By Ewan Anderson
“Well… I might have a target for you,” read the fateful email that led to our search for the wreck of the early 1900s Admiral Knight steamship.
It was 2019, and Craig Lessels of the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) had been reviewing multi-beam sonar bathymetry datasets — basically, maps of the seafloor — when he noticed a cluster of features lying on the otherwise sandy seafloor, east of Galiano Island in the Salish Sea off the west coast of Canada.
Thinking the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) might be interested, he forwarded what he had found to UASBC Explorations Director Jacques Marc.
As it turned out, the UASBC had, since 2006, been looking near this location for the Admiral Knight, a steam-powered freighter that sank after an explosion in its engine caused a catastrophic fire on board.
The UASBC search began, as usual, with some serious background research. The research turned up a wealth of information about the vessel’s origins and destruction in 1919. Launched by the Westward Navigation Company of Seattle in 1916 as the Kuskokwim River, the 43 m/142 ft long wood hulled, diesel-engine powered vessel was built to provide freight service between Puget Sound and Alaska. It was re-powered with steam engines in 1917 and renamed the SS Portland, and then renamed the Admiral Knight in 1919 after purchase by Alaska Pacific Fisheries, who may have used it to supply their canneries in Alaska.
On July 26, 1919, a fire broke out in the Admiral Knight’s engine room while the freighter was underway from Seattle to Ketchikan. The crew of 21 barely made it off the ship before it was engulfed in flames; the last six men leaped off the foredeck onto a boat dispatched by the local steam ferry just in time to be saved. Three days later, mariners were still being warned of the burning hulk drifting between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, but there was no sign of the ship by July 30.
The Admiral Knight was forgotten until the late 1950s when a group of divers explored a site near Galiano Island where a local fisherman reported to have snagged his gear on a wreck. In an interview in 2006, one of the divers remembered seeing an intact wooden hull and some machinery matching the Admiral Knight’s description at depths of 55-64 m/180-220 ft; although this firsthand account came with the caveat that they were “narked out of their minds.” This general location became the focus of the UASBC’s field surveys over the next few years, including searches using towed side-scan sonar in 2006 and a multi-beam sonar survey by Parks Canada’s research vessel, the MV David Thompson. Those searches did not locate anything resembling the Admiral Knight wreck, and its location remained a mystery until CHS’s review of data from deeper water in 2019, just beyond the UASBC’s previous search areas.
The CHS target sits in 57 m/187 ft of water, which puts it beyond the range of the UASBC Explorations “regulars” group, some of whom have been exploring and documenting underwater maritime heritage sites in British Columbia and Alaska since the early ‘80s. As a UASBC Explorations regular myself — albeit with only 15 years’ worth of expeditions in my dive log — and member of British Columbia’s close-knit Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) technical diving community, Jacques turned the project over to me and wished me luck. I had been bothering Jacques for several years to give up his wish list of deeper shipwreck targets, and it appeared that this was my chance to prove that GUE tech divers on Vancouver Island could make a significant contribution to the underwater cultural heritage record on B.C.’s coast.
We were ready! In short order, I had a team of qualified and enthusiastic GUE divers, a dive boat, and a dive date in April 2020. And then we were interrupted by the pandemic. Organised diving took a big step back while everyone tried to figure out how to navigate a variety of restrictions and act responsibly in the face of this century’s biggest global health scare. Focus shifted to community-building through impromptu dives, and the big projects, like our plan to identify the Admiral Knight, took a back seat.
Dive boats available for projects around south Vancouver Island changed, too. GUE instructor evaluator and Vancouver Island resident Guy Shockey bought a boat, the Thermocline, brought it up to the island from Puget Sound, then learned how to drive it (possibly in that order). While the boat was still just a twinkle in Guy’s eye, he told me he hoped to make Thermocline a platform for divers to do world-class diving, but for that to happen it was up to the local GUE community to demonstrate that we had interesting project dives to do. He and I agreed that identifying the Admiral Knight fit the long-term community goals perfectly. Soon after the Thermocline arrived at its permanent home in Vancouver Island’s Maple Bay, Guy started referring to himself as “The Boat Driver,” so I knew he was seriously committed.
