The tech­ni­cal-dive pro­fes­sion

The tricky ex­plo­ration of dis­tant Ben­ham Rise is just the lat­est chal­lenge in the long ca­reer of vet­eran tech­ni­cal diver Karl Hur­wood.

Action Asia - - FINAL FRAME - Story by Gregg Yan, di­rec­tor of communications, Oceana Philip­pines

BEN­HAM RISE ISN’T JUST THE NEW­EST TER­RI­TORY IN the Philip­pines – it’s 60 mil­lion acres of pure mys­tery. Lit­tle is known about the seamount, which lies east of the Philip­pine is­land of Lu­zon and was named af­ter an ob­scure Amer­i­can ad­mi­ral who died in 1905 (see side­bar). Its fame is set to change. An ex­pe­di­tion in May 2016 un­cov­ered fields of coral as far as a fish-eye could see. A full 120% coral cover? Yes. Sea­weed sur­viv­ing at depths of 60 me­tres? Yup. Giants like tuna and tiger sharks? Hell, yeah. Ma­rine con­ser­va­tion non­profit Oceana Philip­pines is now working with the gov­ern­ment of the Philip­pines to get the shal­low­est por­tion of Ben­ham Rise, called Ben­ham Bank, de­clared as a no-take zone. But first the site re­quired proper ex­plo­ration in the first place. That re­sulted in a gov­ern­ment-led re­search trip last year. Karl Hur­wood is a tech­ni­cal diver and one of the first to de­scend “down the Bank” in May last year. Now a Pro-tech Philip­pines tech­ni­cal-dive in­struc­tor, he served as the leader of the team for the 2016 Ben­ham Bank dives. These were some of the most-chal­leng­ing dives he had

ever ex­pe­ri­enced. That opens a win­dow on a ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional diver, with more than a few in­sights into how the tech­ni­cal div­ing in­dus­try func­tions, too. Hur­wood first tried div­ing at the age of 13 at a week­long “sub-aqua” pro­gramme in the United Kingdom, dur­ing school sum­mer hol­i­days. He’s now a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, and has been a pro­fes­sional diver since 2009. Oh, and he has logged more than 4,000 dives. “Our Ben­ham Bank dives were so re­mote and deep that the only fea­si­ble way to dive was by us­ing scoot­ers, tether lines and closed-cir­cuit re­breathers, which gave us hour-long bot­tom times at depths greater than 200 feet,” Hur­wood re­calls. There were plenty of com­pli­ca­tions in­volved in the op­er­a­tion. To start with, div­ing sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­tres from shore is never go­ing to be easy, and at the edge of the Pa­cific Ocean at that. Given the depth of the divers and the strong ocean cur­rents, there were no bub­bles for chase boats to follow. On the plus side, vis­i­bil­ity was un­real, typ­i­cally 65 me­tres or more. So keep­ing eye con­tact with the line was rel­a­tively easy. To counter the cur­rent at depth, Hur­wood and the team used high-pow­ered dive propul­sion units ca­pa­ble of three knots. Dur­ing de­com­pres­sion the cur­rent was of­ten very strong. That left the divers with lit­tle op­tion but to hold the line. “This was a ma­jor con­cern when we had to do three hours of de­com­pres­sion be­fore sur­fac­ing with a five-knot cur­rent blow­ing,” Hur­wood notes. There’s noth­ing quite like ex­plor­ing a vir­gin dive site. For Hur­wood, shar­ing the dis­cov­ery was the most re­ward­ing part of the whole ex­pe­di­tion. It was price­less to reg­is­ter the looks of to­tal awe on the faces of the bat­tle-hard­ened re­search team when they saw the video footage and still im­ages gath­ered by the dive team each day. Each evening, the divers held a whole-boat de­brief for all crewmem­bers. There were plenty of wows and ah­hhs as the im­ages came up. What they found amazed even the ex­pe­ri­enced sci­en­tific team. One site con­sisted of end­less fields of gi­ant plate coral. “I’ve cer­tainly never seen any­thing like this be­fore, even on video,” Hur­wood ex­plains. “To have been one of the very few peo­ple to have seen this with my own eyes is some­thing I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber.” These dives were par­tic­u­larly re­mote and rel­a­tively deep. But Hur­wood isn’t fix­ated with his gauges or set­ting per­sonal bests – mis­takes he sees made all the time. It’s one of his great­est frus­tra­tions. “Many tech­ni­cal divers aim to log a depth on their com­put­ers and lit­tle else,” Hur­wood says. “It’s ac­tu­ally very easy to get to ex­treme depths, quite a bit harder to get back – and much, much harder to do it all safely with one or two backup plans in place.” The in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of tech­ni­cal div­ing has only added to the pres­sure for pro­fes­sion­als. Hur­wood feels many am­a­teurs rush into tech div­ing and fo­cus on get­ting depth rather than ap­pro­pri­ate train­ing. Then, for those newly cer­ti­fied tech divers that want to go pro, there’s the frus­tra­tion

Right: The al­gal sea­weed Hal­imeda thrives on Ben­ham Rise at an unusu­ally great depth.

UN­USUAL FINDS Main im­age: Tech­ni­cal divers were called in to col­lect sed­i­ment sam­ples for flora and fauna anal­y­sis.

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