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A Voice In The Wilderness

Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, along comes underground picture-maker SJ Alice Bennett, who is shedding new light on the dark, moody, twisting karst passageways that form what explorer Jill Heinerth calls “the veins of Mother Earth.” If you’re ready for a new perspective on the ‘doing of cave diving,’ switch on your primary and dive right in.

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by Michael Menduno
Header photo by SJ Alice Bennett

Photo courtesy of Sam Bennett.

Thirty-four-year old Sarah-Jane “SJ” Alice Bennett is arguably an important new voice, in the niche-y, esoteric world of underwater cave photography. Based in Tulum, Mexico, her pictures—larger than life, moody, dark, spacious, filled with shadow, and shafts and shimmers of light, and replete with cave divers—evoke a deep emotional response in karst-inclined viewers akin to the feeling of being there. At the same time, they invite us to step outside of ourselves and register what we are seeing from a new perspective, “That’s what we look like?” One could say that she captures the ‘doing of cave diving,’ an approach born out of decades of her street aka lifestyle and event photography. Bennett, who was British-born and raised in Berlin, simply calls it “documenting the dive.”

The diminutive, blond, vegetarian cave diver, began documenting the world around her before she turned 10. That was the year her parents—her mom is a passionate photographer—bought her that first 35 mm point-and-shoot for her birthday. “I begged them for ages,” she explained. She has carried a camera with her ever since. Bennett learned to scuba dive two years later through her local dive shop in Berlin; however due to an instructor mix-up she never got her card. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that these two events set her life in motion.

Photo courtesy of Joram Mennes.

Bennett completed a diploma in Graphic and Communication Design, and then went on to finish her Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual and Motion Design in 2011. Ready to say goodbye to school, she set off for Thailand for a month to finally get her diving certification. That cinched it. She moved to Thailand less than a year later.
Bennett plunged into diving and stepped up her training. She worked as a divemaster, and then became a recreational instructor but said that she didn’t really enjoy it. “I had way more fun just documenting people’s dives,” she explained. From there she got into technical and cave diving and interned at the local tech dive shop. All the while, she built up her freelance graphics art and photography business landing the prestigious global professional services firm Ernst & Young. 

Photo courtesy of Joram Mennes.

In 2015, flush with cash from a large annual events job, Bennett made a long-awaited trek to Mexico for a few months of cave diving and decided to move there. But not before her major client laid her off. She returned to Berlin for a year and a half, worked hard and saved up money for a new professional grade camera and housing. 

She finally moved to Mexico in 2017, where she met her partner Jon Kieren, who is a technical diving instructor, and continued to build her portfolio and her freelance business. This includes making pictures of instructors and visiting cave divers in the karst environment.

Photo courtesy of Jon Kieren

She hopes to be able to document expeditions and exploration projects as well as to add more brand or lifestyle photography into the mix, particularly for diving clients. Last December she did a shoot for Fathom Dive Systems; her pictures are being used on Fathom social media. Last month, one of Bennett’s pictures of two divers in the Blue Abyss section of Sistema Sac Atun was selected as Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) Photo of the Year for 2020.

We recently met up with the underground image-maker and asked her to explain her approach to cave photography and share some of her recent work. Here’s what the photographic phenom known as SJ had to say.

When people ask me, “How do you take those images?”, all I want to answer is, “I swim around and take a photo whenever I see something cool”. 

Simplistic as that sounds, it’s pretty much what I do. I suppose I could wax lyrical about light colors and temperatures, as well as shutter speeds and camera housings, but frankly, that’s enough to send even me to sleep. Besides, I don’t regard the technical aspect of photography as the critical element that enables me to connect with an audience, whether it’s fellow cave divers or people who have never seen a submerged cave. Since my photos are fundamentally all about establishing a connection with people and communicating my love of these amazing places to them, I think it’s more interesting—and relevant—to talk about how I capture the caves on camera. The technical aspect, while interesting to some, is simply the means to that end.

