Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Dive of a Lifetime

I struggled to get to my feet in the pitching boat. In addition to nearly overheating in my drysuit (warm water, but long dives) and the excessive weight of my Sentinel rebreather, I had two 80 cu/ft stage bottles clipped to my side. I shuffled to the stern and ungracefully fell into the profoundly blue water. Relief. After a final check of my breathing mixture and receiving my Aquatica housed Nikon I was on the decent. It was at 20 ft deep on a quick bubble check that I finally looked down - was that the bottom? When I reached the bottom my eyes were doing battle with my mind. My eyes were seeing a 40-60 ft clear, overly blue Caribbean dive. My mind, however, was registering the 175ft’ my computer was displaying with a rapidly evaporating no-decompression time. The site was located on a sparse plateau between the sharp, rocky cliffs that climbed up to the surface and a steep drop-off to the abyss – no aquarium shipwreck here. I began to scan the bottom while my dive buddy, Greek technical diver extraordinaire Alexandros Sotiriou, squeezed the earpiece of the metal detector under his mask strap. At first glance the bottom consisted of mostly sand with large coral outcroppings and patches of dark rubble. Upon closer examination, I realized the rubble was broken amphorae scattered in the sand – and they were everywhere. Nearby I photographed the near perfect neck of a clay jar with its handles just above the sediment as if someone had gently placed it there a mere 2000 years ago. 
2,000 years on the sea floor
I continued shooting the metal detector operations as instructed, trying not to get distracted and swim off to shoot the artifact scatters (like I wanted to do). I found an area of shattered amphorae directly in the path of Alex and his metal detector. As I waited for him to approach, I fired a few shots. He swam to my location, monitoring the pulse of the detector. When he reached me, he paused, examined the pile of exposed amphorae in front of me and gently reached into the sediment. With a delicate twist, the clay artifact, a nearly intact small serving amphora, appeared out of the sediment cloud. Beyond all my pre-project web searches or archaeology discussions – the potential of this incredibly historic shipwreck became immediately apparent before my lens. 
Alexandros Sotiriou discovers a small amphora

I continued to follow Alex on the metal detector survey; ready to document anything else. I was a believer. After a few minutes of hovering in water cloudy from hand-fanning, I was distracted and began to wander in search of better photographic opportunities. Evan motioned from a distance that he was heading to shoot some high angle shots to assist in the site mapping. Clear water. I was game. Just as I started to follow Evan I heard Alex trying to get my attention. As I turned, I saw him in a cloud of sediment waiving for me to join him. As I closed the distance I noticed he had located an iron bar of some type. He was still removing it from the sediment when I reached him. He gave one final tug on the less then impressive bar. The opposing end slowly rose above the silt cloud. This was no iron bar – it was a spear - a 2,000-year-old bronze spear. There was Alex, upright in a cloud of sediment, with the spear raised in front him like some kind of warrior. I continued shooting – strobes firing, Alex wide-eyed and smirking. Despite the massive haul of artifacts in 1901 and the extensive airlift excavation in 1976 by Cousteau, I needed little convincing there at 175ft that this site still held vast treasures of antiquities. I was hooked.

Alexandros Sotiriou with the bonze spear

The combination of depth, gas mix, and efficiency of the Sentinel rebreather meant roughly one minute of decompression for each minute of bottom time. Our dive plan was to monitor our TTS, or time to surface, and add that to our decompression requirement. We didn’t want those combined times to exceed two hours. 

Phil Short and Alex examine the spear on the bottom
Alex attached a lift bag to the tip of the spear to offset its massive weight. Phil and Evan joined us at the base of the cliffs running up to the surface. Phil examined the spear with excitement. Handshakes were exchanged. With nearly 55 minutes of bottom time and almost an hour in decompression still to come we began our ascent up the slope. Typically, staged decompression is an extremely dull endeavor as you just “hang” at the prescribed depths displayed on our handsets - 3 minutes at this depth, 7 minutes that depth, until you roll into the dreaded last stop at 20ft and you see your longest obligation -45 minutes on this dive. This particular deco stop could very well qualify as one of the most exhilarating and vigorous of my career. While off gassing at 20ft, Phil and Alex examined the spear while I shot relentlessly. A bronze spear crafted by an unknown artist some two millennia ago. Not your typical decompression. 

Phil Short on deco

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