Interview by Michael Bear
Although probably best known for his classic true tale of fatal father-and-son diving hubris, ‘The Last Dive‘ (Hardcover: 368 pages, Publisher: Harper; First Edition (October 3, 2000) ISBN-10: 0060194626), Bernie Chowdhury is also a Fellow of the Explorers Club who has helped map underwater caves in Iceland and dived deep wrecks below 300 ft. and a member of AAUS, the American Academy of Underwater Sciences.
In Part II of this interview, I asked him some questions about what he has been doing since ‘The Last Dive’ came out.
Q: Do any of your other expeditions stick out as particularly memorable?
A: The British Army Diving Expedition that I participated in, back in 1996.To my knowledge, this was the first time that any military had approved the use of technical diving — rather than commercial or military diving — techniques for their personnel. (I was not in the British Army, but was one of a few civilians authorized to participate in the expedition.)
The mission was to search for and dive HMS Pheasant, a WW I destroyer based at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland, that had gone missing under mysterious circumstances during the First War. It took British Army Major Neal Russell two years to get official approval. Ultimately, it was approved under the British Army’s “Adventure Training” program whereby personnel undertake training on their own and participate in some event that can be potentially life-threatening.The purpose of this is to build character, show initiative and hone leadership and teamwork skills.
The Royal Navy told us that we wouldn’t find anything, as the closest wreck to our intended search location was a German U-boat in over 300 feet of water.We thought we’d find the Pheasant in 220 feet of water, off of the Orkney Islands.In the event, we found and dove the wreck in 280 feet of water.Some of the very raw footage that I shot ended up on BBC Scotland news.The funny thing about that was I borrowed one of the BBC’s underwater cameras, which they provided without lights so that I had to use a single, handheld dive light.The housing was only rated to 165 feet.I figured, “What the heck, it’s not my camera. They know how deep we’re doing, so if they want me to use it, then off I go.”
Miraculously, the housing held up under pressure.
Q: You are also an active diving instructor with DAN, SDI and TDI and teach everything from basic open water classes through Nitrox, Advanced Trimix and Advanced Wreck Diving (Penetration), as well as being aboard-certified hyperbaric medical technologist (CHT) since 2004 and work as the Training Director with the Life Support Technologies group, Tarrytown, NY.
What led you to get into hyperbaric medicine?
A: A friend of mine from the diving world, Glenn Butler, is the founder and CEO of the Life Support Technologies group (LST).He’s a former commercial saturation diver and supervisor and has done lots of amazing stuff, some of which I wrote about in my book.Glenn called me many years ago and asked me to get involved with him and his hyperbaric company.When I told him that I had no experience in hyperbaric medicine, he replied that I had an excellent background in gas physiology as a result of my deep Trimix diving.He invited me to take the Introduction to Hyperbaric Medicine Course that his company was putting on.The medical doctor who taught that course, Dr. Eric Kindwall, is considered by many to be the father of hyperbaric medicine in the U.S.Another guy I had the chance to get to know a lot better and to work with in hyperbaric medicine was Dr. Bill Hamilton, who came to be called the “Prince of Gases” by many in the technical diving community.Both men have since passed away. It’s an incredible honor to have known these guys and to have worked with them.
Right now, LST provides hyperbaric medical services at nine (9) hospitals in the NY region, as well as providing life-safety engineering.Clients include NASA, the Department of Defense (DoD), and NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). (For more info, see: Lifesupport-USA.com).
Q: What is your opinion of the recent trend by some popular civilian diving agencies to popularize rebreathers (which are complex units which recycle the divers exhaled gas and inject oxygen into the mix) by, in effect, dumbing them down, so to speak, so that recreational divers can begin using them with a minimal degree of training?
A: Recreational rebreathers?? What’s are those?