By early 2022, our diving activities on the west coast were back to their pre-pandemic norms, and the way seemed clear to dive the Admiral Knight. So, on a sunny weekend this past August, with water as calm as glass, I found myself dropping through the cool, emerald-green depths towards the bold future of underwater archaeology in my backyard.
Dropping down the shot line with me was Jason Cook, an instructor and fellow rebreather diver. As we descended, I had a head full of plans and checklists, and handfuls of equipment. Try as we might to keep things simple, we were determined to complete a minimum number of tasks and needed the gear to pull them off. In addition to our JJ-CCR rebreathers and bailout cylinders to do the dive, we had a full-frame camera and two pairs of large video lights to document the wreck (if it wasn’t just a pile of rocks we were dropping onto). Jason had a 120 m/400 ft reel in case The Boat Driver dropped the shot in the middle of nowhere and our identification dive turned into a search for, well, anything. I had an additional large surface marker buoy (SMB) stuffed in my left thigh pocket, which we planned to launch without a line attached to signal the next dive team that we’d found something worth diving. We each had a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) to drag all this stuff around if the current picked up (strong currents are common in our region, but also highly localised, and nobody was sure when slack tide was at this new site).
The visibility on the descent was just over 20 m/60 ft, which is fantastic no matter where you are in the world. As we passed 40 m/130 a huge grey shape swam right in front of me — a shark! — no, just the biggest lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) I had ever seen. As the monster fish disappeared, we hit a layer of low-visibility water hovering about 5 m/15 ft off the seafloor. It appeared we were going to be diving in the dark — and the cold, since it was also suddenly only 9° C/~48° F. Finally, the shot appeared below us, lying on a featureless, sandy plain. There wasn’t even a pile of rocks pretending to be a wreck in sight.
Like the optimist he is, Jason quickly got out his reel to tie-off and start a search. I, on the other hand, stared dejectedly into the gloom, where I could just make out some white blobs in the distance. But wait a second — the blobs must be plumose anemones (Metridium farcimen), and anemones must be attached to something! I got Jason’s attention with a flash of my light, and we headed off towards the anemones.
It turned out that our search for the wreck was brief — the anemones were only about 10 m/30 ft away, attached to a driveshaft just forward of a small steel propeller. It was a convenient place to tie off the reel, and an auspicious start to our dive. I deployed the SMB, which, unencumbered by a line attached to a spool, careened to the surface, and launched, like a small pink ballistic missile, out of the water beside the waiting Thermocline. The second dive team — Lee Critchley, Conor Collins, and Colin Miller — were into the water in moments to start their dive.
Back at the wreck site, Jason and I started the next phase of our dive: a visual survey of the site. Firing up the DPVs, we followed the driveshafts forward from the propeller. The shafts disappear under a jumble of machinery that will need a more thorough survey to sort through. The large water-tube boilers appeared next, standing upright on their fire-boxes about 2-3 m/6-10 ft proud of the seafloor. Patches of the relatively thin steel encasing the boilers had corroded away, revealing intricate tubing that was cutting-edge boiler technology in the early 20th century. Winches and engine parts formed another pile forward of the boilers, beyond which was the relatively featureless expanse of seabed corresponding to what was once the vessel’s hold. About a minute later, we rounded the forecastle which sat upright about 3 m/10 ft high, the foredeck winch still in its original position. We completed our circuit with a straight run back to the stern, spotting the second drive shaft and propeller.
As the second team arrived on the bottom, Jason and I lit up the wreck with our video lights. I wanted to document the visual survey we’d just completed, so I coordinated with Jason to do a re-run at slow speed. He led and illuminated the wreck, while I followed with the DPV-mounted camera and lights. Keeping Jason in frame made for a good scale reference as we slipped slowly past century-old rust and watchful fish. The end of our video captured the other team swimming around the boilers. Conor was taking still photos while the others inspected the machinery and puzzled out what they were looking at.
