Part IV “Change your perception about things.” - Chatterton

Life Principles and the Deep Sea: A Written Series based on interviews with Elite Diver John Chatterton 

 A series by Phylinda Moore

Notice: This interview series contains strong language.

Part IV “Change your perception about things.”

“I don’t have to wait for the problem to adjust for the problem.” And “Whatever the problem you’re a lot better off with a self-reliant solution. “Self-reliance gets mistaken for ‘I don’t care’ and that’s totally not the case. The best team member is you. Be self-reliant. Bring more to the team. Don’t be needy.” Instead it’s about challenging yourself, “How good you do your job. How well does the other diver’s understand?” He cautions that, “anxiety takes precedent over tasking,” but this is “less an issue about anxiety and more an issue about discipline. Think more in terms of self-awareness. Worry about what can I do to make myself a better diver?”

Some things he recommends: self-hypnosis, yoga, martial arts. The “spirit of cross training that can help you with the respiratory side of this.” The main focus is “on breathing. We want to be fit and healthy but in the water we don’t want to exert ourselves. The concept is to develop the habit of a good breathing rate.”

He acknowledges that there are many paths to “mindset like self-hypnosis, inner calm” but says, “I’m more of a practical guy.” He relays a story from his friend Tom Out who is a black belt, martial arts master. He told a story about a guy who shot himself in the leg and used the power of his mind to stop the bleeding. John responded, “Oh yeah, I’ve used the power of my mind to not shoot myself in the leg. After you’ve fucked up is not the time to get smart. Get real cerebral to not shoot yourself in the leg” in the first place.

Tells the story of the guy who did the 30 hour flight, drank tequila, and went on a dive he hadn’t done any work up dives for. He didn’t do enough decompression and when he came up he was “bent like a pretzel.” He didn’t get to a decompression chamber until 25 hours later. He said his doctor agreed with him that it was an “unearned hit”. John absolutely, vehemently, disagrees. When he spoke with someone at a conference who relayed the unearned hit comment and they had to look at the causative factors John told him he was “he was making that up” and the guy was “looking at it from the wrong side of things. There’s only one reason guys get bent. If you do the decompression for the dive you just did you don’t get bent. There are no causative factors.” He shakes his head “unearned hit. I don’t think so.”

“Definition of fatigue: the expenditure of your energy exceeds that of your preparation. “If your last dive didn’t go well you need to take a step back.”

He wants them to practice the psychological element of control. That they need to test themselves by doing things like eating and drinking in the water because, “this reinforces that this is an environment where you are in control. The more comfortable we are the more comfortable we are. The greater psychological strength it gives us should something go wrong.”

He says that Snickers candy bars hold up well in the water but curry chicken attracts the fish. Some dives span hours. He talks about seven hour dives, with the vast majority of that time spent on decompression, where people bring mp3 music players, Sudoko puzzles, or other reading material. “All of this says, I’m owning this environment. I’m comfortable here.” He wants them to think about every detail. And then think about the details of the detail.

“What are we doing? Visualization.

“Visualization equals a dive plan. At the same time building in contingencies.”

“We have to look at ourselves like characters in a play. That guides the visualization. Everything into the theatrical context of the dive. What’s the background? What’s the scene?” at this level of diving you can’t be “intimidated by the situation.”

When it comes to equipment he has a few key words. “Someone once asked me if I loved my rebreather [a breathing device used by divers]. No, I do not. I treat my rebreather like a girlfriend that has cheated on me. I might go out with her again but I’m not going to give her my wallet.” His rebreather has failed on him at greater depths than most humans will ever see. He didn’t panic, was prepared for this contingency, and emerged from the water to fix it. He continues to dive with it but he is keen to drive the point home.

“Symptoms of panic are, I’m doing shit that is not in my best interest.”

“Your subconscious mind is like a five year old.” Doubts processed by the subconscious mind enter the conscious mind under stress, especially in the deep. He instructs them to perform their “visualization and execution in a way that makes the subconscious mind feel good.”

