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Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity: Expanding Our Understanding With Two New Models

InDepth V 2.9 presented new data-driven models to predict the risk of pulmonary oxygen toxicity on a dive, which arguably represent an advancement over the legacy REPEX method (OTUs). Now our resident dive geek Reilly Fogarty applies these models to predict and compare the risk results on two BIG tech dives: Italian explorer Massimo Bondone’s eight-hour jump to 199 m/650 ft on the SS Brandenberg near Tuscany, Italy, and Dr. Andy Pitkin’s 124m/404 ft deep, 12-hour runtime push dive at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida. The results will get your lungs pumping!

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By Reilly Fogarty

These days you would have to be a lunatic (J-valve fanatics, I’m looking at you) to dive without a pressure gauge. Without a gauge, you can’t know how much gas you have left: whether you’re riding the edge of your reserve supply or have enough gas to finish your dive and then some. Planning a dive without understanding oxygen toxicity risk calculations is just as dangerous, but a little more complicated to work through. 

Unfortunately for new divers, there just aren’t enough synonyms for “glossing over” to illustrate the number of ways we avoid delving into the complicated science of pulmonary oxygen toxicity management via misdirection, well-meaning anecdotes, or junk science. Like many research theories, what we know about the physiology of the condition is still evolving. Simplified perspectives based on antiquated calculations have a way of initiating a cyclical pattern of compounding mistakes, as one diver explains their best understanding to another, with each diver adding some element of inaccuracy. Despite the challenges, it’s our job as divers to understand how and why we make the decisions that affect our safety. 

No single article can hope to cover the scope of a topic like this, but our aim is to provide you with the necessary tools to begin to understand the physiology of pulmonary oxygen toxicity. Our modern understanding is closely intertwined with the history of research into the subject, so while our hope is to educate, we also want to avoid causing harm through misinformation or to give the false impression of complete understanding. Risk mitigation falls to you, as does comprehending the material before you attempt to apply it in your own diving. 

The broad strokes of this research can be best understood through the evolution of the unit pulmonary toxicity dose (UPTD) model, the derived equation for repetitive exposure (REPEX) model, and modern approaches developed by Barbara Shykoff, PhD, and Ran Arieli, PhD. Much like the decompression models we use, these are largely (in some cases wholly) unproven models based on compounding theories. Interestingly, the oldest and most problematic of these methods remains the most-used and least frequently questioned by divers. Here’s what you need to know about pulmonary oxygen toxicity.

The Unit Pulmonary Toxic Dose (UPTD) Model 

The UPTD model was first developed in 1970 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. The theory is based on the loss of vital capacity (VC – the maximum volume of gas that can be voluntarily moved into or out of the lungs) that the researchers believed correlated with the symptoms of pulmonary oxygen toxicity. 

Courtesy of Wikipedia.org 

The researchers used a small sample group of young men to create a dataset on oxygen exposure symptoms. These participants were subjected to a range of oxygen exposures with PO2 ranging from 1.0 to 3.0 ATA over a variety of exposure durations from 3.5 to 24 hours. To compare exposures across PO2 and exposure time differences, a common unit was created—the UPTD. This unit was defined as the equivalent to one minute of exposure to 100% oxygen at one bar. UPTD could then be calculated as follows and exposures could be compared: 

Courtesy of Barbara Shykoff and Shearwater.com.

By converting exposures to a common unit, the researchers believed that dives could be compared across depth and gas choices, and repetitive dives could be compared by the sum of their exposure values. 

Shortly after the initial work was published, the cumulative pulmonary toxic dose (CPTD) model was created to allow for continuous oxygen exposures above a PO2 of 0.5 ATA to be calculated and expressed in UPTD. As a result of this work, a rudimentary understanding of the onset and presentation of pulmonary oxygen toxicity symptoms began to evolve. It’s important to note, however, that the original UPTD model did not differentiate between dives performed one hour or 23 hours apart—there was no calculation for complete or partial recovery. 

UPTD is now often shortened to oxygen toxicity units (OTUs) and the calculations are still widely used even 45 years after their development. It remains unclear whether the model is accurate or the results of UPTD calculations merely overlap adequately with safe limits under common diving conditions, but experts are increasingly finding fault with the model.  

Notably, Barbara Shykoff, PhD and US Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) researcher, has cited several past works from Duke University, Clark, Lambertsen, and others in critique of UPTD applications in the real world. Among her complaints are several significant deviations from the model’s predictions among dives performed at PO2 other than 2 ATA, differences in underlying lung injury and physiology, and disparity between VC changes at mild and extreme PO2 exposures. Research from Clark and Lambertsen has also indicated that the “unit dose” concept may not be applicable in a linear fashion above a PO2 of 1.5 ATA, but requires calculation as a “function of time squared for higher PO2s”. 

