Based on the provocative film documentary of the same name, The Third Dive investigates the shocking death of a world-renowned conservation activist.
When experienced diver and award-winning filmmaker Rob Stewart (Sharkwater and Sharkwater: Extinction) drowned while diving off the coast of the Florida Keys in 2017, it was a shock to the world’s environmental movement.
Reports suggested that Stewart was encouraged to perform a dangerous and ultimately fatal dive by a reckless Svengali-like instructor named Peter Sotis. Some bloggers went so far as to report that Sotis survived the dive by clawing his way onto the boat first, leaving Stewart to drown.
A civil case was launched which directed blame at Horizon Divers, the company that had taken Stewart out on the dive. The allegation was that they had not done their jobs properly and left him to die in the water.
Through interviews and investigative reporting, The Third Dive is a compelling read that attempts to uncover the mysterious and disturbing circumstances surrounding Rob Stewart’s untimely death.
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The Third Dive
An Investigation into the Death of Rob Stewart
This book would never have come together without the constant support of my wife and daughter—Jari and Alexa. They allowed me to obsess over the massive amount of research that had to be done and, when that was complete, allowed me to disappear for weeks on end to write the various drafts. I’ll always appreciate them for being my sounding boards – and not being afraid to be bluntly honest about the work and the ideas.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this book to my late mother and father – Margaret and Ron Osborne – who encouraged me to follow my curiosity regardless of where it took me. That was a gift that turned me into a journalist and ultimately led to this book.
List of Sources
Reports and Public Documents
I can’t thank everyone who gave me their time, their expertise and their interest in this book, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the contributions of a few people and organizations without whom this book might not have been possible: Neal Pollock, Steve Lewis and Chris Harvey-Clark for their expertise in helping me to understand the science behind the diving; the U.S. Coast Guard, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, Monroe Country Medical Examiner and Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department for their willingness to provide interviews, documents and video footage that were critical to supporting my research; Captain Hooks at Big Pine Key, for providing diving support during my two trips to the Florida Keys; and finally, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Charlotte Engel and Sandra Kleinfeld; without their support for the documentary, this book would never have happened.
January 31, 2017
By all accounts, it was a beautiful day to be out on the water. The sun was shining, it wasn’t too hot, there was virtually no wind and the water was calm. It was a perfect day to scuba dive in the Florida Keys. On board the 30-foot Island Hopper the Pisces, two divers were gearing up to go into the water. One of them was Rob Stewart, famed environmentalist and filmmaker, the other his partner, well-known rebreather expert Peter Sotis. Also on board the boat were Stewart’s close friend Brock Cahill and Sotis’ wife Claudia. Two crew members helped the divers – the skipper, Dave Wilkerson, and his mate Bobby Steele. This was the second day they’d been moored above a very deep wreck called the Queen of Nassau. They were there to gather footage for a new documentary that Stewart was filming, a sequel to his critically acclaimed film Sharkwater. But the diving and filming hadn’t been going well.
On the previous day the four divers had completed two very deep dives – more than 200 feet down – looking for signs of a rare shark called the sawtooth. They’d found nothing. In fact, on the first dive they hadn’t even found the wreck. The visibility was that limited. Today the group of divers had just completed two more extremely deep dives. The results had been the same. Something had stirred up the water and the divers could barely see more than a few feet. There might have been sharks in the mud around the Queen of Nassau, but sawtooths like to bury themselves on the bottom. With the best visibility, often divers only see a vague outline of their bodies or perhaps just a pair of eyes sticking up. With the current visibility, it was impossible to see them. It was also rapidly becoming apparent that filming was also a waste of time. The best shots that could have been obtained would have been murky and brief at best – perhaps a swirl of mud as the shark fled away from the divers. After two days of diving, Stewart hadn’t managed to get a single picture of a shark.
So at the end of the second day of diving, the group decided to pack it up and leave. The original plan had been to film for a third day, but given the conditions, they knew that would be a waste of time. Before they left, an anchor had to be retrieved. At the insistence of Stewart and Sotis, the boat crew had dropped a hook and line onto the wreck so the divers, carrying heavy camera equipment, could swim directly to it in the low visibility. Not an unreasonable request, given they’d missed the wreck entirely on the first day. But the crew didn’t have the gear needed to go down and retrieve the hook. Peter Sotis volunteered to do the job. Rob Stewart volunteered to go with him.
