have a view on that.

  • Enjoy It, But You Can't Own It!

    There is something about the activity of scuba diving that can mislead you into thinking you are the only diver to visit a particular dive site. Maybe it’s the narrowing of vision caused by the refraction of light in the mask that gives rise to this perceived solitary experience. Pioneering Jacques Cousteau and his team probably were the only ones to have visited those places mentioned in his book The Living Sea at the time. Because of this they were able to embroider the facts without fear of discovery. In the early 50’s he said he stumbled across the WW2 wreck of the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea and omits to mention that British merchant-men on their way north to Suez dipped their ensigns as a mark of respect for this War Grave. They knew where it was because its masts still broke the surface. Later, the masts fell and the existence of wreck got forgotten.

    The Napoleonic era anchor found concreted into the seabed. The Napoleonic era anchor found concreted into the seabed but unsuccessfully recovered by the author.
    I had a small dive centre in Mallorca in the mid-eighties. One day the anchor of my unattended boat dragged in the current near the island of Mitjana and I found it fouled in some obstruction in the sand. I discovered it was a large Napoleonic-era Admiralty pattern anchor and decided to recover it. It was so well concreted in that although I had exposed it and attached lifting bags to it, it took many hours of work with hammers and chisels and by that Autumn it was still securely in place. I went back to the UK and returned in the Spring only to find that anchor proudly displayed in the entrance to a small local hotel. Another diver had finished the job and lifted it and I didn’t get a mention let alone the return of my lifting bags. I couldn’t complain. The anchor was not mine. You cannot claim ownership of things found in the sea, yet people still do. About the same time a British couple operating a dive boat in the Red Sea discovered a wreck and systematically plundered all the brass from it. That included many portholes, angel lamps and the compass binnacle. I even made a video of them doing it.
    The Carnatic. No sign of any brasswork now. The Carnatic. No sign of any brasswork now.
    In fact the compass binnacle became a point of issue because another British captain called Darren ‘stole’ it from where it had been left on the shallow reef top. I pointed out that Darren could not have stolen it from them because they were guilty of stealing it from the wreck themselves. It was not a popular point made! All the brass was shipped back to England where the man continued life as a schoolteacher. The wreck was at first named after him and his wife, then named after the multitude of tonic bottles that were located in the bowels of the wreck, and finally its plundered remains became revealed as the Carnatic, a P&O steam-sailing ship. Maybe you’ve dived it. That couple finally retired to live in La Paz in Mexico. I don’t know if they went to the expense of shipping all the brass out there or maybe it went to scrap-metal merchant.
    Sharks at Sha'ab Rumi reef in the Sudan. Grey Sharks at Sha'ab Rumi reef in the Sudan.
    At the start of the ‘nineties I was a dive-guide in the Red Sea and used to conduct a shark-feed dive at Sha’ab Rumi. There were only two other boats operating out of Port Sudan doing the same. Soon other dive boats started making the long haul down from Egypt with regular groups of divers and among them was a well-heeled diver called Norman Temple. He decided that the sharks at Sha’ab Rumi were his and invented the Sha’ab Rumi Shark Club. The Israeli captain and crew of the boat they used, Sea Surveyor, was unimpressed when Mr Temple invited them to apply for membership! I have not been able to discover what happened to Norman Temple since that time.
    a case of shells hammered open by Kenny MacDonald in 1992. A case of shells hammered open by Kenny MacDonald in 1992.
    Meanwhile a small group of foreign dive guides were told about a fantastic wreck by Shimshon Macchia, an Israeli skipper who had decided to return back to Israel for good. It was Autumn 1992. I was among those privileged to dive it. I will always remember Kenny MacDonald, the engineer from the Lady Jenny V hammering open one of the many silver boxes only to discover it contained four shells. We laughed at his antics as he attempted to rig as many motorbikes upright on the decks of the trucks that formed the wreck’s cargo. At that time they even still had their tool kits in place under their seats. In January of that year I went with British diver David Wright to document the whole wreck. It was truly stunning but during our tenth dive on it a boat arrived from Hurghada. It was the Lady Somaya owned by German dive centre owner Rudi Kneip. After its divers descended we were deafened by the noise of hammers as those divers ripped off souvenirs. I decided that the wreck was going to be changed dramatically and published an article about it in Diver Magazine that May. Later that year I published an article about the way the wreck's cargo was being trashed. It was entitled Diego You Should Be Ashamed.
    Diego, you should be ashamed! Diego, you should be ashamed!
    Some of my diving friends including German Udo and Mike Archer thought I had made a breach of confidence but I wanted as many divers to see it as possible before it was ruined. By 1993 it had become the most oft dived wreck in the world and the damage was done.
    One of the motorbikes on the wreck of the Thistlegorm  plundered by souvenir hunters within months of the wreck being rediscovered. One of the motorbikes on the wreck of the Thistlegorm plundered by souvenir hunters within months of the wreck being rediscovered.
    Rudi Kneip eventually returned to Germany where he spent his last days. Kenny went on to another career in Vancouver. We don't know what happened to Udo. Mike is in Malta. The wreck has seen literally thousands of divers visit it since and recently I was dismayed to see that proprietorship for one of the Norton bikes has recently been ascribed to a young woman who was probably not even born back in 1992. It is not her bike. Jeremy Strafford-Deitsch, a pioneering shark photographer, discovered a place in the Bahamas Abaco chain where massive bull sharks aggregated. He invited me to join him there and later invited Shark Behavourist Eric Ritter to do the same. Eric soon claimed these sharks for his own; that is until he was severely bitten by one. That island is now closed for diving and Jeremy lives in his castle in Cornwall where he still writes books, but not necessarily about diving. American dive operators, driven out of Florida by a change in the law, have adopted some shark diving sites around Grand Bahamas and Bimini. They frown at the activities of Bahamian dive operators that legitimately have every right to dive there too. And so it goes on. Divers make their own voyage of discovery but they should respect the achievements of those that went before them. They too will move on in life and find that others are later claiming their individual discoveries for themselves. You may want to but you cannot have proprietorship of what is found in the sea. There really is very little that’s new under the sun. John Bantin is author of Amazing Diving Stories.

