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By Amanda White
All photos by Jason Brown
British picture maker Jason Brown has been wowing the dive industry with stunning magazine covers, striking underwater imagery, and creative commercial photography. If you haven’t heard of him or his company, BARDOCreative, he is a man of many talents, who has transported us through time and space to feel as if we are a part of his images. We recently had a chat with Jason to learn a little bit about him and his photography. Dive in!
InDepth: Please tell us a little bit about your background.
Jason Brown: As a kid growing up in the ’80s, I loved tinkering with early 8-bit computers. Like many teenagers of the time, I would spend my days glued to an old TV screen connected to a Commodore 64 in my bedroom. What really changed things for me, though, was the advent of the Commodore Amiga. The Amiga was a revelation, and programs like Deluxe Paint got me hooked on using computers for creativity. It did stuff that was just unheard of back then. You could record and remix digital sound, overlay graphics onto live video with a genlock, and even capture real-world digital images directly into the computer and manipulate them in Deluxe Paint. The Amiga practically invented digital art!
The Amiga got me my first job working in editorial for one of the biggest consumer magazine publishers in the U.K. Working on magazines was a lot of fun, as I would spend everyday rubbing shoulders with some very creative people—writers, fellow editors, designers, illustrators, and photographers. As a completely self-taught photographer, I credit those early magazine days as my best teacher.
How did your underwater journey begin?
If I have one regret, it’s that I wish I’d taken up diving earlier. Like many, I was convinced to sign up when a friend was given a PADI Open Water course for his birthday. I was in my late 20s when I took my first breath of compressed air and some twenty-plus years later, I’m still loving every minute of it. Having switched to diving a twinset fairly early on, I discovered Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) and took DIR Fundamentals (as it was called back then) in 2006 with former GUE instructor Andy Kerslake. Since then I’ve climbed the GUE ladder to Tech 2 and more recently, CCR 1 with Graham Blackmore, one of the best instructors that I’ve been fortunate enough to train with. The switch to CCR has been a revelation. It’s been tough unlearning some deeply ingrained habits, but it’s been so worth it.
What was your motivation to switch to CCR?
My switch to CCR was driven by a single, very focused desire to photograph the wrecks of Malin Head off the coast of Ireland. Laying in 60 meters-plus, you can do them on open circuit, but to truly appreciate them without running up an obscene helium bill, you need to dive them on CCR. I’m sure everyone has seen photo pioneer Leigh Bishop’s images of the massive 13.5” naval guns on the wreck of HMS Audacious or the Sherman tanks stacked on top of each other on the Empire Heritage—the Malin wrecks are a photographer’s dream! Visibility of 40 meters-plus is not unheard of, so you can really capture the scale of these amazing wrecks.
You participated in project diving before your switch to CCR. Can you tell me a little bit about what projects you were involved in and your role?
One of the first projects that I was lucky enough to be involved in was based out of Portland in Dorset here in the U.K. A team of passionate volunteers set it upon themselves to scour the seabed off Portland and Weymouth looking for uncharted wrecks, many of which had never been dived before. Using sidescan data captured during longs days scanning the seabed, we’d identify marks of interest and would set out to dive them. Sometimes those marks would simply be scrap on the seabed but, with surprising frequency, we’d find stuff of genuine historical interest, too.
“What always surprised me was the sheer volume of objects of historical significance just waiting to be discovered.”
What always surprised me was the sheer volume of objects of historical significance just waiting to be discovered. We got to the point where finding yet another Admiralty anchor or a centuries-old cannon was considered routine! Then, of course, there were those days when we’d stumble across really exciting finds. The seabed off Portland is very dynamic—it constantly shifts, burying some objects and revealing others. For me, a real highlight was the day we located a large section of hull from a 17th century vessel that had been buried for many years. We were certainly the first people to lay eyes on her since the day she sank! It’s a bittersweet memory too as my buddy that day is no longer with us.
My role on that project was to record what we’d find underwater through my photography. Photography had two purposes: The first would be to aid in the identification of the objects we’d find. The second—and possibly even more important purpose—would be that my images hopefully inspire others to take an interest in maritime history. We even set up a visitor center where divers and non-divers alike could view artifacts recovered from wrecks in the local area and learn more about Portland’s rich maritime history. These days, of course, the focus has switched more to photogrammetry, but I still feel that photography has an important role to play. 3D models are a fantastic visualisation tool, but they can also be rather clinical. Photography, on the other hand, gives far greater scope for creativity.
