Keith Morris – Beneath the Surface

Although a huge and committed fan of all sorts of music – which extended to opera in later life – Keith Morris had several other consuming passions, the greatest of which was diving. Having maintained a rigorous fitness regime ever since his schooldays (he was runner-up in the 1955 National Youth 1500 metre race), as a teenager he developed a passing interest in scuba-diving. By the mid-seventies however, Keith was taking it much more seriously and with his typical energy and determination he moved quickly up the ranks of the British Sub-Aqua Club to become a national instructor, coming top of his year at the age of 50.

keith morris divingHe was a pioneer in deep diving, regularly diving to depths usually considered dangerous for air-breathing divers, and he particularly favoured diving in moving water, the faster the better. He regularly dived the Corryvreckan in Scotland, and especially enjoyed diving ‘races’, where the tide moving round a headland accelerates, and being underwater can be like being in a washing machine. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given his past achievements, he also took up long distance running, regularly finishing the London Marathon in under 3hrs 30mns to attain Elite Group status well into his sixties.

Eventually of course music photography and diving crossed paths: Richard Bull, bassist with one of Keith’s favourite Essex bands, the Kursaal Flyers, was into diving around the same time as Keith but as he later recalled, “incredibly, he didn’t know I was a diver and I didn’t know he was until we bumped into each other at a BSAC first class theory exam in 1985 – well the other bloke propping up the bar in the Marquee Club couldn’t be a diver, could he ?”

Bull, like Keith, was a pioneer of ‘technical diving’, which adds helium to the traditional oxygen and nitrogen, permitting descents below 65metres when normal air mixture usually becomes toxic. By the late ‘eighties Keith was at the cutting edge of this technology and also an early exponent of the ‘re-breather’ valve system which re-circulates the gases by expelling the noxious CO2, thus enabling him to spend longer periods visiting the deep sea wrecks that fascinated him.

keith morris divingIn 2002 he acted as technical guru for a team that located HMS Manchester 82m below the coast of Tunisia, which was featured in an HTV/Carlton tv documentary, and the previous year he led a project to find and investigate the WW11 wrecks of HMS Limbourne and Charybdis in the English Channel. Inevitably of course his expertise as both diver and photographer was dovetailed into a book, ‘Exploring Shipwrecks’, produced with Peter Rowlands in 1993.

And as his friend and ex-diving student, Simon Cockshutt observed, “One could say a lot more about Keith’s diving, but a few memories stand out. He was intensely competitive, and was proud – although wouldn’t openly admit it – of winning the Wilkinson Sword of Honour for his BSAC NI exam, during which he made a point of doing more than required for the exam: one test was to tread water in a swimming pool while holding a two kilo weight above the head for I think a minute. Keith told me he made a point of doing it for two minutes, and asked the examiners if he could do it for longer!

keith morris“He was also famously grouchy, and some divers couldn’t put up with it and refused to go on his trips. Those who did – because they were meticulously organised and always challenging – often joked about his cantankerousness and selfishness. For example, until the late ‘nineties when the trips were solely on deep wrecks, the annual Skin Deep weeks he ran in Weymouth always included a dive on the Portland ‘Race’, which typically only two or three other people on the boat were prepared to do as well. If being in the Race wasn’t hairy enough, it was bloody uncomfortable being on top of all the churning water, and even seasoned sailors found the experience testing. ‘And all so Morris can dive the bloody Race,’ was the general view.”

And as his training colleague, Dave Crockford put it: “Although some people would call Keith crabby, they didn’t really understand him. He’d let others know of observed failings but always in a genuine effort to help rather than anything negative. He strove for perfection and anything less would annoy him inwardly.”

It was of course cruelly ironic that Keith should disappear whilst leading a group of technical divers, some of whom he himself had trained, in the same vicinity as the Limbourne and Charybdis on June 17th 2005. But as his diving friend and fellow photographer, Leigh Bishop (who took some of the images here) recalls: “Keith was using a closed circuit Megledom rebreather when he went missing, and after almost 40 years with conventional open circuit equipment was relatively new to diving with this system. He was last seen off the wreck on the seabed and may have cut his dive short after leaving his dive partner some 8-10 minutes into the dive.

manta ray“A small team of Keith’s friends returned to the wreck on June 21st to search for his body, although he was not to be found. Guy Middleton, Keith’s close mate who was diving with him at the time of his disappearance also made the search dive along with friends Peter Beeson, Dave Godden and myself. The conditions were difficult and currents run fast within the area, although a line search off the wreck aided to the discovery of his delayed surface maker buoy ready for deployment. It’s unclear what exactly went wrong during his final minutes although whatever it was Morris will always be remembered by many UK divers.”

It was doubly ironic that Keith’s accident would mirror the death of his only son, 19 year-old Lee, whilst diving a flooded gravel pit in 1991. But Keith, though hugely generous to his close friends, generally kept the wildly different aspects of his life tightly sealed in discrete compartments and found it hard to reveal the pain this caused him. “It just made me more determined to do better,” he admitted in a rare revelation some years later, though ultimately his fastidious preparation and fitness regime was not enough to save him from the dangers of the deep. As he himself later observed to a fellow diver: “Don’t trust anyone: when you’re underwater, you’re on your own.”