Now a third dive to below 200 feet in one day is not something that many divers would consider. But this was going to be a quick down and up again, sometimes called a bounce dive: straight down, unhook the anchor and straight back up – as quickly as could be safely managed. There were some problems with the plan. The divers hadn’t been on the surface very long – around 25 minutes. Normally between deep dives, safe practices suggested divers should leave at least an hour or more. Additionally, the men had done multiple deep dives over the past few days. That meant they were probably carrying a residual amount of nitrogen in their blood, even more reason to leave a good interval between dives. But Sotis and Stewart thought they’d be okay if they got down and back quickly enough.
The two men geared up and went over the side. Now one of the odd things about diving with a rebreather is that it’s hard to track where the divers are when they’re underwater. When divers use regular scuba gear, every time they breathe out, a burst of bubbles heads for the surface, so people on a dive boat know exactly where they are at all times – it’s called surface boil. In this case, the boat couldn’t track the two divers. So Wilkerson just let the boat drift near the large orange buoy that marked the top end of the anchor line. Fifteen minutes later the two divers surfaced and gave the universally recognized signal that all was well – a circle formed by the thumb and index finger. The boat swung around to pick them up, arriving at Sotis first. He took off his fins and climbed up the dive ladder. Stewart was only a few feet behind him, by all accounts floating near the back of the boat. But when Sotis climbed into the boat’s cockpit, all hell broke loose. His wife said something to him and he suddenly seemed confused, unresponsive. By some accounts he collapsed on the deck; others suggest that he sat down and just didn’t move, stared vacantly into the distance. Claudia, a physician, immediately went to work – trying to take his vital signs. Bobby Steele, the mate, grabbed the emergency oxygen bottle and he and Claudia placed a mask over Sotis’ mouth. One witness says Sotis was fighting back as the two tried to remove his dry suit for a complete examination. Within minutes they had him settled. Claudia said she was focused on making sure there was nothing constricting his breathing and was trying get Peter’s dry suit off to see whether he had any signs of decompression sickness. At this point less than three minutes had passed since the two divers had surfaced. Everyone seemed focused on the emergency on board the boat, though later, Dave Wilkerson would claim he was busy trying to get the boat closer to Stewart. At this point someone thought to look for Stewart. His friend Brock Cahill looked over the stern of the boat and said, “Where’s Rob?” The sea was empty.
It was the first day of February – a bleak, cold, mostly grey time of year in Toronto. This year the winter was proving to be particularly distasteful, with temperatures often plunging down to minus 20 Celsius. I hoped that February might pass quickly. Once March arrived it was only a short sprint heading towards spring. There was a bright spot in the day. The weather forecast was calling for temperatures just below zero. If they were right, I’d be able to get out and do some scuba diving in Lake Ontario on the weekend. Now when I tell people that I dive all year around in Toronto, they often look at me as if I’m some kind of fanatic, possibly mentally unstable. But as crazy as diving during an Ontario winter may sound, it’s not that uncomfortable in what’s called a dry suit. The suit keeps out the water and I just layer up underneath. Though I may look a little like the Michelin Man, I’m actually pretty toasty warm in the water. The only part of my body that really gets cold is my hands. In really cold water – say around one or two degrees Celsius – they start to freeze after 30 minutes, and after 40, it becomes hard to use them. Now, diving in the winter takes on a whole new complexion once temperatures start to hit minus ten. The water is not the problem; it’s getting in and out of the water. That process becomes precarious if not downright dangerous – zippers and connectors freeze solid and hands become numb trying to get out of your gear. But as long as it’s around the zero mark, this isn’t a problem. So the weekend was supposed to be warmish. Maybe Chris and I would be able to go diving. I have to take advantage of these small windows or I spend the whole winter waiting for a chance to travel somewhere warm to dive.