“These days, of course, the focus has switched more to photogrammetry, but I still feel that photography has an important role to play.”
In recent years, I’ve started giving something back to the community by sponsoring a number of U.K.-based projects. I’m proud to support the amazing work that GUE Instructor Marcus Rose has been doing with Project Baseline here in the U.K. Hopefully I’ll be able to get actively involved in a few of them, too!
You have no interest in photogrammetry?
Far from it. I honestly think that photogrammetry is a very exciting development, especially for project diving. I just don’t believe that it replaces traditional photography. If anything, it supplements it very nicely. Diving explorers like Ingmar and Richard Lundgren, Immi Wallin, Chris Rowlands, and Kari Hyttinen are doing some amazing things with photogrammetry and have proven its worth as a fantastic tool for visualising wreck sites. I see photogrammetry as an additional skill set that I could bring to diving projects, rather than being a skill I can offer commercially. The key to being a useful member of any project team is to bring skills to the table that both compliment and indeed supplement what they may already have. If you have the camera gear, it makes sense not to limit what you can offer.
Tell us a bit about how you came to name your business Bardo?
Contrary to what most seem to think, it’s got nothing to do with 1950s French actresses and a whole lot to do with my exploration of Buddhism back in my 20s. It’s actually a reference from the Bardo Thodol (or TheTibetan Book of the Dead as it’s called in the West). Wikipedia explains it better than I could as “the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth.” The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death in the Bardo—the interval between death and the next rebirth. Who knew I was quite so deep, eh?
Very poetic. How did you get into photography?
My first exposure to professional photography was during my magazine publishing days. Magazines are very visual mediums and need a constant supply of professional-quality photographs, and so I would spend many long days trapped in hot and stuffy photographic studios working alongside some very talented photographers. Seeing how they shaped light always fascinated me, and it’s something that I explore a lot through my own photography.
My own passion in photography started when I inherited my father’s SLR camera. It was a pretty basic camera, but it taught me how to shoot in full manual mode. Modern digital cameras are very sophisticated, but you still need to understand basic camera theory—f/stops, ISO speed, shutter speed, and so on. This is particularly important underwater as cameras will only capture what they perceive to be a correct exposure based on top-side theory. Full manual unlocks full creativity—you can capture the image you want rather than the image that the camera thinks you want.
When I first learned to dive, it didn’t take long before I wanted to take a camera with me on my adventures. Back then, film was still king, so my first attempts at underwater photography were captured on a roll of 36 exposures—many of which usually ended up in the bin. Shooting film is far more challenging than digital. Compared to the technology available to photographers today, getting a decent image on film was a lot more hit-and-miss.
Do you ever still shoot with film?
I honestly haven’t shot on film for many, many years now. Very occasionally, though, I do like to set myself a challenge. I will allow myself a maximum of 24 shots and go shoot something interesting. Forcing yourself to not “spray and pray” really makes you focus (if you’ll pardon the pun) on each and every shot. That’s one aspect of film photography that I fear we’ve lost—that sense that you’ve only got a very limited opportunity to get it right. In my experience at least, restricting yourself in this way often results in far better photos
“That’s one aspect of film photography that I fear we’ve lost—that sense that you’ve only got a very limited opportunity to get it right.”
You are doing more than just capturing your time underwater, you now work with brands and magazines doing commercial photography and graphic design. How did you get into that?
Through blood, sweat, and tears. Seriously though, none of it happened overnight, and it required a lot of networking to get my name out there and develop the contacts I have today. Ten years ago I was working in marketing for a travel company, and I would always become disheartened when days trapped in the office would stop me from going diving. In 2010 I made the decision to sack my boss and start working for myself. I really didn’t have a robust business plan; I just knew I wanted to be able to go diving whenever I wanted. Of course, the reality is somewhat different, and I still find myself occasionally trapped by work. Finding like-minded friends who can skip work to go diving is always a challenge, too, and then there are those pesky project deadlines that still get in the way. To be fair, being self-employed does give me a lot more flexibility to do what I want when I want, though. That alone makes it worthwhile.
Does anyone work with you on your projects?