And just like that, it was time to go. Leaving the reel for the other team to collect, Jason and I headed back to the shot line and had the usual brief conversation confirming our decompression plan before leaving the bottom. The ascent took us back up to the relatively crystal-clear water above 45 m/150 ft. We crossed the thermocline around 15 m/50 ft and completed our deco in 18°C/64° F water and dappled green sunlight.
Back onboard the Thermocline, we all agreed that the first day of diving was a great success. We had identified a wreck and concluded that it was worth diving again; but was this definitely the wreck of the Admiral Knight? We thought so: it is a steam-powered, twin-screw vessel of the correct size. And we knew the burning hulk was seen by several witnesses drifting in the vicinity of our wreck site in late July 1919. More definitive evidence of the wreck’s identity lies in a closer inspection of the surviving equipment and the cargo. We surfaced with about 10 minutes of good-quality video and some still photos, which Jacques will want to review and comment on.
The two-hour sail back to the dock, and lunch at the marina pub gave us plenty of time to debrief and discuss the details of our dives. We sketched out the goals for diving the next day, and I included a somewhat ambitious list of items to measure and a plan to create a 3D model of the boilers.
Jason and I were back in the water 24 hours after our first dive on the wreck. The shot line had landed right behind the boilers, so we got to work immediately. This time, we planned to document the boilers using photogrammetry. Issues with camera float arms the previous day meant we were not able to carry as many big lights, so I had the camera while Jason handled most of the lighting.
The somewhat poor visibility and missing lighting (though we still had a lot of lights) meant we had to get relatively close to the wreck for well-lit photos. And since the boilers don’t cover a very large area, I decided to park the DPVs and kick. In hindsight, the DPVs might have made things easier, but I didn’t notice the current sweeping across the wreck until after the kicking started. I’m not beyond second-guessing myself underwater, but with only 30 minutes of bottom time to set-up and complete the photogrammetry, there wasn’t a lot of time to reorganise and restart the work. In the end, we managed to get about 470 reasonable photos for our modelling project.
The second dive team, Guy and Jim Dixon, arrived on the wreck a few minutes after Jason and I started taking photos. Guy and Jim had the straightforward task of just enjoying the dive. This seemingly simple job is a common assignment on UASBC dives: divers who are unencumbered with cameras, lights, measuring tapes, and other documentation equipment are free to explore and are likely to notice important features that busy diver-photographers might miss. This team spent some time inspecting two “block” features that I had noticed the previous day; sitting forward of the engines and boilers, the blocks could have been the remnants of the vessel’s cargo, which would be an unusual find because we don’t often see intact cargo on our wrecks. We didn’t manage to solve the mystery on this expedition, and even with Guy and Jim offering detailed descriptions, we’re all still scratching our heads.
Although there were only a handful of divers who made it down into the wreck in August, dozens of people have contributed their time and energy over the last decade and a half to making these successful dives possible. To dive into the unknown just to see what’s there is one thing, but to dive with purpose and come back with valuable information requires dedicated research and planning. Credit for our success (and the pressure to succeed!) in search for the Admiral Knight is largely due to Jacques Marc and other researchers at the UASBC who laid the groundwork for the project.
There is much more to come. We’ve proven that we can add deeper sites to the list of the UASBC’s potential expeditions. Jacques and other UASBC volunteers are turning to the archives to find more targets. By extending the range of what is possible for the local community, we also open the door to exploring deeper into history. Indigenous peoples have lived around the Salish Sea since time immemorial, as indigenous elders and cultural leaders say, and their cultural inheritance includes documented sites spanning the last 14,000 years. The connection Salish peoples have with the sea around us is undeniable, yet tangible underwater heritage sites other than shipwrecks have barely been explored.
As for the Admiral Knight, any uncertainty about the wreck’s identity may be beside the point. The wreck still makes for a great dive, and although it is relatively deep for most divers, many in our local dive community are qualified – or will be soon – to dive it. It’s worth the effort just to see the intact boilers and the entire vessel’s contents laid out on the seafloor, just as they were 103 years ago. The intact sections of wreck and potential cargo provide opportunities for further study and research as well.
See companion stories:
Building Community Through Project Diving By Guy Shockey
Introducing GUE’s New Project Diver Program By Francesco Cameli
Marc, Jacques and Warren Oliver Bush (2021) Historic Shipwrecks of the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.
