A BRIEF HISTORY OF DEEP TECHNICAL DIVING IN THE LAST 20 YEARS

Article by Nuno Gomez in www.mydivealbum.com

The year was 1988. No one was diving with mixed gas, not even using nitrox; in fact, any deep technical diving was frowned upon. The last mixed gas diving using trimix had been done in 1969 by Roly Nyman, Ian Robertson, John Van der Walt and Danny van der Walt, at the Sinoia caves, in Zimbabwe. That dive was a world record at the time; the divers had reached a depth of 102 meters. I had just completed my BSc degree and I was eager to go deeper than I could on air.

There was a deep cave near Danielskuil, in the Northern Cape, it was called Boesmansgat; it had lots of unexplored depth. A team of divers from the University of the Witwatersrand, consisting of myself, Diaan Hanekom, Ian Riphagen, Malcolm Keeping and Liz Gomes decided to revisit Boesmansgat with trimix. On the 4th of April 1988, Diaan Hanekom and I reached a depth of 123 meters, SABC captured the dive and it was shown on TV. At the time, this was the 3rd deepest dive in the world. The world record at the time being a dive to 205 meters in 1983, by Jochen Hasenmayer of Germany, in the Vaucluse caves in France.
On the 5th of April 1988, one day after my dive at Boesmansgat, Sheck Exley from the USA plunged to 237 meters in the Mexican cave system of Nascimento Del Rio Mante; this was the new depth world record, he had beaten Hasenmayer’s record.
The next year, on the 9th of January 1989 Boetie Scheun and Eben Benade increased the Africa record to 132 meters, at the Guinas sinkhole, in Namibia.
Not happy with his dive to 237 meters, Sheck Exley revisited Nascimento del Rio Mante on 28th of March 1989 reached a new world record depth of 267 meters, beating his own world record. The dive was uneventful, involving a total decompression time of 14 hours.
The world of deep technical and deep cave diving was to be quiet until August 1993; this was when Sheck Exley made his historical visit to South Africa and Boesmansgat, at the invitation of Charles Maxwell. For me, this was a great opportunity to learn from the best, earlier in the year I had made a dive to 153 meters and I was keen to improve on that depth.
The aim of the expedition to Boesmansgat, in 1993, was to explore and map the cave and produce a computerized side scan sonar picture of the cave. In this trip, Boetie Scheun lost his buddy, Eben Leyden. We were committed to the expedition and it went ahead. Sheck Exley did a dive to the bottom at 263 meters, thus becoming the first diver to reach the bottom. I managed to get to 177 meters, and thus I became only the second diver in the world to dive to a depth of over 150 meters more than once.
In April 1994 tragedy struck, Sheck Exley died at 271 meters, in the Zacaton cave in Mexico. It is thought that High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS) was the main contributing factor of his death. Sheck and Jim Bowden were attempting to break the 300 meter barrier; Jim survived his dive to 281 meters and became the new world record holder. Independent witnesses had verified the dive and his name was placed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
That same year I did two deep dives at Boesmansgat, one to 230 meters and later in the year another one to 253 meters, in the last dive I encountered decompression problems and was treated in the Institute for Medical Aviation by Dr. Frans Cronje, successfully.
Late in 1995, young Deon Dryer disappeared at Boesmansgat, a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) was hired by the parents to try and locate the body, to no avail. I was contacted by Mr. Theo van Eeden, an inspector in the police, and requested to try and recover the body. A few months later on 23rd August 1996, I was on my way to the deepest part of the bottom; I reached a depth of 282.6 meters (The altitude corrected depth for the dive was 339 meters due to Boesmansgat being located a an altitude of 1550 meters above sea level), a new Guinness World Record. There had been no sign of Deon Dryer’s body in the vast bottom of the cave .The dive had been covered by Peter and Stefania Lamberti and it was shown on the Discovery channel. The dive had involved a 12 hour decompression schedule in 19 degree water; nevertheless it had gone off without any major problems.




