This year marks Undersea Hunter’s 30th anniversary diving Cocos Island. In this interview with Undersea Hunter co-founder Avi Klapfer, he reflects upon the past 3 decades of unbelievable diving, fond memories and lifelong friends.
Tell me about your favorite early dives at Cocos Island.
I still remember them like they were yesterday. One of them was very early in 1994, at Shark Fin Rock. We anchored the Undersea Hunter about 2 miles off the coast of Cocos, near Dos Amigos. The moment we entered the water there was a huge school of jacks. Before we knew it, a large manta ray came in and swam right into the school. Following that first manta ray was a second manta -- which already made that dive a very good dive. But the best was yet to come. When we came out of the school of fish, we were confronted with a large school of hammerheads. Following the hammerheads was a whale shark. At the same time, from another direction, came two sailfish that swam into the school -- all in one dive!!
When we were ready to leave the water because we were running out of air, another whale shark swam right through the school of jacks! So instead of quitting the dive, we sent one skiff back to refill the tanks. We ended up spending two full dives without going back to the mothership. During that second dive we had silkies and blacktip sharks coming into the small congregation of jacks. The whale sharks were there the entire duration of the two dives. That’s a 10 out of 10 dive at Cocos Island for you.
My next favorite dive was my first baitball, which we encountered by accident. We were diving two skiffs together at Dirty Rock. One of our guests, Kevin Denley, had a problem with his high pressure hose, which had burst. I offered to take him back to the mothership to replace it, so we took one of the skiffs to fetch the hose and come back. Upon returning, we saw a lot of commotion and bird activity at the surface. We decided to go see what was going on.
Kevin and I jumped into the water, and before we knew it we were completely surrounded by silky sharks! Loads of them were coming right at us. So we clung to the ladder of the skiff. I had my video camera. Neither of us felt that comfortable being in the water with that many active sharks (at the point, we still hadn’t seen the baitball yet). Kevin got out of the water and I was all alone. It took 3-4 minutes for me to realize I wouldn't be eaten alive.
I looked through the viewfinder and started filming. I saw these dark shadows in the distance, which I started swimming towards. Out of the dark shadow slowly materialized the baitball -- first there were dolphins, then there were sharks, then fish and birds. It was super tense and super active baitball. Shortly after that I felt something behind me pushing against my back, I turned around frantic to find that Kevin had returned to the water. He figured I was either dead, or having the best dive of my life. I shot another 2 rolls of film from that baitball. Later I sent that video to Stan Waterman and Howard Hall and it turned the whole diving community on its head. People had baitball frenzy! I was probably the first one to film that phenomenon back in ‘94. No one at the time had seen anything like it.
How did you and your wife meet? How did you and Yosy meet?
I met Orly in the Red Sea in 1980. She came down from Tel Aviv to work in a restaurant, and I was a skipper of a dive boat at the same bay. Yosy, I met later while running the dive boat. He came as a guest, and we became fast friends. He was a computer technician at the time, but joined us on many expeditions as a devoted crew member and helping hand for 8 years as we sailed around the world on different sailboats. We all crossed many oceans together, and became partners in the creation of Undersea Hunter.
We had been running dive trips in the Red Sea and Palau from 1980-88. When we decided to move on, I thought a good idea would be to look for a boat to do film work. At the 1989 DEMA show I met Howard Hall for the first time, and asked him if he’d be interested. He initially said no! He thought it would be too expensive. So I put this idea on hold.
Cocos was originally recommended by Carl Roessler, who then was a travel agent for the biggest dive operator at the time in California. He urged us to go there basically because he needed a boat to take his clients. He touted it as a “new and upcoming” destination. When I took a look at it on the map, I thought “No way! No one is going to travel 300 miles offshore.”
Then at the DEMA trade show I saw a clip by Stan Waterman of whitetips in a cave that he’d taken at Cocos -- and it sold me on the destination. There weren’t even any hammerheads in the clip! Between the agent’s recommendation and this whitetip footage, that was enough to convince us to go. It showed us that this place was special beyond a doubt.
We invited Howard and Michele Hall on a trip about a year in. On that trip we fantasized about how to put the vessel to good use. The Halls decided that IMAX would be the perfect format. Then we started working together and spent almost a full year with us on different expeditions.
Tell me about your first trips to the island.
The first time I ever dove Cocos was with guests! Our first trip was in September 1990. It was the first time we had ever visited the island. In addition to Yosy, my wife Orly, and Gal (our 6 month old baby), we had 6 clients aboard the Undersea Hunter. We also had Marty Snyderman, who was a renowned photographer at that time, who knew the island well and a divemaster who worked on Okeanos who had been working at the island for about 6 months. The others on board were Christopher Weston, a famous historian who wrote the book about the island, and my close friend Rob Barrel from the NAIA, which serves as our first divemaster.
Those first few trips we were blown away by the variety of large animals that we saw. We encountered 7 different kinds of sharks including schooling silvertips, blacktips and everything that you could expect from Cocos. The most impressive were the amounts of schooling fish -- everything was just so healthy. It was a great surprise to see these massive shoals. We only dived the main sites Alcyone, Manuelita, Dirty Rock and Shark Fin Rock those first few times, we didn’t even see the whole island. We were privileged to have the late Chris Weston as our terrestrial guide, with him we made several trips looking for old pirates’ treasure marks. We filmed him and listened intently to his stories. We climbed Manuelita Island, we went up river creeks and visited different caves. It was an important and fantastic experience to have him on our inaugural trip and on later trips looking for treasure. He was the master of the island.
What was it like raising your kids on the boat?
When we arrived in Costa Rica, Gal, our oldest son, was 3 months old. For the first year he was on board with a small crib in the owner’s cabin. He completed 10 trips to Cocos before his first birthday. After that, Orly moved to shore. It became too complicated to have him and the guests all at the same time.
When were Argo and Sea Hunter added to the fleet?
We added Sea Hunter in 1994, four years after UH. Then Argo in 2007, after we brought in the DeepSee we needed a mothership for it. The Argo was built specifically to host the DeepSee.
What inspired you to add the DeepSee?
I had toyed w/the idea of a submarine since 2001 since we did a trip to the Pacific filming for Howard Hall. In Fiji they did several deep dives, which took very long deco stops. On one of these stops in the very shallow water I thought, “there must be a better way to go deeper beyond 50+meters without paying the penalty of long decompression.” That’s when I started investigating different submersibles. Building one was not really an option to begin with, instead I was looking for a complete one we could join forces with. We almost went with a pre-built sub which at that time dove a fjord in New Zealand. That venture ended up falling through, and later on we came across the people who built the DeepSee at the DEMA dive show. They’d never built anything like that. Only subs for 2 people, to go to 100ft. After discussion with them and talking to Steve Drogin, who financed the sub, we ended up building our own submersible.
What were those first few trips on the Deepsee like?
The first trip was all an introduction on to how to use the submersible. It was unreal. The experience and the joy of diving -- not only learning how to operate the sub, but finding all of these new sites at Cocos and new creatures. Every single dive was (and still is) an adventure. Every dive we’d find something new, and we started shallow and went deeper and deeper finding all the famous places we dive today like Everest, the Wall, and later on the southern part where the Arch is and all the big sharks. All in all it was a phenomenal experience that we could share with the guests, but mostly we had fun exploring and learning these new opportunities.
Since this was a new experience for us, we were looking for a special person to help us manage this. We were lucky enough to find Shmulik Blum, a high pressure and mixed gas technician. He was the perfect candidate. He spent 2 years with us building the sub before we promoted him to manager, and he’s been with us ever since.
What do you think the future holds for UH?
We continue to look for special expeditions, one of our favorite things to do on top of taking guests to Cocos. We like to link up with groups like Enric Sala’s Pristine Seas, and other scientific expeditions (and film crews, of course). We hope to see more and more of these special expeditions, which is our real strength of our superb recreational dive boats. We love supporting divers, universities, students, filmmakers and conservation efforts. It all ties together.
The best part of our whole operation is how our company has grown into a big family. Our team has worked together for years and years, and we have met so many friends along the way. That’s what makes Undersea Hunter so special. We’re a people company. It’s the people we see again and again who make it unique -- and not just the famous filmmakers and conservationists. It’s also the many recreational divers from all over the world who keep coming back again and again, and become forever a part of the Undersea Hunter family. I look forward to continuing with this ethos into 2021 and beyond.