“The more you can get that routine down the more your psychological fitness will be ready for the dive. “I’m doing repetition.”

John illustrates that he doesn’t do a dive without following his own advice on visualizing the dive.

Oak island, a complex and risky dive was a place John initially said he wouldn’t dive. He said it only became possible because he took the time to figure the dive out.

Someone asked a friend of his, “Can John do this dive?”

The friend replied, “He’s already done this dive.”

“What do you mean? He’s doing the dive tomorrow.”

John’s friend replied, “He’s already done the dive 1000 times in his head.”

“It doesn’t matter what the answer is. You’re going toward the answer.”

Day two begins with a training dive and the group reconvenes in the classroom to review the dive and prepare for the big dive the next day. Every time the divers dive they return with a sense of calm and satisfaction that radiates from all three of them. It’s as if something very specific happens when a human being is submerged into the ocean at these depths.

They begin to discuss the morning’s dive. The workup dive was rock solid according to the debrief. Luke says, “everyone was consistently on plan together. We were facing each other and within 10ft of each other.”

Matt agrees, “we stayed consistent to the plan.”

Of the plan for the big dive, John says, “We don’t want fragile. It’s multifaceted. It’s exactly why we run all these different profiles. Predictable equals we can come up with a plan. If everything isn’t lining up in the plan then you’re vulnerable,” John says.

“Visibility equals comfort.”

John begins to prep them for the big dive the big dive the next morning. He warns them that this particular wreck, as with many wrecks, has a great deal of tangled commercial fishing line over it. This can be extremely dangerous to divers. John says they need to be very aware of this as, “it’s about flow. Monofilament disrupts the flow and getting tangled up equals stress, time, divisibility. And anytime you get hung up you fuck up the visibility. Not intentionally, but methodically. You have to ask yourself, is a piece of monofilament going to be the thing to bring me down?” Put the problem “into context.”

“People make fun of me saying ‘you have two knives? No I don’t. I have 3 knives and a pair of scissors. On deeper wrecks this is even more important. One is none, 2 is 1, and 3 is 2.”

“I’m taking the things that might be important on this dive. You never know when you might need a piece of string. If you never need it don’t bring it. If you might need it, know where it is. You may have it but if it’s not accessible. It’s the illusion of having it. What good is having it if it’s not readily available?” In an emergency, equipment you can’t get to might as well be in storage. You think you have it but you can’t get to it and then you’ve “painted yourself into a corner.” He believes that if a diver “paints themselves into a corner it’s as simple as they weren’t going to be successful.”

 “In everything in my life I try to minimize stress.”

When he casually mentions, he’s “trying to stay away from sugars and stuff.”

What he actually means is that he’s in the midst of performing a rigorous experiment on himself. He’s been following the ketosis diet since he learned about it because it he suspects diet might play a significant role in fending off CO2 narcosis . He’s fallen off the wagon a few times- mostly involving birthday cake. He favor’s zero sugar monster energy drinks. He’s “comfortable with low carbs.” says this kind of diet “you feel good every day. I’m trying to see, does diet play a role? If so what role does it play?”

Whenever he, “stumbles across new science,” he does his due diligence when looking for ways to experiment on himself.  He’s always looking for the “where’s my edge” advantage. Andrea Doria he would run these “silly experiments” such as alternating breakfast before a dive one day and then after a dive the next. He plays with the feeding/fasting cycle to see just what role it plays. He says, it’s a “fuel thing.”

He believes from both evidence and experience that the potential dangers of CO2 narcosis is underestimated because of 1. narcotic properties and 2. people are afraid to make diving too “sciency.” For these reasons he posits that it isn’t recognized as the problem that it is for any diver, but it is much more of a problem for deep divers. He believes many of the unexplained, strange, or the poor decision making that led to deaths, can largely be attributed to C02 narcosis. His stance, rewrites history and has the potential to keep many more divers alive.

