Dariusz Buchowiecki interviews Agnes on SBS Radio and finds out more about her underwater adventures.
The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) is Australia's public broadcasting radio and television network that seeks to inform, educate and entertain all Australians. It is Australia's multicultural and multilingual broadcaster and produces programs in over 68 languages. The interview was recorded in Polish, but you can read the transcript of the interview in English.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Joining us today on SBS is Agnes Milowka. Welcome Agnes.
Agnes Milowka: Good morning Dariusz.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: After we agreed to this interview, I had to think for a long time about the best way to introduce you in order to give a complete picture of who you are and what you do. So let's try this; adventurer, explorer of the underwater world, photographer, filmmaker, stunt diver and most importantly a professional diver with a niche in cave diving. Does that sound about right?
Agnes Milowka: Well, that does sound really good. I like it. (laughs) Dariusz Buchowiecki: Agnes I look at you, a young person with a passion and courage to explore the underwater world and I wonder what is responsible for all your energy and enthusiasm. How did it all begin?
Agnes Milowka: Sometimes you find something in life that really fascinates you and captures you from the very first moment. That's what happened in regards to my underwater adventures. My first diving experience was in Ningaloo Reef, in WA and it was an extraordinary and life changing moment. That's when I thought, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I was mesmerized. And from then on I have done very little other than diving.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: That's not quite true. Step by step you have gained higher and higher qualifications to allow you to go deeper underwater and become a professional diver. Was it hard? Is diving hard? You are a woman; I thought diving was a man's sport?
Agnes Milowka: You asked a lot of questions all at once. Let's deal with one by one.
Diving is not a man's sport. There are actually more women that learn how to dive than men but more guys stay in the sport for the long haul. There are lots of theories for why this happens.
Lots of girls try the sport, they love the fish but they do not continue on and start cave diving, wreck diving or deep diving. I always laugh and say it's because of the gear, blokes love the gear and that's what gets them interested. But more than that I think, they love the challenge; they have this drive and they want to go deeper, they want to become better than others and they also aim to explore and find something new. There are girls who do all this too, but there are definitely a lot less on the very top of the sport. So yes, it is definitely an interesting phenomenon that a lot of women learn how to dive but then walk away from the sport.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Why did you get interested in cave diving? It must surely be the most dangerous form of diving?
Agnes Milowka: Well, it would be difficult to claim that caves are completely safe. Going into caves in general carries a certain amount of risk, and then if you add water and submerge the cave then obviously the risks increase.
My first experience in a cave was in a place called Mt Gambier, on the border about half way between Melbourne and Adelaide. There are a lot of caves in the area; it is Australia's cave country. One of these places is a huge sinkhole where you can go snorkeling and look at fish and turtles and all sorts of interesting marine life. So my friends and I went snorkeling there, to see the wildlife and experience the crystal clear water so typical in caves. As we snorkeled around I looked down and I saw the cave entrance and it was dark and it looked interesting and it drew me in. I thought this looks like an interesting place, I have to go down there! So I did a deep cavern course and then more cave courses and that's how it all started.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Does diving in a cave require different equipment then open water diving? Agnes Milowka: Yes, in order to dive in a cave you have to have more advanced dive gear compared to what you need when diving in open water, in the ocean on a 20 meter reef dive. It is a whole different world when it comes to technical dive gear. You have to have redundancy for everything. For example if something happens with your light then you have to have a backup otherwise it will get real dark in there. So there is a lot more gear you need to take with you on a dive.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Do you go diving by yourself or do you have to be in a buddy pair?
Agnes Milowka: When you first learn how to dive it is drilled into you that you must dive in a buddy pair. But when you get to the point when you are exploring caves that second person is the biggest liability and the most likely thing to kill you. You don't know what they're thinking, or feeling or what they are going to do and you are in a dangerous and hostile environment.
Sometimes the cave is small and tight and it's hard enough for one person to be in there squeezing through a little hole, let alone having someone else behind you trying to push through as well. Sometime inside a cave you can't see anything and there is zero visibility because of the silt. In that situation it is easier to be alone because you know where you are, what you are doing and where to go next. Diving solo saves you from having to worry about not just yourself but also another person.
My personal preference is to dive solo, especially in caves. Having said that, I do have friends who I have dived with a lot over the years. We have the same passions and interests when diving caves. So if you dive together for long enough and trust one another after a while you form a strong bond and create a partnership. You start to almost feel each other under water.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: How do you communicate underwater?