Ewan Anderson is a professional archaeologist whose work focuses on assessing and mitigating development construction impacts to cultural heritage sites in British Columbia. A consultant for all levels of government, a variety of industries and Indigenous communities, his expertise is in cultural heritage law, cutting edge archaeological methods and Indigenous peoples’ relationships with archaeology and those who practise it.
Ewan is passionate about diving – especially when combined with underwater cultural heritage projects. He is a GUE certified JJ-CCR diver and IANTD certified cave diver. His diving has taken him around the world, even though everything he needs – from wrecks to caves – can be found within a few hours of his home in Victoria, on Vancouver Island.
His professional work and diving almost never mix, for which he is often thankful. Ewan pursues his interests in underwater photography, underwater photogrammetry, and advocating for conservation of marine environments and underwater heritage, free from the yoke of capitalist overlords. He is a regular volunteer on Underwater Archaeological Society of BC expeditions and has served on the Society’s board of directors since 2018.
Über-deep with Cave Explorer Xavier Meniscus
Xavier Meniscus is one of a handful of elite cave explorers who consistently push sub-200 meter plus depths; he holds the record for the deepest cave dive. To accomplish these dives, the former French military and commercial diver utilizes three rebreathers, and is known to possess unusual physiological tolerances that have allowed him to exceed limits without adverse consequences. InDEPTH chief Michael Menduno reached out to Meniscus to discuss his penchant for exploration and his unique approach to cave diving.
By Michael Menduno, with help with translation by Didier Drageuiev. Photos courtesy of Xavier Meniscus.
Fifty-five year old French cave explorer Xavier Meniscus is one of a handful of elite divers making sub-200 meter cave dives and holds the record for deepest cave dive at 286 mfw/938 ffw, which he conducted at Font Estramar in 2019. Meniscus, who was trained at the Institut National de la Plongée Professionnelle (INPP) in Marseille, is a former army combat diver, and a commercial saturation (SAT) diver with COMEX. He started cave diving in 2000, while still a SAT diver, and has explored many caves around the world such as the Goul de la Tannerie in France, the Pozo Azul in Spain, and Boesmansgat in South Africa. Meniscus is also a cave diving instructor with the Fédération Française d’Etude et des Sport Sous Marin (FFESSM). Meniscus recently published a book on his cave exploration work, Les mysteres de l’eau en pays Gervanne entre l’emergence de Bourne et les Fontaigneux, [Translation:The Mysteries Of Water In Gervanne Country Between The Emergence Of Bourne And The Fontaigneux], which is available in French. InDEPTH sat down with the ardent French explorer to discuss his approach to deep cave exploration. Here’s what he had to say.
InDEPTH: Xavier, I would like to discuss your record deep dive to 286 meters at Font Estramar, but before we do, I would like to get a little background on you and your diving. How many sub-200 meter dives have you conducted?
Xavier Meniscus: I have done more than 2,000 hours of rebreather diving in caves and have made around 50 sub-200 meter dives.
Amazing. What is it about deep diving that you find alluring, that draws you?
Mike, it’s not the depth. The depth doesn’t matter. There is no specific target. My goal is to explore and to find what is behind the next cave, and the next. That’s the only thing that matters. There is no sense to go deeper just for the record. If you go deeper, if you take risks, it’s for exploration. Because exploration matters, and the record—it doesn’t matter. It’s completely not the point. This is the reason why I don’t want to have the Guinness record. It doesn’t matter for me. My motivation is exploration.
That’s good. I understand. How do you manage the challenges and risks on deep sub-200 m cave dives? How do you prepare yourself?
I have been a military diver and commercial diver, a saturation diver working with COMEX, and have worked with researchers and hyperbaric doctors, and so I have specific knowledge and understanding of the phenomena and risks. So, because of this knowledge and experience as a professional diver, I have constructed my own decompression and diving procedures.
About the risks, as a military diver I am very, very rigorous about following procedures. I prepare and think out everything step by step ahead of time in order to be very precise on the dive. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a 50 m/164 ft dive or a 200 m/656 ft dive, I follow the same checklist and procedures.