  • This Dugong Don't Care!

    Rami had come from San Diego, California, and was tracing his Egyptian roots. He now lived close to Marsa Alam. He often dived along this coast. He knew that a dugong frequented a certain bay. Other divers had seen it but he had only encountered huge green turtles and a few guitar sharks on previous visits, diving from a boat. Now there was a recently constructed hotel on the beach and he and his buddy were land based. They were prepared to spend all week if necessary, searching for the elusive dugong, but there was no need. It might have been a remote bay on Egypt’s Red Sea coast but the presence of the new hotel resort meant things were different. They had been told that they only had to sit on the now crowded holiday beach in their dive kit on and wait until they saw twenty or thirty Italian holiday-makers becoming hysterically frenetic, yelling and screaming and splashing above the dugong, to know where it was. Sure enough, before long a shout went up from one man and all the other people in the water began to swim hastily if not too neatly to where it was. The divers leapt into action, grabbing their underwater cameras and wading out in the shallows until it was deep enough to swim. When they had got out there, they could not believe what they saw. The dugong was in only around three metres (10ft) of water and within easy reach of those prepared to hold their breath and swim down. Above it was an uncontrolled mob, splashing and kicking with dozens of flipper-clad feet bicycling frantically.

    This dugong seemed unpeturbed by the madding crowd! The animal seemed totally unperturbed, lumbering along on its foreleg-like flippers, grazing on the grass cow-like with its capacious, bristly snout and occasionally rising quietly in an almost stately manner through the melee to take a breath of air before returning serenely to the bottom to continue feeding.
    It was the scuba divers that were perturbed. Swimming below the holidaymakers, their cameras were kicked by endless numbers of feet. Their breathing regulators were continually wrenched from their mouths by the wayward limbs of swimmers that hurtled down and crashed into them. They got bruises in places they didn’t know they had. They were having a tough time and wondered why they stayed in such shallow water but the dugong didn’t seem to give a damn. It did have numerous old scars on its back but before you think that ladies manicured nails or jewellery carelessly caused these injuries be informed that male dugongs have tusks that they use in a cavalier manner during the mating season. Not only that, this animal appeared to be quite a clumsy swimmer when it came to manoeuvring. It was a bit cow-like. It’s said that when the wind gets up and waves form in the bay, it had sometimes seen crashing carelessly against the nearby coral reef. Clumsy cow!
    Dugong9556 This picture was shortlisted for the Environmental Photographer of the Year Awards 2015 at the Royal Geographic Society in London.
    It wasn’t a pretty animal either. About the size of a cow and reminiscent of a little underwater elephant from the front, the dugong is a large marine mammal has a wide tail with a fluke not unlike that of a whale. It gives rise to the idea that when sailors from Europe first encountered them and glimpsed them from a distance, carrying their offspring in an arm-like posture of the forward flipper, they may have caused them to first originate the legend of the half-human half-fish, the ‘mermaid’. Dugongs stay underwater for only short periods because unlike other marine mammals, they can’t hold their breath for very long. This is probably another reason why they like shallow water. Many people confuse dugongs with the freshwater manatees of Florida. In fact they look quite different, especially considering that incongruous tail. In fact the dugong looks quite absurd. Who in their right mind would