Bell & Ross A secret urban commando dive with Bell & Ross
Bell & Ross has a close relationship with many elite units. One of them is the Paris Fire Brigade, which has exclusive access to one of the world’s most secret and most unusual dive sites.
The invitation was rather enigmatic. We would be scuba diving, in Paris, underneath one of the city’s most iconic monuments. That’s it. No additional information was supplied. Or rather... just one condition: once the location had been revealed, I had to keep it secret, even after the adventure was over.
The day began when the taxi turned up 20 minutes early. This was shaping up to be a very unusual day indeed. The driver knew the address, but I was still in the dark. When he told me, I must admit I was none the wiser. But after a quick look at my GPS, I swallowed hard. I’d be diving under.... that place? It was right in the centre of Paris, one kilometre from the Seine. The mystery deepened.
The entrance to the cistern © WorldTempus / David Chokron
Once inside the building, I was guided down corridors and through courtyards, down a series of steps that grew dingier and less salubrious the further we descended, finally arriving five floors below ground. The room was filled with immense red pipes, and valves closed by huge wheels up to a metre in diameter. The floor was invisible under mountains of diving equipment: cylinders, masks, rebreathers, fins, luminous rope, wetsuits and, a little bit further along, a big red bag with my name on it. And standing next to it, my welcoming committee. Carlos Rosillo and Bruno Bellamich, co-founders and, respectively, CEO and artistic director of Bell&Ross, smiled at me, visibly proud of their little surprise. With them was a diving instructor from the Paris Fire Brigade, with years of experience diving in the Seine and in other more improbable environments.
Mr Bellamich (Bell) on the right, and Mr Rosillo (Ross) on the left © WorldTempus / David Chokron
He briefed us. For security reasons, we were to keep the location a secret. He told us he’s always being asked to bring people here, because this dive is well known to the small community of cognoscenti. And yet no more than 20 people dive here each year.
So, where was the dive? Where was the water? We were standing on top of it. The location was a huge cistern built to safeguard the structural integrity of the building, and also to act as a reservoir in case of fire. Incidentally, it is one of the many mysteries that haunt this legendary Parisian site. It measures 25 by 50 metres, with a depth of 3 metres. It lies beneath 15 floors, thousands of tonnes of stone and marble, and hundreds of visitors.
I start to get ready. Inside the big red bag is a black neoprene commando wetsuit. There are fins a metre long (at least, that’s what it feels like when I make the mistake of trying to walk with them...) and a brand new mask. Then, someone drops a 20 kilo rebreather onto my shoulders. This device, worn by commando divers, uses pure oxygen in a closed circuit and doesn’t release any bubbles. Without the hiss of escaping gas, the trip will be much quieter. Finally, I strap a black ceramic BR 03-92 Diver over the wrist of my wetsuit.
My equipment, including 25 kg rebreather © Bell & Ross
I climb down the ladder and slip into the cold water. Up on the surface it’s 30 degrees; France is in the grip of a heatwave. I may have squealed when the water seeped into my boots. I dive. It’s really, really dark. The only sources of light are the two access points, 25 metres apart. Underneath the water I steady myself, stabilise the pressure, and adapt my breathing to the rebreather. I follow the phosphorescent yellow line and the iron hand of my instructor. He’s a former combat diver and an all-round lovely guy, but you clearly wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side.
Descending to the cistern © Bell & Ross
After swimming 10 metres we reach the cistern itself. It is made of brick pillars formed into arches. It’s like swimming beneath a Roman aqueduct, but underwater. The water is perfectly clear, with just a few particles disturbed by our fins. It’s a completely surreal experience. I have no visual references, everything is black, it’s unreal. I’m under water, under stone, and under the city.
And I haven’t so much as glanced at my watch. Preoccupied by the need to breathe, to keep my bearings, and not panic (I’m not too proud to admit it), it didn’t even occur to me. I have no idea how long I stay under the water. Probably just a few minutes, but it feels much longer.
The Bell & Ross BR 03-92 Diver in black ceramic, in combat gear, and civilian attire © Bell & Ross / WorldTempus / David Chokron
So, what was the monument? There’s no point asking me, I’m not allowed to tell you. Paris is in a permanent state of alert. If the cistern were bombed, the entire district would be flooded, and the structure of the very large and important building above would be compromised. But don’t worry! I wasn’t the only person there that morning who didn’t have a clue where I was. At least, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me…
For Bell & Ross, each detail has a specific meaning and function: functionality is key, and minimalism – dispensing with superfluous ornamental details in favour of essential aspects – is vital.Find out more >
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