Alexandros Malagaris: First dive with a TF12 diving helmet.
Interview by Konstantinos Margetis.
For centuries, humans dreamt of being able to “breathe” underwater and looked for ways to go deeper and stay longer under the surface of the sea. They dipped under the surface thousands of years ago in order to collect food from the ocean, underwater exploration, military use and constructions. There are records dating back to the 4th Century BC of Aristotle and Alexander the Great creating simple devices that let them take a few breaths under water.
The early 20th century innovation in marine technology enabled divers to work longer and at significant depths for the first time.
In this article, we follow Alexandros Malagaris in his recent trip to Kalymnos Island, in Greece, in order to dive with a TF-12 (12 bolt) – Chinese helmet. Alexandros is one of the most experienced, decorated & certified Scuba Diving Instructors in Greece, deeply interested in Vintage diving technology. In this interview he shares his experience with us.
Konstantinos: First of all Alexandros, tell us about yourself and your origins. Where were you born & raised and what was your relation-connection (if any) with the aquatic world as a child? Did you know from a young age that diving was what you wanted to get into?
Alexandros: I was born and raised on the island of Samos at the Eastern Aegean Sea. My house was right on the beach so the sea has been my playground since I can remember. My father was a scuba diver in the 70s and 80s, my best childhood memories are being with my family on our speed boat going on daily trips and my dad and his diving buddies preparing their equipment, getting dressed and disappearing in the deep blue, with only their bubbles giving us a hint to their whereabouts. I would follow them, with my mask and snorkel, from the surface till they would disappear completely. Their camaraderie, pictures and endless diving stories are something I hold very dear to this day. I started free diving from an early age, I was always more interested on what lies beneath the surface. Then as a University student in 1995 I got my PADI Open Water Certification at the Greek Diving School in Piraeus run by Mr. Christos Pozidis. My instructors were Hellenic Navy divers, great teachers to have if you want to build solid foundations in your early stages as a diver.
Konstantinos: What was the defining moment that made you want to become a scuba diver-instructor and how did your life change after you became one? How long have you been diving and what are your qualifications?
Alexandros: Becoming an instructor was a natural progression that came with experience and age. I realized that I could be good in teaching and forming new divers sensitive to the aquatic world and our national heritage resting on the sea bottom. The financial support I received for my Instructor Development Course (IDC) and Instructor Exam (IE) was the catalyst. I will be forever grateful to Captain Jerry Richert of the Indianapolis Fire Department for making this possible through crowdfunding.
I know it sounds cliché but turning my passion into my profession changed my life for the better. I found a new sense of purpose, mental and physical serenity. My wet or dry suits are now my business clothes and my office, the Aegean, it’s just spectacular. My students and my diving buddies are my second family.
I have been diving since I can remember and I have been scuba diving around the world for 24 years. I am currently an active PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer in Kerveli dive center, a PADI Public Safety Diver Instructor, a Dive Rescue International Instructor, an Emergency First Response Instructor and a Sea Survival Instructor.
Konstantinos: Tell us about the purpose of your recent trip to Kalymnos and your experience diving with the TF-12 Chinese helmet. How did you end up pursuing such an unconventional dive? Why in Kalymnos? Which diving center is offering such kind of dives? Overall, what was it like? Have you taken any additional courses in order to dive with the TF-12? Besides the obvious scuba diving skills, did you learn something new, and if yes, how did you deal with it?
Alexandros: Vintage diving gear fascinates me. Its design and use can keep me for hours in the good company of a book/manual or in front of a screen and diving with a helmet was always on the checklist of the things I wanted to do. When I read that the instructors Mr. Paul Tavoularis and Mr. Mihalis Koumparos offer this type of diving through their initiative ‘Dive with Skafandro in Kalymnos Island’ (https://skafandro.webnode.gr/) I immediately contacted them and booked my trip to Kalymnos located just south of my island. Kalymnos is well known for its diving culture, its fearless sponge divers and it is recognized internationally as a cradle of diving.
The standard diving dress consists of the diving helmet, the breast plate, the waterproofed canvas suit, weights to counteract buoyancy on the chest, back and boots, and finally the air hose from a surface-supplied manually operated pump, nowadays replaced by a low pressure breathing air compressor or an air bank.
