Q&A with Tec Diving Guru Pete Mesley Part 2
We talk to Pete Mesley, a hugely charismatic figure on the international diving scene, who has carved a niche for himself in the world of technical diving and expeditions.
Q: You are a celebrated underwater photographer, as well as a technical instructor. When did you first start shooting underwater, and what are some of the challenges when photographing monster shipwrecks that are sometimes deep, dark and gloomy?
I started taking pictures a few years after I started diving. The main pastime in the UK (at that time) was hunting for souvenirs. Anything brass would come up the line! I was never any good at this and also realised from an early point in time, that most of the artefacts recovered off the wrecks ended up rotting away in someone’s garage (or hidden among the long grass between the garage and boundary fence of people’s homes).
So I took to documenting these artefacts instead. My very first camera was a Nikonos IV. It wasn’t till I moved to New Zealand in 1994 where I took my photography more seriously. But it was mainly to show people the incredible sights I was witnessing and to entice them to come diving with me.
Over the years I just kept on working at it and trying, like most photographers, to get better by learning more what not to do!
What inspired me to start getting into more specialised imagery, was a picture taken of an engine room on the mighty Mikhail Lermontov. This image captured my imagination. The camera was mounted on one of the railings and a diver swam into the black abyss systematically firing off the strobe, lighting up all parts of the engine casing.
All the while the camera shutter was wide open on ‘bulb’. This image was way ahead of its time and this inspired me to start learning how to capture such creations. We were well into the digital age of camera systems now and there were a growing group of very talented photographers emerging.
In my mind’s eye I wanted to capture an image that would be impossible for a diver to see. The sheer expanse of an engine room, large chamber in a cave, or panoramic vista of a bow of a ship. I wanted to light up these areas to show their beauty.
Most of the time, I was diving in limited visibility, dark and silty environments. Having high powered BigBlue video lights set up over multiple areas, painting the darkness with light was (and is) a lot of fun. It also helps considerably reduce the reflection of particulate in the water which gets more than a few divers saying ‘It was never that clear when I dived that spot’!
Over the years I have had to develop my gear to keep up with the imagery and now have probably the world’s longest selfie stick! I have a few carbon-fibre tripods which are just window-washing extendable poles with three mono pods attached to the base for stabilisation. My largest one is ten metres long, but the one I use the most is the five metre one. Carrying this around tight areas in wrecks and caves is always a challenge. Couple that with four to six lights and camera, one would not really call me ergonomic! All this for a picture – right?
The actual process of taking these types of pictures, for me, is really quite relaxing. While some are zooming around trying to see all parts of the wreck or cave, I am just trying to capture one part of it in a manner that, I think, is cool and artistic. Most of the time it would take 20-40 minutes to secure the tripod and frame the image in the right spot. All the while being very careful not to stir up the visibility.
One careless fin stroke would mean the end of the picture. So, one of the biggest challenges is depth and time. It is not uncommon to spend most of the dive in one place setting up a shot racking up hours of deco before having fired off a single shot.
This image is taken of an 82-metre wooden steamer, Florida, built in 1889, which sank in 56m of water in Lake Huron, Great Lakes, USA. This particular shot took me about 26 minutes to find the frame I wanted, set up the tripod and lights. Then another 20 minutes swimming around the wreck painting areas with light while taking multiple shots to try and get it right! The shot was a 20-second exposure. So, all up about two-and-a-half hours in 4 degrees C water. Sound like fun? Welcome to my world!
This particular image, I took in 2014, is looking down from the skylights into the engine room of the Nippo Maru. This image took me five years to take. Once I had the frame in my mind I would go in, and very carefully set up the camera mounting on the tripod. As soon as I would get everything ready, at that precise moment, what would seem to be the entire boatload of divers would enter the engine room through every opening, hatch and doorway, swim around for 90 seconds, and kick up every molecule of silt in that area.
Orange clouds of silt would mushroom towards me, billowing out of every hatch. So, I would let out a sigh, remove the camera clamped to the side and try again in the next few days! So this is why this shot means to much to me as it took that long to take.
I have ventured into cave photography fairly recently and that comes with its own set of challenges. But what has been the biggest challenge is having such great visibility. When the water is gin clear and no ambient light, this is the perfect canvas for creativity. I went to visit some friends at Under the Jungle dive shop in Tulum, Mexico. What a place. This shot was probably my most-challenging image to date, but also the most fun.
This site is called Nohoch Nah Chich, or ‘Heavens Gate’. This picture is physically impossible to take in one image. It is a multitude of images stitched together to form one. So basically three portrait images, each lit up over multiple 30-second exposures, and finally coming into one shot. The diver in the shot is over 50 metres away. That shows how clear the water is. So this entire shot took a little over three hours to do. Water depth was only about 6-8m and we were in about 1,500 metres inside the cave. What a fun day it was for sure.
Q: You have been based in New Zealand since 1994. You are a firm fan of diving in your local waters – what are some of the highlights underwater that visiting divers should not miss?
A: Diving in Middle Earth is probably some of the most-undiscovered diving on the planet. Its temperate waters pack a really mean punch of colour, life and energy round the coast. We have such a wide variety of environments in NZ, it’s breathtaking.
The Poor Knights Islands, without a shadow of a doubt, is dollar for dollar, some of the best diving around. Thousands of schooling fish, bronze whaler sharks, colourful walls of hydroids, sponges and zoanthids. Stingrays, orca, dolphin. We really live in a special place. Then heading down to Fiordland and we really do enter another dimension. Punching through tannic fresh water layering the first 5m at the surface.
