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by Michael Thomas
Header photo courtesy Michael Thomas. Diver entering Keld Head in the Yorkshire Dales.
Recently someone approached me about British cave diving wondering what in particular makes it so very different from Mexican cave diving, for example, and why it’s so appealing to a select few. In the U.K. we have two types of underground diving. The first is the significant number of flooded mines that have given rise to some world-class mine diving that’s becoming very popular with technical divers from around the world. The second type of underground diving is traditional British cave diving, which, due to the nature of U.K. caves, involves both dry caving and cave diving. The aim is to explore the caves underwater or in the dry underground following it as far as possible. We are now finding that technically trained mine and cave divers are starting to learn the art of dry cave exploration in order to further their knowledge and adventure, some even gaining enough experience to join the Cave Diving Group in the U.K.
Firstly, a little about myself if I may be so bold. My diving career is now in its thirty-third consecutive year, from starting out as a trainee open water diver with BSAC to trainee cave diver within the CDG to becoming the Training Officer of the British Cave Diving Group Somerset Section in the U.K. Since 1996 I’ve had links to TDI and currently hold Full Cave Instructor, Sidemount and Tech Instructor status with TDI, active mod 3 CCR cave diver, and on the British Cave Rescue call out list as a diver.
My diving life crosses all paths of British and worldwide diving, from open water to cave and tech. I’m actively involved with technical diving conferences and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of the U.K. My father was a cave explorer before me, and my son has also taken the same path. You could say, caves and diving are our lives.
See The CDG
To understand British cave diving we first need to understand the CDG. The Cave Diving Group is the representative body for cave divers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and is a constituent body of the British Caving Association (BCA). Its function is to educate and support cavers for recreational and exploratory operations in British sumps. The CDG also helps control access to numerous cave sites, including Wookey Hole and Gough’s Cave in Somerset, and Keld Head And Hurtle Pot in Yorkshire, in conjunction with the BCA. The group was formed in 1946 by the late Graham Balcombe, and its continuous existence to the present day makes it the oldest amateur technical and cave diving organization in the world. Graham Balcombe arguably invented cave diving in the U.K. with his audacious dives in Swildon’s Hole cave and Wookey Hole cave in 1935.
Now the huge difference between the Cave Diving Group and other cave diving training agencies is you can’t just sign up and pay to do a training course. From the very start in 1946, the prerequisite for joining the CDG was always and is a knowledge and experience base of dry caving skills, though in modern years we also require an open water certification. Once you have made yourself known to one of the four sections that make up the CDG—Somerset, Welsh, Northern, and Derbyshire—and proven you have dry caving skills and can get along with your new-found friends, you are voted in, hopefully to whichever section you approached.
As a trainee member of the cave diving group, the training is apprenticeship based and generally takes between 12-18 months. At the end of that, a written exam and an underwater test is completed, and as long as your section is in agreement, the qualified diver status is awarded. It’s a slow process but ensures adequate experience is gained in a variety of different sites and conditions, producing a cave diver that is capable of exploration cave diving, rescue work, and continued training of new members.
The Solo Mentality
Probably the one difference with most U.K. cave diving, that is a world away from agency standards, is the CDG approach to team diving. In all but a few sites in the U.K., the CDG considers solo diving the safest way to approach the dive. While divers might enter the cave together as a team, and dry cave their way to the dive base (dive site within the cave), once they are in the water they typically dive solo. This is because a diver is usually unable to help another diver in the water. Then they meet up on the other side if more dry caving is to be done.
CDG trainee divers are taught from the beginning to be solo divers or work within a team as solo divers, something we call “team solo.” Most dive sites in natural caves in the U.K. are unsuitable for team diving. The few sites that are suitable for a team to operate together, such as Wookey Hole in Somerset, Hurtle Pot in the Yorkshire Dales, and Porth Yr Ogof in South Wales, should really be a team of only two divers. Passage size and visibility generally means divers can’t see the third team member if at the back or front of the team. The mine diving sites are much more suited to team diving with larger passages and clearer water. The links below offer more information on mine diving in the U.K. [Ed.note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.]
The article, “Solo Cave Diving,” on the CDG website explains why it recommends solo cave diving as the safer alternative for U.K. sump conditions. It lists some of the advantages of solo cave diving as follows:
- There’s no one to get physically jammed in the passage behind you (thereby blocking your exit).
