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Out of the Depths: The Story of British Mine Diving

If sumps and solo cave diving are, well, a bit too Brit for you, you may want to consider diving into the perfusion of flooded serpentine chert, copper, limestone, silica, slate, and tin mines that honeycomb the length and breadth of the Kingdom. Fortunately, British tekkie and member of UK Mine/Cave Diving (UKMC) in good standing, Jon Glanfield, takes us for a guided tour.

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By Jon Glanfield
Header image courtesy of Alan Ball.

When many think of the UK’s caves, with wet rocks and their penchant for darkness, often the images conjured are of tight, short, silty sumps, that can only be negotiated by intrepid explorers outfitted with diminutive cylinders, skinny harnesses, wetsuits and typically a beard. These are the domain and natural playground of the well-known, highly-respected, Cave Diving Group (CDG). 

In truth, much of our sceptered isle’s caves are of this ilk, but there is an alternative for the diver who favours a more conventional rig, extra room to manoeuvre, and perhaps a more team-orientated approach—one that is less than optimal in many of the true cave diving environments of the UK.

Holme Bank. Photo by Ian France.

Alongside our natural cave diving venues, we also sport a varied collection of flooded mines across the length and breadth of the Kingdom. In the south and southwest, miners have extracted metals such as tin and  copper, while in South Wales it was the mineral, silica. The Midlands Linley Caverns were a source of limestone before being converted to a subterranean munitions store in WWII. Sadly, access to these is no longer feasible. In the rolling hills of the Derbyshire Dales, flinty, hard chert strays close enough to the surface to be mined. In North Wales, the once-proud slate industry has left its Moria and Mithril redolent halls and tunnels beneath the landscape, while copper and slate underlay parts of Cumbria. Meanwhile, just over the border in Scotland, limestone was the resource that drove us to follow its veins into the earth.

Mike Greathead descending the stairway to heaven. Photo by Ian France.

Undeniably, here in the UK, mine diving has a much shorter documented history than that of its close cousin cave diving, but some of the luminaries of this dark world were, and are, active in both. Some of the initial dives in sites like the Cambrian slate mine were undertaken by the incomparable Martyn Farr, Geoff Ballard, and Helen Rider in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2014 that it was further explored and lined by the likes of Cristian Christea, Ian France, Michael Thomas, and Mark Vaughan amongst others. 

Both Rich Stevenson and Mark Ellyatt, who were part of the vanguard of the technical diving revolution in the UK, had personal dramas on trimix dives in the deep shaft of the Coniston Copper Mines, the depth of which runs to 310 m/1012 ft. Ellyatt made his dive at 170 m/555 ft in the early 2000s in a vertical 2 m/6.5 ft square shaft, dropping away into the 6º C/43º F frigid blackness.

Mines Over Matter

As was alluded to, the differences in cave and mine diving are significant. Conventional, redundant open and closed technical rigs can be employed in mine diving due to the predictably larger tunnels, passages, and chambers. Water movement is negligible, so often regular braided lines can be used, lines which would not endure the flow in many of the UK’s upland cave locations. Small teams can dive in safely. 

No Exit. Photo by Chris Elliot.

In general, it is not common to surface and explore the sumped sections of the mines, due to often dangerously contaminated or hypoxic air quality. Also, in some cases, oils and other contaminants have leached into the water. The ever-present risk of collapse—both in the submerged sections and in the dry access adits or portals—haunt divers’ thoughts and is far more common in mines than in the smooth, carved bore of a naturally-formed cave. Casevac (the evacuation of an injured diver) is complex, long-winded, and often dangerous for those involved, and in the event of an issue involving serious decompression illness (DCI), almost certainly helicopter transportation would be necessary given the remote locations.

Landowner access—or, more commonly, denial of access—is an ubiquitous spectre in the underground realm, dry or wet, and much effort is directed at maintaining relations with landowners to safeguard the resources. Some of the most frequented mines are accessible only via traverse of private property, which could be agricultural, arboreal, and in one case, bizarrely on the grounds of an architectural firm. Careful management of these routes into the mines is critical, as is demonstrating respect for the land owner and complying with their requirements when literally on their turf.

At the more prosaic level though, simply getting into some of the mines is a mission on its own, necessitating divers’ decent levels of fitness, the use of hand lines, and sometimes as much consideration of dry weight to gas volume as the dive planning itself. Careful thought and prior preparation are also required in terms of both accident response and post-dive decompression stress, given the exertion expenditure simply to clear the site.

A passageway in Aber Las. Photo by D’Arcy Foley.

Many of the mines are relatively shallow, mostly no more than 30 m/98 ft with exceptions in the notable and notorious Coniston, and the almost mythic levels in Croesor, extending beneath the current 40 m/130 ft galleries that are known and lined. Though, what the mines lack in depth, they make up for in distance and grandeur. 

Aber Las mine survey. Courtesy of UKMC.

Aber Las, or Lost, is more accurately a forgotten section of Cambrian that extends nearly 600 m/1961 ft from dive base at the 6 m/20 ft level, and a second level 300 m/984 ft long at 18 m/59 ft. The section features no less than 35 sculpted chambers hewn off the haulage ways with varying dimensions and exhibiting differing slate removal techniques. Cambrian’s chambers less than a mile away are larger still, and a lost line incident here could be a very bad day given the chambers’ cavernous aspect.

