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by Michael Menduno
Header image: Steve Thomas diving OFD mainstream sump, courtesy of S.Thomas
May, 1998—All-night jams, seamless acoustics, and umpteen boxes of half-eaten pizza are standard fare for most recording artists, but not for British composer Steve Thomas who spent two years recording by torch light, often submerged up to his waist in surging 6°C/42°F water, several kilometers beneath the earth. He says that the project was inspired by his underground proclivities.
“I didn’t volunteer to write the music,” explains the 36 year-old caver who writes scores for TV sports events and documentaries, and recently produced two albums with Tangerine Dream founder Steve Jolliffee. “I did it because I had no choice.”
Aptly titled “More People Have Been To The Moon,” Thomas’s latest album combines resonant electronic music with the in-situ sounds of underground stream ways, reverberating drips, and the exhaust bubbles of cave divers finning through freatic passageways. It’s a personal record of his journey to a world where few have been. “I wanted to produce a musical piece that captured the emotions I experienced while exploring the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu system.”
Coursing beneath the Brecon Beacons Mountains in South Wales, the system, pronounced Og-off-fun-on-thee, a Welsh name meaning “cave of the black waters”—it’s length unknown— is the site of one of the most complicated underwater caves in the UK—a knotty, kilometer-long sump complex called the Dip Sump Series which has confounded British cavers for more than 20 years.
Thomas and 51 year-old dive partner Clive Westlake were the first to negotiate a passageway through the claustrophobic, three-dimensional maze, threading their line through restrictions so tight that they had to breathe out to squeeze through. “Overcoming my fears to accomplish those dives inspired me like nothing has before.”
Twelve humans have been to the moon, whereas only four intrepid souls have ever traversed the extremes of the Dip Sump Series and surfaced in the cave beyond Thomas’s album celebrates the passage.
Each of the 15 tracks, from the driving confidence of “High Plain Drifter” and edginess of “Space Haze” to the sacred sense of wonder evoked in “Ether Black,” was written for a specific event that occurred during the exploration.
Thomas would often come back from a dive and spend the evening and all of the next day in his studio writing music. “I tend to be very focused when I’m diving, but afterwards I experience an outpouring of music. It’s like having a built-in Hi-Fi.”
Originally the underground artist planned to use a sample library to simulate cave sounds, but as the project progressed his purist instincts took over—only authentic sounds would do. The task proved more difficult than expected. For Thomas, the hardest part was keeping his recording equipment dry during the underwater cave diving sequences. His solution was to sheath the Walkman-sized DAT recorder and stereo microphones in double Durex condoms—one of the few “safe” aspects of the dives.
Since releasing “More People,” Thomas has been flooded with emails from around the world, as well as a growing number of visits to his website which features a photo gallery of the cave. He says that he honestly doesn’t know how many copies have been sold to date but regards it as an overwhelming success. As with cave diving, perhaps making the connection is what it’s all about.
When I asked Thomas if he were planning a potential follow-up, he didn’t miss a beat. “It seems that I just can’t get away from it.”
For more information about Steve Thomas and the album see: The World’s First Cave Diving Music
Find Thomas’s tracks here: More People Have Been To The Moon
Postscript: Having released his cave diving album in 1997, Thomas, who lives in Wales and still loves caving, flying his paramotor and spending lots of time in the Welsh mountains, inspired a host of “underground” artists—there are now a plethora of cave diving titles on iTunes. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu has also become a popular cave diving site though no new cave has been found since Thomas and Westlake’s early exploration.
Michael Menduno/M2 is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning journalist and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for more than 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving and he produced the first tek.Conferences and Rebreather Forums 1.0 & 2.0. In addition to InDepth, Menduno serves as an editor/reporter for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, a contributing editor for X-Ray mag, and writes for DeeperBlue.com. He is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA), and a member of the Rebreather Training Council.
Award winning Chinese filmmaker/photographer Fan Ping takes us on a magical journey through watery worlds less traveled.
Text, videos and images by Fan Ping. Images shot on RED Helium 8K.
Blackwater: Diving into the Underwater Galaxy
My most popular short film so far. It’s the BTS video of my friend Songda Cai, who is a Chinese underwater photographer based in Manila, Philippines, and specialized in blackwater photography. The film explained what blackwater is and showcased some of the equipment we use when taking photos, then takes the audiences on a journey with Cai into the unknown to discover the beautiful lives from the deep.
Tranquility – 平静（píng jìng）
Cave – 洞穴（dòng xué）
Show Reel 2019
Places I traveled back in 2019, mostly dark cold water, in 4K.
Diving – 潜水（qián shuǐ）
The Underwater Great Wall
One section of the famous Great Wall located in Hebei Province, China, which was built about 500 years ago in Ming Dynasty, submerged due to the government building a reservoir in 1970’s, and very well preserved in the cold fresh water.
History – 历史（lì shǐ）
Freedom – 自由（zì yóu）
A village as part of the Lion City, also from Ming Dynasty but 600-700 year ago, now submerged in Qiandao Lake(Thousand Island Lake) near Shanghai. The wood structures and some brick walls are still intact with all the traditional decorations. It’s just a small part of the city, could not film more due to bad conditions, will go back in the future.
Explore – 探索（tàn suǒ）
Unknown – 未知（wèi zhī）
Kobanya, Stone Mine in Hungarian, located in the heart of Budapest. Was used as firearm factory and sanctuary during WWII, now partially flooded with a brewery on top. It’s very much like a maze down there, with a spooky but cool atmosphere from the mixture of metal and huge stones.
Happiness – 快乐（kuài lè）
Fan Ping is a Chinese photographer and filmmaker currently based in Atlanta, USA, dedicated to showing the beauty of the underwater world to people through his lens.
He became a diving instructor in 2014 and found passion in underwater photography. As Baba Dioum said ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.’, Ping believes that only a good story told with impressive images can influence people and be remembered. He is specialized in combining artistic elements with nature and complex lighting skills in overhead environment, and this personal style has brought him international acclaim, including awards from many major contests like the Underwater Photographer of the Year competition. Ping has also expanded his horizons to cinematography in 2016 in order to better tell the stories to conserve our environment, and with his short films being selected in many film festivals, he has been encouraging more and more people to step into the underwater world to learn what is happening to the planet we live on.
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