From our archive
Final Frontier - An interview with Jeff Bozanic
From under Antarctica's ice, to some of the deepest caves in Mexico, Jeff Bozanic has explored it all. But his dives have always had a purpose: pushing his scientific knowledge and our understanding of these worlds.
Dr Jeff Bozanic holds advanced degrees in education and environmental sciences. As a scientific diver he has participated in wide-ranging aquatic research projects and has had four marine animal species named after him An undersea explorer, he has dived in virtually every extreme environment: from underwater caves to under Antarctic ice. He has mastered complex diving technologies and has developed standards for rebreather training and authored the definitive title Mastering Rebreathers
When did you start diving?
JB: I started diving in California at the age of 15. I’d go diving off of San Diego and Laguna Beach. In those days, I would sometimes do five or six dives day.
You took your passion for diving into University.
JB: I started full-time in University at 16. During that time, I became an instructor. I eventually got my bachelors in geology and that was when I first got involved in scientific diving. I did my thesis for my geology degree by studying the properties of alluvial gold particles in water. I presented my findings at a NAUI conference. At the conference was a mining company executive who was so impressed with my underwater geology knowledge, that he hired me to work in a river mining operation in the Bolivian jungle. I was just 21 years old and I was in charge of setting up this new operation of underwater gold mines.
It's great to be paid to go diving, but you were heading to Bolivia in the middle of a drug-funded Civil War! I believe it was called the “cocaine” coup d'état?
JB: The US State Department issued a warning against US citizens traveling there. Yes, it was dangerous. So in addition to all the mining gear and dive gear we took, we had to smuggle in firearms for self-protection. I had to set up technical operations in a remote site on the Santa Cruz River [a tributary of the Amazon]. In addition to setting up the diving and mining equipment, I also had to train the miners on how to dive. I worked there for a summer. When I left, the team was producing gold. But it was time for me to head back to California to attend graduate school at UCLA.
But you continued to dive?
JB: During that period I was teaching diving on the weekends. I spent summer vacations working as a divemaster in Grand Cayman and staffing instructor training courses around the USA.
So how did you get into cave diving?
JB: I was staffing an instructor training course at the Florida Institute of Technology, and I met master scuba instructor and cave explorer Dennis Williams. He had just finished the cave diving documentary Descent into Darkness. That was my inspiration. I flew to the Bahamas and I did my cave training. I simply fell in love with cave diving, in fact I was a week late in returning to grad school. I spent the next year rearranging my life so I could continue to cave dive. I applied for a PhD in marine geology and oceanography because there was the whole vista of geology that you could only see underwater. The technical aspects of cave diving and science are an enticing combination.
What kind of places did cave diving research take you?
JB: While working on my PhD dissertation, I did research work on the underwater caves in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Canary Islands and Cozumel. I was working with another scientist, Dr Jill Yager. She had a grant from the National Science Foundation, primarily towards researching biological aspects of cave diving.
Those were in the days before tech diving standards.
JB: The diving we were doing violated all the rules. So I started working for the American Academy of Underwater Sciences and set up these 'new' standards for cave diving and research diving. So when went back to doing my research diving, it was 'legal'! I also helped bring nitrox into the diving programs of West Coast universities.
So you wrote the standards for academic cave diving?
JB: It was controversial – the academic diving community is pretty conservative. I had to write standards that would fit cave diving into the framework of occupational health and safety legislation. It took several years working on a research project that involved both cave diving and science diving. But we came up with procedures that had a reasonable degree of risk and now all academic institutions follow this set of cave diving standards.
In the mid 1980s you were exploring the caves in Cozumel. How did that come about?
JB: During an open water ocean dive off Cozumel I found a halocline. [Haloclines are where less dense fresh water from the land forms a layer over salt water from the ocean.] The halocline indicted that an underwater cave was nearby. I followed the halocline and it led to the entrance of a cave. That cave became known as Cueva Quebrada. Over the next four years we ran more than 5.5 miles of virgin line into the cave. In the mid-1980s, there were plenty of cave explorers vying to map the largest underwater cave system in Mexico. For example, Mike Madden was exploring Sistema Nohoch Nah Chich on the mainland. But my motivation wasn’t only exploration – it was science too! So simultaneously with the exploration of new passages, our team collected water chemistry data, did geological research and collected new species of animals. All this while we were routinely laying 1,500 foot of new exploratory line a day.
