Obituary: Rob Parker
Friday 22 August 1997
He was best known in Britain as the man who, in 1985, created a new depth record on an epic pushing dive (a dive into an unexplored cave) deep into the complex of flooded tunnels at Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset. In recent years his reputation also grew through his passion for climbing and his work as an adventure film cameraman.
Born in Bournemouth in 1962, Parker established an early interest in adventure sports and became a familiar figure climbing on the cliffs of the Dorset coastline. A later move to Bristol, with the Mendip hills nearby, saw the beginning of a deep and passionate interest in caves, and at a relatively young age he established himself as one of the country's top cave explorers.
Parker was originally enticed into Wookey's complex of flooded passages whilst supporting a series of explorations made by his cave-diving mentor, Martyn Farr, and he soon became fascinated by the prospect of continuing that exploration beyond the limits imposed by the technologies of the day. In 1984 Parker's thirst for adventure took him to Mexico to work with the top American cave diver Bill Stone, a relationship which endured for the remainder of his life. The following year, Stone came to the UK to act as a support diver and technical adviser for Parker's own explorations to the limits of the Wookey system.
This expedition, despite taking place in Somerset, was to a place as remote and inhospitable as any mountain range. A carefully co-ordinated team of divers ferried sealed containers of equipment to an underground camp in an air chamber close to the limit of the previous exploration. Diving from this base, Parker moved alone, turning back only at the record depth of 63m, at a point where the full force of the River Axe blasts through loose gravel. Parker's pioneering adoption of commercial mixed gas diving technology, blending helium, nitrogen and oxygen to enable the safe exploration of such deep caves, proved a milestone in the development of sport diving in the UK and established the record which still stands today.
In the following years he undertook numerous projects at home and abroad, exploring caves both above and below water. He played a leading role in explorations from the Bahamian Blue Holes to the uncharted caves of Communist China and his reputation quickly grew at an international level. Fascinated by the possibilities that technology could offer in advancing cave exploration, he teamed up again with Stone and other US divers to explore one of the world's deepest and largest underwater caves at Wakulla Springs in northern Florida in 1987.
This ground-breaking project coupled the new mixed gas diving technology with futuristic underwater scooters and a specially designed diving bell. Such an infrastructure allowed divers who were returning from very deep dives to spend the long hours of decompression in relative safety and comfort. The expedition also saw the first test dives of a revolutionary new re-breather system designed by Stone. Similar to the systems used by astronauts it allowed divers to remain underwater for up to 24 hours at a time. Parker played a major part in the equipment's development for cave exploration and was to have been a lead diver using the system to further the exploration of Wakulla Springs later this year.
In recent years, he turned his attention back to climbing and, together with his long-term climbing and diving partner, Julian Walker, set up the Bristol Climbing Centre in 1992. In yet another innovative venture, he designed and built the technically challenging and beautifully sculpted climbing wall inside a redundant Bristol church. This project provided the perfect outlet for the unique combination of his skills as a carpenter and his creative vision as an adventurer.
A firm believer in taking charge of one's own destiny and living life to the full, he was an inspiration to all who met him. Several television films stand as tribute to his extraordinary adventures, although in later years he was more often found behind the camera. From the slopes of Everest to the depths of the world's great caves, he was quickly becoming recognised as one of the world's most adventurous film cameramen.
Robert Bernard Parker, cave explorer and climber: born Bournemouth, Hampshire 10 June 1962; died 17 August 1997.
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