That sinking feeling...
© Marcin Jamkowski/Adventure Pictures
When the opportunity arose to make an historic dive into what could be the world’s deepest underwater cave, Marcin Jamkowski jumped at the chance. But as the Canon Explorer explains to CPN writer Mark Alexander, the record-breaking dive came with risks attached...
If sinking beneath the water with your camera fills you with dread, spare a thought for Marcin Jamkowski, who has just completed a mammoth underwater shoot, in a cave 60 metres below the surface surrounded by dark, acidic water. In such hostile surroundings you might expect the Polish photographer, writer and filmmaker to feel uneasy. But Jamkowski is made of stern stuff, and rather than feel anxious, he felt elated; as all adventurers do.
“I am interested in exploration,” he explains. “I go on expeditions that take me to the unknown. I travel with climbers who find new climbing routes in Africa. I travel with archaeologists to Sudan and Easter Island caves and I have explored many shipwrecks. For me, exploration is my main driver.”
As vice president of Poland’s The Explorers Club, and former editor-in-chief of the Polish editions of National Geographic and NG Traveller, Jamkowski has wanderlust racing through his veins. So the opportunity to take part in a potential record-breaking dive was music to his ears. “The idea of exploring a deep cave that is almost too deep to be explored and could be the deepest on the planet was very interesting to me,” he admits. “It has always been my dream to do something like that.”
Going for a record
Jamkowski was part of a 20-strong Czech-Polish team that dived deeper into the earth than anyone had done before them. Steered by the legendary Polish diver Krzysztof Starnawski, the expedition mapped the world’s deepest underwater cave beating the previous record logged in Italy by 12 metres. The flooded limestone chasm in the Czech Republic measured 404 metres in depth and was almost entirely shrouded in darkness. It was Jamkowski’s job to record the momentous events as they happened.
“I knew I would wear many hats during the expedition because I was not only the photographer; I also had to capture some footage for short films and I would write the story so I had to take notes and prepare myself for the dive. So I was pretty busy.”
Although the historic dive was ultimately completed by a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) in September 2016, the expedition’s trailblazing leader Starnawski first started exploring the cave - named Hranická Propast - in 1999. Over the years, he delved deeper into the abyss pushing conventional diving equipment to its limits and laying bright, luminous guidelines for the ROV to eventually follow. He ultimately reached 265 metres.
His remarkable endurance was only matched by the extraordinary amount of time taken to complete the dive. “The deeper you go and the longer you stay down there, the longer you spend on the decompression on your way up,” says Jamkowski. “It means you have to stop a lot on your return to the surface to get rid of the gas dissolved in your tissues. If you don't do it, your blood will behave like the liquid in the fast opened bottle of soda, producing bubbles that might kill you.”
A controlled ascent is key to surviving such a deep, demanding dive. Computers attached to the diver’s wrist determine the timing of the stops and their duration. “When I dived to 60 metres and took some pictures, usually my dive would last one and half hours,” explains Jamkowski. “But for Starnawski to go to 265 metres took 11 hours. It took him approximately 20 minutes to dive to the bottom. Then he would spend 10 minutes there and return, which meant it took him 10 and half hours to come up. Every minute he spent at 265 metres added an hour to his decompression.”
The extraordinary lengths to which Starnawski went to explore the cave were echoed by the detailed preparation laid down by the project’s photo and video-journalist. “Safety was my main concern,” says Jamkowski. Although a “well-travelled” diver, he had to learn various safety procedures and techniques to ensure his safe return from the dark recesses of the cave. He trained in a quarry in the south of Poland, which was relatively shallow (approximately 20 metres) with good water and easy access. But the most difficult factor was diving with so much equipment.
“I dived with four tanks and needed a lot of light,” he says. “In the cave the only available light is the light you bring with you, so I had a lot of lamps and of course my camera, so I trained so I wouldn’t be killed by my own equipment.”