- There’s no one behind you who may get tangled in the line and have to cut it—leaving you with no guide home.
- There’s no one to accidentally disturb your ‘out tags’ at line junctions (e.g. in one cave there are 10 branch lines off the main line in the first 500 m/1640 ft of passage).
- There’s no one to cause silt problems (but yourself).
- There’s no chance of being called upon to share air—in small passages.
- There’s nothing to get confused about—communication in sumps varies from difficult to impossible.
- There’s no one to provide you with a false sense of security.
- There’s no one to worry about but yourself, so you can concentrate on your own safety.
Due to the generally small passage size of British caves and the sometimes energetic nature of transporting equipment to a cave dive base (station), sidemount diving is the normal equipment configuration. Sidemount started in the U.K. in the 1960s with a need for streamlined and lightweight diving equipment. U.K. cave divers today will have a choice of sidemount harness for the project they are involved with. In a short, shallow, or constricted dive, the diver will use a wetsuit and a lightweight, webbing-only harness with no buoyancy, as it’s not needed if your chest is on the floor and your back on the ceiling.
In slightly larger cave passages, the modern British cave diver will use one of the now-common sidemount harnesses that are available. Many British caves require vertical cave techniques to reach the water, so the divers have modified the sidemount harness to be able to descend into the dry cave, do the dive, and then climb out. It’s very rare to find a British cave diver with an unmodified sidemount harness. For exposure suits, many short dives and some longer dives, if significant dry caving is expected before or after, the dive will be done in a wetsuit even though water temperature is on average between 7-10 degrees C/45-50 degrees F. This is for practical reasons, as it’s very difficult and potentially dangerous caving in a drysuit, so better to be slightly chilly during the dive and caving safely.
For larger sites and when the diver is expected to be underwater most of the time, a drysuit is sometimes carried to the dive base and put on underground, to be utilized for the dive. As most divers are solo diving, having two short standard-length hoses on their regulators is normal, although for team diving or cave rescue, a standard long hose is used on the right.
British cave divers always use helmets, as they provide protection from the environment in the dry caves as well as underwater, and are a great place to carry lights. Hand-held primary lights are used in larger, clearer passages with the helmet lights in reserve. For dive lines, we use 4 mm thick lines as permanent dive lines and we have fixed junctions in all caves— no jumps or gaps. Standard line arrows and cookies will not fit on a U.K. line. Pegs are used, or permanent markers on junctions to show the way home. It’s very unlikely you will see another dive team in the cave on the day you are visiting, and following a thicker line in sometimes low visibility and cold water is much safer and more comforting than trying to follow a technical diving line.
Exploring U.K. caves
The raison d’etre for the Cave Diving Groups formation was and still is the exploration of caves, including the surveying and reporting of that exploration and the training of new divers. The CDG publishes a journal four times a year with exploration reports and many books on the subject of U.K. caves and techniques. If it’s not surveyed and reported, it’s not explored. Now, it would be extremely tedious to the reader if I listed all exploration in underwater caves in the U.K.—we have thousands of reports—so I’ll mention a few of the classics to set the scene, and remember all exploration can be researched in the CDG journals.
If visiting, most U.K. cave divers are happy to show you around or even get you involved in projects, although they will be of a very different style of exploration than found in Bahamas or Mexico, for instance, where swimming into hundreds of metres of new cave is possible. Big breakthroughs in the U.K. are rare, and if a diver explores 10 m/33 ft of new cave with ongoing passage seen, they will be happy.
Exploration in the home of British cave diving started in 1935 and carries on to this day. Slow and determined work by some of the great names in cave diving, including Balcombe, Martyn Farr, Rob Parker, Rick Stanton, and John Volanthen have seen this multi sump cave reach 90 m/294 ft depth beyond chamber 25 in extremely committing passages. Smaller side passages throughout the cave are still being explored.
The Llangattock Cave Systems, South Wales
Under Llangattock mountain lies many kilometers of caving—two caves, Ogof Daren Cilau at 27 km long and next door Ogof Agen Allwedd at 32.5 km, provide access to many cave diving sites that have provided incredible exploration over the years and will hopefully provide more in the years to come. One of the longest dives in the system is the Pwll y Cwm resurgence at 630 m/2066 ft long, surfacing in the downstream end of Daren Cilau.