Rebreathers are diving tools for military, scientific, commercial and technical divers. They are not very forgiving and the fatality statistics of divers on rebreathers is sobering. Of course, everyone thinks, “It’s not going to happen to me.” You have to be very, very vigilant with rebreathers, not only when diving but also in their maintenance.By definition, recreational divers are conducting the sport pretty casually, at least by the standards of military, scientific, commercial or technical divers.As such, rebreathers are not appropriate for recreational divers.If the term “technical” scares recreational divers, then the term “fatality” should do so even more.There are no shortcuts, and that’s what I see is being marketed more and more often to recreational divers to get them to “move down” into either deeper depths, longer bottom times, or more expensive gear.
My experience teaching technical diving has shown me that recreational divers with even many hundreds of warm water dives under their belts are shocked at how challenging cold-water technical diving is.It usually takes one or two northeast (US) dive seasons for a single-tank, wet suit recreational diver to achieve a TDI Decompression Procedures certification and be able to reasonably safely conduct dives on wrecks in the U.S. northeast.That entails dry suit diving and being able to wear and manipulate at least three (3) scuba tanks in the water.That’s on open circuit, and with a lot of training. Recreational rebreathers?The two words just do not belong together.
Q: What is your opinion of the controversial technique of treating DCS–the ‘bends’–by so-called ‘in-water recompression’ or the ‘Australian Method,’ in remote locations where the nearest hyperbaric chamber may be thousands of miles away? Divers Alert Network (DAN), a leading hyperbaric medicine authority, has made it clear they do not support it.
A: What controversy? Next, you’re going to tell me that SOLO diving is still controversial.(I’m a SOLO diving instructor, BTW.) In-water recompression (IWR) should never be the first choice for treating a bent diver, but it has been done successfully by well-prepared teams for quite some time.It’s been written about in books and in magazine articles. The keys are to be very, very well prepared and to train extensively before you may ever need to conduct IWR. Having a hyperbaric trained medical doctor on hand – it should be noted that hyperbaric medicine is NOT taught in medical schools! – is well-advised. IWR is not easy and should be the last option you consider. Other options include having a portable recompression chamber on hand. With either a portable chamber or IWR, you’ll need to ensure that you’ll have enough gas to complete a hyperbaric treatment, if needed. If you’re doing IWR, you’ll also need full-face masks, communications gear, and several people to act as in-water dive tenders and as relief tenders, to name a few things. Like so many things in diving, IWR is a potentially useful tool in very remote areas when executed correctly by well-prepared and well-trained teams.
Q: What are you doing these days?
A: I’m writing medical articles, as part of the Life Support Technologies group faculty for the Introduction to Hyperbaric Medicine course. I still occasionally treat hyperbaric patients in hospitals, though I only fill in at one of our clinical units when we’re short-staffed.I also teach technical diving, am developing a new diving program, doing some other writing projects, and I conduct on-going scientific diving with my wife, Assistant Professor at New York Medical College,Dr.Nasreen S.Haque, who’s a cellular and molecular biologist and also an Explorers Club Fellow. She and I are searching for microbes that may be beneficial in novel pharmaceutical drugs.My experience working in hospitals really impresses the critical nature of developing new antibiotics. Many drug-resistant, infectious organisms are proliferating and are far more common than most people probably realize.
Recently, I was invited to explore and map a “new” cave system in upstate New York, and we’ve started that project.The cave is not underwater, though there seems to be at least one sump (water-filled portion of the cave) that I’m hoping to dive.I’m looking at some other cave systems in NY and NJ in which I may be able to dive.All of that is with my caving (spelunking) buddies, including my wife.
Nasreen and I are also working together on some projects in India. We carried the Explorers Club Flag together in 2010 on our Indus Valley Civilization Biodiversity Expedition in Dwarka, India (in the NW).We plan to return to India for some more exploration.We hope to again carry the Explorers Club Flag on that and other projects.
As always, there’s more to do than one has the time and funds for. That’s both good and bad news.Projects that either my wife or I have initiated are on-going, and friends have invited me to explore in all sorts of places.I’ve been incredibly blessed to have been able to explore and to have accomplished some things. Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue doing interesting stuff for quite some time.