"Get it wrong and you're dead"
The diving world was shocked when famed British diver Rob Palmer died in mysterious circumstances in the Red Sea - last seen at 120m on air and still descending. John Bantin, a close friend of Rob's, explains why after a week of madness his death came as no surprise
Cave divers used to tell a joke about some of their number who died and went to Heaven. St Peter met them at the Pearly Gates and asked what they wanted to find in their perfect Heaven. A wonderful cave system that no one had been in before, they replied.
Soon they were swimming through a magnificent cave. Suddenly, a diver on a big black Aqua-Zepp scooter roared up from behind them, hooked on to their line and shot off ahead into the system.
The cave divers went back to St Peter to complain that they were not the first into the cave. "Who was that guy with the big black Aqua-Zepp?" they asked. "Was it God?"
"No," replied St Peter. "That's Rob Palmer. He only thinks he's God."
Not hilarious, but it says something about Rob that he used to repeat that story with pride. As one of the best-known divers in the world (cave diving was only part of it) he understood that he was bound to attract envy in some quarters. Lesser divers were quick to criticise; he always appeared to relish it.
If Rob was unjustly regarded as arrogant by some, he could certainly take himself a bit seriously at times. On one live-aboard trip, for instance, we all conspired to call him Rod. A week passed before he snapped and yelled at us: "My name is Rob!" From then on we called him Rod Plumber. He became resigned to good-natured ribbing from his friends.
Rob wrote books and articles about organising expeditions. Those who went on his expeditions knew that as an expedition organiser he was totally disorganised!
He was, however, an exemplary diver. He was knowledgeable, disciplined, avoided risks and was always cool under pressure.
An excellent teacher, he never missed a chance to pass on his knowledge. I believed that to dive with him was to dive in as much safety as was possible. If he had a fault, I thought, it was that he could be a little bit earnest!
I dived with Rob often in latter years. We shared accommodation in hotels and on boats. I found him good company and a foil for my eccentric sense of humour.
In May 1997 we were due to spend two weeks together in the Red Sea. Rob was on good form. His luggage had been lost between his home in the Bahamas and London, where we met up, but when I suggested that this was a problem that needed sorting out, he replied: "John, you're confusing me with someone who gives a damn!" Nothing ever seemed to phase him.
Week one was on mv Moon Dancer, at that time Peter Hughes' new live-aboard venture in Egypt. Rob found time to conduct a semi-closed-circuit rebreather course and certified my wife, Farzi. It was to be the last certification he issued.
The second week was set aside for the first international conference of the technical diving agency TDI in Hurghada. I missed the first day, consisting of the opening session followed by a dive, as I had to take Farzi to the airport.
When I returned to the Intercontinental I was met by Bret Gilliam, President of TDI. He wanted to talk to me - urgently.
It turned out that news had come through on the dive centre's radio that Rob had failed to return from his dive. Bret was clearly shocked.
I, sadly, was not. It was the culmination of something I had been half-expecting to happen for the past seven days.
We met the dive boat as it tied up at the jetty. All on board were suffering from a mixture of shock and disbelief. I talked to those who had been in the water with Rob, including Tim Breen, the teenage diver who had partnered him the previous week.
I submitted a factual, carefully worded release through the Press Association. It was not the place for speculation. I later watched bemused as respected newspapers invented their own sensational explanations for the incident.
Rob had not been using a "secret re-breather", nor been "trapped in a black hole", as reported by some. I believe he was trapped, though not in any physical sense. He was trapped by his own state of mind.
A year before, Rob had been present when some US divers appeared to have undertaken an unnecessarily risky dive. This was later the subject of litigation when an American magazine reported it and the divers seemingly closed ranks. Rob was not part of the dive, nor the apparent "cover-up". However, in a strange way I sensed that he felt diminished by being excluded. Some of those divers were likely to be arriving in Hurghada for the TDI conference.
On board Moon Dancer we had been promised an enjoyable series of dives. I was spoiled for choice when it came to buddies. My two favourites were on board - Farzi and Rob.
However, when Rob suggested "we do some deepies" we decided that my wife, a new mother, should not take any unnecessary risks. So she and I dived together while Rob teamed up with Tim, young but a sensible and intelligent diver. Tim and Rob each went in armed with a twinset of air and a sling-tank of nitrox 50 for decompression.
On one dive I noticed them doing a stop at a far greater depth than us. Back on board Moon Dancer I took a casual look at Rob's computer.