Kingsdale Master Cave and Keld Head, Yorkshire Dales
One of the true classics of world class cave diving is the Kingsdale to Keld Head system. Graham Balcombe, of Wookey Hole fame, conducted dives in 1945 in Keld Head, and in 1978, Geoff Yeadon and Oliver Statham broke the world record with an 1829 m/6000 ft dive between Kingsdale Master Cave and Keld Head, connecting the two caves. In 1991, the underwater system was further extended, linking it into King Pot cave access to the valley floor, a traverse of 3 km in British conditions. Today, divers continue to explore and extend this system.
This dive site requires a reasonable amount of dry caving effort to reach the dive base. The dive itself is multi-profile with a descent to 36 m/118 ft then up to 2.5 m/8 ft via a constricted rift, then finally down to 71 m/232 ft at the end. In the 1980s John Cordingley and Russel Carter worked the site and finally, 71 m/233 ft was reached by Martin Groves in 2002. The way on was lost in boulders and boiling sand with the water surging upwards. This was confirmed by John Volanthen in 2006. A change in geology and future technologies await.
In the years leading up to the 1980s, open water divers reported cave entrances in the sea on the Doolin coast. These completely submerged caves are extremely weather dependent due to taking the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. But after experience gained in the Bahamas’ Blue Holes, British divers tried their luck exploring what became known as Green Holes. Several sites including Reef Caves, Hell Complex, Urchin Cave, and the longest Mermaid’s Hole have had successive and continued exploration. 1025 m/3350 ft penetration being reached in Mermaid’s Hole by Artur Kozlowski. Exploration continues when the weather allows.
A true classic sump diver’s cave with long sections of active wet streamway takes the visitor down to a series of eight short sumps that require diving and more caving to reach the terminal sump and end of the cave at Swildon’s 12. Wetsuits and lightweight sidemount harness and small cylinders needed. A grand day out.
One of the finest and reasonably easy physical-access cave dives in the U.K. The dive starts from a small pool after a short climb down between boulders. A shallow and comfortable passage winds its way up the valley passing Rawlbolt Airbell 150 m/492 ft from base and Four Ways airbell around 200 m/656 ft from base. At 250 m/820 ft from base, a cobble squeeze can be passed to the surface in the dry upper cave. The flow in this cave can be very high and the passage size varies from 1 m wide to 3 m wide, making progress upstream interesting and downstream on the return exciting.
Probably the most dived cave in the U.K. due to its easy access and the possibility of longer dives upstream in a large passage towards Jingle Pot Cave and an area called The Deep reaching 35 m/114 ft depth in a low complicated passage towards the end around 460 m/1508 ft from base. Downstream a 400 m/1312 ft long traverse can be made to surface in Midge Hole cave reaching 20 m/65 ft depth on the way. This cave floods dramatically in bad weather, and constant line repairs need to be made by local CDG divers.
Peak Cavern is an extensive dry cave with several significant cave diving sites located within the system. The resurgence is a classic training dive in a lovely bedding plane style passage reaching the surface in the main cave. Ink sump within the cave, nearly 200 m/653 ft long, leads to Doom’s Retreat, an area worked by Jim Lister and the most extensive digging project to find a new cave beyond a sump in the U.K. Far Sump at 385 m/1263 ft long leads to an extensive dry section of cave with some extremely technical caving that can now get you to surface on the hills above.
Not many easy surface access cave diving sites that go deep are to be found in the British Isles, but this one in Ireland is one. A resurgence site that reaches 103 m/336 ft but in dark, unfriendly waters. Original exploration by Martyn Farr in 1978 and taken to 103 m by Artur Kozlowski.
In summary, British cave diving is historically one of the oldest branches of the sport of cave diving. The Cave Diving Group’s knowledge and standards and procedures evolved over the years to the safest method to explore or dive in U.K. style caves. It is not diving in Wakulla Springs and does not pretend to be, although several CDG members got involved in the early Wakulla expeditions. It is at times cold, wet, and unpleasant, but also can be extremely rewarding, with new caves found or just a superb dive in excellent conditions. U.K. style conditions can be found all over the world—think of the Thailand Rescue in 2018—and it’s in these conditions that the CDG system is at its best. If you’re wanting more information on the CDG or sump diving and vertical access sump diving, please give us a shout. Just remember—a pint of English beer is supposed to be warm. Stay safe and dive well.
