Interview speakers 2024

Stefan panis: Challenging wreck diving


Text: Rene Lipmann | Photos: Stefan Panis

It can't be extreme enough for Stefan Panis. The mines in Belgium no longer hold any secrets for him, so to speak. He was involved in several successful diving expeditions in search of new wrecks and in the identification of the 1852 Josephine Willis.  

How did you experience your first dive at the age of six with your father? What do you remember about the dive off the Italian island of Ischia?

To be honest… it was a bit of a scary feeling to breathe underwater for the first time. Fortunately, my father was very calm and that eventually gave me enough confidence to go under. It was a fantastic dive, near the Roman castle Castello Aragonese. We saw the old road that is now flooded and found bowls and wine jars from Roman times! My passion for archeology was born!


This first diving experience had a major impact on your life. What was it about you to get your first diving license as a 14-year-old? 

It was a logical step, because I was already completely obsessed with the underwater world. I really wanted to get my license as quickly as possible. Once I started I wanted to dive as much as possible. Luckily I had good buddies in the diving club. They came to pick me up when my parents didn't have time.


What was the subject of your first underwater photo? What kind of camera did you take this photo with?

My first camera was a Sea&Sea Motormarine II. An analog camera, still with rolls of film! I had saved up for it for a long time and bought the camera shortly before a diving trip to the south of France. To dive on… yes, wrecks! So the first photos were wreck images. Underwater photography was very exciting at the time, because you had to wait for the development to see the results.

Photographing at extreme diving depths. How do you handle that? Do you have a fixed working method? How does it stay safe?

Planning is an important key; Plan the dive. Dive the plan. And just as important are your diving buddies. It is true that as an underwater photographer you are sometimes 'distracted'. Time passes quickly at great diving depths, so I think it is very important to have a buddy who is alert to this.

You now dive with a rebreather. What is the advantage of this for your diving expeditions?

Especially in terms of logistics, it is much more convenient to make these types of challenging deep dives on a rebreather. For example, I can dive all day in the Pas-de-Calais, on board a small boat, with the rebreather and a bail-out bottle. Without having to change anything. Previously, you needed several double sets per person and it was not logistically feasible to do multiple dives. Another advantage is the longer bottom time. This gives me extra time to photograph the wrecks!

Where does the fascination with wreck diving come from? 

Shipwrecks have had a magical appeal to me from an early age. They still have that! As a little boy I watched the explorations of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. That is still my motivation; Discovering it. Seeing wrecks first, often after hundreds of years. 'Feeling' the history and what is equally important to me is bringing the story back to life. There is nothing better than being able to identify a shipwreck!


You regularly participate in diving expeditions in the Strait of Dover. 

I dived there for the first time ten years ago and then I lost my heart a bit. What makes it so special is that so many ships have been wrecked in the narrowest part of the Channel. There are wrecks dating from the Bronze Age to very recent fishing vessels. It was and still is a dangerous sea area with all its sandbanks. The weather can change in no time. The cliffs can suddenly cause thick fog to form in the middle of summer. This was a great danger at sea, especially in ancient times. During our expeditions we often see that the cause of a disaster was a collision. What makes it very pleasant and special for us, the wrecks are very close. It is often only three to four nautical miles to a wreck. That's wonderful!

Tell us more about the discovery of the Josephine Willis wreck. 

My diving friend Tony Goodfellow had a strong suspicion that the wreck found was the Josephine Willis. But how do you prove that? This was the beginning of a quest to discover the true identity. The wreck is thirty meters deep. With the rebreather I can easily dive on the wreck for ninety minutes during neap tide, if there is not too much power. That's a lot of time to explore properly. Not much is left of the ship itself. It sank in 1852 and most of the wood has since decayed. What remains is the cargo spread across the seabed, with parts of the ship such as cannons, an anchor and the rudder in between. Ultimately, the lid of a glass jar revealed the identity: JW 1852. Further investigation revealed that the shipowner's brother owned a glass factory. This factory made custom glassware for the ship owner.

