Thailand Cave Rescue. How did British cave divers succeed where navy seals could not?

Thailand Cave Rescue. How did British cave divers succeed where navy seals could not?
Rick Stanton receives the George Medal for his part in the rescue of 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018.

Rick Stanton (above) and John Volanthen both received the George Medal in 2019 in recognition of the role they played in the rescue of 12 children and their football coach, who were trapped in a flooded cave, in Thailand. 

In 2018, twelve boys and their football coach were lost deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand.

The expertise of a team of extreme British cave divers led to their successful rescue

How did these cave divers gain the experience, techniques and equipment needed to achieve this rescue, when navy seals could not?

The following article aims to give you an insight into how these cave divers developed the skills and techniques needed for the Thailand Cave Rescue.  

In 2005, Rick Stanton and John volanthen, the two divers who found the children in Thailand, were exploring Wookey Hole Cave in Somerset, supported by a team of top-level cave divers. 

We follow them on a daring journey of cave exploration, through tight underwater passages to a depth of 90 meters using homemade breathing equipment and wriggling through gravel. 

I was with them at Wookey Hole to write about their exploration. The following text and photographs are taken from the interviews that I made at the time, which will give you a tiny insight into the mindset, dedication, courage and ingenuity of these great modern day explorers.

But in short – they gained those skills, techniques and experience from: 

Cave Exploration

The search for Chamber 26

Wookey Hole Cave

Words and Photos by Annette Price

Lets begin in 2003 at Wookey Hole Showcave in Somerset.

Beyond the carefully constructed walkways and prettily coloured lighting lies a very different and extensive underwater cave system.  Adventure cameraman Gavin Newman, one of the world’s leading action and underwater photographers, began making a documentary film about the history of cave diving exploration in Wookey Hole Caves.

Diving through a narrow rocky passage, often no more than just half a meter wide, Gavin headed for the end of the cave.  He was careful to keep a firm grip on the guideline because silt can reduce the visibility to zero; he could get lost and run out of air before finding his way out.  At a depth of forty meters the passage descended more steeply and to one side was a deep void where his powerful lights could not penetrate the blackness.

The cave roof closed down to just a few inches above his head, digging into the shifting gravel, he pulled himself along.  He could feel the gravel falling in behind him, threatening to trap him as he fought the narcotic effects caused by breathing air at depth.  The floor rose to meet the roof.  Buried in gravel, underwater at a depth of sixty-four meters Gavin could go no further. The glare from his lights and the greenie brown silt, stirred up by his movements reduced the visibility to a few inches.  With difficulty he twisted the camera round into the small gap before him and through the undisturbed, clear water ahead could see the guideline laid by cave diver Rob Parker in 1985.  The line continued to a depth of sixty-eight meters where the cave ended.  Gavin had solo dived to the end of Wookey Hole Cave and filmed his journey.

Photographer and film-maker Gavin Newman (left) with Cave Diver and explorer John Volanthen

Photographer and film-maker Gavin Newman (left) with Cave Diver and explorer John Volanthen

But was it really the end of the cave?
Several cave divers had been to the end of Wookey Hole Cave, others had seen Gavin’s film, they all believed the cave ended here.  But when the internationally renowned cave explorer Rick Stanton saw the film, he instantly realised they were wrong. The film clearly shows a ridge in the gravely floor, if the cave ended here,  it should have been flat.  Moving water flowing onwards had caused a ridge to form and so this couldn’t be the end of the cave.

Exploring the unknown

2004

In June 2004, Rick Stanton, a firefighter from Coventry, dived straight to the end of the cave.  On the right was a low arch and a small gap beyond, filled with gravel.  He squeezed through pushing himself through four meters of gravel. 

“There was a tunnel running down a gravel slope that went to the side of the blockage, it was almost a separate tunnel. Imagine a steep slope filled with gravel, which you can’t even crawl through, the fluid floor falling in behind you and as you push it out of the way it moulds itself all around you.  I pushed my way through by doing a kind of breast-stroke. I could have got pinned, it’s all moving so I had to be quite careful.

“I popped out the bottom and found a big tunnel ahead.  Gravel blockages usually occur where the tunnel continues upwards, as gravel will collect at the deepest point.  So we knew there would be a big space at the bottom.  I went for a look and explored another forty or fifty meters.” 

Rick had passed the mythical end of the cave thus beginning a new wave of exploration in Wookey Hole.

Rick Stanton was joined by fellow cave explorer John Volanthen, a Bristol-based engineer, together they set out to discover the next air chamber – Chamber 26. 