He continues: “Every new piece of equipment you bring is one more thing to care about. Under the water you have a lot of things to look after – you have to care about the breathing gas in your tank, you have to care about your partner, you have to care about time and depth, and then you have to care about the composition of your shot. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to do all that safely.”
As if capturing the right shot at the right time wasn’t hard enough, Jamkowski did it at 60 metres beneath the surface in darkness carrying an array of lights and heavy breathing apparatus. To add to his payload, he protected his trusty EOS 5D Mark II in a robust Aquatica underwater domed housing, which was also home to one of his preferred wide-angle lenses – either the EF20mm f/2.8 USM or the EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM.
Both lenses feature ultra-wide fields of view, which is handy because Jamkowski needs the widest options he can get. “Water makes lenses look longer because of the refraction index - whatever you see looks closer to you by approximately a third. So underwater, wide lenses look more like normal. Also, with wider lenses you are able to get closer to your subject. This is important because water absorbs light, so if you want to light up your subjects, you have to be very close to them.”
And that’s just the start. “There is also something called back-scattering, which means every dot suspended in the water gives you some back scattering when you put light on it. I therefore have my lights on two foldable arms that extend as far away from my camera as possible. It means my camera is very bulky. It’s not nice holding on to a big spider-like thing when you’re under the water, but you have to live with it.”
With his two dedicated underwater Alpha Subtronic strobes and Gralmarine LED filming lights to contend with (never mind the safety issues associated with diving to those depths), you could easily overlook the fact that Jamkowski was there to capture telling images of the expedition, and not just make it to the surface alive. But fortunately, Jamkowski is an experienced underwater journalist and was able to not only record history, but survive it.
“I shot at ISO 800 and kept the aperture open to capture as much light as possible,” he explains. “But that makes getting everything sharp quite complicated, so I usually looked for the diver’s torch and set my focus on that.”
Realising a dream
Although Starnawski first dived into the Czech cave nearly 20 years ago, it wasn’t until Jamkowski approached his friend in 2012 with the idea of arranging a bona fide exploration that the historic dive became possible. With help and funding from National Geographic – which has covered the discovery extensively – plans were made and the training began.
Eventually, the ROV guided by Starnawski and piloted by its constructor Bartłomiej Grynda, made it to the farthest reaches of the cave and claimed the 404-metre record, and Jamkowski was there to capture history in the making. With four high-resolution cameras on each side of the vehicle, the team watched the final descent from the safety of dry land. “We were very excited,” he recalls fondly. “When it passed 392 metres, which at that time was the world record, we were shouting and celebrating. But our goal was to go beyond 400 metres – it’s a number that looks good.
He continues: “As we watched on the screens, we saw there was a significant amount of debris and we were afraid the robot might become entangled. When it reached 400 metres, we were incredibly happy - that was the goal of our expedition.”
Despite achieving their objective, the team pushed on into the darkness. “We stopped at 404 metres and this is now the official depth of the cave and the official world record of the deepest underwater cave, and I was there to record it! I have it all in my pictures,” says Jamkowski proudly.
The narrow corridor in which the ROV was squeezed wouldn’t allow any further progress, although there may be more to explore, as Jamkowski reveals. “We saw something black in front of the camera pointing down, so there was at least a couple of metres more that could be explored. The thickness of the limestone layer is more than 600 metres, so in theory it could be possible that this cave is deeper, but if it is we don’t know. This is the end of the known world for us.”
Biography: Marcin Jamkowski
© Marcin Jamkowski/Adventure Pictures
Marcin Jamkowski is a Polish writer, photographer and filmmaker who started his career as a staff writer on the science section of Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. His interest in the great outdoors meant he was assigned to photograph expedition stories – from the Amazon source to climbing desert towers in Mali. He later became the Editor-in-Chief of the Polish edition of National Geographic, and then won a Knight Fellowship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study filmmaking at MIT and Harvard. He is a dedicated rock climber and scuba diver.