Shadow Divers dive New Zealand’s Mikhail Lermontov Russian cruiseliner

Interview by Dave Moran

Shadow Divers dive

Shadow Divers dive

Shadow Divers dive

Shadow Divers dive

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 sub 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. You may have seen their television series Deep Sea Detectives on the History Channel. They have completed an amazing 57 episodes.

In August 2005, John and Richie put together an expedition to RMS Titanic resting at 12,500 feet (3810 metres) aboard the MIR submersibles from the Russian Research Ship, Keldysh. Their exploration was featured on the History Channel special, Titanic’s Final Moments-  Missing Pieces. 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 Richie Kohler.

Dave Moran (DM): Richie, how has the success of the book Shadow Divers changed your life?

Richie Kohler (RK): I obtained my diving certification at 15 and have been diving most of my adult life. I like grabbing a few lobsters and I did a little spearfishing but predominantly my love is diving on shipwrecks.

In 1991 when we first found the U-boat, I was running two businesses fixing windows in commercial buildings etc and this paid the bills!

With the success of the two hour documentary Hitler’s Lost Sub which basically told the story of how we identified the U-boat, John Chatterton and I were given an opportunity to collaborate with author Robert Kurson to publish the book Shadow Divers. While he was working on the book we were approached by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to become television hosts for a show called Deep Sea Detectives for the History Channel. At the time I was a single father, raising two children and running my two glass companies, then all of a sudden people were giving me an opportunity to host a television show about diving and travelling the world! We did six shows, it was great! But it was taking me away from my children and the running of my business so I left the show and John continued hosting it.

When the book came out all of a sudden it was a big payday for me. The book was a great success. I was not independently wealthy, I still needed to work but it did give me an opportunity to start looking at what I could do and what I would like to do and in a way the success of the book Shadow Divers enabled me to make a – I wouldn’t say rash decision – but more a Peter Pan-like thing where I could sell my business and peruse opportunities that were being presented to John and myself.

My children were keen to spend more time with their mum so we set up a joint custody arrangement. This allowed me to travel without worrying about them and to return to being a full time television host with John on Deep Sea Detectives. The success of the book had lifted our profile even higher – it bought opportunities knocking on our door!

So, when you ask me ‘˜how did it change my life’, my God it changed my life on the home and career front and enabled me to live quite literally a dream.

Prior to Deep Sea Detectives, to the best of my knowledge, there was never any job application that said, travel and dive the world, host a television show … sign up here! In a way the success of the book created this job, this opportunity for John and me, it was like being Peter Pan or winning the lottery. I couldn’t imagine a better job for a diver.

DM: I understand a Shadow Divers movie is due to be released in 2007?

RK: Yes, 20th Century Fox has purchased the rights to the book Shadow Divers. Australian Peter Weir is directing it.

Bill Broils is the screenplay writer. To his credit are movies such as: Apollo 13, Castaway, and Jarhead. Bill has a wonderful ability to tell stories where it’s man against machine, and the elements. We spent about a week with him going over the story and have seen the first drafts of the script, he’s doing an excellent job.

Twentieth Century Fox are very positive about the book and believe it will be a blockbuster movie. I’m not sure which actors are taking our parts but ‘m sure 20th Century Fox will the actors that portray both John and I the best. I’m very confident it’s going to be a great movie.

DM: How did you find going from ‘˜trusted’ air diving to using rebreathers and mixed gas?

RK: In the 1990s somebody invented the term ‘technical diving’. Prior to that it was just diving. There was deep diving, wreck diving – ¦ but there was no term ‘technical diving’. If you showed your scuba kit to somebody on the street it would look quite technical to them. Your rig depended on such considerations as how deep you wanted to go and how long you want to stay. I don’t necessarily agree with the term ‘˜technical diving’.

The year 2007 marks 30 years that I’ve been diving and for 20 of those years I was happy to dive on plain air, open circuit scuba tanks, no problem. I was diving 250 feet (76m) fairly regularly. Then over time the advancements in diving technology within the commercial, scientific and military areas started to creep into the sport diving arena. A small group within the sport diving community who were pushing the limits of diving safely on air soon took on board this new technology that would allow then to dive deep more safely.