For him it is empirical knowledge first then science. “Whatever you do stop kicking. It’s a vector force.” “I’ve often thought with my students I’d like to tie their ankles together. We want to be the panther, except for sometimes. We want to be the churchmouse. The wreck doesn’t even know I’m here. Minimal physical exertion is key.”

Howard, a good friend, says that John, “knows how his mind works. John will say, ‘Oh, what’s this when encountering something new.’ Then he will inspect it and interpret it before acting.”

John shows no sign of slowing down. On exercise: he spear fishes and he, “tries the gym. I get psyched about the gym but I don’t stay psyched.” He tries to do “something everyday” but 1 day a week he relaxes and watches TV or something. A day of rest. He says simply, “diving is great exercise for diving.”

Does he have any big project in the works? Always. He and a partner are just “waiting for a piece of paper” to make another significant discovery. He says they know they’ve already located the San Miguel that sank in 1550, they want to tell the whole story which he says is fascinating. The ship sank with its treasure including emeralds. He says he’s “found diamonds and ruby’s but never an emerald. It’s time I found an emerald.”

The Deep Dive

Boat, Sea Safari, Andrew is the dive master who is in school studying oceanic engineering. Zoli the captain. The boat leaves and we immediately encounter waves from the aftermath of a hurricane. The experienced divers are unfazed. The current is different in the deep. They are all highly concentrated on their tasks. You can tell why John selected Zoli and Andrew. There is very little talking and a great deal of concentrated preparing.

John’s descent into the churning ocean can only be described as elegant, an economy of motion achieved through years of practice and only then through years of attention to every detail. This is no small feat when you consider the bulky equipment strapped and carried, and considering the awkwardness of the fins on deck. No wasted motion.

When they are in the water we circle. There are a few tankers in the distance. Most recreational boats don’t come out this far. The divers emerge after (90 or 110 minutes? notes?) Most of this time was spent in decompression. The time on the actual wreck was (17 minutes, check).

 Andrew says he likes working with John because, “John never takes shortcuts. Ever. Not ever.” He says, “no one I’ve seen can touch him in terms of experience.” and “I’ve never seen him be an asshole to anyone.” 

Everyone after the dive looked happy, Matt had a big smile. Everyone had a moment of accomplishment. 

During the ride back to shore, John says, “Our plan was right on the money.”


John Chatterton’s Principles for Living

  1. If an undertaking was easy, someone else already would have done it.
  2. If you follow in another’s footsteps, you miss the problems really worth solving.
  3. Excellence is born of preparation, dedication, focus, and tenacity; compromise on any of these and you become average.
  4. Every so often, life presents a great moment of decision, an intersection at which a man must decide to stop or go; a person lives with these decisions forever.
  5. Examine everything; not all is as it seems or as people tell you.
  6. It is easiest to live with a decision if it is based on an earnest sense of right and wrong.
  7. The guy who gets killed is often the guy who got nervous. The guy who doesn’t care anymore, who has said “I’m already dead and the fact that I live or die is irrelevant and the only thing that matters is the accounting I give of myself,” is the most formidable force in the world.
  8. The worst possible decision is to give up.
  9. Do it now. Tomorrow is promised to no one. 

Since the official published version, he has added a few informal additions to his list: 

“There is not one way to solve any given problem. When you know what you want to do, and where you want to do it, you can figure out the solution.”

“Once I found myself in a situation where I thought I was out of gas in 270 ft depth of water. My isolation valve was closed, but I did not realize it. The problem was perception as opposed to a real problem.”

I asked him if there was anything he’d added to his list recently and he responded:

“We don’t always know what we think we know.”

 He says he tinkers with the list all the time, “the list is never going to be done. I’m always ‘let’s try this.’ It’s the same way for everything I write.”



The formal “Life Principle List” 1-9 is sourced from Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

The new additions are from: and the interview

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