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by Michael Menduno
Header photo by SJ Alice 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Getting Back in the Water with Caveman Phil Short
With local diving slowly opening in the wake of the pandemic, InDepth caught up with British cave explorer and educator Phil Short to see how he navigated his post lockdown re-submergence. And what about those 14, 15, 16 month old oxygen sensors?
by Michael Menduno
Header photo by Michael Thomas. Phil Short swims under Wookey Chamber 14.
With diving just beginning to resume in various parts of the world after what felt like an interminable shutdown, we thought it would be interesting to check in with some of our friends to see how they were approaching their return to the underwater world after such a long hiatus.
Ironically, it’s been the longest that 51-year old British cave explorer, scientific diving officer, exosuit pilot, educator and film consultant Phil Short, principal of Dark Water Explorations Ltd. has been out of the water in his entire 30-year diving career. How did one of tech diving’s indefatigable pioneers plot his re-submergence, and what would he offer up to colleagues about to take the plunge?
We chatted up Short just as he was booking his first dive project trip abroad; this is what the ardent caveman said.
InDepth: Maybe we can start with you explaining a little about the circumstances in the UK. I know you were on lock down as far as diving was concerned, and they are now in the process of opening up.
Phil Short: Basically, when the COVID-19 crisis began, the country went into lockdown for all nonessential activities. So obviously, any type of sport and recreation was included in that. And then, after about two months, they slowly started to reduce the restrictions, certainly for more normal activities and allowed certain sports to take place again. There was a lot of controversy over diving, because COVID-19 is a respiratory or lung-borne disease. So there was concern that it could create additional potential hazards with lung expansion injuries and embolisms.
In the UK, we have a group called the British Diving Safety Group, which is made up of various organizations including diving training agencies: the British equivalent of the Coast Guard, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is our version of OSHA and the diving industry trade organization, and SITA (Scuba Industries Trade Association). I am a member, and we met to determine what the safest and most prudent, most expedited means were to get people back in the water. We consulted with the hyperbaric medical community, COVID-19 related medical experts, the agencies with the authorities that control charter boat operations, and with the HSE.
The first permissions were for small groups. Basically, you and one buddy could do shore dives. We adopted recommendations by the NSS-CDS as to how gas sharing should take place, and safety or S-drills so you are not breathing from each other’s equipment.
So when did you go diving?
As a member of the BDSG committee, I was very diligent not to go in the water until the evening we announced that it was permissible to go beach or shore diving. The next morning, 28May 2020, I left my house at 4 AM to go and do a beach dive on a landing craft from the second world war, a genuine World War II wreck. I descended at 6:23 AM and it was just heaven because I had been out of the water for 86 days because of the restrictions. And it was just great to get back in.
Where did you make your last pre-COVID-19 dive?
My previous dive had been on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands off of West Africa teaching a trimix rebreather class. It was a 93m/303 ft dive. I got on the plane, flew home, and the lockdown started almost immediately. And then 86 days later, I was doing a 12m/39 ft dive off the beach in the UK. It was my longest break in diving in the 30 years I’ve been in the industry.
Let me ask you, did you have a conscious strategy or approach to getting back in the water? You didn’t start back in at 90 meters.
Yes, it was conscious. Certainly rebreathers, it’s not just like riding a bike. You do need to keep current. I recommend to my students to be doing at least one skill dive on the rebreather per month, minimum, to maintain currency.
So I decided that for the first dive, once the permissions had been given, to go make the beach dive on doubles. I’ve got a nice little twin 8.5L set that’s small enough for walking over the beach. It still had the redundancy, but it was simple scuba and a simple depth of just 12m/39ft. Basically, the first thing I did when I got in the water was descend just a few feet and made sure that I was proficient with doing a shutdown and isolation drill on the doubles.
Then I went for the dive on a good nitrox with a long no-decompression time and surfaced way before I was getting anywhere near decompression. I took it gently. First time back in 86 days, I took it gently, and then over the last six or seven weeks, I’ve started to build up from there.
