:: By Pieter Venter
Nuno Gomes was born in Lisbon. Growing up on the Portuguese coast he practically lived in the sea and learned to swim and spearfish in the temperamental Portuguese Atlantic. His father who was disgruntled with the dictatorship in Portugal relocated his family to South Africa when Nuno was 14 years old. They settled in Pretoria. Landlocked.
In 1977 he joined the WITS Underwater Club where he found like minded people who where interested in cave diving and deep diving.
Being landlocked, cave diving was a natural progression. Nuno joined and pioneered many cave dive expeditions. He dived in all the known water filled caves in South Africa and Namibia.
Diving deeper and deeper just happened and Boesmansgat in the Northern Cape was perfect. In 1988 he dived to a new Africa Record of 123m.
In 1993 the legendary Sheck Exley visited Boesmansgat and Nuno finally met his hero. Nuno learned from the legend about TRIMIX decompression schedules and calculations, staged cylinder diving, the discipline required, the seemingly obvious rule of making sure to have enough gas to breathe, teamwork and to be conservative with decompression calculations.
In underwater hockey circles Nuno is already a legend. With the motto “JUST GO STRAIGHT” he sports a charge not unlike that of an Afrikaans high school rugby front row, menacing, determined, unrelenting, pummelling many a foe. He also made his mark on spear fishing in South Africa. He was, at the time, and probably still, the only landlocked spearo to get Protea colours.
With the bottom of Boesmansgat beckoning in the back of Nuno’s mind, he set about training for the next level of extreme deep diving. Extreme deep diving is a team effort and gradually Nuno assembled a team of dedicated divers who assisted him on his numerous expeditions to caves and sink holes in southern Africa.
In 1994 Nuno extended his personal deepest dives to 230m followed by a 253m.
In April 1994 the deep diving community received devastating news. Aiming to go beyond the 300m mark for the first time, legendary deep and cave diver Sheck Exley, accompanied by another leading American deep scuba diver, Jim Bowden, went down into the abyss of Mexico’s Zacaton Cave System. Exley did not resurface from 276m and Bowden, who got the bends, nearly ran out of gas and was extremely lucky to survive. Bowden was credited with an overall depth world record of 281.9 m. This news affected all divers, including Nuno. This news also had a profound effect on family members and team mates, who wondered how Nuno would survive deeper dives if the legendary Exley did not.
Then Deon Dreyer went missing in Boesmansgat in 1994 and Theo van Eeden, an experienced police diver, who was intent on finding Dreyer’s body, contacted Nuno to help. Although Nuno declined to dive to the bottom to look for the body a fertile seed was planted and a long friendship with Theo was born. Theo persisted with his suggestions to Nuno to look for the body of Deon Dreyer and with the words “OK, it will be a world record dive” Nuno made the decision.
This dive was done at altitude with a decompression requirement of a 330m dive at sea level. It took 12 hours to complete. On this dive Nuno wore seven cylinders (2x18, 2x14, 2x10 and one 4-litre), weighing 135 kg – using 54 730 l of mixtures of air: oxygen, nitrox and trimix. Helmet, fins, computerised gauges and pressure-resistant torches made up the rest of his gear. Nuno narrowly beat his friend Jim Bowden’s record of 281.9m and grabbed the world cave and overall depth record. The cave record was recognised by Guinness World Records and it still stands today – Guinness simply does not have a provision for an overall dive record.
Nuno was asked to lead the dives for the coelacanth expedition in 2001 of the coast of Sodwana and to help with the planning of the dives. The dives were to be 120m deep with a fairly long bottom time of 18 minutes. While preparing for the coelacanth expedition, comfortable in the knowledge that he is the overall record holder, Nuno received the news that John Bennett descended to 307.8 m off Escarcia Point, Puerto Galera, Philippines. It was not a walk in the park for Bennett, who suffered vertigo, nausea and violent vomiting, which lasted for at least 6.5 hours. Bennett confided in an interview with Action Asia magazine (June/July 2002), that, for a few seconds, he had just wanted to let go of the guide line and go home. “But the realization that I would be dead before I reached the surface gave me something to focus on”. “White-knuckling” the guide line, he literally hung on for his life.
With this news and with the coelacanth dives going very well Nuno’s next project was confirmed, to reclaim the overall and SCUBA world record in the sea. Nuno liked the coelacanth dive system, which laid the foundations for a record dive in the sea. “The transition from caves to the sea has begun”
Nuno and his team started training in earnest. Nuno stepped up his already hectic Gym program and went diving every weekend. Sponsorship was obtained, flights booked, arrangements made, there was no turning back.
The team arrived in Dahab in April 2004 and started preparing for the dive. After a 150m dive Nuno declared that he was ready, only two weeks after seeing the Red Sea for the first time. He descended alone to reach past 315m. The dive did not go well.
It was a technical problem that denied Nuno the world record and he could not resist trying again. His sponsors kept their faith and provided the further backing needed to try again. It was a GO. One year later he was to Dahab, Red Sea. Nuno is not a character who can get easily upset or distracted by setbacks.
This time Nuno decided to use his Poseidon Cyklon 5000 regulators on both his main quad configuration cylinders as well as his side slungs.
Rather unceremoniously he was pushed into the water and he disappeared. He surfaced after sunset exhausted but elated. Later Nuno remarked:
"318.25 metres/1044 feet (321.81metres/1056 feet with rope stretch) I still can not believe it!!! Well I have done it, with the assistance of my team.”
So, is Nuno a suicidal adrenaline junky? At first glance this may appear to be the case. However, with when delving deeper, it becomes clear that each dive is built on manageable incremental increases in difficulty over a very long period of time. By the time the big dive comes the envelope is pushed within his comfort zone. Each new encountered problem is solved before the next dive. He always does build-up and acclimatisation dives. He calculates decompression stops conservatively; doing long decompression time is seen as privilege not a punishment. He plans a contingency for every possible foreseeable problem. He will never be pressurised into an unmanageable dive. He knows himself. He knows his equipment. He knows his team. He is very fit. He loves diving. We can all learn from him.
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