REVIEW: The Darkness Beckons - The History and Development of World Cave Diving


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'The Darkness Beckons: The History and Development of World Cave Diving? by Martyn Farr


Vertebrate Publishing, 3 July 2017. ISBN: 978-1-910240-74-8
?25 softback / ?40 limited hardback edition (500 signed copies), 416 pages, full colour. Size: 246 mm x 189 mm.

Thirty seven years on from the first edition and twenty six since the second in 1991, Martyn Farr has produced a third, and considerably extended, version of The Darkness Beckons. Those familiar with the excellent earlier books will be aware that the author?s aim was to chart the evolution and development of cave diving equipment and techniques, and the exploration of water-filled cave passages. The inclusion of the word ?world? in the title for the first time is a small but significant change. It dramatically expands the scope of the book and changes the balance of content when compared with the earlier editions. Superbly illustrated with over 250 digitally remastered photographs and more than 100 hand drawn diagrams, and with a new foreword from Bill Stone, the book is completely updated. The easy to follow writing style of the older editions remains, ensuring that the reader does not get confused by the jargon of the cave diver. The intelligent use of the explorers' own descriptions of their bold exploratory dives makes the story come to life. This engaging and enthusiastic writing style elevates it from what could have been a catalogue of lifeless detail, expanding the appeal of the book to an audience far broader than the niche world of the cave diver. Anyone with even a passing interest in the subterranean world, human endeavour, or genuinely original exploration will be gripped throughout the 400 pages of text and illustrations. The books also play an important role in capturing the stories of exploration that otherwise would only have been told over a beer in the pub, and eventually forgotten.

Much has changed in the 26 years since the second edition to justify the new release and the considerable work required by the author to complete it. Internationally renowned as a caver and cave diver, Farr is ideally placed to compile such an ambitious book. He has discovered (and continues to discover) many miles of new cave passage around the world. An active cave diver since 1971, he has taken part in exploration throughout the UK and around the world in such diverse areas as the Bahamas, Iran, Mexico, China, Borneo, Japan, France, Spain, Russia, Australia, and most recently in New Zealand.

From the beginning the reader is quickly immersed (pun intended) in the drive to push back the human and technological barriers to cave exploration. The ingenuity, determination and resourcefulness of cavers and divers along with the necessary technological advances is a theme that runs throughout the book. The reader is led through the history spanning Norbert Casteret?s free-diving exploits in the Pyrenees, the use of Standard Equipment complete with brass helmet and lead chest weight, the adaptation of World War II surplus equipment and the introduction of compressed cylinders, to the most advanced rebreather technology and underwater vehicles. Farr?s meticulously researched book allows the divers to tell the story of the challenges faced and overcome, through their personal records. It is clear that these explorers were neither foolhardy nor harbouring the suicidal tendencies that many might initially perceive. The determination, effort, intricate planning and long hours of preparation are relayed in countless stories spanning almost a century and show that underwater cave exploration is rarely either simple or quick.

The first half of the book covers the history of cave diving in Britain and Ireland from the earliest attempts right through to the most recent exploration in these areas. The pattern that runs throughout the book illustrates the perennial cycle in the sport, ie a cave reaches a water obstacle and cavers innovate and persevere to find a way through to discover what lies beyond, using equipment where it can be acquired, making do where it can?t, or designing new kit themselves then testing it alongside new techniques. However, even such a resourceful approach does not always end in success, and The Darkness Beckons, whilst full of stories of outstanding and bold (sometimes almost unbelievable) achievements also contains tales of miraculous near misses, and some unfortunate tragedies. The initial development of cave diving in Somerset, the formation of the Cave Diving Group and the traditional approach of teaching cavers to dive (rather than vice versa) are all described. High quality maps and photographs are used along with dive logs to bring to life the thoughts of the original explorers, and to put their efforts into context, and those of the strong teams of ?sherpas? that frequently supported them. For many, who find it hard to understand how the first (now considered very short) sump in Swildon?s Hole could have held up exploration for so long, this book will explain the considerable efforts required to break through there and at many other sites.

Throughout the early years, advances in equipment and techniques enabled longer and deeper sumps to be explored. The progressive attitudes of divers and the introduction of new equipment such as wetsuits, reliable electrical lighting, and more advanced breathing equipment, reflected UK challenges and is charted in detail, as are the cave discoveries that resulted from their use. Dives that are now considered routine were unimaginable to previous generations of explorers, and it is this progression that Farr describes extremely well, having been part of the evolution himself. The UK section concludes with a brief overview of some recent explorations in all of the main caving areas. The author?s aim to chronicle world cave diving developments has of necessity truncated the narrative of recent UK progress and only some of the major projects are discussed. However, the delicate balance that ensures that the book truly relates world-wide history and developments whilst remaining a manageable length has been well struck, and the book will appeal to UK and international readers alike.

Cave diving outside the UK is detailed in the second half of the book. The author sets himself a huge challenge to describe world developments and history, but manages this very successfully. Beginning with Europe and continuing through the Americas, China, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa, this characteristically well researched section summarises some of the significant projects within the different regions, and the equipment advances that helped enable them. The varying approaches and techniques used to meet the different challenges of lengths and depths of sumps found beyond the UK are described well as the history of exploration is chronicled. Despite the vast subject, the chapters also cover the contribution of UK divers who have proven well equipped to make significant advances at sites such as the Emergence Du Ressel (France). Throughout these chapters the personal accounts draw the reader in and explain in simple language how it feels to take part in such cutting edge projects and major breakthroughs often as part of large international teams.

The chapters on different countries detail the geographical variation in approaches to cave diving. For example, in Florida, with easily accessible sites and often clear and warm water it is hardly surprising that the background and techniques of explorers differ from what many will recognise as the ?UK approach?. These contrasts and their implications are well described. The comparison between the UK and overseas approaches is stark in some respects, yet the drive and tenacity of the individuals involved has been outstanding, and a common factor worldwide.

Farr covers some of the major advances abroad, with particular attention to the Wakulla Springs project in Florida. Other sites are also discussed where extremely long and deep dives required the development of new technologies and equipment to keep the explorers safe whilst they advanced into hitherto unknown passages. These chapters also describe the exploration in the Bahamas (using first-hand accounts from the author), and progress under Mexico such as the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey, Nacimiento del Rio Mante depth records, and recent Sistema Huaulta exploration. European projects reaching depths in excess of 280 m (Czech Republic) and the achievement of world records in Pozu Azul (Spain) and Krubera Cave (Western Caucasus) are also included. These amply demonstrate the development of equipment, and the personal dedication involved in extending cave systems throughout the world.

The book remains throughout a gripping story of the many and varied challenges of the subterranean world being steadily overcome through boldness and perseverance, tailored technological advances, diligent research and the sharing of information with cave divers across the world. The book concludes with a look towards future challenges within cave diving.

The final 16 pages comprise a useful glossary of terms, a brief history of equipment and techniques, an overview of UK cave diving accidents, and contributors to the Quintana Roo speleological survey. Acknowledgements and a comprehensive index complete the book. The publication quality is excellent* and is supported by clear layout and inclusion of superb images, illustrations and explanatory footnotes.

This book is written in a consistent and easy to read style, and the hours quickly pass as the reader is continually drawn to the next stage in the narrative. The author succeeds in presenting a compelling story of the history and development of world cave diving, and the reader is left wondering whether a second volume could have been filled with the numerous omitted personal accounts of other projects and developments in the UK and around the globe. Whilst the stories are primarily those of cave divers, the book has a much broader appeal and should be read by any caver or armchair enthusiast who is interested in original exploration and what drives people to innovate and venture underground in the search of new caverns. For those who already own either or both of the earlier editions, this latest offering from Farr remains well worth buying. With its complete update, and extension to cover much more of the international scene, it really is a comprehensive story of world cave diving, and has a place on many a bookshelf. As in earlier editions, the enthusiasm and expertise of the author shows on every page, and is very likely to lead some readers to become cavers or cave divers themselves. Be warned, many cave divers (myself included**) were content ?dry? cavers before Farr?s earlier editions enthused and motivated us to obtain the skills necessary to safely explore sumps ourselves and to seek new underground discoveries. To give the author the final say, it is worth remembering that ?cave diving will always be an objectively dangerous sport, but providing it is approached in a mature, responsible manner, it will remain one of the most exciting pioneering sports of our times, with immense potential for development?.

Adrian Hall
Cave Diving Group

* The softback edition was provided by Vertebrate Publishing via UK Caving for this review.
** The reviewer was selected at random by UK Caving and took no part in the production of the book. He has no links to Vertebrate Publishing.