Dos Ojos

World record in cave diving

  • 9.10.2009
  • Distance: 17 km
  • Depth: 72 m
  • Time: 9:58 h

Nuno Gomes

Nuno Gomes

Nuno Gomes was born in Lisbon 1951. Growing up on the Portuguese coast he practically lived in the sea and learned to swim and spearfish in the temperamental Portuguese Atlantic. A clue as to Nuno’s love for diving and his seeming obliviousness to discomfort is that when Nuno was 11 years old he would be spear fishing for hours with no wetsuit. When Nuno was 14 years old, his family relocated to South Africa and settled in Pretoria, far from the sea and ocean.

In 1977 he joined the WITS Underwater Club, where he found like-minded people, who were interested in cave diving and deep diving. In the seventies diving was not like we know it today. There were no certified instructors only mentors, no BC’s only legs, no computers or sport tables only watches and rudimentary Navy dive tables. Dives were executed with grit, fitness and determination, not the fancy equipment of today which keeps us informed, warm, balanced, comfortable and weightless. A swim to 2 Mile at Sodwana with full equipment, even doubles, was normal. On a WUC dive trip to Mozambique in the seventies the group lost a friend on an hour swim in to SCUBA dive at Mabibi. On his fourth scuba dive ever, Nuno descended to 55 meters at Wondergat. The dives were challenging, exciting and mainly into new and unexplored territory. After about 180 such dives Nuno’s mentor and instructor, Rick Bruscki, believed that Nuno was worthy, showed some promise, and he received his first diving certification, a SAUU class 3 certificate.

Being landlocked, cave diving was a natural progression. Nuno joined and pioneered many cave dive expeditions. He dived in all the known water filled caves in South Africa and Namibia. The early days, in 1984, saw the tragic death of fellow cave diver and caver Pieter Verhulsel in the Sterkfontein Caves.

Diving deeper and deeper just happened and Boesmansgat in the Northern Cape was perfect. In 1988 he dived to a new Africa Record of 123m. During the NAMEX 1990 expedition, the late Riaan Bouwer dropped his triple tanks set in Lake Guinas to 120m. Nuno was the only person who could retrieve the set and he did a solo dive to do so. For Nuno, this was a big leap in the confidence needed to dive deeper than before. Dives deeper than 150m would require solo dives. In 1992 he reached 153m, alone.

In 1993 the legendary Sheck Exley visited Boemansgat and Nuno finally met his hero. Sheck dived to 263m, 1m short of the world record, and Nuno to his personal best of 177m. Nuno learned from the legend about trimix decompression schedules and calculations, stages, the discipline required, the seemingly obvious rule of making sure to have enough gas to breath, teamwork and to be conservative with decompression calculations.

In underwater hockey circles Nuno is already a legend. With the motto “JUST GO STRAIGHT” he sports a charge not unlike that of an Afrikaans high school rugby front row. Three springbok caps with two gold medals and a silver at the World Underwater Hockey Championships. Underwater hockey is a gruelling sport. Nuno still plays for the Men’s open A-league which helps to keep him fit for deep diving.

He also made his mark on spearfishing in South Africa. He was, at the time, and probably still is, the only landlocked spearo to get Protea colours. He had no problem working at 30m and at the Navy Diving Base in Simonstown he held his breath for 5 minutes and 45 seconds. At an orientation week at WITS he breathed pure oxygen and held his breath for 11 minutes and 45 seconds.

Extreme deep diving is a team effort and gradually Nuno assembled a team of dedicated divers who assisted him on his numerous expeditions to caves and sink holes in southern Africa. In 1994 Nuno extended his personal deepest dives to 230m followed by a 253m. During the ascent of the latter dive Nuno experienced inner ear decompression resulting from counter diffusion at the switch to air at 40m. This is a common problem for such dives and, like many other problems encountered during his long diving career, he set of to find out how to avoid this for future dives. He calls it experience.

