Dan Burton, photographer and filmmaker who became a leading paramotor pilot and crossed Arctic Russia tracking migrating swans – obituary

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Dan Burton
Dan Burton

Dan Burton, who has died in a flying accident aged 54, was a pioneering deep sea underwater photographer and cameraman who later took to the skies to become one of the world’s leading paramotor pilots.

Among the subjects he captured underwater were historic shipwrecks, competition freedivers, Beluga whales under the ice, and great white sharks from outside the safety of a cage. He worked on television shows from the Top Gear James Bond special to Scrapheap Challenge; he filmed Gordon Ramsay diving for king crabs in the Finnish Arctic and the marine biologist Monty Halls diving wrecks for Channel 5.

His aerial adventures included photographing Sami nomads in Lapland, where conditions were as low as minus 27 C, and flying through the ancient desert city of Petra in Jordan.

The biggest adventure was to spend five weeks flying 2,000 km across Arctic Russia accompanying Sacha Dench in 2016 as she tracked migratory swans.

It was both politically and geographically challenging. On one occasion Burton was arrested for straying into a sensitive area. On another the pair were forced to land in the dark on a dirt track guided by the support vehicle’s headlights, having run out of landing options above a forest.

“Not a lot goes on up there,” Burton recalled.

Burton: he thrived on rough conditions, saying, 'The more extreme or remote it is the better'
Burton: he thrived on rough conditions, saying, 'The more extreme or remote it is the better'

During the trip they encountered the nomadic Nenets people, who stored their meat in drums buried in the ground. “It was a barrel of rotting meat basically,” Burton recalled. “They washed it in a stream, sliced it up and ate it raw. It wasn’t too bad, actually.”

Other members said it tasted vile, but Burton thrived on rough conditions. “The more extreme or remote it is the better,” he once said.

Daniel Jonathan Burton was born on October 19 1966 in London, the second of two sons. His father ran a garden furniture and conservatory business and Burton went to school at Grenville College, north Devon. Dyslexic, he gravitated to photography and spent five years at Plymouth College of Art and Design, working his way through two diplomas and a Post Qualification Experience (PQE).

By this time he was a keen scuba diver and was shooting underwater images. After graduating he spent two years in Florida Keys, where he learnt to “tech dive” – to dive deep. Early assignments included shooting astronauts training in a water tank in Huntsville, Alabama, and submariners in an escape training tank in Portsmouth.

In the 1990s he joined numerous wreck-diving expeditions, one leading to the recovery of $50 million worth of Spanish silver at a depth of 300ft from El Cazador, wrecked in 1784 in the Gulf of Mexico (Burton was permitted to keep one silver coin, which he gave to his mother). Another mission was to salvage valuable artefacts from the 1,000-year-old Intan wreck in Indonesia.

In 1997 Burton was invited to join an international team to photograph and film the Britannic – sister ship to the Titanic – which sank after hitting a German mine in 1916 near the Greek island of Kea with the loss of 30 lives. Burton shot the wreck’s stern, which lay at a depth of between 360ft and 393ft.

Burton, right, with Sacha Dench in Scotland in September 2021 during their attempt to circumnavigate Britain to highlight climate change - Andrew Milligan
Burton, right, with Sacha Dench in Scotland in September 2021 during their attempt to circumnavigate Britain to highlight climate change - Andrew Milligan

Such depths involved a complicated decompression process that lasted between three and four hours inside an area with strong currents in the middle of a busy shipping lane. “She was a dream dive,” recalled Burton. “We were the first to dive her officially since Jacques Cousteau.”

At the same time, Burton was also into freediving, in which divers descend on a single breath. A member of the British Freediving team, he could dive to more than 100ft. He began photographing freediving competitions and soon became the go-to cameraman for the world’s leading freedivers attempting world records, including the British divers Tanya Streeter and Sara Campbell, as well as Herbert Nitsch, Carlos Coste and Fred Buyle, sometimes positioning himself at depths up to 260ft. His images helped to popularise the sport.

In 2002 he was part of the team that captured Tanya Streeter’s record-breaking “No Limits” dive to 525ft. Unlike some photographers, she said, Burton was meticulously well-prepared and really knew his stuff. “He had a brain that wanted to know every technical detail of the dive.”

At the start of his career Burton shot on film, which required technical skill to balance the light, but he was quick to switch to digital and was one of the first photographers brave enough to take a digital SLR camera – which cost around £5,000 – underwater.

Methodical, inventive and a consummate tinkerer, Burton designed and built his own waterproof housings for his cameras. He would also make his own mounts, toyed with 3D cameras and later developed a 360º camera, long before they hit the market. He also later fashioned his own ski sleds to go on his paramotor trike for landing in the snow.

The Round Britain Climate Challenge in 2021: Burton, far left, Sacha Dench, second right, and other team members - Andrew Milligan
The Round Britain Climate Challenge in 2021: Burton, far left, Sacha Dench, second right, and other team members - Andrew Milligan

In 2006 he joined Carlos Coste on a trek with mules across the Venezuelan Andes to reach the Santo Cristo Lagoon at an altitude of 12,631ft, where Coste dived to 60m. “He was a hard worker and true adventurer,” Coste recalled.

Four years later Burton filmed Coste from an underwater scooter through the Yucatan caves of Mexico as the freediver made a record 492ft dive along the Dos Ojos cenote, or sinkhole. A decade later he teamed up with Coste again, photographing him exploring the wreck of a Hercules C-130 aircraft in Jordan.

In 2004 Burton got his paramotor licence and increasingly turned his attentions to the burgeoning sport of powered paragliding. The sport involves flying a conventional paragliding wing with the added aid of a propeller worn on the back, controlled via a hand-held throttle.

Burton was soon making groundbreaking flights. He flew from Land’s End to John O’Groats, the length of Offa’s Dyke, and for two years in a row was the joint winner of a Microlight class 50-hour endurance event. In 2019 he finished top of the world cross-country league, where pilots are ranked according to the distance of their flights.

He joined the television presenter Monty Halls, helping to locate basking sharks from the air for the BBC’s Great Escape series. On one occasion Halls watched in horror as Burton charged down a hillside attempting to launch near a family enjoying a barbecue. At the last minute Burton lifted his legs and launched as they dived for cover.

Preparing for a flight in Scotland - Andrew Milligan
Preparing for a flight in Scotland - Andrew Milligan

He enjoyed making an entrance, and a friend recalled him flying into the local rugby club for her birthday dressed in black tie and carrying a bottle of champagne.

Burton was a big man, possessed of a loud voice and strongly held opinions, which did not always endear him to people on first impressions. But his self-deprecating humour, talent and kindness always won everyone over. In particular, he was held in deep affection in the diving world for his willingness to give advice and guidance freely, and often at length.

Over the years his photographs were published in numerous newspapers, travel and diving magazines while his television credits included the BBC, Channel 5, Discovery Channel, Red Bull Media House and Trans World Sport. Since 2011 he also worked as the UK dealer for a German brand of paramotors.

Besides his global adventures, Burton clocked up to 150 days a year flying along the Devon coastline near his home in Topsham, where he lived with wife, children and rescue chickens, which he would sometimes take on to the high street to listen to a busker.

Burton died in Scotland after colliding in mid-air with Sacha Dench; he was documenting her attempt to make the first circumnavigation of mainland Britain in a paraglider, to raise awareness about climate change.

He married in 2000 and is survived by his wife Caroline, and by a teenage son and daughter.

Dan Burton, born October 19 1966, died September 18 2021

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