The Derived Equation for Repetitive Exposure (REPEX) Model

If UPTD was a best-fit model designed for a small data set, the NOAA REPEX model took that applied theory a step further. Developed by R.W. “Bill” Hamilton, PhD, in the early 1980s, the NOAA-derived equation for repetitive exposure (REPEX) model was designed to facilitate recovery and multi-day diving calculations. The model was notably never validated in divers but was built on the concepts of the original UPTD and CPTD model and other supporting studies. 

Hamilton’s team set theoretical limits for various exposures, with 850 OTU being an allowable single day exposure but gradually reducing the average daily OTU as missions became longer. He did note that these exposure limit curves would have to be modified with operational experience or desired conservatism, but did not verify the curves with real-world trials. The most often-voiced concern about this model is that it is based on a linear extrapolation of prior data, data that may itself not be accurate. This leaves it with a number of significant flaws and potentially erroneous results, particularly outside the relatively narrow range of exposures for which the UPTD system was designed. 

Graphic courtesy of TecVault.

Supporters of the REPEX system might dispute those assertions. It is fair to point out that the NOAA oxygen exposure limit tables have been used extensively for several decades with a great deal of success. This success could be due to accuracy of the model within the applied parameters common in recreational diving. It could also be the result of significant conservatism caused by a large gap between the calculated limits and the real-world exposure limits that incur pulmonary toxicity risk. 

Shykoff’s Calculator for Estimating the Risk of Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity

Shykoff’s work is one of the first notable evolutions in the way we proposed methods to calculate pulmonary oxygen toxicity risk in decades. In a paper published in 2015, she outlines a method by which divers can calculate risk over the course of repeated dives. The method is centered around what Shykoff calls a “incidence-time model” that stipulates a linear relationship in a mid-range exposure value. This makes it possible to not only calculate oxygen toxicity for duration, but also extrapolate equivalent exposure time between exposures at different PO2s. This is coupled with a recovery model and centered around the idea that any dive with a PO2 of 1.3 to 1.4 bar begins some level of pulmonary injury. Shykoff admits that the probability of noticeable injury in small exposures is quite small, but she believes there is a proportional risk between this and intermediate duration exposures. This differs from the UPTD and REPEX models in that it significantly limits its extrapolation of linear relationships only to the intermediate exposures, notable because exposures beyond a small midrange have indicated significant variance from the norm in prior models. 

Also important is the verification of Shykoff’s model. While its design relies on a relatively small dataset of 1350 in-water dives, the fact that it has been verified in divers at all separates it from its predecessors. These dives occurred with a PO2 of between 1.3 and 1.4 bar, and were used to create and verify the time-incidence model. An additional dataset using 620 dives was used to validate the recovery model used in Shykoff’s risk calculator. 

Values of tr/Tdur used in parameter fitting for the recovery models.
After resting dives: ▲ / After dives with exercise: ■
The lines are the best fit models fitted to the data:
–––– for resting dives / – – – for dives with exercise,
tr/Tdur = exp[–k (t/Tdur)2], k = 0.149, 0.047 for resting dives or those with exercise, respectively.

Graphic courtesy of Babara Shykoff.

Interestingly, these data showed that significant recovery did not occur until nearly five hours after a dive, with no measurable recovery apparent after two separate three-hour dives that occurred with a two-hour surface interval between them. Whether this is a function of actual recovery mechanisms or a limitation of the model remains unclear. 

In terms of practical application, Shykoff’s model makes a few interesting points. Most notably, she suggests completing shorter dives before longer ones, and a resting dive before one with exercise. This is both to avoid a possibly over-conservative calculation of risk due to the rate of recovery being calculated with the duration of exposure in the denominator, and because recovery after a dive that involves exercise occurs at nearly half the rate as one done at rest. It’s also important to note that zero incidence does not correlate with zero duration. Shykoff cites a 95% confidence limit for this model at 0.8 – 4.9%, meaning that—purely by the numbers—approximately 3% of divers in the model may exhibit signs or symptoms of pulmonary oxygen toxicity at the beginning of the dive with no exposure to elevated PO2. This point must be followed with the note that this is directly comparable to the overall incidence of symptoms found in a dataset of 239 shallow open-water dives with a PO2 of 0.3 bar (resulting in about 6% symptom incidence) and can be “interpreted as the effect of breathing underwater.” 



