The nature of technical diving is to push back the boundaries of knowledge, not through reckless bravado, but rather through a true appreciation and understanding of the entailed risks.
On 6th November 2001, John Bennett entered the water off Puerto Galera, in the Philippines, to eclipse the depth records for a SCUBA diver previously established by Jim Bowden and Nuno Gomes; a quest that had previously already claimed the life of famed cave diving explorer, Sheck Exley, who died in an ill-fated attempt to reach 307-metres in 1994.
A quiet, thoughtful man – one who is every inch a ‘team-player’ – John Bennett’s dive to 308-metres on that day was the culmination of more than twelve months meticulous research, preparation and planning for the challenge ahead; one in which the technical diving community of Puerto Galera – long regarded as the centre for tech diving in Southeast Asia – worked tirelessly together to bring to fruition.
Q. When did you take up diving?
I began diving in Cairns while travelling around the world and just loved it. It started as just another holiday activity, an experience that I shared with friends together with Gabby – now my wife – shortly after we met. I became hooked and went on to take the Advanced course in Sydney and later, while in New Zealand, my Rescue Diver and Dive Master courses.
As a traveller, money was tight and my equipment consisted of whatever I could then afford to buy.
Q. Who were/are the people that have influenced your approach to diving?
There are many. I believe that, by maintaining an open mind, it’s possible to learn from everyone. A person I truly admire is Jim Bowden; we stay in touch with each other and I am proud to be able to call him a friend. He is one of the true pioneers of our sport. But the one person who really stands out above all others in terms of the approach that I take towards diving is Sheck Exley. He was without a doubt one of the greatest diving explorer’s of our time. He set the standards that most of us follow today. There is not a doubt in my mind that if either Jim or Sheck had used the techniques that I did, both would have reached the bottom of Zacaton.
Q. What prompted you to move to Asia? And how do you view the diving scene in Asia?
I had travelled to Asia before and recognised the Philippines as a great place to settle with my family – our son, Josh was one-year-old at the time. It was an ideal place to live; I could dive and support the family comfortably without Gabby needing to work.
The diving scene in Asia is one of the most progressive in the world. In fact many of the major diving centres from around the world could learn much from those in Asia. Take, Puerto Galera, in the Philippines. Some of the diving businesses there are perfect examples of how it can be done properly.
Q. What attracted you to Technical diving?
The challenge. It was also, for me, the next logical step. I had been teaching diving for about five or six years based in Puerto Galera – an area surrounded by deep walls that remained pretty much untouched. I started to explore these deeper waters and just loved the thrill of venturing into the unknown to explore and discover virgin dive sites. Pretty soon I was diving into very deep water and knew that I needed to find a safer way of doing so. Technical diving gave me the necessary tools that I needed to carry on.
Q. When did you take up Technical Diving? Who with in terms of training?
I first took up technical diving in about 1995, with Alex Santos, in the Philippines. Alex was a cave diver and the franchise holder for IANTD in the area.
Q. There would be few people unfamiliar with your depth record? What motivated you to aim for a depth record?
The first was a 123m regional record established with my then dive buddy, Aaron Gillespie. We were doing a lot of deep diving and it just seemed like a natural progression. I really feel that it’s important to move forward both personally and professionally, and how can you possibly teach Tech diving unless you are actively involved in it? You certainly can’t teach it based on book learning alone. In that regard my personal projects have really helped to change the way that I present my training programmes.
For me, all of the depth records – with the exception of the 308m – were to get me onto deep wrecks. I love the thrill associated with wreck diving and deep wrecks like the, ‘Princess of the Orient’ just add to the challenge.
Also I still intend to dive the Japanese battleship the ‘Yamashiro’ as soon as I can raise the sponsorship. She lies at a depth of 210-metres, so most of my deep dives were aimed at getting me used to working in extreme depths. The 308m well that was different, it was something that I just had to do. Had I not tried it, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. The 1000ft barrier was for me a very personal thing.
Q. Apart from the dive itself, the planning and logistics must have been mind-boggling. Can you describe some of those considerations?
The logistics behind the dive were literally mind blowing and I was very fortunate to have the support of a great team of people. Tony Gower and Andy Pope put tremendous effort into getting things in place for me, and my current partners in the Tech Dive Academy, Mark Cox and Targa Man, worked tirelessly to get me there.
