From Our Summer Print Edition | Into the Blue with Avi Klapfer
Taken from our newly released Summer Print Edition, Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell talks to Avi Klapfer about his career running one of the world’s best liveaboard companies - the Undersea Hunter Group - and his most recent project, a unique book about diving in Cost Rica and Cocos Island
‘I never had any long-term plan,’ said Avi Klapfer, underwater photographer and pioneering founder of the Undersea Hunter liveaboard group. ‘I always left a window for opportunity in case something comes up.’ What has come up most recently in his extraordinary career is Costa Rica Blue, a fantastic guide to the wonders of diving – and much more – around Costa Rica and Cocos Island.
Born and raised in the north of Israel, Avi learned to dive as an officer in the Israeli Navy. After leaving the military, he operated his sailboat as a liveaboard in Sharm-El-Sheikh’s then fledgling dive business, through Sea & Sea Travel, Carl Roessler’s specialist San Francisco-based dive travel agency.
Avi left the Sinai in 1984 when the number of boats in the area became ‘too much’ – all six of them – and together with his wife Orly and friend Yosy Naaman, set out to circumnavigate the globe, always on the lookout for something to do as, in his words, ‘sailboat cruising dudes’.
During a visit to the Caribbean, Avi contacted Roessler and asked if there was anywhere Sea & Sea Travel would like him to go. Roessler directed them to Palau where, six months later, Avi and his yacht became one of the first liveaboards to operate in the region.
Avi took a rest the liveaboard business in 1988 to study at the Brooks Institute of Photography in California, but visa problems cut his studies short. He met Roessler at the DEMA dive show in 1989, who asked if he was interested in running a Cocos Island liveaboard, but Avi turned him down. ‘I looked at the map and saw someplace 300 miles offshore and I went back and said no, no way am I taking trips to Cocos,’ he said. ‘Nobody in their right mind would travel that far for diving.’
At the same show, Avi chanced upon a film by award-winning underwater cinematographer Stan Waterman. ‘It was a bunch of whitetips in a cave and it was very exciting,’ said Avi. When he asked Waterman where the film was shot, Waterman told him ‘Cocos Island’. Avi went straight back to Roessler and said ‘Cocos it is!’
An accomplished sailor, Avi looked for a sailboat to work the route to Cocos, but it was the 15-tonne crane of the Undersea Hunter, a submarine tender being sold by Florida’s Perry Oceanographic Institute, that caught his eye.
‘I fell in love with that boat because of the big crane,’ said Avi. ‘I thought it might be useful for something.’ The submarine, however, was not part of the plan, even though Perry offered the Undersea Hunter’s sub at a bargain price. Little did he know that, 27 years later, he would launch his own purpose-built submarine, DeepSee.
Avi wanted to offer the boat to film crews and approached underwater filmmaker Howard Hall to ask if he would charter such a boat, ‘and he pretty much said nope,’ remembers Avi. Instead, the first trip to Cocos in 1990 took 6 paying guests and 6 friends. The operation grew quickly and, in 1991, Avi invited Hall aboard who, despite his initial refusal, subsequently spent over a year at sea filming onboard the Undersea Hunter.
The crane played a central role in the dive operation, carrying hard-bottom skiffs as dive tenders instead of the usual inflatable dinghies. In 1994 the group acquired their second boat – Sea Hunter, an oil rig tender – and in 2001, Avi decided to revisit the idea of submersible diving, an idea that arose after deep-sea film production, during which the crew were making 90m dives on a daily basis, each taking up to six hours, two of which were spent in decompression.
‘We were finding new species on every dive,’ said Avi. ‘I realised there was a whole world down there and we didn’t have easy access to it without the decompression penalty.’
Avi spent five years looking for a sub, but not finding anything he liked, decided to design and build his own. ‘It was a little bit like Cocos,’ he said. ‘I jumped into the boiling water with some crazy idea and it ended up working.’ In 2005, the DeepSee submersible was launched, and the MV Argo ‘mothership’ followed in 2008.
Undersea Hunter was retired in 2016 but Sea Hunter (which was voted the world's best liveaboard in DIVE's Travel Awards last year) and Argo each run 24 dive trips per year to Cocos Island, plus regular expedition trips for film crews, Avi’s original idea for the business. Now in their twenty-eighth year of operation, it is the spectacular Cocos diving that keeps him there. ‘No trips are the same,’ he said, ‘you can keep coming back to a place like that.’
There is a huge amount of life on Cocos Island’s reefs, but it is what comes out of the blue that makes dive trips so very special. Large pelagic species are spotted with such regularity that divers sometimes become blasé about their sightings. Anywhere else in the world, 15 hammerheads would be the highlight of the year, but on Cocos, it’s merely ‘okay’.
With a vast portfolio and wealth of knowledge, Avi didn’t have the patience to write the book that people began asking for, until Genna Davis, an American writer and photographer, came aboard to write an article for a local magazine. The subject of the book was raised, and Costa Rica Blue was born.
‘We jumped into the project with no knowledge,’ said Avi. ‘Very similar to the first Cocos trip or the submarine. Let’s just do it – something different, something that is not ordinary.’ The result of Avi’s stunning photography and Genna’s enthusiastic writing is the first comprehensive guide to the diving, marine life and history (there’s an entire section devoted to pirates) of Costa Rica and Cocos Island.
Avi and Genna wanted to create something with more depth than a fish ID guide or coffee table picture book, something that people would repeatedly return to, not read once and consign to a shelf. ‘It’s like three books in one,’ said Avi, ‘it’s a work of love.’
Costa Rica Blue is previewed in our Summer Print Edition and is available for advance purchase at www.costaricablue.org. More information on the Undersea Hunter Group can be found at www.underseahunter.com