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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 on August 27, 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).
Undergoing PFO Surgery as a Team: Deana & Bert’s Excellent Adventure
People like to give GUE a hard time for their uncompromising focus on team diving. But a pair of divers from GUE Seattle has taken it to a new level: getting their PFOs fixed together. The team that bends together, mends together? Instructor and tech diver James D. Fraser willingly tells the tale.
by James D. Fraser
Header photo courtesy of Dr. Doug Ebersole
This is the follow-up to the story that ran in InDepth December, 2019: No Fault DCI? The Story of My Wife’s PFO
It has been a year since my wife Deana had a decompression illness (DCI) hit in Bonaire requiring her to do a Table 5 recompression profile in a hyperbaric chamber. At the time of my previous article’s publication, Deana had a Transthoracic Echocardiogram (TTE) bubble study and found out she did have a small to moderate patent foramen ovale (PFO). Two physicians offered similar options for Deana to consider when it came to her diving activities:
- Stop diving, as this eliminates any risk of DCI in the future.
- Modify her dive profiles to be more conservative: diving only once per day, diving nitrox 32 using air tables, and/or extending her decompression profiles and safety stops.
- Have the PFO repaired, knowing it is not a guarantee, and continue diving as conservatively as possible.
Deana had initially decided to wait on doing a PFO closure until after our daughter’s wedding in March 2020, but she realized very quickly that being “conservative” was not in her nature. Deana had already returned to diving within 12 days of her hyperbaric chamber ride. In the 46 days since her treatment, Deana had already done another 15 dives to depths of 90 feet; being conservative really was proving to not be an option for her. Diving was just too much a part of her life.
In mid-November, Deana reached out to cardiologist and tech diving instructor Dr. Doug Ebersole for a second opinion on the bubble study and his advice about her options. Dr. Ebersole gave Deana the same response as the other physicians; but, knowing Deana and her passion for diving, he suggested that she have her PFO fixed, since her plan was to continue diving.
Deana also spent time talking to other divers who had been diagnosed with PFOs—some who had them repaired and some who had decided against it—in order to get a more complete picture from both a patient and a doctor point of view. One of the final conversations that pushed Deana to have her PFO repaired was with a coworker who was a nurse practitioner in cardiology with knowledge of PFOs and diving. Her coworker was pretty blunt, stating, “Why are you playing Russian Roulette? You have worked in cardiac and know the risks.”
Some of these risks include Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE), Venous Gas Embolism (VGE), and cerebral embolism. That was the final “Aha” moment to tip the scale and get Deana to schedule her PFO repair, since “Russian Roulette” was exactly what Deana was doing based on her diving activities following her DCI hit.
Team Approach to Treatment
Bert Berzicha, one of our GUE Seattle community members, also completed his TTE as a result of having had some symptoms of DCI in the past. The test confirmed the presence of a large PFO. Deana and Bert compared notes initially and discussed diving as a team on future dives using more conservative decompression profiles than other teams, allowing the other teams to get out of the water sooner. Deana, however, related what she had learned from talking with her coworker and changed her mind about diving conservatively and instead decided to get the PFO repaired.
Deana did not want to take the risk of neurological deficits that could be irreversible. Deana suggested to Bert that he come with her to have his PFO repaired at the same time. Bert continued to research the subject, looked at his work schedule, and decided doing a “team” procedure made sense. Just as a dive team shares a plan, resources, and emergency procedures, a medical procedure shares similar benefits when working as a team.
It was time to plan a date for both of them to have the procedure. Deana and Bert both live in the Seattle area. Dr. Ebersole lives in Lakeland, Florida, so logistics included time off work, pre- and post-surgical care, flights, hotels, and transportation. Deana arranged to have her sister Jessica fly into Tampa from Dallas, prior to them arriving, so she could pick them up from the airport to make it to the hospital in time for the procedure. I was going to be in Australia on a business trip at the time, so I was not able to be there pre-surgery. I ended up reworking my return trip and flew from Canberra, AU to San Francisco, then on to Tampa, to land just an hour after their surgeries were finished and meet them back at the hotel.
