Time to fight back

Timothy Barber
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Undersea explorer and former special forces operative Scott Cassell is taking on poachers and drug cartels

HE had me pinned underneath the boat with a boathook puncturing my chest,” recalls Scott Cassell of one of his hairier moments on a mission to film shark poachers off the Mexican coast. “As he was poking me he was trying to bring me up, so I took up my fighting knife, slid up the pole, jabbed it into his hand and snapped it to the side. That probably broke every bone in his hand, and I got away from him.”

Around Mexico’s coastal Baja peninsula where Cassell operates his covert recon missions, the poachers are in cahoots with the drug cartels – pretty much the very worst people on Earth to mess with. He is not a popular man in these communities, where his films of people poaching sharks, turtles, sea lions and other endangered species have landed the perpetrators with heavy prison sentences. So he was happy to get away from the guy with the boat hook, right?

“My knife lodged in his hand, so that bastard got my $200 knife and I only got his $5 boat hook. I’m still mad about that – I want my knife,” he says bluntly.

For a 52-year-old former Special Forces sniper, combat diving specialist and sometime mercenary, with the build of an armoured car and frontline experiences from any number of theatres of combat, Cassell is a surprisingly placid character. Actually he’s charming, and has an almost evangelical fervour for his true love – the sea and the life within it.

“The oceans globally are in the process of dying,” he says. “We’re on an extinction event: we’re watching temperatures shift, ocean acidification, systems collapsing. We’ve only explored about 1 per cent of the ocean, and in that 1 per cent we see terrible things happening, so what’s happening in the other 99 per cent? We don’t know, but what we do see is very alarming.”

Cassell, who grew up scuba diving and admits to being more comfortable under the sea than above it, has made numerous underwater films, and led the team that was the first to film a giant squid in its natural environment. He’s even built his own submarine to continue exploring and perform scientific missions. Like any diver, he relies on his watch, particularly in no-light conditions – both at depth and when making his night time escape from Mexican poachers (he sometimes lies motionless on a beach in camouflage for over two days on a “sniper stalk”, filming).

He works with Luminox, an American company that specialises in luminescent watches thanks to markers on the dial and hands filled with Tritium, a glowing radioactive gas, to develop his ideal timepiece. Able to be read at depths where sunlight never penetrates, it’s a crucial part of his kit as he makes his escape. “At an exact point in time, usually 2.30am, I’ll swim out on a compass course, count my kicks so I know how far I’m travelling, and surface in the right place at the right time to be picked up. The next landfall is 75 miles away – that’s how much I rely on this watch.”

Cassell willingly describes serving alongside heroes – so does he consider himself one? “No, I’m kind of a regular guy. I’ve rubbed elbows with heroes but I’m not one.”