I have always been interested in photography, and like most photographers, I started shooting topside, where it’s comparatively easy to make use of whatever natural light exists, and to simply augment it. I didn’t start shooting underwater until I had garnered several years of topside experience. It was somewhat of a transition, although not immense because there’s still a little natural light to play with, and I had great fun using it as a backdrop for the gorgeous reef critters darting back and forth in front of my lens. 

My first foray into cave photography didn’t happen until 2015, some years after I started shooting in open water. I looked at hundreds of cave photos to identify and refine the aspects I both liked and disliked, and although I did manage to speak directly to a few cave photographers about their process, I spent a great deal more time looking at pictures trying to figure out how the images were created. Since I was using a borrowed camera rig and borrowed lights, it was perhaps inevitable that I had to listen to people around me telling me “this is how it’s done”. After mulling it all over, I distilled all the input I had received into one simple principle: “We swim and I press the shutter when I see ‘that special something’”. It worked for me the first time I took a professional camera rig into a cave, and it works for me to this day.

I chose a very familiar, shallow cave for my first cave dive with a professional camera set-up; that gave me the necessary time to not only adjust to swimming with a large rig but also, the opportunity to take photos in a few different parts of the cave. I also had a very familiar and experienced buddy, Tamara, with whom communication was fast and simple. 

Instead of doing the more traditional staged setups that I had been urged to do, I decided to just let her swim with a video light and shoot as we went along. Frankly, that decision was partly made for selfish reasons; I didn’t want to miss out on a “real” cave dive! I felt that it would be a waste of a dive and all the effort needed to carry heavy gear in the hot, sticky jungle just to hang out 10 minutes from the cave entrance to get that “perfect” shot. There was, however, also a more altruistic reason for my decision to eschew set-up shots and adopt a more improvisational approach. To my mind, the former approach would have run contrary to the way I perceived cave diving. Since photos have always been my preferred means of connecting with people and showing them what I see, I felt that capturing dynamic shots would be more authentic for me, so that’s how I ran my first ever cave shoot.

Looking at the images I captured on that first dive, I realize how even back then, I was more fascinated by the cave’s darkness and shadows than perfectly lighting its each and every corner.

That fascination has only intensified, and to this day, a characterizing feature of my pictures is that I use light to highlight the shadows, rather than erase them.

I want to showcase the caves how I perceive them to be: dark, mysterious, and moody places full of ancient beauty and history.

For me, the definition of a “good” photo is one that not only captures the beauty of darkness and shadows of this very alien world but also conveys the diver’s emotions as they literally glide back through geological time.

Painting the cave with shadows is all very well, but since the etymology of the word “photograph” means “drawing with light”, how do you capture darkness when photography only works by capturing light?

While having a dark and black soul definitely helps, I also—more or less—rely on the same techniques I learned ages ago when working as a topside documentary and event photographer. I say “more or less” because there are a lot of different factors that come into play when bringing a big camera rig into a pitch-black and very hostile environment. But certain aspects, like capturing natural scenes of people doing cool stuff (or also very boring stuff when stuck at an international tax symposium), remain constant. Spotting moments that are interesting and capturing people’s emotions and interaction with each other and the environment is the key to photos that we as the viewer can connect with.

This photo taken of Nelly and Roger Mikhaiel Williams at the Blue Abyss in Sistema Sac Atun was selected as the GUE Photo of the Year for 2020.

Apart from being proficient and safe as a diver, the most important factor of successful cave photography is using light to create “natural” scenes in a naturally dark environment.

I have learned to do this—and it’s an evolving learning process—mostly by experimenting with different approaches. Shooting on the fly, as I mostly do now, keeps images dynamic and makes it possible to capture random scenes you wouldn’t achieve with staged photos. Planning every aspect of a photo dive is, therefore, something I actively try to avoid. Of course, I stick to the normal rules of planning a cave dive, such as gas management and cave navigation; in fact, these serve as “markers” for dividing the dive into segments and organizing the dive in my mind. They also present the perfect opportunity to capture good “action shots” here and there. 