That morning I was writing a piece for a diving magazine. My brief reverie about the weekend had been a convenient way to procrastinate – a common behaviour when I’m not getting anywhere with my work. Continuing the behaviour, I flipped over to one of my favourite online news sources and began scrolling through the stories. Mostly the usual drivel, but one story caught my eye immediately: “Environmentalist, film maker Rob Stewart missing off the Florida Keys.” I scanned the article and discovered that Stewart had been diving and filming sharks on a wreck called the Queen of Nassau eight kilometres off the coast of an island called Islamorada. At this point he was listed as “missing.” The story grabbed my attention immediately. It connected with two of my life’s passions – journalism and diving. I’ve worked as a journalist for the past 35 years. Most of that time my career has been spent as an investigative journalist for some of Canada’s top newsmagazine shows – W5, Marketplace – and I’ve freelanced for the top newspapers, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail. I also teach at Ryerson University in the journalism department – a course on how to research. I’ve broken stories that have had national and international repercussions. I have a passion for investigative journalism and I’ve had some fair success at it. As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m also a fanatical scuba diver. I hold multiple certifications, including what are called technical certifications – essentially, training that allows me to dive deeper and longer – ones that require decompression stops to get back to the surface. I’m trained as a cave diver. That’s a form of diving that requires a great deal of precision. After all, when you’re several hundred metres into an underwater cave and something goes wrong, you have to know what you’re doing to survive, you just can’t swim to the surface. Any diving-related stories always catch my eye.
So I was particularly interested in what was happening to Rob Stewart. There wasn’t much solid information to be had. The initial reports online were short on details and long on drama. The facts seemed contradictory. A few reports tended to suffer from hyperbole. Once the so-called mainstream media picked up the story, the reports became even more confusing. Understandably, it’s not uncommon that reporters who know little about the topic are assigned to cover stories. So now the coverage began to include reports about diving tanks filled with oxygen (they’re usually filled with air) and how divers faced life-threatening situations as they descended to the deep, dark depths (it’s surfacing that’s the problem). Regardless, I could still glean some information from the bubbling information stream online. I took the few details that were available, and just out of curiosity I began to do a little research of my own.
I knew Stewart and his fellow divers had been diving on a wreck called the Queen of Nassau. I found out that the wreck was a very advanced dive – 230 feet to the bottom. That’s way below my capability as a diver. I’m only certified to dive to 160 feet. To safely descend below that depth divers have to start breathing what’s called trimix – a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium. The helium replaces some of the nitrogen. Nitrogen is a problem for divers. It seeps into your bloodstream under pressure and when you surface, if you’re not careful, the nitrogen forms bubbles in your blood or tissues. If those bubbles form too quickly your blood virtually boils. Think about shaking up a pop bottle and then opening it up. If you open it up slowly, no problem. If you open it up quickly, it boils over and sprays pop all over the place. That’s a visual image of what happens if you surface too quickly. Those bubbles will careen around the body and cause all kinds of havoc – potentially stopping your heart, causing a stroke if they get into your brain or clogging up your lungs. Nitrogen is also somewhat poisonous and can cause what’s called nitrogen narcosis. It used to be called “rapture of the deep,” and all kinds of myths surrounded the concept – divers taking out their regulators and giving them to fish, for example. That’s mostly nonsense, but nitrogen does cause confusion, a sense of disorientation and even euphoria. In extreme cases it can cause hallucinations. So divers at extreme depth lower their risk by replacing some of the nitrogen in the gas they breathe with helium. That’s an inert gas that doesn’t cause as many problems. Divers at that extreme depth also reduce the amount of oxygen they breathe. That’s because oxygen becomes toxic at a certain depth. If you reduce the oxygen in your gas mix, you still have enough to sustain life and it doesn’t poison you. Of course gas mixes are much more complicated than that, but that’s the Coles Notes version. What all that means is that if Stewart and his buddies were diving the Queen of Nassau, then I knew they had to be using mixed gases, and that process can be very tricky.
I also discovered that Stewart was using a rebreather. That’s an advanced form of diving technology that I knew little about. I did know enough to be able to separate fact from fiction in the daily reports that were coming out of Florida. Reporters were describing the rebreather as a killing machine, an apparatus that could go wrong at any second and kill a diver without warning. That seemed a little far-fetched. I’d been around rebreathers and knew the basic principles. I knew they could be amazing instruments when used properly, enabling divers to go where conventional scuba wouldn’t allow. I’d been a little jealous when I was cave diving, watching rebreather divers explore the tunnels. I’d have to turn my dive around a few hundred metres in as my air started getting low. While I was heading back, rebreather divers would be disappearing into the deeper parts of the cave. While my dive might last 40 or 50 minutes, they’d be gone for hours. But like any sophisticated piece of machinery, rebreathers could be demanding at times. You had to keep track of a lot of information all at once. If you didn’t, then you could get into trouble. I’d also been told that when things went wrong with a rebreather, they went very wrong. A malfunction, though rare, might cause a diver to breathe a toxic mix and never be aware of it. Once I knew how deep Stewart dived and what technology he employed, I started to wonder about why he was diving that deep for filming. I reasoned that he’d have to have a pretty compelling reason to push the limits of technical diving to that extent. I was definitely hooked on the story, and I started to push a little harder on my research.