Another key differentiation from prior models is the recovery rate calculation. While prior models used a first-order kinetic model, Shykoff used a sigmoidal shape recovery pattern based on real-world data. This means that recovery rates vary between their initial rate, a maximum rate, and a final slower rate in a non-linear fashion. More complex calculations alone don’t imply superiority, but Shykoff does have some real-word data to back up her model. Experimentally, it appears that injuries from one exposure may begin to diminish even as damage from a following dive occurs, leading to occasional improvement of symptoms in subjects who began a dive with symptoms (note that this is an experimental observation and NOT a recommendation or suggestion of causation).

This model also does not associate severity of oxygen toxicity with exposure duration. It also does not differentiate between severity of exercise, other effects of mild hyperoxia, or PO2 significantly deviating from 1.3 bar or beyond a single exposure of up to eight hours. The model is based on a small dataset, and its results should be treated as almost entirely theoretical in their current form. 

Arieli’s Toxicity Index Derived from the Power Equation

Ran Arieli, PhD is the former head of Hyperbaric Physiology Research at the Israel Naval Medical Institute, and takes many of the same issues with the UPTD and REPEX models that Shykoff and their colleagues do. In response, he’s developed a method that focuses on a power-law approach to pulmonary oxygen toxicity risk calculations. This model focuses on the polynomial expression of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that can be correlated with pulmonary injury, and the assumption that the development of these species is related to the highest power of the PO2 exposure. Combining this with other oxygen toxicity symptoms (decrease in lung capacity, ventilatory drive, or thickness of alveolar wall, for example) modeled by their exposure time, the rate of hydrogen peroxide (a reactive oxygen and nitrogen species precursor) can correlate with the square of time and—Arieli believes—can provide an ability to predict oxygen toxicity risk. 

More on how Arieli derived his power equation can be found in a previous InDepth article, “How To Calculate the Risk Of Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity,” but at its core his model was designed to address a demonstrable difference in pulmonary pathologies found at high and low PO2 exposures. Modeling different risk factors for each resulted in a model that Arieli believes more accurately represents pulmonary oxygen toxicity risk. 

This model has the added benefit of being directly verifiable through the measurement of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, or their precursors. The caveat to this is a correlation between these species, and the expected pulmonary pathology must be assumed, although these relationships are relatively well accepted. Like Shykoff’s model, Arieli’s proposed model has fairly specific parameters. Its initial publication specifically focuses on interpolating risk for exposures done under sedentary to light intensity activity (1 to 4.4 MET) in subjects either dry or immersed in 33°C water. The result is a model which Arieli believes can accurately be used to estimate pulmonary oxygen toxicity risk in divers but which must be carefully applied within the parameters of its original intent. 

Applying The Models to Real World Dives

The SS Brandenberg

Massimo Bondone.

 It’s hard to bring concepts like these into focus without crunching some numbers, so working through an example of a long CCR dive can help illustrate the differences. Take a dive like Massimo Bondone’s exploration of the SS Brandenburg for example. A British steamship torpedoed on February 10th, 1941, the Brandenburg now sits in nearly 199 m/650 ft off the coast of Tuscany, Italy. The Italian explorer and his team identified and dived the wreck in 2017. Their efforts represent the fourth deepest shipwreck exploration dive conducted by tech divers. 

Using a closed-circuit rebreather Bondone logged 15 minutes of bottom time and a 490 minute total run time for his dive. This dive is extreme, and difficult to do without significantly exceeding CNS toxicity limits under almost all guidelines, but useful for exploring the limits of pulmonary toxicity which take greater total exposure time to exceed. Assuming a constant PO2 of 1.0 bar, here’s how each of the models works out:

Bondone’s dive profile on the SS Brandenberg. Courtesy of M. Bondone.

UPTD:
Total toxicity in UPTD can be calculated as follows:

UPTD = t * [(PO2 – 0.5)/(1-0.5)]1/1.2
UPTD = (490 minutes) * [1.0 – 0.5)/(1-0.5)]1/1.2
UPTD = 490

This exceeds the latest US Navy Diving Manual limit for a daily exposure (450 UPTD), although a single extreme exposure limit of 1425 UPTD is designated for medical applications in the operational theater. Bondone’s dive was extreme, but UPTD guidelines put it just beyond the allowable limits for single-day pulmonary oxygen toxicity exposure.

REPEX: 

That same dive by REPEX guidelines results in the same unit value – 490 OTU – but has significantly shorter maximum exposure durations. 

By these guidelines, a 490 minute exposure to a PO2 of 1.0 bar is more than two hours over the limit for single exposures. There is no way to quantify the increase in risk once the limit is exceeded; the guidelines were designed to be binary. It is interesting to note how much shorter than the UPTD guidelines the REPEX exposure limits are. 