In some ways, one can draw parallels between a cave shoot and a wedding shoot. When photographing a wedding, there are always key landmark events: the exchanging of rings between the bridal couple, their first kiss, and their walk back down the aisle as a married couple. As the photographer, you can’t help but capture those defining moments of the ceremony. But you also have to be flexible and adapt when a perfect scene suddenly changes, like an over-exuberant Auntie Esmeralda blocking the view as she jumps up and down with joy. Awareness of what is happening around you at all times is key.

A finely-honed sense of situational awareness is not only instrumental in getting a good shot but in a cave, it also keeps you alive.

Before a commercial shoot, I always brief models on the use of their hand-held video lights. Of course, you can’t expect people that have never before handled a video light to be perfect at this. The same applies to the lighting assistants with which I work. Even though I have trained them to work with lights to achieve the effects that I want, it is impossible for them to really know what exactly is happening, and what I’m seeing behind the camera. It is definitely a much harder job than pressing a shutter. As the photographer, it’s part of my job to adapt to the scenes they create. I love this aspect of teamwork and am so very grateful for the continued support that makes the photos I take possible.

I believe the interplay between models and lighting assistants working imperfectly together helps generate the most authentic images of a cave dive. For me, the most truthful images depict a well-oiled team working together that experience moments of randomness and have to decide in a split second how to react.

This style of shooting makes it possible to dive with people that have never modeled and worked with lighting before, in caves that you’ve never seen previously, and still achieve amazing results. 

This way of shooting has also allowed me to show a part of cave diving that is often overlooked as a photography subject; training. I can work with a lighting assistant to capture training scenarios in real-time as they play out without interacting with the students or instructors. I’m hoping that these images can show the lighter “behind the scenes” perspective of what cave training is like, making it a bit less daunting of an undertaking for those who might be interested. And it might also be interesting to look back at these photos in years to come to see how cave training has changed and evolved. (And laugh at the old school dry suits we used to wear.)

In the end, I still feel like I’m just swimming around, I see cool stuff, and I press the shutter to freeze time in a frame. Which is what I love doing most in this world. 

You Can Find More of SJ Here:

www.facebook.com/SJAliceBennett
www.instagram.com/sj.alice.bennett
www.sjalicebennett.com


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018. In addition to his responsibilities at InDepth, Menduno is a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, and X-Ray Magazine.

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Brits Brew Beer Booty

What do you get when you combine British divers’ proclivity for shipwreck exploration with their strong affinity for beer? A tasty treasure hunt on the “Wallachia” that resulted in swilling 126-year old reconstituted British beer. GUE Scotland’s detective chief inspector Andy Pilley recounts the tale.

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by Andy Pilley
Images courtesy of
A. Pilley

Header Image: GUE Scotland’s brewmeisters enjoying their brew (L to R) Top: Owen Flowers, Andy Pilley, Wayne Heelbeck. Middle: Steve Symington, A. Pilley, O. Flowers, Bottom: W. Heelbeck, Sergej Maciuk, S. Symington

“Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”

Queen Victoria

I never thought when I started diving 10 years ago, that one day I would be able to sit down for a pint of beer with the team from GUE Scotland recreated from a brew that has been hidden under the waves for 126 years. Let me explain.

The Wallachia was a single screw cargo steamer that was owned by William Burrell & Son of Glasgow, and employed on regular trips between Glasgow and the West Indies. On 29th September, 1895 she left Queen’s Dock, Glasgow at 10am bound for Trinidad and Demerara. On board was a valuable general cargo including whisky, gin, beer, acids, glassware, and earthenware plus building materials and footwear. By 1pm that afternoon she had settled on the seabed of the Clyde Estuary after colliding with another ship in a fog bank, she was forgotten until 1977 when a local sub-aqua club rediscovered the wreck site.

The wreck of the Wallachia lies on an even keel in approximately 34 metres of water on a sandy seabed. The wreck itself is largely intact and has six holds in total, three forward and three aft. In the rearmost hold there are thousands of bottles of beer, some still inscribed with the name of the maker, McEwans of Glasgow. This is where myself and the team from GUE Scotland enter the story.

