"We're looking for people with an expedition mindset"

DEEP, the ocean technology and exploration company that wants to 'Make Humans Aquatic’, made waves in the industry when it announced its ambition for a permanent human presence under the oceans from 2027 by installing sub-sea stations that enable researchers to operate continuously down to 200 metres. To find out more about the company’s undertakings, see the progress of the build for ourselves, and interview some of the core people behind the ambitious undertaking, we’ve recently visited the DEEP headquarters near Bristol in England. In the first interview of our new DEEP interview series, we meet up with Kirk Krack, Human Diver Performance Lead at DEEP.

An interview by Nane Steinhoff
Photographs by DEEP

Kirk Krack is a multi-discipline diver and freediving guru who developed the first freediving educational system and was the official freediving coach for the cast of Avatar: The Way of Water. Having logged over 10,000 dives in extreme environments, he has been a global leader in the field of diving and exploration for over three decades. At DEEP, he took on the role as Human Diver Performance Lead.

Oceanographic: What do you do in your role?

Kirk Krack: “I work in the DEEP Institute. I’m currently supporting the outreach and the sales team but ultimately, I’m on the elite performance side of the DEEP Institute where I help map out and create a syllabus training programme. Assuming that we might work with, for example, a larger sovereign nation that wants to build several habitats in multiple locations and which sends us 36 people, it’s easier to make a scientist into a diver than a diver into a scientist. We must go on the assumption that these people would also have little to no experience in diving at all, so we have to work with the lowest common denominator. This is how would we ultimately train a person to live inside a habitat at 200 metres, where they might dive outside doing scientific work.

We’re creating a modularised educational system that will run through about nine different trainings that will start right after pre-selection of candidates at home. As the candidates arrive here, we go through a selection process making sure that they’re physiologically, psychologically, and medically fit to do the job and be able to go through the training. From there, we move into human performance training where we establish how to optimise you as an individual. Not just as a diver, but as a learner. How do you optimise your ability to get proper training? How do you advance your interpersonal relationships, work in high-stress environments… all those sorts of things. From human performance we then move into marine operations, which includes various topics from handling small boats to water survival skills. We also cover breath holding and freediving which is a base foundation for all kinds of in-water and diving activities. Then we’d move into training people possibly out of recreational scuba and into technical, into rebreather diving, followed by ROV submersibles and then finally habitat operations and graduating those people through different levels. We need to look at, for example – are they a lab assistant who will never dive? What is their training going to look like? What components of the modules do they need to go through? After all they’ll be different to modules for an active diver, doing science and collections outside the habitat. So, we currently create and adjust these training programmes.

To give you an idea, if you want to become a saturation diver, you need to be a commercial diver who works in the field for over 100 hours underwater. But we’re not doing oil and gas exploration at DEEP, right? We are trying to make marine scientists into saturation divers. Currently, there’s no programme which does that unless you’re in the US and it’s NOAA. So, what we’re having to do is create a new type of saturation programme. It’s a huge undertaking having all these syllables and all these programmes developed right.”

Oceanographic: How long have you worked on that so far? What stage are you at?

Kirk Krack: “We’ve been working for well over a year on that. We’ve developed a very mature submersible programme which is quite interesting because there really has not been anything that has been more standardised within the industry. So, we’re well into it. Time frames depend on when we will we get our first actual habitat, the Sentinel, in the water.”

Oceanographic: What do you expect people will need living in the Sentinels? What kind of people are you looking for? Can anyone apply?

Kirk Krack: “They need to be medically sound, fit and able to do the job. It is a high-risk environment and the workflow that you need to achieve is quite intense. So, we’re really looking for people who are mission-oriented and have an expedition mindset. One of the things that we’ll be working on in the human performance side is accelerated learning. We’re trying to redesign a series of educational programmes that are outside the current models within the diving communities which are very old models. In comparison, when you look at the tech industry, they can train people quicker with more fidelity, more retention just by the style of education they offer. So, we’re going to be looking at taking some of those more innovative models of education and see how we can train people to learn. In essence, we’re looking to make scientists into divers.

There will certainly be physical, medical, and psychological components that might preclude everyone from being able to do it. We’re looking at around six people in a small station at 200 metres below the surface in a high-pressure environment. When you decide that you can’t do it anymore and want to leave, it will still take you seven days to get back to the surface because you still have to decompress.”

