The deepest point on the planet, called Challenger Deep, is located in the Mariana Trench, about 310 miles southwest of Guam. It is 36,070 feet (10,994m) deep and the bottom was first reached by Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard in the bathyscaphe Trieste on January 23, 1960. The story of their descent and the entire Project Nekton are both fascinating. But what’s perhaps even more fascinating (or puzzling) is that no one has returned to Challenger Deep since. For over 50 years, that record stood and, with the passing of Jacques Piccard in 2008, Captain Don Walsh is now the only man on the planet who can claim to have been there. Until perhaps this week.
Things are now brewing in Guam. James Cameron (director of Titanic and Avatar) has recently announced the DeepSea Challenge, a venture backed by a number of organizations, including National Geographic and Rolex. Check out the official website- it’s pretty awesome. So is James Cameron. The man is a tireless and passionate explorer, having made over 76 deep-water submersible dives, including 33 to Titanic. For the past eight years, he has been working with his team of experts (including Captain Walsh) to build the DeepSea Challenger submersible. It looks like a huge green torpedo, vertically suspended in the water. The main website for the endeavor has tons of great content, including a remarkable letter from James Cameron to Captain Walsh after he completed an 8000m test dive.
The team is now making its way to the Mariana Trench, and Captain Walsh is on board. Fingers crossed all goes well!
For those of you who SCUBA dive, here’s an unique opportunity and something to consider doing when you come to Iceland: dive between two continental plates. Once I found out about this, I simply had to do it. To make it happen, I contacted Tobias Klose and his team at Dive.Is, The “Sport Diving School of Iceland.” Hossi, the general manager, made things very easy to coordinate.
This afternoon, Tobias himself picked me up at my hotel and we made the drive out to Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir is a site worth visiting in its own right—the location where the world’s first parliament was held. It’s a magical place to walk around—something I did a few years ago for an episode of Digging for the Truth. But on this trip, we headed to Silfra, a site at the northern end of Lake Thingvellir.
The dive started just after 7pm, which would be late for most dive trips. In Iceland, though, one can do this as it really doesn’t get dark this time of year. So we got in the water at 7:20pm and, for those curious, it was COLD. This is definitely drysuit not wetsuit diving. According to my dive computer, the water was 36.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees Celsius). Thankfully, the Waterproof suit I was wearing was up to the challenge, as it’s a proper arctic drysuit.
We descended into the water using a ladder that I’m guessing Dive.is and other dive companies installed to ease access for clients. Once in, we swam just a few feet to a spot where, if you wanted to, you could dive down about 15 feet and stretch your arms out so that you could literally touch two continental plates at the same time. It’s the only place on the planet, I think, where you can do this! Thanks to the ever shifting nature of plates, the gap separates about an inch more each year. In 15-20 years, it may be harder to span the distance with your arms, but for now it made for a fun experience:
Once that was done, the rest of the dive was just a swim along the channel, south to Lake Thingvellir. Before we got to the lake (max depth approx 375 feet), we turned east and swam into a shallower section of mostly broken rocks and algae.
My average depth for the dive was 20.8 ft, max depth of 47.5 ft. What was truly astounding, though, was the visibility. The water in Lake Thingvellir comes from glacial water that is filtered through volcanic soil for over 50 years before it comes up into the lake through springs. This makes it essentially the cleanest, purest water on earth. The cold temperature and purity combine to create the greatest visibility I’ve ever dove in — they say you can see 300 feet in the lake, and I believe them. In the past, my best viz dives have been in the caves and caverns of the Yucatán Peninsula, but this completely blew that away. And what was even more interesting was that if you wanted to, you could drink the water while diving by letting it slip past your (slightly frozen) lips on your regulator. Again, I can’t stress just how much fun this dive was. Next time I’m in Iceland, I’m planning to go back to Silfra again just for the thrill of it.