The Wreck of the Wallachia 

The Wallachia is one of the more accessible sites on the west coast of Scotland, where we carry out most of our diving. Depending on weather and tidal conditions, visibility on the wreck can be +10m/33 ft on a very good day or less than 2m/6 ft if there has been a lot of rain due to the amount of particulate in the water. Other elements to consider are the tide as this can vary in its intensity, as well as surrounding boat traffic. The wreck lies in close proximity to a ferry route and care must be taken not to dive when the ferry is closeby. However despite the challenges, the wreck is very rewarding and offers a diver plenty of places to explore and items to look at. 

The main point of interest for most has been the rearmost hold, where the bottles of whisky and beer were stored. The majority of the whisky was removed in the 1980’s however a few bottles can be found on occasion, depending where you look. What remains are thousands of bottles of beer, still with the corks and contents intact. Over the course of 2018 & 2019, the team at GUE Scotland dived on the wreck and recovered a number of bottles from the hold. 

After a chance discussion with a friend at dinner one night, I was given contact details for a company called Brewlab, which is based in Sunderland in the north east of England. Brewlab specialise in the provision of specialist brewing training, as well as laboratory services such as quality assurance, product development, chemical/microbiology testing as well as long term research options. I made contact with Keith Thomas, the Director of Brewlab, to discuss whether he would be interested in analysing the beer and investigating whether it could be recreated. Needless to say the proposal piqued his interest and arrangements were made for the bottles to be shipped to his lab.

Unbeknownst to me, the recovery of historical beers is rare, due to various sources of degradation/contamination which can affect any residual microbial cells and chemical components left in the beer that were used as part of the brewing process. So these samples are a valuable source of information on past brewing and microbiology. Over the course of 2019/2020, Keith and I kept in regular contact over the progress of the investigations and the full analysis of the beer has recently been published.

A Brewing Interest

Between 1850 and 1950, the application of scientific principles to brewing was becoming increasingly prevalent and microbiology was playing an increasingly important role. A pertinent issue in brewing microbiology around 1900 was the application of pure Saccharomyces yeast cultures developed by Hansen at the Carlsberg laboratory in 1888. These were readily adopted by continental breweries as providing more controlled production and purer beers. Application to UK brewing was, however, less positively received, in part because of the belief that British beers possessed particular flavours arising from mixed yeast cultures and, specifically, the involvement of Brettanomyces species. This was especially believed to be essential for the character of ‘stock’ ales which were matured for extended periods.

While a number of breweries did try pure culture yeasts, UK brewing was resistant to change and, with the intervention of World War I, retained its indigenous yeast cultures. Since the 1940’s a more biotechnological approach to fermentation demonstrated the value of pure culture and was progressively applied to the larger breweries developing at that time. 

During the formative period of brewery microbiology after Pasteur, brewing yeast were identified as Saccharomyces species based on morphological features of shape, filamentous propensity and spore characteristics. Non brewing, ‘wild’ yeast was recognised and termed ‘Torula’ if non-sporulating. Of these Brettanomyces strains were identified as contributing important character to stock ales. It is also clear from brewing texts that bacteria were recognised as spoilage organisms in beer, as had been initially demonstrated by Pasteur in 1863. These species were mostly categorised as bacilli and typically portrayed as rods and associated with sarcina sickness – generally producing sourness. Some studies, nevertheless, identified lactic acid bacteria as indigenous components of standard beers.

Contemporary breweries are increasingly interested in using novel microbiology, either unconventional yeast strains or mixes of species and strains for sour and natural products. Identifying the specific strains and species of yeast and bacteria present in Victorian and Edwardian beers is directly relevant to this and has particular value if cultures of authentic microorganisms can be retrieved. Reports of retrieved historic brewery microbiology are limited but hold interesting promise for identifying novel microorganisms.

The specific parameters of the analysis are contained in a published research paper, Preliminary microbiological and chemical analysis of two historical stock ales from Victorian and Edwardian brewing.”

