Profile | Brian Kakuk
Joe Cocozza meets Brian Kakuk - a diver who's done it all: scientist, a film-maker; a finder of virgin wrecks and an explorer of the deepest caves
I've been lucky enough to dive with some of the world’s best technical scuba divers. Some of these legends have egos that are as big as the shipwrecks or caves they dive in. But Brian Kakuk is different. A softly spoken and unassuming man, he became a salvage diver in the US Navy when he was 20 years old. From there, he went on to work in researching and developing military diving equipment.
Throughout his career, his diving has been eclectic. He's taken part in scientific research dives, exploration, extreme cave dives and shark dives. He's mastered rebreathers, written books and worked in Hollywood movies. He's done it all. His passion for diving is so great that when he worked as a military diver, he would spend all his free time cave diving for fun.
Brian has logged more than 4,000 exploration cave dives, and is one of the leading authorities on the underwater caves of the Bahamas. Of all the great divers I've had the pleasure of diving with, I'd rate Brian as the world’s best all-around tech diver.
How did you get your start in diving?
BK: It might sound strange for a kid who grew up in the Mojave Desert, but ever since I was little, I wanted to be a hard-hat diver. I joined the US Navy the day after high school. I became a hull technician and was accepted into the navy's dive school two years later.
What does a navy hull technician do?
BK: In the US Navy, a hull technician is a welder, a pipe fitter, mechanic and carpenter. Those skill sets go hand-in-hand with hard-hat diving. As a hard-hat diver, you work under ships, doing maintenance and salvage. Being able to work with your hands and solve mechanical problems is a great entry into navy diving. I got to dive with amazing people, had some cool adventures and got to travel the world.
What was working under ships like?
BK: Well, one night our ship was getting ready for WEST PAC [a six-month Western Pacific cruise]. Before a ship deploys, divers check the hull. During an inspection, we found cracks in the bilge keel – a giant, 2 foot-wide, 40 foot-long fin welded to the hull. The ship's engineers decided it would be unstable and we needed to cut it off. The plan was for me and my buddy, Oscar Tequida, to cut off a section of the keel and attach it to a crane. So we splashed under the ship in the middle of the night and were working by the light of our cutting torches.
As we were cutting, we hit an unseen crack and a giant piece fell on us. My buddy disappeared into the depths and I got tumbled. Moreover, the cutting torch became a blazing jet of flame whipping around and threatening to cut our umbilical air hoses. I called topside and told them to turn off the oxygen supply to the torch. Then I was in complete darkness. I started heading down, because I thought Oscar was buried in muck at the bottom of the harbour. But luckily, he was heading up – we collided.
We popped to the surface and were sitting on the deck of the dive boat, thinking how lucky we had been, when the diving supervisor looked as us and said: 'Are you ladies over it? Get back to work!' They sent us back down to finish the job.
After seven years in the navy, you worked as diving contractor for the military.
BK: I was working for the US Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center on Andros Island in the Bahamas. We did a lot of R&D into submarine and anti-submarine warfare testing. Andros is known for its blue holes – water-filled cave systems that run underneath the island and the seabed. While stationed there, I saw a video made by this redneck cave-diving photographer named Wes Skiles and thought: 'Hey, I'm a 25-year-old navy diver – I can do this cave diving stuff!' So I disregarded warnings about getting the right training, and went diving in my first blue hole.
I survived that dive, but figured out I'd need to learn how to cave dive properly. And that first cave dive was enough to get me hooked; I was the first human to ever explore that cave. From then on, when I was not diving at work, I was exploring the blue holes of Andros.
Was that how you got into scientific diving?
BK: While mapping underwater caves in south Andros, I met a geologist. He told me that the Caribbean Marine Research Center [a scientific diving facility in the Exuma Cays] needed a dive safety officer to run the scientific diving program. I ended up working on a tiny, remote island with scientists for about seven years and supervised around 4,000 dives a year.
That's a lot of dives! How much time did you spend diving?
BK: I'd log 20 to 30 hours every week.
