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Andy Torbet and the Cave of Skulls

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The depth of a Highland Winter may seem an ill-advised time to embark on exploring the submerged passages of Uamh nan-Claigg ionn, The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest cave.  But I had a lull in my diary; and besides, after dragging my kit down five vertical drops and numerous constricted crawls, I’d be convincingly ‘out of the wind’.

Cave diving in Scotland is like most of the UK, specialising in tight, serpentine crawls, long abseils and muddy water (or watery mud)… and the sites are normally a bloody a long way from the car.  There aren’t many fat UK cave divers.

We were filming this little jaunt for the BBC’s Adventure Show.  The plan was for Stu Keasley to film me up top and in the initial section, and I’d self-shoot on a small hand-held inside the rest of the system.  I had to carry one of the heaviest rucksacks of my life – twin seven litre cylinder, side-mount harness, climbing harness, 105 metres of rope, torches, reels, abseiling, ascending and anchoring kit, and my camera – about 60kg in all.  Fortunately it was only about a mile and a half from the end of the nearest road; unfortunately it was winter, the road was blocked, so it was two and half… uphill.

Cave of Skulls

I’d investigated a few other sites the day before so, after Sherpa-ing my load up through the snow, I was gifted the opportunity to pull on a partially frozen wetsuit whilst simultaneously blaspheming enough to offend most major religions.  Finally kitted up it was time to descend into the underworld.  The entrance is large cavity in the ground, overarched by an eldritch, gnarled tree with beards and bunting of moss and lichen hanging into the icicle-encrusted darkness.  Once I abseiled down and entered the system I could feel the rise in temperature as the warm earth enveloped me. The first awkward bend and low crawl brought the reality of my predicament.  It was impossible to drag or push all my equipment in one go so I’d have to shuttle, re-doing each section four or five times.  The first crawl is followed by two abseils, with one the most awkward take-offs I’ve ever encountered.

Cave of Skulls

Up to this point it had been narrow rifts, low crawls and small spaces.  That all changed after the second abseil.  I sidled through a narrow crack and stepped out into an immense cavern; standing on a boulder-strewn ledge half way up its walls.  The roof soared above me, tapering to a point, as the ground fell away into a shallow plunge pool.  Anchoring the rope and strapping all my kit on, I swung out into the abyss.  I find myself abseiling on a near-weekly basis but never with this much weight on. I treble-checked the anchor points before I took a deep breath and that first small step…

This vertical descent was followed by the House of Cards, so called because slabs of rock, shaped like giant playing cards, have fallen from above and become precariously wedged against one and other at convoluted angles leaving only a low, narrow space beneath.  As I heaved and slithered through the gravel and water I kept reminding myself that the chaotic structure above me had probably stood for centuries and wasn’t likely to move anytime soon… (”are you sure?” said the voice in my head. “Besides Torbet,” he went on, “I’m no expert in geology, so neither are you”).

torbet 6

Safely through, and having shuttled all the kit, I came to the last two abseils.  Not the longest, but the most fun.  The first was down a short waterfall into a thigh-deep plunge pool and the second has you lowering yourself down through an hourglass effect.  It starts spacious enough before narrowing to a point where you’re forced to turn your head to the side and bounce to get your chest and backside through before flaring out wide again.  Finally you reach the bottom of the cave; but, if you’re a diver, not the end.

To reach the first sump required me to slide through an extremely low crawl.  Unfortunately this had been made considerably tighter by the gravel, silt and debris washed in over the winter.   The height was less than 25 cm and water covered the lower 15… and I am not built to cave.  Too many years rock-climbing and carrying large rucksacks up large hills means I don’t possess the wiry, whippet, racing snake physique of the hardened caver… so I got stuck.  Wriggling my way backwards I began excavating some of the larger rocks and gravel, trying to plough a furrow deep enough for me to squeeze myself through.  With people waiting for me at the surface and overdue on my return time I had to leave, having failed to even reach the dive site. Morale was low.  It was not aided by the thought of having to haul myself, and all that kit, back out of this hole.

torbet 2

On reaching the surface I was exhausted, and the effort of bring up all the equipment on my own had done little to improve my mood. I had said I would dive the limits of the deepest cave in Scotland. Failure.

Fast forward to June.  Having driven through the night I find myself kitted up at the entrance once again.  Alone this time with no cameras or filming to slow me down.  I’ve exchanged my twin sevens for twin threes.  I have one day; this will be like an alpinist ascent – fast and light.  Knowing the layout and with only myself to worry about, I fly through the cave and am at the passage that stopped me last time.  I dig and try to push through but keep getting stuck. I have to back out, dig more and try again.  Each time the cold water burns my ears as I twist my head from side to side trying to breathe.  Finally I can see the end; I’m sure I’ve done enough and force my way on.  Inches from where the crawl opens out I stop.  One push, a hard push, should see me clear.  I take a deep breath, plunge my face into the icy water and push with my legs, pulling with my arms… I’m stuck.  I push harder – nothing.  The voice was back: “What are you going to do now, Torbet?”

