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by Michael Menduno
Header image courtesy of DeeperBlue.com.
Diving insiders were dismayed and saddened last month as an anonymous group of individuals using the moniker “Scuba Sam,” published a series of emails with the here-to-fore private details of the 47-year old, former Egyptian Army Colonel and tech instructor trainer Ahmed Gabr’s Guinness world record deepest scuba dive to 332 m/1,090 ft on September 18, 2014, in the Red Sea off the coast of Dahab, Egypt. He reportedly broke South African cave explorer Nuno Gomes’ previous world record of 318 m/1,044 ft set in Dahab in 2005. French cave explorer Pascal Bernabé also reportedly made a record deep scuba dive to 330 m/1078ft in Propriano, Corsica in 2005, several weeks after Gomes’ record dive, but the dive was not recognized by Guinness.
The emails, which were organized into six installments and sent to numerous high-profile technical divers including Gomes, as well as dive media outlets before being posted on Facebook by “Scuba Sam in August, called into question the validity of Gabr’s record, specifically whether he reached a record depth at all. The emails were also sent to Guinness World Records. A representative confirmed to me that they were being reviewed by the company’s Record Management Team.
Each of the emails offered a detailed analysis of a critical aspect of Gabr’s dive based on information that had been kept largely private until now. This information included a continuous headcam video taken by Gabr’s lead support diver, part of the actual “runtime” dive plan showing Gabr’s initial planned gas switches and decompression stops, and a detailed report of the chain of custody of the special Guinness depth tags that were to be used to validate the record.
Taken as a whole, the analyses highlighted a number of substantive discrepancies in Gabr’s reported depth record claim and raised questions about Guinness’ quality control, and perhaps about deep diving records themselves. It will be up to Guinness, of course, to determine whether the allegations are valid, and if so, whether Gabr will be allowed to retain his record.
The history of diving can be characterized as a search for greater depth and increased bottom time, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there are deep diving records. The fact is they represent a kind of a conundrum in technical diving culture. On the one hand, for the individual, deep record scuba diving is extremely dangerous, akin to physiological Russian roulette, and arguably lacks meaningful purpose other than bragging and or promotional rights. On the other hand, as a community, we are driven by our genetic disposition to explore and determine exactly where the limits are, how deep we can safely go. The question is how do we, as a community, strike a balance between the two.
It’s worth noting that compared to extreme compressed gas diving, the balance point is considerably different for internationally-sanctioned freediving depth competitions, which have a strong safety record, and are primarily athletic endeavors.
Historically, in the case of deep world record scuba dives, numerous divers have lost their lives trying to beat a prior record. In Gabr’s case, there have been at least two known unsuccessful attempts to beat his record, both of which resulted in fatalities. As a result, many tech divers are unsupportive of these types of dives and think they should be discontinued. The possibility that a world record dive could be faked casts further doubt on their veracity. The possibility that someone might actually fake one, well….here is what we know.
Rather than simply contesting Gabr’s record, Scuba Sam’s episodic analyses raised pointed questions about his dive, based on the evidence used to validate the record, which had not been previously made public. According to Scuba Sam, Gabr was required to produce two pieces of evidence to validate his dive. First, he had to retrieve one of a number of unique, signed depth tags that were attached to the descent line under the supervision of the Guinness adjudicator, in five-meter increments (320, 325, 330, 335 etc.) beginning just beyond the depth of Gomes’ record.
Second, the first deep support diver would video meeting Gabr at depth during his ascent. In the video, Gabr would show the retrieved tag, along with the screen of his dive computer showing his maximum depth, which presumably would correlate with the depth on the tag. The support diver would then ferry the tag, which would be zip-tied to his shoulder D-ring, to the Guinness representative, who then inspected it for authenticity and viewed the video to confirm the maximum depth, and then granted Gabr the record. It should be noted that, according to sources, the Guinness adjudicator was not a diver.
Based on careful examination of the evidence, as well as their intimate knowledge of the dive, the Scuba Sam collective, which likely includes members of Gabr’s record dive team (or at least has been in touch with them), uncovered five discrepancies that raise serious questions about the legitimacy of Gabr’s record.
- Gabr’s ScubaPro Digital 330 m Depth Timer, which according to sources was covered with neoprene glue to protect the crystal, obscuring all the readings except “maximum depth,” was identified to be the Imperial and not the Metric version of the device. As a result, the maximum depth reading of 330 was in feet not meters. The Depth Timer and another computer did not survive the dive. A third surviving computer was clipped at 90m by plan and never went to depth.
- Though he reported that his dive went according to plan, Gabr was 21 m/70 ft shallower, and eight minutes ahead of his runtime schedule, when he met his first support diver at 90 m/294 ft approximately 50 minutes into the dive. Shortening or altering the approximate 15-hour-long decompression schedule could significantly increase the risk of a serious decompression injury. Dive team members (see below) told me that it was highly unusual for the schedule to vary by more than one to two minutes during training dives. “Even a one-minute difference on a 200-meter plus dive was a big deal,” one team member said.
- In the video, Gabr is seen calmly breathing the wrong gas—his trimix 4/85 (4% O2, 85% He, 11% N2) back gas at 90m/294 ft, instead of from his trimix 12/75 stage bottle, which he was supposed to switch to at 120 m/392 ft. The stage appears unused with the regulator still in place, however the image is somewhat obscured. Improper or missed gas switches on a dive of this magnitude could cause serious injury or death.
- A trigonometric analysis of the angle of the descent line based on line markings—divers reported a fierce current—would likely put Gabr’s 335-meter tag at about 303 m/989 ft, which would be shy of the record.
- Reportedly, there were at least three breaks in the chain of custody of the depth tags following the arrival of the Guinness adjudicator, and an arguably less-than-transparent process, meaning that the official tags could have been altered and or replaced prior to the record dive. In addition, eye witnesses reported that Gabr and his lead support diver were not searched thoroughly for tags before entering the water. As one witness put it, “Gabr probably could have smuggled a firearm past.” The descent line was pulled up the day after Gabr’s record dive, but the event was not recorded or documented.
What About Gabr’s Dive Team?
When I read Scuba Sam’s first and second emails, my first instinct was to want to validate that the video and dive plan information was authentic. I was also skeptical as to why this information was coming out now, roughly six years after Gabr’s dive. Fortunately, an industry friend put me in touch with a member of Gabr’s dive team, who agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity.
The diver then referred me to another member of the team, who referred me to another. All together I interviewed five team members, who validated the authenticity of the video and the plan, along with a local tech operator. Note that the original dive team consisted of 22 members including 12 support divers, who spent nine months working with Gabr to train for his record attempt, which included 22 training dives, and consumed more than 500,000 liters of helium, and more than 250,000 liters of oxygen. The gas was donated by sponsors.
After speaking among themselves, the team members I interviewed decided that as a group they wanted to remain anonymous for this article. Three of the individuals told me that they were afraid of possible retaliation from Gabr and feared for their well-being and their livelihoods. According to them, one support diver who was involved in retrieving the descent line the day after the dive, was reportedly threatened, subjected to a campaign to discredit him, forced to give up his ownership in the local dive shop and ended up fleeing Egypt for his life, several months after the incident.
All five of the team members that I spoke to were angry, distraught, and felt betrayed. “Each of us had questions at the time, but there were plausible answers. When I put it all together now, I feel stupid,” one said. Another said, “I just want the truth to come out. I’m fuming!” And another, “I haven’t heard any good answers. I don’t want to help someone who has cheated.”
Several team members told me that when someone confronted Gabr about his breathing back gas after seeing the video, he reportedly responded by saying he had run out of (deco) gas, contradicting his earlier statements that the dive had gone as planned. “There are just so many holes,” a support diver noted.
According to team members, there were numerous small discrepancies leading up to the dive, each with plausible answers. At the time, no one had put them all together. Why did Gabr put neoprene cement on the corners of his ScubaPro Depth Timer obscuring almost all of the read-outs except for maximum depth? Ans: It was recommended by the manufacturer to protect the integrity of the crystal face. Why would Gabr plan to clip off one of his dive computers at 90m and not take it to the bottom? Ans: To make sure he had a working computer on ascent. Why were there no submersible pressure gauges (SPGs) on the tanks? Ans: Fewer points of failure. Why wasn’t Gabr willing to carry a camera to document the dive? Ans: He didn’t want his children to see the video on the Internet, if he were to die.” All plausible answers taken by themselves, but taken as a whole potentially represent a pattern of non-transparency.
In addition, team members noted that Gabr seemingly had a surprising amount of energy after surfacing from his 15-hour dive, which finished at about 12:30 am. After offering a military salute, he was chatting and shaking everyone’s hands and had to be told to sit down. He even had to be dissuaded from running later in the morning.