have designed an aquatic elephant with the tail of a whale and the eating habits of a cow? Now if you were to leave a cow to graze in a field there would be plenty of evidence of its passing. You’d have to take care where you walked. There was none of that on the sea grass covered seabed thanks to the voracious activities of the huge and obviously well fed remoras that travelled with it, quietly getting on with the job of cleaning up as they went, a work in progress._FFF2366b In fact life seemed to be carrying on as normal for the dugong. If it didn’t like the madding crowd it would have gone somewhere else. The Rami and his buddy were only relieved when its path of lush sea grass led it down to nine metres (30ft) deep, a place where the raucous revellers above were less able to reach and interfere with them. They then could swim around it without distraction by the sudden rushes from above and unfortunate impacts by unskilled swimmers, and got the photographs of the dugong in a more natural state. At one point Rami lay on the grass ahead of the animal to get a low-angle photograph of it and it lumbered on over him as if he wasn’t there. It was only afterwards they realised that the pictures of this unusual animal with the madding crowd told more of a story. This dugong evidently didn’t care. Give it plenty of sea grass, and don’t bother it. This is a chapter from Amazing Diving Stories, available signed by the author at Ocean Leisure.

  • It’s Amazing!

    The aft deck of dive boats regularly ring with anecdotes of past experiences delivered with relish. Divers enjoy an adventurous pastime and we all have had experiences, both good and bad, that are unusual. As a diving journalist of over twenty years with more than two hundred and forty different dive trips under my belt I had more than most, so when a publisher approached me to write a collection of diving stories to sit alongside its Amazing Sailing Stories and Amazing Fishing Stories my ego was boosted and I thought I was obviously the man for the job. It was only when they told me they needed around sixty-five different stories that my confidence began to falter. It seemed rather a lot. So I negotiated an extra few months to the manuscript delivery date and went home to sit down and write it.

    Trapped! (p225)
    It’s funny how one story reminds one of the next and it was only a couple of months before the job was done. Although I witnessed or was directly involved in most of the events I retold, the book is in no way autobiographical. I decided to write myself out of the commentary. It reads better that way. Once I had sent copies of the text to each of the other divers featured, so that they could confirm that I had got each story factually correct, it went off to the publisher.
    Lord Tebbit and the Turtle (p11)
    I was away on holiday at my old stamping ground in Mallorca when the first finished copy of the book was delivered to me and I was able to show it to a few old friends who lived there. They immediately asked if I included the tale of when the girl diver got bitten in the face by the conger eel, followed only by enquiries about the time we fell out of my dive boat at speed and it circled round unmanned, trying to kill us. These were just two of the sixty-five stories.
    Mauled by a Dinosaur! (p157)
    It’s not a ‘how to do it’ book nor is it a book of photographs. It is simply a collection of true events, set all around the world and as varied from each other as can be possible, so that each is atypical but retold as it happened. Five thousand hard-back copies of Amazing Diving Stories were sold within the first year, which is unprecedented for a diving title. It has recently been reprinted as a paperback and it’s in stock at Ocean Leisure (£12.99) if you’d like a copy signed by the author and if you already have a copy, bring it in to be signed.

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