Monday, October 6, 2014

Diving with Iron Man

Every now and then something I shoot underwater totally surprises me. I don’t mean great visibility or perfect conditions, but rather the subject matter. The last time this happened was in Palau when I (again) was shooting with Evan and we were filming nautiluses. Those incredible, cephalopods simply amazed me. Their use of propulsion to move through the water and their innate ability to return the depths from which they came was awe inspiring- a truly magical little creature.

Deploying the Exosuit off Thetis

I was struck by this same feeling as I began to photograph the $1.3 million hard metal diving suit called the Exo. This one-person submarine is capable of reaching 1000ft of depth with a single occupant and stay for 7-10 hrs without decompression. At first, I approached the dive with a bit of disappointment. The spectacular, the above the fold, internationally distributed project image in my mind’s eye was the Exosuit on the Antikythera shipwreck, flanked by two rebreather divers examining a newly discovered second, intact mechanism. A bit ambitious, I realize, so I was prepared to “settle” for just bronze statue. Due to (massive) weather delays, site location, sea state, and several other factors it was very apparent we weren’t even going to get this “Iron Man” on the shipwreck, much less hope for the bronze statue. What was available was a test dive off the side of the Greek Navy vessel, Thetis, in blue water. With no shipwreck, or even a bottom, at least I could get some split-level photographs.

Evan and I asked for a 20 min lead time before they splashed the Exosuit with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Diving Safety Officer Ed O’Brian for the test dive. We were given 5 min. The Navy vessel Thetis was about 1500ft from our dive boat. Evan and I splashed. Quickly. To aid what was to be a leisurely transit from our boat to the large anchored Navy ship we each took a DPV, or diver propulsion vehicle, so we wouldn’t have to swim our cameras. As I rounded the bow of the Thetis and glanced above the surface the Exo was already over the rail and just about to dip Ed’s feet into the sea. Damn. I kicked the DPV into a speed I didn’t even know it had and held on as the prop wash attempted to rip my mask from my face.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Diving Safety Office Ed O'Brien pilots the Exosuit

I reached the suit (before Evan, I might add, although he did have a bigger camera) just as the Navy diver was removing the crane cable from the suit. “So much for my split-level,” I thought. As I started to move around the suit and exchange shots with Evan, I became entranced by this modern marvel. Here was Ed looking back at us through the bubbled faceplate, completely dry, able to thrust wherever he wanted, and communicate to the surface. I was photographing an astronaut on a space walk - the truest application of the term “Aquanaut” I ever could have imagined. There were no bubbles from any of us to distract from the tranquility. Just one of the coolest pieces of underwater kit I have ever seen set against the magical blue backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea – breathtaking.

Prior to the dive, Evan and I had been instructed by the Hellenistic Navy not to descend deeper than 20m (with a specific mention of no decompression). I was in pure photography bliss circling the Exosuit, shooting various angles, composing shots with the Navy support vessel above, and Ed within the contraption. The ambient light seemed to be getting softer, more beautiful, however I noticed a cooling sensation creep through my Fourth Element drysuit. After releasing the shutter for the hundredth time, I checked my computer to find I was currently at 155ft descending along with Ed and the suit. I glanced over at Evan. He gave me the OK. I took another look at my handset, checked my breathing mixture and deco time, and thought how much I loved rebreathers. I continued shooting. Evan and I eventually held at 160ft while the Exo slowly sank into the abyss.  

Greek Naval Special Forces, or OYK's, diving with Exo

Evan and I made our way over the Navy ships anchor chain and slowly ascended. Did the Navy say not to exceed 20M (60ft) or was it 60M (180ft)? The whole English/Metric conversion can be so complicated!! After 10-15 minutes the Exosuit came into view again and we finned over to shoot the recovery. Members of the Hellenistic Navy Special Forces/Underwater Demolition Team, or OYK’s, met us at 30ft. They had splashed to greet the Exosuit on its maiden dive at Antikythera – a momentous event in the project. I shot a few images of them interacting with Ed in the suit and positioned myself to shoot a split-level of the Iron Man recovery. My disappointment prior to the dive had long since disappeared. I knew I had made some spectacular, even perhaps portfolio worthy, photographs – something that definitely doesn’t happen on every dive.

Into the Abyss

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