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Interview with international deep technical diver Leigh Bishop

August/September, 2007

By-Dave Moran


Recently a team of international technical divers dived the wreck of the 159m long passenger liner RMS Niagara which was sunk by a mine laid by the German Raider Orion in the early hours of 19 June 1940 off the East coast of New Zealand’s North Island. (See J/J #100 issue for an in-depth article by Leigh Bishop on the dive and the recovery of one of the ship’s bells and Telegraph.) The dive team was based in the coastal resort town of Tutukaka which is the gate way to the internationally renowned Poor Knight Islands. On a non-dive day I had a chance to sit and have coffee with one of the most internationally respected deep technical divers who is also recognized for his photographic recording of deep shipwrecks - Leigh Bishop.


Dave Moran (DM): When did you first become interested in diving?
Leigh Bishop (LB): My parents had told me when cutting a new cake to make a wish but don’t tell anyone or it won’t come true. I’d wished to be a scuba diver and didn’t tell anyone! When pulling a wish-bone during Christmas dinners with my sister I’d also wish to be a diver. These of course were old folk tales but being a kid I believed in them. It was all I’d ever wanted to be, to go underwater sounded great. I can’t recall watching the Cousteau programmes in the 70s but I definitely remember seeing a frogman on a television programme at some point which got me interested.
I actually started diving in 1988 but before then I was a keen caver and potholer. I had been caving since I left school then when one day I was driving in the English Yorkshire Dales and I saw a diver coming out of Keld Head which is a famous place for cave diving. I stopped the car, and asked him all about scuba diving. It turned out he was a well known British cave diver, John Cordingley.
John invited me to join him and his mates the following weekend for a spot of diving. I spent the whole week rustling up diving gear which I begged borrowed and stole. I arrived back in Yorkshire with all the gear and they took me cave diving. They asked whether I knew what I was doing, ‘you’re qualified right?’ ‘Oh yea’, I said, (I’d never dived in my life). For that very first dive which was in Joint Hole I borrowed a wetsuit from famous cave diver Geoff Yeadon and an old car seatbelt for a cylinder harness. Off I went diving, it was great!
After a number of years cave diving I thought to myself, I’d better get a recognized certification so I went and visited my local scuba club. They were not impressed that I’d been caving without training! Some of the guys were into shipwrecks and that certainly sounded enchanting to me.
After reading one of Kendal McDonald’s shipwreck books about the liner Moldavia which was laying in deep water a long way off shore in the English Channel, it sounded exciting and challenging. It was the first trip I’d organized myself. The liner was only in 45 metres but at the time it was classed as a deep liner. Today it’s a day-boat trip for most people. I met a guy called Chris Hutchison who became my dive partner for many years.
For me it was a natural progression to want to explore deeper and deeper in search of wrecks that had never been dived before. The books would have that such and such a ship sank in this area but it’s too deep for divers, which made me want to go dive them more. In the early 90s, recreational divers started to use mixed gas. I was one of the first people in the UK to take that concept and use it for deep shipwreck exploration.
In England in the early 90s there were no books on mixed gas diving commercially available. I learnt about mixed gas diving from the late Rob Palmer who I had previously caved with in the 1980s and also John Cordingley who had been diving with French and Swiss cave divers. In the mid 90s I joined the Starfish Enterprise group, led by the late Polly Tapson. I then started regularly diving wrecks in the 80 metres range.
In 1997 I led my first deep wreck project, a search for the battleship King Edward VII, sunk off the north coast of Scotland in 100 metres plus. This was a first for sport diving, an expedition to explore a wreck deeper than 100m in European waters. It was a successful expedition but sadly we came back with no underwater photographs, back then it was big time to make a dive like that let alone bring back photos! I set myself the task of becoming a deep underwater photographer. The following year, 1998, I was with the Starfish Enterprise team in a joint American/English expedition to the Britannic – Titanic’s bigger sister. We dived on open circuit except John Chatterton (see interview F/M 2006 issue) who was using a closed circuit rebreather. Each night John would bring it to my room to repair as I was the only one with a soldering iron. To cut a long story short his rig was a bag of shit and he’s lucky to be with us today! My task on this expedition was to take some photographs. Some were published; this was the start of my deep wreck photojournalist love affair.
The following year I managed to buy myself some strobes and spent the next three years diving the Lusitannia – the ship they claimed brought America into the war – the ship that literally did change the course of history. I did three expeditions working alongside the Irish Heritage government department to photograph her.
The Lusitannia is very broken, it’s dark down there. Unfortunately this majestic ship, the most beautiful ship that ever sailed, now lies broken and scattered across the seabed to the point there’s only about five people in the world who know their way around the wreck simply because of its conditions.
Then the big expeditions really kicked off. There were expeditions everywhere, particularly in the northern hemisphere. We were discovering ocean liners all around England some in deep water. We were diving the gold ship Egypt in 127m off the Bay of Biscay, France. She went down carrying a huge amount of gold, about the same as the Niagara. The Italian company Sorima salvaged the gold (1932) then nine years later in New Zealand an equivalent salvage by Australian company, United Salvage on the Niagara.
Back in the hey day of technical diving in the 1990s myself and Chris Hutchison estimate we had explored about 400 virgin wrecks!
You have to understand that around England there are 30,000 – 40,000 known wrecks so 400 over the course of the last decade was quite an achievement. It doesn’t sound a lot of dives, 400, but there’s an awful lot of work behind the discovery and diving of just one virgin wreck.
There are probably about 4,500 known shipwrecks in the English Channel, many of them deep. In 1993 I thought I’d start documenting these wrecks by surveying and photographing them. I’m still working on this project and hope eventually to publish a book, ‘A guide to the Deep Wrecks of the English Channel’.
I also have another project! Over the years I’ve photographed numerous ocean liners and I’m working on a long term project about famous sunken liners around the world and how they look on the seabed today. We’re living in the golden age of major shipwreck discovery. Quite possibly in a generation or two’s time these wrecks won’t exist as they do today. They will have biologically imploded and become nothing more than an iron ore deposit. Now’s never been a better time to go and explore and photograph them. Six years ago I was photographing wrecks that are now starting to collapse. The First and Second World War wrecks are starting to really disintegrate.
I was on the 2003 National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition to the Titanic in 3,800m. I documented the expedition on film and worked with the Russian photography expert aboard the Keldysh to develop the film each day that was shot by the camera systems on the MIR submersibles. The scientists were also bringing up bacteria samples. It’s these bacteria that are eating away the iron ore deposits and that’s what’s biologically imploding these wrecks, the colonies of bacteria commonly called Rusticles. The scientists estimate in about 90 years the Titanic will implode. We can directly relate that science to Britannic, Titanic’s sister ship. Admittedly she’s in a different temperament location off the coast of Athens, Greece, in 120m not 3,800m. It’s interesting science.
Deep wreck diving has taken me away from home for the last decade and particularly over the last two years. Maybe now I need to ease off for a while and perhaps turn my hand to photographing some of the shallower wrecks closer to home while enjoying my job as an officer at the Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service just north of London.

