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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).
A Perspective on Teaching Cave CCR
Veteran Irish cave and CCR instructor cum sports psychologist Matt Jevon explains how he teaches divers to become competent underground rebreather divers who “err safely” and thus are likely to return home at the end of the dive.
by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of Marissa Eckert
“To err is human” Alexander Pope
In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” However, if you are not prepared to err safely in cave or rebreather diving, you will come face to face with your preferred divine being, begging for forgiveness.
Stratis Kas’s book, Close Calls, a compilation of stories from a roll call of “who’s who” in diving, attests to the fact that the very best of us can and do make mistakes, or err. That they are still here to share these lessons with us affirms the huge amount of training, preparation, and experience required—and, as many will admit, no small amount of luck.
Gareth Lock, author of Under Pressure, is fond of the phrase “fail safely,” and with good cause. As he puts it, and I paraphrase; the human in the machine is at the heart of likely outcomes. In my own experience as a psychologist with expertise in human performance, the best systems, processes, and technologies are often outwitted by an unwitting fool or an arrogant wise man.
Today there is a surge of divers wishing to become cave divers, perhaps because it is perceived by some as the pinnacle of diving—in skill and status—or perhaps because it is seen as more accessible. Certainly, social media has given access to the incredible and beautiful environments that were once the playground of a select few. Divers are discovering that cave and modern diving practices, equipment, and training are making it a much safer environment until they start exploring virgin caves. Closed circuit rebreathers (CCR) are now mainstream and in wide use by many divers. In cave and deep dives, I would say they have become the primary tool; the limitations of open circuit scuba are seen as making it inappropriate for most “big” dives.
By the time a diver reaches their CCR cave course, they will, or should be, a knowledgeable, skillful, and competent diver on a CCR. Perhaps the odd one will find a shortcut, but it is the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the majority will already have some open circuit cave training, at least to intro level if not to full cave. The pathway from zero to hero in the cave is much longer and more difficult to shortcut than, say, open water to instructor status. Starting cave diving on CCR from cavern to full cave is, and should be, a much longer route.
[Ed.note: There are arguments against allowing a student to pursue any form of diving before gaining open circuit experience. Some argue that one should first become competent on open circuit in the relevant environment and THEN train in that environment on RB/CCR. This argument asserts that RB failures will find a diver on open circuit, requiring them to be proficient on this equipment in the relevant environment. These factors may be progressively more relevant with more complex environments.]
So, the CCR cave instructor is not dealing with an inexperienced CCR diver; nor, if they are as careful in their acceptance of students as most are, will they be dealing with an adrenaline seeking-junkie. See “Why We Cave Dive” (video) for reasons why some divers seek out the karst realm, as well as examples of divers we hope to encourage into the sport and those we prefer to avoid it.
The job of a cave CCR instructor is not to prevent all errors or mistakes. It would be both arrogant and foolish to believe that instructors can overcome human nature and the situational factors found in closed circuit cave diving. The instructor’s role is to lessen the frequency and severity and to mitigate the consequences of those errors as, and when, they occur. The instructor must do this in the course, ideally exposing students to likely errors or challenges in controlled conditions and embedding appropriate solutions. Students should acquire appropriate and controlled emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.
Being a cave instructor has a few significant differences from being a deep technical rebreather instructor. Here are a few:
Cave diving demands a greater equipment load. The number of backups can be summarised as “Three is two, and one is none.” So, three sources of light sufficient to complete an exit, three cutting devices, reel/spools, markers, breathing sources, and more. Before entering any overhead environment, the instructor must help students configure, become familiar with, and master accessing and manipulating their configuration. For this reason, cave divers opt for simple, easy solutions that are robust and definitely not prone to failure. This applies to their primary gear (CCR choice) and to every single piece of backup gear.
My own choices are primarily sidemount-based in the cave; the Liberty rebreather; Divesoft computers, primary reel and markers; plus O’Three 90ninety shell suit; and Apeks regulators and spools, all based on a Razor Sidemount System. In backmount I use a JJ-CCR, but I am now using the Liberty Sidemount rebreather as a bailout system. All simple, proven, tough, and each piece having substantial built-in redundancy/failure management options.
The instructor’s primary role—despite what many believe to the contrary—is, in any diving, to ensure that the students are safe and that they go home unharmed medically, physically, or mentally. Secondary to this is teaching skills, having fun, and awesome and epic dives. What a big ask in cave diving!
Progression in open water diving is more straightforward, especially using mixed gas. In the absence of narcosis, divers can build up deco time gradually and have a pre-rehearsed familiar exit/ascent permanently above them. Although not different in terms of time to exit, an open water deco ceiling somehow seems, to most, to be less of a psychological threat than several hundred tons of rock.
I have seen cave divers suddenly go from a point of being perfectly happy to being very unsettled and distressed within a few meters. There is actually a term for this: penetration stress. Penetration should be slowly built up over time with confidence in the linear distance built through many dives—some, but not all, including stressful exits (blind, bailed out, manual control, or touch contact).