Punching through to emerald green, crystal-clear water. Stark contrasting life abounds there. Massive eight-foot black coral trees sit in absurdly shallow water with snake stars twisting and twining round the white fluffy polyps. Sea spiders weirdly walking over smooth kelp leaves. Thousands upon thousands of crayfish vie for real estate in every nook and cranny. Sea pens sitting up filter feeding in the currents.
So when people ask me how my year has been? Apart from having to cancel over 15 trips to places all round the world during these very, very difficult times. It’s been pretty tough but, having this on our back doorstep, I really can’t complain.
Q: You are in demand for leading and being heavily involved in expeditions. What are some of the most-memorable expeds you have been on?
A: I am a firm believer in having the right people in a team makes all the difference in the world. Also doing the hard logistical and preparation work well in advance, proper communication and execution of tasks makes the experience fun and enjoyable on the day. I have been lucky enough to be part of many groups of divers on expeditions over the years on various trips.
Learning each time from people way more experienced that I am about how to properly plan operations. A major part of my business these days is all about this risk management and logistical support for remote location diving. I just love the challenge of it. Probably one of the recent trips to the Solomons in August 2018 stands out the most. Here we had a group of 14 very experienced deep divers from all over the world.
The prime objective of the trip was to dive USS Atlanta. A 165-metre-long, 8,000-ton light cruiser which was sunk during the Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. She lies heavily to port almost turtle with the bow sitting in 140m and props in 110m. Originally found in 1992 and first dived in 1998, this was the largest expedition to date on the wreck. We put 12 divers on the wreck for two days of beautiful conditions.
With bottom times on average of 30 minutes each diver, the wreck was surveyed, photographed and videoed extensively. On that team I had Andrew Simpson and Tom Crisp as surface support and safety divers, both veterans of deep expeditions, and Andrew Fock as medical support – one of the world’s leading hyperbaric physicians based in Melbourne, Australia. The entire two weeks was spent doing sub-80m dives. It was fun times indeed.
Q: As we always do with our Q&As, what is your funniest diving moment?
A: Without a shadow of a doubt, the funniest moment has to be convincing my dive buddy to kiss the skipper’s butt! Anyone in the UK circles who is a member of the ‘Bell Owners’ club knows what I am talking about. When you bring up a ship’s bell from the ocean floor and it’s on the boat when you surface, there is something you need to do.
That is to kiss the boat captain’s butt. The story goes that when you lift the bell and it reaches the surface, if the skipper messes up picking up the bag with the bell attached, it will be lost forever. So when it comes up and it’s safely on the boat, he gets a pair of lips puckered up on a butt cheek.
I have no idea where this weird custom originated from, we all just knew it. So when we located, dived and actually found the ship’s bell of the Port Kembla in 2006 for the first time, it was an amazing day. The funny thing was it didn’t take too much convincing to get my dive buddy to conduct the deed! (being ex-Navy might have had something to do with it!) As a result of the recovery, we could positively identify the wreck.
Q: On the flipside, what is your worst diving moment?
A: The 2009 Britannic expedition on a National Geographic shoot diving with undoubtedly some of the most-talented divers in the world. The team was led by Carl Spencer and the rest of the team comprised of Richie Kohler, Richie Stevenson, Evan Kovacs, Casey McKinlay, Jared Jablonski, Leigh Bishop, Danny Hague and Eduardo Pavia. The worst moment of my life and diving career was the death of long-time friend Carl Spencer while on the expedition.
It happened while on our dive on Britannic – over a series of ill-fated problems, Carl switched to bailout, which resulted in him having a seizure underwater at his 40m decompression stop. Carl had to be taken to the surface by a safety diver as we could not replace his bailout regulator back into his mouth. Carl never recovered from the dive. We all terribly miss him and not a day goes by without thinking about my friend.
Q: Although COVID-19 has thrown plans through the ringer somewhat, what does the future hold in store for Pete Mesley, Lust4Rust and Shock & Awe Big Animal Diving?
A: Well, I am sure you will all agree that we have had a shocker of a year and I am sure 2020 will go down as a ‘gap’ year and for most just hoping it will soon go away. Looking over my calendar for this year, it was looking awesome. Thailand diving USS Lagarto for a 3D mapping project, Oriskany in the US before Tekdive USA, Socorro on the new Vortex I have chartered for 2021 and 2022, Tulum, Mexico for more cave diving fun, Truk Lagoon for four weeks, home to let my wife and kids know I am not dead!
Then Great Lakes doing more exciting freshwater wrecks (and not having to rinse my gear!), a month in the Galapagos getting my fix of hammerheads and iguanas, back home again, then another seven weeks in Truk Lagoon. And Christmas… But now… More family time, so I can’t complain. What’s also been great is spending more time in my back yard diving places in New Zealand. I forgot how beautiful it was.
What’s for the future? Well, I am planning for 2021, 2022 and 2023 already so once the world gets to some normality, we will be kicking back into it with force. Looking forward to seeing all my friends again from all over the world. And if I never hear the word ‘Zoom live chat’ again, I will be very happy. There is just no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Looking forward to it.
Photographs courtesy of Pete Mesley and Leigh Bishop
Click here for Scuba Diver ANZ issue 31