After the gravel squeeze, the passage continued for seventy meters and then stopped.  It was completely blocked. 

Feeling dejected Rick and John returned for a second look.  Part of the cave had collapsed causing a very localised blockage.  They returned once again, this time with lump hammers, crowbars and a lifting bag (a large bag which can be filled with air from a cylinder, making it buoyant so it can lift whatever is attached to it).  

“On our first visit we thought the water was coming up through boulders and the cave ended, but on a second dive, we realised that the water actually came up through a gap under the left-hand side of the chamber.  We did a lot of digging and managed to move a number of small boulders out of the way by carrying them” explains John.

A large boulder was still blocking the passage and needed to be moved but Rick had a problem with the oxygen side of his rebreather.  

“I couldn’t continue, so John went ahead on his own.   He secured a lifting bag to the boulder using webbing straps and pulled it out of the way, but the boulder slipped out of the webbing and fell straight back into the hole again.  So we went to France in the summer to practice our boulder lifting technique using a ratchet strap, like those used to secure loads on to lorries. It gripped the boulder tightly and was very effective when used with the lifting bag.”  

Returning to Wookey Hole, they successfully shifted the boulder out of the way. The passage is still very tight, wriggling through the hole feet first with John taking his rebreather off, dragging it behind him.

John Volanthen, cave diver and explorer.

John Volanthen, cave diver and explorer.

During 2004, Rick and John’s team did six dives between June and September and had discovered an extra 120 meters of new passage, setting a new British cave diving depth record of 76 meters.  But they still hadn’t found Chamber 26.

Exploration couldn’t continue over the winter months because of raised water levels, so the cave-divers had to wait until June 2005 to continue their exploration. They made three further pushes into Wookey.  

2005

In June 2005,  I was at Wookey Hole Cave writing an article about the continuing exploration.  From the gantry above Chamber 9, visitors to the showcave watched in wonder as the dive team prepared their kit. Leaving the glaring lights and noise of the showcave behind; Rick Stanton, John Volanthen and an experienced team of supporting cave divers quietly slipped into the muddy water.  I watched as their head torches beaming streaks of coloured light disappeared beneath the rock.  There was an air of worry in Chamber 9, as a group of friends, who had helped carry diving cylinders into the cave,  stood staring into the water.  Would all the divers come back? We had a long day of waiting to find out. 

The silent dark world that the cave divers had entered had been created by the action of water cutting through limestone forming a maze of underwater caverns with sculpted tunnels and rock formations. A guideline, laid by previous explorers, leads the route through this huge puzzle in stone. Soft silt billows upward, cascading into opaque brown clouds when disturbed.  Frog-kicking gently, the divers propel themselves forward, disturbing the silt as little as possible.

“The visibility is usually reasonable,” says John.  “The thing I never really think about is the darkness because it’s not dark.  How far you can see depends on the size of the lights that you take and the clouds of silt that hang in the water after a diver has passed through the passage before you”.

Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, exploring Wookey Hole Cave.

Rick Stanton (left) and John Volanthen (right) at Wookey Hole Cave.

Towards Chamber 20 the passage becomes very low, the divers having to squeeze their way through into the larger passage beyond taking them to Chamber 20 above.

Here, eight hundred and twenty meters of dry passage stretches across a vast blackness, the huge dark canyons soughing above like cathedrals in stone.  These are amongst the largest chambers in the cave, a spectacular underground landscape of wonderful rock formations and vaulted caverns, decorated with wafer thin rock curtains.

But the way forward is underwater, diving to the huge underwater Chamber 21.   Following the line, across the void, the route slopes steeply upwards.  The silence in Chamber 22 is broken only by the sound of divers wading through water, echoing around the cavern. Here the diver’s change equipment at the water’s edge, leaving the large cylinders they have been carrying for the return journey.

“We call Chamber 23 ‘Fossil Passage’ explains John Volanthen, “there is no active water here, only still water and a couple of very muddy, shallow sumps, the depth of which, depends on the water level.  In caving terms, this is the nastiest part of the trip because it’s a crawl, it’s muddy and awkward.” 

Fossil Passage is a physical challenge, slipping and sliding through a wet tunnel of knee-deep gloopy mud, the divers crawl on hands and knees carrying their diving equipment. Mud squelching in their wellies, they duck under rocks climbing over others while squeezing though narrow gaps coated in thick mud. 

“We swim against the flow of the stream and through a blue pool, eventually reaching the campsite in Chamber 24 that was first set up by Rob Parker during his Wookey Push in 1985.” Explains John Volanthen. “Over time we have built up a store of bivvi bags, a couple of chairs, stoves and some coffee and tins of beans.  This is mainly for those who have helped carry kit to Chamber 24 and have to wait here while Rick and I push further into the cave.”

