Diving A Blowhole
Ok I’m not going to try and explain where the idea came from but I’m currently working on a new concept for our sport – White Water Diving!
The premise is fairly simple – to go and explore those places or those conditions we would conventionally think of as off-limits – I’m talking waterfalls, deep rapids, whirlpools, active blowholes – the usual sort of thing.
The inaugural outing was going to be a blowhole. Believe it or not this wasn’t just an exercise in pointlessness endangerment. The main aim was to shoot a promo film about wildlife living in extreme places. The intention was to show how these tumultuous places could be safe havens for certain species. Creatures like crabs and prawns will brave the washing machine effects of an active blowhole as the fish that predate them can’t battle their way inside. For them it’s one of the safest places on our shores.
The same cannot, however, be said for me. The blowhole of choice was at Abercastle in Pembroke and on a calm day is a pretty little dive for the novice. However, the conditions I finally plumped for were 25 foot waves and winds of 65mph. The blowhole itself is effectively and ‘L’ shaped tunnel with the horizontal shaft submerged and the vertical tube rising out into the fresh air. The plan was fairly simple; abseil off the side of a cliff to drop into the sea above the underwater entrance, get sucked into the blowhole. Once at the point where the tunnel turns vertical I’d reach a line dangling down the shaft and climb back up to freedom – simples.
The first problem I encountered was equipment. There is not a huge market for underwater armour. Fair enough really, it’s all supply and demand. I started looking at helmets and designed a nifty extended mouthpiece for my second stage that allowed it to reach up and under the face guard of a motorbike helmet. However, the initial pool trials soon made clear a motorbike helmet, being full of foam, is a tad on the buoyant side. 9kg of buoyancy to be exact. Needless to say my giant stride turned into a near hanging as I danced the Tyburn Jig on the chinstrap of my helmet. Adding 9kg of lead to the helmet sorted the buoyancy issue a treat but unfortunately left my head permanently slumped forward to rest on my chest. Well I say permanently, if I’d tried abseiling in it I’m quite sure as I leaned back over the cliff past 45 degrees my head would’ve whipped back with enough force to send it rolling into the sea. Something that is only amusing in the very short term.
In the end I decided my cave diving helmet with a cricket face guard to protect the Aga Divator full face mask was the best option. I wore this mask in order to provide real time narration to the film (it had a built in mic) but also to supply me with gas should I be knocked unconscious. Over my wetsuit (bearing in mind it’s February) I wore full Motocross body armour, which, I have to say, makes you look very Dark Knight so was, obviously, the main motivation behind this entire enterprise. I went with side slung 7s to give me bags of air at the 6 metres I’d be at for this very short dive. This may seem like a lot of gas but I’d be swimming furiously against the full force of the sea and would likely choose to stay on my supply as I climbed the rope. I positioned the cylinder so I could use my body to protect the pillar valves and first stage as I was being pummeled in the hole. The final notable piece of dive kit was my self-inflating SMB, one of the huge things with it’s own air supply. I knew that if it went wrong it was going to go very wrong and this has enough instant lift to get me to the surface, act as a mini raft should my strength give out and be a beacon if I was swept out to sea.
We (myself, cameramen and various Sherpas) arrived in the Pembrokeshire coast on a wet and windy morning. With the abseil rope position down the cliff and the ascending rope dropped into the actual exit hole we were ready to go. The conditions were much more powerful and intimidating than I’d imagined and after a team discussion concerning predictions on what the sub-surface water was doing I concluded that no-one had a clue. This presented a bit of a psychological burden. I have done a number of things in the past that may seem, and indeed may have been, very dangerous. But in the majority of cases I was confident in my assessment of the risks and the mitigations I had put in place. This time I hadn’t a clue. I had no idea whether it would turn out to be incredibly easy a barely worth the hassle or supremely difficult and potentially beyond my abilities. I was, however, confident in my ability to get myself out alive so decided to go for it….with one or two minor amendments. I decided that it would be easier to deal with the surfacing antics inside the blowhole and the climb out if I took one cylinder and a standard second stage in place of the full face mask. I understood this left me no redundancy but I decided to compromise this for maneuverability, dexterity and weight. But this meant the cricket face guard press the regulator hard into my mouth, no bad thing you may think. However, a face first contact with a rock would thrust the regulator back and was guaranteed to knock a number of my teeth out. I decided to ditch the face guard. This turned out to be a smart move as I took a number of hit, leading with my face, but my teeth, and head, remain intact.
I took a quiet moment alone to gather my thought and swung out over the sea before descending the abseil rope and into the churning white cauldron. As I was thrown back and forth I felt the nerves melt away. One tends to me anxious before an event but never when you’re in the midst of it, too much to do I suppose. I unhooked the line and dropped to the seabed slipping my fins on as I descended.
The visibility, as you would imagine, was less then 20cm, just enough for me to spot the rocks before the hit me but not enough to actually avoid them. In the poor visibility and rollercoaster sea I found it difficult to even locate the hole I’d dropped down on top off. Eventually finding the entrance I tried to swim in. The plan was to ride the insurge and cling to the rock as the flow blasted out, carrying on this motion until I was far enough in to surface. I continued to lose my bearing as I was thrown around and when I was forced to ascend hoping to find the opening of the vertical section I in fact found myself outside the blowhole and out at sea some 50 feet or so form the entrance. I tried and tried, working hard to fight the waters and whatever forces where thrusting me back out of the entrance. It was now low tide and a few inches of the horizontal tunnel were exposed. Exhausted I decided to try and swim on the surface in order to assist navigation. The problem then became clear. For some reason, which I still do not fully comprehend, the blowhole was sucking in for only a fraction of the time and strength it was firing out. Again I tried over and over again to beat my way inside but to no avail. At one point I jammed myself upright in the entrance and the force of water coming out against my chest was such that I couldn’t inflate my lungs. My strength had gone and I decided it’d be too difficult to try and ascend the abseil rope. Deflated and exhausted I started a 30 minute surface swim round to Abercastle bay, hanging on to my inflate smb like a shipwrecked mariner on a passing barrel.
Update – I returned the following year having learned my lesson. This time I abseiled into the blowhole and was shot out to sea – genius.
The full story makes up a chapter of my book ‘Extreme Adventures’ about some of the early adventure projects I did around the UK.