RED SEA TECHNICAL DIVING A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
I first dived the Red Sea just after Moses and the Israelites had crossed it. No, that’s an exaggeration but now it does seem like a very long time ago.
Scuba-diving was in its infancy and most of the experienced dive-guides had learnt their business from being backpackers who had a go at diving. They did a lot of diving and had a tremendous amount of experience together with masses of in-water confidence, yet their theoretical knowledge of diving could be a little sparse.
The calm clear deep water invited the intrepid to go deep. There soon grew up among dive-guides a deep-diving culture that was to claim many lives. The Blue Hole at Dahab regularly claimed divers and, in those days, military ‘helium-divers’ from the Israeli were called in to recover the bodies.
I remember the sad case of a father of one such young diving instructor toting her recovered tank around Europe trying to find someone to prove that her air must have been poisoned. It was not of course, but it was simply compressed air. He could not understand that the perfectly good air she was breathing could have poisoned her because of the depth she was breathing it at. The problem was that these divers had no proper theoretical knowledge of diving. They thought that deep diving was all about gas management and the ability to overcome nitrogen narcosis. Oxygen toxicity was simply not on the menu.
You can ask some of the survivors yourself. There are still a few around. When I did this, the well-known and now elderly owner of a well-known Egyptian live-aboard told me that it was all about the thrill of knowing that it was only the mechanical operation of the regulator that kept one from certain death. Wrong!
Now when I talk about deep diving, I don’t mean to 55m. I have regularly taken teams of divers to that sort of depth to undertake complex tasks such as Diver Magazine regulator comparison tests, and none have ever encountered any problem. I have even conducted sophisticated tests for the effects of nitrogen narcosis at that sort of depth but found no symptoms among my test teams. No, I am talking about diving beyond 70m on air.
Gradually more information became available about why perfectly healthy and extremely competent dive-guides were disappearing during dives. Oxygen toxicity was discovered. But then it was always there waiting to grab the ignorant but foolhardy. However, this did not deter some of them. One distinguished member of your community told me once how he dived with a full-face mask so that if he had a seizure or became unconscious while doing these deep air dives, he would be able to continue breathing, come round and continue with his dive. Can you believe he is a doctor! When I met him years later I expressed relief that he was still alive and he said, “I don’t do that deep air-diving shit no more!” I’ll spare his blushes by keeping his name to myself.
I first met Karim Helal in Sharm in 1993. It was early days for Divers Lodge. His extremely handsome stepson at the time, Jean-Michel Dib worked with him. I was there at that time with Peter Readey and Rob Palmer (freshly broken away from AINTD to form TDI with Brett Gilliam) and we were using garage-built prototypes of Peter’s Prism rebreather. They used a lot of Duck tape in their construction.
Rebreathers were still witchcraft then. Wishing to get a full understanding of what happens if one goes hypoxic, I sat up in bed at the Karamana hotel wearing my Prism and breathing scrubbed gas without the O2 connected. I don’t remember what happened next but I awoke next morning with the worst head-ache I can ever remember. Thank goodness I dropped the mouthpiece when I passed out. The Prism has taught me he effects of CO2 poisoning too when I once inadvertently inserted the scrubber cartridge upside-down and effectively by-passed it from the loop. That was in the Sea of Cortez not Egypt but it taught me not to rely on switching to OC bail-out in an emergency.
Today, a culture among many CCR trainers is to teach people to take complete open-circuit bail-out with them. The twin dangers of CCR diving are lack of O2 and CO2 hits, neither of which leaves you in any state to decide to switch over to an alternate OC arrangement, so I prefer to make totally sure my unit is fit to fly before I dive. It’s a controversial subject.
Back during that particular visit, Ed Betts was running an ANDI course and as a non-combatant, I could not avoid noting a tremendous amount of inter-agency rivalry between the leaders of these newly founded technical diving agencies. It was as if someone had discovered some new magic and they believed that only they knew the true path to enlightenment. Of course it was bollocks! Physics is physics. Anther time I joined Rob with a group of his acolytes on a technical-diving live-aboard trip on mv.Rearis to find the sister ship of the Thistlegorm. We could not believe it was the ‘Rosalie Muller’ that we were looking for because it was too shallow – so we didn’t dive it. I am amused to read the claims of others that they discovered this wreck since then, but then it is also amazing to hear that so many people ‘discovered’ the Thistlegorm yet it was documented in Cousteau’s ‘Living Sea’ sixty years ago. Israeli skipper Shimshon was taking fishing charters there before the Camp David Agreement was signed. But that’s another story.
Mv. Rearis was equipped with helium supplies and Rob cut tri-mix tables while we were aboard so that the group would be able to dive this deep wreck when we found it. We did not. Instead they did technical dives on Shag Rock and Ras Um Sid.
