Under The Pole III - Interview with Ghislain Bardout
Under The Pole is an ongoing series of expeditions using technical diving in pursuit of exploration, inspiration, and science. In 2010 the team of Under The Pole I spent 45 days at the geographic north pole undertaking a series of 52 dives under the ice. The results include an award-winning documentary and book revealing the splendour and fragility of the arctic environment called “On A Marché Sous Le Pôle” (We Walked Under The Pole).
Under The Pole II ran began in 2014 and included 21 months performing 300 dives in the often harsh environment of Greenland. The expedition focused on exploring the rarely visited mesophotic region (the maximum depth sunlight can penetrate). During this expedition, the team reached a depth of 111 meters diving under sea ice.
Under The Pole III is a worldwide expedition to “revolutionize the human presence in the submarine environment.” This four-year expedition began in 2017 and has already had a number of notable achievements including collecting viable samples of the deepest living coral found to date.
Now the team is in French Polynesia with their expedition schooner ‘Why’ to undertake what may be their most ambitious project yet, the deployment of a small portable underwater “capsule” they hope will enable them to use saturation diving techniques to perform research at depths and durations far exceeding anything currently possible with such a cost-effective and mobile platform.
Ghislain Bardout and Emmanuelle Périé-Bardout are the founders and directors of the Under The Pole expeditions. This French couple are both experienced explorers who got their start during expeditions with the accomplished polar explorer Jean-Louis Étienne. For the Under The Pole expeditions, Ghislain runs the technical and diving operations while Emmanuelle skippers the Why and manages the support operations.
In late August I had the opportunity to meet with Ghislain at their current base on Mo’orea to discuss Under The Pole and the upcoming first deployment of the capsule. Ghislain speaks excellent English so the following interview is edited only slightly for clarity and length.
Ryan- Why do you focus on polar and mesophotic environments?
Ghislain- Polar and mesophotic environments are really far from what people are used to doing and from what can easily be done, as a scientific mission for example. Polar regions are geographically far, they are expensive to work in, logistics are complicated, and this is why they have not been explored as much, especially in the water. Somehow it is the same here in French Polynesia. Studying the deep reef is not that easy, you have to bring here oxygen, helium, a team, a lot of equipment, so studying the deep reef is not common, it is not that easy. Your team must be very well trained, very experienced.
We have been able to bring all of that together for the DeepHope expedition which we have just finished and I am very proud because we completed 800 trimix dives up to 174 meters deep throughout all French Polynesia, which is a big as Europe, and that was a big challenge. From a scientific perspective, it was enormous and there is now two or three years of work for the scientists from the data we collected. So that was a great mission and was just the first part of our journey here in French Polynesia.
R- Were there any especially interesting discoveries made during the Deep Hope mission?
G- Yes! We discovered some new species for French Polynesia! Several ones. One or maybe two new species of corals and some other which was very particular. In the Gambiers, the extreme east of French Polynesia, at a depth of 172 meters on the external reef, we found the deepest mesophotic coral found on Earth. The previous record was 165 meters, but it was just observed by submarine. This time we could take a sample and bring it back for the scientists so that was very exciting.
R- You set a did some deep diving in polar regions at more than 100 meters beneath the ice. Aside from obvious factors like temperature, what are some differences you noticed at those depths in the polar regions as compared to diving at similar depths in other regions?
G- Diving in Polar regions is definitely much more difficult for the body because of the extremely low temperature. Diving in polar regions is difficult when you are preparing it. It is difficult when you are down there making your very long stops and it is difficult when you come back to the surface because you must clean and manage all your equipment [on the ice]. But at the same time, it is very inspiring and passionate because it is pure exploration. Nobody goes there, just a few people, there is so much to do so each dive is really something new from the perspective of discoveries. That is very exciting and not that common in this world.
Sure, tropical regimes are much more common in a way but only in shallow waters. If you want to go deeper, if you want to go far from the diving hotspots of tourism, for example, you are alone once again. Last year we did 800 dives in deep tropical waters. I think all the dives we have done were unique. In a way, we are never diving close to where the tourists dive. We have been observing and experiencing some behaviours that are not that common. I think we have been observing a very pure and natural behavior of the animals in the ocean.
R- You make some interesting points about the unique capabilities human divers bring to deep environments versus using something like a submarine or ROV (remote operated vehicle)…
G- Definitely ROVs have some interests but human have others. Both are not the opposite. They compliment each other. Humans have some strengths that robots will never be able to do. For example, sampling the corals like we did this year. The scientists say all the time “we tried to sample with the robots” but when they have to sample small parts of these very fragile, very thin animals, they cannot do it with the robots so definitely that is something very positive for our generation and for future generations also. Robots are extremely useful and powerful, but humans are as well. Both have not to be in competition, they have to work together in a way to make a difference to innovate and be able to explore, in a scientific way, things we could not discover without one or the other.