Diving using nitrox, trimix and heliox soon became more accepted by these divers who were pushing the boundaries of air diving. Is diving using a rebreather more complicated than air diving? Absolutely! Does that mean that you have to use one? If you want to be safer, more productive, I think you’d be a fool not to use anything that gives you an advantage. Trimix or heliox are tools to be used when diving deep as we were on the U-Boat and that allowed us to have more productive dives. Whether it’s taking pictures, trying to identify an object or just having a good time and coming back safer after a productive dive.

I’m a very pragmatic diver. John and I are very different people – we have different outlooks and different approaches to diving and to life. I’m very slow to change. I didn’t want to change to the trimix at first because I wanted to see other people dive it. See their success with it and make sure that this voodoo gas wasn’t going to kill me. Once I realized that this was a better way I quickly jumped onto the bandwagon. Back then we were diving open circuit.

Then along came rebreathers. In the beginning there were lots of problems. The technology needed more development and refining to suit the sport diving community. My early observations of divers using rebreathers weren’t very good. Once I had to drag John to the surface when his home made experimental rebreather crapped out. I have seen more than one near fatal accident due to early pioneering designs and countless aborted dives when units simply didn’t work. After about seven years rebreather manufacturers started to get it right. I’m using an Evolution which is manufactured by AP Diving based in the UK and marketed in the US as Silent Diving Systems. The technology is there, the manufacturing is professional. It’s not something I’ve monkeyed together in my garage. AP Diving seem to have developed the heart of the unit correctly, the electronics. The bottom line is that I waited for the technology to be user friendly for me.

I’d like to add the following caveat: Some manufacturers would have you believe that rebreathers are for everyone or for every type of diving and that they are not complicated. I disagree! Rebreathers are complicated. Open circuit scuba is a mechanical device. You put it on your back, a valve opens and a valve closes and you get air. With a closed circuit rebreather there’s a lot more going on, it’s more complex. If you’re diving in an overhead environment (ie caves or shipwrecks), diving deep or for the sole purpose of trying to capture images of animals then these are some of the reasons where a rebreather may be the right tool for you. I love my rebreather. I love the technology but that’s not to say that I don’t like scuba and that if we’re diving somewhere and I couldn’t get helium or oxygen or it was a logistical problem to dive my rebreather then I have no problem using scuba.

DM: How did you hear about the Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov?

RK: A friend told me about a website called. Vodka on the Rocks. Prior to that I’d never heard of the Mikhail Lermontov or considered travelling to New Zealand. I knew nothing about the diving there. On checking the website I saw that this shipwreck was like a sister to a wreck that I’d been diving for 15 years, the Andrea Doria. The difference is that the Andrea Doria is a deep, dangerous dive. It’s been referred to as the Mount Everest of wreck diving in our area of the world. It’s 90 miles (145 km) off shore, in 250 feet (76m) of cold dark water, it’s buffeted by strong currents and frequented by sharks. It’s a highly challenging dive to say the least. People have been diving it for the last 15-20 years, cutting their teeth, climbing their Everest of wreck diving. When I looked at the Lermontov I thought, my God, this is the same type of dive only much easier, much more convenient. Albeit 20-30 hours away by airplane but it’s only in 120 feet (37m) of water. It has all the great challenges and mystique of a beautiful passenger liner struck down in her prime. She’s lying on her side just like the Andrea Doria. It’s got everything that a diver could want whether it’s just to have the experience of diving on a huge shipwreck which is in excellent condition after 20 years under the waves. If you’re a person with advanced wreck diving training you can penetrate the shipwreck. If you’re just a new wreck diver you could come here and hone your skills in a somewhat protected environment. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a challenging dive. As you know you normally get the best visibility over the wreck in October, but the water is a chilly 12 degrees! You don’t necessarily need a drysuit but I would recommend one. It’s not Caribbean armchair diving, it’s a step up from that.

DM: How would you rate the Lermontov?