In contrast, Gomes was so exhausted following his 12-hour world record dive, he had to be helped to walk off the boat, was placed on a saline drip, and was wheeled to the car with a diving doc in attendance and was driven to his hotel. There he was given a medical, put on precautionary oxygen and went to sleep. He rested for several days but he said that it took him a couple of weeks before he was back to normal. John Bennett, another prior 300m/979 ft reportedly had a similar experience.
Some speculated that the difference was due the fact that Gabr’s team removed his quads (four back mounted cylinders) and switched him to a sidemount rig at his 21 m/70 ft stop, while Gomes stayed in his quads the entire dive. However, Gomes, who has been diving quads since 1996 and has hundreds of in-water hours on them, is insistent that wearing quads had nothing to do with his condition. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that having the quads on by back throughout the dive made absolutely no difference to my condition and how I felt afterwards,” Gomes wrote to me.
Why weren’t any of the discrepancies highlighted in the video noticed on the day of the dive? Those present reported that it was a stressful operation. “The day was insane. Chaos. There were people, press and police. There was no time to think or compare notes,” one team member recalled. Conditions were also stressful, with a ripping current. The support boat reportedly even ran out of food. “It was the most stressful day of my life,” a support diver told me. Another explained that he was so task loaded, all he could do to focus on his job. Gabr’s dive concluded about 12:30 am. By 1:30 am, the boat was back at the jetty. Gabr was then awarded his Guinness world record certificate.
So why is all of this coming out now, six years after the dive?
Blame it on the COVID-19. After much of the northern hemisphere went into lockdown earlier in the year, one team member reportedly decided to use the time to write a book about the world record dive experience, and got in touch with others to discuss their experiences, to compare notes, and then he began reviewing the data. No one had reviewed the video. “It was a holy shit moment. We were seeing the video with fresh eyes, not what we had wanted to see,” a team member reported.
After seeing the first four emails and interviewing team members, I reached out to Gabr to see if he would be willing to speak with me on the record. He responded quickly and said that he would be willing to talk but asked if we could wait until the final installment of Scuba Sam’s emails had been published. I contacted him again after the final email episode was released and the various analyses posted on Facebook. Gabr said he would be happy to do the interview in the next few days and gave me some possible times. He asked if I would email him the list of questions that I planned to ask. I sent him my questions and waited to hear back.
Gabr wrote back to me the day before we were tentatively scheduled to talk. He thanked me for my interest but explained that he wouldn’t be able to do the interview. “Not because I don’t want to,” he wrote, “but because all my media interactions have to be approved first by my legal team and they advised against doing the interview for the time being.” [Author’s note: Gabr contacted me and agreed to do an interview just as this story, and issue, was being finalized for release. His responses to my questions are in Part 2: Interview with Ahmed Gabr.]
It will be up to Guinness to investigate the allegations that have been leveled, and decide whether Gabr actually completed a world record deep dive or not. Given the newly revealed evidence, and Gabr’s lack of response, he will likely face a large degree of skepticism on the part of the technical diving community until the truth is known and the issue resolved.
I asked Gomes, who’s spent the bulk of his thirty-some year career making deep dives for his perspective on the situation. After all, depending on the outcome of Guinness’ deliberations, his world record dive to 318 m/1,044 ft could be reinstated. We spoke by phone. “I never doubted Gabr’s record was valid,” Gomes offered. “I mean how could someone fool Guinness World records? It would take a well-planned scam, a hell of a scam. It would be just terrible. I mean how could you live with yourself? It’s just inconceivable.”
Read what Gabr has to say in Part 2: Interview With World Record Holder Ahmed Gabr
This story has also been published in DeeperBlue.com.
Scuba Sam’s Analysis of Gabr’s Dive
Ahmed Gabr discussing breaking the world record on his dive to 332m: the planning, the preparation, helium, and the determination.
Nuno Gomes World Record Sea Dive: World Record Sea Dive (part 2) (Video)
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, a staff writer for DeeperBlue.com, and is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA).
Resurrecting a Ghost: The Launch of Ghost Diving USA
By Katie McWilliams. Photos courtesy of Ghost Diving USA unless noted. Header image by Jim Babor
Ghost Diving, formerly Ghost Fishing, has officially arrived in the United States. Naming Southern California as home for the United States chapter is not an expansion to a new territory; instead, it is a warm welcome home after a long journey.