R- To me, it is certainly more inspiring when a human is down there versus a robot. Data is one thing but human exploration is something else completely…
G- Definitely! Exploration is something that is mainly a characteristic of humans. Humanity is different, I would say, then the animals in the way that their curiosity and their motivation to explore all the time, all their life, make them human in a way. And that is the huge difference. We are human because we want to explore, we want to understand, we want to go further than any other species.
R- Can you describe the primary kit you use for your dives?
G- Basically we are diving only with rebreathers, mainly JJ-CCR, a Danish rebreather, one of our partners, and we use also propellers from Suex, it’s Italian. Huge ones because we need it to move fast and go long distances with some equipment. Like the scientific equipment we use, camera gear, the samples we have to bring back, and so on. All of that is sometimes very heavy in addition to the rebreathers and the bailouts with a different mixture. Definitely using propellers makes a difference to be able to go deeper or further and it is also very efficient for the safety of the divers. We have a lot of equipment on the surface also.
In addition to all this technical gear, the main thing is that we have a great team and a professional one. All of the divers are experienced. We train every year with instructors and we are used to training together so we talk the same language, we use the same techniques, and it makes a big difference to be able to dive deep, to work deep, to work far, because we know that the team is understanding what we are doing. I am talking about our buddy but also about the safety team at the surface. We are all trained and coordinated and it gives safety to the head and that allows us to really concentrate on the dive.
R- How many years has your team been diving together now?
G- The team is moving. It is not all the time the same. When counting expedition seasons we have 12 years now. We had 150 people on the expedition to work, for part of it or the entire expedition. The team we have for the moment is a mix of people from different expeditions who came back. The diving team which is here for the moment we have been diving together for the last year in the very deep water so we are really well trained in deep rebreather trimix dives.
R- Are you using full face masks with communication systems?
G- No, we do not use communication systems underwater. We used to do it, in the arctic and in French Polynesia, but we don’t need it in fact. It is too much technique but also too many problems you must face and solve and so we don’t need it so we don’t work with it.
R- What is your primary dive computer?
G- We use only Shearwater computers. They equip the JJ-CCR rebreathers we are using as the main computer and we have it also as the spare ones and the open circuit ones. It is easy because we have the same for everything so we don’t have to learn and to deal with different computers. Only one and we are very happy with it because it is very simple and reliable.
R- What else do you like about the Shearwater computers versus other ones you might have used before?
G- I like the fact that we can use them for everything. Open circuit just as we do for technical diving with closed circuit rebreathers. And I think the navigation in the computer, the menus, are very simple. I like the Shearwater computers in this way. Once again, you can do everything with it and its simple.
R- And they look good! [laughs…]
G- Yeah, they are not that big. You can see in all the images from Under the Pole expeditions we have only Shearwater.
R- I know this is starting to sound like a plug for Shearwater but I think it is important to note that there is actually a well-designed computer out there, available to anyone, that works for everything from simple open circuit recreational diving all the way to world record-setting technical deep diving.
G- Yeah, exactly! This is why I think they are the leader. It is just a good product. You know there is something, that we are doing in expeditions, and it’s true in the arctic, it’s true here in French Polynesia, it is true everywhere, there is only good equipment that we can deal with because all medium-quality equipment will just break after a few weeks. Because of our high use of the equipment only the good ones survive.
R- One of your expedition’s stated purposes is to “Invent, test, and utilize operational innovative tools dedicated to the undersea exploration of tomorrow.” What do you envision the “undersea exploration of tomorrow” will be like and what tools have you developed, or you’re currently working on, that will help serve that vision?
G- I think that nowadays with the rebreathers, with the technical diving equipment, with the propellers, the diver as an explorer, as a scientific diver, has never gone deeper or longer than we can do today. I mean with reoccurring dives we go any depth, we stay a few hours, but we have to come back to the surface. The limitation nowadays is not the technical aspects, it is the physiology.
G- Exactly. So how to deal with that? We know there will be better equipment, lighter, more reliable and so ok for that, but how to try to push these limits, not for industrial prospective but for scientific knowledge of our underwater environment. The answer is in saturation dives. But to stay longer underwater you need a habitat, you need a tank, a capsule, like our program, you need infrastructure, and that costs a lot of money. We imagine the technology coming from the industries, the petroleum and gas industries, but to re-appropriate them for the scientific purpose. This is what we are trying to innovate.