You were into sidemount diving before it was fashionable. Tell us about that.
BK: I taught myself cave diving and my main resources were books by British cave diving pioneers Rob Palmer and Martyn Farr, and Sheck Exley's Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival. Those guys had a huge influence on how I approached cave diving and I started sidemounting immediately. Also, back then I didn't have a lot of money and I could build my own sidemount rig with equipment I had. In the 1990s, backmount cave diving was the norm in Florida caves. But sidemount worked better in Bahamian caves, which are big but have small horizontal planes and vertical fissures. To pass through those restrictions, you need sidemount. It was a functional system that worked well.
In the mid-1990s, you started diving closed-circuit rebreathers. How did that come about?
BK: I didn't do much rebreather diving in the military, except for diving the LAR-V O2 rebreather. It was during the Wakulla Two project [an expedition by the US Deep Caving Team to map an underwater cave] that I dived on the CIS Lunar CCR. We had the top technical cave divers from around the world working on this project. We pushed the envelope in terms of mixed-gas rebreather technology, diver propulsion systems and underwater 3D mapping technologies.
So how, after working on all these hard-core explorations, did you start working in the movie industry?
BK: I was at the DEMA show, and I bumped into an old friend, Dan Malone. Dan had just been hired to be the marine coordinator for a feature film that was being made in Nassau in the Bahamas. At the time, I was looking for a job and he hired me as a safety diver on the movie. Soon after shooting started I got a promotion to assistant dive safety officer.
What was the movie?
BK: Into the Blue with Jessica Alba and Paul Walker. I got to work with some amazing shark divers. My job was to sit behind the underwater cameraman while a shark bit the stunt diver. If the shark hung on to the chain mail, it would start spinning, and this could twist the guy's arm off. So my job was to grab the shark, stop it spinning and release it. That was how I broke into the movie business! Soon after, I was hired as the DSO for The Cave, for two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and 13 documentaries.
Tell us about your current archaeological work in Abaco, Bahamas.
BK: I was cave diving in the north of the Bahamas, and I came across some significant fossils. That opened the door to me working with The National Museum of the Bahamas/Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation. This particular site in Abaco has been declared the most significant fossil find in the West Indies. We've discovered 50 prehistoric crocodile fossils, 13 giant tortoise [a newly discovered species], and a treasure trove of bones in ancient giant owls' roosts.
Tell us about the owls.
BK: At one time these underwater caves were dry and giant owls would fly into them to eat their prey. The undigested bones, from several species, became fossilised. Luckily, I seem to have developed a good eye for spotting these fossils in the cave.
I last dived with you in Abaco a couple of years ago. You took me on some amazing dives – in particular a new cave section that you and Steve Bogaerts had just discovered called the Glass Room.
BK: Steve Bogaerts, Fred Davis and I were trying to connect to two different cave systems in Abaco. Steve had found this one little vertical restriction, and it opened up a whole huge section. That's one of the top cave dives in my opinion.
I do remember that dive. The room was full of speleothems, stalagmites and stalactites. While the room was large, the path required perfect buoyancy control so as not to destroy these delicate formations. I was so worried about keeping my buoyancy in check.
BK: Yes it's a stressful dive, which kind of takes away from its impressiveness. You need two or three dives to really appreciate the beauty of that cave.
In addition to all the exploration work, you're a cave diving instructor and guide recreational cave divers in the Bahamas. Tell us about that.
BK: My business partner Michael Albury and I have a company called Bahamas Underground. I get to guide cave divers to amazing places. We get divers from all over the world and we guide and teach all levels of technical and cave diving.
What would you say to wannabe cave divers?
BK: I'd like to tell people, that it's not all gone. There are still places underwater that have not been explored. I mean, Everest has been done. There are footprints in every place on this earth. But not underwater, in these caves. These caves will take multiple generations to explore. I don’t want young kids who play video games all day to think that there's nothing outside for them. It's still out there and there are still amazing things to be found. There are still opportunities to be a true explorer.