I still hoped that Rob Stewart would be found alive. The Coast Guard had mounted a massive search of the waters around the Keys. Early reports stated that he had drifted away from the dive boat in the confusion caused by another diver having an accident. During the next three days I watched the news intently for more information. Numerous celebrities had offered services. Family and friends of Stewart were flooding into the area to help. An online campaign to coordinate search efforts had begun. David Goodhue is a reporter for the Miami Herald and flkeysnews.com. He’s a tall man with dark curly hair – good looking and affable, easygoing. He’s worked the Florida Keys for 15 years. He says he loves the laid-back attitude that pervades the chain of islands. I’m sure the great weather doesn’t hurt. Most of his work involves covering local stories – fishing championships, small crime stories at the courts and the odd wacky “Florida man” kind of item. The Rob Stewart story was a whole other level of reporting for David. He described the search as the biggest he’d ever seen while working on the islands, “the three days in between finding out that he was missing and when he was found, it was just a massive search, an international search. We heard that Jimmy Buffett was sending planes; Richard Branson was sending planes.… Anyone who had a plane … was searching for him. I mean anyone with a boat was searching for him.” The search came to an abrupt end after three days. On February 3, Stewart’s body was found on the bottom, only a few feet from where he had been last seen. The discovery echoed out from the Keys like a sonic shock wave. Many had clung to the hope that he was still alive, drifting around at sea. The confirmation of his death killed that hope and sent thousands into mourning.
I was saddened by the loss. I didn’t know Stewart personally, but I was in awe of what he had done almost single-handedly to fight against the extinction of sharks. The practice of finning was killing millions of sharks every year – mostly for the soup trade in China. Fishermen would cut off the fins and throw the still-living shark into the water to die. It was a hideous practice and Stewart was the champion who’d brought this to the world’s attention. I’d seen the impact of finning while diving around the world. Sharks had disappeared from the oceans. Twenty years ago seeing a shark was a common occurrence; now it was a rare sight. It was no exaggeration to say that the oceans of the world were emptying of this magnificent apex predator until Stewart came along. I knew we all owed him a tremendous debt. Brian Stewart, Rob’s father, spoke about his son’s devotion to saving the oceans during a press conference in Miami: “The hardest part about this is knowing what Rob’s mission was, what his dreams were, and his plans, and all the things he was trying to accomplish, like showing how beautiful the oceans can be and how beautiful under sea life is…. He wanted to teach people that the oceans are a fantastic place.” Rob Stewart had that rare combination of the courage to pursue a goal regardless of the cost, and the commitment of a heat-seeking missile to make sure he never deviated from his objective. Men like Stewart do not come along very often in history, and in my opinion his work as an environmentalist could not be easily replaced. Sandy Stewart, Rob’s mother, said “he always understood that if people could see the underwater world, if they could see the beauty in the underwater world, they would want to save it and they would work to protect it, and that is what his mission was, to protect the sharks and all of the creatures, and the oceans in general, because we need the oceans to survive.”
There was a worldwide reaction to Stewart’s death. His memorial service was held in one of Toronto’s larges churches. Brian Stewart explained, “We got the biggest church we could in the centre of the city of Toronto.… We had 1,250 people crowded in the church, then they brought in extra chairs, and they had people in the street, and then we had almost 60,000 people who watched the funeral online.… He touched people from all over the world. We’re getting emails from every country in the world right now … wishing that Rob didn’t die, and saying they’re going to continue his mission.” Every major network in Canada covered the funeral, and feeds were sent to some networks in the United States and around the world. Guest celebrities spoke at Stewart’s service. Former MuchMusic, CNN and CBC host George Stroumboulopoulos was one of the keynote speakers, saying, “We should be thankful that in this little galaxy of stars that our life is … we had a sun like Rob at the centre of it.” Stewart’s parents vowed to continue his work and complete the film that he had partly shot. The message given by family and friends was one of hope – a wish to continue to fight to save the oceans. It was a noble tribute to a great man. But after the funeral a wave of vitriol seemed to build around the whole matter.
It began with the bloggers, particularly one called Wildlife Roundup, a video blog posted by a group called Earthrace Conservation and hosted by Pete Bethune. They put up an episode called “The Man Behind Stewart’s Death” that essentially accused Peter Sotis of killing Stewart. Bethune confidently stated, “The death of Rob Stewart lies firmly on the flippers of Peter Sotis.” Among other inflammatory statements, Bethune accused Sotis of being “a convicted felon who’s gone to ground,” suggesting somehow that Sotis was in hiding in the aftermath of the accident. In fact, Sotis was still running his dive business in Fort Lauderdale. Bethune also accused Sotis’ company, Add Helium, of “selling rebreathers to Libyan terrorists.” The narration on that part of the blog was accompanied by pictures of violent warfare somewhere in the Middle East, implying that these were the people Sotis was selling to. Bethune also said Sotis was selling “false certificates on cheap Chinese [diving] tanks” – again, suggesting that Sotis was some kind of sleazy operator who cared nothing for other people’s lives. And Bethune concluded that this “narrative flies in the face of diving safety” and that Sotis “failed in his duty of care” with Stewart.
Anyone watching Bethune’s blog – it was still online when I last checked – would have been convinced that there was no question Stewart’s death was directly caused by Sotis’ negligence. Feeding on those kinds of reports, social media began to swirl with accusations that Stewart’s “dive instructor” Peter Sotis had been negligent; that the skipper and the mate on the dive boat had been negligent; that Stewart had died needlessly. Certainly his parents both made their feelings clear about their son’s death. Just a few months after the accident, they launched a civil lawsuit against Peter Sotis and Horizon Divers. Their complaint filed in court alleged that “as a direct and proximate cause of Defendant Peter Sotis’ negligence … Rob Stewart, was killed.” At the press conference called to announce the lawsuit, Brian Stewart said, “When you have safety divers, which are there specifically to keep an eye on you, because quite honestly, as a filmmaker, when you’re shooting underwater, you don’t know what’s going on around you while you’re focused on a certain thing, safety divers are a critical part of that equation, and both Peter and Claudia were safety divers on that dive, and they’re not just supposed to watch what’s going on, they’re supposed to keep an eye on the person that’s doing the work.” The Stewarts felt the same way about Horizon Divers, saying, “Even from Horizon Divers’ perspective, not having eyes on the water, of a diver, when you’re the dive boat operator, that’s your responsibility, it’s just unimaginable.” If a person believed the Stewarts’ complaint, the case seemed to be open and shut: Peter Sotis and Horizon Divers were negligent; Rob Stewart, a neophyte rebreather diver, was lured into pushing himself beyond his limits and died in a tragic and senseless accident when the people who were supposed to care for him failed to do their jobs.
But when I looked at those elements, I wasn’t sure I believed all or even any of them. I didn’t have enough information to go on and I wasn’t going to just believe what someone had filed in a civil court case. I did, however, believe that the events surrounding Rob Stewart’s death would make a great investigative documentary. Getting to the truth of what happened would be a challenge but could ultimately provide a lot of people with some much-needed answers. I knew there were a lot of so-called “facts” being thrown around online that had little substance. I knew they would all have to be meticulously documented and challenged, which would be an enormous amount of work. But I’d spent my whole career working on those kinds of stories, so as the story gradually faded from the headlines, I started digging in and reviewing any information I could get. The chase was on.
I started my investigation by pushing aside rumour and innuendo. I asked myself, what did I really know? Here’s what I thought: Rob Stewart had been filming off the coast of the Florida Keys near an island called Islamorada. He’d been diving using a rebreather. He’d been trying to film sawtooth sharks. He was working with his friend Brock Cahill, who had set up the dive. He’d been working with two safety divers: Peter Sotis and his wife Claudia. The group was working on board a charter boat named Pisces owned by Horizon Divers. They had been filming for two days. They had completed four dives over two days. They had not seen any sawtooth sharks. They cancelled a third day of diving. Sotis and Stewart performed a third dive to retrieve the anchor that attached the boat to the wreck. After surfacing from the third dive, Sotis climbed on board the boat and collapsed. Stewart, still in the water, disappeared.