Website: The British Cave Diving Group
From GUE’s membership magazine QUEST: “British Cave Diving: Wookey Hole and The Cave Diving Group” by Duncan Price
Books about British cave diving:
A Glimmering in Darkness by Graham Balcombe
The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr
Historical British cave diving films:
Trailer for documentary film ‘Wookey’ by Gavin Newman
The Underground Eiger (1980s)
Articles by Michael Thomas:
Michael Thomas’s diving career is now in its 33rd consecutive year, from starting out as an open water diver then a trainee cave diver to becoming the Training Officer of the British Cave Diving Group Somerset Section. He is also a Full Cave Instructor, Sidemount and Tech Instructor with TDI, active mod 3 CCR cave diver, and on the British cave rescue call out list as a diver.
Thomas is heavily involved in U.K. diving projects and training, plus overseas diving and caving. Diving is life or is life diving?
Diving Into The Famous Ressel Cave
Belgium service member, cave explorer and tech instructor Kurt Storms takes us for a dive into the Ressel cave system located in Lot. Get out your reels.
By Kurt Storms. Photos courtesy of K. Storms unless noted.
The Lot and The Dordogne areas of France have an abundance of beautiful caves suitable for all levels of diving expertise, situated in glorious rural locations. Sites are mostly found on three rivers: The Dordogne, The Lot, and Célé. The Lot area lies in the northern extremity of the Midi-Pyrenees region, which stretches from the confines of the Dordogne Valley to the highest peaks of the Pyrenees, forming the heart of South-West France. Cave divers from all over the world return to dive here year after year. With over 20,000 known caves, France is one of the premier cave diving areas in the world. One of the most interesting regions lies in the Southwest, around the rivers of Lot and Dordogne. Here you find a multitude of long and deep caves with mostly crystal clear and relatively warm water, offering superb diving conditions. The water temperature averages 14º C/57º F and the visibility normally varies between 5-30 m/15-100 ft.
Finally!!! We can go to the Lot again. The COVID conditions have thrown a spanner in the works. But because we are all now vaccinated, we can finally leave. This time, for a week of training and then a week of diving holiday with my wife Caroline Massie. Two students (Jo Croimans and Bram Van Gorp) are with me for the training. The next few days, they will be busy with skills and dry teaching. Theory has already been given in Belgium so that we can get the most out of our dives.
Why the Lot?
The area in France is popular because most European divers take cave classes there so they don’t have to travel to Mexico or Florida. One of the most famous caves around here is Ressel. Ressel is located in the village of Marcilhac-sur-Célé, in the heart of the Lot. Most pictures you can see online show huge, dramatic blocks of white rock, flat structures, and the shafts of this cave. The facilities are pleasant, we have a large parking area for our cars, and finally there is also a conveniently located building with a toilet. From the car park we have only to walk about 100 m/330 ft to get to the entry point on the River Celé where we can put all our equipment needed for our dive.
The Ressel was first dived in 1968, by two divers of the speleo club Auvergnat. Martin and Debras reached 150 m/492 ft. It was only in 1973 that the line was extended to 300 m/984 ft, with a maximum depth of 30 m/100 ft. In 1975, Fantoli and Touloumdoian reached Pit 4 and went to a depth of 45 m/147 ft. Further exploration continued over the years, especially by Jochem Hasemayer in the early 1980s, where at 1100 m/3609 ft into the system he planted his knife in the rock to which he attached his line. This knife is still there.
On August 12, 1990, Olivier Isler was the first to cross Sump 1. The total dive time back and forth was 10 h 35 min. End of Siphon 1 is at Lac Isler, and from there on you can continue to the next siphons. Ressel consists of 5 sumps, of which siphon 1 is the longest (1850 m/6070 ft) and the deepest (83 m/272 ft). From Pit 4 onwards, the deep section begins, which can only be done with trimix mixtures. In the following years, the further sumps were explored by gentlemen like Rick Stanton, Martin Farr, and Jason Mallison. In 1999, the end of Sump 5 was reached. The total length on the main line is 4415 m/14,485 ft.