Agnes Milowka: Typically you communicate with your hands; it is a form of sign language. But if you do have a close partnership with someone sometimes you don't have to do anything. You can just look at them and roll your eyes and your buddy knows exactly what you are trying to say. So that can be nice, when you know someone so well that you don't need to actively communicate underwater.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: You were involved in a number of projects, where you worked with scientists, is it hard to collect data for someone who can't do it themselves? Is it fun or hard work?
Agnes Milowka: Well it's not really hard work and it is definitely fun! We were in the Bahamas last December and we worked alongside a group of scientist. It was a fantastic experience!
Unfortunately they could not go into the caves themselves but needed samples from inside them. So it is really cool when you can go into a cave and bring back the data or sample that they need. You are helping the scientist and you are helping the world. What the scientist can find out from the data you bring back can be really fascinating. You can find skeletons of animals that have been extinct for thousands of years and yet the fossils remain preserved in perfect condition inside the cave. The fossils look like they have fallen in yesterday but really they are over 3000 years old. It's quite incredible.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: So what did you discover when you were diving in the Bahamas?
Agnes Milowka: There is one cave called Sawmill Sink and inside it there is a thick layer of sulfur that blocks out oxygen. The sulfur layer keeps the water below it in an anaerobic state, so everything that falls into the sink and down to the bottom remains perfectly preserved. So you can find skeletons of crocodiles that have been extinct on the island for over 3000 years and they are in perfect condition. We also found a tortoiseshell that was thousand of years old and other fossils that the scientists haven't even seen before. So we were making new discoveries which is pretty exciting.
It would be a lie to call it hard work. I like diving. I love diving! So if there is a way to combine going diving with finding things that totally change the way scientists look at the world - well that is a pretty cool thing to do.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: You manage your own internet site where you put up stories and photographs from various projects and expeditions. I think that is fascinating as it is so difficult to describe the underwater world in words.
Agnes Milowka: Yes it is difficult to describe the underwater world in words and even harder to do it in Polish. (laughs)
Dariusz Buchowiecki: You speak Polish fabulously well. So let's add at this point that you come from a Polish family and you were born in Poland but came over to Australia when you were a child.
Agnes Milowka: Yes, we came to Australia when I was ten years old. So my childhood was in Poland, so I should be able to speak Polish - and I do. We speak Polish at home, so I do keep up with the language a little bit.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Knowing Polish was useful as you were in Poland recently. You visited family and also gave a presentation about diving for a Polish audience. Tell us more about the presentation.
Agnes Milowka: I was invited to present about cave diving for Polish divers, so knowing Polish did come in handy. It went great and the audience was really interested in hearing more about the caves in Florida and in Australia. So I shared a lot of stories and a lot of photos with them, which was terrific.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Did you meet interesting Polish divers while you were there?
Agnes Milowka: Yes absolutely. The Polish divers tend to spend a lot of time diving shipwrecks in the Baltic Sea. There are a lot of wrecks there. I would love to go back and join them for some diving. I have heard that the wrecks there are amazing and are in really good condition. The water is cold, there is little oxygen in the water and the wrecks remain in perfect condition, despite the fact they sunk hundreds of years ago. They look like real ships that just sunk down to the bottom, and are not broken up like a lot of the ones here in Australia. Dariusz Buchowiecki: Is your dream to sea the Titanic?
Agnes Milowka: Well, you know, maybe not the Titanic. That's a little deep. (laughs)
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Is it too deep?
Agnes Milowka: Yes, the Titanic lies 2 kilometers down in the depths of the ocean.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: How deep do you go?
Agnes Milowka: I happily go down to a 100m with no problems. A highly technical diver if they are really pushing the limit might go down to 200m and that is quite a big dive.
When you dive down to a 100m you have time to go down there and spend thirty minutes, even an hour just looking around and taking it all in. But the deeper you go the less time you have down the bottom to touch anything, to see anything, do anything and you have to spend more and more time on decompression. After a certain point it becomes counter productive as you have very little time on the bottom but it takes many hours to get out of the water, back onto the boat or exit a cave. So a 100m is not a bad depth to be diving to.
