Kourosh Mahboubian, Arctic, 1993.
By Behrouz Bruce Bahmani
San Ramon, California
I was browsing the Web one day, and I had heard of a Mad Dog something or other and, as is usually the case when I punch it up on the search engine, lo and behold, up came "Mad Dog Expeditions".
I read further and discovered it was a fascinating little company based out of New York, specializing in high adventure, underwater scuba diving expeditions.
I found myself inexplicably drawn to the subject, and as I kept reading about the expeditions and looking at the beautiful pictures of the underwater world, I found myself fascinated by the sheer prospect of someone taking time off from work, flying somewhere totally remote, putting your life in the hands of these experts and experiencing something indescribable.
I got to the point in the web site where they describe the expedition leaders and company founders. Indeed these were experts, some had 20 years of experience and wrote articles about their expeditions. Basically these people live, eat and breathe with their scuba gear on.
I read a little further until I found what I now know I had been looking for all along. Amongst the list of names I saw flashing at me like a beacon on a foggy night: founder, Kourosh Mahboubian. I knew then I simply had to talk with him.
I found Kourosh to be a serious, professional when it comes to his field, but with a great Persian sense of humor and a lot of fun to talk to. He is young, (but not too young!) 31, and yes, single. (If I wasn't married myself...) He's an all around great guy and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him talk about his passion.
I would like to take this moment to thank Christine Dennison(Thanks Christine!) who was instrumental in helping me gain access to Kourosh and who was very supportive throughout our interactions.
BB: How about a little background on you to get things started. I'm sure our readers want to know a little bit about you, like where were you born, parents and such, and when were you in Iran last?
KM: Okay, here goes, I was born and brought up in New York, but I also lived in England for a few years, growing up. My parents are of course Persian, however I have a German grandmother. Unfortunately the last time I was in Iran was the summer of 1976 and I've only been to Iran three times, but I do speak Persian fluently!
BB: Were you able to do any diving while you were there?
KM: I've heard a lot of things about the quality of Iranian dive spots, but I haven't been able to dive there so I can't really comment. I've always had this fantasy of diving both sides of the Caspian to see what the sturgeons there eat that makes Persian caviar so much better than the Russian variety.
BB: I think I know the reason, but that's another topic. You recently returned from an expedition to the Andrea Doria. Why do you think there is this continued fascination with this wreck and what makes it so special for you.
KM: She is the Grande Dame, the last of the great transatlantic liners. Her sinking, marked the passing of an era in ship travel. Now we all rush around in jets. I think what makes her fascinating to most divers is that she's so difficult to get to.
She lies fifty miles offshore in 250 feet of cold, dark water, with strong currents, rough seas and poor visibility. She's also very big. Which makes it easy to get lost. Imagine being underwater, in something the size of a seventy story building!
There are only a handful of people who have the skill and preparation to dive on her. Some of them have been going back since the early eighties and they've just been able to scratch her surface.
BB: That sounds amazing the way you describe it, but okay, I can't wait any longer, tell me, how does one go from being a successful art and antiquities dealer to starting an extreme adventure expedition company such as Mad Dog Expeditions?
KM: Since childhood I've dreamed of being Jacques Cousteau or an astronaut or a rocket scientist. I got my first mask and fins when I was five and started scuba at age thirteen. Now that I'm a grown up, I can't seem to draw the line between work and fun.
Actually, I think I get it from my bloodlines. My grandfather was a great adventurer. He was born in 1869! By all accounts, he was the first archaeologist in Iran. Although trained to be a doctor, he gave up medicine to do what he loved. That was considered radical in his time! It just wasn't done. My father was an adventurer too. His stories are too long to tell here.
I spent a couple of years losing my shirt in contemporary art then, started over again in ancient art. This was easier. I had a strong family reputation in the field and my father's experience to fall back on. We did very well, but I always felt something missing. I needed an outlet other than simply making money.
So, when I made enough, I closed the art gallery and started Mad Dog Expeditions with my business partner, Christine Dennison. She had the marketing background and I had the diving experience and industry knowledge. I think we actually came up with the idea at the same time, a result of the extensive traveling we had each done.
There weren't many companies that could provide the kind of exploration opportunities we wanted, so we started planning our own trips. Soon, people were coming to us for help and advice.That's how Mad Dog got started.
BB: I'm pretty sure I hate you now, but let's continue anyway. What types of clients do you see most frequently? I mean, who in their right mind signs up for Antarctic ice diving?