For me, every shoot is a collaboration—whether it’s with your models, the client, or indeed your dive buddy. I always welcome input, and I’m always open to trying something different if I think they have a cool idea. Never assume that you’re the only one with the creative ideas.
You need to learn to collaborate when you’re working with diver models in water. As any underwater photographer will confirm, models can make or break a shoot. Diving with someone who instinctively knows how to be a good model can make the difference between capturing great images and a wasted dive. Developing that understanding takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. That said, I’m always mindful that I don’t want to monopolize my dive buddy’s in-water time. Often they’ve paid to be on the boat too, and the last thing they want is to spend the entire dive posing for my camera!
What is your thought process like when you’re doing a shoot?
It’s important to understand that every photoshoot is different. There’s no “do this, do that” formula that you can apply to ensure a successful shoot. The first step is to always talk to the client to get an understanding of what they want to get out of the shoot. Some clients have a very clear idea of what they want. The last shoot I did for Apeks, for example, was well-planned by the marketing team in Blackburn. They provided me with a comprehensive list of topside shots they needed to market and launch their then new VX-1 mask. How I executed those shots was up to me, but even then, a good photographer needs to develop an insight into the sort of “look and feel” that best matches the client’s brand. There’s no point shooting something completely off the wall if it doesn’t fit in with either the client’s brief or their own brand image. Photo commissions aren’t about you as a creative; they’re about satisfying the client’s needs.
“There’s no point shooting something completely off the wall if it doesn’t fit in with either the client’s brief or their own brand image. Photo commissions aren’t about you as a creative; they’re about satisfying the client’s needs.”
Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
Magazine shoots are always fun, and occasionally you get to travel to some quite exciting destinations. One of my favorite trips was to the beautiful island of Alphonse in the Indian Ocean, which was sponsored by the Seychelles tourist board. Three other photojournalists from the U.K. dive press and I were whisked away to a private island catering to the rich and famous. This island was just paradise personified and would normally cost far more than I could ever afford. Being able to spend a week on the island being treated like royalty under the pretense of writing a travel feature was quite a sweet gig!
Due to HSE restrictions here in the U.K., all my paid commissions are topside only. The stuff I shoot underwater is licensed as stock photography via my website, so I get a lot more free rein over my underwater images. That said, I do tend to tailor what I shoot with an eye to future licensing opportunities.
“What I enjoy is shooting people underwater. For me, what makes an image interesting is human interaction with the underwater world.”
What I enjoy is shooting people underwater. For me, what makes an image interesting is human interaction with the underwater world. It’s that human element that subconsciously connects us to an image. Without a diver, a photo of a wreck is just a shot of a pile of rusty metal on the sea bed. Photography is story-telling, and having a diver in your shot just adds a whole different dimension that invites the viewer to ask questions about what they are seeing.
Tell us about the InnerSpace piece? What was the assignment? What was the most challenging aspect?
The InnerSpace poster was my panacea to the coronavirus lockdown. Like many self-employed people, the lockdown had a dramatic impact on my business. Virtually overnight, I found myself with zero work, as dive businesses and magazines all shuttered up and closed down for the duration. Not being the sort of person who would busy himself with gardening, I spotted a competition on Instagram being run by camera equipment manufacturer Godox inviting photographers to shoot cool and imaginative imagery at home during lockdown. It gave me the excuse I needed to get into the studio and get creative!
Being unable to dive my JJ-CCR due to lockdown restrictions, I decided to create a cool movie-style poster in the studio by combining a stylish sci-fi style shot of the CCR with one of my underwater shots from Dreamgate cenote in Mexico. My long-suffering wife was drafted to model. I set the unit up on a table top in the studio and sat her into it. You’ll be relieved to know that the unit wasn’t functioning and the loop was closed. She still hated every minute of it but tolerated my creative distraction without so much as a complaint. She’s definitely a keeper.
The images were then combined in Photoshop, and the fancy movie text added to complete the effect. I’m pleased to report that the movie poster image seemed to do well—Godox picked it up, and I bagged myself a nice prize. I’m pleased to report that the CCR diver image has also been picked up by Otter Drysuits for a future promotional campaign. All in all, not a bad way to turn lockdown into something positive.
I love the shot of the cave diver looking up towards the light. Can you tell me a little bit about it? What were you envisioning?
