After a grueling 14 hours under the water, Egyptian diver Ahmed Gabr emerged on Friday with a prize he has sought for over four years; he had officially gone deeper into the sea than any scuba diver ever before.
Gabr reached a depth of 332.35 metres off the shore of Sinai’s Dahab, 15 metres short of his aim, but a whole 14.1 metres deeper than his official record-holding predecessor, South African diver Nuno Gomez.
Gabr also beat the claimed record of French diver Pascal Bernabé at 330 metres.
Gabr surfaced from his dive at 12:20am on Friday morning. He was assisted by the world record team up to the dive platform and to everyone's surprise, after removing his dry suit he walked inside unaided, to be checked by medics.
Minutes later, Gabr was in the saloon of the yacht he had dived from chatting animatedly with his team, sponsors and friends. His condition confounded experienced divers, who know that after almost 14 hours under the water – especially at depth - he should have been exhausted.
Gabr then stepped out on the dive deck to address the rest of his team members.
“You made my day, no, you made my life,” he told them, as they beamed with pride and applauded him.
The mood was uplifting; ever since his head had bobbed out of the water, teary-eyed divers had hugged one another, their tension released by Gabr’s ascent.
Later, as Gabr received his certificate from the Guinness World Records Middle East representative Talal Omar, he said he had no words to express his love and gratitude for the people who helped him achieve his dream.
The new record holder had waited patiently for this moment for the four years since he had made up his mind to accomplish the feat. He felt it doable, and rightly so.
“I asked myself, how deep can a human being go? Anyone can go to 350 metres if you have the right physical and mental preparation. Remember the first person who dived to 50 metres, or to 100 metres. Now a lot of people can do that. It’s all a question of procedures to follow,” Gabr had said in an interview published by the world record team.
Indeed, the procedures were painstakingly thorough. The dive was planned to the second, and operated like clockwork.
Despite the long dive time, Gabr actually reached 332.35 metres in less than 15 minutes, when he grabbed the tag secured by a Guinness World Records adjudicator and started his long journey up.
Almost one hour after his descent, he reached his first supporting diver, Jaime Browne, at 110 metres.
“He’s got him, Jaime’s got him,” Noeleen Graham, member of the surface support team, yelled from one of the two boats operating the attempt, prompting cheers and broad smiles from everyone on board. It was the first sign Gabr was safe, so far.
“We were hanging on tenterhooks. It was great news,” Catherine Wilson, one of Gabr’s support divers, told Ahram Online.
After reaching 110 metres, Gabr’s rate of ascent got progressively slower and slower. His last stop at 3 metres – where everyone on the boat could see him under the boat’s search lights illuminating the dark water – took a strenuous 118 minutes.
The slow ascent is designed to mitigate the harmful effect of the pressure of the depths on the gasses inside the lungs. Other than air, Gabr inhaled different mixes of nitrogen, oxygen and helium, each with its own risk factor.
“A diver in the deep can encounter several dangerous physical conditions. Isobaric counter diffusions happens when two inert gasses enter the body and exit it simultaneously when a deep diver changes the gas mix he inhales, which could cause decompression sickness under water,” said Sameh Sokkar, a TDI instructor trainer and a support diver.
Decompression sickness is potentially fatal and happens when gas bubbles enter the tissues and bloodstream of a diver, causing a variety of symptoms including dizziness, chest pains and seizures.
Gabr was also at risk of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, or HPNS, which is triggered by helium and causes the diver to shake uncontrollably and impair their vision, disorienting him.
“We don’t know when and why HPNS happens, and that’s why luck is also a factor at play here,” Sokkar told Ahram Online.
Helium is used to counter the effects of nitrogen and oxygen under high pressures, two other conditions the diver is at risk of contracting. The former could lead to nitrogen narcosis, a condition where the diver experiences effects similar to being inebriated, and the latter could cause oxygen toxicity, a dangerous condition when the diver could experience violent convulsions and unconsciousness.
Most of the risks reduce the higher the diver ascends, which is why at 18 metres, after five and a half hours of Gabr's ascent, stress levels on the boat plummeted and everyone seemed to relax.
The precise dive plan was the brainchild of Gabr’s deep support divers Sam Helmy and Jaime Brown of H2O Divers Dahab diving centre.
It took them a long period of continuous adjustments spanning six months to finalise it, setting down the exact gas mixes and durations Gabr would be inhaling and working out the complex logistics of getting 15 support divers into the water at varying times.
“It was almost a full time job,” said Helmy, technical diving manager and part-owner of H2O Divers as he oversaw the plan being executed.
“We did over 20 training dives. We tried to be as ready as we could,” Helmy said as Gabr was still in the water.
The support divers were swamped with tasks; setting out the pyramid-shaped buoy that would carry the rope Gabr descended with; towing out the decompression ladder, which Gabr held on to while doing his longest decompression stops at and above 30 metres; bringing down the tanks Gabr used during his ascent; assisting him out of and into equipment; and even bringing him food and water.
The long dive time necessitated Gabr eat and drink to stay nourished. He ate “too much” baby food, he later said.
Support diver Frank Vahrenhorst, who constructed the pyramid-buoy and was responsible for the decompression ladder, likened the team to Nasa, and Gabr to Neil Armstrong, walking uncharted territory.
With the exception of a few hiccups, including a boat malfunction and high winds at the beginning and end of the day that prevented two boats from being tied together, the temper of those managing these daunting tasks was upbeat throughout.
The release of a slate to the surface by Browne at noon with a message that Gabr had reached a historic 335 metres set applause ringing.
Although the tag read 335 metres, Gabr’s record is recorded as 332.5 metres, because of a slight bend in the line measuring the depth of the dive. After that, it was smooth sailing, so much so that an oceanic white tip shark cruising around the yacht for hours was a cause for celebration, although admittedly it was only a baby. Gabr later said the shark kept him entertained during the long periods of decompression.
After Gabr exited the water safely, changed, and addressed everyone on board, the boat’s return to the jetty was welcomed by fireworks and a constant stream of boat horns from the shore. The pier was loaded with people welcoming his return, chanting “long live Egypt.”
In an emotional moment, Gabr lifted up his son and kissed him.
“It was bewildering to me, how Ahmed was able to come out on the deck and stand up. This is the most hardcore diver I’ve ever seen,” Wilson told Ahram Online, saying the day was the biggest emotional rollercoaster of her life.
She revealed the difficult conditions Gabr and the support divers had to deal with that were not apparent to the observers on deck.
“There was a strong current, two of our deep divers, Jaime Browne and Jenny Lord, almost ran out of air, but we all pulled through,” she said as she sat in H2O Divers on Friday, looking out peacefully at the sea.
Wilson also said the current made the divers flutter like flags on a pole on a windy day.
“We have a very strong team ethic. It allowed us to perform well in the adverse weather conditions,” said support diver Dom Gibbings.
“Being able to walk off the boat the way he had done, what an amazingly resilient man Ahmed is,” he added.
Gabr looked fresh and energetic on Friday afternoon as he attended a press conference on the world record.
“One of my motivations was to put Egypt on the map, to show that Egyptians and Arabs can do such things,” he said.
Summing up the wisdom he gained from the experience, Gabr commented: “Don’t wait for someone else to open the door for you, it’s your decision. You can do whatever it is people say you can’t do.”