I know you’ve talked and probably compared notes with colleagues and other divers. Do you think people there are approaching getting back in the water sanely or is it a bit of a madhouse? How would you characterize things in the UK?
I would say, as often happens, it’s mixed. So, based on recommendations of the agencies and their instructors, the majority of people are getting back into it gradually like I did myself. But there’ll always be those who say, “Oh, I’m a good diver. I don’t need to do that. I’ve not been allowed to dive for two or three months. I want to go do what I want to do.” And they go straight out and do a 50 or 60m dive, which I think is just foolish.
Even ignoring the COVID-19 situation, if you were out of diving because of having a kid, or experiencing a job change or anything like that, or after a big layoff, I think it would be prudent to get back in gently and then slowly build up. So, my first dive was shallow with open circuit doubles. My next dive was a very limited penetration, shallow cave dive on open circuit, side mount, again with redundancy. A no-decompression dive but back in my natural environment of caves for a little swim around.
Gradually over the weeks, because I had better access to caves than I did to the sea, I did more and more cave dives and slowly built up in duration and distance, but still on open circuit. I then got permission from the owner to access one of the inland lakes, and we did some pre-official opening work for the owners of the site. I got back in on the rebreather but again, no-decompression, relatively shallow, no more than 30m/100 ft. Next, I integrated stages and my DPV (diver propulsion vehicle).
My first teaching was a Level one, Mod One rebreather course that I team-taught with a fellow UK instructor. It was a perfect way to get back in gently because we were running 10 hours over 8 to 10 dives of constant skills for the students. So that was a real refresher. And then finally last weekend, a group of us that had all been doing that type of gradual build up got out on a boat off the south coast of the UK, on a 33 m/108 ft deep wreck on Saturday. On Sunday, we dived a very well-known wreck, the SS Salsette, in 45 m/147 ft of water in beautiful conditions. Calm sea, good visibility, and a real wreck. So I had made a gradual buildup over seven or eight weeks to get to that point, rather than jumping straight back in.
Sweet. You mentioned rebreathers (CCR). Currently, there is a global shortage of oxygen sensors underway as a result of the pandemic. Oxygen sensors are being diverted to the medical industry, which is under siege right now from COVID-19. Any concerns or worries that people will go diving with out-of-date cells? Do you think that’s an issue?
It definitely concerns me. I’ve been a CCR instructor at all the levels, almost exclusively for the last 15 years, and I’ve seen people go out and happily spend five, six, seven, 10,000 pounds on a brand new rebreather and the training and then go out and be cheap on a £16 fill of Sofnolime or a £16 fill of oxygen. And you’re like, what are you doing? You paid £10,000 for this equipment and you’re risking your life on a £16 refill of consumables? People are so desperate right now to get back to their hobby; they feel like it’s been taken away from them, that I worry they may not always act sensibly.
It’s been a battle over the last five or six years to get people to really wake up and pay attention to the fact that these sensors are your life support. There was a very high-profile accident that was caused by overrun sensors a few years back with a quite-well-known person in the industry. He effectively died on the bottom, was rescued by his buddy, then was helicoptered to the hospital where he was put into an induced coma. He came out of it several days later and he was very, very lucky to survive. And very, very lucky to come back to actual diving again. But that was all caused by old, overbaked sensors.
So what do you see happening?
I think what’s going to happen, you know, is that some people ran out of fresh sensors a couple of months ago so now it’s 14 months, 15 months, 16 months. And some may be thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay. They’re reading fine, they’re working fine.” Some people might be doing linearity checks, doing oxygen flushes at 6 m/20 ft to check if they read high when appropriate.