At first I thought it read "12m". A chill ran through me when I realised I had misread "120m"! I tackled him about it later, in private, but to no effect.
Rob had always been a great champion of technical diving. He advocated rich nitrox mixes for decompression and was an enthusiastic exponent of trimix for use at depth. He pursued increased safety by reducing the amount of offensive gas in the breathing mix. "Get it wrong and you're dead!" he would say.
Yet here he was throwing everything he believed in to the wind, and subjecting his body to a dive with a PO2 of more than 2.7 bar, when he had always advocated an absolute maximum of 1.6 bar.
I was confused and appalled. I had always enjoyed the way Rob not only shared his skills but was open-minded about others' ideas. But it hurt to find my mentor acting so far out of character. Surely this had to be a temporary aberration?
As Rob repeated his deep dives throughout the latter part of the week, our exchanges in his cabin became more and more heated. When he expressed the mind-boggling opinion that a PO2 of 3 bar was "safe", he did so in private. However, he was later heard discussing with other passengers "the cosy effect of narcosis as it closes around you".
Only our dive guide, Sarah, seemed oblivious to what was going on. She daily recommended a depth limit of 30m in her dive briefings!
My feeling was that what Rob did was his own business, but he should not have encouraged a young person who admired and trusted him to accompany him on these dives. I pointed out to him that if anything happened to Tim, Rob's career would be in ruins.
By the end of the week I was intrigued not so much by whether there would be a fatality - that seemed on the cards - as by what Rob was trying to prove.
Knowledge is power and when you share that knowledge you must share the power. Once Rob had taught people what he knew, they would go off and become experts in their own right. Some seemed to regard their former teacher as a threat. He had fallen out with several old associates, probably for that reason.
It's one thing to get famous, another to stay there. Continuing renown was one thing Rob really seemed to want. I can only conclude that, like an old gunslinger, he felt threatened by younger and newer people on the scene, as well as by the riskier and, in some cases, notorious exploits of certain of his peers.
The TDI conference put him in the company of such divers. It seems he needed to prove something - either to them or to himself.
When Bret Gilliam told me that it was Rob who had been lost, I actually felt a sense of relief. My fear that he would be implicated in the death of a teenager had been growing with every dive. At the same time it confirmed to me that what Rob had always taught was correct.
Whoever you are, you must obey the natural laws and Rob chose to test what he had been teaching about oxygen toxicity. He repeatedly subjected his body to high levels of oxygen.
Rob was killed by physics. As he always told me, you get away with it until you don't.
When I told Bret about the preceding week he could hardly believe it. "But Rob was never a deep air diver!" was all he could say. Some claimed afterwards that Rob Palmer committed suicide, but in the evenings he had talked of the possibility of starting a family with his wife, Steffi. We had agreed that children are one's only real legacy - hardly the sentiments of a depressed person.
He had just bought some land in the Bahamas and was planning to build a house there. Ill-health, marital problems, even his position within ..TDI have been cited as reasons. None of these is true.
Some say he had faulty equipment - highly unlikely. It was an ill-founded competitive streak and possibly a mid-life crisis that was his Achilles heel.
Repeated dives in excess of 100m on air killed Rob Palmer, but we can never be sure what was going on in his mind. On that final day, he entered the water with Tim; two other young men, Jean-Michel and Mila; and a young woman, Jane. Rob was twice the age of some of them; they saw him as a role model.
The scene was a typical deep-water reef in the Giftun Islands. It was Jane who, during the descent, decided to stop at 70m. Tim and Jean-Michel say they stopped at 107m, while Mila appears to have gone off on a dive of his own. Rob was last seen below the others, apparently waving them to continue on down.
Tim said to me afterwards when the boat docked: "He's lost. He's not coming back. He just kept swimming on down."
As I collected Rob's few possessions for the Egyptian police from our shared hotel room, it distressed me that he had lost his life in what seemed to have been a week of terrifying folly.
It is a sad reflection on human nature that, within days of Rob's death, Mila went diving with me and chose to ignore our pre-dive chosen depth limit. I parted company with him at 65m and he surfaced a good time after me with 120m logged on his computer.
Diving should not be a competitive sport. Let's do what Rob said, not what he did during that last, crazy week of his life. I had the unenviable task of travelling to the Bahamas to tell his widow Steffi what I believe really happened. She now wants the story told.
Whatever we think, we should not let this short period of lost reason dilute the legacy that Rob Palmer has left us regarding diving technique and safety.
After all, it was he who coined the phrase: "Attitude keeps you alive".
Appeared in DIVER - March 1999