Beyond that, the rest seemed to be speculation about who was to blame – mostly Peter Sotis if you believed what was circulating on the internet. But something bothered me about the existing narrative that put most of the blame on Sotis. In that story, Rob Stewart had been convinced by Peter Sotis to make three deep dives in a single day with equipment he was unfamiliar with, thereby causing his death. Making two dives in a day below 200 feet was challenging. Making three, according to many experts, was reckless. But I’d quickly learned that Stewart was a very experienced diver. He’d been certified since he was a teenager, held an instructor rating and had completed thousands of dives. He also wasn’t a complete neophyte on rebreathers. He could be seen in photographs and video in the documentary Sharkwater using a rebreather in 2006. So he knew about the technology and had some experience diving with it. I was also told by several of Stewart’s friends that he was a man who made up his own mind. He wasn’t someone, I was told, who blindly went along with what he was told. In fact, quite the contrary, many described Stewart as a man with an extremely strong will. So why would someone with that strength of character and that level of diving experience go on a deep and possibly dangerous third dive just because he was told to? That didn’t make sense to me.
I don’t have anywhere near Stewart’s experience diving – I’ve completed a thousand dives – yet I can tell you that I would not allow anyone to tell me to make an unsafe dive or follow unsafe diving practices. I know the consequences of diving blind. In cave diving they’re called “trust me” dives, and from the first day of cave training, you’re told to never, ever do them. If you don’t know the way in, the way out and what’s going on during every step of the way, you don’t go. I’ve pulled the plug on cave dives after only five minutes because I didn’t think they were going in a direction I was familiar with. None of the other divers in my team batted an eye. The decision was accepted without question. I understand that there can be a lot of pressure to conform, go along with the pack, not ruin everyone else’s dive, but when it comes to my life, I’m not going to take chances – nor would any experienced diver. I couldn’t see Stewart blindly going along with a dangerous dive just because he was being told to do so. That raised several possibilities that had to be investigated. First, maybe Stewart was reckless and would blindly follow someone else on an unsafe dive. Second, maybe Stewart knew the dive was dangerous and just decided to take a chance. Or third, maybe Stewart knew exactly what he was doing and believed the third dive was not pushing any limits. There was another possibility I decided to check out and eliminate if possible. Using what’s called open circuit diving (think Jacques Cousteau and the aqualung), I’ve done two dives to below 150 feet in a single day, albeit with a healthy break in between the dives to allow nitrogen to dissipate. That would be a reasonable limit for open circuit diving. But maybe it was possible, using a rebreather, a device with much greater flexibility in deep diving, to dive to 225 feet three times in a single day. I decided I had to know more about what was possible using a rebreather.
I called my friend Steve Lewis. I first met Steve when I was working on a couple of television pieces for the Discovery Channel. A group of divers had decided to launch an expedition to explore the Bell Island Mines in Newfoundland. Bell Island sits in the middle of Conception Bay. These iron ore mines had been shut down in the mid-1960s. The owners, so the story goes, thought the mines were not making money, so they waited for the men to take their Christmas break, declared the mine closed, turned off the pumps that kept the water out and allowed the entire mine to flood. They never opened up again. As the water rose on tens of kilometres of tunnels, everything in the mine the workers had left behind was slowly covered in icy cold water – trapping thousands of artifacts in a kind of underwater museum – machinery, clothing, lunch boxes, shoes, people’s pipes; the place was like a piece of amber that had entrapped an insect, acting to keep a slice of history perfectly preserved. Exploring these mines is not what you would call a safe expedition. Five years earlier many of this same group had attempted the venture, and that had ended badly. One of the divers died in the underwater tunnels. The expedition was shut down. The museum that owned the mine forbid any more diving. But after years the group convinced the museum that lessons had been learned, better divers enlisted and a strong support team put in place, so the museum relented. I was invited to film the expedition and direct a couple of pieces for the Discovery Channel. Steve Lewis was one of two lead divers. An expat Brit, Lewis is a kind of rebreather diving guru. A long-time instructor with TDI (Technical Diving International), a member of the Canadian Geographical Society and currently the director of dive training for RAID (Rebreather Association of International Divers), Lewis has been diving with rebreathers for decades. He’s written books about the subject. Throughout the week of the expedition, I watched and filmed him and the others as they systematically explored these difficult and potentially deadly flooded shafts. I gained a real appreciation of Steve’s skill level. So now, when I felt I needed to know more about rebreathers and really deep diving, I thought he was “go to” guy.