In The Eye of the Beholder

Beauty is—as they say—in the eye of the beholder, but it would be disingenuous to try to draw comparisons between the UK’s mines and the delicacy of the formations in the Mexican Karst, the light effects through the structures in the Bahamian sea caves, or the sinuous power tunnels of Florida. In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

Parallels are frequently drawn between wreck diving and mine diving, but often the violence invoked at the demise of a vessel—the massive, hydraulic inrush of fluid and the subsequent impact on the seabed—wreaks untold damage and destruction upon its final resting place. In contrast, nature reclaims her heartlands in the mines by stealth: a slow, incremental and inexorable seep of ground water, no longer repulsed by the engines from the ages of men, gradually rising through the levels to find its table. The result is often preserved tableaus of a former heritage with a rich diversity of artefacts left where last they served.

A leftover crate in the Croesor mine. Photo by Alan Ball.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Underpinning, protecting, preserving, and improving these gems of the realm is the UK Mine and Cave Diving Club (UKMC), which formed as mine diving intensified in the mid 2000s. So it was that Will Smith, D’Arcy Foley, Sasha London, Jon Carter, Mark Vaughan, and Ian France, all of whom are respected and experienced cave divers in their own right, forged the club to foster and engage with a community of like-minded divers. 

Sadly, in 2014, Will Smith fell victim to the insidious risks of contaminated air in the Aber Las mine system, which he had been lucky enough to re-discover and in which he conducted early exploratory dives as the club gained traction and direction.

As new members filter into the ranks, new ideas, new agendas, and new skill sets re-shape the club’s direction. At present, we are rebooting the club with a remastered website, focusing on new objectives and seeking opportunities to improve, catalogue, and document the resources we husband.

Lines laid in the Cambrian slate mine. Photo by Mike Greathead.

Exploration continues: the club is laying new line in some areas. What’s more, through our demonstrable respect and care for existing sites, the club is facilitating exploration in previously inaccessible sites, and lost and forgotten sites will resurface. Meanwhile, we’re improving the locations we frequent weekly for the benefit of trainees, recreational (in the technical sense) divers, and survey divers alike. Archaeological projects are rising from the ennui of lockdown; we’re establishing wider links with mine diving communities elsewhere to share techniques, data, and ultimately hospitality.

In Welsh folklore, a white rabbit sighted by miners en route to their shifts was believed to be a harbinger of ill fortune, but for Alice, following the rabbit into its hole led her to a whimsical and magical place. Be like Alice, and come visit the Wunderland!

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Jon Glanfield was lucky enough to get his first puff of compressed air at the tender age of five, paddling about on a “tiddler tank,” while his dad was taught how to dive properly somewhere else in the swimming pool. A deep-seated passion for the sport has stayed within him since then, despite a sequence of neurological bends in the late 90s, a subsequent diagnosis of a PFO, and a long lay-off to do other life stuff like kids, starting a business, and missing diving. Thankfully, it was nothing that a bit of titanium and a tube couldn’t fix. He faithfully promised his long-suffering wife (who has, at various anti-social times, taken him to and collected him from recompression facilities) that “this time it would be different” and that he was just in it to look at “pretty fishes.” So far, only one fish has (allegedly) been spotted in the mines. The ones Jon has encountered in the North Sea while wreck diving just obscured the more interesting, twisted metal.

Community

Celebrating Lad Handelman

We’ve lost one of the true giants and pioneers of commercial mixed gas oilfield diving, Lad Handelman, co-founder and former CEO of Cal-Dive Ltd and Oceaneering International. What most people don’t know is that Lad was also instrumental in helping the fledgling tech diving community get its mixed gas diving act together in the early to mid-1990s. Lad was a fierce advocate for diving safety. He will be sorely missed.

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By Michael Menduno

Lede image: Lad Handelman in his Santa Barbara, CA home. Photo courtesy of Historical Diving Society

I was greatly saddened by the loss of Lad Handelman, who passed away as a result of a heart attack on the evening of October 26, 2020. Though most people knew him as one of the larger-than-life giants and pioneers of commercial oilfield diving, few knew that he was a key advisor for my magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving and the tek.Conferences in the early 1990s. More importantly, he was instrumental in assisting the fledgling tech diving community get its mixed gas diving act together. Lad, who was the co-founder and CEO of Cal-Dive Ltd. and Oceaneering International, along with his business partner Hugh “Danny” Wilson and others, pioneered the use of helium breathing mixes in oilfield diving in the 1960s, and was consequently a fierce advocate for diving safety. He knew too well what could go wrong. 

I remember my first phone call with Lad. It was in mid-1990 and we had just launched the second issue of aquaCORPS. I was sitting at my desk when his call came in. After politely introducing himself, he told me that he would like to offer his opinion about what we (as a community) were doing, if I was willing to listen. “Absolutely,” I said. 

“I think you guys are crazy and you’re going to kill yourselves,” he said. “What’s worse is, you’re going to kill a lot of other divers who are going to follow you. I wonder how you are going to feel about that!” There was a long moment of silence.  As a reporter and enthusiastic advocate for what would become known as “technical diving,” I was not unfamiliar with criticism.

“Please tell me why you say that,” I answered, and for the next hour, or maybe it was two, we talked about tech diving and diving safety. Laddie made it clear from the get-go that he was not a fan of open circuit scuba due to its limited gas supply—his company had once lost a commercial diver on open circuit scuba when he got tangled in a net and ran out of air. Handelman had to inform the diver’s widow. Nor was he a fan of rebreathers, which he found woefully unreliable after he lost consciousness and had to be resuscitated during a rebreather demonstration dive. As a result, he banned the use of scuba and rebreather technologies from Cal-Dive and Oceaneering. 

Lad Handelman
Lad giving the high-five at aquaCORPS fifth-anniversary party at Tek.95 in San Francisco, CA. Photo from aquaCORPS archives.

By the end of the call, Laddie agreed to get involved and help the community in its adoption of mixed gas technology. He also agreed to join the aquaCORPS advisory board. That began our thirty-year friendship. 

Those who were around for the early tek.Conference (1993-1996), will surely remember Laddie’s willingness to directly challenge what he perceived as dangerous practices, for example, running working oxygen levels too high, deep air diving, or not having a recompression chamber on site. He based his judgments on his own experience developing mixed gas diving in the commercial workplace. Not a few TEK presenters—shipwreck explorer and author Gary Gentile comes to mind—found themselves having to explain their safety considerations to Lad in front of the audience (see Lusitania story below). But it was a two-way street; Laddie learned about tech diving as well, and became familiar with our problems and issues.

Lad was actively involved in all four of our early US tek.Conferences and met with and consulted with many of the key technical operators at the time, such as Capt. Billy Deans, Key West Diver, FL and Wings Stocks, and Jim Baden in California. He also joined the aquaCORPS board of directors, and helped me raise capital from some of his former Oceaneering colleagues including atmospheric diving systems (ADS) pioneer Phil Nuytten, then the founder and CEO of Hard Suits Inc.

Lad advised me to sell aquaCORPS in 1995, when the magazine was at its zenith. The tech diving movement seemed poised to go big, and I still had some capital reserves. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen, or at least didn’t see the urgency at the time. A year later, I ran out of money and was forced to close aquaCORPS’ doors, but not until I had spent six months desperately pitching the magazine and conference to a variety of possible investors and buyers including John Cronin, co-founder and then CEO of PADI—all to no avail. 

In the end I was forced to close aquaCORPS. I was heartbroken. Laddie never held it against me or rubbed it in. I loved that guy. He was kind, generous, thoughtful and ever wise. He will be sorely missed.

Lad Handelman at Tek93.
Lad co-chairing a diving safety session at Tek.93 in Orlando, FL. Photo from aquaCORPS archives.

For those who might not know Lad’s story, I want to share author and diving historian Chris Swan’s excellent two-part profile of this extraordinary man, reprinted with permission from the Journal of Diving History. I am also including Don Barthelmess’s classic story, also from Journal of Diving History, about the commercial “mixed gas revolution” that Dan Wilson, Laddie and others pioneered that we ran in InDepth a few months ago.

In addition, here are two Lad stories from aquaCORPS. The first, a roundtable discussion that came out of TEK.95 conference examining the safety of Polly Tapson’s 1994 expedition on the Lusitania, and the second, my long form profile and interview with Lad that was originally published in the magazine in January 1993.

Diving legend leaves legacy by Grayce McCormick Santa Barbara-News Press (Obituary): OCT 29, 2020

Lad Handelman: Profile of a Pioneer, Part One By Christopher Swan, The Journal of Diving History, Third Qt. 2014 Vol. 22, #80  

Lad Handelman: Profile of a Pioneer, Part two By Christopher Swan, The Journal of Diving History, Fourth Qt. 2014 Vol. 22, #81

The Santa Barbara Helium Rush—The Legacy Of Dan Wilson’s 400-foot Gas Dive by Don Barthelmess The Journal of Diving History,  Fall 2012 Vol. 20, Issue 4, #73

aquaCORPS Forum: The ’94 Lusitania Expedition—Seductive or Suicidal with Gary Gentile, Lad Handelman, and Polly Tapson, aquaCORPS #10 IMAGING June 1995 pg. 24-30

Making The Grade: Interview With Commercial Mixed Gas Pioneer Lad Handelman by Michael Menduno aquaCORPS #5 BENT January 1993 pg. 25-30


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 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. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018. In addition to his responsibilities at InDepth, Menduno is a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine and X-Ray Magazine, a staff writer for DeeperBlue.com, and is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA)

Be a Part of Diving History!

The Historical Diving Society USA is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the dive community by:

• Researching, archiving and promoting great moments in dive history.

• Honoring the contributions of underwater pioneers.

• Facilitating access to the rich history of diving on various platforms.

• Enhancing awareness of and appreciation for underwater exploration.

To access our treasure trove of dive history and become a member, visit us at: www.HDS.org. We are also on Facebook: Historical Diving Society USA

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