We developed this capsule program which basically is very simple. The idea is how to stay longer. How to try as a first step to push this limit and not stay a few hours but rather a few days in order to be able to observe continuously the underwater environment. So we imagine like a tent which we named “capsule”. It is really like a tent but it’s in aluminum with two huge spheres in polycarbonate in which to observe the environment when we are not diving. It is where we are going to sleep, to have rest, to eat, and so on, but with the capability 24 hours a day to go back diving with our rebreathers and then a few hours later instead of coming back to the surface just coming back to our capsule and continue to observe the environment for a few days. Our first step is to validate a three-days long dive and then after one month of saturation dive we will see the next step. That will be in October.
R- What gas are you using in the capsule?
G- It will be Heliox in fact. We will be at about 18 meters deep with 0.4 partial pressure of oxygen which makes something like 14 to 18 percent of oxygen in the atmosphere. The rest will be helium for saturation and desaturation purposes.
We don’t plan to make very deep dives from the capsule because in terms of decompression we don’t know what will happen, it has never been experienced, so we should first validate protocols in recompression medical chambers, so we are not going to work on that for this program. For this program, we will dive in shallow waters up to like 30 or 40 meters but for very long dives. We are going to count in days, not in hours.
After this first step, we will probably perform another type of dive which will be extremely deep dive, between 100 and 200 meters deep, but just as an incursion dive. We will leave the surface, go very deep, stay longer than we could usually, and instead of going back to the surface we will stop at the capsule, stay a night for example during decompression, and then we will have two options. Either go back to the surface which will take like 4 hours to decompress, or staying longer, one day, two days, three days, we will see.
R- So it’s like an upgraded version of the old diving bells but much more portable?
G- I would say it is less than deep saturation dives and more than recreational dives from the surface. It is just in the middle. With our capsule technology, we can stay very long underwater, we can go much deeper than normal and stay longer at depth than normal, and all of that for scientific purpose with scientific cost possibilities also. We try to have a project which is operable by scientists, which is feasible, and not in crazy costs that make it impossible to do or to do again a second time.
R- So you’re basically making saturation diving more accessible?
G- For the science. It still has huge logistics and techniques. We have had two years in January to develop it and to build it. We have had like 25 people working on it in addition to the scientists. We have some physiologists and medical world experts who are working on it as advisors. I believe that the second and third experimentation will be with a reduced logistical team because we will know much more but for this first step it stays much lower than industrial saturation dive but its more than recreational dive.
R- The capsule opening is only large enough for one person to fit through at a time without any gear. In fact, you must use an umbilical to transfer from the capsule to the rebreathers staged below the opening. What if there is an emergency that requires someone outside to perform a rescue of an unresponsive diver in the capsule? Do you have protocols in place for such situations and have they been practiced?
G- Yes. For sure. We have different levels of protocols. First, for most situations, we should be able to manage it from inside. I am talking about changing gas mixture, for example. In case of necessity to evacuate the capsule, it can be for minor thing for whatever reason we decide to evacuate, the first protocol is to evacuate very simply and take the rebreather and go back to the surface which will take like four hours. At the extreme side of the protocol, for something very hard like necessity to evacuate very quickly at night for example, or if we have something unconscious, then we will evacuate the diver with full face mask and a medical diver who will be on standby with us. On our team we have an anesthesiologist and a diving doctor, all the time with us, we will evacuate the diver with a shortened decompression. We are coordinated with a helicopter and with the recompression chamber here on Tahiti, all of that is already organized, and then we have an accelerated procedure for bringing the diver to the hospital.
We have some other possibilities, like for example if we have a diver who makes a decompression accident, of the ears or something like this because of the helium, then we have full face mask and the possibility also to have the doctor come very quickly to make the decompression together in a very controlled safe way.
In case of a night evacuation of the capsule we have three bailouts, very small ones for the divers inside, and then outside we have a full line of open circuit decompression tanks at different levels, 15 meters, 12, 9, 6, and 3 and they are staged with lights, with suits waiting for us, spare mask, I mean everything, we can just go naked outside and we will find everything we need to go back to the surface.
For sure inside the capsule we have telecommunication, we have a camera just to check on us 24 hours a day, we have all the parameters which are monitored and are visible also from the control room here at our base. We can see helium partial pressure, oxygen partial pressure, nitrogen, carbon monoxide [sic], we can follow that directly 24 hours a day so in case of something strange happening we can directly exchange with the divers and check and see together what we have to do. If we lose comms we have the possibility to launch a buoy to the surface with a VHF radio which will be connected to us to use like a normal VHF signal. If really nothing works the base will just send divers, regular divers, quickly, just to check if everything runs well.
