Characters of the Sea: Meet Dando Bojić; A Lifetime at Sea

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With the launch of Total Croatia Sailing on June 1st, 2017, we are beginning a new series – ‘Characters of the Sea’. After years working on the Adriatic, it became apparent to me that there are so many unique characters, who all have incredible tales to tell. From Salty-Seadogs, to deep-sea divers, fishermen and families at sea… the Adriatic is over-flowing with history, tradition and stories waiting to be told. So, first up, meet Dando Bojić – a man with a lifetime dedication to the sea.

Vladan Bojić, or Dando as is his friends know him, is truly a man of the sea. Beginning from days as a 10-year-old boy catching and selling fish, to deep-sea diving for red coral, owning fishing boats, tuna farms and various sailing yachts and gulets. His love for the sea knows no bounds, including recovering from being told he would never walk again, and… returning to the sea.

If there was ever a Character of the Sea, Dando Bojić is it. I was fortunate enough to have met Dando in past years and it is people like him who inspired me to begin this series. Working on the Adriatic, I learnt very quickly that everyone has a tale to tell, some more than others. From the outskirts, Dando is a quiet, humble man and it took more than a year before I learnt anything of his adventures at sea, which is why I am not only thrilled, but also humbled to be trusted to share them.

Dando began by saying he has no idea where his love of the sea came from, while – like most every family in Dalmatia – he grew up in a house close to the sea, no one in his family had any job related to the sea. From a young age, Dando said, he was obsessed. He was always doing something around the sea and at the age of 10, he began selling the fish he caught, thus began his lifetime career at sea.

The beginning of a love affair with deep-sea diving for red coral… “The underwater world is a world I know, love and understand… there is no feeling close to the first moment you discover red coral”

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Photo Credit: wildsea.eu

The first major job Dando had related to the sea was when he opened his first company cleaning large ships, taking care of propellers and equipment – “but I eventually quit this, I could barely make a living, taxes were around 75% as it was during socialist times, this is when I started to work as a deep-sea diver for red coral, around the age of 26.”

Deep-sea diving for red coral is a dangerous job, Dando began during the 1980’s, before there were more sophisticated tables, safety measures and even a proper understanding of the physical risks to the body. Dangers deep-sea divers face include: Barotrauma, decompression sickness, nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, pulmonary embolism and of course dangers of sea inhabitants and environment. Read more about these extreme dangers here.

I was always aware it was a dangerous job and I never took that fact for granted, but I was absolutely in love with that world. It is hard to explain to anyone that has never experienced it, videos don’t do it justice. When you descend below 80-metre depths, you are entering another world, colours no longer exist, it is a world consisting of shades of grey, white and black. The underwater world is the world I know, love and understand.

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Photo: Courtesy of Dando Bojic

The feeling is absolutely indescribable. Everything is alive, everything is unique, every dive is different. Then, when I come across a red coral shelf, the white tentacles glowing in the dark depths, like a magnificent white cloud… this is what I lived for.

Often when I discovered a coral reef colony, I wouldn’t harvest immediately. I would return to that site for several days in a row, just to witness it. And, only with regret did I smash it to harvest. Many men did this job for the money, but I never have; this was always my world, my passion.

But it definitely wasn’t all poetic moments, Dando has faced many accidents at sea, including being told he would never walk again… “The first time I really f*** up was…”

The first major incident Dando faced was in 1988, in his words – remember he is an old seadog – “this was the first time I really f***** up!”

I made a mistake coming out, in that time, the standard of coming out was 18-metres per minute, today’s standard is 7-metres per minute. I was at a depth of 90-metres and ascended too quickly. The second I was in the decompression chamber, I knew something was wrong, I was unusually dizzy. Thankfully my team also noticed, they called for help immediately and I was flown by helicopter from the island of Mljet.

It’s a strange situation, you know the prognoses is not good, but you are in no pain. This is the moment that many lose consciousness and never wake again, it happens a lot – and I was deeply aware of the consequences and what was happening around me.

The first day you are in the decompression chamber for 7 – 8 hours, second day, third day, fifth day and so on… You hear the doctors tell you that you will never walk again, but after some time, improvements begin. With a bit of luck, work and will, you get into a state where you can operate on your own again.