Seven years ago, I made my first journey into the cenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It was for an episode of season one of Digging for the Truth called “Passage to the Maya Underworld.” At the beginning of that episode, I was asked by the show’s producers if I’d be comfortable SCUBA diving in a cenote, those gorgeous sinkholes of azure blue water that are promoted throughout so much of Eastern Mexico. “Of course!” I said, and after a few days of training (some on camera, some off), I was Cavern certified. A few days after that, there was discussion whether or not it was okay for me to go past the cenote’s sunlit walls and into the caves beyond—where darkness, rock, and water make for a deadly combination. There was honest debate about the needs of TV vs. the risks of diving in potentially hazardous conditions without adequate training (some of this also on camera) and, in the end, as some may recall, I didn’t go into the cave. Too dangerous. But the seed was planted, for sure, as I learned more and more about the Maya and how sacred their caves were and how the Underworld known as Xibalba was accessed through those cenotes.
Two years ago, I returned to Mexico – without a film crew – to get my cave diving certification. First, there was the Intro Cave course, then Full Cave. For those unfamiliar with the training involved for cave diving, it’s much more strict than what you get in a recreational Open Water SCUBA class. The analogy isn’t 100% accurate, but I like to say the difference in training between OW diving and Cave Diving is like the difference in training between a standard airplane pilot’s license and a jet fighter pilot’s license. Of course I’m no jet pilot, so I may be completely wrong about that, but cave diving requires a much higher level of training, competency and cool-headedness than Open Water diving. You can’t freak out on a cave dive. If you do, you’ll probably die – and many have. So there’s a certain type of person who willingly and enthusiastically goes into a dark, ever-changing, airless and potentially lethal environment, and that person is called a Cave Diver. I have to say, I’m proud to be one (although a newbie).
In February, 2010, I got an email from Walter Pickel (pronounced like pickle). Walter wrote that he was an avid cave diver who dove with a bunch of guys who lived to search for, explore and then document unknown cave systems worldwide. They were called the ADM Exploration Team (ADM stands for Advanced Diver Magazine, published by one of the team members, Curt Bowen) and they were curious if I’d like to join them in the field. For the next 7 months, Walter and I discussed a number of potential dives we could do together, but it wasn’t until we met at DEMA in November that the idea for a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula came together.
In order to do the kind of cave diving that the ADM Exploration Team members do, I needed more than just a Full Cave cert. I needed to be comfortable with side-mount diving – where you attach the SCUBA tanks at your sides, under your armpits. So I went down to Florida in December 2010 for a few days to dive with Walter and Curt in Ginnie Springs and learn how to side-mount cave dive (see my Dec 18 blog entry below for details). Then came Mexico.
The ADM Exploration Team to Mexico was comprised of eight people: Curt Bowen, Walter Pickel, Jeff Toorish, Jon Bojar, Jitka Hyniova, Brendan Nappier, Robert Atwater and me. For 10 days, the team lived in a small ranch house outside Colonia, Mexico in Yucatán. Each day, they hiked into the jungle to jump in random holes in the ground, or they drove to remote villages and asked if they could rig a rope to go down into the town well. I tagged along with them, diving when able and filming the activities for the TODAY show. I’ll leave the (exciting) results of the expedition for both the TODAY show segment and the feature article that will be published in Advanced Diver Magazine. But I will say I had a fantastic time, saw some truly spectacular Maya artifacts, and made some new friends. Oh, and I finally got to dive the caves of Mexico.
My sincerest thanks to the ADM Exploration Team members for allowing me to join them on their expedition. Also, thanks to Waterproof for their fantastic wetsuits and to Petzl for their great climbing/descending gear.
Have you seen the trailer for this film? It’s been on TV a bunch in the US recently:
I have to say, I’m excited to see a big-budget film about cave diving. Granted, I have no doubt it will be filled with many over-the-top scenarios and unlikely rescues, but I suppose that’s what Hollywood demands these days. I just hope the cave diving / exploration aspect of the film is portrayed with some credibility. Given that James Cameron’s involved (as Exec Producer, not Director), I’m hopeful he’ll keep things reasonably believable, as I know he’s passionate about exploration and diving. Movie premieres on Feb 4th.