In 1996 he descended to an average depth of 282.6m in Boesmansgat. This dive was done at altitude with a decompression requirement of a 330m dive at sea level. It took 12 hours to complete. On this dive Nuno had seven tanks (2x18, 2x14, 2x10 and one 4-litre), weighting 135 kg – using 54730 l of different gases: oxygen, nitrox and trimix. Helmet, fins, computerised gauges and pressure-resistant torches made up the rest of his gear. Nuno narrowly beat his friend Jim Bowden’s record of 281.9m and grabbed the world cave and overall depth record. The cave record was recognised by Guinness World Records and it still stands. There are no known caves that would be deeper and the record will remain unbeaten, unless, that is, someone discovers new deeper caves.

Everybody who dived deeper than 270m suffered some form of decompression complications, in stark contrast Nuno dived deeper than 270m on three occasions, without suffering decompression complications.

The Coelacanth expedition in 2001, and the experience gained there had Nuno's next project confirmed: to reclaim the overall and SCUBA world record in the sea. Nuno liked the Coelacanth dive system, which laid the foundations for a record dive in the sea. The transition from caves to the sea has begun.

Nuno and his team started training in earnest. Nuno stepped up his already hectic Gym program and went diving every weekend. Three expeditions were undertaken to Boesmansgat culminating in the Polish depth and cave record of 194m by Leszek Czarnecki. During this time it was decided that the place to attempt the world record would be Dahab in the Red Sea with Planet Divers as a base.

The team arrived in Dahab in April 2004 and started preparing for the dive. After a 150m dive Nuno declared that he was ready, only two weeks after seeing the Red Sea for the first time. He descended alone to reach past 315m. The dive did not go well. During his descent, at about 220m one of his regulators started malfunctioning and when he reached 271m he was forced to abort the dive switching to his bailout tanks. The pressure squeezed the lens of his pressure gauge onto the needle locking it into the full-tank position of 200 bar, and he had no way of telling how much gas is in the bailout tank! It was emptied just before he reached his first staged tankr and he held his breath to get to it. This caused a chain reaction of getting just in time to the next staged cylinder and the dominoes kept falling over until his backup divers arrived. Despite the close call and the disappointment of not reaching his planned depth Nuno decided to do the full decompression schedule of 11.5 hours, for the “experience”. During this long decompression “experience” Nuno swallowed a lot of sea water with his fluid intake, which made him sick underwater. The team worried. Afterwards on the boat, surrounded by enquiring team members, drained but flashing his smile he remarked “This was by far my toughest dive.” “To run out of air at 280m is not a joke”. “11 hours no food no water and bobbing up and down” (his gauges read 280m as they are calibrated for fresh water).

It was a technical problem that denied Nuno the world record and he could not resist trying again. This time Nuno decided to use his Poseidon Cyklon 5000 regulators on both his main quad configuration cylinders as well as his side slungs. Special oil filled and glass topped Poseidon SPG’s were used on all deep regulators. A new fluid intake system was devised and the plan included 9 different gas mixes which consisted of Oxygen, Air, 3 x nitroxes, and 4 x trimixes.

Rather unceremoniously he was pushed into the water and he disappeared. He surfaced after sunset exhausted but elated. Later Nuno remarked: “318.25 metres/1044 feet (321.81metres/1056 feet with rope stretch) I still can not believe it!!! Well I have done it, with the assistance of my team.”

So, is Nuno a suicidal adrenaline junky? At first glance this may appear to be the case. However, when delving deeper, it becomes clear that each dive is built on manageable incremental increases in difficulty over a very long period of time. By the time the big dive comes the envelope is pushed within his comfort zone. Each new encountered problem is solved before the next dive. He always does build-up and acclimatisation dives. He calculates decompression stops conservatively, doing long decompression time is seen as privilege not a punishment. He plans a contingency for every possible foreseeable problem. He will never be pressurised into an unmanageable dive. He knows himself. He knows his equipment. He knows his team. He is very fit. He loves diving.

Few people can fathom what a challenge such an extreme deep dive is. More people have been on the moon than deeper than 300m.

Based on the biography of Nuno Gomes written by Pieter Venter,

He took part in the Bushmansgate expedition in 2003.

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