What was learned scientifically after those four years of exploration?
JB: By that time, we had identified more than 150 new species of animals. For example, on a simple exploratory dive, using a single tank in the Xcan Ha Cenote, I tied off and descended through a hydrogen sulphide layer into a crystal-clear chamber where my light disappeared in every direction. I collected some crustaceans in a bag. Later, I showed the specimens to Jill and realized we had discovered two new species of aquatic animals. There were also archeological finds of Mayan artifacts. The thing I love about cave diving is that you can find amazing science discoveries on just a complete whim.
Tell us about your research work in Antarctica
JB: I worked in Antarctica at McMurdo Station for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for several years. I wore a lot different hats: I did the equipment tech and personal support for the visiting research divers; I ran the chamber; and helped with research. All kinds of science was done there – discovering new species, biodiversity studies, food web analysis, and ecological risk assessments. One the most interesting projects was by a group from Woods Hole. They were looking at the fresh water lakes in Antarctica as an analog environment for how to discover life on Mars. We were diving under 22ft of ice. I did three tours for NSF and I now run trips to Antarctica. My next trip is to explore Elephant Island and the other South Shetland Islands. I run these ecotourism trips where I have been conducting opportunistic science. I will be collecting animals under permit for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Exploration, science and eco-tourism: it's a win-win-win situation.
You seem to do it all underwater: biology, chemistry and geology.
JB: Diving has been an opportunity for me to explore new frontiers. I'm doing 18th century science in the 21st century. I have really made my name in scientific diving not because I'm the greatest scientist or geologist, but because I've employed advanced technologies to difficult environments and that has allowed us to collect daata that could not be collected any other way.
So when did you get into rebreathers?
JB: On my exploratory dives, I would be carrying eight cylinders. So I took a one-year hiatus from cave diving so I could master rebreather diving. That one year stretched into four and I worked with closed-circuit rebreather engineer Peter Ready in evolving what would became thePrism Rebreather. Then I wrote the book Mastering Rebreathers.
In addition to teaching cave diving and closed-circuit rebreathers (CCR), you have been working on advancing training standards. Now you actively teach tech diving and eco-tourism.
JB: Right now I'm working on some of the advanced aspects of CCR, developing the mathematical formals and table for mixed gas for the NSS-CDS, IANTD and TDI.
What is your next research project?
JB: Next week, I leave to work on a continuing shipwreck archeology project in Albania. Some of the wrecks include a Roman shipwreck from 400AD to Second World War and Cold War era shipwrecks. This summer our main focus is First World War wrecks in the Ionian Sea. When I finish that project, I will fly to Malaysia to teach dive medicine to a class of physicians. And then I go home for a while before my next trip to Antarctica.
Can you sum up your work in the world of technical scientific diving?
JB: A lot of the work I do is scientific diving and happens to take me to a lot of different types of environments. I'm going to places that people have never been and discovering marine creatures that have not been identified because no one has been there. It's not that I'm a super-smart guy, I'm just applying technology and going to places that people have not seen yet. I bring together different disciplines with enough depth of knowledge that I can apply things that I've learned in other fields in a way that other people have not been able to.
You have had an amazing diving career. And your son has become, at 15, the youngest person to have dived on all seven continents. So what's in store for the next generation of divers?
JB: I'm grateful that I've been blessed with opportunities to do the things I've gotten to do. But I'll only be able to do this for maybe another five or 10 years. The old farts like us are not going to be around forever. So we need these kids who are coming up in the tech diving community. The young explorers who, just as in Star Trek, are ready to explore new worlds, to seek out new life and to boldly go where no one has gone before. I think it's our job, as the old farts of technical diving to provide the opportunities and guidance for the next generation of underwater explorers and scientists.
Joe is a hardcore, New Jersey wreck diver. He produces the tech dive cult podcast Poddiver