I set up a phone call. My first question to Steve: Are rebreathers really as dangerous as some people believe? When I was talking with famed environmentalist and long-time Stewart friend Paul Watson, he’d told me that the minute he heard Stewart was diving with a rebreather, he knew he was dead. “I knew he couldn’t have survived … because I knew he was using a rebreather and I knew that he had disappeared and there’s only one thing that could have caused that, and that was … the fact that it had failed, that the rebreather had failed.… A rebreather kills you before you even know you’re in trouble. There’s no possible way he could have survived.” Watson wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Among my diving friends there seemed to be a general belief that these machines were twitchy and prone to catastrophic failure. But Lewis took a more balanced approach to the technology. He acknowledged they could be dangerous if they were used incorrectly, but he insisted, “There are some things you can only do on a rebreather, that’s the whole reason for them to exist. If you want to take photographs of critters in the sea, being on a rebreather is terrific because it’s more silent, so you can sneak up on animals and they don’t look at you in quite the same way as when you’ve got bubbles coming out because that noise underwater is quite loud.” He also added, “Very deep dives, very complex dives are usually better off done on a rebreather than done on traditional Jacques Cousteau open circuit.” But in the next breath, he also warned me that rebreathers can be treacherous: “One of the things on open circuit, traditional scuba, where you’ve got a regulator in your mouth, you breathe in, you breathe out, you see bubbles coming out, if you can breathe in, everything’s cool. But on a rebreather, there are circumstances where you can keep breathing but what you’re breathing, you shouldn’t be breathing. It either has too much oxygen in it, not enough oxygen in it. In other words, it could be something that’s gonna hurt you and you don’t know it.” He went on to explain that a rebreather is effective for diving deep because it allows you to vary the richness of the oxygen you’re inhaling. You want less oxygen when you go deeper – oxygen gets poisonous at certain concentrations under pressure – and more when you’re closer to the surface to make your decompression times shorter. You have to be constantly watching that mix to stay safe. A mix of 100 per cent oxygen at 20 feet is perfect to flush out your system after a deep dive. That same concentration is poisonous below 20 feet. A mix of 10 per cent oxygen is great at 100 feet, but back at 20 feet it’s not rich enough for the human body to survive.
On balance, Lewis said that if you know what you’re doing and you don’t cut corners then rebreathers are a superior way to dive. So as long as Stewart and his companions were following the rules and diving their rebreathers properly, there was no reason that the technology should have caused their deaths, unless there was a mechanical failure. Lewis then added that it was theoretically possible to do three extremely deep dives in a single day, but he wasn’t sure it was reasonable – for a number of reasons. First, Lewis told me about the psychological affects of diving that deep: “If you walk down Yonge Street, for instance, and you look at a skyscraper or an office building, you look at 22 storeys above your head and you imagine that’s water between you and something you can breathe without some special apparatus – 22 storeys is a long way down.” The math is simple, Lewis explained: “How far you are from the surface will add a certain element of mental stress to you. If you can stand up in the water and put your nose out and breathe fresh air, you’re not deep, but any deeper than that, you start to get deep … so there’s that aspect of it, the physical separation from the surface.”
