Johnny Sunnex, safety at VB 2014
30 Minutes With... Johnny Sunnex, Head of Safety at Suunto Vertical Blue 2014
The man known as Johnny Deep talks to Chris Crawshaw about his role as head of safety at one of the most prestigious freediving competitions in the world (Vertical Blue), his personal journey to a depth of 105m and back again, and his grooming routine. Sporting a brand new handlebar moustache, with long hair wafting gently in the tropical breeze, Jonathan Sunnex, officially one of the deepest men in the world, looks at ease as we take up lounge chairs on the balcony of the villa that he shares with 4 other members of the safety team, overlooking the ocean. I'm keen to ask him about his role in the competition, his journey to an official depth of 105m and, most importantly, to get some hair-care advice because, whatever I'm doing, it's really not working.
So, Jonny, thanks for being here, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.
You're the head of safety for Vertical Blue 2014...is freediving a dangerous sport?
No I don't think so. I mean, it can be, yes. But with the right preparation and precautions, no it's very safe.
And that's where you come in? (Laughs) Yes. That's where we come in.
How is Vertical Blue different from other competitions around the world? Does the blue hole present any particular difficulties from a safety point of view?
On some particular days the visibility can be really quite bad. We cancelled one day last year due to poor visibility. Other than that logistically it's very easy.
What about the fact that it's quite a remote location, is that an issue?
There's a fully equipped medical station here, and we will have a medical officer (Tom Ardavany) who's a specialist in remote area care - he's a paramedic - and we're basically going to have the contents of an ambulance out there on the platform. Obviously the nearest chamber is in Nassau which is an hours flight away... this isn't uncommon for freediving sites I think.
What do you think are the most important qualities in a safety diver? Are there certain people who are well adapted for it, or make good safety divers?
Yes. Practical people, people with experience in water activities like profession lifeguards, people with maybe a scuba diving instructor background, freediving instructors, you know, people that are used to being responsible for others in the water. They need to be quite astute, to be able to pick up on small things from the diver, and they need to be good divers themselves. I think by the time you're getting to this level of competition, you can't have just anyone come and be a safety diver. There's a difference between going down to 30m and meeting someone and swimming up with them -you could have a (AIDA) 3 Star diver do that- but actually being able to get down there, be comfortable down there, be prepared for the worst case scenario... Last year at the world champs, someone had to collect a diver (World Champion Alexey Molchanov) from 40m.
I heard about that yeah...they were waiting at 30m, saw a problem deeper and...
Yeah went down and retrieved them, handed them off to the safety diver who was on the scooter then managed to make it back to the surface themselves. So in my opinion, for competitions of this level, you need to have that calibre of safety diver, for their own safety as well as for the athletes.
Are there any criteria for selecting safety divers for this competition?
The guys who have been selected either have past experience at this competition, returning safety divers have priority or we know them personally, and we know the quality of their diving. The majority of them are competitive athletes themselves so they're very strong divers. Nearly all of them are instructors and I've worked with at least half of the team before.
Ok thanks... that brings me nicely onto my next question. You're a very deep diver yourself, is that something that's useful in a safety diver? Or necessary?
I wouldn't say you have to be a super deep diver to be a safety diver, but you need to be strong. You can have some very strong divers who are basically not so deep because they can't equalise. However, I think it gives the athletes confidence that they have someone looking after them that's able to go at least as deep as them.
Does it get boring?
(Almost incredulous) Safety diving?!
No. Not when you have a good team. And we're that busy at the moment getting everything ready, there's no time for boredom.
And during the competition? Doing repeated dives to 20 or 30m?
No, it's always fun! If you've got a good team...We need to be strict with our standards when it comes to rehearsing and making sure that we're happy with the level where everyone is but then, you know, it doesn't have to be tense. We can be relaxed in between the dives. If we're tense then that probably doesn't help the atmosphere for the athletes.
Obviously the freediving world was shocked an horrified by what happened to Nick Mevoli last year. Are there any specific changes that you've made in the wake of that accident that are designed to prevent a similar thing from happening again?
The preventative measures that we've taken are that for each and every one of the athletes, after every dive we'll take oxygen saturations 30 minutes after the dive. If the level is below 95% and/or the heart rate is elevated then they'll be checked again 15minutes after that and again 15minutes after that. So this is a way of hopefully detecting if there's any lung squeeze issues and the athlete will be stood down for a period of time. Or they'll come and get continuously reviewed until we're happy that they're safe to dive. Other measures we've taken, you cannot announce more than 3m above your personal best, and if you do you need to validate the reason for that. And there's one more...