The doctor warned Dando, that not only would he never walk again, but he was not even allowed to look at the sea through a mask on a boat! Dando retold this laughing, but had this to say on the matter:

“I listened to him, for 3 months… but my drive was always to get back on my feet and back to the sea. It was the only thought in my head and it is what got me through.”

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Copyright: Romulić and Stojčić, underwater Mljet

Dando went on to explain the experience and what is involved when you are diving at such depths.

‘Once you dive deeper than 70-metres, you begin to face the narcotic influences of nitrogen, known as ‘drunkenness of the depths’ this is when fatal accidents generally occur…’

There is a lot to think about, before you even dive you need to spend at least an hour or two beforehand mentally preparing for the dive. Imagining what it looks like, all of the situations that could arise, getting your mind ready, trained and concentrated.

Once you dive deeper than 70-metres, you are beginning to face the narcotic influences of nitrogen. This is why you need to mentally prepare before and during the dive, you need to be disciplined to remember why you are there. A lot of people, if not concentrating, get into a euphoric state of mind, forget their environment and generally, this is when fatal accidents happen. This state is known as ‘drunkenness of the depths’, some people compare it to the effects of drinking an entire bottle of whiskey. My greatest strength, is that I have always had strong discipline, I have always been able to control myself.

When or why did you stop diving for coral?

“It was around 2002, I was out diving with a friend – Hrvoje, I was 40 years old and he was only 20 years old. After we would finish diving, I noticed that he would always go for a run, or go out at night and I realised I was exhausted, I just wasn’t physically capable any more. Plus, my priorities had changed. I had children, I wasn’t alone anymore, I had a responsibility to them; so, I quit diving to make sure I had a stable, safe, regular job to provide for my family.

But, just because Dando wasn’t diving professionally for coral, he still didn’t stop diving all together. And, in 2010 (six years after being diagnosed with cancer), he faced his second near-fatal accident.

Today science and technology has created new computers and new safety parameters for deep-sea diving. They have realised that there are so many variables, one table does not work for everyone, there are so many factors – age, size, weight, health… My second accident proves this; I did everything right, I had the latest technology from a doctor in the US Navy to calculate the oxygen mix and rate, and yet it still ended in disaster. Fact is, I was out of shape and older, the guidelines were incorrect for me. I was flown from Komiza and spent one month in the decompression chamber in Split, then one month in Pula.

Dando recounts losing friends at sea and being the one to dive down and recover them

I have lost many friends at sea. Worse still, I have often had to be the one to dive down to recover the bodies of my friends, finding them stuck between rocks or worse… It’s not nice diving down for someone you don’t know, let alone someone you know… I have seen too many situations like this and you always analyse yours and others’ mistakes, hoping to learn something for next time. But, there is never a question of whether there will be a next time.

Dando has been fighting cancer for the last 13 years, but has still not given up his love of the sea.

I have had fishing boats, a tuna farm in Malta – where I managed around 15 divers and I have owned around 22 boats. All of my life and all of my jobs have been connected to the sea, but I have never done it for the money, I have only ever followed my passion. I have had plenty of business and international opportunities to pursue other careers, but it never interested me. Every time I travelled, I always looked forward to returning to the Adriatic. And, I have held many different jobs and companies, diving for red-coral was and is still, my greatest passion.

And, after all the tragedies and hardships Dando has faced on his mind and body, I had one question left for him – would you change anything?

No. Nothing. Ok, maybe a few small details, but I have had a rich life and I wouldn’t change this for the world. In front of my mind’s eye, I can still see everything crystal clear. I know the islands, rocks and all the spots for coral from Montenegro to the Kornati Islands. I haven’t lost any of the images from undersea and I visit them often.

Though years of neurological damage through deep-sea diving, combined with nearly ten years on chemotherapy and various treatments has left Dando struggling to walk today, he is anything but a self-pitying man. You can still find Dando on, or by the sea most every day.

I don’t think I need to say what an inspiration he is. Our first and possibly truest, Character of the Sea.

 

Courtesy of Dando Bojić

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Photo: Courtesy of Dando Bojić

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