Deep Cave Recovery                      

Read the book on this diving story by Phillip Finch. It is published under two titles: "Raising The Dead" & "Diving Into Darkness" Search for it on Google.  


Article written in 2005


"And still fully intact, the helmet with the underwater camera also returned to the surface, after more than 100 hours at a depth of 265m!"

When I took the trouble to talk to people whom I thought might be interested, about a recent project of providing an underwater housing for a very specific video-shooting job, I was met with much skepticism about my latest creation. I told the likes of engineers and experienced divers of the tiny underwater housing to take a miniature video camera down to a depth of about 275m to record some recovery activity, and I received comments like "do you realize how much pressure there is down there"; "how are you going to waterproof the housing" and "the pressure will crush it, it will implode and injure someone". Those thoughts had crossed my mind of course, but it was very important to get the visual material from this location as the credibility of the documentary weighed heavily on this footage alone. So I set about building a "bullet-proof" housing to do the job. Little did I realize at the time of producing this housing as to how important this video material would become.

At the end of October 2004, Australian cave diver Dave Shaw set a world deep dive record using re-breather equipment. He dived to a depth of 271m in Boesmansgat, Northern Cape, South Africa, during which he located the remains of diver Deon Dreyer who had disappeared there ten years earlier. Dave almost immediately made a decision to return and dive again to recover the body, something Deon's family had been hoping for since a failed attempt using an underwater ROV* soon after Deon's disappearance.

Plans were made, the date was set, and producing a documentary film of the undertaking was all part of the plan. Dave Shaw had entrusted me with the task of making the film since I had been at Boesmansgat prior to his dive, shooting a film on Verna Van Schaik's world record deep dives for women. Between us we realized that recording Dave's work at the bottom was paramount for the film, and we had to come up with tools to do so.

So what did we need? It is total black out down there in the cave at 270 odd meters. And yes, the atmospheric pressure is huge, 28 to 29 atmospheres in fact. The underwater housings I regularly use for most of my underwater work are designed for depths not exceeding 60, maybe 80 meters. I started looking at the smallest MiniDV cameras. I had to find one that was not only small and lightweight, but that had 'night shot' capability. The idea was to house it and Dave would take it down on a helmet mount in order to record one full hour of the dive, hands free. This would allow him to continue with his own task undisturbed.

I was happy to find the new Sony HC comsumer range conformed to the need. I selected the HC20, as this was a basic camera without the extras. It was the right size, the size of the palm of my hand, and it had the 'night shot' requirement. I also sourced a compact .7 wide-angle adapter to complete the camera package.

Next, a visit to a local toolmaker, who builds his own range of underwater video housings. He looked bemused when I said I needed him to build a housing that would basically put a "bullet-proof" skin around the camera. I threw in some ideas and suggestions, but ultimately he had to decide what the end result was going to be. He had just taken delivery of a new C&C milling machine and he was keen to put it to the test. So after creating a design around the shape of the camera, he put the machine to work on a solid block of aluminium, which I had earlier found lying around in my garage, waiting for such an opportunity.

After 18 hours of milling and cutting, the machine delivered a perfectly shaped, seamless casing into which the HC20 would fit. A viewfinder port, and a front cover with lens port were then added. 3mm o-rings provided the seal for the ports and front cover. Lastly, the record control lever was added using a regular o-ring 'gland' type seal to keep 29 - 30 atmospheres of pressure at bay. The camera fitted so perfectly into the housing that we did not even need to use a retaining screw to secure it. We were happy with the result, not to mention confident that it would take the pressure.

So, on to Boesmansgat in January 2005. Dave, who lived in Hong Kong, had flown out and went straight to work on planning and coordinating the task. It was a huge undertaking with 8 re-breather divers, dive coordinator, 8 man police dive team, mine rescue personnel, diving medical and hyperbaric chamber personnel, film crew, and a few others. We were able to run our underwater camera tests on a 150m prep dive on the Wednesday, which it passed with flying colours, and then in a swimming pool in order to set up the camera correctly on the helmet so as to shoot the optimum view of Dave's hands at work performing his task of securing Deon's remains. We also mounted a small diving torch that could also operate at that depth, to provide just sufficient light for the 'night shot' requirements. Dave explained to some of Deon's family members that he wanted to take the camera down in order to show others what it looked like at such a location on this planet, and to record an event that had never been attempted before.

Dive day, January 8th, 2005. At 06:13 Dave commences with his dive. He is heavily equipped with dive gear, re-breather, side slung tanks, additional dive computers, lights, and of course the helmet mounted camera. But this is normal for a deep diver. You carry back-ups for everything. His descent to the bottom takes just over eleven minutes, fast but efficient. He makes his way across to the body fifteen meters away and proceeds with the task of securing it.

At this point I will stop. You might have already heard the rest of the story in the news media. Through various causes, and even with Dave sticking rigidly to his dive plan and cut-off times, he did not come back to the surface. He sadly succumbed to these various causes, and his life ended at the bottom of Boesmansgat about 30 minutes after commencing with the dive.

However, through a twist of circumstances, Dave Shaw fulfilled his promise to Deon's parents to bring the body to the surface. While divers were clearing equipment from the cave on the following Wednesday, the main shotline was pulled up out of the cave. Attached to the deep end of the shotline was a thin caving line that Dave had tied there during his October dive. This line served to return Dave, with Deon's remains hooked up to his caving light, to the roof of the cave, and subsequently to the surface with the help of two re-breather and two police divers. And still fully intact, the helmet with the underwater camera also returned to the surface, after more than 100 hours at a depth of 265m!

The video footage not only provided some unique material, it also, and more importantly, provided an invaluable means through picture and sound, for investigators to find out and understand what went wrong on Dave's last dive.

Dave will be remembered for his courage and determination to undertake this task.

* ROV is a Remote Operated Vehicle

Read the book on this diving story by Phillip Finch. It is published under two titles: "Raising The Dead" & "Diving Into Darkness" Search for it on Google.  






Site Map