Leslie Leaney, The Journal of Diving History, Santa Barbara, California, USA. www.hds.org
History records that during 1930-1940 the early pioneers of untethered “swim diving” were mainly hunters, and developed their breath-hold endurance by chasing and spearing fish. Leonardo became one of these. Their athleticism and abilities underwater allowed them glimpses of a new world that hardy any humans had seen.
The availability of the Cousteau-Gagnan Aqua Lung in Europe during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s gave these freedivers the ability to not only stay longer in their new world, but to dive much deeper into it. Exploration could last for more than one breath. This ability to stay longer and go deeper allowed a detailed exploration of the sea bed, and in the case of Leonardo, allowed him to create a new fisheries trade. He became, in essence, an underwater farmer of Red Coral. However, when harvesting the crop, no thought was directed at its re-cultivation or sustainability. It was not until later in his career that these issues came to the fore and redirected his energies.
Before Leonardo entered the sea, Red Coral had been harvested for centuries from the ocean’s surface by a boat dragging a dredge and net, called The Cross of Saint Andrew, across the sea floor and snagging the coral in the net. In this style of fishing, the boat crew never saw what they were catching until they hauled the net up. It was random fishing that wrought random destruction of everything living on the sea floor, scarring it on an immense scale.
A far more environmentally successful method of harvesting the red coral came about with the development of the deep sea diving helmet in the mid 1800’s. Since that period a few divers equipped with the traditional copper and brass diving helmet had gathered red coral from the depths by harvesting each branch face-to-face through the view ports of their helmets. However, their cumbersome equipment, and the air hose that attached them like a leash to the surface boat, restricted the range of underwater harvesting to a very limited area.
Then in 1953, at Cape Spartivento, Leonardo Fusco made his first Aqua Lung dive, and everything changed. As spearfishing led Hans Hass to an underwater career of science, film and photography, so spearfishing led Leonardo to an underwater career of coral harvesting, marine biology, mixed gas technology and hyperbaric research.
Diving to recover his lost speargun, Leonardo discovered a carpet of red coral, and his life took a whole new direction.
Using the Aqua Lung, Leonardo became probably the first free-swimming underwater farmer, as he took to the deep dark depths of the Mediterranean to harvest crops of Red Coral in locations that had never been seen by human eyes. His were to be the first. They would not be the last. More divers quickly appeared and the underwater Red Gold Rush started. The harvesting methods developed by Leonardo and the divers who followed him were far less damaging to the surrounding marine environment, as they were able to select individual corals, but they were so effective that corals that had thrived for thousands of years were almost harvested to extinction.
But in a Gold Rush of any hue, sustainability and preservation seldom enter the equation. En mass the Red Coral divers pushed onwards, attempting dives that were deeper and longer.
To this day, diving deeper and longer continues to be a goal for humans. During Leonardo’s time there was only limited information available to him on the risk of decompression sickness. This sickness is also known as the “bends,” a name coined to describe the shape of the tortured limbs of those that survived a severe attack of the malady. It derives from the stance known as “the Grecian Bend” sometimes posed by of a lady of financial means or of cultured standing. The Grecian reference came from crippled Greek sponge divers who were living victims and visual proof of the bends.
The bends occurs when a diver, breathing air under pressure, absorbs nitrogen into his body tissue, and the nitrogen is not given adequate time to dissolve before the diver returns to the surface. Nitrogen bubbles form in the diver’s blood stream and create blockages in the flow, creating a range of pain from uncomfortable to death.
Leonardo’s deep dives often went beyond the accepted “limits,” exposing him to the disasters of the bends on a daily basis. Some of his single dives required in-water decompressions running into hours. As a free-swimming untethered diver, he developed numerous safety devices to minimize not only his risks of the bends, but to maximize his chances of being safely recovered from the surface by his boat handler.
At this time, the outside world of international commercial oilfield diving spent millions of dollars on developing systems and support crews to avoid decompression disasters. To improve his own safety Leonardo equipped his boat Paguro, with a small decompression chamber, thus allowing him to get out of the water to decompress.
The addition of this small chamber would not only save his life but those of some of his competitors. Deep diving on air is a deadly business and the fact that Leonardo lived to tell this story pays tribute to both his diving and seamanship skills. In the early 1970’s he made the transition to diving using a mixed gas rebreather, which provided the longer and deeper component to his diving. The trade-off was that the equipment is unforgiving of any errors in its operation. Some divers refer to it as “no mistakes” diving. Leonardo managed that in his stride also.
