John Chatterton is a world-renowned wreck diver with acclaim to numerous wrecks, including the WWII German Submarine U-869 chronicled in Rob Kurson’s Shadow Divers. He is a friend and excellent mentor to many of us here at Force-E Scuba Centers.
In the spirit of wreck month, I asked John to come in for an interview. We discussed his most recent project(s) on the History Channel. If you haven’t been watching the tv series the Curse of Oak Island, make sure to watch the episodes online to see John at work to help the Lagina brothers fulfill a life-long dream to discover the 220-year-old Oak Island Money Pit.
The Oak Island Money Pit is the site of the world’s longest running hunt for lost treasure. For hundreds of years, treasure hunters have ventured to Nova Scotia, Canada to try to recover the treasure that lies in the Money Pit. To this date, no one has been able to recover the bounty because the Money Pit is protected by a series of ingenious flood traps. No one is sure exactly who created this mysterious Money Pit or why, but John and his colleagues are on a mission to find out.
NC: How did the Lagina brothers select you for their dive at Oak Island?
JC: Well the show had several divers over the years: hard-hat, re-breather, and tech guys. The brothers said they were done with divers. But they still had a need for a diver. ROV’s just couldn’t get the info they desired. They contacted Aqua Lung and Aqua Lung gave them my number. We told them “we can do what you want done.” And we did a videoconference within a week and spent several more planning the dive.
NC: What was the mission of each project (2015, 2016)?
JC: The first project I was involved with on Oak Island was 10X. The big deal with this one was it was a 7 foot caissons that lead to a 27 inch hole, it had zero viz. The problem was a 6 inch pipe that ran diagonally across it 15 to 20 feet into the 27 inch pipe. So, at best we have 21 inches if the pipe were off to the side. But it was down the middle, so there’s somewhere between 10.5 to 15 inches on either side to get by. One side no problem, the other big problem.
The second project was the C1 bore hole, this was a fresh dug hole. Charles (Barkhouse) said “this is the spot” and the drill kept going with ease until it got to a water filled void. The video footage of this void was no good. The problem with underground voids with no flow is it could take months for visibility to improve. The one video that they had showed an image that appeared shinny metal, it appeared to be gold. So we went down to search with metal detectors.
NC: Do you believe in the curse?
JC: You know what, if you think you can do something or you think you can’t do something you can make it so either way. No, I don’t believe in voodoo or other weird stuff. A curse can bring bad luck but “they” (believers) really bring it upon them selves.
Our plan was numbers: Gas management, deco management, emergency management, we planned for the worst and expected the best.
I was nervous about this dive…one, I don’t want to fail as a professional diver, that’s not my reputation. And two, I don’t want to be one of the “other guys”. Marty (Lagina) asked Howard (Ehrenberg) looking down into the hole, “Do you think he’ll be able to do it?”
Howard said “He’s already done it 5000 times in his head, if he can’t get down there you are going to know why he can’t go down there.”
You know TV hates when things go well, but the thing with diving and TV is the suspense shouldn’t be from diving but from what are we going to find. These other TV shows have guys coming up rapidly screaming, “I got no air, I got no air”. First off, if you can scream, well you’ve got air. And second, why are you trying to scare people out of the water? It’s not real, it’s not realistic.
NC: What kind of skills/training do you need to make a dive like that?
JC: You need fundamental skills: planning, self-awareness, situational awareness, communication, buoyancy and trim. Dive planning is the part that gets more complicated; everything else for the most part is just another dive. We had a 40-page dive plan to go into 10X.
NC: Since you have other experiences, what does a diver need to get into treasure salvaging?
JC: Twice a year I get an offer to do a show, one of those two is always about treasure, and it doesn’t work like that. It’s very difficult, much harder than that, because treasure hunting is disappearing.
It’s not the image that Hollywood paints, swim to the bottom of the ocean and find a gold chain, and bring it up. Nowadays you do that, your going to get arrested. Better off going to law school because you are going to need law skills more than dive skills.
Treasure hunting is very government controlled. In the ocean there are a few wrecks that are open to all, most are owned by the government or country they are in. The nuts and bolts of treasure hunting are very complex.
When I found the SS Carolina, I found a big metal box, with short fat legs and a dial on one side. I referenced the blue prints of the ship, and found out this box was in the area where the purser safe was. The purser died in the sinking, no one knew where exactly it was on the ship. I went to court to do all the legal stuff, because I want the rights to the wreck and what was in it. I obtained the rights and went and got my safe.
In this safe was a gold rosary, a Tiffany ring with 21 diamonds in it, silver chains, gold chains, silver coins and gold coins. I did well, but the most fun was before I brought it up. I would dream about what’s in the safe, and that made it exciting. Recreational diver, instructor, technical diver, treasure salver, it doesn’t matter your skill level; you have to be excited about diving. “Diving is way too much work if you don’t really love it”. You should be excited about the dives you’ve made or the dives you are going to make, it can be anticlimactic to actually put your hands on the gold or silver or whatever.
For more info about John Chatterton, visit his website or take a class with him. And stay tuned for possibly another season of the Curse of Oak Island.