Opinion: Don’t Break That Record
The recent death of 41-year-old technical diver, Sebastian Marczewski, aka “Iron Diver,” during a failed attempted world record scuba dive to 333 m/1093 ft in Lake Garda, Italy, highlighted the dangers of deep diving record setting. The tragedy occurred just after GUE instructor Dimitris Fifis had penned an opinion piece for InDepth exploring the nature and motivation of deep diving record setting. Fifis explained that he wrote the post in order to get a better personal understanding of what motivates divers to set deep diving records. His post was motivated in part by the deaths of two other technical divers attempting deep records. Here are his thoughts and suggestions.
by Dimitris Fifis
It has always been in the nature of human beings to fly higher, to explore further, to dive deeper. It is this instinct that has been behind some of the most amazing explorations and discoveries. It is what pushed us forward to a better understanding of our planet, of our body and much more, and it will surely never stop. There will always be people trying to push further than before, people who are willing to bet their lives so that the rest of us may benefit from their discoveries.
The truth is I have the utmost respect for these underwater explorers who have offered us so much. On the other hand, I am sometimes deeply saddened by the loss of life of those in the pursuit of what they think is record-breaking and pushes the boundaries. That is especially true in our beloved activity diving.
We have suffered many meaningless losses in our community. Losses that made us wonder why. Why did they do it? This is particularly the case when it involves breaking a record that has already been broken.
This is the “why” that I am trying to discover through writing these thoughts.
What drives someone to risk so much in order to break a record that has already been broken? What is the point of seeing your name in a world record book when you know it has been done before? Well, maybe not by a woman. Or, perhaps by a solo diver, but not by a team, or maybe by someone using a rebreather. But what difference do those things really make?
One reason for doing it might be vanity, although I don’t think this is the main reason for most aspirant record breakers. Was is it really vanity that drove Guy Garman aka Doc Deep to attempt a record-breaking dive to 370 meters/1209 ft., though he had only been a diver for four years? Or was it the result of a culture that glorifies deep dives for its own sake, or for hopes of financial gain?
Perhaps the reason may simply be trying to stand out and survive in our unfortunately highly competitive diving community and even more competitive professional diving industry. With the number of instructors constantly rising while the number of potential students continues to fall, it is perhaps normal for any dive professional to try to find ways to attract more students. Unfortunately, the strategy of lowering course prices and shortening course times is simply not sustainable and has helped create the problem in the first place.
Becoming a “diving hero” sounds like a good idea to attract more people that will surely want to get trained by the world record holder.
What is not a good idea is to try to perform “record-breaking” deep dives when ill-prepared physically and/or mentally. Also unwise is trying them without adequate financial support, allowing the diver to avoid cutting corners on safety in order to meet the budget. Most importantly, it is not a good idea to proceed without a team that can support the attempt and be able to help in case Murphy sneaks in.
Of course, as educator Gareth Lock, The Human Diver points out, “Nobody shows up for a dive thinking what a nice day to die”. I am sure that is not what Theodora Balabanova, a Bulgarian technical diving instructor, thought prior to her fatal attempt to dive to 233 meters in hopes of becoming the deepest woman diver, but also the deepest couple, as her husband Mihail, who was critically injured, was diving with her. Theodora had much more diving experience than Guy, but still, the risks are always there, especially on a dive beyond the usual “envelope.“
It is only through knowledge, experience, meticulous planning, and a team of expert advisors and support divers that the risks of such dives can be reduced to a sensible level, if at all. Unfortunately, most of the time, these factors are simply replaced by bravado and peer pressure, which reflects a lack of understanding of the real risks.
What is more unfortunate is the fact that even if all goes well and the “record” is broken, the positive effects and advertisement will only be temporary. You see, as easy as it is to become famous on social media these days, it is just as easy to be replaced by the next social media celebrity, and the achievement quickly was forgotten.
So, what can instructors do instead?
Simply, take a slower path to success. Increase the quality of your teaching, choose a training agency that shares your values, study and gain deeper knowledge on the topics that you are teaching, and practice your diving and presentation skills. Carefully and honestly analyze the way you teach and try to improve in every course. Take courses from other experienced instructors and learn from them. Increase your experience by participating in demanding exploration projects, and actively participate in conservation initiatives. Finally, respect your students, yourself, your instructors, and the training agency you are teaching for.
Respect them by delivering the best possible course you can, and they will respect you back by choosing you as an instructor, by recommending you to others, and possibly even by making you an instructor trainer. They will respect you for what you do, not for how deep you once managed to go.
This article is not about pointing fingers, disrespecting, or criticizing people who made mistakes and paid a very high price for them. On the contrary, this article is meant to remember and honour these fallen diving heroes and, more importantly, to emphasize the most valuable lesson learned from them. I am sure both Guy and Theodora would agree that no record is worth dying for.