Rebreather

The dives were becoming increasingly deep requiring longer dive and decompression times so Rick Stanton and John Volanthen used rebreathers and a breathing gas called tri-mix, which consists of three different gases, oxygen, nitrogen and helium.   By continually changing the mix of these three gases to suit the diver’s depth, both dive time and depth are extended while decompression times are decreased.

British cave systems contain very narrow passages with tight squeezes to wriggle through and commercially made rebreathers used by today’s open water divers are too big and bulky to fit through UK caves systems.  Rick built his own from scratch buying parts from B&Q while John modified a commercial military rebreather.

“Basically, our bodies need oxygen to metabolise,” explains Rick. “During metabolism, the body creates carbon dioxide, which we breathe out.  Using a rebreather is an endless loop of breathing in, when more oxygen is added and breathing out, when the carbon dioxide is absorbed using a chemical scrubber, so you have the right amount of oxygen going around the loop, continually recycling it.” 

“But to dive to deeper depths,” continues Rick, “you need to monitor the oxygen levels to make sure they are safe; if they are too low obviously you’ll die, if they are too high you’ll die. The rebreather has oxygen sensors and different gases to dilute the oxygen with. There are really sophisticated rebreathers around that have two or three computers all talking to each other.  Mine’s got none, it has a constant bleed of oxygen, which I can bypass, a couple of oxygen sensors and a simple LCD display and that’s it.”

Rick Stanton's homemade rebreather. Wookey Hole exploration.

Rick Stanton’s homemade rebreather. Wookey Hole exploration.

John Volanthen's modified military rebreather. Wookey Hole Cave.

John Volanthen’s modified military rebreather. Wookey Hole Cave.

On the second dive, John explored to a depth of ninety meters, again setting a new British cave diving depth record.  But a boulder blocked the passage and John could go no further.  He felt that this was the end of the cave.

In September during the third and final push, Rick went to the end to see for himself.  He couldn’t take Gavin Newman’s purpose-built camera to the end, because the passage was so tight, there simply wasn’t’ enough space for it.  “John had investigated last time and thought it was the end.  I got there and the passage was blocked.  So I dug at it and dug a hole that I could squeeze into.  If I had taken my rebreather off, I probably could have got through, there is definitely a passage on the other side.  But we’re not going to be racing back down there, as we’ll only find the narrow passage descending further.  This wave of exploration has come to an end, but we might be tempted to do one off trips. The passage is passable but the equipment needs to develop further to reduce decompression times.”

Map of Wookey Hole Cave exploration (click to enlarge)

A pause for the moment

So for the moment, there is a pause in the exploration of Wookey Hole Cave.  The film Gavin Newman made is a fascinating insight into the history of cave-diving exploration and the cutting edge of modern cave-diving techniques; it has also become a part of that history itself by initiating the most recent wave of exploration. 

Chamber 9 was opened to the general public in 1975 by the construction of a tunnel. It became the cave-divers base for exploration as the two-minute walk through the wide tunnel bypassed seventy meters of submerged passage, giving divers significantly more air with which to continue their exploration.  More recently a tunnel has been created to take showcave visitors to Chamber 24. Future explorers will be able to by-pass much of the submerged passages, giving the divers more air/gas to work with and aiding future exploration. 

Whether Rick Stanton and John Volanthen ever decide to continue their exploration of Wookey Hole, or another generation of explorers take up the challenge, the story of Wookey is sure to continue. 

DVD:  Wookey Exposed 

By Gavin Newman

Winner:  Best Adventure Film  ~  Kendal International Mountain Film Festival

Conclusion

Through the exploration of Wookey Hole Cave we get a glimpse into the life of the modern day cave explorer. Every bit as daring and courageous as Scott of the Antarctic, Sir Francis Drake or Neil Armstrong, they explore completely new territory and alien landscapes. The ingenuity to design and build a rebreather and the courage to dive to a depth of 90 metres with it.  The persistence to keep going back with a solution when a blockage threatens to end exploration. And this was just one cave.

After years of exploring the world’s most difficult cave systems, Rick Stanton, John Volanthen and a few of their extreme cave-diving friends had acquired the skills and expertise to plan and execute a complex and difficult international rescue.  To coordinate the many volunteers and navy seals and successfully extract the 12 boys and their football coach safely during the Thailand cave rescue.   