I’m writing from High Springs, Florida, where I’ve spent the last 3 days learning a new diving skill - how to swim with my tanks “side-mounted.” Most of the time, divers mount their tanks on their backs (called backmounting). But in caves or wrecks, sometimes the passage is too small or narrow to fit a diver and their tank behind them. In these cases, one needs a slimmer profile, and side-mount diving offers that. Because the tanks are mounted along your sides (below you arms and lower than stage diving), your profile is much smaller. This means you can go almost anywhere a person can fit. And, if a restriction is too narrow for the width of you and those tanks, you can easily take one or both tanks off and push it/them in front of you, Superman style.
(I’m the one with the blue on my wetsuit.)
My thanks to Curt, Walter, and the people at Golem Gear (makers of the Armadillo sidemount). In addition to being a bunch of cool guys to hang out with, they’ve taught me so much about Florida’s caves and the technique, tips & tricks for side-mount diving. The diving here is much rougher than the caves of the Yucatan, where I was cave certified a few years ago. In Mexico, the caves often have super-delicate stalactites and stalagmites in them, so touching anything is strictly forbidden. Here, the caves don’t have those formations and in many caves, you’re supposed to pull and glide your way across with your hands – sometimes, when the restrictions are tight, you’re scraping top and bottom. It’s been fantastic fun, although my fingertips are rubbed bloody/raw from the friction.
Next month, I’m going to the Yucatan with Curt, Walter and some other explorers to document an expedition. Now that I can side-mount dive, I’m able to go where they go and hopefully see some Maya artifacts. Stay tuned.
I just read that Wes Skiles, a pillar of the cave diving and underwater filming community in Florida, has died. I don’t know much more than that at this point—only that he was diving for National Geographic off of West Palm Beach. So sudden. So unexpected. I was just reading National Geographic’s cover story on Bahamas’ Blue Holes—photography by Wes C. Skiles. While many of the divers I know have been acquainted with Wes for years, I just met him a few months ago at the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride. He came to one of the breakfast panels that I was on and, afterward, we talked a bit about possibly working/diving together and he gave me his card. It’s sitting right here on the table next to my computer…
Technical diving is, as many know, a high-risk endeavor. I don’t think anyone in the diving community refuses to acknowledge that. Whether it’s in a cave or on a deepwater wreck, there’s little to no room for error. Last year, veteran diver Carl Spencer died while on a National Geographic expedition to the Brittanic. In Carl’s case, he made the mistake of breathing the wrong air mixture while at depth. I haven’t heard what led to Wes’ death—perhaps it wasn’t dive related at all. Perhaps he just had a heart attack. But the risks inherent to underwater exploration are well documented, so every diver knows what could happen when he or she enters the water. It’s just surprising (and sobering) when something like this happens to someone as experienced as Carl or Wes. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to dive together, Wes. Rest in Peace.
[Post Script—This article just turned up online and offers a little more info…. http://bit.ly/ahmAna]
Just returning from 10 days of technical diving in the Florida Keys. Dive trainer Richie Kohler, and co-instructors Gary Mace (of Conch Republic dive shop) and Cliff Diamond (of Empire Divers in NYC), were running a course for the past 10-days, and I tagged along for the fun.
As I’ve mentioned on Twitter and here, I need a certain number of hours on my CCR (closed circuit rebreather) in order to take the next level of training, so I had 8 days of diving with no real agenda except to enjoy the dives on the reefs and wrecks of the Upper Keys. Places like Conch Wall, Davey Crocker, and Molasses sprang to life with everything from large Spotted Eagle rays, Nurse sharks, Sea turtles and Goliath Groupers to small Sergeant Majors and nudibranchs like the Red-Tipped Sea Goddess. And then there were the artificial reefs—the wrecks!—that make diving the Keys so fun. I dove the Bibb, the Duane, the Spiegel Grove, the Eagle—enjoying the swim-throughs on some and doing proper wreck penetration on others (Note: you must be trained for this). And then yesterday, on my final dive, Richie and I went on a fantastic dive into the very bowels of the Bibb, heading as far aft as one could, to the deepest part of the ship. We suspect no one has been in that room since the ship was sank on November 28, 1987.