I captured that image on my first trip to Mexico back in 2013 at Chac Mool cenote—probably one of the most famous cenote dives in the area. Chac Mool is best known for the breathtaking light show that appears in the head pool for much of the day. To get the full effect, though, you need to time it just right so that the sunlight cuts through the water at just the right angle. I challenge anyone not to be blown away by the beauty of Chac Mool as the strong sunlight cuts through the clear cenote waters. As a photographer, it’s a dream come true. You cannot fail to capture amazing images in such an environment. The first time I visited Chac Mool, I don’t think I got any further than the head pool. I literally spent 90 minutes just shooting the light beams!
“As any cave diver will tell you, the stream of light that cuts through the water at the end of a cool cave dive is always a welcome sight. Even though it signals the end of the dive, we subconsciously feel drawn into the light as it signals safety and a return to the world.”
As any cave diver will tell you, the stream of light that cuts through the water at the end of a cool cave dive is always a welcome sight. Even though it signals the end of the dive, we subconsciously feel drawn into the light as it signals safety and a return to the world. My idea for the shot was to create an image of a diver literally being drawn into a welcoming beam of sunlight, drawing them toward the surface like a sci-fi movie tractor beam. Convincing my model to drop out of trim for the shot was probably the biggest challenge. As any GUE diver knows, diving out of trim just feels wrong, but once I’d explained what I wanted to achieve, he was very obliging. I’m still impressed that he got the angle so right!
None of what I capture underwater is shot for a particular client, and so it always pleases me when one of my photos is picked up by a big diving brand. That particular image was featured on a full-page advert and exhibition stand for Fourth Element. Seeing your work being used as the eye candy for a high-profile promotional campaign never gets dull.
How does it feel when you see your finished product being used at a dive show or in a magazine?
It’s always a buzz! I’ve been lucky enough to have my photography featured on quite a few magazine covers over the years, and even now it still makes me beam when I get a cover. Most magazines will tip you off when your image has been selected, and some will even send you a “strictly for your eyes only” preview of the cover layout. Getting a screenshot of a future cover in my inbox first thing in the morning always brightens my day!
The worst thing about getting a cover, though, is not being able to tell anyone for a couple of weeks. Until the issue hits the newsstands, I have to keep it to myself. Even now, I still get some of the better covers blown up to poster size and framed. These take pride of place on the wall in my office and serve as a constant reminder of some of the awesome stuff I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph over the years.
Spotting my photography at dive shows is always very cool, too. Most recently, my shot of the Bristol Beaufighter wreck in Malta was blown up and displayed on a 6 m/20 ft wide light box at the Go Diving Show in Coventry, U.K. You really couldn’t miss it!
Can you tell us a little bit about the shoot for this cover of Scuba Diver magazine with a 17-year-old cave diver?
That cover accompanied a feature that I’d pitched to the magazine about young U.K. cave diver Robert Thomas. It was a perfect fit for the magazine as they were keen to promote young people coming into diving. In fact, that feature was used as the launch pad for a series of articles which ran over several months, showcasing young divers and some of the cool stuff they were doing. Most of them weren’t quite as extreme as Robert who, accompanied by his father, was squeezing himself into tight holes in the ground from a very young age.
The feature first came about when I accompanied Robert and his father on a caving trip to Porth Yr Ogof in South Wales—a beautiful cave located near the village of Ystradfellte, near the southern boundary of the Brecon Beacons National Park. I’d gone along to try my hand at dry cave photography using remote strobes dotted around the inside of the cave. During that trip, the idea of featuring Robert in the magazine had come about. I spent most of the day snapping shots for the potential feature of Robert and his father in this beautiful Welsh cave.
The one thing I didn’t have, though, was any underwater shots of Robert, so we hatched a plan to shoot some on another day. The U.K. isn’t blessed with too many caves that you can dive on a twinset, and even the cool caves like Wookey Hole are jealously guarded by the CDG (Cave Diving Group), so getting access to these wasn’t an option. Although both Robert and his father were CDG members, I was not, and CDG sadly doesn’t recognize other agency certs. To get around this problem, we travelled to Vobster Quay inland diving lake and shot some images there. If you know where to go underwater, there are quite a few little holes that, with a little creativity and some fancy lighting, you can make look like U.K. caves. So yes, I cheated. That cover shot was completely fake, but it really didn’t matter—it was an eye-catching image that grabbed the attention of anyone who picked up the magazine.