As I mentioned, the primary objective of the analysis was to confirm whether detail could be provided on the original brewing ingredients and the fermentation microbiology. The analysis confirmed the use of Brettanomyces/Dekkera bruxellensis and Debaryomyces hansenii, which are brewing and fermentation yeasts respectively. The presence of Debaryomyces is interesting as this genus has not been noted as a historic feature of historic brewing, but has been identified in spontaneous fermentations, for example in Belgian lambic beers. Although the strain was reported to the brewing industry in 1906, it has not featured as a major contributor to beer fermentations since.



The analysis has also provided relevant information of the beer character and has confirmed that the beer recovered from the Wallachia was a stout, close to style expectations of the time and had an alcohol content of c. 7.5%. The colour gravity was high, resulting in a much darker beer however a much lower level of bitterness. Again this was typical style of the time and differs from other modern stouts.

More interestingly is the presence of various types of bacteria, which will likely have been picked up during the brewing process. The table below lists these for reference. Needless to say, historic brewing was not a sterile process in comparison to modern methods!

Bacillus licheniformisPlant and soil bacterium
Finegoldia magnaCommensal skin bacterium
Fusobacterium sp.Possible pathogenic bacterium
Kocuria roseaPossible urinary tract pathogen
Mogibacterium pumilumPossible oral cavity bacterium
Shigella sonneiEnteric pathogen
Staphylococcus epidermidisCommensal skin bacterium
Stenotrophomonas maltophiliaSoil bacterium
Varibaculum cambriensePossible pathogenic bacterium

Table 1: The bacteria found in the Wallachia beer bottles

Due to the relatively stable conditions on the wreck, being in near darkness and at a relatively cold temperature (between 6º–14ºC/43º-57ºF depending on the time of year), the live yeast structures within the beer were protected from sources of stress and allowed them to survive over the past 126 years. Luckily, Keith was able to extract these samples and begin to recultivate the yeast, specifically the Debaryomyces, with the hope of being able to rebrew the beer.

Cheers Mates

Just before Christmas, I finally received word from Keith that he had completed a trial brew and seven bottles of the brew were on their way to me. A few excitement laden days later and a nondescript box arrived at my office with the beer inside. I called the guys on our Facebook group chat to show them the case and got each bottle packaged up and sent out to them. 

A few days later, once everyone had received their sample we got together again to try the samples. There was an air of excitement after the two years it had taken us to get to this point, the most anticipated pint ever! I’m no expert in the flavour profiles of beer so you will have to forgive me for my relatively basic analysis. In summary, I got flavours of coffee and chocolate and there was a relatively low level of carbonation, which made it very drinkable. The rest of the team got similar flavours, the only complaint being there wasn’t more to try!

There will of course be slight differences in flavour since we don’t normally add the bacteria listed above as ingredients. However, the recipe we have is as close as we can make it to the original stock version.

The next steps for the project are to carry out further investigation on the characteristics of the Debaryomyces yeast strain in order to determine their suitability for fermentation and potential use in future brewing production. We are making approaches to various commercial breweries in order to discuss future commercialisation of the recipe and produce the brew on large scale. With the story behind the original recipe, we’re hopeful that the provenance would be a key selling point to consumers. It is my hope that the recovery of these samples will open up new possibilities for different types of beers to be developed, and offer something different for beer enthusiasts to try.

I have also found out that there are other types of beer to be found on the wreck, specifically an IPA style. Once we’re allowed to begin diving again, I am hoping to return to the Wallachia and recover some of these bottles so we can carry out the same analysis and keep the project moving forward.

In the mean-time, cheers!

Additional Resources:

The Brewlab Podcast, Episode 2 (March 30, 2021): Lost Beers Recreated from Shipwreck Bottles

GUE Scotland vlog -Episode 1


Andy Pilley is a Chartered Surveyor, team member of GUE Scotland, passionate wreck & cave diver and Ghost Fishing UK team diver. Andy started diving with the Scottish Sub-Aqua club in 2011 and began diving with GUE in 2018. Andy dives on the east and west coasts of Scotland where there is a rich maritime history and an abundance of wrecks to be explored. He has a passion for project diving and is developing objectives for a number of sites with the GUE Scotland team. He hopes to assist on the Mars Project and with the WKPP in the future.

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