Yes, that makes perfect sense. There is little or no margin for error.
I’m very rigorous, and I review all the aspects of the dive before-hand and review them in my mind as I am conducting the dive. Okay, step one is here, I check this. Step two, I check that and then I continue. And of course, there is always the awareness, call it adaptation to the depth and the cave, of where I am, and what is really the most dangerous thing specifically in the moment. I try to keep all the specific things in mind as I proceed.
Let’s talk about your equipment. I understand that you use a triple rebreather.
That’s right. I took an example from famous cave explorer Olivier Isler, who had been diving since the 1990s using a triple rebreather. I worked with Frédéric Badiér, who had designed a homemade semi-closed recycler called Le Joky. I worked with him to modify the unit to a mechanical closed circuit rebreather with a constant mass flow at 0.7-0.8 liters per minute flow. It’s a very simple unit with a 2.5 kilo canister, breathing bag in the central part of the rebreather with a mechanical KISS valve. The unit has three sensors connected to a Divesoft dive computer. It’s a basic rebreather.
And you use three of them. How do you position them?
I wear two rebreathers on my back—one on the left side, the second one on the right side—and one on the front. The recyclers are the same, exactly the same. I breathe on one, the second is a spare and there’s a third in case I have problems during decompression. So, I can switch from the first, second or third one if I need it. There are interchangeable connections for oxygen and diluent of course.
My protocol is that I only use my main rebreather. I test my second rebreather at strategic points during my dive, for example before leaving, before the deep or narrow zone. The third rebreather is placed at the safety landing, connected to its diluent. The dive computer of my second rebreather has the PPO2 display permanently displayed and I take a look at it very regularly. If it was not waterproof, it would fill with water and become negative, so I would notice this and stop my dive. Also, on long dives, I switch to my second rebreather after 9-10 hours. The third recycler is always just the security. Which is really the worst case, you know.
So, you always dive them as a trio?
When dives are extremely long and very demanding, having three rebreathers is essential. When the dives exceed 7-8 hours, I take a third rebreather.
And just to clarify, the units are all independent. They are not connected by a bailout valve (BOV) or other means.
No, it’s completely independent; there is no connection between the left and right rebreather and there is no BOV as well. It’s just a simple mouthpiece. So if you want to switch to the second one, you turn off the first one and you go to the second one. You need to do that manually.
Have you ever had to bail out on a dive for real on your rig, and how was that?
I only had to use my social security recycler once. It was at Baume des Anges. When crossing an inter-siphon, I dropped my main recycler. The counter lungs were damaged, and when passing the next siphon at a depth of 100 m/328 ft, my rebreather filled with water. I was then forced to return with my safety rebreather.
Gotcha. And just out of curiosity, do you wear a rebreather safety strap i.e., a ‘gag’ strap?
Yes, I’m a former military diver. It’s completely mandatory for us, even for a dive of three meters, you know. This thing can save your life. This is clear.
I understand that you run your oxygen levels very high on your rebreather. Talk to me about that.
During my descent, I keep my PPO2 (partial pressure of oxygen) at 1.4, just to have a little margin if I descend very, very quickly, in order to not completely blow up the PPO2. After the descent, I try to keep my PPO2 at 1.6 for the entire rest of the dive.
Wow, that’s surprising! Why do you run your oxygen that high? I mean, it might decrease your decompression obligation, but aren’t you worried about getting a CNS toxicity hit and convulsing?
So, first of all, I tolerate the high oxygen pressures very well. I haven’t any issue with that. My experience as a military and professional diver taught me, step by step, what the human body is capable of and that my body tolerates high levels of oxygen.
[Ed. Note: Do NOT Try This at Home!!! The overwhelming community consensus is to maintain PO2s below 1.6 atm during the working portion of the dive, and the trend has been towards lower oxygen levels, particularly on big dives. GUE for example, sets its maximum at 1.2 atm during the dive with the option to manually boost PO2s to 1.3-1.4 during shallow decompression. CNS oxygen toxicity convulsions have been recorded at PO2=1.4, and can occur at PO2s less than 1.4 atm in the presence of heightened CO2, which occurs when gas density is high, whether or not it is felt by the diver. Susceptibility varies among individuals and within the same individual at different times. There’s no evidence that tolerance to oxygen toxicity can be improved through practice.]
