ITALY 2006

by Elena Konstantinou :: Gallery

In addition, the divers who have agreed to participate in the research are not just regular scuba divers, but technical divers. The depth of over a hundred meters is not only an accessible depth for them, but it is also the depth in which they are comfortable. To help them breathe so deep underwater, these scuba divers use trimix, a mix of three gasses: helium, nitrogen, and oxygen. Lately, there are more and more people willing to use this mix underwater. Now technical diving is accessible and very popular.

Scientists say that they are preparing for medical testing, while divers are getting their gear in shape. And here is Nuno Gomes, a real world champion of deepwater diving. He is testing the contents of his gas tanks with the help of a gas content analyzer. This man has managed to dive as deep as 318,25 meters, and return from there alive. Here, at the lake, his motto is to find out more about his body, and how it reacts to high pressures down below. Nuno Gomes gave us the comments about the significance of the Lake Maggiore event: “As a result”, - he said, “We might get more precise recommendations regarding decompression safety for each particular body. This is one of the main features of this event. And of course it’s great that all these divers from all over the world has gathered here in one place, and we get to exchange ideas and share the latest developments in technical diving.”

A group of volunteers has split into two groups, and each has a special assignment. The first group will dive to 100-130 meters on gas mixes. The rest will air dive and remain above 60 meters. At the camp by the lake, excitement and an almost pre-holiday bustle is in the air. But the atmosphere and proximity of medical staff don’t allow anyone to relax. Just the opposite, it’s not customary to ignore safety here. The Italian Red Cross is inflating a whole mobile hospital. If anything goes wrong, any research participant would be able to get treatment there. The potential risk is extremely high. On the eve of the lake event, one of the potential research participants drowned during a test dive.

Andrea Cortesi, the coordinator of the Big Splash Event confessed:”Certainly, it wasn't easy to organize this whole thing. We have gathered together many technical divers at the right time in the right place, and we've had very little time to do that, only 3-4 months, because these people can't plan their lives far ahead. They're all very busy and in great demand.”

Among those who are getting ready to trimix dive is a famous Italian diver, Claudia Serpieri. She is the female world champion in deepwater submersions. The lake diving brings nostalgic memories to her. Twenty years ago, a close friend offered her to take a dive also in a lake, not far from Rome .

”It was during winter”, - Claudia recalls, - “and the water was ice-cold. He gave me a dry suit. But I didn't feel any cold then, because I was overwhelmed with emotion, because it was my introduction to a different world, a different system of coordinates. At that moment, I couldn't even describe how much I loved it”.

That was how Claudia had been literally dragged into diving. First, she became an instructor, and then one of the first to believe in the advantages and safety of diving on gas mixes. She took a risk and dove to 211 meters and 180 m in the lake, proving to the whole world that women could do it too.After that kind of a heroic feat, this mountain lake adventure near the border with Switzerland is a breeze for Claudia, but a breeze that also assists science.

Morning starts with a lecture outside. Veteran scuba divers make note of what they have to undergo before the dive and what to expect when they return. The first to shuttle between the tents is Nuno Gomes. In one of the tents, he was stripped down, and placed on a device vaguely reminiscent of a scale.

The champion is released only after a blood test. At the next field lab, they take down the diver’s blood pressure and pulse. The data is immediately transferred to a portable computer. The subject of the study is allowed to dive only after the doctor receives complete information about his health.

The deck on the dive boat is completely crammed with scuba gear. In addition to double scuba tanks that they carry on their backs, technical divers hang additional tanks on the sides. They will be used during decompression stops on the way back to the surface.

Among the participants of the experiment, there are those who dive on closed cycle systems, or re-breathers as they are also called. At some point, they have been developed for military divers. This device allows one to move underwater without bubbles, and every exhalation is recycled back into the breathing mix. However, the use of these systems in mass diving is still a subject of dispute, since the death rate among divers who use new technologies is higher than among those who use classic scuba gear. Perhaps that is why one of the owners made a joke and drew a scull and bones on his re-breather.

Nuno Gomes is not only a champion, but he is also an experienced researcher of underwater caves. But even in open water, his helmet with attached lights that he has put together specifically for submersions inside dark cave labyrinths are not just a talisman. At depths below a hundred meters, and especially in lake water, it’s almost as dark as in a cave.

The descent starts at the large buoys on the lake surface. The diver’s task is to quickly fall down to the programmed depth, for instance to 130 meters, remain there a bit longer than five minutes, and then slowly return. There’s something akin to a ladder between the two cables that are located about three meters apart. This contraption helps with nitrogen and helium decontamination during decompression stops. Deep underwater, nitrogen and helium that are part of the mix that the diver is breathing turn into liquid under high pressures, and dissolved in blood. During the ascent, nitrogen and helium turn back into a gas, forming bubbles in the blood stream. If the ascent is too abrupt, the bubbles will be too big and blood would boil or to be more precise, would foam, just like soda water when you abruptly open a bottle. One of the research centers at Lake Maggiore deals specifically with bubbles. Scientists would like to collect more explicit information regarding which decompression schedule is the safest, and to investigate for instance the relationship between nitrogen narcosis and the physiological and biological individuality of each diver. But not all divers descend that deep, and some divers just accompany and greet technical divers.

“There aren’t too many people here, but certainly a load of cameramen, and everyone is getting in the way of everyone else”. - complained the Russian “Octopus’s photographer Denis Golosiy.