Do you do the layouts for magazine stories where your images appear? Or approve the finished product?
Magazines have their own designers, and I make a point of never interfering with their creativity. They may be my images and my words, but it’s their magazine and you have to be prepared to let go a little.
“As a photographer, it’s all too easy to get a little too attached to your own work. Different people see different things in a photo, and my opinion is no more or less valid than theirs.”
As a photographer, it’s all too easy to get a little too attached to your own work. Different people see different things in a photo, and my opinion is no more or less valid than theirs. That said, some magazines will occasionally invite your input. Scuba Diver magazine here in the U.K., for example, is really good, and I have a great relationship with both the editor and designer who makes our work look so eye-catching. If there’s a particular image that I’m really keen to have featured, they’ll normally accommodate my wish. Again, though, I don’t push it. Unless there’s a genuine reason why the image is important to the feature, I’m happy for them to choose the images that they think work best.
As a designer myself, I fully appreciate the pressures that magazine designers are under. The last thing they need is a precious photographer or writer asking them to make changes unless there’s a very, very good reason for it. Just let them do their job. Occasionally they’ll come up with something that doesn’t work for you but even then, it’s fascinating to see how others interpret your work.
Tell us about your work with EUROTEK and TEKCamp. What sort of challenges do you face with event photography and promotional designs?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some superb events over the years. I’m proud to be one of the organizers of the EUROTEK Advanced Diving Conference with responsibility for every aspect of the event’s branding and visuals. I’m also the regular event photographer for the Go Diving Show and TEKCamp masterclass events here in the U.K. and have also shot both TEKDiveUSA back in 2014 and the Baltictech Conference in Poland in 2017. Each event comes with its own unique set of challenges, but they all share one thing in common—they’re utterly exhausting but a whole lot of fun!
The biggest challenge with shooting an indoor event like EUROTEK is the lighting. Using flash photography isn’t really an option, as the last thing you want to do is disturb those who have paid good money to listen to the talks. Problem is, the conference rooms tend to be very dark, so you really need to know how to capture pin-sharp photos in low light and often work with difficult mixed lighting. Using the right equipment is key here. I shoot using a Nikon D4 which offers exceptional low-light capabilities with pro-level fast lenses. You get one chance to get the shot at an event—miss it and you’re stuck. There is no way to reproduce the shot at a later date.
What are your plans for the future? Any upcoming projects that you are working on, or personal plans that you can share with us?
Right now, I’ll just be happy to get back into the water. The pandemic that has swept the world has left us all with serious diving withdrawal symptoms! Once restrictions are fully lifted, my first port of call will be my local diving lake to spend a few hours getting comfortable on my rebreather again. I was lucky enough to recently squeeze a couple of shallow open-circuit shore dives in for a magazine feature, but that’s been it since early March. My poor CCR has a thick layer of dust on it!
After that, who knows. I’ve got a soft spot for the caves in the Lot region of France, so a trip across the channel with my camera and as many lights as I can smuggle through the border checks is definitely on the cards for later in the year. I’ve dived Mexico a few times, but there’s something about France that I just love. I suspect the stunning food and wine have something to do with it, as does the breathtaking countryside in that part of the world. If you’ve never visited France cave country, do it—it’s truly beautiful.
Scuba Diver magazine’s Webinar: Wreck photography with Jason Brown and Becky Kagan Schott
Connect With Jason Brown:
Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Diving Rocks! The Traverse from Ship Rock to Bird Rock
Tech instructor and musico Francesco Cameli reports on a recent team dive traversing the two humongous rocks that bookmark the San Pedro Channel, max depth 70m/230 ft. Power up your DPV; you’re in for a 1189m/3900ft ride!
by Francesco Cameli
Predive click: “We will, we will rock you, rock you. We will, we will rock you, rock you”—Queen
Well, I wish I could say it was my idea, but it was not. It was, in fact, one of my favourite team mates Jim Babor who came up with it. In his mind, he had been wanting to do this for a couple of years. It looked doable, but he hadn’t done the research to figure out if in fact that was true. It was in fact doable.
So, about six months ago with the pandemic in full bloom and Jim out of work, he decided to open a chart of Catalina Island (Two Harbors, specifically) and see what we would be looking at for depth and distance.