You may have a high tolerance. But do you ever worry that you are just lucky, and one day you might convulse? Have you ever had an oxygen convulsion?
I’ve never had any toxicity or convulsions with oxygen. My longest exposure was a dive lasting over 13 hours during my last exploration of the St Sauveur chasm in 2013. At that time, we weren’t using a double DPV or taking into account the PPO2 measurement from my computers. I did a total of nine hours at 1.6 bar and the last four hours at 1.9 bar in a bell at a depth of 9m/30 ft.
It’s true that when I came out of the water, my lungs were burning a bit for several hours but it disappeared the next day. To avoid too much oxygen toxicity, I take ‘air’ breaks after seven hours of diving, and breathe air or bottom mix for 5 minutes every half hour.
Do you worry that others will try to follow your example and run their working PO2 setpoint at 1.6 and get hurt? I’m sure you know that PO2=1.6 is outside of current accepted community practice except possibly during shallow water decompression, particularly for CCR. What are the standards for oxygen levels in the Fédération (FFESSM)? What do you teach your students?
In France, we recommend a PPO2 of 1.4 for progression [the working portion of the dive] and 1.6 for decompression. That’s what I teach. The use of high PPO2 for me is a necessity at the depths I go to in order to reduce the inert gas load and limit my very long decompression times as much as possible. It’s an approach that I’ve validated through my training, my long experience and my personal physiological resistance. It is also obvious that on such extreme dives, we push the sliders to the maximum.
[Ed.note: According to V-Planner calculations, boosting PO2s to 1.6 during the working portion of a 286 m dive for a 22-minute bottom time vs maintaining a PO2=1.0-1.3, results in some, but not a significant decrease in overall decompression time. It does however greatly increase the risk of CNS oxygen toxicity. ]
I understand. How deep you run your END (equivalent narcotic depth)? I understand you are using trimix.
I always use trimix with a high level of helium. I maintain my equivalent narcotic depth to around 30 m/100 ft. I always keep a little nitrogen fraction into the mixture and do not use a pure heliox because of the high pressure risk.
Not only that, I think it’s better to have a very, small narcotic sensation during the dive. A very small, very tiny sensation of narcosis. This acts as a reminder to me that says, “OK I am very deep and I need to be careful.” So, it’s a kind of alert. These are the reasons I don’t use pure heliox.
That’s understandable on deep tech dives because of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). Has HPNS been an issue for you?
Interestingly, during the descent, I often have the sensation of cold, above 200 m/656 ft, which could be the trimix, which is very near to heliox, in fact, with high levels of helium. Of course, the automatic diluent valve (ADV) is injecting the very cold diluent, and that could be the reason for my shakes. Then, for 20-30 seconds,when I reach 230-240 m/755-787 ft. I experience shaking, trembling, and some eyesight problems. However, when I continue my descent, the effects begin to disappear, and when I reach 260 to 280 m/850-920 ft, there is absolutely no effect. It’s over. It’s just 30 seconds or so at 230-240 meters.
Wow. It would seem that you are not affected much at all by HPNS. Again, it sounds like you have some unique physiology.
That’s exactly what I think.
Has anyone studied you to figure out how you can do what you do? Are you aware of any reason why this is?
It’s just practice and training, practice and training, that’s all. Year after year, dive after dive, I gradually began to have a low sensitivity to gas toxicity. I think that’s really the most important thing. The key is really the practice and the training.
I am not aware that divers can modify and or improve their gas tolerances through practice and training. I’m pretty sure that’s the case with nitrogen narcosis, despite what some have to say. Have you had any problems with carbon dioxide (CO2) buildup? Any CO2 problems?
This is an interesting question. There are two principal things about CO2. First of all, always choose the best performing soda lime for deep diving. You can use the cheap version of soda lime for shallow dives—it doesn’t matter. But for deep dives, below 200 m/656 ft, you should always choose the best performing product for that.