RK: If you consider yourself a wreck diver and you want to dive some of the best wrecks in the world, for my money the Lermontov is definitely in the top 10. This is my third day of diving and I think right now I’ve done about eight or nine hours on the wreck and I’m not bored. I can’t wait to get back in the water because there’s so much more to see. On my last dive around the funnel it was just awesome. Awesome!

DM: You have been able to find a few plates and bowls on your dives which you have generously shared with all on board. Is finding a few artefacts important to you?

RK: Not really. Sometime it is a challenge to see if you can locate an artefact that has been missed by other divers. The wreck, as you know was commercially salvaged and the working divers took a lot of stuff off her. Also over the last 20 years divers have been picking up pieces here and there. So there is very little of value lying around. The ship’s blueprints are available so if people want to find goodies they will need to do some homework. You’re going to have to go inside the wreck and know where you’re going and where to look. This is a passenger liner that had hundreds of people on board so there’s literally thousands of little bits and pieces of china and all kinds of trinkets for anybody who wants to pick them up. The real beauty of the Lermontov isn’t in the souvenirs that you may pick up. The experience of diving this wreck is to look at it. It’s awe-inspiring. Sometimes I just back away from it and look at it. You see her laying there, lifeboat davits sticking out and you think about that night on 16 February 1986 when over 400 mainly elderly Australians wondered if they would get off safely. For me the drama of that night comes flooding back! Knowing the wreck’s history is a very important ingredient in making your dive a memorable experience.

DM: Richie, you and John are on a fantastic rollercoaster. Can you believe it?

RK: If you had asked me 10 years ago ‘Richie have you ever thought of hosting a television show?’ I would have said ‘˜Can I have some of that scotch or whatever your drinking or smoking’ because I have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s come as a great surprise for me to be doing a programme with John on the History Channel. My whole life I’ve loved diving with a passion. I take my responsibility of representing and also conveying information to the world’s diving community very seriously. The programme Deep Sea Detectives is educational television and also good fun. Storytellers, if you will, in a diving setting. When people tell me that I’m a role model I don’t know what to say! I’m struggling like most dads to be a role model for my kids much less the diving community. John and I have grasped the amazing opportunities that television exposure has provided, the thought of going back to a ‘regular’ job is rather frightening!

We’ve created a video magazine called Dive Portal. The website is

, it’s a two-hour video magazine that has local USA diving plus exotic diving worldwide. It contains interviews with people of interest within the diving world, books reviews, extreme diving segments, and diving humour. There’s normally about 8-10 different subjects running for 15-20 minutes on each segment that would be of interest to anybody. Whether you’re a new diver, a technical diver, an experienced old diver, we’ve got it covered. We endeavour to open your eyes to what’s out there. It’s not an infomercial because we do not have advertising. It’s kind of like hanging out with John and Richie as we try to educate people about some of the other diving worlds out there that they may not be aware of.

DM: Have you a new book in the pipe line?

RK: Yes, it’s about our discovery on Titanic. Last year John and I launched an expedition to the Titanic. We’d received a clue about the possibility of some new evidence about how the Titanic sank. Without getting into the whole story, we actually did uncover some new physical evidence. Working with experts, we have now come up with a whole new theory about the loss of the Titanic. Quite simply, Titanic did strike an iceberg and sank but it didn’t happen the way that either history has recorded or as people saw in the James Cameron film. As a matter of fact it’s quite different!

DM: What other plans do you have for the future?

RK: Last year John and I had our first opportunity to become associate producers. We produced a documentary on the Titanic. This year we’re following this up by producing a sequel about the Titanic and another programme about her sister ship Britannic.

Along side this we will be working with the History Channel doing programmes on, technical diving and wreck diving. We’ve got quite a few pans in the fire! As I’ve said, I love diving, I love divers, its people. From 15 years of age I identified myself as a diver. If anybody met me, within 15 minutes they knew I was a diver and loved diving. I’m 46 years old and I’m still that way. I think that I will be diving and talking about diving until they put me into a pine box. Hopefully that won’t be for another 50-60 years. John and I have plenty to do – watch this space!

DM: Richie it has been a privilege to meet and dive with you and John. As you say meeting divers is always an experience to treasure. Thanks for your time our readers and myself appreciate it. We wish you and John all the best for the future.

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