DM: Is the history of the wrecks you dive important to you?
LB: Yes, I always study the history. I research antique books to find out about old ships. I spend a lot of time in the public records office at Kew Gardens in London researching old documents, particularly warships. Documents that have ‘Secret’ slapped across them not to be seen until 19xx whatever basically it’s until 50 years has passed.
I remember the first time I dived Scapa Flow where the famous WW1 German battleship fleet was scuttled. There is so much history on that seabed inside the Flow. On the way home I bought a book about it. After reading the book I wished I’d read it before the dives, it would have made the dives far more interesting. I recommend to anyone to read up on a ship before they dive it.

DM: Leigh are you the driving force behind a lot of expeditions?
LB: There are two or three of us in England who work as a team to make expeditions happen. Everybody brings their own specific skills, whether it’s decompression theory, photography, location or just the logistics of bringing it together. I tend to do the research and document the expeditions as they unfold on 35mm film.

DM: Leigh you mentioned before you were associated with Rob Palmer. How did his death affect your on-going thoughts about using technical diving gear?
LB: His death was a minor shock. He appeared to be doing a dive that I would say, was not normal for him. I thought I knew Rob. I thought, he doesn’t make those kinds of dives, but I was mistaken. He was reported as diving on air to some ridiculous depth in the Egyptian Red Sea, which I think was out of character for Rob because he was so safety conscious. When I’d dived with him and during mixed gas training he was so focused on everything being safe. It didn’t affect me then as much as it does now. Today I understand more about people’s families and friends and what they lose. Deep wreck diving is highly dangerous. Recently I lost a very close friend, Keith Morris, he never returned after a U-boat dive in the English Channel. We searched for his body; the thought of finding him was frightening! I didn’t want that memory the rest of my life but I wanted a body to take back for a funeral. We never found him. I miss him and his ways, he was much older than I and an inspiration to me, especially photography. Keith was an original 1970s rock photographer and shot some very special black and white images.
Keith’s death was a turning point in my life. It made me really think about serious deep wreck diving and what you and others can lose. It’s not about you; it’s about other people as well.