It’s hard to describe the camaraderie that develops during a dive like the one to 308m. In that sense the dive belongs as much to them as it does to me. During the build-up to the dive, my training partner and deep support, Ron Loos, never missed one of our eleven workouts a week and always pushed me to the hilt. And although every member of that team is an extremely accomplished diver in their own right, they had no reservations about working flat out to help somebody else. Now that’s what diving’s all about.
Q. What other challenges do you see for yourself in diving?
It’s mind-boggling just how many dives there are to do out there. Just recently, Ron Loos and I completed a dive on a deep wreck in the Philippines called the, ‘Princess of the Orient’. The vessel is laying in 122 metres and until a few weeks ago – when we became the first divers to view her remains – had never before been dived. We did a 25-minute bottom time at 122 metres. It was so exhilarating to drop down onto the wreck and know that we were the first people to see her resting place. And with 25-minutes on the bottom, we had plenty of time to look around.
I’m also keen to pull much longer bottom times at depth and believe that they can be done safely and with quicker decompression times than at present. During our dive on the ‘Princess of the Orient’, Ron and I were out of the water in a little over three hours.
As soon as I manage to get the finances together, I’m planning to dive the, ‘Yamashiro’. She lies at a depth of 210-metres, in the Surigua Straits, in the southern Philippines. The ‘Yamashiro’ was one of the biggest Japanese battleships ever built and she was lost during the battle of the Surigua Straits, in 1944. It was one of the biggest sea-battles ever fought and until we located her, a couple of years ago, nobody knew where she was.
My aim is to dive her twice during the week of the project and I would like to try and get 15minutes of bottom time on each dive. On the non-diving days we will search for the other wrecks lost in the battle with the eventual aim of locating and diving the majority of the ships lost during the battle. The project will answer a lot of unanswered questions.
Also, having now moved to Australia to begin a new diving venture, I’m very keen to become involved with the diving scene in that country. There are so many diving prospects there, as well as some great divers who are involved in a number of exciting projects.
The Tech Dive Academy, that we’ve recently established in Port Douglas, just to the north of Cairns, is new and it keeps us very busy. But ultimately we are divers and are already planning some interesting projects for the near future.
Q. How do you view the future of technical diving – particularly in the Asia Pacific region?
In my opinion, the Asian region is well to the forefront in terms of technical diving. Tech diving, by its very nature, will always move forward, and there will always be divers – and groups of divers – prepared to gaze into the darkness and want to know and discover what’s hidden there.
Q. What sort of diving appeals to you most? What aspects of diving give you the most personal joy and pleasure?
I enjoy many types of diving. All of them have their own particular appeal. But I love wrecks. Diving the ‘Princess of the Orient’ was, for me, an amazing experience. Visiting places where nobody else has been and seeing things that nobody has seen before is very exhilarating. The wrecks don’t have to be deep; one of my most rewarding dives was a 35 metre wreck, in Subic Bay, in the Philippines. I managed to penetrate seven cabins and find a very tight restriction down to the third deck. Technically it was a very challenging dive – and I loved it.
Q. What are your views on rebreathers?
I think that rebreathers definitely hold the key to diving’s future – but at present they still have, it seems to me, a way to go. I greatly respect the guys that are completing big dives on them, but for the moment, I like open circuit for my big dives; but having said that, with the longer bottom times that I’m after I do need to start looking at them seriously in the near future.
Q. Apart from the mechanics of diving, do you have a personal philosophy or view of the activity? And a vision of how diving might develop?
Apart from loving it, I feel that there’s so much to do in diving, and so many opportunities. At a personal level it has presented me with some of my greatest challenges – but also given me some of my greatest rewards.
People often ask me, “Why?” How do you answer that? Perhaps, if they had been with me on the ‘Princess of the Orient’ dive – or one of the many others – they would experience those things that I felt for themselves and know the answer to the question.
The original interview first appeared in the on-line ‘Nekton’ magazine in June 2003. On March 15th, 2004, John Bennett – an inspirational figure who was, in his own words, “prepared to gaze into the darkness and want to know and discover what’s hidden there.” – was reported missing presumed dead, while performing a salvage dive in Korea.