The other thing is during the decompression. During very long decompressions, like eight, nine, or ten hours of decompression, the human body produces a very small quantity of CO2. That’s the reason why I am able to do a 10-hour dive on the same rebreather with only 2.5 kilograms of soda lime inside. So, no, I have never had any problem with the toxicity of CO2. I don’t think I am very sensitive to it.
Have you ever had a caustic cocktail?
Yes, just once. I had just made a ventral rebreather. During my first dive, a connector on the counterlung came loose, and the rebreather slowly filled with water. At the end of the dive, at the surface in the basin, I put my head down to test breathing comfort. The caustic cocktail went into the mouthpiece and I breathed it in. I had a bad cough and a broken voice for several days.
Last question before we get on to your dive, what kind of support team do you use for deep dives? Do you use support divers? Where are they positioned?
I typically have a team of six divers, not more, positioned down to 80 m/262 ft. I have a diver wait at 80m/262 ft to be available for help if needed, and I descend from there by myself to make my dive.
So you are diving solo at depth. That seems to be the typical practice for über-deep dives with the exception of Richard Harris & Craig Challen and the Wet Mules. Do you ever think about doing these uber-deep dives with a team mate at depth vs doing the bottom portion by yourself with support divers high above you in the cave? Would it be safer?
In fact, it is safer to do this type of diving as part of a team. In most cases, I have a team around me. A dive director and support divers who intervene at different depths. In general, the maximum depth at which my team members intervene is the one where they can spend a lot of time waiting for me if I’m late. Usually, as I just mentioned in the 80m/262 ft zone. Having used more than 20 support divers on some occasions, I now limit my support team to a maximum of five or six divers. That makes it simpler for the dive director to manage. The support divers can make up to two assistance dives during the operation, the second dive being mainly during my final stops.
When the depth allows it, and other divers can accompany me, I prefer to dive in pairs. Like my explorations of Baume des Anges with Rick Stanton and John Volanthen or Durzon and Marnade with Pédro Balordi.
OK, let’s talk about the dive at Font Estramar. Let me first ask, how long you have been exploring the cave and the dives you’ve made there.
My first dive in this cave was in 2013. I did four successive operations in the same year in order to clear the record.
And the dives went as planned?
Yes. My first dive, the first exploration dive in this cave was to a maximum depth of 180 m/591 ft. My second dive was 248 m/813 ft, the third dive 262 m/859 ft, and fourth dive, just before the record, I spent at the same 262 m/860 ft depth with 40 m/130 ft of horizontal exploration, trying to find the way forward. I was unsuccessful, so I turned the dive and ascended.
I understand that you tested your rig in a hyperbaric chamber down to 320 meters/1050 ft of depth before the fourth dive in order to make sure everything worked well before going deeper.
Yes, I tested it in Switzerland with no problems.
Good. Everything checked out. So, you were able to find going passage on your fifth dive at Estramar and go deeper and ultimately ended up setting the record.
Exactly. So, after my fourth dive, I did an analysis of the videos, images, and everything I could remember about the environment. The result was I chose to think about continuing horizontally without going deeper. So, in planning the dive I prepared gases for a max depth of 280 m/919 ft. I used trimix 5.5/83 (5.5% oxygen, 83% helium, 11.5% nitrogen).
That’s a gas density of 10.76 g/l at max depth with the high oxygen and nitrogen levels, which is considerably above the recommended max of 6.2 g/l. Are you worried about your gas density or feel that it is OK for you?
As far as density is concerned, at the depths I go, it’s difficult to respect the recommendations, but as my JOKI rebreathers are very easy to breathe, compared with commercial equipment, breathing is very fluid and doesn’t bother me at the bottom. The most important thing is not to work hard and to use a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV). What’s more, I cycle regularly—at least 5,000 km a year—to get the basic training I need to control my breathing during a violent physical effort.
Back to the dive: you were able to find the way deeper into the cave?
Once I was on the bottom and into the terminus room of the cave, I looked all around me in order to find a pathway or passage. In fact, I didn’t find anything. But then I looked in the direction of the bottom and found a hole or well. That was the way deeper, and I spent another 30 minutes in the cave exploring.