We should all be thankful that Leonardo, like his friend Hans Hass, also had the factual recall and poetic ability to convey his career and its observations and discoveries to print. The spirit of the international Brotherhood of the Sea flows through every page. This Red Gold book transports us all back to a time when the littoral plain had yet to be completely scavenged and scarred by human fishing methods, and when Red Coral had a fighting chance of sustainability. But it is not all history here. Red Coral’s current dire situation requires immediate attention. Leonardo and his colleagues provide a resounding Call To Action to sea lovers of any nation, sounding the alarm that the unsustainable plundering of the sea has to cease, and responsible methods of aquaculture and cultivation have to be adopted. This action is essential if the generations that follow Leonardo into the sea are to have any chance of tasting the experiences that he has so eloquently, and passionately recorded for us in this magnificent time capsule of his life. Our action, or inaction, will be legacy that future generations of sea lovers judge us by. We should not fail them.
Enrico Camporesi, MD, Emeritus Professor of Surgery/Anesthesiology and Professor of Molecular Pharmacology & Physiology; University of South Florida College of Medicine, Tampa General Hospital TAMPA, Florida
It is dedicated to the worldwide protection of red and pink coral off the coast of Sardinia, the Mediterranean, and throughout the world, which is in danger of extinction due to human intervention.
Leonardo Fusco is known all over Europe and Japan as il Comandante (The Captain) or the Master Mariner for his astute knowledge of all things of the sea. I have known him well, as we met multiple times years ago, mostly in Italy at meetings dedicated to hyperbaric medicine: I had newly been elected president of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. It is an international and scholarly nonprofit organization dedicated to the worldwide collection of scientific information for diving and hyperbaric medicine. When I met Fusco in 1995, he had already completed several careers: an underwater explorer, a self-taught diving maverick, a business entrepreneur providing zoological specimens to sea aquariums throughout Europe, and a collector and harvester of red coral. Finally, Leonardo Fusco coupled his empirical knowledge and experience to safely dive to the dangerous depths where the Mediterranean red coral thrives, usually around 80 meters underwater and deeper than it is safe to reach on a simple compressed- air dive. He called this book of his memoirs “Red Gold” in honor of the organism and the precious stone he learned to harvest and (as he admits) to “plunder” as a young explorer. He is now trying to create ways to reseed the coral and repopulate this unique creature as a renewable resource of the seas.
Our first of many meetings stands out in my mind, as il Comandante and his German wife, Vera, hosted me and my Sicilian wife, Pat, at their house in Palinuro. In this sleepy coastal town south of Napoli, across a table overlooking the sea, we shared an al fresco dinner. We discussed various underwater artifacts from several civilizations that he had observed and collected not too far from his house in this same sea. It was a cultured discussion in English, German, and Italian. We evaluated the advantages of Heliox diving, a mixture of helium and oxygen, and the use of the latest rebreathers apparatus. This is very advanced technical breathing equipment that we had recently used during experiments at the Duke Environmental Laboratories at Duke University, in North Carolina, with the support of the U.S. Navy Diving Unit. Fusco, to my surprise, had already adapted and used this technique in the open waters of Sardinia.
Fusco displayed a keen understanding of the technical problems and principles used to overcome equipment automation. Here he was a classic scholar who knew the physiological theories of Prof. Buehlman from Zurig. At this time, he was one of the very few individuals in the world who had access to this sophisticated breathing equipment.
In the little port of Palinuro was moored his sturdy boat Paguro. Inside the cabin was a sophisticated mono-place recompression chamber with double control systems. It could be run from outside on the deck, or from the inside for those occasions when the Comandante wanted to complete more safely his decompression in the warmth of the cabin rather than in the open water. During the 1970s and the 1980s, with the help of his Paguro, he also treated innumerable divers suffering from decompression sickness, because at that time his chamber was the only one available around the waters of Sardinia.
Later, Fusco’s interests and experience grew to create one of the best hyperbaric medical facilities in Salerno (CEMSI). Hundreds of patients were treated there, and new clinical data was collected on the therapeutic use of Hyperbaric Oxygen therapy.
However, between his career and the adventures of exploration, Leonardo Fusco had an eye-opening experience. While diving at Capo Caccia in Sardinia with an old friend, Hans Haas, the well-known German photographer and environmentalist, Fusco became conscious of his own personal commitment to protect coral from extinction: here, in the protected underwater caves, in the same site where years ago he discovered and harvested rich coral branches, now he discovered the caves were bare, silted, and desolated from an unregulated diving frenzy and were harvested to extinction.
This realization caused Fusco’s spiritual conversion. It also started the process of writing this book about the red coral with his plan to foster political and advocacy efforts to protect the future of the red coral. He did start an ongoing effort to have red coral inserted into the endangered species via legislative efforts at the United Nations (Endangered Species Act). We are moved and excited and support these efforts with new eyes to the future. With friendship!
