The Stealth Conservationist
Every now and then you meet someone who grabs your attention. Inspiring, challenging, and with a deep love of the sea, explorer Scott Cassell is a unique figure in marine conservation. Interview and photography by Anna Burn.
I met Scott Cassell in Barcelona, at an event hosted by his sponsor, Luminox watches. Familiar with his ground-breaking research on the Humboldt squid that frequent his local Californian waters, I had expected a stereotypical macho diver, but by the end of three days, it was clear that there were more facets to him than I had anticipated.
Scott learnt to dive in California at the age of six and has spent his life in the water. He began his commercial diving career at 15, welding piers and boats, then spent 15 years in the US military, serving as a combat medic and an Aero Scout Observer in the National Guard. His CV is textbook action man stuff: he has served as a sniper; an anti-piracy consultant and a counterterrorism combat diving instructor for Special Operations personnel.
The world has many impressive military divers, but relatively few of them acquire a taste for marine conservation and even fewer find a way to marry the two skill sets. As founder and head of Sea Wolves Unlimited, he has brought Special Ops techniques to marine conservation, covertly filming illegal fishermen and poachers who target endangered species.
For 15 years, Scott and the Sea Wolves team have hunted poachers under cover of darkness, often using rebreathers to swim within filming range of fishing boats. He favours closed-circuit rebreathers because they leave no bubble trail at the surface to give away his position: “bubbles get you killed” he says, matter-of-fact. During his time in military special operations, Scott swore to always protect the innocent and he views marine life as an innocent victim of our insatiable greed. “I hate a bully,” he says. “I feel the same way when I see people killing sharks, sea turtles and dolphins. I see bad people behaving badly, killing things that are needed to keep the ocean in balance. That’s why I hunt poachers.”
Anti-poaching missions have taken Scott throughout the Americas, from Mexico, Central and South America, to Alaska. Recently, while on a reconnaissance mission in Baja Mexico, he and his team came across the severed heads of more than 1,000 baby sharks, killed for their fins. Evidence gathered from that particular mission led to four convictions; each poacher received an eight-year sentence in a Mexican prison. Information from his intelligence gathering has so far resulted in 14 convictions.
Scott’s military background enables him to gather evidence by stealth, which is then handed over to the authorities. He spends up to two days and two nights in silent observation, sometimes with no food or water. In the course of his missions, he has been stabbed, beaten with rocks, run down by boats and held under the water with a boat hook puncturing his chest. Most of his work is done in the Mexican Baja Peninsula, where a strong link exists between drug cartels and poachers – it is a place where hands-on conservation is not for the faint hearted. But for Scott there is no other choice, he has dedicated his life to doing whatever he can to protect our oceans.
Over a traditional Catalunyan porrón of wine, Scott shared stories of dives with Humboldt squid and great whites, tales of adventures in jungles and oceans... and some tricks of the trade that help to keep him alive. This is a man for whom kit choices can be matter of life and death, so when he finds something that works, he sticks with it. But even though he is accustomed to working on closed circuit rebreathers, he favours an old-fashioned twin-hose regulator for his fun diving.
As part of the interview set up by his sponsors at Luminox, we dived the beautiful Illes Medes Marine Reserve, in the western Mediterranean, teeming with life and colourful corals. I’d never seen a vintage open-circuit twin-hose regulator like Scott’s US Divers DA–Aqua Master. On anti-poaching missions, Scott uses a rEvo rebreather with a VR3 dive computer. Each and every item is carefully chosen and trusted, including his bespoke watch, a special edition by Luminox called the Scott Cassell Deep Dive Automatic.
After a Mission, Scott’s extraction takes place in total darkness. Using just his watch and compass, Scott navigates to co-ordinates a mile and a half offshore, where he is met by a boat at a pre-arranged time. If he misses the pick-up, he’s on his own. For Scott, the watch’s essential feature is its self-powered illumination, which means he can always tell the time, even in complete darkness.
Exploring the Unknown
Scott’s research dives can be just as challenging as his stealth diving. The first person to record footage of the squid known as the Red Devil in its natural habitat, he bears the scars of close encounters with these aggressive cephalopods on his face and neck. These torpedo-like squid deserve respect – each of their suckers is ringed with tiny teeth that enable a double-strength grip on their prey.
Humboldt squid move in groups of up to 1,200, on a daily migration up and back through 1,000 vertical metres of the water column. They feed at night in the plankton- rich shallows of the Humboldt Current in the Eastern Pacific. Over-fishing of shark populations in the area has resulted in these incredible hunters taking the throne as apex predators.
Forthcoming missions for Scott’s not-for- profit organisation, the Undersea Voyager Project (UVP), will employ his manned submersible, the Great White to explore human influence on the sea. UVP will study species populations and fisheries sustainability, general ocean health and the health of inland waters (limnology). The first mission to Tioman Island, Malaysia, will investigate the viability of sharks and fishermen co-existing on one of the area’s last remaining reefs. Then he’s off to the Yucatan Peninsula to dive with bull sharks, which are critically endangered in the region. Scott says these sharks are the only bulls he’s dived with that are responsive to humans. To understand why they interact without showing aggression, he will attach cameras to the sharks and dive with them. He aims to show that this most-feared species should not be viewed as a threat, but understood as the threatened.
After that, Scott plans to take the sub into Lake Tahoe, which contains a preserved 3,000-year-old forest. The team will be filming the forest in 3-D and collecting core samples to evaluate climate change in the region. His list of upcoming projects seems endless – much of his work is born from the partnership with Luminox, who have enabled Scott to spread his belief in ocean conservation to a global audience over the past three years.
“The bottom line is that the oceans are in the process of dying,” Scott says. “But the way that we’ll fix this is by using media as an educational tool to tell the story of the oceans, so that everybody wants to help. Luminox have stood up and helped this to happen.”
Scott is now in talks with the BBC about a documentary series championing his own heroes, the people on the front line of ocean ecology. I, for one, am very excited to follow his story as it gains momentum.
Keep up to date with Scott on underseavoyagerproject.org or with the Undersea Voyager Project on Facebook. Check out the special edition watch at luminox.com
“The world has many impressive military divers, but relatively few of them acquire a taste for marine conservation”
“If I can my sell soul to save the ocean, I'll do it”
“The bottom line is that the oceans are in the process of dying, but the way that we’ll fix this is by using media as an educational tool to tell the story of the oceans, so that everybody wants to help. Luminox have stood up and helped this to happen.”