Even though Deana and Bert could fly home 24 hours after the procedure, they decided to stay the weekend just in case there were any complications and to take it easy. Deana, however, had a different take on “easy.” The morning after surgery, Deana was invited by Dr. Ebersole to watch a procedure that he and his team perform called the “WATCHMAN” procedure (less than 24 hours after post-op). Then we picked up Bert and Jessica, and jumped into the truck to do a 300-mile, five-hour road trip to High Springs, FL, to take a tour of the Halcyon facility and say “Hi” to Orie Braun, Lauren Fanning, and Mark Messersmith; stop in at Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) HQ to buy some swag; and drive down to Ginnie Springs to see where Cave 1 may take place in Deana’s and my near future. Not bad a day after surgery.
It was at Ginnie Springs where Bert came to Deana and stated he thought he had active bleeding. We all paused and turned pale, knowing we were not in a great location for this to be happening, but after being assessed by Deana it turned out to be post-op bruising from the surgery. This did, however, make us stop and think, “We just drove 300 miles away from the hospital we had decided to be close to in case of complications.” I am sure Gareth Lock would find a really good human factors story in there somewhere.
Deana’s PFO adventure Timeline
- OCT 8: 47 m/153 ft technical dive resulting in a DCI episode requiring recompression.
- OCT 20: First dive post-chamber ride to 16 m/52 ft
- OCT 29: TTE Bubble Study; “Deana has a small to moderate PFO”
- NOV 17: Dr. Ebersole receives Deana’s TTE study for a second opinion
- NOV 21: Deanna dives now to 28 m/90 ft
- DEC 4: Last dive before PFO repair. In the 46 days since her hyperbaric treatment Deana made 15 dives: “Conservative Not”
- DEC 12: Deana and Bert have PFO procedure
- DEC 13: Lakeland to High Springs road trip
- JAN 27: First dive post closure—15 m/49 ft and spaced dives 2-3 days apart
- FEB 15: Started doing multiple dives daily no greater 15 m/50 ft
- MAR 8: PFO follow-up; OFFICIALLY cleared by Dr Ebersole to dive
- MAY 7: Dives now pushing 30 m/100 ft
- MAY 31: First Tec dive to 33 m/110 ft
Since May, Deana has done 120 dives in 2020 with a max depth of 52 m/170ft, which she did on September 12. Deana has gone back to no-restriction diving and has completed 16 technical dives since this summer. Some of these have been assisting with photogrammetry dives.
- 46 m/150 ft to 52 m/170 ft: 3 dives
- 40 m/130 ft to 46 m/150 ft: 5 dives
- 30 m/100 ft to 40 m/130 ft: 8 dives
Getting Personal With PFOs
COVID-19 has prevented us from doing a dive trip this year, which is the one main test we still have yet to do: repeat the scenario that always led to her getting DCI, which was three consecutive days of recreation and tech dives, to see if she experiences any recurrence of DCI symptoms. 2021 will hopefully open up this opportunity, or by that time Deana will already be training for GUE’s Tech 2 course. In either case, Deana and Bert are both very happy to have had their PFOs repaired; both have seen improvements in their health in other areas such as endurance, no longer being easily winded, and, in Bert’s case, less headaches, which he had prior to the PFO closure.
To get a PFO repaired is a personal choice, and no one should ever take surgery lightly as it has its own risks. Divers with PFOs need to do their own research and consult an interventional cardiologist, such as Dr. Ebersole, who understands diving. Only then can they make an informed choice based on their own unique situation whether or not a PFO closure is right for them. This article is meant to show the process and outcome of two very experienced and ambitious divers who made the choice to have their PFO repaired and the results of that decision.
Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine: The effectiveness of risk mitigation interventions in divers with persistent (patent) foramen ovale by George Anderson, Douglas Ebersole, Derek Covington and Petar J Denoble. 2019 Jun 30.
Alert Diver: PFO Study Update by Petar J Denoble
Alert Diver: Cases studies of divers who had their PFOs closed with transcatheter-applied occluders: Divers with Holes in their Hearts by Petar J Denoble 2010
James D. Fraser is a GUE Fundamentals and Rec 1/2 Instructor, PADI MSDT, and NAUI Scuba Instructor, and has been diving in the Pacific Northwest for over 30 years. James currently lives in Seattle, WA, with his wife and dive teammate Deana Fraser. As a member of the GUE Seattle Board of Directors, James is able to share his experiences and work with Deana at growing the local diving community sharing their passion with all who are interested. James recently embraced technical diving, becoming certified as a Technical 1 diver with GUE. James and Deana have had opportunities to travel all over the world to experience their passion in amazing places such as Egypt and the Maldives. James currently works as a Cyber Security Director with a Fortune 500 Defense Contractor and has been a residential construction business owner and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
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