Shykoff’s Method:

The Shykoff method is significantly more involved to calculate by hand, but is available to easily calculate via an online tool Shykoff has published. One issue with calculating this example dive, however, is that the model has been designed only for a PO2 range of 1.3 to 1.4 bar – the lower PO2 ranges commonly used for dives like this fall outside the intended range of the model. Calculating the dive with a higher PO2 but an identical dive time (something that might occur with more conservative gradient factors, for example) gives the following:

Unlike the older models, this calculation gives a probability of symptoms, rather than just a binary judgement on whether the dive fits within acceptable parameters or not. That probability does not imply accuracy in and of itself, but if the mode proves accurate it could provide new possibilities for dive planning in extreme exposures. 

Arieli’s Method

Calculating toxicity risk by the power equation derived index method that Arieli has published requires a bit of work. For PO2 greater than 0.6 bar, the following equation results in the POT index:

POT Index = T2* PO24.57

This yields a POT Index of 49. This value can then be used to estimate incidence of toxicity symptoms via the following: 

Incidence (%) = 1.85 + 1.071 * POT Index

This value, as estimated by the model and the dataset from 16 HBO exposures performed at the NEDU, results in an estimated 54% likelihood of pulmonary toxicity symptom evolution. Within the limitations of Arieli’s dataset, the predictions appear to have a strong correlation to real-world results, and the calculated risk is similar to that found using Shykoff’s model. Bondone reported that though he has had pulmonary oxygen toxicity symptoms on dives, he did not experience any symptoms after diving the Brandenberg.

Weeki Wachee

Dr. Andy Pitkin

Pulmonary oxygen toxicity comes to the forefront of diver’s concerns as their expeditions grow longer, so there’s value in looking at a longer, slightly shallower dive as well. Dr. Andy Pitkin is a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist and researcher who regularly participates in dives exploring some of the deepest caves in the United States. In 2019, he and his teammates performed a dive to a maximum depth of 124 m/404 ft in just over 12 hours while exploring the Weeki Wachee Springs system with the Karst Underwater Research (KUR) group. 

The dive involved years of work-up and an innovative array of support personnel, equipment, underwater habitats, and emergency planning, but it’s the effect of the extreme exposure to elevated PO2 that we’re interested in here. Using a rebreather with a setpoint of 1.1 bar, Pitkin spent 725 minutes underwater. Ignoring the air breaks used to manage CNS toxicity near the end of his profile, here’s how each model breaks it down:

Pitkin’s dive profile at Weeki Wachee shown in Subsurface Dive Log. Courtesy of A. Pitkin. Rendering by William Perry

UPTD:

Here’s how Pitkin’s dive looks calculated via the original UPTD algorithm:

UPTD = t * [(PO2 – 0.5)/(1-0.5)]1/1.2
UPTD = (725 minutes) * [1.1 – 0.5)/(1-0.5)]1/1.2
UPTD = 843

Like Bondone’s dive, this exceeds the US Navy Diving Manual limit for daily exposure, this time by almost double (450 UPTD vs 843 UPTD). However, the allowable limit for a single extreme exposure of 1425 renders this technically within some limits, although those were intended only for medical applications in emergency situations. By UPTD standards, this dive would be significantly beyond any reasonable single-dive exposure.

REPEX: 

Just as with Bondone’s dive, the REPEX calculations provide the same 843 OTU value as the UPTD calculations. In this case, the exposure is even further past the NOAA Diving Manual guidelines for a maximum single exposure (just 240 minutes at the working PO2 of 1.1 bar). It would not be possible to perform this dive via either REPEX or UPTD guidelines. 

Shykoff’s Method:

It’s impossible to calculate this dive within the confines of Shykoff’s method because she designed her model around a working PO2 of 1.3 to 1.4 bar. Attempting to calculate a dive this long at an artificially high PO2 results in dramatic numbers, but none that reflect reality. Because Pitkin chose to run a lower PO2 to attenuate the risk of CNS oxygen toxicity, this dive falls below the more common working PO2 used by rebreather divers around which Shykoff has designed her model. 

Arieli’s Method

This dive falls significantly beyond the exposure guidelines that Arieli has set forth, but his are less binary than those used by Shykoff’s model. Calculating POT Index as follows:

POT Index = T2* PO24.57

And theoretical incidence via:

Incidence (%) = 1.85 + 1.071 * POT Index

Results in a value of 240%, or 240% likelihood of pulmonary toxicity symptom evolution. 

It’s results such as these that illustrate the fact that these models are entirely theoretical to those who are first playing with the data. Particularly as exposures deviate from the norm, their results will appear increasingly extraordinary, but none of those results may reflect reality in the first place.