Oceanographic: Will all the training be held at the DEEP Campus initially?

Kirk Krack: “Yes, the current operations will be at DEEP Campus. We’ll have a complete mock-up of a working habitat there. Some of your classrooms will happen in it, some of your dives will happen there. So, you’ll be constantly introduced to that operation throughout your training.”

Oceanographic: One of DEEP’s main goals is to make humans aquatic. How realistic is this in your eyes

Kirk Krack: “There are six biomes. We currently inhabit five of them. The International Space Station went up in November of 2000. We’ve had a permanent human presence in space. We haven’t had it in the ocean. You could argue that some submarines like military submarines are under the water all the time but they’re in one atmosphere and don’t go out and interface with the ocean. What we’re trying to say is that by 2027 we want to see a permanent human presence in that 200-metre zone which is the mesophotic, the epipelagic zone where 97% of the ocean biome and biodiversity density lives. We owe one of two breaths we’re taking right now to it. 70% of the world’s main source of protein comes from it. Life on land could come to a halt and the oceans will probably survive. If oceans die, everything on land also goes with it. So, there has never been a time in human history where we’ve needed to solve the problems of the oceans as much as now. And you don’t do that by just blindly sending down a grabbing arm or by just going into a submersible and looking at it through acrylic. This critical zone really needs eyes on.

You’ve probably heard about the Amazon and helicopter idea. Imagine if all we knew of the Amazon and its carbon cycles was from flying across it with a helicopter. That’s pretty much what we do in diving right now. We tend to go on a dive boat and go down for 20-30 minutes to 30 metres max. There’s technical diving too, of course, but there are many organisations and institutions that don’t endorse technical diving. Several friends of mine are re-breather divers. They spend five minutes getting down to 150 meters on re-breather. They work at the bottom for ten minutes and then they decompress out of the water for the next five hours. Their entire workday is 10 minutes long. The alternative: We blindly send ROVs down and kind of grab things, right? But as soon as you take something from depth and you bring it to the surface, you’re already degrading the specimen itself. Its chemical composition will start to change because of the reduction of ambient pressure.

So, we need to have people living down there. Just imagine how much you could get done in one mission, right? You could go out in the morning, do a two-hour dive, collect specimens, do research, come back, have lunch, and then process everything in the labs in the afternoon. Even while sleeping you can look out your bedroom window and you might spot something that hasn’t been seen before. Just being able to keep your specimens there at depth is also a huge step forward from a science and data collection standpoint. The specimens would be true to nature from where they were collected at the time. I believe that our next cancer drugs are going to come from that 200-metre zone.

Coming back to the Amazon… what do we know about the region? We know so much because we hike into it, we camp in it, we live in it for months on end. You live, eat, breathe it, and study it. And you have hours and hours versus just these short little excursions.”

Oceanographic: What were the hardships or the biggest challenges you encountered while developing the training programme so far?

Kirk Krack: “Right now, we need to figure out the lowest common denominator. You work to the person with the least experience, right? At the same time, what you are trying to do is consider those people who are already technical divers and do science diving. How do you create that modular system? And then a lot of times it’ll be about the regulatory hurdles trying to work under. In the UK, for example, it’s the HSE. We’ll develop a new model of saturation diving education that currently doesn’t exist, and it’ll take time.

What’s going to be really exciting for us is the human performance element. I’m a performance advisor with a group called Liminal Collective. They’re a human performance group and have some of the world’s foremost authorities in sleep and spirituality and neurocognition and all those sorts of things. We’re really looking to pride ourselves in developing one of the world’s premier human performance focused diving marine institutes. We’ve done the courses; we’ve done the dives. But how often do we look at the internal optimisation of the individual from the overall human performance element? That’s one of the things that we’re going to do in the DEEP programmes; we won’t just look at skills, education, and volumes of dives to get better. We want to look at you as the individual. Sometimes that doesn’t just start with things like sleep, exercise, and nutrition which we traditionally think of when thinking of human performance. It’s really about stepping back and looking at you as the individual and what your dreams and desires are and how that motivates you into the future. It’s also about psychological things that would motivate you. You know, six of us will sit around a table having dinner at 200 metres. And if I do that one thing that just annoys you for 28 days, the furthest you can get away from me is 17 metres. So, for these long-term missions in confined spaces and in high pressure environments to work, it requires a special type of person.”

