Diving with the Deep Sea Detectives

by TDC Instructor, Jim Vafeas

I was scheduled to teach the weekend of May 20th. Two Thursdays prior, Ed (Tiedemann) calls and tells me response for that weekend has been low and that he’s decided to transfer the students into our June training weekend. Not wanting to stay dry that weekend, I contact my dive buddy Craig Morris and we discuss getting onto a local charter instead. But later that day, while listening to a Scuba podcast, I hear of an opportunity to dive with John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the hosts of the History Channel’s Deep Sea Detective, during the weekend of May 20th.

Michael J. Norwood Memorial Research Fund

Michael J. Norwood

It was an event hosted by Blue Water Divers in New Jersey to raise money through the Michael J. Norwood Memorial Research Fund for DAN Medical Research.

Michael J. Norwood was one of the original Deep Sea Detectives co-hosts who tragically lost his life during the filming of an episode while on a deep dive in Palau. In memory of Michael, an endowed named fund of The DAN Endowment has been established titled: Michael J. Norwood Memorial Research Fund. The purpose of The Michael J. Norwood Memorial Research Fund is to provide DAN with funding for research initiatives conducted by DAN Research.

This weekend long event offered you a choice of attending a dinner on Friday or Saturday evenings, 2 wreck dives on Saturday or Sunday or a buffet lunch Sunday afternoon with proceeds going towards the fund.  John and Richie would be in attendance the whole weekend.

So I called Blue Water Divers mostly expecting the weekend dives to be sold out. Surprisingly, they had 3 spots available for Sunday, which included the afternoon buffet and before I knew it, I was reading them my credit card number to hold our spots. I now had to read Shadow Divers and catch up on 8 hours of TiVo’d Deep Sea Detectives, because in about 10 days we would be diving with the central figures of the book and the hosts of the show and I had some catching up to do.

Our dive boat the Gypsy Blood

We decided to drive up on Saturday evening and stay overnight rather than drive on Sunday morning. At about 6:20am we were the 3rd car to arrive in what appeared to be the correct parking lot, even though there was no sign of our dive boat yet. Around 6:40am we hear a “Good Morning” in the distinct Brooklyn rasp that could only be Richie Kohler. He and John Chatterton exchanged introductions with us while we chatted and waited for the rest of the divers and the dive boat to arrive.

When our dive boat the Gypsy Blood arrives, it docks in the same slip previously occupied by the infamous Seeker. We carried our equipment to the end of the dock over the same decking walked on by John and Richie and the other divers dozens of times between during their dive trips to identify the U-869.

Richie and John performing the dive briefing for the wreck of the Pinta a-la Deep Sea Detectives

We loaded our gear, filled out the paperwork and acknowledged the role call. Captain Jim begins the formal introductions of himself and crew. We would be heading out for 2 dives on the wreck of the Pinta. After the general boat briefing he starts his official briefing on the wreck when Richie interrupts him and says “oh - let us do this – we’re professionals.” Richie begins reading the first half of the Pinta briefing sheet in dramatic fashion as if taping their next episode. Then, on cue, turns over the sheet to John who continues the briefing, complete with appropriate ad-libs and finshes to a round of applause. As a local Instructor, John Chatterton had often used the Pinta during his Wreck Diving courses. One diver who was with us showed off his NAUI Open Water I card that listed CHATTERTON as his Instructor.

About 7:15am we headed out under sunny skies and a light wind in 1 foot rolling seas to the wreck, in stark contrast to the forecast of morning thunderstorms forecast through Friday afternoon. On the way out, buddy teams were confirmed. John and Richie paired up with other divers on the boat. On the first dive, Craig and I explored the middle and forward cargo holds then swam towards the bow. After that we headed into the mild current over the debris of wood and towards the stern. Craig experienced some equipment issues towards the end of the dive so we called it. On the surface we discussed possible solutions for these issues but he ultimately decided to sit out the second dive. So if I wanted a second dive, I would need to find a buddy.

Throughout the day John and Richie answered questions, spoke of the show and experiences as local wreck divers. They were very approachable and entertaining. They never said no to a photo request or the signing of a log book. If your timing was right, you could also engage them one on one in conversation. They often joked around with each other but you could tell they both had a deep respect and trust in each other and a passion for what they do.