Ghost Fishing first arrived in Southern California in the mid 2000s spearheaded by Karim and Heather Hamza. Their team, a group of volunteer technical divers, set out to improve the health and viability of the Southern California waters. The team started with the Infidel, a sunken squid fishing vessel near Catalina Island in 45 m/150 ft. They diligently worked to clean the Infidel which took almost two years. This victory was huge for their effort. Sadly, due to lack of funding, they were unable to continue other projects. Despite this hardship and some time away from their pursuit of the ghosts, Karim and Heather are back and more motivated than ever.
Heather’s passion is deeply rooted in her mission to advocate for animals. This passion has helped her to push through and focus on advocating for the animals that are often unseen. The marine life that goes undetected but is ever threatened in our oceans. These are the animals Heather makes very certain to see. Her passion and love for them is palpable; it radiates from her like the warmth of a sunny day. It beckons you to join her cause. This is what keeps the fire alive in her heart for Ghost Diving. She knows that she can turn the collection of nets and her experiences into educational opportunities. Heather’s aspirations for Ghost Diving USA include continuing to educate others regarding the threat of abandoned and discarded fishing gear, seeking legislative solutions to the problem, and ultimately, building an informed and empowered community that takes care of our oceans.
Karim thrives in situations that require precision and accuracy. He explains that for him, this new era of Ghost Diving is providing a fresh opportunity to build a community of elite divers that share a passion for and commitment to a great cause. He has the knowledge and experience to help train and mentor divers along their path to becoming ghost divers and intends to give all he can to the process. He wants to bring to fruition teams of divers who trust not only each other but also the process, as well as high training standards and passion for the cause. As Karim described all the things that a ghost diver needs to be, one of the original team members immediately sprang to mind, Jim Babor.
Jim recounted the arduous process that is becoming a ghost diver and being active with projects. He started with the project as a safety diver. The deep team would come up from the dive to the nets, and Jim would ascend with them through their scheduled decompression. He then progressed into his technical training and began photographing and documenting the work the divers were doing. Jim shared something that truly captures the essence of the passion needed to be a ghost diver. When asked about some of his most memorable incidents, he recounted the amazing experience of rescuing live animals by cutting them out of nets they were trapped in.. When asked what it felt like to cut an animal out of the net and watch it swim away, Jim was simply at a loss for words. We spoke on the phone and despite Jim’s reflective pause as he gathered his thoughts, it was apparent that the experience resonates with him on a deep level rooted in compassion. For Jim, the Ghost Diving USA launch brings his commitment and journey as a ghost diver full circle.
Helping to lead Ghost Diving USA into the future is scientific coordinator Norbert Lee, Scuba instructor, marine biologist, and active technical diver. To speak to Norbert is to feel his can-do attitude and realize his aspirations are rooted in protecting and fostering the growth of the underwater world while educating the community about ocean conservation. More importantly, his strong sense of commitment to the team effort shines through everything. In asking Norbert about his journey to becoming the US chapter coordinator, he cited the significance of the mentorship he has and continues to receive. This mentorship comes from a variety of sources including Pascal van Erp, the Hamzas and Jim Babor.
Norbert Lee’s goal is to collect data about the environmental impact of ghost nets and how their removal impacts the health and growth of a given area. By collecting this data, he is confident he can help to educate the community about the true impact of abandoned fishing gear. He does not want to stop with nets. He wants to help recover lobster pots and other fishing apparatus that continue to catch fish after being left behind. Through educating the community, he does not want to villainize or chastise commercial fishing but rather to build working, symbiotic relationships with fishermen. By working together, Norbert hopes to have the nets removed before they do irreversible damage.
The Founding of Ghost Diving
Pascal van Erp has a commanding grasp on the issue of abandoned fishing gear. As the founder of Ghost Diving. Pascal’s passion has built a formidable and forward-thinking movement. Speaking to Pascal is a unique experience. He exudes a quiet confidence that only time and experience can build. In researching his work to prepare for his visit and subsequent presentations, it became quite apparent that Pascal is consistent in his message. The message is that Ghost Diving breathes new life into abandoned nets that can be recycled or upcycled. To reuse and upcycle the nets means to actively contribute to the health of the planet for today and more importantly, future generations.