The chart said a max depth of 76 m/250 ft and a distance of about 1189 m/3900 ft. Based on that, the traverse seemed totally doable with time to spare!
He originally planned on 46 m/150 ft a minute on the scooters once we started, as long as there was no current. Big Blue, the boat we used, had actually run the course about a month before the dive and confirmed that the max depth was right at 70 m/230 ft, and the deepest part would happen in the first third. The bottom is shaped like a “V” so it would be easy to plan the dive and the decompression.
Now that he had an idea the dive could be done he had to get six divers that could, and wanted to, do the dive. So, he reached out to David Watson, Mark Self, Karim Hamza, Nir Maimon, and me. We all agreed to the 230 feet max depth with no more than a 60 minutes decompression obligation. Travel time would be 26 minutes, but we agreed to travel for 35 minutes max in case we needed extra time to find Bird Rock. We could still travel and do our accumulated deco—at that point anyway.
One final thing about the plan: navigation. Jim really wanted Karim to navigate because he’d been on many project based dives with him, and Karim is super reliable always, and on target.
In the morning when we got to the site, we ran the course one final time in the boat. We briefed and made it clear that one person would navigate and one person would verify—Watson—and that we would not navigate by committee. The hardest part about that is just not doubting yourself and your compass along the way, which is something we talked about before we jumped in. You see both the starting point and finishing point are two firm Los Angeles Underwater Explorers (LAUE) favorite dive spots.
Location Location, Location
SHIP ROCK is a small pinnacle that protrudes out of the water just offshore from Two Harbours in Catalina. It lies off the Isthmus about two miles. It takes its name from its great resemblance to a ship under full sail.
The top hundred feet under the pinnacle are nice enough, but it’s beyond 30m/100 feet, in my opinion, that it truly becomes magical with structure down to the sand at 52 m/170 feet and plenty of outcrops at 55m/180 ft, 61m/200ft to 77m/250 ft. It is also at times visited by a large great white which the locals call the landlord, although no one can be sure it is always the same shark or merely a term used to describe the different ones that frequent it. I have yet to see one there. All that said, it makes a great site for recreational and technical divers alike.
BIRD ROCK: Lays about a half-mile off Fisherman’s Cove, it appears above the channel waters as an oval, rounded, cemented rock about 91m/300ft by 152m/500 feet in extent and 6m/20 feet high. The rock is white with guano and is bare except for a limited patch of vegetation on the southeast side. The vegetation consists mostly of Opuntia among which grows about forty individuals of Cosmos gigantea, six shrubs of Lavatera, and a few plants of Malva rotundifolia. This rock is doubtless the original Catalina station for Lavatera and the place where it grows naturally.
This site, on the other hand, is only good to 49 m/160 ft or so, but to say only good, is not fair. The site itself is stunning with a great shelf at about 6m/20 feet which makes a great spot to end deco and is frequently visited by sea lions that love to play around as you pass the time before surfacing.
It’s only downside, due to the amount of bird guano, is that Bird Rock smells somewhat unpleasant!
We spent so much time diving these two sites, I’m kind of surprised no one thought of doing this until now.
The Final challenge was the boat captain and crew. Jim had been in constant contact with Captain Sheldon beforehand, and he was nervous about us doing the dive mainly because we would go under (albeit at 61m/200 ft) the main boat lane in and out of Two Harbors. We all totally respected the Captain, and it was his boat, so if he didn’t want us to do it, we wouldn’t do it, no questions asked.
However, after educating him on our plan and informing him that if anything happened, we would not make a direct ascent to the surface (we would incur a deco obligation pretty soon into the dive anyway, before reaching the boat lane), the Captain was comfortable and on board with the plan.
As mentioned the team was made up of Jim, David, Karim, Nir, Mark and me. Sadly, Mark had his car broken into the night before, so he did not join us on the dive.
The two sites are separated by approximately 1189 m/3900 ft. The maximum depth we were expecting to see between the two was 70m/230 ft, and, in fact, we saw 69m/228. The expected travel time was 26 minutes with a rise 2/3rds of the way there up to 46m/150ft then back down to 55m/180 feet before climbing back up to the rock.