Spectacular Views In The First Section
To be honest, the visibility is spectacular all around. More than 10 m/33 ft visibility, which was near zero before the start in the Celé River—quite a change. As soon as we got to the entrance, the water cleared like snow in the sun. The first thought that ever crossed my mind was: How on earth did they find this cave? How, with the visibility of the river, did anyone see a hole that is 6 m/20 ft below the surface on one side—which is frankly not that big. Enquiries with the locals revealed that when the cave is full of water, you can even see a geyser in the river! Another impressive detail.
There is a rope that runs from the point where you get all the way into the cave, and it continues to the main line; you don’t need a primary reel here—it’s really easy to find the entrance, at 6 m/20 ft deep. Then there is a huge tunnel with white giant boulders, which is impressive.
The first dives were only up to the T (180 m/591 ft penetration), where the obligatory skills were practiced, so that later one can widen the comfort zone. This is also a very beautiful part, especially because of the large blocks that lie here. There are even two exceptional phenomena visible; these are two blocks consisting of white limestone, with a large black spot in it. You won’t find these black spots anywhere else. It is wonderful to be able to admire nature like this.
My wife, the students, and I got in, and on the first dive, with a sidemount set consisting of 2×80 cf (dual 11 ltr) tanks, we did the first T, taking the left corridor. On the next T, we continued toward the shaft to a maximum depth of 30 m/98 ft to take a look. It is so impressive! We felt like we were going to the abyss, and actually we were, to the abyss below ground and underwater. But now they were even more curious about the famous Pit 4 of the Ressel.
To be able to do this dive, we had to bring the right amount of gases. The first dive was with Jo Croimans, my student; he had his sidemount configuration with an extra 7 ltr along, I dived with my Divesoft Liberty SM rebreather. There we went, all prepared. The way there is about a 28 minute dive. On the way, I showed Jo the shunt that goes to the deeper part of the first loop. Enjoying the ride, we continued until we reached the point of the shaft.
Here I asked Jo if everything was Okay, he indicated that it was, and we descended to a depth of about 40 m/131 ft. I could see in Jo’s eyes that he was enjoying himself. But we didn’t have much time to enjoy ourselves, because we had to go back again. If you have deco, you can do it all on the way back on a nitrox 50 (NX50). For the advanced divers, you can take your oxygen at 6 m/20 ft and finish any decompression on O2.
It’s actually a great dive, and the cave allows for a variety of dives, just by choosing different depths in the tunnels, to have different perspectives.
Once we got to the top, Jo couldn’t stop exclaiming about the amazing beauty of this cave, and especially Pit 4. This made Caroline want to go and have a look too. This dive was done a few days later, when both gentlemen had gone home. This time we did the dive by scooter, a big difference. In 13 minutes we were at the shaft, and again I saw a happy face. How nice it is as an instructor to be able to pass on your passion. This is what we do it for. Ressel is one of the most beautiful caves in Europe. It remains an easy, accessible system.
The Ressel is and will always remain a special cave. Last year, I did the deep loop (1160 m/3806 ft long, 73 m/240 ft depth) here with two friends. And I still enjoy it when I talk about it. We still have to come back to do the rest of S1.
X-Ray: Pushing the Ressel—A Cave Diving Expedition in Lot, France by Erik Wouters (2013)
YouTube: Cave diving in France: Emergence du Ressel (2016)
Kurt Storms is a member of the Belgium military, and is an underwater cave explorer and active technical/cave/rebreather diving instructor for IANTD. He started his diving career in Egypt when he was on vacation, and the passion never ended. Kurt is also founder and CEO of Descent Technical Diving. He’s diving on several CCRs such as AP, SF2, Divesoft Liberty SM.
Kurt is also one of the pushdivers that is documenting a new slate mine in Belgium (Laplet). This project was news on Belgium Nationale TV. Most of his dives are mine and cave dives. In his own personal diving, Kurt’s true passions are deep extended-range cave dives. His wife (Caroline) is also a passionate cave diver. In his free time he explores Belgium’s slatemines. When he is not exploring, he takes his camera with him, to document the dives.
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