Submarine man

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An Egyptian breaks the world record for the deepest scuba dive. Ghada Abdel-Kader talks to the latest member of Guinness 

Egyptian scuba diver Ahmed Gabr has set a new Guinness world record for the deepest scuba dive ever. Gabr dived to a depth of 332.35 metres (1,090 feet, 4.5 inches) in the Red Sea off the coast of Dahab. Gabr got into the water on Thursday 18 September at 10.30am and returned back to the surface on Friday after midnight at 12.20am.

 “I was completely surprised. There were a lot of fireworks and a lot of people. I didn’t expect it. People were happy and screaming ‘Long Live Egypt’. It was kind of a very special moment for me.”

Gabr’s total dive time was 13 hours and 50 minutes. The descent took only 14 minutes to avoid pathology decompression sickness (the problems which arise from dissolved gases coming out of solution into bubbles inside the body on depressurisation which causes joint pain, dizziness, paralysis, unconsciousness and sometimes death). It took a mere 12 minutes to reach his record depth.

Gabr now holds two world records: the deepest sea water dive and deepest scuba dive.

Throughout history only three scuba divers have broken the record of 300 metres. South African Nuno Gomes dived 318.25 metres (1,044 feet) in Dahab in June 2005. French scuba diver Pascal Bernabé claims to have dived 330 metres (1,083 feet) on 5 June 2005 near Propriano, Corsica, west of Italy, southeast of the French mainland, and north of the Italian island of Sardinia. Bernabé’s dive wasn’t certified by Guinness due to lack of verifiable evidence. British diver John Bennett set a world record scuba dive at 310 metres (1,020ft) in the Philippines on 6 November 2001.

Gabr, 41, is a special forces lieutenant colonel Army officer. Diving for almost 20 years, his love affair with diving began when he was eight. “I was impressed when I first saw the sport. At that time diving wasn’t very popular and it was very expensive. My dad couldn’t afford it. But I tried it after high school.”

After graduating from the military academy where he honed his diving, Gabr decided to turn professional, and did so in 1996. He has also been teaching for 18 years, starting from the basics of mixing tank gas from the user to the instructor level.

Gabr also seems to be a bit of a philosopher. “I am trying to find answers to satisfy my curiosity. I want physiological and psychological answers. I already have spiritual answers.”

“It started with many question marks over recreational diving, colours, fish… etc. I had a lot of questions on my mind but nothing used to satisfy me. I used to buy books from Amazon but I still couldn’t find the answer. In the end, I decided to take the risk and find the answers myself.

“There is a big difference between who you are and who you think you are. The problem is how we look at a problem.”

“I have a target and abilities but how do I get to this target with my abilities? What abilities do I need to reach my target? These are the questions I was asking myself. This is the basics of logic, how to solve a problem.”

On the choice of diving in particular, Gabr said diving was not much different than any other water sport. “Each sport is unique. Each sport has completely different equipment, mentality and psychology. Even the physical preparation is different.

“Diving is not risky at all. But anything without taking the right procedures is risky. There is no such thing as zero-risk in anything.”

“Sometimes diving ends tragically. A lot of divers can’t make it. They lose their lives for it.”

Gabr quoted Helen Keller: ‘When life shuts a door it opens another 10 windows’.

To register his world record, Gabr first went to the Guinness website in which he submitted an application for the world’s deepest dive. It was accepted in March 2013. Gabr had to either invite a Guinness world record adjudicator “to certify you on the spot whether a record was set” (£7,000 has to be paid up front). Or gather evidence and invite witnesses with certain qualifications to your performance. You send the evidence to Guinness after which it takes almost 12 weeks for your record to be accepted or rejected.

“At that time, I didn’t have any sponsors. I didn’t have money. So I was going to use the second method, like Gomes, because it is free.”

But 10 days before the stunt, Guinness said it was interested and wanted to be present during the event. “That was a ‘Yes’ for all of us.

We didn’t need to collect any evidence. We would be certified on the spot.”

As for the preparations for the diving record Gabr told Al-Ahram Weekly “the first part is physical preparation. It is very important for this kind of diving. I needed to be in very good physical condition. The second part is psychological. I was meditating a lot, yoga and breathing exercises. It was very helpful. My main training is visualisation, anticipation and breathing exercises.”