1996 – World Record Cave Dive

Now it was the turn of the women and 1996 Dr Ann Kristovich, a friend of Jim Bowden, reached a depth of 167 meters in the Zacaton cave of Mexico, the dive went off without any major problems. It was few years before another woman, Claudia Serpierri of Italy would beat that record, and this time in the Mediterranean Sea she reached a depth of 211 meters.
In 1997, deep cave diving returned to Fontaine de Vaucluse, in France; Pascal Bernabe dived to an estimated depth of 240 meters (the estimate was based on the amount of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome that he had felt because he had no proof for the depth of his dive). The dive was overshadowed by the death of his deep support diver when he ran out of gas at depth.
Mark Andrews of the UK carried out the deepest air dive in July 1999. At the maximum depth of 156.4 meters Mark lost consciousness, his deep support diver John Bennett (on mixed gas), inflated his BC to initiate his ascent. While ascending Mark regained consciousness.
In April 2001, Coelacanths were seen and filmed at Sodwana Bay, in their natural habitat. The find by Pieter Venter, at close to 120 meters was one of the biggest scientific finds in South Africa. It accentuated that technical diving could assist science and that it could be done safely.
Later that year, on the 6th of November 2001, John Bennett from the United Kingdom did the first dive below 300 meters. He reached a depth of 308 meters; he had done the impossible. His dive, in the Philippines, had placed his name in the Guinness Book of World Records and National Geographic had covered it. John’s total dive time had been 9.5 hours, this proved to be short of the required and he had decompression problems during and after the dive. With time he recovered but tragically he died the following year from a diving accident.
In South Africa, towards the end of 2001, Verna van Schaik was ready to take on the women; first she did the deepest cave dive for a woman by reaching a depth of 186 meters at Boesmansgat. This was not enough on the 25th of October 2004 Verna went back to Boesmansgat to become the first South African woman to get her name in the Guinness Book of World Records by reaching an incredible depth of 221 meters.
In 2002 we had Gilberto de Oliveira making a very deep dive to the bottom of the “Lagoa Azul “, a sinkhole in Brazil, and reaching a depth of 274 meters. This was his second attempt; in 1998 he had reached a depth of 220 meters in the same crystal clear karst structure.
From October 2002 to September 2003 the team (Nuno Gomes, Leszek Czarnecki, Pieter Venter, Lenne Foster-Jones, Gareth Lowndes, Hermie Britz, Craig Kahn, Theo van Eeden, Sean French, Witold Smilowski, Joseph Emmanuel, Chris Serfontein and Buks Potgieter) dived Boesmansgat deeper and deeper with each trip. Eventually, Leszek and myself reached a depth of 194 meters; this became the deepest cave dive done by a Polish diver. These deep diving trips prepared us for the World Record attempt, in the Red Sea, the following year.
Late in 2003, Mark Ellyat made an attempt at the deepest dive in the sea, off the coast of the Philippines. When he surfaced he claimed to have dived to a depth of 313 meters, however he could not produce either a signed depth tag, recovered from the line at that depth, or any depth gauge or dive computer reading showing the depth that he had claimed, apart from that there were no independent witnesses. In view of that, the Guinness World Record remained with John Bennett.
It was in 2004 that I tried ultra deep diving in the sea; the team went to the Red Sea to try and beat John Bennett’s record, the dive nearly killed me when my regulator stopped working at 271 meters (my depth gauge read 918 feet (280m) but because it was calibrated for fresh water I had to subtract 3 % to obtain the correct depth). I did not make the World Record but I managed to get a new Red Sea record. National Geographic covered the dive; in my attempt I had managed to improve on Leigh Cunningham’s Red Sea Record by 31 meters. I would be back the following year for a second try at the World Record.
Late in October 2004 Dave Shaw from Australia, joined forces with Don Shirley from the UK. Don had settled in South Africa near Komati Springs but now they wanted to do some deep diving in Boesmansgat to find out just how deep these “machines” could go.
Dave Shaw got down to 270 meters and by chance or misfortune found the body of young Deon Dryer at the bottom, his body had been on the rubble slope for the last 10 years. He marked the spot with his reel and decided to come back the following year to recover it. The dive was the deepest dive with a rebreather; as such it was a new World Record for Dave and his “machine”.
Early in 2005 Dave and Don were back with a huge team of support divers, including Verna van Schaik, the deepest woman in the world. The idea was for Dave to go to the bottom and recover the remains of Deon Dryer’s body, supported by Don at 220 meters. The other support divers would remain shallower. The dive went terribly wrong when Dave, at 21 minutes total dive time, stopped moving and breathing on the bottom. His death was attributed to suffocation (respiratory failure due to increased gas density at great depth and thus increased resistance of gas flow, both in the respiratory airways as well as the breathing circuit of his equipment). Don tried to help his friend by going deeper, in the process he nearly died, first when the electronics of his “machine” imploded and later when he suffered from massive decompression sickness. Don has resumed diving but has become a more conservative diver, in terms of depth.



World Record Team 2005

In June 2005 the team and I returned to the Red Sea to give the World Record one last attempt. This time all went well and I managed to get to 318.25 meters (321.81 meters if the rope stretch of 3.56 meters is included). It was the hardest dive of my life, I barely survived, and it took me 14 minutes to reach my maximum depth with the total dive taking 12 hours and 20 minutes. The dive was carried out following the procedures prescribed by the Guinness World Records and in July 2006 the record was officially awarded (more than one year after the dive). Guinness World Records does not recognize rope stretch, thus the official depth was 318.25 meters. The dive was filmed by Elena Konstantinou and her film crew and is documented in the film “Beyond Blue: Mankind’s Deepest Dive”.
2005 – World’s deepest sea dive-321.81m-1056ft
In July 2005 Pascal Bernabe decided to give the World Record a try, in the Mediterranean Sea, off Corsica. When he surfaced he claimed to have reached 320 meters, however he could not produce a signed tag, picked up from the line at his maximum depth. His VR3 dive computer registered a maximum depth of only 266 meters. Later his sponsor claimed that he had reached a depth of 330 meters because of the rope stretch of 10 meters (that is a lot of stretch). There was no proof for the dive, neither was there any film or verification by independent witnesses. Guinness World Records never recognized the dive and the record remains with Nuno Gomes.
A dive by Ben Reymenants from Belgium to 240 meters in the Sra Keou cave, in November 2006, proved to the world that Thailand had deep and interesting caves. Until then Thailand was known only for great sea diving.
A final major technical diving event took place in May 2008, it was the deepest freshwater wreck dive using rebreathers, it took place in Lago Maggiore, northern Italy. Three divers, Pim van der Horst, Mario Marconi and Alessandro Scuotto dived the wreck of the Milano located at a depth of 236 meters. Proof for the dive was provided by an ROV located on the wreck, which filmed the three divers on the wreck. Elena Konstantinou and her film crew documented the dive in the film “The Milano Wreck”.
In closing I would like to point out that deep technical diving, either in caves or the sea, is extremely dangerous, three of the divers in this article are no longer with us; most of the others if not all had some very close escapes, including myself.
By Nuno Gomez
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