The plan was to take a heading and try to stick to it the best we could, while remembering to keep the underwater mound to our right as we passed it on route. If we missed the rock, we would hit the main island a few minutes later at another favourite spot called Blue Caverns. This is a series of caverns at about 70 to 80 feet on the face of Catalina island just outside of Two Harbours.
Due to Mark not making the dive we had four JJ-CCR (closed circuit rebreather) divers and one open circuit diver, so we decided to split into a group of three with the OC diver between two JJs and one team of two, but the plan was to all stick together as a group of five. So, we travelled as a reverse triangle, three at the front and two close in behind. The CCR divers wore their long hoses above the loop in case of necessity to donate, a common GUE practise in mixed teams.
At depth and in the darkness, it was easy to keep track of each other’s lights—not unlike on a cave dive. The formation kept together nicely with the occasional diver dropping all the way to the deck to check max depth and perhaps inspect an object or two that we passed along the way. The plan, however, was not to dilly-dally but rather to stay on course and on time!
The JJs has trimix 12/65 diluent and bailout. In the GUE JJ configuration, there is a common set of doubles (LP50s in the states) which is both trimix bailout and dil. Additional bottom stages or deep deco gas can be carried in additional aluminum 80s (AL80) as required by depth and gas calculations. 50% and 100% were the deco gases. The open Circuit Diver was on trimix 15/55 with 50% and 100% deco gases. Every diver carried enough gas for the dive to ensure we had plenty in case of separation. Typically, as GUE divers we never dive with “team” bailout but always carry our full complement.
Traversing the Rocks
With all the planning done well ahead of dive day, we loaded the boat and took the one-hour ride to Ship Rock, where we anchored. After all our pre-dive checks and pre-breathes, we got into the water and took one last heading toward the rock to make sure. We dropped to 30 m/100 ft where we paused briefly to make sure all systems were good to go before heading to Bird.
Karim Hamza was given the task of navigating, so he aimed his DPV and we all speed matched. We were on our way!
A few words from Karim as the navigator: “Jim had already done a run with the boat using the sonar. Based on that, we knew that our max depth would be around 230fsw. If we got deeper than that, we knew we were off course to the left, and if we got shallower at the wrong time, we knew we were off course to the right. Then we used certain depth markers, such as a shallow pinnacle before Bird Rock, as navigational waypoints. We made the decision to specifically use digital compasses, as the number and marker would be easier to follow.
We had a little confusion at the start since David, Jim, and I actually had different headings, which meant the digital compasses were not calibrated the same. After a quick discussion, we decided to each take a dead reckoning of Bird Rock, mark it, and use the marker as the direction of travel. The plan then was for me to navigate, for David to verify or backup my navigation, and for the others to follow. We did not want to navigate by committee underwater. One crucial thing that we discussed was the fact that after some time, we may start to doubt our navigation and where we were on the course. This, in a lot of ways, is the most critical point in the dive. It is important at this point of doubt to trust your own experience, your data, your compass, your teammates’ verification, and everything you planned to stay on course, and to not waver and miss your mark.
Once we started, we were on a time limit, and we did have to stop for a few minor issues; communication of scooter speed, one team member had a light issue that had to be resolved, and one team member decided to do a zig-zag sightseeing course along the way which was very distracting for me, as I was trying to stay on course navigating. I didn’t realize how distracting it was until we got back on the boat and discussed and debriefed the dive.
Finally, once we made it across—and along the way recognizing the landmarks we had planned for—we ended up on an upslope that came up to 36 m/120 ft on our right. This was not something we had planned and was confusing at first (this is where the self doubt starts to kick in). I decided at that point to take a 90 degree heading to the left, go back down to 46m/150 ft, turn right 90’ and after five minutes we were at a recognizable part of Bird Rock that we had all dived many times before.
From the 30m/100 ft shelf Ship Rock drops quickly to 70m/228 ft where it stayed for the first third of our journey. This took us along a mainly flat, sandy bottom with the odd dusting of medium rock and a large anchor that someone obviously lost. About nine minutes in, we started to climb, this was supposed to lead us past an underwater pinnacle that rises to some 18 m/60 ft, we were supposed to leave this to our right and climb to 46 m/150 ft. As it turned out, we had ended up on the right side of the mound, so at 34 m/110 ft, we were able to cross back over and drop back down to 55 m/180 ft as expected. At that point, we readjusted our heading back toward the rock.