Finding a ship with so much porcelain on board... isn't it tempting to skip an aft plate?

Absolute! And we did that, albeit with the approval of the receiver of wrecks. The official body that looks after wreck finds in England. Whether or not to include finds is and will always remain a difficult discussion. The Josephine Willis had probably just been washed free from a sandbank when we discovered it. This area is intensively fished by bottom trawlers, which drag heavy nets across the seabed. If such a trawler had sailed over the wreck site, the top layer would undoubtedly have been completely destroyed. Now there are showcases in various English museums where our finds can be admired by everyone.

Is this wreck protected from treasure hunters?

Since this year, the wreck has indeed been protected by the English government at the request of Historic England. They asked me to be their permanent photographer. I was also allowed to collaborate with the maritime archaeologists on the report that was made about the ship. The announcement of this protection received a lot of media attention in England. As discoverers of the ship, we have received quite a lot of appreciation. They are beginning to realize that these historic wrecks are often discovered by recreational divers. Collaboration can only come about through mutual trust and respect.


A recent discovery by the Dover team is an old wooden shipwreck. 

In this case it is a difficult search and the identity remains a secret for the time being. We found the ship's bell, but unfortunately it had no name. The finds of crystal and porcelain give a good indication of the period from which the ship dates. This winter we will delve into the archives again to find possible candidates. In addition, we will of course continue to search for that one ultimate find, such as with the Willis, which gives away the name of the wreck. That gives the greatest satisfaction! 

Can you reveal anything about your upcoming book about Dover Straits? 

It promises to be the first part of a series that contains a nice collection of about twenty shipwrecks. A combination of old wrecks, warships and ocean liners. Each with the experience of my diving on the wreck as most readers know from my published stories. Supplemented with the necessary historical background, newspaper articles, cool underwater photos, images of preserved finds and historical photos!

It didn't just stop at wreck diving. You also like diving in Belgian mines. 

In the winter months, when wreck diving comes to a complete standstill, it gives me a similar feeling to wreck diving. Rusted pipelines, abandoned tools and mine carts. Just like with a wreck, this brings out a whole story for me. I also do a lot of research and realize how hard the work in the mines was. It is nice to bring this work back to attention. Many mines are on private property or managed by forest rangers. They are also closed for bats to hibernate. This together makes it difficult and complex to obtain official admission. I started the Mine Exploration Team for this purpose and after a number of successful documentation projects we have gained their trust. We are getting more and more permission to dive. 

In 2020 you became a member of The Explorers Club. What does this membership mean to you? 

Of course it was a great honor for me, as a small Belgian, to be recognized as an explorer. This is how our research and documentation work in the mines ended up in The Explorers Journal. Since the inception of this publication, since 1921, it was only the second time that a diving-related article was published. Yes, quite a bit proud! It naturally provides extra strength to force a breakthrough on a project and it is also the combined knowledge of people who are always there for you. The aim is to further develop this connection, so that we may also be able to obtain sponsorship through The Explorers Club to start new projects.

You are one of the guest speakers during Duikvaker 2024. Why should we not miss your lectures? 

Anyone who wants to gain more insight into wreck diving in the Pas de Calais is very welcome on Saturday. I tell you about what kind of shipwrecks there are. Supplemented with the necessary historical background and spectacular underwater photos. On Sunday I share information about mine diving in Belgium. Consider the locations, the problems and materials. Naturally illustrated with impressive underwater images. I'm really looking forward to it!

Where can I order your book?

The book will soon be available via my own website, see:


Stefan Panis

Stefan is a professional underwater photographer, specialized in shipwreck, cave and mine photography. He started diving at the age of 6. In 1992 he took his first official diving course. In 2013, Stefan started taking photographs underwater. Meanwhile, he developed a great interest in shipwrecks and researching the history of these ships. He has made many dives on wrecks in the North Sea, the English Channel and abroad. In 2014, Stefan obtained his full Cave CCR certificate. He also enjoys diving, exploring and documenting Belgium's old mining sites. In 2020, Stefan became a member of the Explorers Club.

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