Next, Pascal emphasizes Ghost Diving is dangerous. He explains that the dangers are not always apparent. Instead, they lurk in the shadows cast by ghost nets. Team dynamics are not only critical but a matter of life and death. Pascal frequently mentions the significance of trust. The ability to trust teammates to maintain composure in the face of adversity. Trusting that if something goes wrong, they can and will continue to problem solve. Trusting that they can and will save your life. The team must always perform at the highest levels. It is critical that the dive is executed according to plan and that the procedure is applied with absolute fidelity. The nets do not discriminate between human life and marine life. They are not forgiving. A diver can meet an untimely fate in the grasp of a ghost net.
Ghost Diving USA provides a unique and exciting opportunity by planting its roots here. With support from Zen Dive Co., ghost divers will have access to equipment, standard gasses and service that will meet all their needs while ensuring the quality and reliability of these resources. While funding issues had previously plagued Ghost Fishing, the Ghost Diving partnership with Healthy Seas along with other community sponsors helps to ensure the security of the critical funding that makes these projects possible.
Launching Ghost Diving USA
Zen Dive Co. hosted a launch event for Ghost Diving USA on Thursday, April 28. The energy in the building was electric. Everyone was thrilled to network, build community, and work towards supporting Ghost Diving USA in any possible way. Karim opened the evening by describing the net diving mission that the ghost divers had gone on earlier in the day. He explained in detail that the Moody, a Wickes class destroyer, sits at approximately 45m/150 ft. Conditions at sea were challenging. Spring is a rough season in Southern California. Variable winds cause large swells, and upwellings bring up life giving nutrients. Unfortunately, both phenomena significantly reduce visibility. This dive was no exception. Karim described a thick green cloud in the shallower depths cutting visibility to 4.5–6 m/15–20 ft. This green cloud blocked out all ambient light as the ghost divers descended, and then cutting the nets only made visibility worse. Essentially, there was no ambient light, and visibility quickly became next to zero. The ghost divers were forced to rely upon the light they brought with them. Despite the challenges, the net clean-up was successful, but the work is far from done. The ghost divers will have to return to remove more net.
Pascal made a brief presentation about the problem of ghost nets. It was incredible to experience a room full of people feeling compelled to act, and everyone looking for the way they could best support the mission. Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas helped to drive the point home when she explained that through partnerships with organizations such as Bracenet and Aquafil, the recycling and upcycling of nets can help to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, as the ability to recycle nets and the products made from nets grows, they become sustainable and renewable. The yarn made from the nets can be processed infinitely and never loses quality.
The most precious resource to any of these projects is manpower. Volunteers. People willing to train hard, think of the many versus the one and ultimately focus on safety. A ghost diver is a technical diver that has successfully completed a series of training workshops that help to best prepare them for what they will experience on a net retrieval dive. The workshops also serve to build team cohesion. Pascal and Karim both explain that the need to work with technical divers is not to be exclusionary. Ghost divers need to be able to handle any situation that may arise at any moment. Technical divers are trained to do exactly that.
For recreational divers and non-divers alike, there is a place for everyone. Ghost divers cannot do what they do without support. Jim shared with me that his son, middle-school-aged at the time, used to volunteer as surface support. He and a friend would help to bring nets onto the boat and then search through them meticulously for any trapped marine life that could be released back into the ocean. Not only did his son help to raise awareness through multiple award-winning science projects, but he also became a diver crediting his experience helping with ghost nets. The Hamzas and Norbert hope to grow Ghost Diving USA to include recreational limit projects that allow for the training and participation of recreational divers.
Ghost Diving USA is hitting the ground running. If you are looking for a way to get involved, a great place to start is to follow them on their social media pages. They are on Facebook and Instagram as Ghost Diving USA or @GhostDivingUSA. If you would like to inquire about the application process, you can reach the USA chapter via email at email@example.com.
You can also act right now. Learn about what abandoned fishing gear does to our oceans and talk to others about it. Through raising awareness, you can help remind people that while the surface of the ocean is beautiful, it is what is below the surface that desperately needs our help.
|Ghost Diving International:||https://ghostdiving.org|
|Alert Diver:||Ghost Fishing by Michael Menduno. The story of Heather Hamza and her team (2014).|
Katie McWilliams is an avid diver, spending every spare moment she can in the water. Currently completing her divemaster and training for her technical pass, she wants to not only further her education and ability to explore the ocean but help with the training of divers. Specifically, Katie wants to focus on spreading awareness of how we can help the health and conservation of the oceans and marine life. Outside of diving, Katie works in moderate/severe special education. She enjoys reading, exercise, off-roading, camping and spending time with her husband, family and friends.