I should mention that a recreational divers that dive in an ocean for a bit of fun normally dive to a maximum of 40m. The diving beyond 40m is generally referred to as technical diving and you need more gear and more training and experience to do it. The depth completely changes what you can and can't do. When diving past 40m you can no longer just go straight up to the surface if things go wrong, you have to stop along the way to decompress and allow the bubbles that form in your body a chance to escape. The slow ascent and the stops give your body a chance to adapt to the changing pressure. If you fail to do your decompression stops there is a chance you might get decompression sickness. This means you can be seriously hurt, you can experience pain in your joints and all over your body and this often means you have to go to hospital and a decompression chamber. Once there they put your body under pressure and bring you back up incredibly slowly in the hope that you feel better. Sometimes that is not enough and you can be permanently damaged. It can even lead to death. So beyond 40m the rules of the game definitely change.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: So when you dive deep are you putting your life at risk?
Agnes Milowka: (laughs) Well the best caves are the ones that are shallow so that you can spend hours exploring them and there is less risk. However there are times when you have to go deep because there is something special down there that you want to see. For example wrecks - the deeper they are the better preserved they are, as they are less effected by the elements, wave action and people. The deeper the wreck the less likely someone has pillaged the artifacts off it.
So the deep wrecks mean that you can still see things on the ship as they were at the time of the sinking. When there is a collision, it all happens so quickly. The ships sink in twenty minutes, perhaps an hour and people do not have time to collect nor save any of their possessions. So everything that was on the ship at that moment in time sinks to the bottom and remains on the wreck. So the deeper you go the better chance you have to see all the artifacts still in place on the wreck. The wreck is like a historical time capsule, artifacts that sunk say a hundred years ago are all there. Everything is there.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: So it's like time stopped.
Agnes Milowka: Exactly right, it is like looking at a snap shot in time.
Agnes Milowka: In caves you have to go deep because you never know what the cave will do and how deep it will go. That is one of the most fascinating things about cave diving; no one knows where the cave will go. That is why we cave dive, because we want to find out what is around the corner, we want to find out where the water is coming from. Sometimes the cave just goes deeper and deeper and deeper.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: At some point though you have to stop.
Agnes Milowka: At some point yes you do. (laughs)
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Yet there is that passion that desire to go further, deeper, longer?
Agnes Milowka: Yes there is that passion and the desire. You know, I live at a very lucky moment in time for divers. The technology and the dive gear at the moment is quite advanced, and this technology allows myself and other divers to go deeper then ever before. We were talking casually about doing 100m dives, but it is advanced and technical diving and should not be taken lightly. The reality is that without all this gear those dives would be very hard to impossible. And technology, typically, tends to change a lot and get better with time. So I reckon in ten or twenty years time the gear will get better and what we now consider the end of the cave will be pushed out even further.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: So what gear is good? Who is the leader in the creation of dive gear, Australians, Americans, the rest of the world?
Agnes Milowka: In the past there was no commercially available dive gear for cave diving. The people that went diving in caves had to create their own dive gear. I guess that's why there were a lot more men involved in the sport. They had to design and make everything themselves; reels and lights, everything. The recreational dive gear market wasn't interested in caving. Eventually there came a point when cave divers who build dive gear for themselves and perhaps their friends started selling the gear to others and thus began technical dive gear companies.
Today there is a high demand for such products and there are more and more companies making technical dive gear. Everything is a lot more professional these days. There are still people out there who make their own gear because they think it will be cheaper or they will make it better. It definitely won't be cheaper - but you never know, it might be better. Dive gear changes and there are a lot of good companies out there making it.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Let's get back to the Titanic then, as this brings us to James Cameron. He was the creator of the movie 'Titanic' and also the famous movie 'Avatar.' This year you had the opportunity to work with James Cameron while working on a new movie whose action happens inside a cave. Tell us more about this.
Agnes Milowka: At the beginning of this year I was in Qeensland where we shot a movie called 'Sanctum' and James Cameron was the executive producer of the movie. Andrew Wight was the producer and he is an Australian diver with lots of experience cave diving.
The movie is about a group of people who dive in caves and explore caves and what happens when the cave collapses and they cannot get out. That storyline seems very far-fetched and Hollywood like and it is tempting to think that this would never happen in real life, but reality is often stranger than fiction. Andrew Wight, the producer of the movie led an expedition in 1989 out to the Nullarbor desert in Australia. They were diving inside this cave and a freak storm dumped a year's worth of rain in twenty minutes. All that water poured into the cave causing it to collapse, blocking the exit. Thirteen people were stuck in there for two days. Luckily nothing happened to anyone and they were all rescued. They were very lucky and it was a miracle no one was hurt.
But the idea for the movie comes from this moment. So what would have happened if they didn't get out in two days? What happens between people when they are in a highly dangerous situation and stuck together, do they work together or do they fall apart?
Dariusz Buchowiecki: The psychology of it is very interesting. So what did you do on set?