All in all, it was a truly memorable trip, and I’m hopeful I can do even more fun diving later in the year—including drysuit dives so I can start exploring Arctic waters. And, yes, I need to get an underwater camera so I can share more of the experience. Will do so before my next trip. Stay tuned…
On January 23, 1960, US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard descended to the bottom of Challenger Deep—the deepest spot of the Mariana Trench—in the Trieste bathyscaphe. The descent took almost 5 hours, at which point the Trieste touched down in a cloud of silt, roughly 35,800 feet below the surface. After 20 minutes on the bottom, Walsh and Piccard ascended back to the surface (which took 3 hours and 15 minutes). Their accomplishment has not been repeated by another manned vessel since, and their success has influenced a half-century of oceanography and deep-sea exploration.
Last week, 50 years after the Trieste and its crew completed their historic mission, Capt. Don Walsh and the children of Jacques Piccard (who died in November, 2008) came to Washington, DC to take part in a number of ceremonies and celebrations. The first was a dinner hosted by The Explorers Club’s Washington chapter on Tuesday evening at the Cosmos Club. On Wednesday afternoon, a reception was held on Capitol Hill to acknowledge H.R. 1027, a resolution passed on Jan 23, 2010 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the descent. On Wednesday night, in a private ceremony at National Geographic’s Hubbard Hall, Capt. Walsh received the Hubbard Medal, the highest honor from the National Geographic Society for “distinction in exploration, discovery, and research” and the U.S. Department of the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award.
On Thursday morning, the U.S. Navy welcomed a small group of guests with the Walsh and Piccard families to the Washington Navy Yard, where Capt. Walsh spoke (among others) in front of the Trieste.
After a brief lunch, Capt. Don Walsh, oceanographer and conservationist Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. Tim Shank of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, engineer Graham Hawkes of Hawkes Remotes, and officials from NOAA and the NSF hosted a press conference at the National Press Club to discuss the past, present and future of ocean exploration. And finally, on Thursday evening, 500 people gathered in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to again celebrate and honor the achievements of Walsh and Piccard. In front of the supportive crowd, Capt. Walsh was given the Administrator’s Award, NOAA’s highest honor.
I attended most of the above events and had the good fortune of spending a surprising amount of it with Capt. Walsh and his family. Through it all, I was deeply impressed by Capt. Walsh’s tremendous accomplishments over the past 50 years (see this list) and deeply touched by his humility while receiving so many awards and so much recognition. He took time to answer everyone’s questions. He stayed late at every event. He took pictures with anyone who asked (including me). For all of these reasons and many, many more, Capt. Don Walsh, USN (ret) is my Hero of the Month.
I just got a tweet about ice diving with narwhals (to get a sense, visit this link). Now, I love scuba diving, as you know. And I’ve had a fascination with narwhals ever since I saw their tusks (teeth, really) when I was in Greenland, where I learned that it was the Vikings who made them famous by selling those long front teeth as unicorn horns (clever Vikings). But I never really wanted to scuba dive with them… until now. So it’s got me wondering… could I work that into my schedule this year? Is it too late to get the training necessary? For me, I’d need both drysuit and ice diving training, both of which could be done in a day or so. And I’d need to find a way to get up to Newfoundland in April, when apparently it’s the best (and only) time of year to attempt such a feat. Is it too late? Hmm. I’m going to explore further.
And while I’m on the subject of cold pursuits, I’ve also had an odd desire to learn how to ice climb. I remember back in 1996 or 1997, I attended the Ouray Ice Festival in Ouray, Colorado. At the time, I wasn’t that much into learning how to do it, but now I am. Strange, huh? Perhaps a clinic or workshop is in order… I’ve heard good things about the American Alpine Institute’s programs. Time will tell whether I manage to squeeze these in or not, but I thought it fun to share. You have an opinion on either?
Last week, British diver Will Goodman, 32, spent 48 hours, 9 minutes and 17 seconds on the seabed off the coast of the Indonesian island of Gili Trawangan. Seems this was his third time setting this record and he was prepared for the endeavor, having both the Guinness judge and a film crew there to witness/document it. Here’s the video!
Looking carefully at the video, I saw a waterproof MP3 player, no doubt to help him from getting bored. I also noticed that he switched between a Silent Diving CCR (closed-circuit) unit and a standard Open Circuit—probably to reduce air use & tank changes (for CCR) and to facilitate eating (OC) while down there. Not sure what he did about, um, going #2. (Perhaps he fasted for a few days first.)