To Read

The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr.  A fascinating book about cutting-edge cave exploration around the world.  Martyn has been at the forefront of cave exploration for many years and this is a must read for anyone interested in caving or cave-diving. 

Wookey Hole – 75 Years of Exploration by Jim Hanwell, Duncan Price & Richard Witcombe.  A well illustrated collection of first hand accounts from those who have explored Wookey Hole Cave, covering 75 years of cave exploration.

Additional

The Devil is a gentleman

Squeezing through small holes underwater with thousands of tonnes of rock above is hazardous and things can go wrong.  Bob Davies, an experienced cave diver, discovered Chamber 13 in 1955; he had swam beyond the known limits of the cave and he nearly died. 

Bob Davies lost the guideline; the cardinal sin of cave diving.  While exploring into the cave he had laid a line attaching it to rocks at regular intervals. But in muddy, silty water he dived in circles searching for the line but failed to find it.  Finally reaching clear, undisturbed water, he looked up and saw the silvery reflections of ripples as his bubbles broke the surface.  An air pocket was above.  

Briefly he explored the two dry chambers he had discovered, Chambers 12 and 13.  But his situation was desperate.  No one knew where he was, he had no line to guide him back to the safety of Chamber 9 and had calculated that the air remaining in his cylinders was only sufficient for another twelve minutes of diving. 

For three anxious cold hours, Bob Davies waited patiently for the silt to settle and the water to clear.  Knowing there was no chance of a rescue, he set his compass to the direction he believed Chamber 9 to be in and dived.  

He recognised the upward slope to Chamber 11.  Briefly, he went the wrong way but quickly realising his mistake he retraced his path.  He found the line, but one of his two cylinders was now completely empty and he was less than half way back.  In desperation, he pulled himself rapidly along the line.  

The line snapped.  

With no line to pull on he swam onwards.  Alone. His breathing was the only sound.  With each exhalation, precious air left the regulator in his mouth, floating upwards in a cloud of bubbles, running along the roof of the cave like silver mercury.  His breathing became tighter and tighter as his air ran out.  

He reached Chamber 9 with two breaths left. Commenting to his support team who had been desperately searching for him “The Devil” he said, “is a gentleman.

The Rebreather – how it works

What gases are in the air and what happens when we breathe them?

The air around us is a mixture of gases, 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen with a small percentage of other gases.  The body needs energy in order to live, this is obtained by combining food with oxygen, a process called metabolism. Carbon dioxide is a waste gas produced during metabolism and is removed from the body in the exhaled breath.   Nitrogen is an inert gas, which washes around the body, it does not aid metabolism but acts as a carrier for the oxygen.

How does a rebreather work?

A rebreather allows the diver to ‘re-breath’ the same breathing gas continually.  Unlike the more common ‘open circuit’ scuba diving equipment, the exhaled breath, which now contains carbon dioxide, does not escape in a mass of bubbles to the surface but stays within the rebreather system.  A chemical scrubber consisting of absorbent soda-lime absorbs the carbon dioxide from the exhaled breath and more oxygen is added to the breathing gas from a small cylinder.  It’s an endless loop of breathing in and out, adding more oxygen and removing the carbon dioxide.

Why use a rebreather for cave diving?

As Rick explained above, the rebreather contains three gases, which are oxygen, nitrogen and helium, known as tri-mix.  Using a rebreather, the mixture of these gases can be continually adjusted during the dive giving the diver the optimum breathing gas mix for that depth throughout the dive.  

Deeper than thirty meters, nitrogen becomes increasingly narcotic with effects similar to being drunk, a condition called nitrogen narcosis.   As the diver’s depth increases, the rebreather can be used to reduce the amount of nitrogen in the breathing gas by replacing some of it with helium and helping to prevent the effects of nitrogen narcosis. 

When oxygen is compressed it can become poisonous, so the rebreather is used to reduce the percentage of oxygen and prevent the diver suffering from oxygen toxicity. On the surface the rebreather can provide pure oxygen to help remove residual nitrogen from the body, thus reducing the risk of decompression illness.

The breathing gas in a rebreather is continually recycled, greatly extending the time the diver can stay underwater.  This also reduces the need for large numbers of cylinders to be carried into the cave.

Annette Price Photographer

Annette Price

About the Author

Annette Price. I am a wild places and adventure sports photographer, which means that I am passionate about getting outdoors, camping, caving, getting wet and muddy and photographing the landscapes and people that I find. Water is a big attraction for me and I love being in, on and under it and am a serial kayak paddler. I hope you enjoy the articles, kit reviews and photography on this website and that they help you to get outdoors exploring new places and activities.

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