Interview by Dave Moran, editor of Dive New Zealand magazine, with John Chatterton, Shadow Divers.
Introduction to John Chatterton interview.
John Chatterton and Richie Kohler are a couple of the world’s most accomplished and well known wreck divers. Their world recognised status resulted in the publication of the book Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. It details their diving adventures in discovering the identity of a German WWII submarine off New Jersey on the east coast of the USA – nick named the U-Who. It is currently published in 21 languages! Keep an eye out for Hitler’s Lost Sub on the Discovery Channel. Twentieth Century Fox plan to release the movie in 2007.
Before John and Richie’s lives were turned into one that they could only dream about they were as John comments, ‘Just ordinary guys doing our day to day jobs and diving wrecks on the weekends’. John was a commercial diver and Richie ran a glass repair business.
You may have seen their television series
Deep Sea Detectives
on the History Channel. They have completed an amazing 57 episodes.
John was a member of the first technical diving expedition to Ireland to dive the legendary
in 1994. A few years later, at a depth of 122m (400 ft), he was the first diver to use a rebreather on the wreck of
in Greece. He was also the sole American on a British expedition, sponsored by the US Holocaust Museum, looking for the historic shipwreck
in the Black Sea near Istanbul. He has completed over 160 dives on the Mount Everest of diving, the cruiseliner
In August 2005 John and Richie put together an expedition to
resting at 3810 metres (12,500 feet) aboard the MIR submersibles from the Russian Research Ship
. Their exploration was featured on the History Channel special ‘
Final Moments – Missing Pieces’.
They have also embarked on another new venture of producing a DVD video magazine for divers called Dive Portal. Issue two has just been released to rave reviews.
Richie, John and his lovely wife Carla (above) visited New Zealand in October 2006 to dive the Russian cruiseliner
which they consider the
of the South Pacific. She is lying in only 37 metres (121 feet) of water with the port side accessible at only 20 metres (65.5 feet) of virtually current-free water. Whereas the
is situated in an area off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA, which is swept by swift chilling currents that make diving conditions hazardous. Also the depth is considerable with the highest divable section being at 58m (190 ft). The
which sunk in Port Gore, Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island on the evening of 16 February 1986 with the loss of one life, a Russian engineer, is a relatively safe dive in comparison, but conditions and visibility also make it a wreck that demands a diver’s respect.
Brent McFadden of Dive Marlborough, in conjunction with Barbara Buchanan of the USA travel company Piedmount Travel, organized the trip aboard MV Affinity Charters. It was an absolute pleasure to dive with and interview these two very friendly guys who are living their dream of exploring known wrecks and researching for possible future discoveries.
This issue we chat with John.
Dave Moran (DM): John you were a commercial diver and now you and Richie Kohler are television personalities and with author Robert Kurson have produced one of the most successful dive books ever written. An interesting journey I bet?
John Chatterton (JC): Working as a commercial diver I always felt like I was just a cog in a machine. Most of my commercial diving days were working in hat gear like Kirby Morgans, surface supplied with topside support, working with heavy equipment such as cranes, hydraulic and pneumatic tools on all manner of jobs.
Scuba diving is completely different. You are on your own, you have to rely on your own resources and skill. You’re not a cog in the machine, you are the machine. You’re a free swimming, un-tethered diver with remarkable freedom. That’s what I love about scuba diving.
My passion is shipwreck diving. It is a tremendously complex activity that is exceptionally challenging on an intellectual level. The interiors of shipwrecks are an intimidating environment which challenges your mental toughness especially when you know you are entering an area where noone has been. Knowing the history of a wreck adds to the interest of the dive â¦How did it get here? Who built her? What is her cargo etc?
Finding the U boat which we nicknamed the U-Who (U-869) was in a way, for me, the end of an amazing series of events where we were travelling along through our shipwreck activities? We were extraordinarily fortunate.
DM: When you found the U-Who in 70 metres (230 feet) you were all diving air on open circuit. What difference did using mixed gas have?