Preface of Leonardo Fusco
I felt a keen sense that it was my duty to tell this story; to narrate the saga of the diving pioneers, those champions of great exploits who came up with brilliant technical solutions (and courage) in order to conquer depths that were considered inaccessible.
In the following pages I have told the story of a life dedicated to the sea: my life, Leonardo Fusco, an offshore captain who became enchanted by a precious, mysterious and mythical creature, and found himself working on a small coastal vessel. It is a story I share with the colleagues and teammates who accompanied me on this magical adventure.
I have a fanciful streak to my character that goes beyond reality, but without turning my back on it, to a world apart, hidden in the depths of the sea, and accessible only to he who, like myself, has created a visceral contact with the sea.
I hope that this book might also have an instructive role, as a way for the younger generations to appreciate the true value of memories and affections. It describes my interaction with the marine world, a world that is unknown to the general public, evershrouded in mysteries, dreams, and wondrous sights. I wanted to take you into my ‘secret garden’ so that you might experience the same sensations. In religious silence then, accompany me into the magic of the abyss: you will discover that life can become a new adventure at every turn, rich with emotion and answerable only to the voice of the heart.
I have always been attracted to mysteries. My passion for exploration was fully unveiled when I surrendered to the magic of the Blue Cave of Palinuro, at the age of eighteen, in distant 1949, at a time when the professor Hans Hass had declared that the human body would not be able to freedive deeper than a depth of 15 meters. I set out to prove him wrong for the sole purpose of proving myself, to myself.
During my two years of scuba diving between 1954 and 1955 for the Naples Aquarium, I was mesmerised by the incredible benthic fauna and enchanting secrets that the seafloor revealed to me.
The reports I presented to the scientific bodies of the time would always astonish the researchers. At a time before scuba equipment allowed for sea creatures to be observed in their natural habitat, many of these reports confounded the theories and convictions that marine biology had been founded on Working for the aquarium was an exciting job, and a means of satisfying my fantasy and curiosity. For this reason I exerted myself more than was necessary, and furthermore I could count on the support of all the personnel who assisted me in the diving. This would later allow me to personally program my assignments, which started with the discovery of precious corals.
This was the spirit that I abided by for thirty years: more explorer and researcher than collector.
A brief history… Before the Second World War the underwater world was practically unknown to man. The great pioneer of underwater film, Hans Hass, was the first to reveal the hidden secrets “beneath the liquid blanket,” as he called the underwater world. However he didn’t take into account equalisation, and wrote in his book, Among Sharks and Corals, “man will never be able to freedive deeper than fifteen meters.”
To transmit his experiences to the incredulous world, Hans Hass designed the first underwater camera housing, the Rolleimarin, destined to hold the famous Rolleiflex 3.5 F. At that time the technology that would give a diver complete autonomy underwater was still on the drawing board, and the only insight into the marvels of the underwater world was through documentaries and illustrated magazines.
Great cinematographers like Folco Quilici, Bruno Vailati and Jacques Cousteau, as well as other world-famous photographers, introduced the rest of the population to the natural treasures of the ‘sixth continent.’ Fascinated by their discovery, these artists had felt a duty to share with others the experience of seeing firsthand the incredible spectacles that nature would put in front of their eyes – eyes that were capable of remaining wide open and seeing with clarity underwater.
After the Second World War several athletes were already competing against each other in breath hold diving, or ‘freediving.’ When they decided to pioneer the transition to scuba diving, they had already acquired the aquaticity and fitness necessary to explore the underwater world. The equipment as well as the practical and physiological understanding that gives complete comfort during diving (as is the case today) would slowly evolve over the next fifty years. All this would be the fruit of the trial and error of those initial pioneers. Possessed by the incredible thrill and novel sensations of underwater exploration, they became doit-yourselfers, building and refining their own equipment and methods to allow greater safety and comfort in the gradual conquest of the depths: at first the limit was 30 meters, then 50, then 80… The underwater world was a fabulous territory, much like an alien planet.
The pioneers searched gropingly for answers to the thousands of questions that surfaced. They were more alone than an astronaut in outer space. When the Italian trio of Novelli, Falco and Olgiay set the world record for open water scuba diving of 132 meters, it was the result of years of technical and aquatic experience, and came only two years after the Spanish Eduardo Admetlla was the first to reach the depth of 100 meters, on the 30th September 1957. The Italian record, commemorated by a plaque in the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco in Montecarlo was also made possible by the new ‘Explorer’ regulator, invented by Doctor Alberto Novelli and the engineer from Italsider, Piero Buggiani, which greatly facilitated breathing at depths greater than 50 meters.