DM: Have you ever had a close call?
LB: Yes, one. Through a leakage I ran out of diluent, which is the main gas in the rebreather’s breathing loop. At 70m I had to revert to open circuit bail-out. It scares you. People have theories about what you can do in such situations, but these people are considering their options in the comfort of their own living room with a cup of coffee and a computer screen. In the real world, when it’s happening, and the shit hits the fan, it’s not good! You don’t breathe your bail-out gas twice as fast, you breathe it four times as fast. It’s a nasty situation to be in. Before a dive I meticulously go through my equipment and make sure it’s in perfect condition. After a dive I’ll wash it thoroughly with fresh water and again make sure it’s in tip top, pristine condition ready for the next dive. I don’t want to be a statistic.

DM: Leigh tell us about your impressions of your dive on the RMS Niagara?
LB: It’s a very demanding wreck and the weather can be difficult. More than two dives is a miracle in the period of an expedition. I’m lucky to have had three dives on the wreck. My first dive was difficult; I descended down the shotline which was tied into the starboard hold just aft of the bridge. The wreck’s on its portside. The visibility wasn’t particularly good, it reminded me very much of diving the wrong tide in the English Channel. There was a lot of scatter in the water making photography very difficult and also limiting visibility. I worked my way across the teak decking, that’s still quite well preserved to the seabed at 121m. The cross-hatch combings were obvious; the hatches were open, tops gone. I moved along the bottom of the wreck just picking up navigational points so that I could work my way back to the shotline. I don’t use a strobe or a line; I use my navigational skills even on the darkest of wrecks. I came across a huge telegraph on the seabed. I knew instantly that I was either on the stern docking bridge or the bridge section. The telegraph pedestal and the heads were also visible. There was a lot of wreckage; the main superstructure of the bridge had fallen into this area.
In amongst the wreckage I saw the other pedestals and another telegraph; I could also clearly see the main telemotor. The telemotor is the huge hydraulically powered helm steering system. The crew just wouldn’t be able to physically move the sheer size of the rudder without it. It’s like the power steering in your car. I was heading for a 35 minute bottom time which gave me almost six hours in the water. I also noticed an upside down annunciator which tells the bridge crew what the turbine engines are doing. I took a few photographs of the telegraph and other bits and pieces and I was thinking ‘should I go forward and find the main mast and try and locate the ship’s bell because that would be wonderful to have in a museum here’. I ran out of time so made my way back to the shotline and a mind numbing five and a half hours of decompression – painful. In the UK I’ve an underwater MP3 player and a couple of books which I’ve laminated to help pass the time. Luggage allowances meant they stayed home.

DM: What’s your overall impression of the Niagara?
LB: From the video my mate Chris Hutchison shot in 2003, it’s an impressive shipwreck, particularly in the blue sub-tropical conditions. For a liner that went down in WW2 she’s relatively intact, unlike WW1 ships, so you can navigate quite well around the wreck. I can understand why she’s a mecca for technical divers in the southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere, we are spoiled by the number of liners we have, some of which are truly impressive, such as the completely intact Britannic, often blessed with 50 metres of visibility.

DM: What has been your most memorable dive?
LB: It was with Chris Hutchison, we both circumnavigated the Britannic on scooters in one single dive back in 1998. It’s like diving the Titanic in one dive with 50m of visibility - impressive! But I have to say that the dive we did under the Northern Arch at the Poor Knights was also impressive. Thanks to the Dive Tutukaka team for the privilege. Looking up to the surface from 36m was a little surreal, the schools of snapper, kingfish and all – amazing! We don’t get anything like that in the UK. I can understand why Cousteau listed the Poor Knights in his top 10 spots to dive. I also have to say the wreck, Mikhail Lermontov at the top of the South Island is special; New Zealander Pete Mesley took me on some rather hairy penetration dives during my visit.

DM: For divers like yourself, is there a list of wrecks that are a must to dive?
LB: Yes, for northern hemisphere divers the top wrecks are: the Lusitannia, Britannic and of course the gold ship Egypt, oh and the amazing liner Transylvania in 135m depth. I’ve also heard the Viminalli off Sicily is a very impressive dive! There are numerous logistical hurdles that need to be sorted before you can dive these historical wrecks. To travel to New Zealand and dive the Niagara without any major logistical problems except of course travelling from the UK with your diving gear, it’s really bliss to dive here. Oh I forgot there was that torrential rain storm that had us trapped in Tutukaka for our sins! I have to say though no dive was as scary as a jump off Auckland’s Sky Tower, thanks for that Dave!

DM: Thanks for your time Leigh most appreciated by myself and our readers. We look forward to hearing about further adventures - take care mate. (Leigh’s website www.deepimage.co.uk)
Next issue we talk to Leigh Bishop on the camera systems he uses and his thoughts on the future direction of diving.

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