Interview by Jon Bojar
Martyn Farr, born in Wales, has been a world class cave explorer for roughly 30 years! Having explored many regions, from Iran to Mexico and Turkey to Brazil, Martyn has had the opportunity to experience the various cave diving techniques used by people around the world. Publisher of seven books, including The Darkness Beckons, Darkworld, and Underground Wales, today Martyn trains divers out of South Wales to explore in the overhead environment. He has recently developed a standard sidemount harness for sump exploration. I have found that in general, United States divers remain somewhat isolationist in their practices; and therefore, I decided to interview Martyn in an effort to gain knowledge from the pioneers across the pond.
• How did you first begin cave diving and where did you start?
For me cave diving sprung naturally from caving. I started dry caving in 1961 when my father took me to some sporting caves here in South Wales. The '60s was a "Golden Age" of discovery in Britain. There were immense, beautiful cave systems uncovered in a short space of time. Spear-heading the explorations in South Wales were the cave divers, so it just seemed natural that I could find a new, original cave myself if I became a diver. So, by 1970 I was caving regularly with some of the leading explorers of the time and got to make my first dive that year at a place called Ogof Ffynnon Ddu -- Cave of the Black Spring.
• What would you consider to have been your most epic trip/expedition?
Now that's a difficult one. To me the word "epic" has connotation of extreme but also close associations with near death encounters. Most all of these are well documented in the books such as Darkness Beckons - The History & Development of Cave Diving, or better still, the Great Caving Adventure (an autobiographical account of my early cave diving exploits).
To choose just one is impossible, as I am still involved in such diving today. Only the other day, on the first of September, I revisited a cave that no one had been to since my last (solo) trip there in 1978. This is a grueling, extremely flood-prone system with huge potential. I had an epic in there -- although broken lines and nil visibility are now things for which I am fairly well prepared. Well, we got to the end of the cave and got some distance further.... If you were to ask me what historical landmarks spring quickly to mind then perhaps I would have to mention the depth records in Wookey Hole in 1977 and 1982, the traverse of Llangattock Mountain in 1986 (which is still the longest and deepest caving through trip in the British Isles) and 2001-2002, with its cave dives in Australia, Brazil, Italy, and Ireland.
• In your opinion, what does it take to become a great cave diver/explorer?
That's an easy one: dedication and determination, and perhaps a fair amount of physical stamina. From the age of 10 all I ever wanted to be was an explorer. If one can hold the focus, the health and fitness will follow. Experience and all the contacts are equally essential in this day and age.
• What are the most notable changes you've seen in cave diving over the years?
In 1970 it was common for people to dive on a single cylinder, a single demand valve and a single light (i.e., there was little or no thought of redundancy). For me all that changed in 1971 when my single set failed completely, on exhalation, in a cave called Dan yr Ogof. To this day I cannot satisfactorily explain how I survived, but I certainly breathed water for a couple of minutes! The near-death experience was not the overriding concern as far as I was concerned. It was the sense of shame that I felt. I was determined to rectify the deficiency in the equipment (and myself) and to that end I resolved immediately to adopt a redundant rig from that point forward. Perhaps a measure of how close things were that day can be gleaned by the fact that neither of the two other divers, who were involved in a stand-by capacity that day, ever dived in a cave again. I quickly got hold of their gear though!
Over the years equipment and techniques have improved beyond all recognition. Equipment is far more reliable, which is the prime prerequisite, and just about everything these days is commercially available. Today, professional training is available, unlike the '70s when people like myself were self-taught, learning to survive by simple trial and error. There were no dry suits in the early '70s, virtually no foreign travel and no sponsorship. All things considered, it was amazing that so much was achieved.
• What countries have you done cave diving expeditions in and which ones hold special places in your memory?
I guess I have been privileged in many respects. Britain is fairly small compared to North America, so our cavers and divers have always had to be outgoing. The legendary Ken Pearce, an early hero, twice set world depth records by passing the sumps at the bottom of the Gouffre Berger, near Grenoble in France. In 1975, I found myself at the bottom of the same sump and it was very evocative to see some of Pearce's tanks, still there eight years later... that was one hell of a feat by Pearce!
I have dived in many European countries, Turkey, Iran, China, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Bahamas and, of course, Florida.
• How (or what led you to) make your living through cave diving. What makes your teaching style different from a typical U.S. cave diving course?
From the very beginning I always wanted to be an explorer, but everyone always said that caving and cave diving would never be able to sustain a person financially. So I chose to teach, at first in schools (which presented generous holidays!) and later in a specialist outdoor education center. I feel at one (at peace) in the outdoors, but throughout my career working in education, I always aspired to being a professional caver and cave diver. So, starting in 1975, I started taking photographs (I purchased my first Nikonos in California in 1975) and writing books. Then, in 1997, I set up my cave diving training business, named Farrworld (www.Farrworld.co.uk). As you can imagine, environmental conditions for divers in Britain are quite different than to that of Florida. I think it is true to say that if divers can achieve competence in the cold, murky waters and frequently restricted sites so typical of the UK, then they are fit to dive just about anywhere else in the world with safety and confidence.
What makes my courses so different from others is that I instruct overhead environment diving from a generic basis. First and foremost, I am training for the British and European environment, but I believe that all divers must be given the global perspective. They need to know how things differ in other regions, as British divers travel extensively. They will understand that 25 degree (77 F) warm cenote water is bliss, but they need to respect different environments every bit as much as the adverse cave diving in UK, because there are other, less obvious, factors involved. In Mexico, for example, one can dive for kilometres in a shallow, clear water tunnel, but the complexity of the tunnel and potential for silting can be considerable. It all comes back to personal attitude and a healthy respect for the environment.
• I have read most of your books. They have a vast amount of historical information about not only diving in England and the rest of the world, but on the history of the land as well. What led you to decide to begin writing cave diving books and what were the main obstacles in publishing?
I decided to write the book subsequently entitled The Darkness Beckons in 1974 purely because of the incredible feats and the amazing adventures that had taken place. At that point in time I was training to become a teacher, but the primary intention was to tell a good story. Implicit in the subject matter is the whole psychology of the sport and pointers to good practice. The manuscript was rejected by a couple of publishers as being too specialized, but eventually the book found its niche with Diadem Books (today Baton Wicks) and the first edition appeared in print in 1980. The second edition appeared in 1991 and was soon acclaimed worldwide as the definitive book on the subject matter.
At present I am preparing something more along the lines of a cave diving manual, a basic global introduction to the subject. This outlines the variety of approaches that might be adopted, depending, of course, upon the environment being dived. So between the training, photography, writing, lectures and exploration there's never a dull moment!
For more information on any of Martyn's books, courses, or photos, please visit his web site at www.farrworld.co.uk.