Cave divers come up for air to celebrate 60 years of sport

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The Independent Online
A celebration of 60 years of the sport of cave diving will take place in the caves where it all started - Wookey Hole in the River Axe, Somerset.

Next weekend will see more than 160 cave divers gather to mark the end of the 60th year since Graham Balcombe and Penelope Powell plunged into the river and also the 50th anniversary of the British Cave Diving Group, the world's first cave diving club.

Guest of honour at the celebrations will be Mr Balcombe, now 89, wearing the heavy and cumbersome diving equipment made for that first exploration of the underwater caverns at Wookey Hole in July 1935.

He said "It was very frightening and very exciting. We had practised for weeks. I went into the water with a great deal of trepidation. I was wired up by the BBC to give a commentary on what was happening and they all got very worried when they lost the link with me as to why I was affected by air bubbles."

He had been a keen rock climber and caver and it was an obvious progression to want to explore the caverns hidden beneath the Mendip hills.

"When we eventually surfaced we found caverns the size of a cathedral, which today have been opened up by means of a tunnel so that visitors can walk through them," he said.

Equipment used in the original dives was far removed from the wetsuit and aqualung divers used today. A long tube delivered air from a large pump into the massive brass helmet. The divers wore a canvas and rubber suit and boots with lead weights to prevent them rising to the surface.

"I envy the divers of today and the wonderful equipment they have, although it is still an exciting and tricky operation," said Mr Balcombe. "There are still large caves at Wookey Hole that are the preserve of the cave divers."

The original dive was from chamber three. Current exploration has reached chamber 25 where there is a sump over 70 metres deep. Robert Parker, a diver, currently holds the world record depth for cave diving in that sump with a dive in 1985.

Martin Grass, spokesman for the British Cave Diving Group, said: "Wookey Hole has always been the mecca for British cave divers, and has often been the site for pushing the frontiers of the sport, whether through the use of new technical equipment or human endurance."