I've seen a document about some different equipment that's on the platform, as well as the idea of drilling the response to unusual situations beforehand?
Yeah, ok so... we all have intubation kits and the necessary equipment to clear airways. We'll go through thoroughly with all the safety team and probably the platform coordinator (Steve Keenan) who's also one of the safety divers we talked about who retrieved the guy from 40m, so we've got a very good team available. Our remote area paramedic, he also trains government officials and armed forces in this sort of thing so he's going to be running all of the safety team through this.
So are there going to be simulations beforehand?
Yes, definitely. The drills that we're going through are more than just standard safety drills, bringing people up from, you know, 10 or 15m, surface blackouts, that sort of thing. We're going to be doing some drills where we look at replicating some of these out of the ordinary incidents so that we're prepared for everything.
Great, thanks. With that in mind, what advice would you give to freedivers who want to dive more safely. What's the main danger that you recognise in freediving as a whole?
Ooooh (chuckles). The main danger? Probably the athletes themselves.
Right, that's interesting! (After some thought) Yeah... it's the athletes. So... Don't be in a hurry to progress, dive safely, dive with people you feel safe diving with and practice rescue scenarios regularly. I mention this in my courses all the time: people come, they go through the rescue scenario and that's the last time they do it. So make it a regular thing to go through. And especially if you're diving with somebody new. It's for your good as well as theirs, you know. Just run through it for 15 or 20 minutes.
That's really strong advice, thank you. Yourself, you're one of the deepest divers in the world. What motivates you to train and compete?
(There's a long pause and he looks out towards the ocean in the distance) Well... I guess it's like an addiction isn't it! (Laughs). After you stay away from the ocean for a while you get...a bit...agitated! (Then he becomes more serious) Erm...It's hard to put into words really. Aside from that I love the atmosphere, I like the people, I mean you come to a competition like this and you're always catching up with old friends, meeting new people, and, you know, everyone's on the same sort of wavelength. It's a healthy lifestyle. That includes everything you know, it's got travel...you see incredible things that not many people are blessed to see.
What obstacles have you had to overcome in your quest to dive deeper?
Erm...well... a lot of things I guess. I mean...equalisation...I could frenzel naturally, I could snorkel down to about 30m before I started freediving but it took me maybe 18 months to master the mouthfill, which seemed like a long 18 months you know, back then! But now in retrospect I see that some people take a lot longer to get a grip on it. And I also had a lot of barotrauma issues, so from being a 40m diver I was having problems with lung squeeze. So I wouldn't say that I've completely overcome it but I keep moving that boundary a little bit deeper.
You're actually starting to get a bit of a reputation as someone who knows quite a lot about how to train to avoid lung squeeze. Do you have any general or even specific advice about how to deal with lung squeeze and how to avoid it?
Yeah. Erm...Be disciplined with your stretching. I always stretch before a dive and you really notice the difference as the season goes on. So that does help, but it's not the only thing that helps. Relaxation is a big thing and I remember when I was new to the sport and sort of coming through, that people would say to me "you've gotta relax!" And I was like "well I thought I was relaxed!" But then I guess you move through different levels of understanding how relaxed you were and you realise that you weren't really relaxed. So one thing I get people to do is to practice...Imagine as if you're doing a static: your coach normally tells you to relax this or that part of your body, so then bring your attention to your chest and diaphragm area and try to ensure that it's really relaxed.
That's very interesting, I've had a few problems with squeeze myself and sort of settled on a strategy that's very similar, so that's really interesting to hear, thanks. So... last couple of questions then... "Johnny Deep", where did that come from?
Ha! (Laughs) Well... before it was Johnny Deep, it was Johnny Danger!
Yeah, I like Johnny Deep better.
I can't remember if... I think it must have been my students who nicknamed me that while I was teaching in Thailand, so I guess it kind of stuck!
I guess there is a certain resemblance [to film actor Johnny Depp]...!
(Laughs) Yeah.. the scraggly hair and the scraggly clothes...
I don't know about scraggly... in fact my final question was about your hair...just...how do you get it so lusciously soft?
Are you serious?!
Do you deep condition or....? (Laughs) About once a month?!
Johnny Sunnex is currently ranked as the 11th deepest male diver of all time and one of the most successful coaches in the world, having helped athletes to a total of 3 world records and more than 40 national records. When not travelling the globe in search of deep blue water, he lives and works in his native New Zealand.