The 5 minute dive that takes a week
Janne Suhonen is a tall bearded man, whose thousand yard stare of apparent total self assuredness, gives an aging quality to a man, who before the age of forty, has wowed the technical diving fraternity all over the world with his ability to capture the excitement and isolation of deep cave and mine systems across Europe. Typically taciturn, he takes a bit of warming up – but the usually quiet photographer needs little excuse to get animated about Ojamo Mine and his mission alongside his friend, dive buddy, and co-author of “Divers of the Dark”, Antti Apunen, to document it.
Antti is a typical Scandinavian at first glance, tall, blond, blue eyed, and it is his writing which brings the history of the mines to life, but he too is a man of few words in person.
“It’s a special place, with a rich history,” says Antti. But it is more than that… Ojamo Mine is Finland’s premier technical diving destination, close enough to Helsinki to be easily accessible by a large portion of the country’s diving population. But its popularity does not mean that it should be taken lightly. Reaching as deep at 250m, with water temperatures that never rise above 4C, this is as challenging an environment as most divers are ever likely to experience.
The limestone mine was opened in the 19th Century, and the rich seam of limestone squeezed between more forbidding Granite, provided the main source of income for the small town of Lohja, for many years. During WW2, prisoners of war were put to work here and the mine was worked up until the late 1960’s when due to the rising costs of extraction and an increasingly globalised market pushing the prices of limestone ever lower, it ceased to be viable. The mine, having been dug below a lake, was allowed to fill with water, which slowly enveloped all evidence of its existence.
It is some of the features that were built into this mine which create the fantastic visual experiences that bring avid cave divers across the world. Due to a miscalculation by engineers, one chamber, a staggering 60m deep was excavated too close to the lake bed above, and the fear of collapse led to the construction of “Lucifer’s Pillar” to hold the roof of the cave, and this also included the famously atmospheric “Gates of Hell” that looks something like a set from the Lord of the Rings meets The Abyss.
And it is these images that Janne and his team set out to capture.
With visibility of more than 50m and evidence of human activity throughout, giving a haunted, abandoned quality to the tunnels, there are so many stories waiting to be told. But the depth is prohibitive. Typically diving to 88m and beyond to 135m, the team literally has less than 5 minutes to capture the necessary footage before beginning an ascent involving lengthy decompression. Most dives are longer than 5 hours in this chilly subterranean world. “Water is the same no matter what the depth, but the mindset for this kind of diving is totally different” says Antti.
In order to make sure that the comparative blink of an eye at the bottom of the cave is not wasted, meticulous planning is required. Janne and Antti have turned to the techniques of filmmakers as a means of planning not just the required decompression, but the photographs and sequences of images. Janne painstakingly storyboards the images and their sequence, imagining the lighting positions and deciding the position of the divers.
Rather like a movie, each diver in the usually 5 man team, has a strict role to play: cameraman, actors, lighting technician 1, lighting technician 2, and each one is briefed on exactly what they need to do and when. In this way, they are all prepared.
“There is so little time down there, especially down at the mine cart [the only remaining truck used to bring stone back to the surface] at 135m. We can’t afford to get it wrong or have to stop and think about the shot composition.” Janne says. “I press the shutter and 25 man hours of diving, and days of sketching, planning and briefing are suddenly compressed into a few hundredths of a second as the image is captured.”
The function of the equipment is critical and a failure of any piece of kit is generally the end of the dive. As each dive requires a week to plan, equipment failure is more than just inconvenient. “We have even developed our own light with the help of a local electronic and optical genius.” Janne becomes more animated as he describes the efforts that go into even these small details. “The torch needed to be brighter, last longer and be more reliable than anything on the market. Three years of testing and we have ‘The Beast’.”
The results speak for themselves.
There are some who upon overhearing these conversations, or leaving one of the Divers of the Dark presentations at a dive conference, ask, “This seems like a superhuman effort – do the results justify all that?”
Janne’s answer is surprisingly romantic. “Everytime we go in there I reflect that we are just normal guys who got our chance to go into space”. Normal? …maybe.