Pitkin completed his dives with minimal symptoms, despite all four of these models indicating that it could be extremely hazardous to use such a profile. Pitkin explained that he and his partners frequently experience some low-grade symptoms of pulmonary oxygen toxicity following similar dives. These symptoms typically include “substernal tightness, mild cough, and the feeling of inability to take a deep breath,” which is why they now limit the PO2s on these dives. Symptom onset has become an expectation on dives such as these but severity is decreased by using a setpoint of 1.2 bar or less (interestingly, according to Pitkin, time to symptom onset is not improved by this change). “A bonus is you don’t feel as crappy afterwards,” he said.

Each of these four models has indicated the likely onset of pulmonary toxicity symptoms from this profile, and while symptoms have occurred they are perhaps milder than some models would suggest. This somewhat mixed result is indicative of the confusing nature of this type of modeling – Pitkin noted that, “there is a lot of inter-individual variation in susceptibility to pulmonary oxygen toxicity,” and this variability likely presents enormous challenges to accurate risk modeling. 

We conferred with Arieli regarding these results. He noted that some recent research indicates the possibility of acclimatization to high PO2 exposures in technical and CCR divers that could explain lower than expected rates of CNS oxygen toxicity. This could potentially apply to pulmonary toxicity events as well.

Takeaways

The difficulty with covering a topic like this is the desire to educate but not instill undue confidence in divers. Knowledge is a powerful thing, and it’s easy to see research that agrees with what we’ve been taught and immediately apply it to our own diving. My hope is that you can take this article, use it to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge, and find the areas where you’d like to dig a little deeper. 

UPTD and REPEX models may be inaccurate (wildly so in some applications), but many divers have been trained to use them in ways that promote safe diving practices and result in low injury incidence. Similarly, Shykoff and Arieli’s methods are exciting and appear accurate but lack the real-world testing to verify their efficacy. They are significantly hindered by their parameters, and we have yet to determine if they represent a more accurate model at large, or just a closer correlation to a limited dataset. 

Like many elements of diving research, the potential here is enormous. While you may be left waiting for more research before you can change the way you plan your dives, it’s likely that these two models and those that will come from them will dictate how we dive in the future. Knowing how we got to this point, what the pitfalls of our current calculations are, and how researchers hope to remedy those pitfalls in the future is valuable and can contribute to your safety. Dig into the details wherever possible, see how each model calculates your most challenging dives, and think about how you can make your dives safer with all of the knowledge available to you. 

A Special Thanks to Massimo Bondone and Dr. Andy Pitkin for sharing their dive data and Neal Pollock, Ph.D. for lending his expertise.

Additional Resources:

InDepth V 2.9: How To Calculate the Risk Of Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity by Ran Arieli

Frontiers in Physiology: Aviner B., Arieli R.,Yalov A. Power equation for predicting the risk of central nervous system oxygen toxicity at rest

Arieli R., Aviner B. Acclimatization and deacclimatization to oxygen: determining exposure limits to avoid cns o2 toxicity in active diving

Calculator For Estimating The Risk Of Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity by Dr. Barbara Shykoff

Shearwater Research: Why UPTD Calculations Should Not Be Used by Barbara Shykoff, 2017

Spums Journal: Tolerating Oxygen Exposure by RW Bill Hamilton, 1997

RW Bill Hamilton’s Original REPEX paper: Tolerating Exposure To High Oxygen Levels: Repex And Other Methods by RW Hamilton, 1989An early 1985 review of the UPTD Model: Predicting Pulmonary O2 Toxicity: A New Look at the Unit Pulmonary Toxicity Dose by AL Harabin, L.D. Homer, PK Weathersby and ET Flynn


Reilly Fogarty is an expert in diving safety, hyperbaric research, and risk management. Recent work has included research at the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, risk management program creation at Divers Alert Network, and emergency simulation training for Harvard Medical School. A USCG licensed captain, he can most often be found running technical charters and teaching rebreather diving in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Exploration

The Life & Times of a West Coast Photogrammetrist: Could it be the Almirante Barroso?

Seattle-based instructor and photogrammetrist Kees Beemster Leverenz recounts the challenges he and his team faced trying to amass sufficient detailed footage of a mystery steamship lying 75m/250 ft beneath the Red Sea, while Murphy hammered away on the team and their equipment. What’s a photogrammetrist to do?

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by Kees Beemster Leverenz
Header image and photos courtesy of K. Leverenz unless otherwise noted.

[Ed.note: Be sure to make the jump on Leverenz’s 3D model ]

About four minutes into the dive I realized I should have listened to Faisal. Nine divers in three teams, myself included, had made it to around 40 m/130 ft when the warm calm water of the Suez gulf turned into a torrent. The thick rope that connected the surface to the wreck went from vertical to nearly horizontal, and started shaking due to the powerful water flow. With a rebreather, two decompression cylinders, and a camera, I could only make headway if I turned my scooter to its maximum speed and kicked as hard as I could. Even then, progress was slow. The wreck was 37 m/120 ft away, resting in just over 75 m/250 ft of clear blue water. We had a long way to go.