To do this, an instructor needs considerable empathy. Some instructors may shy away from this and instead use a pseudo militaristic approach by battering, bullying, or belittling the student, constantly tearing off masks, shutting down gas, or more. (We are talking personality types here, not problem solving training.) Stay away from these people at all costs.
Instructors cope with a high task load. Not only do they have to monitor the group’s penetration distance, navigation, and teamwork, but they also need to monitor the students and their own PO2, decompression obligations and time to surface (TTL), bailout supply and limits, on board gas supply, scrubber durations, as well as to teach. In order to do this, a few tricks are employed. Some of these may be useful when diving in any CCR team:
- PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
- Instructor Ghost Mode. Not just used for sneaky (pre-warned and planned) drills, the lights off/blackout ghost mode is often accompanied by pull and glide along ceilings or cave walls where no damage to the environment is possible. Instructors, especially on quiet CCRs, can get within a few centimeters of a student without their knowing, or they can shoot ahead. It is a bad practice to turn off (as opposed to cover) one’s primarily in a cave. The on-off button/switch is a weak point, especially at depth—sufficient working backups are required.
- Buddy lights on CCRs are brilliant for instructor/team monitoring, Divesoft’s show up well and Sentinels almost too well. When I was a student, my instructor found ghost mode difficult to fully pull off, since I saw this green light above me every time he tried it!
As an instructor, you want the students to develop their own robust team dynamic. If you are part of this, too often, students will always defer to your authority and default to you for leadership and solutions. So, if you do join the team to make up numbers, always be number 2, the weakest member, and play the part. Students don’t need to see how clever or skilled you are, they need to develop their own skills.
Navigation: Know the cave you are teaching in. For students’ first dives where I may not know them or their capabilities, I like to be in caves where a lost line would not be an issue for me in terms of exiting. Take Ressell in France for instance: A quick glance at the ceiling and a look at the scallop shapes in the rock, and I know which way is out.
These assume a whole other level of importance in cave and rebreather diving. A checklist is useful but only if you properly check everything on it. Turn backup lights on and off, breathe bailout regs at least 4-5 breaths. Fill and dump wings and drysuits. Prevention will ensure survival. It will also give students confidence, which means you are less likely to have issues, you’ll get a better response if you do, and you can actually enjoy the dive. [Ed.—Check out GUE’s Pre-Dive Sequence here]
Here are a few tricks I also like to instill:
- Link routines. For example, PO2 check and back reference. I use a hand mirror, so looking back is easy, and a quick over the shoulder is not difficult. Every time I check PO2, I look behind me. Caves often look very different on the way out and if I can, I will mentally imprint landmarks that I will see on exit. Some caves have distance markers every 100-150 m/328-492 ft on the main line, especially training caves. I’m not a huge fan of these for my own diving, as it’s a bit like graffiti; but, for trainees, PO2 plus back reference anytime you pass any navigational marker is a good routine.
- Wetnotes use. A good habit in a new cave is to make a note of time, distance, gas, and the navigation marking/direction in your wetnotes at any substantive navigation. On some dives, this will be two or three notes. Do this in some Mexican caves and you will get about 300 m/0.2 miles from the entrance and need a new Wetnotes book, so be sensible!
Finally, students will learn a lot of new skills, from what to do when you lose teammates, lose or become entangled in the line, encounter a broken line, have light and equipment failures, and more. Many of these will be done with blindfolds or blacked-out masks (mine say, “Use the force” on the front). On an open circuit, these situations can be challenging. On CCR, doing blackout drills while controlling loop content and volume, handling multi bailouts, and more, requires time both to learn and to embed. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes the lost line drill will provide unique challenges to get it right. If conducted correctly, you will probably get it wrong half the time!
Ultimately, graduating a new CCR cave diver is a moment to enjoy for the instructor—one with a need for appropriate gravitas and consideration. I have certified divers who were less proficient than other divers that I failed or asked to repeat. That was because a student’s attitude, mental strength, and sound decision-making ensured that they would likely go home safely from each dive. As the sign posted at the entrance of almost every cave reads, “Nothing in this cave is worth dying for.” There is an awful lot of cave diving worth living for, and I have been privileged to see some spectacular caves.
Barnson S.C. (2014) The Authentic Coaching Model: A Grounded Theory of Coaching. Human kinetics, Champaign, Il.
Troy A. Moles, Alex D. Auerbach & Trent A. Petrie (2017) Grit Happens: Moderating Effects on Motivational Feedback and Sport Performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 418-433, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1306729
Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella, S. A., Allen, M. S. & Keegan, R. (2017). Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35 (23),2272-2280.
The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr
Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)
Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING
Matt Jevon, M.Sc. F.IoD, is a Full Expedition level Trimix and Cave instructor on OC and CCR with TDI and ANDI. He is a JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines and wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, and he was one of the inaugural Dirty Dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in the high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and expeditionary level diving as a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland (), and hosts the Facebook page “Psychological Skills for Diving.”
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