Tragedy Strikes Multiple Scuba Record Attempts – DeeperBlue.com
The Last Dive of Sebastian Marczewski
Born in Athens, Greece, Dimitris Fifis started diving in 1991 and became an instructor in 1998. In 2009, after 23 years of service in the Greek Navy (most of them in the aviation branch), he retired and decided to pursue a full-time career in diving. Since then he has managed diving operations in various diving centers in Greece as well as on mega-yachts. Dimitris discovered GUE in 2007 and never looked back. He currently lives and works in Dubai, and is involved in various wreck exploration and underwater filming projects in the area. Because of his strong interest in increasing dive safety through quality education, he also produces training videos for GUE.
The Aftermath Of Love: Don Shirley and Dave Shaw
Our young Italian poet-explorer Andrea Murdoch Alpini makes a pilgrimage to visit cave explorer Don Shirley at the legendary Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. In addition to guiding the author through the cave, Shirley and Alpini dive into history and the memories of the tragic loss in 2005 of Shirley’s dive buddy David Shaw, who died while trying to recover the body of a lost diver at 270 m/882 ft. The story features Alpini’s short documentary, “Komati Springs: The Aftermath of Love.”
Text by Andrea Murdock Alpini
🎶 Pre-dive clicklist: Where is My Mind by Pixies🎶
South Africa, Komati Springs.
On October 28, 2004, two cave divers and long-time friends, Don Shirley and David Shaw, planned a dive at Boesmansgat (also known in English as “Bushman’s Hole”) a deep, submerged freshwater cave (or sinkhole) in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Dave dove to 280 meters, touched the bottom and started exploring. At that time, Shaw had recently broken four records at one time: depth on a rebreather, depth in a cave on a rebreather, depth at altitude on a rebreather, and depth running a line. While on the dive at Boesmansgat, he found a body that had been there for nearly ten years, 20-year-old diver Deon Dreyer.
After obtaining permission to retrieve the body from Dreyer’s parents, the two friends returned three months later. They enrolled eight support rebreather divers (all of whom were close to Don) and Gordon Hiles, a cameraman from Cape Town, who filmed the entire process—from the preparation on the surface to the operation at the bottom of the cave. The surface marshal was Verna van Schaik, who held the women’s world record for depth at the time. Little did they know that Dave would not come back from his 333rd dive, one that he himself recorded with an underwater camera.
Researchers have determined that while attempting the retrieval, Dave ran into physical difficulties with the lines from the body bag and the wires from the light head. The physical effort of trying to free himself led to his death for what is believed to be respiratory insufficiency (see video below). Don Shirley nearly died as well, and apparently was left with permanent damage that has impaired his balance.
Nearly 20 years later, our own Andrea Murdock Alpini visits Don and has this to say:
February 2023—I arrive at the mine owned by cave expert and pioneer of deep diving, Don Shirley. The place is fantastic—the wild nature, the warm water, and the dives are amazing. Every day I spend at least 230 minutes underwater, filming the mines and what is left of man’s influence in this beautiful and God-forgotten corner of Africa. Every day I have time to talk, plan dives, and prepare the blends together with Don Shirley.
The following is a part of the story that links Don Shirley to South Africa. Stories and places intertwine between Komati Springs, Boesmansgat (or “Bushman’s Hole”) and then the fatal dive with his friend Dave Shaw.
Monkeys arrive on time every 12 hours. They showed up last night at about 5:00. They came down from the trees in large groups. They start playing, throwing themselves from one branch to another, chasing each other. Mothers hug their little ones. Some of them play with oxygen cylinders, the smaller ones instead with methane gas tanks, the ones we use for cooking. We are surrounded by gas blenders of all kinds.
A herdsman’s hat rests on the workbench. Two hands with delicate, thin skin take adapters, cylinders, and whips.They open and close taps. Notebooks report all the consumption for each charge, strictly written in liters with the utmost precision. Impressions: An Amaranth t-shirt, an unmistakable logo, that of the IANTD. A pair of jeans and then some boots. He has a slight physique, he is lean and athletic with a beard that is white now, and a few days’ old.
While he works carefully, I do not disturb him, for I know well that when mixing, one is not to be interrupted, at least this is so for anyone who loves precision. Then, when he’s done, we have time to talk a little bit together.
We sit at his desk and then go to the board to plan the dive in the mine.
Don shows me the map of the first level. He explains some important facts to me, then his hands pull out a second sheet with the plan redesigned from memory of the second level at 24 m/70 ft deep. “This is the guitar level,” he says.
At first I don’t understand. He chuckles. I look at the shape he drew and, yes, that floor plan is a cross between a Fender Stratocaster and a Picasso guitar. Anyway, it’s a guitar, no doubt.
We begin planning the dive together. It’s exciting to hear him talk; he speaks in a soft, elegant tone, and it moves me. I look at his index finger moving. I listen to his words, but I also look at his eyes.
He gives me some advice but also tells me, “This mine is more similar to a cave. I have left it as it is. I want people to explore it and not follow any lines.”
Freedom of thought, plurality of choices. Acceptance of risk, inclusion of the other in what belongs to you. It’s clear that Don’s vision of diving is uncommon. Freedom is beautiful, but it is the most dangerous thing there is, if mishandled.