R- All of this takes power. Are you using Lithium batteries?
G- Yes, Lithium Ion. We are trying to standardize all our batteries so we are using only two types, small soft ones and big ones. We use the same for everything. For the fans, for the filters, for the electronics, for the lights, it is the same battery. It doesn’t need that much power. Every morning and every afternoon we can change, we take a new one and we replace it, charge it at the base, and everyday divers bring back new energy, meals for the divers, and batteries for the electronics.
[Note- all food delivered to the capsule will be vacuum sealed to minimize or prevent nitrogen from being introduced into the capsule atmosphere via air trapped in the food.]
R- What about waste?
G- We should not have that much waste in fact but we will have some to bring back to the surface. Mainly it will be the wrap for the meals for example.
R- I meant human waste…
G- Ah, human waste. This will be done outside very simply. We have thought about it. We have the possibility to do it inside but I think it will be much more comfortable for everybody to do it outside. It is simple here in French Polynesia because the water is 28 degrees celsius.
R- The magnitude of your project is impressive to me in terms of equipment, training, protocols, helicopter evacuation, everything! It almost feels more like a SWAT operation more than a “standard” scientific research dive…
G- When you innovate in exploration, by definition exploration is innovation in fact, you always have to do the maximum for all what you can anticipate. For all what you can prepare. So you can face all the difficulties one by one and find the appropriate solution to face it and just to keep moving forward. And this is really the base of exploration. It can be geographic, or scientific, or any type of exploration. This is the base because we know that we will also face a difficulty that we could not think about by anticipation, and then we have to ready to just adapt and find the appropriate solution to fix it and once again to keep moving forward. And this is where we are going to solve some questions we could not think of at this moment, this is where we will make some discoveries. But the danger of the exploration is that if you are not well prepared when you face additional difficulties, at that time you can be in trouble, you can be in danger, and this is where accidents can occur so I believe anticipation and preparation are the key factors of good exploration.
R- Despite the technical nature of what you are doing, at its core, you are using compressed gas to explore underwater, just like countless of recreational divers. What are some lessons you’ve learned, or observations you’ve made, that may be relevant for recreational divers who share your passion to explore underwater? In other words, what is the connection between the highly specialized technical diving you are doing and the diving that countless of recreational divers are doing all over the world?
G- Well I think the connection is very simple. It is the passion. Its the passion for the dive, the passion for the underwater world, the passion for the environment we can explore while diving. That is the main thing. When you practice diving as a recreational activity or when you become a professional, like an instructor, a biologist, an industrial diver, the common thing of all divers is really the passion. If you do not have this passion you would not practice this activity.
R- You are following in the footsteps of people like Cousteau and Jean-Louis Étienne who were inspired by people who came before them. Someday a kid or someone will read this interview and be similarly inspired. What would you like to say to that person?
G- I would say that having a passion is the biggest strength we have in our lives and for those who discover their passion and want to give their life in some way to their passion, any sort of passion, a scientific one or any purpose, this is I think the best way to accomplish. This is something that is unique and fantastic. It is not that common. When this energy is dedicated to global benefit like the environment or humanity, this is something very remarkable and a beautiful chance to accomplish ourselves. So I would tell them to find a passion, to work hard for it, any passion, and that will probably be the best way to make extraordinary things in their life.
R- Any final thoughts you want to add?
G- We are trying with Under the Pole, with my wife, we are trying to share our passion and we are trying to make sense to the work we are doing for environmental research and underwater exploration in general. We hope that all that we are doing will inspire kids nowadays like we have been, as you said, inspired by Jean-Louis Étienne, by Jacques Cousteau, Amundsen, and many others. I would just say to all those kids “good luck” and just keep being passionate and work hard for it. That is the best energy in your life.
R- Thank you. I am grateful for your time, your passion, and your willingness to share with the world.
G- Thanks very much to you. It is nice to share it with you.
UPDATE: As of October 15th, 2019, Under The Pole has successfully completed 3 saturation dives in the capsule. Each dive lasted three days and included a host of equipment and physiological tests. So far the capsule has largely functioned as planned and soon Under The Pole will begin conducting marine research in conjunction with CRIOBE, a world-renowned marine research facility located on Mo’orea, French Polynesia. You can follow the action at Under The Pole’s YouTube page, and on their Facebook page. For more information about CRIOBE visit http://www.criobe.pf/