My favorite part, though, was when his friends were massaging him. It made me think of Enzo, the character played so well by Jean Reno in The Big Blue. Ah, the crazy things people will do. And isn’t it great that now we can appreciate and celebrate them all over the world within just a few days! Kind of makes me wonder what records I could set and post…
As some may know, I love SCUBA diving (open- and closed-circuit) and have been fortunate enough to have done it in a number of beautiful places around the world. Today, however, was something different, as I was diving in the Galápagos, one of the world’s most treasured eco-systems. The dive was offered by a local dive company that, to be honest, I would never recommend to anyone and will therefore refrain from naming here. Just let me warn those of you who may want to dive the Galápagos that you had better know what you’re doing because you’re not going to get any instruction—or any real risk management—from some of the dive shops there. Yikes.
Rather than schlep my equipment on the multiple planes, boats, and buses along my journey, I decided to rent. This part of the operation was actually pretty good, as they had items in my size and the equipment was decent. My brothers ended up with the same ScubaPro wetsuit that I own and normally dive in (while I, of course, was given a ratty, torn thing of questionable benefit). Once in the water and ready to dive, we descended to 20 or so feet and I immediately noticed a sound both familiar and unusual—the high-pitched squeal of dolphins. Shocked, I looked at my brother and signaled my excitement, making the sign for ears and dolphin. He responded that he could also hear them, so we kept our eyes peeled, fighting the limited (25 feet) murky visibility.
At 65 feet, we reached the edge of a wall and knew that our dive plan was to swim along this edge, making our way toward some breakers near the shore (approx 1/8 mile away). As our group of 5 began swimming, the sound grew louder and louder until finally a pod of perhaps 40 dolphins swam past! Dolphins!! The sounds they were making were so beautiful, I couldn’t help but smile and pray for some sort of instant telepathic / emotional connection with them. “Swim over here! Swim over here! I’m a friend!” Dozens and dozens of them swam across our field of vision—perhaps 60 or 80 in all. It was a truly uplifting and inspiring moment, watching one of the planet’s most playful and intelligent mammals moving in the wild. (Dolphins!!)
As the dolphins and their sounds faded into the murky blueness and my spirits returned to some level of normalcy, we approached the shoreline and hovered around 40 feet. It was here where we watched a sea lion playing in the surf, followed by about 6 whitetip sharks making circles under a large coral overhang. I had seen a whitetip a few days earlier while snorkeling, but being down in the water and watching them circle around, one can’t help but think “Damn, that’s a lot of sharks… will they attack me?” Not common with whitetips, but not impossible, either. Thankfully, nothing happened.
From there, we descended back to 65 or so feet, following the dive plan away from shore for a bit. It was at this point that I saw something coming at me from the edge of visibility. It was about 30 feet away, moving parallel to my group, and it had the most unmistakable profile… a hammerhead!! Ecstatic, I desperately tried to signal our dive leader, who was directly below me, but he couldn’t feel or hear my taps on his tank. Finally, I grabbed his arm with a vice-like grip, signaled “hammerhead” (put your fists on either side of your head) and pointed. By the time he looked, though, only the tail was visible, swimming away into the murkiness. Aaaarrrggghh! Okay, so my advice to other divers based on this is… if you see a hammerhead shark, don’t waste time signaling to others if it means you might not get to stare at it and appreciate it in all its fast-moving glory. That thing was moving! Later, on the boat, the guide said he never saw any of it, nor did the others in my group who were behind us a bit. Me, oh I know I saw what I saw. I just wish I had kept my eyes on it longer. (Insert expletive here.)
Moving on from the shark, we meandered along some more coral reefs, watching a variety of fish which, while nice, weren’t sharks or dolphins. I was spoiled and jaded at this point. Some of the schools of fish moved in the most beautiful ways, and the light was spectacular, but I was replaying the image of the hammerhead in my head, trying to make those few seconds feel a bit more satisfying.
The rest of the dive, including our safety stop, was uneventful, but after all the fun we’d had, I was VERY pleased with my dive in the Galápagos. I’m definitely going back, and next time, I’m bringing a camera.