At the time when they discovered the potential to use scuba gear to descend to the bottom of the sea, and to substitute with their own eyes and hands the brutal ‘Saint Andrew’s Cross’ drag net, the majority of those diving pioneers could have still chosen between many other work alternatives. However the precious coral was apt motivation to continue an existence of excitement, discovery and freedom.
Only the in-water training of an athlete and the complete mastery of the ways of the sea allowed a group of divers, including this writer, to make exploits with scuba gear that were unique for that era.
The main difficulty we encountered was in locating the growths of coral on the seamounts of Sardinia, which were found at depths between 80 and100 meters, and almost always several miles from the coast.
At the start, the main operating grounds were in the Straits of Bonifacio, with a base at Santa Teresa di Gallura. Whoever has experienced the volatility of that stretch of water will appreciate how, beyond the technical and physical preparation required to attain those depths, it requires a very high level of maritime ability. We worked on the high seas, far away from any precise reference points, and without the advantage of GPS systems. The diver could not be attached in any way to the boat, and would cover great distances during both the dive and the ascent, but despite this we had to ensure that we could be located by our support boats in order to receive vital assistance during the long decompression stops.
Risky and complex enough as it was, this operation became extreme when combined with the unpredictability of the winds and currents. The boat could only follow, with difficulty, the progress of the dive by watching the air bubbles that rose to the surface. Systems were devised to guarantee maximum safety and assistance, and they were very different from those employed for regular shallow dives close to the coast. In those conditions it would have been absurd for the boat to try and give assistance to more than one diver, so we always avoided diving in pairs. Through experience we found that a well-trained partner was able to give better and more efficient assistance from the surface, especially in the event of an emergency.
Right from the start I would use a waterproof rubber sack, connected to a line on a metal reel. After reaching 30 meters during the ascent I would use my spare regulator to inflate the sack, which would rise to the surface where it could indicate my position, held taught at the end of the unravelled line. This was part of a complex safety system that also included a one-man decompression chamber, which for fifteen years was the only diving emergency facility in the whole of Sardinia.
The story of coral diving, which began with the passion and perseverance of a tight group of pioneer divers, attracted many others who were motivated more by the prospective earnings than by the thrill of the job. In those years there were many fatal or crippling accidents, often caused by surpassing depths that were evidently unsurpassable – overreaching the limits in an activity that was already “no limits” – but mostly because of a lack of appropriate emergency equipment.
Those sad events were a stern warning to other divers to use different methods and equipment that would impart greater safety in open water dives beyond 100 meters.
Already in the 1970’s, I had tested prototypes of this equipment and new methods in collaboration with Dräger A.G. in Lubecca, Germany, one of the oldest manufacturers of diving equipment. With the new tools and instruments we were finally ensured adequate safety and relative comfort during fullyautonomous dives, such as is required for coral harvesting.
There were very few who survived that age. Two of these I will speak of in a chapter dedicated to them. Only they can hold themselves as reliable witnesses of what the famous coral reefs of Sardinia looked like in the beginning – the incredible forests of precious red coral, tinged to a dark purple by the light at those depths.
The habitats chosen by the Corallium rubrum were very specific – only in rare parts of those seas that were blooming with life could it develop to its maximum quality and value. Today, even if a thousand robots were sent to search the same areas they would reveal only a vista of death and decline: a horrible monument to the greed and ignorance of man. Only a comparison with pictures from fifty years ago could convey the severity of the situation: there is nothing left to save – the extinction of Corallium rubrum on the Sardinian coast is irreversible.
I preferred to show this cruel reality to the world as a tale of adventures under the sea, rather than resort to a dry assessment of data and reports. I hope that this story communicates the great excitement of the age, but also puts emphasis on the sadness and desolation of what transpired historically, in order that it may dissuade others from retracing the steps of the pioneers.
Foreword, Leslie Leaney
Introduction, Prof. Enrico Camporesi
MY YOUTH, AND THE LURE OF THE SEA
The end of the rainbow
The old drug store
The first omen
Discovering the sea
EXPLORATION AT THE DAWN OF DEEP DIVING
Encounters in Naples
The discovery of coral
The gulf of Naples
From Naples to Sardinia
Returning to Sardinia
Argentario, Montecristo and Montalto di Castro
Rapture of the deep
The nomads of the Mediterranean sea: my time with the fishermen of Ponza
REALISING THE PLIGHT OF RED CORAL IN SARDINIA
The future of diving
Hans Hass sounds the alarm
Hope and disappointment
The Mermaid 7
From “Sango” to “Muragian” Japan and Tunisia
The Galite islands
The end of my union with the sea
The alter ego
A tribute to Sardinia
Dragnets and ROV’s – one and the same?
The three veterans, and some conclusions
Postscript, Prof. Francesco Cinelli