Faisal Khalaf—the proprietor of Red Sea Explorers and our deep diving guide for this trip—had told us what to expect. Perhaps “warned” is a better word. However, besides being a talented diver, Faisal is an excellent storyteller with a flair for the dramatic. This had led me to believe he was being theatrical during the dive briefing in the morning, describing surging currents underwater despite placid surface conditions. He was not exaggerating. 

The flow was strong, and our three dive teams resorted to a combination of negative buoyancy, scootering, kicking, and pulling ourselves hand-over-hand down the rope to get to the wreck. As I struggled against the current, another bit of the dive briefing drifted through my head: We were less than a kilometer from one of the largest shipping lanes in the world, and it would be quite dangerous to get swept off the line. Even if a large container ship could spot a diver (they can’t), and they wanted to turn, they’d be unable to. The turning radius of a modern container ship is measured in kilometers. 

Around 60 m/200 ft, the wreck came into view for the first time: an enormous hulk, with two anchors at the bow and a large twin steam boiler at the stern. Schools of giant trevallies—each over a half meter long—darted around the wreck feeding on other marine life sheltering in the hull. On that first dive, our nine divers landed somewhat ungracefully in the protection provided by the thick steel of the wreck, which acted as a break-water to shield us from the powerful current that had challenged us on the descent. We got our bearings, breathed deep, and began our dive. 

The bow and twin anchors of the mystery steamship. Photo by K. Leverenz

Faisal believes this wreck is the remains of the three-masted steel-hulled Brazilian steam corvette SC Almirante Barroso, sunk in 1893 when it struck the rocks of Al Zait. The SC Almirante Barroso was on a training mission for Brazilian Navy Cadets, and was attempting to circumnavigate the globe when it went down. Thankfully, the crew of the SC Almirante Barroso were rescued by the English ship Dolphin, but the wreck’s exact location remains a mystery. Although the identity of this wreck has yet to be confirmed, the location, size, and type of wreck matches closely. 

Imaging A Mystery 

This was my first encounter with the mystery ship, a single day expedition to an exciting new wreck in the midst of my first visit to the Red Sea. It was one of the more challenging dives I’ve ever done, somewhat surprising given the generally forgiving conditions in the Red Sea. It was a lesson in the fact that cold water and poor visibility aren’t the only thing that can make a dive difficult. Our team was one of several to visit the wreck since its discovery in early February of 2018. Previous dives had focused on taking pictures, shooting video, and searching the debris for something that would confirm its identity. However, the identity of the wreck remained an open question. 

Dorota Czerny examines the port side of the hull of the steamship. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

A little over eight months after my first visit, Faisal invited me to come back for the 2020 Wreck Exploration Project to try to create a 3D photogrammetry model of the wreck. The 3D model would make it easier to take measurements and to share the discovery with experts, and to perhaps allow us to unravel the mystery at the bottom of the Red Sea. 

For those readers unfamiliar, the process of 3D photogrammetry relies on taking high-quality photos of every bit of a wreck, each image overlapping the last. If done correctly, sophisticated software can process the images and generate a photomosaic in three dimensions. Precise measurements can be taken from this model. However, even a small gap in the chain of images can make the whole process fail. 

Leverenz’s photogrammetric rendering of the mystery steamship.

While we had a skilled crew and a roster of talented divers for the 2020 Wreck Exploration Project, the powerful current would make the process of taking the thousands of photos necessary exceedingly difficult, perhaps even impossible. There was only one reasonable way to conquer the currents while simultaneously taking photos, and that was to mount my camera on a scooter and take pictures on the go. This wasn’t something I’d done before.

The team decompressing in strong currents.

In preparation for the challenge, I consulted two friends on their equipment preferences and bought the scooter camera mount they both recommended. I had it shipped from Italy, and it was set to arrive a week prior to my departure for Egypt. I thought a week would be more than enough time to test the scooter mount. Of course, I was wrong. 

When the scooter camera mount arrived, I was shocked to discover that it didn’t work with my camera’s underwater housing. The mount used metric M6 screws to secure a camera, not the imperial ¼-20 screws my housing used. An adapter plate was available, but even if I ordered it, it would never arrive in time. Thankfully I was able to call in a favor from my friend Koos DuPreez, and we spent a day at his workshop machining an adapter from scratch. Another friend, Fritz Star, was able to give me some syntactic foam to make the scooter mount neutrally buoyant. Thanks to their generous help, my gear was ready to go for the project with a whole 24 hours remaining before my flight took off!



