Movie: Sanctum


A while back Tony and I were invited to participate in promoting the James Cameron production, Sanctum, via our blog. Unfortunately the fact that we are South Africa-based seemed to have been overlooked by the marketing team, so nothing came of that (except curiosity, on our part, to see the movie when it was eventually released). You should note that in this review – as per my usual style – I will almost certainly reveal details of the plot that you might want to discover for yourself. If that’s the case, skip to the last two paragraphs.

This is not a movie for new or nervous divers, or those who love and care about divers but don’t know enough to know what to worry about (for example, my mother worries about rip currents off the beach when I’m diving…). It’s quite a graphic film and unremittingly tense, and almost every single one of the main characters dies, rapidly and shockingly.

The manner of death for each character is different, and to some extent it illustrated some of the ways in which caving and (to a lesser extent) diving can go wrong. Characters run out of air, accidentally cut ropes and fall to their death (using knives around ropes and hoses is a stupid idea), panic and drown, are crushed by rocks, get fatally bent… And so on. “Mercy killings”, interestingly enough, occur more than once. And the cast isn’t that big.

Particularly upsetting to me was the death that starts it all off. One of the female characters drowns after one of the hoses on her rebreather ruptures (she’d removed the unit and pushed it ahead of her through a narrow tunnel moments earlier). Buddy breathing with rebreathers is possible, if a bit tricky, but both she and her buddy were wearing full face masks. Buddy breathing with a full face mask is VERY tricky, because you have to pass the entire mask back and forth between the divers, each one clearing the whole mask (much lengthier than clearing a regular diving mask) before taking a breath. The person waiting for air has nothing on their face until their buddy passes the mask back, can’t see anything, and their nose is exposed to the water, which can easily result in panic. I didn’t realise that drowning can happen so quickly, and having to fend off your panicking buddy because (s)he’s going to kill both of you must be the most awful experience in the world. Watching someone drown, even though it was in a piece of fiction, was very disturbing.

Most of the movie is actually not about diving; the protagonists are exploring a cave system, some of which is submerged. Their aim is to find where the cave meets the ocean, and they do a lot of caving and a bit of diving (all with closed circuit rebreathers, which enable lengthy bottom time and have the added advantage of not generating any annoying bubbles during filming). However, the diving sequences were quite beautiful – the caves are magnificent, and I can see how intoxicating it must be to explore new, incredibly scenic territory. The cave diving was filmed in Australia, around Mount Gambier. (As an aside, one of the stunt doubles in the movie died in February 2011 after running out of air while exploring the same cave system). Almost the entire movie is filmed inside the cave system, and the relief when daylight is finally reached at the end of the film is incredible.

This is a thriller and should not be seen as representative of the average caving/diving expedition (if it was it wouldn’t sell half as many tickets…). The script is frequently beyond lame, but that’s not why you go and see this film. The underwater footage is mostly spectacular, the special effects are decent, and the production is very slick.

We watched it one evening in the cinema, in 3D nogal, dorky glasses and all, but you can get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to know about the poem quoted in the movie, visit this earlier post about it.

Confined water skills

When I worked at Calypso in Durban, we’d do students’ confined water skills in the Avis Snorkel Lagoon at uShaka Marine World. It’s a beautiful setting. Here’s a short clip of me doing skills with Open Water students. At the start, I had to reprimand one of the group because he kept blowing bubbles at the batfish. No fish were harmed in the making of this video!


The students are practising buddy breathing (it was still in the Open Water course at that stage). Notice how they each take two breaths off the regulator, indicating one… two… with their fingers so their buddy knows how long he has to wait to get his turn. Notice also how I encourage them to exhale while they don’t have a regulator in their mouths. Towards the end of the clip they practise breathing off one another’s alternate air source (octo).