By Jim Bowden
(Excerpt from ADM Issue 12 - 2004)

Water is an essential agent in the formation of most limestone caves, and many caves are still in a stage of development at which some parts remain permanently submerged. The desire to explore such underwater sections of cave passage is almost as old as recreational caving itself. A significant number of conventional cavers regard those who wish to dive into these dark, flooded tunnels as the lunatic fringe. However, determined individuals who make the financial and time commitments to learn how to operate safely in this so-called merciless environment will enable themselves to experience one of the greatest opportunities for original exploration on Earth.

The evolution of cave diving techniques has closely followed the development of diving equipment in general. Indeed, cave divers have contributed to the latter many times. This article briefly reviews over 200 years of underwater achievements by many generations of cave explorers. It is inevitably only a summary of various milestone events from around the world.

Perhaps the first documented attempt to pass a section of underwater passage took place in 1773 at Peak Cavern in the UK. A Mr. Day tried to pass the Buxton Water Sump by holding his breath. He soon got into difficulty and was pulled from the water on the verge of drowning by one of the surface party who managed to catch hold of his arm. Mr. Day was (we are told) speechless for some time. It has thus been observed that this might also be considered to be the first cave diving rescue! (Note that the earliest documented rescue attempt in a cave by an equipped diver probably took place in Austrias Lurlochhohle in 1894.) A far more celebrated (and happily successful) free diving attempt occurred in 1922 when the French explorer Norbert Casteret passed a short sump in the Grotte Du Montespan (French Pyrenees). He discovered a dry cave system beyond, which contained important archaeological remains; the scientific potential of cave diving was thus recognized some 80 years ago.

Very few explorers had access to the early brass-helmeted Standard Diving Equipment, but some notable explorations did take place. The deep Fontaine De Vaucluse (France), the type example of a vauclusian resurgence was explored to 75ft/23m depth by Nello Ottonelli in 1878 (Cousteau, 1954). Two years after this Alexander Lambert (of Seibe Gorman Ltd) made some outstanding dives in the (artificial) flooded Severn Tunnel (UK). Although not strictly cave diving, his 300m penetration certainly revealed the possibilities of the standard equipment and early Fleuss oxygen rebreather used. Another notable early use of standard equipment took place at Orbe in Switzerland where a 95m sump was successfully passed.

Traditionally in the UK cave divers were ordinary cavers who learned to dive in order to pass flooded sections to discover further dry cave passages. (Note that this is in marked contrast with other parts of the world such as in Florida, where most practitioners are divers first then extend their activities to underwater cave visits.) In 1934 Jack Sheppard used a home made respirator in Swildon's Hole, possibly the first successful use of self contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) to pass a sump (Balcombe et al, 1990.) This early SCUBA apparatus was not very reliable and early exploratory work shortly afterwards (Balcombe, 1935) at Wookey Hole (UK) still used Standard Equipment to bottom walk along the submerged course of the River Axe. On one notable dive Graham Balcombe made the first ever live TV broadcast from inside his brass helmet at Wookey in 1935. Those involved in these early UK explorations formed the Cave Diving Group in 1946, one of the first organizations of its kind and possibly the first non-military diving organization in the world.

Of great significance to underwater exploration globally was the invention of the aqualung in 1943 by Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau. This was the first reliable SCUBA, and for many cave dives it still remains the most appropriate equipment even today. Cousteau's Undersea Research Group was also largely responsible for the widespread acceptance of free swimming with fins (as opposed to the bottom walking traditionally associated with the Standard Equipment). In 1946 they exploited their new equipment in a well planned attempt to pass the Vaucluse sump. Unfortunately the only way on was downwards; they reached a depth of over 196ft/60m but almost died in the attempt due to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a compressor fault (Cousteau, 1954). Significant explorations were also made soon afterwards in France at Font D Estramar and the Fontaine De Chartreuse; Among those involved were Guy De Lavaur, plus Undersea Research Group members Farges and Morandiere. Elsewhere in France Jean Alinat of the same team successfully passed a 492ft/150m long flooded section in the Gouffre De Vitarelles.

The aqualung helped many other countries develop their cave diving skills in the years following, one good example being the series of deep dives in the early 1950s at Florida's Wakulla Springs (USA). A few years later the use of the Aqualung had spread to Australia where underwater caves in the Mount Gambier and Jenolan regions were being explored. In the UK post war developments took a different direction as cave divers initially exploited the relatively easily available frogman equipment (rebreathers and drysuits) rather than the aqualung at various sites. Of particular note were Bob Davies' dives in Buxton Water Sump (Peak Cavern). Many observations of water levels in a torricellian airbell here prompted the publication of perhaps the first serious scientific paper documenting work where scientific research (as opposed to cave exploration) was the main motive for cave diving (Davies, 1950).

From these early foundations, the list of increasingly audacious and successful cave diving explorations around the world in the '60s '70s and '80s grew exponentially. Many major advances were made particularly in the USA and in Europe, including the UK. The psychological barrier of being a long way from the nearest entrance was overcome, as witnessed by explorations at the Trou Madame, Ressel, Doux De Coly, and St.George resurgences (France), The Blautopf (Germany), Keld Head (UK) and Manatee Springs, Cathedral Canyon and Wakulla 1987 project (US) for example. The great underwater systems of Australia's Nullarbor Plain and the submerged lava tube of Lanzarote's Atlantida Tunnel were pushed for impressive distances.