Hail Hail The Gang’s All here

The next morning, I started the three hops necessary to get to Egypt. First from Seattle to Washington DC, then from Washington DC to Zurich, and finally from Zurich to Hurghada. I was met at the airport by a smiling man holding a sign with my name on it. He was one of the Red Sea Explorer’s staff, sent to help shuttle me through airport security and ferry me to the MV Nouran, which would be our base of operations for the week. Considering the wide array of electronics, photo gear, and dive equipment I was traveling with, as well as the challenges of navigating airport security in a foreign country, his help was most welcome. We made it through the airport, and after a short ride through town, I arrived at the dock—exhausted but eager to see if we could make it happen. 

The team for this trip was originally eight strong, a small complement for the MV Nouran which could fit 24 if all her berths were filled. On arrival, I discovered that three of our divers had to drop out due to last minute complications. That shrunk our already small dive team even further. At the time of departure, the team consisted of only five divers able to safely dive the wreck: Faisal Khalaf, Kirill Egorov, Dorota Czerny, Marcus Newbold, and myself. Bernard Djermakian and Olga rounded out the team as the ship’s dive guides. While they weren’t trained to dive deep enough to reach the mystery wreck, they are both experienced divers who could act as in-water support if needed. A most welcome addition. 

Recovering divers on a calm day post-dive.

With such a small team and such a large boat to dive from, I immediately spread out my camera equipment on one of the MV Nouran’s four dining tables, to take stock of which pieces of dive gear survived three country’s worth of baggage handlers. I’d brought three video lights to use during the photogrammetry project. Even though I can only use two lights at a time, experience has taught me that having a spare is a good idea. Many of my diving instructors have taught me the same lesson. It was a good tip, as my quick check revealed quickly one of my three lights had broken in transit. A small but essential O-ring was protruding in a way that wouldn’t be repairable until I returned to the United States. I sent the manufacturer a message, and they confirmed what I already believed to be true: the light shouldn’t be taken in the water. I was down to the bare minimum: two lights.  

The next morning, the Nouran departed with the team in high spirits and with high hopes. We wanted to waste as little time as possible, so we planned our first and second diving days to be on the mystery steamship. If all went to plan, we’d have the opportunity to dive the wreck four, maybe five times. 

In addition to the mystery steamship, Faisal had secured two more leads for the Wreck Exploration Project. First, he wanted to explore a newly discovered wreck laying in 30 m/100 ft of water near an oil field. It had been scanned by a well-equipped survey ship in the area, and the wreck was definitely interesting but had never been explored. Second, he wanted to explore a pit at 95 m/310 ft near the wreck of the SS Rosalie Moller. The pit was said to contain the bow of an unknown wreck, but the only divers that had been there weren’t able to confirm anything. Of course, the team was excited by the prospects, so these two targets were added to the itinerary. 

Abandoned equipment sheltered by the hull of the steamship.

Managing Mister Murphy

On the morning of February 27, 2020, Marcus and I jumped in the water with our rebreathers, deco bottles, scooters, and my camera for our first dive of the project. Conditions were good, and currents were calm at the surface. However, we both knew the docile surface conditions betrayed nothing about the powerful flow below us. Several enormous cargo ships coasted by, carrying goods to and from Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal. 

We made the short surface swim to the downline, and I decided to do a quick check of my gear before we descended, knowing that we’d incur a decompression obligation in the fight to get to the wreck itself. I examined my camera first: it was fine. My right-hand side video light also worked, and after flipping it on, it was bright even in the bright light of the midday sun. I moved to examine my left-hand side video light, and was immediately disappointed. I turned it on and I was met with several quick flashes—the death throes of the LED contained in the light—then nothing. I looked at the front of the device and discovered that its dome port was half full of salt water. It had flooded in the time it took to swim to the downline.

Kees Beemster Leverenz on the steamship wreck. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

I shouted to Marcus about the problem and we immediately turned tail to get back to the Nouran to try to salvage our first dive of the trip. We were able to jury-rig a working light out of the corpse of the light that broke in the water and the remains of the one that broke in transit. We were back in business, in the water shortly, and on the wreck in record time. 

Once we reached the bottom, I breathed a sigh of relief. After the logistical challenges and the three back-to-back flights, after all the planning and the broken lights, after the custom machining and the calling in of favors, we were here and ready to go. Blue light filtered through the deep water. Visibility was excellent. Hundreds of yellow fish were schooling around the wreck. It was time to get to work. 