At this time, my wife, who was on board and diving with a single cylinder for these dives, coined the derogatory term ‘Twin Tanker’. She is not a Cockney but understands rhyming-slang. The group were desperate to do trimix dives, were equipped to do it, but sadly Rob, leading the expedition had failed to find a suitable site to do it at! Rob loved to be taken seriously and we loved to poke fun at him because of it. It made for a delicious combination. All week the passengers continued with a conspiracy to call him ‘Rod’ and it was only the last day when he finally cracked and shouted, “My name is Rob!” We certainly miss him.
Another diver sorely missed today was Roberto Bagnasco. An Italian Swiss, who spent a little over a year with karim in Hurghada (later sadly died of a brain tumour), he was a keep-fit fanatic and looked like it. He had remorseless cruel streak in him, which proved very amusing. We all remember him ending a fierce argument with the lady that ran his gym with the words, “…and get a shave.” What a great character!
He was always berating me for not being fit enough but after one dive around Giftun when I was a testing some massive Zeagle Raptor fins for an article in Diver Magazine, he suffered a huge sense-of-humour failure. It seems he could not keep up with me. Bless!
I have very fond memories of diving with Rob and Roberto grinning inanely on the wreck of the Colona IV. They are as fond as the memories I have of diving from her when she was afloat. She now lies at around 60m. We used air as a bottom gas, decompressing on nitrox32 and nitrox50 during the ascent. We had no computers that could track our deco so we had to either choose to follow an air-diving profile or listen to them bleeping pathetically after the dive. Thankfully, no-one questioned why they displayed SOS afterwards!
Because I was handling a very large camera, I could not be asked to carry a twin-set and two sling-tanks so I decided to put one tank of air and one of nitrox32 on my back and make do but enjoy the luxury of the nitrox50 assuming I was with Rob during the ascent. We had fitted two regulators to his nitrox50 cylinder. It worked very well and I often use independent twins, one with air and one with nitrox for routine dives in the Red Sea although I regularly get castigated for it by the diving pedants who can only follow rules written by someone else.
Similarly, I later got used to carrying my travel and deco gases on my back and my bottom gas in sling-tanks. Wow! I can hear the gasps of horror as you read this, but I reasoned that I would always want to travel and decompress and there was not a lot of problem in clearly identifying regulators. When people ask what if someone wants to grab a gas supply I answer, “Stay away from me at all times during any dive!”
Karim Helal was an early fan of making diving safer through technical knowledge rather than simply big balls. I did a couple of Rob’s beta-tested TDI courses alongside him in Hurghada. We had a lot of fun and learned a lot. Karim was one of the first of a new breed of intelligent divers I met in the Red Sea.
It was a terrible day when Rob died. Jayne, known then as Sergeant Twiggs & now Karim’s other half, was but a kid at the time, and went up in my estimation enormously when she turned back from 70m while the macho boys followed Rob on past 100m, before turning back. Rob always said that attitude keeps you alive, but knowledge and the strength of character not to be led astray were proved to be deciding factors that sad day. It confirms my belief that women are generally more clever than men, something that I am sure would still be strenuously denied in Egypt!
Rob will be sadly missed and it was a great shame that he decided to embark on that fateful series of dives to 120m using air. I discussed this during the process but was never able to either persuade him out of it not to understand what he was trying to prove. Rob has left me with many fond memories including my nitrox certification.
He had introduced me to nitrox some time previously so I was surprised when, during a plane journey he turned to me and said I should get nitrox-certified. When I asked why, he responded by saying he had just written the TDI course! I said that if he allowed me to take the exam and I got less than one hundred percent I would pay for a course. He passed me the exam-paper, I went through it pointing out the ambiguities in some of his questions and then proceeded to get the highest marks ever awarded in a TDI exam. (We were at 38,000 feet at the time.)
Martin Parker had allowed me to dive prototypes of his CCR and I was one of the first to dive the early production version of the Inspiration. He kindly loaned me one and constantly replaced it with the latest model as they gradually evolved. Several times I made pilgrimages out to Egypt and was a subject of curiosity among the other divers with whom I shared a live-aboard. I have to thank the understanding of people like Guido Sherif of mv. Coral Queen. who allowed me to store pure O2 in ordinary scuba cylinders on his boat and Karim for supplying it to me. With no other CCR divers around, I dived alone and to profiles that were then an anathema to open-circuit divers.
I remember staying down at 50m for 40 minutes at the Elphinstone and being approached by a dive-guide from another boat, who insisted on asking where my buddy was. He was very surprised when I was able to answer him clearly by speaking to him and he quickly beat a retreat due to his own lack of air and deco time.
Nico Forest (another person sadly missed) was stopped by the same dive-guide in the shallows and asked where was his buddy. As he said later, “How could I explain I was diving with John Bantin?” Technical diving has come along way since then. Closed circuit rebreathers are in common use, thanks to the popularity of the APD Inspiration, and now with the new Vision electronics I can foresee them getting even more popular. The Vision electronics go a long way to making the unit fool-proof.
Alas, some expert open-circuit technical divers did not adapt to CCRs very easily. They refused to believe that they need to start right back at the beginning and paid the ultimate price for this folly. Our knowledge grows exponentially and much of it has been gained at the expense of others.
By: John Bantin, Technical Editor for DIVER magazine.