But really, the companies like AP Diving, JJ-CCR, Vobster Marine Systems, and others have put a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money into researching and independently testing these life-support machines for functionality, with certain parameters. Much like car manufacturers do so you can drive your family and your kids in a safe car. [Hammerhead CCR developer] Kevin Jurgenson summed it up once brilliantly when he put out a statement saying, ”Okay, people are questioning the duration that a sensor can last. Some people would say 12 months. Others would say 52 weeks. Some would say 365 days.” And he carried on to include hours, minutes etc. Basically saying, a year is a year. Whichever way you try to stretch it, it’s a year. No more.
Personally, I would not violate that because those three simple galvanic fuel cells that represent probably somewhere between $200 and $300 depending on the manufacturer and the unit, representing a tiny percentage of the expense that I’ve outlaid to become a rebreather diver, is not worth my life.
As I mentioned, I am now back on my rebreather after starting on open circuit, and if my sensors eventually pass their 12-month date, I’m very happy to return to open circuit for as long as I have to while I wait to buy some new cells.
I have always believed in my educational career of thirty years in the diving industry to lead by example. Those are my feelings. I know from experience when you make comments like that, and it’s effectively the same as raising your head above the trench in a warfare situation. People are going to take shots; but bring it on. If you’ve got a sensible, scientific argument for extending your cells past 12 months, then I’m happy to discuss it. But I don’t think there is one.
So the moral is, if you have sensors that are past either one year, 12 months, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,000 minutes, or 31.5 million seconds, then you need to go back to open circuit, or not dive until you can get some new ones?
I believe so. The manufacturers whose rebreathers I have dived and taught on over the last 10 years are people that were passionate about rebreather safety. And much like [Sheck] Exley, who focused on improving cave training and cave safety by writing Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival, these manufacturers—people like Martin Parker at AP Diving and Jan Petersen at JJ CCR have gone the extra mile to improve safety.
You know full well from the aquaCORPS days, if you look at the safety record of CCR diving now, versus 15 years ago, we made a difference. It has become safer. Why ruin it, because of impatience and a short-term, relatively short-term, restriction on availability of consumables?
Right. In fact, I have talked to Nicky Finn at AP and also Jakub Sláma at Divesoft who have been in touch with sensor manufacturers regarding shortages, and it seems that the situation may be stabilizing and or easing up, assuming we don’t have a second wave of COVID-19 infections. So hopefully, the situation will improve.
Actually, I’ve heard that from several manufacturers, and I think it will improve quicker than was first anticipated. And that’s even more of a reason for not doing anything foolish and being a little bit patient with this to be safe.
Last question: What’s next for you? Got any big projects coming up?
I just booked my first flight to travel out of the UK again. This time to Croatia. I’m going to be designing and building a water dredge system for recovering and capturing sediment on an archaeological site for a project that we are going to do in October. This is a follow-up project from one we did in 2017 to recover a US World War II pilot from a wrecked B24 bomber that ditched in the Adriatic Sea. We’re going back to do another recovery on a different wreck.
The dredge system will be designed to work at the appropriate depth level so that we can basically recover the sediment without losing anything. Specifically, we’re not going to miss any of the crew that are found through that dredging. So, I’ve got a 10-day trip to build that system, test it in the same depth of water, and have it ready for the project.
When I come back from that, I’m flying out to Switzerland to train on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount with a good friend and former student of mine, Nadir Quarta. It will be my first sidemount rebreather. I’ve got no intention of moving away from my JJ as my primary rebreather, but I’ve got quite a few cave projects that require a side mount that I can’t do in my back-mount JJ. They don’t offer a sidemount, and because of distance and depth, I can’t do it on open circuit. I put a lot of thought into which unit to use, and am very impressed with Divesoft’s engineering and build. They’re also very courteous and professional to deal with. I like working with people like that.
After training, I plan to attend a Swiss technical dive conference, Dive TEC! in Morges as a speaker, where I will be talking on my 30-year journey as a cave diver and explorer.
Fun times ahead! Thank you, Phil. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor 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.
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