The next day, we have an appointment at 7 o’clock at the lake. Before diving this morning, we saw where the “Tunnel of Love” originates on the surface, a curious gallery which I came across underwater. There are two parts of the mine that survived the destruction of the mining facility after its closure. One of these is the tunnel where we are going, the other part is perched in the middle of the mountain.
Don explains that the tunnel is now frequented by the wild animals who go to drink there, so we follow their trail. The water has flooded everything up to just a few meters below the surface of the bush. Don cuts the underbrush that makes the path difficult. He wears his faithful herdsman’s hat and never takes it off. The ground begins to tilt slightly, a good sign that we are about to arrive. A series of stones suggest that here the path has been paved. “It was covered in wood,” Don explains.
The path that started from the building where the miners lived is now demolished. Following it, we arrive at what was called “The Tunnel of Love.”
The tunnel that was the mine’s main entry point. Narrow and difficult, the tunnel led to level one—now underwater at a depth of 18 m/60 ft.
We turn on the headlamps and enter. A small colony of bats flaps its wings upon our arrival. The water touches our boots. Some roots filter from the rock and stretch to the resurgence. The scenery is evocative.
Don kneels, peering at the water, and something. He looks at the water and something changes within him. Something has changed in our shared dialogue.
It’s as if Don takes on another language as he speaks. He always looks straight ahead. His vocabulary changes, and with it his tone of voice. We talk about politics, economics, the future of Komati Springs, the origin of the name of the place, the history of the mine, but we never mention two topics: diving and Dave Shaw.
Don’s a real caveman. I know that those who love caves are not ordinary people. We who do are a little bit mad to do what we do and love, but he’s different. He is comfortable here; he has found his dimension.
I remember asking him a question when we were inside the Tunnel of Love, breaking one of the long silences: “What thoughts are going through your mind?” He seemed to have reached a meditative state, a kind of catharsis. He replied, “I am just relaxing. This is a peaceful place. “
Around nine o’clock, we travel again to the lake, leaving the dry caves behind.
The first dive lasted 135 minutes, the second 95 minutes. Once the equipment is set up, I return to the cottage to dry everything and recharge the cylinders.
Don’s hands this time are again without gloves. Before we start mixing, we walk into his office.The walls are lined with articles he has published over the years.
He shows me the medals for valor he got when he was on duty in the British Army. When we return to a small corridor that acts as a barrier, my eyes fall on two photographs. “Is that Dave?” I ask. “That’s him. We were here in Komati,” Don tells me. “You see? This is his hat,” and he points to what is on his head.
The Consequences of Love
These are the consequences of love, I think. A friendship that transcends time, life, but also death.
It’s time to prepare the blends for tomorrow. As the oxygen pumps out, Don asks me, “Have you ever seen our Boesmasgat’s diving slates?” Obviously, I had never seen the decompression tables of that famous and tragic dive to 280 m/920 ft depth at 1,600 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) altitude.
“Hang on a sec.” Don picks up a small black box with a yellow label and brings it to me. He opens it. “These are the original dive charts. These are mine; these are Dave’s.” The box also contains the famous blackboard with the inscription, (“DAVE NOT COMING BACK”) from the documentary, as well as a pair of underwater gloves used in that dive, and then the heirloom of his CCR computer that broke due to excessive hydrostatic pressure.
He exits the room. He leaves me with those emotionally charged objects in my hands. I can’t see them any differently. They obviously have historical value; but, for me, the human sense prevails. I look at the decompression tables, touch the gloves, and think about the hands that wore them, that read the various whiteboards, and I imagine the scenes of that time.
I place everything back in the box. I hand it to Don as I would hand him a precious urn. In part, it is one. I find it hard to express myself in that moment. He understands why.
At this point I ask him, “What was the true meaning of that extreme dive that Dave wanted to do? Why did he do it?”
“He just wanted to explore the bottom of that cave,” Don said. “Wherever Dave went, he wanted to get to the bottom. That’s how we’ve always done it together. So that’s what we did here at the mine.”
Don then tells me a series of details and information about that place, about the geological stratification of the cave; he talks a little about the owner of the land where the famous sinkhole is located, and finally he talks about many other aspects of their failed dive. I promised to keep it to myself, and I will do so, forever.
Such is a connection that endures over time.
Wikipedia: Dave Shaw
YouTube: Diver Records Doom | Last Moments-Dave Shaw
Wikipedia: Dave Not Coming Back (2020) A critically acclaimed film that centers on diver Dave Shaw’s death while attempting to recover the body of Deon Dreyer from the submerged Boesmansgat cave in 2005.
Shock Ya: Don Shirley Fondly Remembers Scuba Diving with David Shaw in Dave Not Coming Back Exclusive Clip
Outside: Raising the Dead (2005) by Tim Zimmerman
Other stories by the prolific Andrea Alpini Murdock:
InDEPTH: Finessing the Grande Dame of the Abyss
InDEPTH: Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive
InDEPTH: I See A Darkness: A Descent Into Germany’s Felicitas MineInDEPTH: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, published in the Fall of 2022.
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