Midway through our surface interval, John and Richie offer to dive with different buddy teams to which I quickly replied “I’ll need a buddy” (sorry Craig). Richie would dive the second dive with Renee, an employee of Blue Water Divers, and myself. The plan was to swim to the stern, view the propeller shaft, then explore other areas and swim-throughs of the ship, keeping an eye out for additional lobsters (Richie had already bagged 3 on his first dive which he offered to whoever wanted them.)

Renee and I entered the water first and would meet Richie at the tie-in to the wreck. Upon arrival, Richie checked our pressures, flashed us both “OK” signs then motioned to the stern. On this dive the visibility was a little better than the first, closer to 20 feet.

We swam along the edge of the cargo debris to the stern. He turns around after seemingly pulling a lobster out of nowhere, then shows us the underside full of eggs. Making sure we see him place the lobster back , we continue to the propellerless shaft, then over the hull to the pilothouse area. Back over the debris to the forward most cargo area, all the while following the yellow Evolution rebreather and making sure to respond to Richie’s “OK” signs he keeps flashing back at us every few minutes throughout the dive. About 20 minutes later, Renee was running low on air so Ritchie brought her up to the anchor line and waved her goodbye. He asked how much gas I had left – about 1,000 psi left in my doubles. He then motioned down current. When we arrived, I could distinguish his words about this being the bow through the air space created by his rebreather mouthpiece. He was attempting to narrate what we were seeing on the dive even though he was not wearing his communications unit.

We next proceed along an area where a space has been created between the hull and sea floor – a good place for lobster to hide.. Ritchie spots one. He begins digging for the lobster while I, wedged between the sand and hull, keep my light fixed on where he is working. After a minute he backs us up and this time I can distinctly hear him say “I need a stick” through his mouthpiece. Then he motions and says he wants to check for one on the other side of the ship. At this point I have around 800 psi remaining. As we cross over the hull I spot the top half of a fishing pole lying alone on the wreck. I grab it then race for Richie, just catching his fin before he disappeared over the starboard railing. He sees the fishing pole, is thrilled, then heads us back over to where we were. Another few minutes are spent trying to coax that lobster out. He almost heads out far enough, but eventually would retreat back too far for us to reach. We eventually admit defeat – this time - then continue along the hull toward the stern for a few more minutes. Richie checks my gas once more, and at about 600psi, he gives me the thumbs up and settles me onto the anchor line. He waves me a goodbye then sends me off again as he continues along the wreck for a little while longer.

As I ascend, I perform a 2 minute deep stop at about 45 feet. John passes me on the ascent line where I pretend to be snapping underwater photos of him. He smiles, poses, then waves as he continues his ascent. At around 20 feet, my dive computer indicates a 3 minute obligation with a 10-foot ceiling. I complete an extended stop bringing my total run time to around 45 minutes.

Back on board, after a roll call for all the divers, a mate pulls the hook and we head back to dock. Richie thanks me for a good dive and tells me “next time we’ll get ‘em.”

Richie Kohler, Jim Vafeas, Craig Morris and John Chatterton

After we pack the car and change we head across the parking lot to the Shipwreck Grill, which stands in the area once occupied by the also infamous Harbor Inn. A little before 3:00pm the lunch buffet is opened for us to feast on raw oysters, breaded crab cakes, a salad with baby shrimp, rice, roast beef, corn on the cob and some of the best New England Clam chowder I’ve had in a while.

About an hour later, Dave Riscinti, owner of Blue Water Divers, thanks us all for coming then turns the floor over to John and Richie. They too thank us all and the DAN representative for doing our part to further DAN Medical Research through this fund. After some more book signing, personal photos and a group photo, the divers ready for the trip back home. I heard that for some, it would be over a 4 hour trip. A special thanks to Dave for taking the time to put together this complex event.

This was truly a unique and unforgettable experience. How often is it that you get a chance to spend an entire day with 2 famous local divers, with their own History Channel show, who still found the time to dedicate an entire weekend with their fans doing something we all have in common – a love of wreck diving. Some would consider this a once-in-a lifetime event, but I am looking forward to diving with them again. Besides, I’m holding Richie to his promise of getting that lobster…next time!

Richie Kohler, Jim Vafeas and John Chatterton