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.
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.