Agnes Milowka: I was a stunt diver for the two female characters. They needed a girl who cave dives and who can use rebreathers. A rebreather is a technical piece of dive gear that allows you to reuse your breath and as such does not emit any bubbles. So I was their girl - lucky me! So for a month I got to pretend to be a cave diver - it was a lot of fun! I got to do exactly what I love doing.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Because you make movies and have been involved in filming with other projects, how do you compare making documentaries when you get to shoot footage yourself to film making where you are the talent, or did you get to use the camera on set?
Agnes Milowka: We were definitely the talent in the film and did not touch the cameras. Myself and a few other Australian cave divers just helped out a bit. There were a hundred and fifty people involved in the making of this movie and they all have a job to do. They hired us specifically to do the underwater scenes and dive whilst looking like real cave divers. In a way we helped to coach the actors.
The actors learned to dive from the very basics and an open water course all the way through to advanced diving on a rebreather in order to make the movie. They had to learn a lot! Actors are amazing, when they look at a stuntie, they have this incredible ability to copy and imitate exactly what they have seen. So the director got us to do our thing and swim around as if we were diving out in a real cave somewhere and then the actors repeated everything. They looked at us and went, no worries we can do that! So really they used the stunt divers to check out lights, to test out different ideas and so on. When it came to the actual filming, the actors got in the water and did it and we sat back and looked on, and were amazed by how good they looked!
Dariusz Buchowiecki: So they did a good job then?
Agnes Milowka: Yes they did! Actors are quite amazing because without any background in diving they learned so quickly.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: They learned how to pretend to be cave divers.
Agnes Milowka: Well yes, they learned how to pretend to be cave divers. (laughs)
Dariusz Buchowiecki: So did you enjoy the movie making experience or would you prefer to make documentaries and make your own movies?
Agnes Milowka: They are very different adventures. There aren't exactly a lot of cave diving movies made, so I don't think I'll have much luck making this a day job. But if opportunities come up in the future I would love to.
It was an amazing experience, all those people working together for all those months, trying to create this vision. Then at the end of it all there is a finished product and a complete movie. I love that film doesn't just show the facts, and figures but that it also elicits emotions. This is what makes it such an interesting medium and what really fascinates me about it.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: When will the movie come out?
Agnes Milowka: It will be out in the cinemas on the 4th of February 2011 and it will be in 3D. So when you are watching the movie it should feel as if you really are underwater and inside a cave. I hope everyone loves it and becomes fascinated with caves.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: We will wait for the release with great anticipation. So what are your plans for the future?
Agnes Milowka: In the future I hope to get the opportunity to make documentaries. I would love to show off what I see everyday and what is a part of my 'normal' life and let other people see these beautiful and interesting places too.
I would love to share what I see underwater thorough photographs, stories and films to those who don't have the opportunities to see it all themselves. How I will do this I'm not quite sure yet.
I hope that in a few years time people will be interested in the expeditions that I do and follow along and be excited and share my enthusiasm. I hope they want to know more and that they will be fascinated with the underwater world in the same way that I am. There are so many new things to find in caves for science and just out of curiosity. Ideally everyone should go diving and see what is below the surface, the fish, the wrecks and the caves. But if they can't, well at least they can see and enjoy the photographs and the films.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Let's give out the address of your website where you can read about the various projects you have been involved with and see the photographs. I love your photographs by the way; you have a good eye. Can you give us your website address?
Agnes Milowka: www.AgnesMilowka.com
Dariusz Buchowiecki: On your website you write the stories, you keep a blog, you share photos… can we use some of your photos for the SBS website?
Agnes Milowka: Yes, absolutely.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: If anyone has any questions in English they can ask you via your website?
Agnes Milowka: Absolutely, they can ask in English or in Polish. I reckon I can handle any question.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: Thank you for joining us and sharing with us details of this beautiful underwater world. I have one more question before you go. Recently a very famous diver, and one you knew personally passed away. How did you take it and are you now scared of diving?
Agnes Milowka: I am not scared of diving. Anyone at any point can pass away. So you have to live your life as if tomorrow could be your last day. I love diving, I am passionate about it and I don't think anything will stop me from doing it. Unfortunately there are risks; in every extreme sport there are dangers. It doesn't always work out but you do everything possible to not only do that one dive, but to keep on diving over many years. That's what it's all about after all, longevity. You have to dive safely but live as if everyday is going to be your last.
Dariusz Buchowiecki: You're very brave. Thanks you very much for joining us.