KM: It's Arctic ice diving. We go North. Antarctic is in the south! Believe it or not, we can teach a total beginner to dive and train that person for Arctic ice diving in under a month. This same principle applies with varying degrees of difficulty to a lot of our other expeditions.
Some things seem a lot harder than they really are. Then there are places that require years of experience and training to get to, like some of the shipwrecks and caves we dive. As a result we have clients of all different ability levels.
Initially, we expected the stereotypical white male 35-45, high disposable income and a need for excitement. However, we ended up getting a much more diverse clientele than that. We've had women in their fifties, families with kids, even a sixteen year old traveling alone once.
Some people are hard core, some aren't. Some are wealthy but a lot of them save up for these once-in-a-lifetime trips, and come back again and again. The common denominator seems to be they're all intelligent, have a sense of adventure and a strong commitment to going where few have been.
BB: So you have to be fairly strong willed and want to do this? Hmmm, I guess that excludes Iranians, because we all know that Iranians aren't strong willed at all are they! So, which is your most popular destination and why?
KM: There are too many for there to be one single most popular destination. Fortunately I've got an excellent staff to work with. We have several world renowned explorers and scientists not to mention our head of operations, Andrew Driver,ho is the most indomitable trip leader and planner I've ever known.
These people participate in the trips as team members, and go along with the clients. Basically it's the closest you're going to get to going on a National Geographic expedition. Our clients end up becoming our friends and look to us to help them decide where to go next. We always seem to find new and exciting places to take them.
We've dived under the Arctic ice, with piranhas and caimans in the Amazon, dugongs in Papua New Guinea, white sharks in South Africa and in the remotest nooks and crannies of caves and shipwrecks all over the world. Usually, our latest idea becomes our most popular trip until something newer comes along.
BB: What album are you playing on your stereo right now?
KM: Uh ... I'm not. I'm talking to you. Here, in the office Christine is in charge of choosing the radio station. She usually picks an oldies or soul station. At home or on the road, I prefer jazz, classic rock and anything with a good guitar.
BB: Have you heard Shahin & Sepehr? I have heard they are really good. Well, I have this occasionally recurring dream (No, not the one with Cindy Crawford wearing a chador!) ever since childhood, where I fall off a cliff into the sea and go down, down, down, and when I can't hold my breath any longer, I take a huge gulp expecting water, but suddenly find that I can breathe underwater!
It's such a cool thing, that I then feel a sense of pure joy swimming around the sea and it is very comforting and soothing gliding through the water. Is my dream close and is that what it feels like to dive?
KM: Yes. Except I don't know what that other part of your dream means.
BB: I've always wondered about this next question. How do you get the air from the tanks to go into your lungs? I mean, if the air is pressurized then it would push it's way into your mouth (and in my case right out my nose!), but how are you able to breathe in normally?
KM: It's very simple really, a hose with a mouthpiece goes from your scuba tank to your mouth. This is called a demand regulator. It senses when you breath in and releases only as much air as you suck in. You never have too much pressure in your mouth. At least not from scuba.
BB: OK, Mr. Smarty pants, what's the truth about that eating before you go swimming thing!
KM: Fish do it all the time. I guess it's all right for people too. Sometimes I eat crackers when I dive. Then I open my mouth and the fish swim in and eat the crackers.
BB: That's pretty much the most disgusting thing I have ever heard! I know you must have had at least a couple of close calls doing this, so all kidding and limited liabilities aside, what's your most dangerous, close call diving story?
KM: When any one of us leads people into an unfamiliar environment, we leave absolutely no room for close calls. That being said, I have had a few scary personal moments. Once, I blacked out underwater on a wreck in the St. Lawrence Seaway.
It was the result of an unexpected equipment problem and I was diving alone. I regained my senses on the way back up because of steps I had taken just before blacking out. My diving skills are second nature to me so even in a disoriented state I could concentrate on problem solving and survival.
This kind of scenario is rare because people in the sport generally have a healthy respect for their personal limitations. But when you're out diving beyond the boundary of the "recreational level," the margin for error is much slimmer.
Sometimes it's more like being an astronaut than a diver. Specialized training, equipment and constant practice of skills are all that separate you from a bad ending if things do go wrong.
BB: Well thanks alot for doing this, and as a parting and totally unrelated question, do you have a favorite Iranian dish? After a "Hard Day's Dive" (...and you've been divin' like a dog!), where's your favorite place to go for Iranian food?
KM: Well, I love Chelo-Kabab, big surprise, and of course Ab-Gousht. But my favorite place to eat is my parents' home. By the way Behrouz, very few dogs can dive. Although I am in the process of trying to teach mine!