Diving with the TF-12 bolt helmet was a unique experience that I will hold with pride for the rest of my days. The pre-dive briefing from the two instructors answers all of your questions. You sit comfortably on the water’s edge and they dress you while explaining the finer details of the equipment and its use. It is heavy, so you have to be fit to dive it. Underwater, synchronizing your movement with the continuous air supply from the surface and the release valve that you operate with your head takes only a few minutes to get comfortable with. And then you walk, not swim, walk! You have great visibility, you enjoy the sea life under the watchful eye of your safety diver, Paul, and all the movies and documentaries you have watched since childhood pass before your eyes. Even the surrounding sound is different from scuba diving. It is not just a dive at sea, it is a dive in our history, our traditions, our diving roots. To dive with the Skafandro you only need to be a fit to dive certified scuba diver. It is totally different from scuba diving but if you feel comfortable underwater, you get a hang of the workings of the equipment and you lay your trust on the highly qualified Paul and Michalis, there is nothing to fear, nothing you cannot do.
Konstantinos: Why, where, since when, and for what purposes divers in Greece used such an equipment? How deep could someone immerse himself with this kind of equipment? Was it dangerous? What where the drawbacks? Tell us about the history.
Alexandros: In 1863 helmet diving was introduced in Greece for the first time in the Port of Simi by Photis Mastoridis and it was quickly adopted by sponge divers. This revolutionary method of diving allowed the diver to significantly increase his stay and the depth he was working at, compared to the skin divers of the period. Using the Skafandro divers from the Dodecanese, particularly from the islands of Simi and Kalymnos, harvested sponges across the entire Mediterranean from depths up to 60 meters, for their livelihood. However, the long bottom times, the great depths and the expendability of the divers resulted in many diving accidents and deaths. A detail account of the lives of the Kalymnian sponge divers can be found in the book of Giannis Heilas titled the Epic of the Sponge Divers of Kalymnos.
Konstantinos: What advice would you like to share with certified Scuba divers who are considering diving with such an equipment? Do they need to be at an advanced level? Should they try? Why?
Alexandros: I do recommend this dive to any certified diver interested, as long as it is planned and conducted the way it was done when I dived with this experienced team in Kalymnos. It will be a great experience and a highlight in your life as a diver. A way to experience the rich in diving history island of Kalymnos as few people have been able to.
Konstantinos: Let’s talk about today. Innovation in marine technology and knowledge of human physiology, enabled scuba diving to broaden its resonance to masses, became recreational, and accessible to everybody. Is scuba diving popular among Greeks and why? Are the youngsters attracted in such an activity?
Alexandros: Recreational scuba diving is a great activity for everybody. As with any activity there are medical and safety standards that have to be respected. Every year an ever increasing number of Greeks takes the plunge to discover the unique underwater beauty of our country and many visitors from across the world enjoy their diving in great visibility warm waters, inhabited by a plethora of Mediterranean aquatic creatures. Scuba diving in Greece will surely take off with the establishment of marine protected areas, underwater archaeological parks and by sinking ships to create artificial reefs in specific areas.
Konstantinos: Compared to vintage diving technology, what is the future of scuba diving equipment for recreational or professional use? How much do we progress today compared to the past, and what do you think, will scuba diving be like in the future?
Alexandros: I believe that many technologies available to commercial divers are finding their way to the recreational diving. A good example is the full face mask equipped with underwater communications. Rebreathers also become more mainstream. With the introduction of new technologies and materials, the equipment will continue to become more affordable, easier to use, easier to carry and safer for the diver. As for professional applications I see ROVs and robots used more in supporting or even replacing human divers.
Konstantinos: Walk me through a typical day in your life. What’s your plans for the future?
Alexandros: A typical day in my life revolves around my family and work. Sport is also a major aspect. I make a point to run, swim and go to the gym several days a week. Dives are planned and equipment is sorted out from the previous night so there is a smooth program throughout the day. My plans for the future is to train more Search-Rescue teams in Greece and abroad in Public Safety Diving, thus making our waters safer and the first responders at sea more efficient.
Special thanks to Paul Tavoularis – Brenda Latham for the photos!
Check more photos at our gallery here: