We chat to the professional underwater photographer and expedition diver about the challenges of shooting deep-water wrecks and inside overhead environments, and why he loves the allure of technical diving.
Photographs courtesy of Stefan Panis
As we normally do to kickstart proceedings, how did you first get into scuba diving?
A: At the age of six, I was introduced to diving for the first time through my father when we were on a holiday and since that day I couldn’t wait to get my ‘official’ certification, which I obtained when I was 14.
You are well known in technical diving circles. When and how did you progress from recreational diving into the realm of tech diving?
A: As I have a quite long diving career, it went very gradually. I found a few wreck sites that could be reached from shore and I got very interested, so I started to go on charters before eventually joining teams who do research on wrecks. It also led me to another passion – archive research! When we found a wreck in deeper water, it became clear that we had to take a course on mixed gas diving, and that eventually led to CCR diving.
To not be bored by diving the same lake over and over during wintertime, I did my first dive in an abandoned mine. I was instantly addicted as it very much reminded me of wreck diving, but it also became clear that I would need to take some cave diving courses to overcome some obstacles.
You have been utilising CCRs in your diving for many years. What is it about closed-circuit rebreathers that most attracted you to them, and how do they benefit the diving you are involved with?
A: When we started to dive some deeper offshore shipwrecks in the North Sea, we realised that in OC, it was logistically a nightmare having so many twin-sets and stages on the boat, and that was actually the start of my rebreather journey. The longer no-stop times and reduced decompression times added up to this. For mine diving, where sometimes we have quite some distance or rope access to the site, it is much easier to do the transportation of a rebreather instead of more tanks in OC. Specially for the mine diving, I started to dive the Divesoft sidemount rebreather, which makes me more streamlined to take restrictions and again, easier for transportation in a caving bag. And just recently as we are starting to explore a very deep mine, I started training on the use of taking the sidemount rebreather as a bailout rebreather.
You became a member of The Explorers Club in 2020, and have been involved in several high-profile expeditions over the years. Tell us about some of the expeds you have been a part of.
A: In wreck diving, the finding, diving and documentation of the Josephine Willis wreck that sank in 1856 with a cargo of rare ceramics was a quite unique expedition. I extensively dived the wreck with buddy Eddie Huzzey and his team, to eventually photo-document it for Historic England. Just recently the wreck was granted protection and the team made it into about every major newspaper in the UK!
In mine diving, the team was able to get a one-time-only permission to dive and document for the owner the old slate mine The Morépire, which was made into the museum mine ‘au Coeur de l’ardoise’ in Bertrix, Belgium, where one level is pumped dry for visitors (non-diving). The team did a major exploration and more than 4,000 metres of line was laid. With all the data that was recovered, team member Dirk Roelandt was able to complete a 3D topography of the site and even TV that heard of the project joined us to make a documentary.
Your photographs have been widely seen around the planet in various mediums, including dive magazines and your books. When did you first get into underwater photography?
A: In 1984 I bought my first camera, a Nikonos V and shooting with film. A photographer of my dive club showed me a few tips and tricks and that was the start of a long way with trial and error as with film you are not able to see the results straight away.
In 1993, I made the switch to digital photography with an ‘old’ Nikon D90, to eventually at this point shooting with a Nikon D850 in an Easydive housing.
As you specialise in shipwreck, cave and mine photography, what are some of the major challenges of shooting these subjects and in these environments?
A: I think that awareness is a big issue, which is even more important in a cave or a mine or on a deep dive. While concentrating on the subject and making the composition of the perfect shot in your head, it’s very easy to be distracted of everything. So important things as depth, runtime, decompression, PPO2, the guideline can be easily ‘forgot’ so besides training yourself to check these things automatically, it is very important to have good buddies and to make a plan before the dive, and dive the plan!
Besides this there are more practical issues to overcome like visibility. In the English Channel for example, visibility isn’t always good so you will need to adjust and make more close-up shots, so it needs the photographer to be creative.
What is your most-memorable diving experience?
A: That is a difficult question as I have many, but as from a child I have always been interested in pirates and treasure hunting… So when on a dive in the English Channel on the wreck of the Pommeranian with my buddy Eddie Huzzy, I was there the moment he pulled an American Eagle 50 dollar coin out of the sand, shining brightly as it came right of the bank!
On the flipside, what is your worst diving memory?
A: My worst diving moment must have been on a trip to the UK where I would dive and document a liner that lies midships in the English Channel. Weather was perfect, and the very long boat ride passed smoothly. When we arrived at the site the water looked crystal clear and while going down, I could see the wreck (that is in 55m of water) already from 30m! Another look at my rebreather computer showed a cable failure making me diving ‘blind’ and I had to make the wise decision to abort the dive…
What does the future hold for Stefan Panis?
A: First of all, I hope I can keep on doing what I do, as some exciting things are happening: With the Dover team, we located another old shipwreck of which we hope to reveal its identity this year.
For mine diving it will also be a busy year, as we are exploring the deep site and we are granted to work for the DNF (Officials forresters in Belgium) to explore some new sites that are normally closed. Research learned that one of the sites is massive, so I cannot wait to get started!
And last but not least, I will be releasing a first book on the Dover Straits wrecks this year, and a photo-book on the Belgian Mines. And in December I’m bringing the diving community together again with the organisation of the dive show Dive-Expo. Keeping busy…
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #72