Sign up for our monthly newsletter so you never miss the latest from InDepth!
By Velimir Vrzic
Header photo by Aleksandar Stancin.
This project, titled Project UMS (Underwater Mine Search), was initiated by GUE divers from Croatia along with members of the local club “Policeman Diver.” Joining our efforts with active police divers from the Croatian Special Task Force’s Bomb Squad, our goal was to help locate, document and record using 3D photogrammetry, lost naval mines from WWI and WWII so they can be defused and removed. Authorities estimate there are as many as 5000 naval mines from the two world wars that still remain in the Adriatic sea.
Mining The Main Rijeka Beaches
During the last days of December 2019, while the citizens of Rijeka, Croatia, were preparing for New Year’s Eve, my dive buddy and I discovered something that we did not expect to see—an abandoned naval mine of great destructive power during a routine exploratory dive. The mine is laying on the bottom at a shallow depth of 25m/82ft near the Rijeka city beach, which has been frequented by citizens and tourists over the last 80 years. Please note, #Redbull doesn’t really give you wings, but finding one of these does!
Rijeka is a city of turbulent, dynamic, and troublesome history and recently, it has been designated the “European Capital of Culture” for 2020. Over the ages, various military forces marched through it, always bringing fear and leaving destruction behind. During the last 100 years of its rich history, Rijeka has flown seven national flags. As an important geostrategic city in the Adriatics, it is always a location of interest.
We located the mine near an elite beachfront area of Rijeka near the Villa Olga approximately 20m/65 ft from the shore. The villa used to be a command post of Nazi Germany occupying forces after Italy switched sides in WWII. The reality of this can still be seen from the SS insignia as well as a swastika on the villa’s fence.
However, it is not the villa or the fence that can do harm now, unlike the mine which rests just offshore. Based on our research, the mine was deployed sometime from 1943-1945 to protect the coastline from a possible Allies surprise seafront attack. My fellow diver and photographer Aleksandar Stančin was able to confirm it is an EMC type II naval mine, containing up to 250 kg, 551 pounds of TNT, which makes it more than capable of damaging and sinking a ship.
It could easily damage or destroy local sewers and or seriously hurt swimmers if it detonated regardless of the fact it is lying in 25m/82 ft of water. Of course, we immediately reported our discovery to the local authorities who brought in a special police task force (underwater unit) from Zagreb to confirm the finding of an active naval mine. Ironically, nearby the mine, there were several artefacts from the beach, including a child’s diving mask, flip flops, and several other items.
By a twist of fate, this mine and many others were laid by a ship called Kiebitz under Nazi Germany. The ship, which was basically a banana cargo ship originally named Ramb III, was acquired when Italy changed sides and Germany took control of the area. Ironically, the Kiebitz sank in the port of Rijeka during an Allied raid at the end of 1944, when it made contact with one of the mines she had deployed.
After WWII, the Kiebitz was salvaged and restored to seaworthy status, but this time with a different role. The ship, renamed The Peace Ship Galeb, became a symbol of peace in Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia when he traveled and hosted political meetings and events on the ship. The Galeb is currently being renovated as a part of the European Capital of Culture project to serve as a museum of those times.
Born in 1972, Velimir Vrzic started diving at the age of 17 as part of the C.M.A.S. Federation in Yugoslavia. After Croatian independence, he joined the police force from 1991-1995 and was decorated by the President of Croatia three times for his military operations and service to the country. After the war, back in the maritime police, Velimar worked as a crime investigator at sea. After completing an anti-explosives course, he performed special jobs for the Ministry of the Interior. He then met his future dive instructor, Mario Arena, and joined the GUE. In 2012, Velimar underwent heart surgery to close his open PFO (patent foramen ovale). In 2013, at the age of 40, he retired from the police force and opened a non-profit diving club called Policeman Diver. The organization works with state agencies to protect the sea in Croatia. He is also co-founder of the cave project “Morpheus.” Velimar is happily married to his wife, Pamela Vrzic, who is also a diver.
Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community
In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.
by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.
In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered.
He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game: “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.
Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.
When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.
Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:
“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”
The Torbet Method for Managing Stress
Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”
Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:
“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.”
Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.”
There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,
“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment. I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”
In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques.
A Team of One?
Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations.
Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay.
In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces, the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]
“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.”
After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double.
Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.
Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start.
Why does he love being part of the stunt community?
“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.”
A Perspective on life
Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.
“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.
I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”
Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet
Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet
Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet
Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!
Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.
I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving.
Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion. You can sign up for my newsletter here.
Thank You to Our Sponsors
Top Tech Stories of 2021
We’d like to kick off the new year with a selection of 11 hand-curated stories from our deepening well of...