Meanwhile, air divers are being tested right here underwater. The computer that reads physiological data is located in a special box that protects it from underwater pressure, and a separate air tank helps maintain the appropriate air pressure in its chamber. An underwater doctor can reach the computer keyboard only through a rubber sleeve with an attached glove. The event’s organizers regularly visit the submersion site.

Marco Braga, PTA, the head organizer of the Big Splash Event seems to be happy:” Everything is going well, as planned.”, - he says, - “ Look, I've got two cell phones in my pockets, and both of them are silent. It means that there are no problems, and no incidents.”

Every half-hour, divers go off underwater, two at a time, and near the surface, the already returning divers send them off on their way. Nuno Gomes appears on the surface about two and quarter hours after he has started his dive. Just like other divers, he climbs aboard with the help of a clever contraption that they lower into the water to lift the divers who attach themselves to the cable. When we asked him a question “How does he feel after a dive”? Nuno Gomes replied: “I’m freezing, it’s too cold! I haven’t even see the bottom! That was too dark there.”

Nuno Gomes dropped down to 123 meter and remained there for seven minutes. As soon as the diver takes off his flippers, they immediately greet him at the Zodiac, ready to go. A speedboat constantly shuttles between land and the diving site. Its task is to deliver scuba divers who have just returned from a deep dive to the beach, as fast as possible, so that physicians and scientists could immediately record the data about their physical state.

Nuno Gomes rushes into the hands of the medical staff, and Claudia Serpieri who is returning to the diving site takes his place in the boat. She is hot, and is dreaming of the refreshing lake water.

“Now I permanently live in Sharm El Sheikh.”, - says Claudia, -“ It’s really hot there, and at the beginning I was afraid of the cold water in this lake, because I completely forgot what it was like to be in this temperature. Two days ago, when I took a test dive, I realized that I felt great in this kind of water. Although in Sharm El Sheikh, the visibility is better, and it’s warmer.”

Claudia is one of the last to arrive at the dive boat. By then, the organizers are certain that the event has been a success. Everything has gone according to plan.

Andrea Cortesi, the coordinator of the Big Splash Event admits: “The medical staff is happy. I don’t think they have ever had a chance like this, and might never have one again, although it depends on the reaction of the scuba diving community to our event”.

Claudia Serpieri’s task is to dive to just seventy meters down below. No one’s talking records here. Claudia remembers well how about ten years ago the attention of the entire scuba diving association focused on technical divers, especially if they were women. Some people couldn't understand why those people went so far down, others just the opposite, realized that the use of trimix opened new research possibilities for scuba divers. Since the depth of Claudia’s dive is almost half of Nuno’s, she also returns to the surface much faster.

“It went better than I had expected.”- Claudia Serpieri shares her thoughts with us: “I wasn’t cold and my adrenaline was pumping. My submersion was very fast. I dropped to seventy, seventy-one and a half meters in just two minutes. Well, generally, lakes have their own charm!”

In this state of emotional high, the diver will be delivered right into the hands of physicians. The first data will be recorded right here, outside, only this time in reverse. First, they visit the computer tent, and then stand on the scale that prints information about the tested diver’s physical state on a piece of paper reminiscent of a grocery store receipt. Jim Bowden, a veteran of technical diving, watches this entire bustle with obvious pleasure. About twenty years ago, he was one of the few to go that far down, using gas mixes. In those days, this kind of gathering among technical divers was impossible to imagine.

“This is a huge leap forward, compared to those days when I was starting out, because in those days no one especially liked us.”- Said Jim Bowden, - “Commercial divers thought that amateurs shouldn’t be involved in this at all. The military thought that we were just a joke and even scientists”.

During this interview, an ambulance is loading one of the divers right behind the veteran’s back. The journey to the underwater depths hasn’t been painless for this diver.

“Three people have pain symptoms”, - Marco Braga reported, - “symptoms of the decompression sickness. Besides, they are very, very experienced divers, and their decompression has taken a long time and according to a very careful schedule. Of course it’s terrible that they are in pain, and from the scientific point of view it’s also bad, because it makes us doubt long decompression schedules, and whether they are really good for the body.”

The next day, while discussing the future of technical diving, the mass dive organizers don’t rush to draw scientific conclusions, because the data that has been gathered needs to be thoroughly processed. They are lucky, because the divers, who have just experienced decompression sickness, end up in the hands of medical staff.

Later during the conference, Alessandro Marroni, President of DAN said: “We've received definite confirmation of certain theories regarding decompression stress, and all this on the basis of just three case studies of decompression sickness that we've dealt with during the mass dive. Usually and even that if we're lucky, this kind of patients reach us only a few hours after they resurface, and the opportunity to conduct physiological and biological studies of the patients rarely presents itself. But here we have all the information about their state not only after the dive, but also before it.”

It’s interesting that this Lake Maggiore became the birthplace of technical diving as early as 1961. It was exactly here, in these waters, that a Swiss mathematician Keller and an American physiologist Buhlmann made their first submersion, using a special gas mixture, and proved that it was possible. At first, the military became interested in the results, and then almost half a century later, on account of trimix, people could dive to 318.25 meters and return from the abyss alive. Today Lake Maggiore has confirmed its historical relevance in the development of technical diving. Independent from the results of this research, the whole world can see now that deep water divers, each a striking individuality, may gather together in one place at the same time, and risk their lives not for personal glory, but in the name of science, and for the sake of making deep diving even safer.