JC: Our second trip to the U-Boat resulted in a fatality and I largely attributed that to the physiology of breathing air at 70m. I knew to continue diving the U-boat safely we had to consider mixed gas diving. Being a commercial diver I understood trimix diving technology and about using it as a tool to better manage the inherent risks of diving to 70m. One major benefit is that you are less affected by narcosis and seeing that our objective was to identify the submarine, having a clearer head was a major advantage over using air! You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to mix the gas, and breathe it through a regulator. Thatâ’s not what it is about. There are two components that really need to be worked out. What are the best gas mixtures and the real clinche r- what is your decompression schedule? When we first started to dive the U-boat there were no tables that addressed trimix for recreational divers. Trimix computers were a few years away. You had to go to someone and have the tables calculated for the dive you wanted to do. You could pay US$200 to get a table for a particular trimix with very specific decompression gases for a 30 minute dive. If you stayed 32 minutes then you didn’t have a table. Or if you had a failure in one of your gases and instead of using a particular nitrox mix you had to resort to air, you would have to interpolate some kind of decompression schedule on the fly! You’d commission the dive tables for a particular dive plan and before you’d got them back you’d think, hang on we could do this dive differently and get better results. So the learning curve was very steep for us.
On my very first trimix dive on the sub I went to an area that I’d been on air and for the first time I really had peripheral vision. I really saw the compartment. I saw the hazards, things that on air you weren’t really aware of. In many ways it was scarier diving on trimix because you could see all the hazards, the loose wreckage, the wire entanglements but on air you just had ignorant bliss. Trimix made it more complex but when you came back to the surface you retained a lot more of the knowledge acquired during the dive. On air we came back not sure of anything so we used video cameras to try and document the wreck and to get a clearer picture.
DM: John, in the book you come across as a very disciplined diver. You planned your dive and you dived your plan. From page to page you religiously stuck to that. When you were looking for the U-boat’s number on the spare parts boxes in the electrical room you deviated from that discipline and had some anxious moments!
JC: The book is only 350-odd pages. Any story is bigger than that. There are never enough pages to have all the details. In the book I think it really only covers a couple of dives into the electric motor room. In reality it was six. But you’re right, on that last dive when I recovered the first box I went back for a second box. Our plan was to get as many boxes as possible because we did not know if each box was numbered and I could not clearly see the tags. The top box was small, so I went back for a second larger box. Getting that second box out increased Richie’s and my bottom time over what we had planned. I was disappointed with myself. It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about my safety, or that I’d scared myself while getting the boxes, but I thought I’d managed that dive poorly. You have to remember that we had been diving the sub for six years and this was my sixth time into the electrical room and every single dive there was a problem. I either needed a tool that I didn’t have or something unforeseen cropped up, this built frustration. I never felt that I was compromising my safety or doing something foolish but I felt I was pushing too hard. Quite frankly on that last dive my feeling was that if one more thing went wrong, I’d be in serious trouble. When you push things to that point you really need to stop and take a step back to re-evaluate how you’re approaching your objective from a philosophical standpoint. Clearly it revolved around frustration.
DM: John, divers today look at old diving gear and are amazed at what divers accomplished back in the 50s and 60s up to the present computer assisted diver. How do you see the future revolution of rebreathers and diving in general?
JC: Diving is such a young sport, only about 60 years old for recreational diving. I think divers of today will be viewed as prehistoric dinosaurs with our compressed air cylinders and rebreathers. I think that ultimately technology will enable us to dive deeper, stay longer and with improved safety.
Communications underwater is improving all the time. Recently Richie and I dived the
off Greece and we had military units which allowed us to talk to topside 121m (400 ft) above!
Water, is hydrogen and oxygen. All we really need is oxygen and a way to discard the carbon dioxide. I can’t believe in a 100 years from now, divers will still be using compressed air in cylinders. The future will bring some fantastic developments.
What does concern me is that while mankind is developing all this technology he is mismanaging the environment especially the world’s oceans and its marine life. We have always viewed the world’s oceans as this vast, limitless resource, now we know it has limits. As divers we see the impact and I think we have a responsibility to make the general public aware of how sick the oceans are. If we do not change our behaviour I’m afraid that two or three generations from now divers will find nothing in the way of the diversity of marine life that we see today. I hope that future generations of divers will still see such things as: basking sharks, sunfish, seahorses, octopus and whales etc. To experience the same sense of wonder that I have. Unfortunately I think it will get worse before it gets better.
DM: John, what’s your impression of the wreck
JC: I think for the recreational diver it’s one of the top wrecks in the world. The
is a little
. It’s a passenger liner of the same era. The
has been down for 50 years in 76m (250 ft) of water. The
has been down only 20 years in around 36m (120 ft) of water. It’s challenging but at the same time very accessible. You don’t see passenger liners like this very often. It’s an extraordinary wreck dive.
