A BRIEF HISTORY OF DEEP TECHNICAL DIVING IN THE LAST 20 YEARS
BY NUNO GOMES
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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
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
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.
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
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 know 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
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.