Oceanographic: What exactly will you look at in the human performance side of things?

Kirk Krack: “There’s the general programme and then there is the stuff that is specific to our mission and what we are ultimately trying to do. We will look at general things like sleep and nutrition, for example. Nutrition is very different down below; we don’t have natural sunlight, and our caloric requirement is higher because we’re in the water. We won’t be able to get certain products as we just can’t bring down fresh cabbage, for example. We’re in saturation, so the individual requirements regarding nutrition can be different. And then really it comes down to being specific to you as an individual as well. So, for example, what are targeted nutritional needs that you need other than you might be vegan, you might have allergies, you might have certain requirements? And then really, it’s kind of the psychology of how do you work as a high performing team member in a high-pressure environment that has a very demanding work schedule? What are the psychological coping mechanisms that you employ as well.”

Oceanographic: Will the habitats be located at around 200 metres all the time?

Kirk Krack: “No, the vast majority will be located at 50 metres and shallower. But that doesn’t lessen the risk at all. Although the time to get out of the water is shorter, it still requires a commitment to get out. So, in emergency operations, if something medically happens, you are committed for hours or days at a time just to get to your next level of safety.”

Oceanographic: How do you expect a normal working day to look like?

Kirk Krack: “If you look at the International Space Station, for example, they have a very detailed workday. You’re basically trying to maximise your time down there. I would like to think there’s going to be that time in which to just chill and relax but you are trying to maximise your work. You got your rest periods, you got your work periods, you’ve got your preparation periods. The habitat needs to be kept clean, functional, and in order. What’s interesting is that, for the first time in an underwater habitat, you’ll have your own room instead of having to share with six other people in bunk beds.”

Oceanographic: What kind of food will be served?

Kirk Krack: “It’ll be soupy food in bags that you put in water and heat up. It’ll be pre-portioned. We have Joe Costa, who’s a five-star chef right now. He’s employed at DEEP and designs all the food for us. It’s an interesting thing; how do you take six people with individual dietary requirements and feed them for 30 days? You lose your sense of smell and taste at these depths so what’s the impact of that? Will individuals be able to bring their own sauces and spices? After all, everything could go wrong but it wouldn’t really matter if you have good food, right? It’s a comforting thing from a psychological point of view.”

Oceanographic: DEEP is starting off in the UK but it’s supposed to become international, right?

Kirk Krack: “It’s meant to be international. It’ll start in the UK and then, as we are a worldwide company, we’ll probably see us branching more into the US North American market with probably some of our offsite training programme. To give you an idea, when we look at the quarry, the quarry for us, although 600 metres long, 100 metres wide, and 80 metres deep, we still think of it like a swimming pool. Technically we could do all of our training here and issue you certifications, but we will still require ocean diving in real ocean environments with current tides, and interactions to completely round out the education. We’ll get really good foundations to a high fidelity done in the Campus and our quarry but then we’ll move and take all of that experience and start putting it into realistic operational dive requirements to finish off the open water check-up.”

Oceanographic: How do you see the time frame for the first Sentinel to go into the ocean?

Kirk Krack: “I think we’re probably a couple of years away until we’re fully up and functioning, which should time with our first Sentinel being up. We’re really looking at making the Campus a space for robotics testing, submersible operations testing and training, ministry of defence work, and so on. And then we’ll test out our educational systems before opening them to more institutional divers. It’ll be like a full-time job for the trainees. Our Campus will have accommodations for up to 75 people. We’ll have a full theatre for up to 500 people for symposiums, we’ll have human performance labs, we’ll have workout areas and yoga rooms and meeting rooms and so on. The Campus will be designed for outdoor interactions with outdoor labs, outdoor classrooms, and meeting spaces as well. We wanted a very holistic environment that is interactive, while using the latest in technologies as well. One of the things we have is a media and virtual lab where you can put your VR goggles on and work all the components of the Sentinel and its underwater hatch, as an example.”

Oceanographic: What’s the most interesting aspect of your work currently?

Kirk Krack: “I think it’s designing a flexible modular system that brings in the human performance element, so we can go from the very least experienced to the most experienced person and are able to adapt them into our system of education. It’s certainly a challenge. NASA makes spaceships and trains astronauts. We’re basically doing the same thing.”

Get a sneak preview of the DEEP Campus near Bristol: 


Photographs by DEEP

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