The cave diver

Mar­tyn Farr, 65, is one of the world’s lead­ing ex­plor­ers of wa­ter-filled sub­ter­ranean pas­sage­ways. Here, the Welsh­man tells us how he got into it – and how quickly things can get scary

Friday - - My Working Life -

Cave div­ing is def­i­nitely not for ev­ery­one, Mar­tyn. What at­tracted you to it? I was a keen caver and had been since I was about 10. Grow­ing up in Wales there were lots of amaz­ing caves, and af­ter univer­sity when I got into ocean div­ing I thought I’d join the two to­gether and start ex­plor­ing the wa­ter I would come across when cav­ing. Did the dan­ger as­pect at­tract you? Par­tially, but it’s not the dan­ger el­e­ment so much as the fact that so many caves sim­ply end in wa­ter-filled bar­ri­ers. The cave sys­tems clearly con­tinue be­yond that point for good­ness knows how far, and I had a burn­ing de­sire to know what came next. Ge­ol­o­gists had in­tro­duced dyes into a num­ber of caves here in Wales and the dye could be seen emerg­ing days or weeks later, of­ten many miles away, so clearly there was a way through. I wanted to find out how. What was your first dive like? It was back in 1971 and there was very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about cave div­ing at the time as so few peo­ple were do­ing it. It was very much learn­ing as I went along, and I thought I was do­ing pretty well un­til my sixth dive, when I nearly died. What hap­pened? I’d per­haps got a bit com­pla­cent, think­ing I could ex­plore new un­der­ground worlds by then, and I was at a place called Dan-yrO­gof at the head of the Swansea Val­ley in Wales. There were three of us, and we’d al­ready walked, crawled and climbed about a mile un­der­ground be­fore I got in the wa­ter. The vis­i­bil­ity was less than 2m – it’s not like the Mal­dives! – and the tem­per­a­ture was about eight de­grees. You can’t re­ally buddy up as you usu­ally would when div­ing as it can all be a bit tight down there, so off I went on my own. I’d gone about 30m at a depth of 10m, breathed out, and when I went to take a breath in, the unimag­in­able hap­pened: I couldn’t take an in­hala­tion. What did you do? Well, the throat quickly starts to con­vulse when that hap­pens, and what went through my head was to­tal blind panic. I fran­ti­cally tried to make my way out, got jammed, a minute passed and I started to breathe wa­ter. I’d se­ri­ously over­stepped my mark and I was done for. One of my sur­face bud­dies no­ticed the pulls on the line – which we lay en route into the flooded pas­sage in or­der to be able to find a way out when the wa­ter is mud­died – came in and I some­how fol­lowed him back out. I was pur­ple, cough­ing wa­ter, and the two peo­ple who were with me that day never went cave div­ing ever again. But it ob­vi­ously didn’t put you off… No, it made me de­ter­mined to make sure I learned all the skills I needed. A year later I was back at the same spot and went on to find a mile of undis­cov­ered cave. Was all of it un­der­wa­ter? No, the sub­merged parts of cave sys­tems are of­ten just 50m or 100m or so. If you can nav­i­gate these, you of­ten emerge at an­other – dry – cave. The pas­sages that are filled with wa­ter ba­si­cally link them all up. Where are your favourite places to dive? As well as Wales there are some mag­nif­i­cent caves in the south-west of France that I love to visit, but New Zealand is one of my favourite places and I’ve had many a great trip there. The first time I’d been in­vited by a friend who had been cav­ing and found him­self hav­ing to stop when the cave ended in wa­ter. I dived in and went on to find a mile of new cave. On one visit there I emerged af­ter a dive in the most amaz­ing cav­ern I’d ever seen – full of glit­ter­ing sta­lac­tites and sta­lag­mites. No one in the world had ever seen it. What’s in­cred­i­ble is that there are thou­sands of un­seen caves like this all over the world – any­where where there’s lime­stone rock will have them. Are there any in the Mid­dle East? Some. I be­lieve there may be some caves in Riyadh, but the place I would love to go to is Oman, where there are some fan­tas­tic caves. What do you do when not cave div­ing? Go cav­ing! Cave div­ing is not a very so­cia­ble ac­tiv­ity, whereas cav­ing re­ally is. One of the rea­sons I like to cave dive is that when you emerge at a new cham­ber, you can some­times find a dry route back to an­other cave that is al­ready known to cavers. In that sense it’s quite al­tru­is­tic – I can some­times ex­tend the area that cavers can get to with­out them hav­ing to get wet. The world’s deep­est un­der­wa­ter cave was re­cently recorded in the Czech Repub­lic. Does deep-div­ing ap­peal to you? My spe­cial­i­sa­tion is small, cold, murky tun­nels that most other divers would stay well clear of. My goal is not to go deep; I’m look­ing for long, shal­low sys­tems where the mar­gin of safety is a bit bet­ter. Things get ex­po­nen­tially more dan­ger­ous the deeper the wa­ter. But fear is part of the deal. Man­ag­ing that fear is what is im­por­tant. What in­spires you to lug your gear un­der­ground and step into freez­ing, black wa­ter now you’ve done it a thou­sand times? I love it! It’s a won­der­ful ac­tiv­ity, and the more prepa­ra­tion you put into it the bet­ter it will go. It’s re­ally sat­is­fy­ing when you plan a dive and it goes ex­actly as planned.

Mar­tyn runs both cav­ing and cave-div­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and cour­ses in Wales, France and Ire­land. His new book The Dark­ness Beck­ons is out in April; go to far­rworld.com.

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