Marcus and I made several circuits of the wreck, doing our best to get the images we’d need for the photogrammetry model. I started the process with a circuit around the base of the wreck, making sure to capture the two anchors that lay beautifully under the bow. I then moved on to capturing the ground around the wreck, and finally I made several passes over the top of the mystery steamship, to capture the steam boilers, stove, and other debris that lay inside. The scooter-mounted camera worked beautifully, and we managed to achieve good coverage in under an hour. With our primary job complete (at least for now), we made our way back to the upline to start paying our tedious penalty for deep wreck exploration: decompression. We surfaced 202 minutes after we descended, excited to see the results of the day’s work. 

Marcus Newbold scooters past the remains of the steamship’s engine room.

In the afternoon, over lunch, I started a test run of Agisoft Metashape (the software used to create photogrammetry models). The test run was complete by dinnertime. The 3D model was more complete than I’d hoped, but less complete than I would have liked. With powerful currents running perpendicular to the wreck, staying in position was much easier on the sides of the wreck where the current was tempered by the structure of the ship itself. At the bow and stern, the weaker currents along the side of the wreck became an unobstructed flow. The sudden change in water speed makes it difficult to get the chain of images necessary for a 3D model. Despite my best efforts, the challenging conditions meant I wasn’t able to get the images I needed. The model had broken at the bow. We’d need to add more images in a subsequent dive.

Marcus Newbold on the bow of the newly discovered wreck, believed to be the tanker Texaco Cristobal.

Dogged Determination

The next day, the weather cooperated, and we had an opportunity to return to the wreck. Kirill and Dorota descended first, with Marcus and me following a few minutes behind. We added the pictures I believed were necessary to complete the model (and a few hundred extras, just to be sure), and then took to exploring the interior of the wreck, taking some fun pictures along the way. Sadly, we weren’t able to find anything that positively identified the wreck. We made our way back to the upline, pulled the anchor from where it’d lodged in the hull of the wreck and made the long ascent to the surface for the second time in two days. 

The test processing of the model after day two showed that we’d almost certainly achieved our goal ahead of schedule. I didn’t have the computer hardware aboard necessary to complete the model, so final processing would have to wait until I returned to Seattle. 

We shifted gears to explore our secondary target: the shipwreck in the oilfield. After documenting this new target, we believe it to be the wreck of an oil tender called the “Texaco Cristobal.” We also explored the pit near the SS Rosalie Moller, which was just as deep as we’d been told but far less interesting. We dubbed it the “pit of despair,” and I won’t be going back. I doubt anyone will. Although not without challenges, we’d had an extremely productive first four days of the project. 

Faisal Khalaf illuminates the wheel of the tanker. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

We were fortunate that the early days of the project were fruitful, as the remaining days of the project were fraught with issues. Dorota caught a bad cold, and was unable to dive for the remainder of the trip. This whittled our small dive team down to just four divers. Then (thanks to a scheduling mishap) Kirill had to depart early. He packed up and loaded his gear on a small sailboat, which took him back to port and to the Hurghada airport for his trip back home. 

Our dive team was down to just three: Faisal, Marcus, and me. Fortunately, Irene Homberger was leading a trip on the Nouran’s sister-ship the Tala and was able to supplement our tiny team for a dive or two, before hopping back onto the Tala. Still, the final dives of the trip were funny: three divers diving from a ship built to comfortably accommodate 24 divers, 10 crew, and two dive guides. 

We had two final dives on the mystery steamship to try to make a positive identification. Powerful winds kicked up on the second to last day, big enough to wash across the deck of the Nouran. Faisal, Marcus, and I geared up and got ready. The Nouran made several passes over the wreck, but we collectively made the decision to skip the dive. The conditions simply weren’t safe, despite the fact that the team was eager and enthusiastic to try to identify it. We dove another nearby wreck, the Ulysses, instead and were lucky enough to have a delightful encounter with an eagle ray during our dive. 

Leverenz’s photogrammetric rendering of what may be the Almirante Barosso Ortho.

Our final day of diving on the mystery steamship was safe, but uneventful. No artifacts were discovered, no markings were found, and the ship remains unidentified. The data we collected was enough to complete the 3D model. We’ve distributed the 3D model to the usual suspects: experts, researchers, and other interested individuals, but to no avail. While we still hope and believe the mystery steamship is the SC Almirante Barroso, its identity remains unknown.

We’ll just have to go back. 

Additional Resources

Here is Leverenz’s 3D model of the mystery steamship.

GUE offers a course in photogrammetry: GUE Photogrammetry.


Kees Beemster Leverenz is an enthusiastic diver and GUE instructor from Seattle, Washington, who enjoys getting in the water as often as possible. He has been deeply involved with GUE Seattle since it was founded in 2011. Currently, Kees is contributing to both local and global photogrammetry projects, as well as assisting with cave and wreck exploration projects whenever possible.

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