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Northern Diver are proud to have been associated with this astounding cave diving project. Olivier Isler is one of the world's top cave divers and his support team consisted of divers from many different countries. Most of the British cave divers on the team were wearing Northern Diver drysuits and undersuits. An expedition such as this has many stories - Here is one from Steve Thomas recounting a not untypical day.

A Simple Task
Several hundred metres into an underwater cave and hanging out over a fifty metre deep shaft was not the best place to battle with a habitat and winch.

Steve Thomas in Doux de Coly. Picture by Gavin Newman
The operation was supposedly straightforward. The habitat was in place, the first 9 hour decompression schedule had already taken place successfully and it was now time to reset everything for the next dive in a few days time. The water is hard, so hard in fact that the winch used for moving the habitat to its various depths needed removing when not in use to avoid the build up of deposits, the same deposits that contribute to formations within air filled caves.

I had dived in with ‘Scoff’, a good lad from the north of England and between us had portered about a dozen cylinders 300 metres to the shaft. This was a big enough task in itself and we had a laugh about it (afterwards!), the phrase of the day being something that was written on a slate in desperation, 'I can't do it alone'. After finally getting all the cylinders to the shaft we completed our first job, sorting out various Heliox and Nitrox bottles. The only thing left to do was remove the winch. This meant simply removing the steel cable from it, anchoring it to our nearby electron ladder which was bolted to the roof and undoing the Maillons keeping the winch attached to the bottom of the habitat. But the cable wouldn’t come out. We tried for nearly an hour, every possible combination of levers but the last few inches of cable refused to move. Scoff’s eye communication expressed his frustration so we both squeezed up into the one-man bell to try and talk in the remaining few inches of air that hadn’t been purged. With heads craned back and noses touching the roof we formulated another strategy then squeezed out of the habitat and continued trying. However, the winch refused to co-operate.

The bell belongs to Olivier Isler, one of the best cave divers in the world. He had, on previous occasions, set world records for his penetration into this cave, Doux de Coly in the Dordogne region of France, and he was here again to challenge his own record of just over four kilometres horizontal distance without airspace. The dives were performed using Heliox and the diving required nine hours of decompression before being able to surface. The early stops were within the shaft and the shallower stops allowed the habitat to be used. The final 300 metre swim to the entance was very shallow which simplified things enormously. In the habitat, Olivier could sit with his upper body out of the water although still at the correct decompression depth. He could eat and drink whilst purging the gases from his body, although he twice refused the pornographic magazines that we pushed into the bell after several boring hours. We were his support team and our duties included everything from underwater construction to acting as sub-aquatic pack horses and even baby sitters (during decompression).

This winch problem had us beat. Then two of our colleagues appeared and joined in the fun. They had finished their tasks and were on their way out but had enough air left to give us a hand. A tug of war, us against the winch, began and the winch won round two.
Upon commencement of round three, I glanced away and on looking back I saw Gavin performing underwater acrobatics on the cable and wondered if it was him or me that was upside down. The circus was definitely in town.

We all carried on, getting in each other’s way and failing to shift the cable but then the obvious, but not to us, happened; there were now four divers underneath the habitat and our exhaust bubbles were rising into the bell. It suddenly acquired positive buoyancy and began to move upwards. We were unaware at first but as it began to accelerate upwards we became disorientated and confused. Ropes started pulling tight, computers beeped at us that we were ascending at dick-head rate and the habitat threw punches at us all. One by one we managed to kick free except Dave who managed to hit the purge and dump the excess air from the bell.
Being hit square-on in the face by a large underwater habitat is an unusual occurrence but I only suffered my light being knocked off. Being in complete darkness, I reached up to turn on one of the many back up lights on my helmet when I was momentarily mesmerised. Without my own main light being on the scene was beautifully lit by the other diver's lights and even the fabulous watches we were using looked superb with their illumination. This brought a moment of delight before reality came back into play and we had to get the habitat back to where it was supposed to be. We eventually dropped the habitat back to the required depth and then the winch got bored and decided spit out the cable and let itself be taken off without any effort at all. Typical. A short time later the long swim, with the heavy winch, back to the cave entrance and daylight began, the main thought being “this bloody winch has got to go back in again in two days...”.
Over the next couple of days, the whole circus started again; fresh stage bottles were placed within the sump, the habitat was reset and the winch re-attached, scooters were placed at the bottom of the shaft and Olivier went in and performed his magic. After a 5 hour 42 minute dive and another nine hour decompression schedule he exited the cave having extended its explored distance to 4.25 kilometres from the entrance at a maximum depth of -63 metres, an amazing feat of endurance and skill. The cave again had to be de-rigged and one the first jobs was to remove the winch from the bottom of the habitat ...

Steve Thomas.

Drysuits Used for Doux de Coly Expedition
Gavin Newman wore a standard Northern Diver Vortex drysuit. Being an underwater photographer the suit gave him the protection he needed for the long dives in cold water but also allowed him freedom of movement.
Steve Thomas had a modified Northern Diver CNX Suit. This neoprene drysuit incorporated a built in buoyancy bladder built into the back of the suit. An inflation and dump system was the same as a standard BCD. SPX Undersuits were worn for comfort and warmth.
John Cordingley and Russell Carter also has similar drysuits which had been used for the previous year's expedition.

© 2002 Northern Diver (International) Ltd