The depth remained constant as expected for a few more minutes and then it started to climb with groups of rocks. Then, only three minutes behind schedule after our small detour, boom we hit the rock head on. We were at 34m/110 ft, and the sea lions confirmed we were on the right site. We were at a spot we call the aquarium—a firm favourite of mine, with multiple steps covered in lush Californian kelp. It is visually stunning and punctuated by playing sea pups. This led us to a wall which I have done many tech dives on. We kept the wall on our right and commenced our ascent along the wall.
Deco was uneventful as planned with only David who was on open circuit doing his gas switches at 21m/70 ft to his 50% and 20 ft to pure O2. At 6m/20 ft we slowly kicked around passing the time in the kelp. Two minutes from surfacing, we deployed a surface marker buoy (SMB) and were met by the boat as we broke the surface.
As it turns out, with our average depth at 52m/170ft rounded to the nearest 3m/10 ft, the OC and CCR deco profiles tracked very closely, with the CCR divers obliging very slightly longer stops deeper to let the OC diver do his stops and vice versa at 6m/20 ft where an extra couple of minutes were required by the CCRs, so we all stayed together and did all the deco as a group. This was very much in keeping with what we had planned with our Deco Planner software before the dive. In the end, it was just a case of confirming which deco profile we were going to do based on our average depth and time.
Plan the Dive, Dive The Plan
We planned the dive and dove the plan with a small re-adjust of direction midway through. The team reacted calmly and got back on track as is expected of a well-oiled, high-functioning technical team. We realized we were on the wrong side, confirmed with brief hand gesture discussion, and rectified the situation to eventually end up exactly where we had planned. On we went, would we find the rock? Well, we could not have hit Bird Rock more dead on! Kudos Mr. Hamza for your navigation! And only three minutes past when we had calculated we would arrive.
On the whole, the dive was relaxed, uneventful, focused, and a lot of fun. Just how we like ‘em. Our total run time was about 100 minutes.
Unfortunately, we had no cameras or video of the dive. We didn’t think of it beforehand and, honestly, we all wanted to just be focused on what we were doing. Also, no top side photos. The only photos of us are the ones on Facebook of us all napping on the way back, haha! We would like to do it again at some point—take a go pro video of it and speed it up 10x’s and make a three-minute video out of the whole thing. Jim thought that might be cool. After a surface interval, we did a recreational dive on the nearby Isthmus reef. A great day of diving for all. Thanks to Big Blue’s Captain Sheldon Jones and our very own GUE diver and DM Nicole Coleman for the surface support.
One final note about GUE standard gasses. These have been formulated keeping a number of variables in mind. Max PO2, Max Density, Equivalent Narcotic Depth (END). These have been arranged and arrived at for easy memorization, as well as the ease of cross blending between them when the agency is on a project and they have been arranged into easy to remember and common depth ranges. The primary purpose for this standardization is to remove the guesswork and maintain team cohesion for deco. If everyone is on the same gas, then there should be no difference in deco obligation from team member to team member, making for an altogether safer ascent.
Typically, we try to maintain a PO2 of no more than 1.2 for the deep part of a tech dive with a max PO2 of 1.6 on deco. Also, 50% spikes at a 1.56 at the gas switch depth of 21m/70ft and then drops until we spike it again to a 1.6 with pure O2 at 6m/20ft. We run an END of no more than 4 ATA, an equivalent air density depth of no more than 5.2 grams/litre.
Born in France but hailing from Italy via England, Francesco’s passion for the ocean was ignited early on by the work of Jaques Cousteau, and Luc Besson’s film, The Big Blue. Growing up in the seaside village of Portofino, Italy, Francesco spent just about every daylight hour of his summers freediving. In his 20s and 30s, he found himself locked in a recording studio in London or Los Angeles making records for the likes of Queen and Duran Duran as well as Korn, Stone Sour, Avatar, and others. Francesco rediscovered the ocean on a trip to Kona, which is where his scuba journey began in earnest. Since then, he has averaged over 200 dives a year cultivating his own skills. Once he found GUE, he worked his way through the curriculum and became a GUE instructor in 2019. That year, the passionate and exacting polymath was one of the busiest GUE instructors in Los Angeles. He is now a Tech One Instructor. Some say you can occasionally hear him singing to the fish.
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