You must have been excited! How far did you push it?
It was really a pure exploration at this depth. There was a passage, but it was a very, very small passage into this well. At around 270 m/886 ft, I found another room, a little bigger. At that point I had to make a decision. I knew I was very close to the world record, so I decided to try to push a little bit more to 286 m/938 ft, and then I turned the dive and began my ascent. I had not planned to go that deep, and in fact had a bit of stress.
I returned to the room at 262 m/860 ft, which was a bit tricky, and looked around but couldn’t find the line. I searched with my light and didn’t find it. I could feel my adrenaline and stress rise. Imagine losing the line at that depth.
OMG! That would definitely generate some stress!
One of my ties came completely undone, and the line had floated to the top of the room, where I couldn’t quite see it. The visibility is never good in Font Estamar. Fortunately, I did find the line after some tense minutes and continued my ascent.
Do you feel that you were at your physiological limit at that max depth? Or did you feel like you could go further in the future?
As I mentioned, I had some signs of HPNS when I hit 286 meters, but within a minute or so, there was nothing. All signs disappeared. I had a completely clear mind when I was trying to find the line. This is really proof to me that there is not a problem with the gas at this depth. Which means I can continue.
As you know, Richard Harris, aka Dr. Harry just completed a 230 meter test dive with a hydreliox mix (oxygen, hydrogen, helium) in order to lower the gas density and work of breathing and possibly ameliorate the HPNS. Have you given thought to using hydrogen?
Of course, I have talked about hydrogen with Jean-Pierre Imbert and Bernard Gardet, who was the scientific director at COMEX. But there is no problem for me right now. Using a rich trimix is not a problem. I only have the slightest tremors which then go away. So no, I don’t think there is a reason to change anything. I think I can continue to 300 m/984 ft with helium.
Have you had any close calls on your dives?
Yes, a Bonex scooter that I was towing between my legs imploded at the bottom of St Sauveur. It had suffered some shocks on previous dives in very narrow cavities. The explosion tore a hole around 3 cm in my drysuit—it was no longer a drysuit, but a wetsuit. It was completely filled with water during my seven hours of decompression.
OMG! How cold was the water?
13°C for seven hours! Yeah, it’s a little bit cold.
Were you using a habitat, deco habitat?
No, no I wasn’t.
That must have been grueling.
Have you ever gotten bent? Decompression sickness?
No, no, no, nothing. Again, I think it’s my physiology, and the rigor and specific training and practice, being careful every time for everything I do.
What are your plans for the future Xavier?
This Fall, I would like to continue my explorations of the Gouls of Tourne and try to find the junction between Goul du Pont and Goul de la Tannerie. And I plan to continue my explorations at Port Miou, which is not deep, and also the Source du Marnade and the Durzon.
I am guessing that you have specific goals and objectives for each.
Yes, many goals, and many objectives, in fact. To simplify, the object is to map and explore the different sites, continue to find new galleries, and in the case of Goul du Pont, find out if there is a connection.
So many caves, so little time! Will you also be returning to Font Estramar. Do you plan to go deeper there?
It’s not a principal target. I continue to think about it and try to make the best decision about this specific site. But it’s not the first target. I want to continue the exploration of the other sites first, but I do think it’s possible to reach 300 meters at Estramar.
Good luck to you Xavier! We’ll be watching. Thank you!
YouTube: World Record Cave Dive – 282.6 m (927 feet) – Nuno Gomes (1996)
Facebook: Xavier Méniscus-New World Record
therebreathersite.nl : Le Joky mCCR
InDEPTH: Omne Trium Perfectum
Seacraft DPV: AMBASSADORS XAVIER MÉNISCUS
YouTube: Cave Diving in France legendary Font Estramar by Europe Cave Diving
Michael Menduno/M2 is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning journalist and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for more than 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, and he produced the first tek.Conferences and Rebreather Forums 1.0 & 2.0. In addition to InDEPTH, Menduno serves as an editor/reporter for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, a contributing editor for X-Ray mag, and writes for DeeperBlue.com. He is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA), and a member of the Rebreather Training Council.