Significant dives began to be performed in the Soviet Union, where potential for huge cave systems is recognized internationally. In the Bahamian Blue Holes the early work of pioneers such as George Benjamin was followed up by various teams coordinated by Rob Palmer, who carried out much underwater scientific work (Palmer, 1989). The lightweight Aqualung was also ideal for transport to remote underground sites, such as the downstream sumps of the Gouffre Berger in France, where Ken Pearce's UK team made notable progress on their major expedition of 1963. The above are but a few examples taken almost at random from the extensive record of a superb era of exploration (Farr, 2000).

The other barrier that was gradually overcome during the above period was that of depth. Many French and Swiss systems explored were both deep and long, but certain explorations took deep diving to the absolute limits. The descents of Claude Touloumdjian and Jochen Hasenmayer (469ft/143 m and 672ft/205 m respectively) at Vaucluse were outstanding, as was the Nacimiento Del Rio Mante dive to 905ft/267m in 1989 (Exley, 1994). In the UK Martyn Farr was the first person to take deep cave diving seriously; his 196ft/60m exploration (1982) at Wookey Hole was significant (given the cold water and low visibility of British sumps) as was Rob Parker's 1985 push to 223ft/68m here. Many of the above sites could not have been explored to such limits without the adoption of various synthetic breathing mixtures, in particular those based on the physiologically inert gas helium

The 1990s have seen further advances at many of the sites mentioned above and elsewhere. Cave divers have made full use of multiple underwater scooters, the latest mixed gas rebreathers, underwater habitats (artificial gas filled chambers for dry decompression stops) and submersible dive computers etc. Some recent ultra long dives include the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP) team's 14,100ft/4298m penetration at Chip's Hole (US) in 1996 and Olivier Isler's 14,278ft/4352m Doux De Coly (France) exploration of 1998. Both of these are major achievements, particularly in view of the significant depth of much of the passages. However, The WKPP's 18,064ft/5506m dive into Wakulla Springs (US) in 1998, at an average depth of 285ft/87m, represents a phenomenal technological advance.

Of particular note was a small British team's extension of the French Ressel underwater system. The first sump (of 6545ft/1995m and 262ft/80m depth) had only been passed as recently as 1990 by Olivier Isler. However, in the second half of the '90s Rick Stanton and Jason Mallinson, in collaboration with Germany's Reinhard Buchaly, achieved a total penetration (in Sump 5) of over 9,800ft/3000m. Unlike most of the expeditions referred to above, which had massive budgets, the most recent Ressel explorations were done quietly by a group of enthusiasts without major financial backing, in what has been described as a triumph of adventure over technology. Conversely, most UK divers, whilst never achieving record lengths or depths on a world scale, have continued to develop specialized techniques for use at home. In the UK the '90s was the decade when underwater civil engineering skills were perfected, perhaps best exemplified by the extensive submerged excavations at Malham Cove Rising.

Throughout the last decade the worldwide quest for ultimate depth has continued. In 1997 Pascale Bernabe reached 787ft/240m in the Fontaine De Vaucluse (France) while Jim Bowden and Sheck Exley's deep explorations of 1993 and 1994 at Zacaton cenote in Mexico attained 905ft/276m. Sadly Exley, who was arguably the greatest cave diver ever, was killed on this dive. The deepest recorded dive, however, took place in South Africa, where Nuno Gomes (following on from an earlier deep dive by Exley) reached the bottom of Bushmansgat in 1996, at an astounding 925ft/282m depth.

Increasingly throughout the 1990s, many long underwater caves have been explored in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Here, the water is clear and relatively warm, the passages are often beautifully adorned with speleothems and more significantly the depths are usually minimal. All these factors have led to intense activity here in recent years. Many of these cenotes have been linked such that the longest underwater cave systems by far in the world are currently to be found here, e.g. Nohoch Nah Chih / Cenote del Manatee system (200,130ft/61km), Dos Ojos (180,000ft/55km) and the Ox Bel Ha system at well over 200,000ft/60 km total length (at the time of writing). The prospect of joining even these supersystems to create a single network over 330,000ft/100km in total length reveals that cave diving has certainly come of age.

So what is to come in the future? International cooperation on cave diving projects and interchange of ideas will continue to flourish. In recent years an obvious trend has been the increasing reliance on electronic devices. This will continue in future, although sadly it will also eliminate from the cutting edge all but those with substantial financial resources. The three-dimensional, high-speed ultrasonic mapping of Wakulla Springs in 1999 is perhaps a pointer to the widespread use of the technology that can be expected. There will be an increased utilization of remotely operated electronic devices, which will collect data about the underwater cave automatically. The French have already made excellent use of such vehicles at Vaucluse, to explore beyond the limitations of the human diver. One day most underwater cave exploration will perhaps be done by such devices and there will no longer be any need for man to get in the water. In the meantime, the most promising developments seem to lie with current experiments in the use of saturation diving techniques specifically for cave diving and with the development of the artificial gill, both of which will effectively allow man to stay underwater almost indefinitely.
Jim Bowden, April 6th 1994
925ft./282m dive into Systema Zacaton, Mexico.