Surprisingly, Gabr had not participated in international championships or had won any medals before the Guinness feat. He said smiling, “It was my first time and it was very successful”.

“A world record is not physically a big effort. It’s a lifestyle. I started four years ago in a daily routine. From the inside you have to be completely normal, neutral and have no ego. I worked out four or five times a week and rested for a couple of days, usually on weekends. I give my body the chance to relax.”

Gabr classifies himself as boring. “I sleep early, wake up early. I don’t party, drink or smoke.”

 “I eat normally. I have a difficult lifestyle in eating in general even without the record. I don’t eat meat or chicken, only fish and a lot of vegetables.”

As to the choice of the Red Sea in Dahab, at the beginning, Gabr went to Hurghada but without going into details, he didn’t like it. “People have agendas behind the record. They just take advantage of how to make money out of it without focusing on the real target. They didn’t take good care of me. It wasn’t a mutual relationship between me and them.”

He then went to Safaga, on the coast of the Red Sea, located 53 km south of Hurghada. “It was ok but I didn’t find good logistics and the people were the same.”

A friend advised him to go to Dahab for a trial. “I did a lot of diving in Dahab before. It is perfect — location, sea currents, great for the record. I felt people there were working with me heart and soul all the time.

“From a very humble beginning my team started with three people. Two support divers and me. Then by time, it expanded till the record day. I was in the water with 20 support divers and 10 others on the surface as supervisors. My team now is 30 without fundraising.”

His team was a big mixture of experience: dive instructors, commercial diving experts, cliff diving experts, photographers, equipment specialists, safety experts, and doctors. “There was a lot of cooperation and harmony between the members of the team. They were complimenting each other.”

During the dive, Gabr used 93 tanks with different mixes at each level. He hooked up with his first support divers at 110 metres. “I was so tired. I was eating baby food and drinking one litre of water every one hour.”

 “At the end of the six hours of my dive, a baby shark came up to me. It was completely safe,” he laughed. “I went back to the surface alone. I reached my destination point of 332.35 metres. I got the tag of 335 metres because there was lean, or inclination, on the rope due to the currents. The rope wasn’t straight.”

“During the dive my family and relatives and friends were there. I avoided them before the dive. I kept any kind of emotional pressure completely away.”

No computers had gone to this depth. “My computer stopped at 298 metres,” Gabr said. “One of my team members, Dan Goodman, promised me a watch as a timing device because I had to reach certain depths at certain times, then compare.” So Gabr was given a watch called ‘Swiss Army watch 20,000 feet’, a special edition for divers. It is the world’s first and only mechanical diving watch and water resistant at an incredible depth of 20,000 feet or 6,000 metres. It holds the world record in water resistant automatic diving watches.

On how to measure his record depth, “we bought rope. First, we calibrated the rope according to the weight we want to put on it, water temperature and current calculations. According to the calibration, we took the rope to the measurement unit at the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University where it was officially stamped. Guinness official adjudicator Omar Talal signed the tags himself. Talal mounted the tags on the rope before he put it in the water himself. We had the approval and the report. Cairo University sent to us engineering Professor Ayman Wanas to re-measure the rope again in the presence of the adjudicator to explain the report because it was very scientific”.

Gabr faced some risks underwater during his dive. His problem was reaching a depth no one had gone to before so no-one knew exactly what to expect.

He was expecting narcosis (which causes hallucinations, vertigo and visual disturbances, poor concentration, mental confusion, unconsciousness and death); or oxygen toxicity (causing disorientation, breathing problems, and vision changes); or High-Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS is a neurological and physiological diving disorder). It results when a diver descends below 500 feet (150m) using an oxygen tank containing helium. Symptoms of HPNSinclude tremors, myoclonicjerking, somnolence, EEG changes, visual disturbance, nausea, dizziness, and decreased mental performance. The effects experienced, and the severity of those effects depend on the rate of descent, the depth and percentage of helium.

“I had tremors at the depth of 290 metres. It started to increase until I reached 235 metres. I planned for 350 metres but I reached only 335. This is the tag I got. One more centimetre would have meant my life because I had reached the maximum my body could take. After that I would have been unable to handle my equipment.”

Gabr is getting ready for his new adventure. “Next year, I am preparing for the deepest shipwreck record. My family doesn’t know about that yet. First, though, I have to find a shipwreck.”

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