DM: What’s your opinion about the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNEFCO) laws regarding the protection of shipwrecks?
JC: When it comes to the treatment of shipwrecks, their preservation and ownership and all the associated issues, there are two considerations. The law and ethics. If you look at ethics you can’t seem to find a consensus as to what is proper and what is improper. In the case of warships that have taken men to the sea floor, these are regarded as sailors’ graves and this has been accepted internationally. You then have the Confederate submarine
which was recovered with the crew still on board. The ethical considerations are very difficult to get a handle on, especially for regular divers like you and me. The law on the other hand is something that we all have to follow. If the law does not take into consideration all of the parties: recreational divers, academics, marine archaeologists, historians, commercial salvors, and the issues of the rights of the ship’s original owners, you end up with a mess. If you try to cut anybody out it’s a bad deal. Right now there is accommodation for everybody. There are definitely wrecks that exclusively belong to the archaeologists. That doesn’t mean that they should have every single wreck. An archaeologist may want to overstate the historical importance of a particular wreck just to maintain a job for himself. At the same time it’s wrong for recreational divers to cause damage to an historically important shipwreck that is capable of teaching us for example, about the ship’s construction, the period, and the people on board. If you say there is all this treasure, the quandary is, at what point does the law step in to prohibit salvors from trying to recover valuable items lost at sea. I just dropped my watch in the water, does that mean I can’t go get it? Does it mean that I can’t pay a diver to recover it? If I can’t do it today, what about next week? What about next year or 100 years from now?
The rights of salvage have been long established. Ownership is always the big question. We’ve been diving the
. The Russian owners have recovered what they wanted and were allowed to do so without too much interference from local authorities. That is how it should be, they are the owners. They have now abandoned this wreck so who does it belong to now? As an abandoned wreck it belongs to nobody which really means that it belongs to everybody. For recreational divers to be able to dive an abandoned passenger liner is fantastic and that ability should not be compromised by some international law.
I think UNESCO has a huge political battle. I think the political camps are more concerned with winning than in treating all parties fairly. Certainly there are a lot of egos involved. I don’t think it’s fair that some parties want to eliminate various interested groups for being around the discussion table. The law should make accommodation for everyone. The concept that they want to protect all shipwrecks – protect them from what? Time? Commercial fishing? Are they going to ban commercial fishing because nets damage wrecks? No. There should be a certain amount of compromise but it seems to me that some of the UNESCO supporters are more concerned with personalities and politics than they are with a solution that addresses all parties’ concerns.
DM: John I believe that you and Richie led an expedition to the
JC: The ultimate wreck. The
was a huge opportunity. Richie and I decided that we wanted to visit the
but not as tourists. We felt that we could contribute something. A small addition to the public’s knowledge of the
. That was our goal and to do that we needed to produce a worthwhile television programme. So, for us it wasn’t just about our first dive on the
but our first venture as executive producers! We chartered the Russian research ship
Akademik Mstislav. We were overwhelmed by its submersibles, and it’s on board technology and of course the experience of seeing the wreck itself. The
is so complex. So much has been written and said about it that you almost wonder what else could there possibly be to say? We discovered that a lot of what really happened to the
is simply unknown. It doesn’t stop people from saying that this or that happened but at the same time Richie and I are just wreck divers. We get onto shipwrecks and we find things. That’s our only God-given skill. When you start looking at the evidence on the wreck site it starts to tell you things. It starts to make you think and ask questions. We went to
as innocent novices with no idea where we were going or what we were going to do. Now we look at
completely differently and there are
projects that we’re still working on. What an honour it is to be in a position because of our notoriety of the book Shadow Divers and the work we’ve done on television that we can somehow, some way, get access to the public in a way that we can fund expeditions like this. We’re real guys, not actors, we feel a responsibility to give an account of ourselves. It’s a great opportunity but also a huge responsibility that we take very seriously. We’re working on a book and a television special about the Titanic. When opportunity knocks we always open the door and find room to somehow someway make things happen.
DM: Thanks John for the dives and the interview – most appreciated.
I look forward to hearing about Richie’s and your future adventures. All the best mate. The April/May edition will contain an interview with Richie Kohler.
Recommended for your library: Books: Death of a Cruise Ship
; Shadow Divers; Deep Descent
; DVD: Mikhail Lermontov. Order on page 67 or www.DiveNewZealand.com
John Chatterton will be speaking on Deep Sea Detectives and Dive Portal. (page 77 OZTeK advertisement)
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