I understand what Lewis is talking about. When I dive really deep, I’m always aware it’s a long way back to the surface. I don’t obsess about it, but I’m aware of it, and I run my dives much more conservatively when I’m down deep. I asked Lewis whether it takes any particular skill to make dives that deep and he responded rather glibly, “The classic is, anyone can get down to 200 feet, 230, I can take anyone to 300 feet; it’s not going down that’s important, it’s coming back up. And the deeper you go, the more complicated it is to get back up.” Lewis believed that the kind of diving that Stewart was involved in was on the extreme end of the diving scale. Stewart’s parents didn’t seem to have an appreciation for that when they described their son’s accident at their Miami press conference. Brian Stewart suggested, “Diving can be a very safe sport if you’re trained properly, you follow the rules, you check your equipment, and there’s a process you go through before you get in the water and part of that, anybody who goes on recreational diving is going to expect the dive operator, who’s giving you or supplying the tanks … and supplying that service, to have the right staff on board to keep an eye on the divers in the water.” The key phrase in that statement being “recreational diving.” Brian Stewart was describing a typical recreational diving charter that might take place anywhere in the world. He’s right, of course. As a recreational diver you expect the operator to supply equipment and services that meet accepted safety standards. You expect them to have a trained crew that can meet your needs within the limits of recreational diving. But most recreational divers are held to a maximum depth of 130 feet. The first level of technical diving allows you to dive down to 160 feet. Stewart was operating at 225 feet, way beyond any regular kind of diving. Lewis told me, “I would not do three dives sub-200 feet, sub-60 metres, in one day. Physically … I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge, I mean I’m in good shape for my age, certainly, but it drains, takes a lot from you, diving in water that’s calm, but if you add in other factors like cold, currents, visibility, then these all add to the stress of being underwater. And doing one dive, yup, doing two dives, if we have to, doing three dives, not for me.” Yet Stewart had chosen or agreed to do a third dive on the final day of his film charter. Already I was beginning to see that the accepted narrative being presented didn’t quite hold up to closer examination.
Lewis continued his assessment of Stewart’s final day of diving:
I’d like to know the reasons for doing that because there’d have to be … a bloody good reason to do that because it’s just beyond best practice.… It’s like seeing a hornet’s nest in a tree and getting a long stick and saying, I wonder what will happen if I poke this? And poking it and then not just poking it once but poking it three times.… There has to have been a good reason. I just don’t know what that reason is. Because normally, I think most of the people you would ask, would say … no, I wouldn’t do that. I certainly wouldn’t do it.
Lewis raised another red flag about the dives. Apparently, Stewart and the other divers had reprogrammed their computers to allow themselves to get to the surface more quickly. Lewis believes that was folly: “When you start to reprogram a computer and play around with ascent speeds or the gases you’ve got in the computer, what you’re essentially doing is you’re conducting an experiment in decompression theory, you’re a guinea pig now.” Stewart’s parents suggested in their court case that the reprogramming was all Sotis’ idea. They claimed that their son just went along with the reprogramming, doing what he was told to do. While that didn’t sound like the kind of person that Stewart’s friends described, it was possible.
Lewis ended our first conversation by suggesting that I contact dive researcher Neal Pollock. If anyone could tell me about the impact of diving that deep that many times, Lewis thought Pollock was that guy. He’d been another member of the Bell Island Mine Quest dive expedition in Newfoundland. Pollock, currently the head of hyperbaric medicine and the diving research program at Laval University, was formerly a leading researcher at Duke University and the Divers Alert Network. He is arguably one of the world’s leading experts on decompression diving. Certainly, NASA thought so when they commissioned him to conduct experiments for their space walking program. (Astronauts have to decompress after a spacewalk because the pressure in their suits is different from the pressure in the space station.) That’s what Pollock had been doing on Bell Island – working for NASA, researching whether divers under extreme stress produced any precursors in their blood that might indicate an impending decompression hit. When I spoke with Pollock, he was familiar with the Stewart case. An investigator working for a lawyer involved in the case had contacted him for his opinion. His first reaction: these divers were pushing the envelope and it wasn’t hard to predict that something critical was going to occur. “If you do a really fast ascent, all the way up to the surface, you push it and you shave off time and you lie to your computer about how much inert gas you have, you’re really playing craps and you’re not giving yourself enough stop time in the shallow or shallow-intermediate waters to clear out those fast tissues. So the result is you hit the surface and you get these symptoms.” Pollock said that Stewart and his partner were diving beyond the knowledge of what science has tested. He stated that for a single day of diving “we have no data on two dives to 200 feet, let alone three dives.”
After talking with Pollock and Lewis I was starting to get excited. I could already see factual holes appearing in the accepted narrative. Most media stories had concentrated on the tragic loss of Rob Stewart and offered the simple explanation that Peter Sotis killed him through his negligence. But the story was more complex than that. These divers had been forging ahead into territory that science didn’t even have full information about. In a quest to get pictures of rare sharks, Stewart appeared to have pushed the boundaries of diving. At least that’s what some of the initial data suggested.
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