Then an epiphany struck; the kind that has you slapping yourself on the back for your intellect in solving your current dilemma only to realise a slap in the face would be more appropriate as the solution is so blindingly obvious the problem should never have occurred in the first place. I breathe out, forcing the last of my air away, feeling my chest contract… and slip through.

Cave of Skulls

After lugging the last of my gear, bent over double along a low tunnel, I reach the first sump.  It’s a short, shallow U-bend and the silt washed in left me with only enough clearance to slip though on my belly.  The final stretch is a smooth, wet, low passage that opens into a larger rift just before the terminal sump.  I should have felt enthusiastic and excited at this point; to be honest I was just tired.  I wanted to get in, see how far I could get and start the long haul back to daylight. I forced myself to focus, slipped into the dark waters and immediately felt the space around me constricting.  I pushed less than a few metres in before the passageway narrowed and became impassable, forcing a feet first withdrawal.

I had been the first person to pass sump 1 since Alan Jeffreys’ first attempt in 1976 and the first to ever dive sump 2… at last – success.

Find out more about Andy’s adventures at www.andytorbet.com.

Andy Torbet is an underwater explorer, extreme diver, climber, skydiver and adventurer, BBC and Discovery TV presenter, speaker, author and film-maker. Andy started diving at the age of 12 and has been at it ever since; on operations in the Forces, on commercial vessels, over sunken cities, in caves, deep wrecks and across abundant reefs. He has a long list of technical diving qualifications, including cave, mixed gas, rebreather and freediving as well as his professional qualifications as a military and commercial diver and supervisor. His passion is exploration, whether it's exploring new underwater cave systems, new species or new shipwrecks, and especially in those areas difficult to reach which may require him to combine his elite diving knowledge with his other technical skills.

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Tourism Fiji celebrates Open for Happiness Campaign (Watch Trailer)

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As international borders reopen to the world this week, Tourism Fiji launched the first video piece in it’s Open for Happiness campaign. The team celebrated this at an event at Wyndham Resort Denarau Island, where they unveiled some of the content to crew who worked on the production as well as tourism stakeholders.

Tourism Fiji is delighted to partner with award-winning actress, comedian and producer, Rebel Wilson, the new Ambassador of our global reopening campaign.

Ms. Wilson has fond memories of visiting Fiji as a child and returned to share her love of a destination that offers so much to visitors and is largely vaccinated.

She was joined by a talented pool of Fijian cast and crew to shoot Tourism Fiji’s Open for Happiness campaign in the Mamanuca Islands, where she also sampled a range of experiences.

“Rebel is a talented actress and demonstrates a unique ability to bring her own style of heartfelt humour to the ad that Tourism Fiji is creating,” said Brent Hill, CEO of Tourism Fiji.

“We’re delighted to have her as an ambassador who resonates with Fiji and our key tourist markets; Australia, North America, New Zealand and Europe.”

Rebel hiked, did yoga, stand up paddleboarding, scenic helicopter tour, spa treatment, cocktails and visited a popular sandbar.  She was seen stepping out in some local designer wear from Samson Lee and Zuber and enjoyed the hospitality of Vomo Island Fiji.

Her destination highlights of Fiji were shared with her fanbase, including 10.3 million followers on social media platform Instagram, and helped amplify Fiji’s allure as a holiday destination that has now safely reopened to international travellers on December 1st.

Filmed in Fiji over the course of last month, the campaign is the result of the collaborative work of several local partners including activity providers, talented singers, entertainers, videographers, local actors, and extras on set.

“This campaign would not have been possible without the support of our industry stakeholders, and we’re pleased to showcase a global star such as Rebel and the talent of local cast and crew,” said Brent Hill, CEO of Tourism Fiji.

Rebel also enjoyed a sunset cruise featuring a live performance by talented local artist, Apakuki “Kuki” Nalawa and shared snippets across her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter channels.

“With all that’s happened over the last two years, tourism has been badly affected and the entertainment industry has been hit hard by this as well, – the live performance was an eye-opener, a breath of fresh air and gave us all hope that things will get better,” Mr Nalawa said.

“It’s so encouraging to witness a Hollywood actress and her media team enjoying not only the beauty that our country has to offer but also recognising the level of talent we have.”

Tourism Fiji’s Open for Happiness campaign with Rebel will be used into 2022. Further video clips will launch over the coming weeks.

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Announcing the Winners of the DPG/Wetpixel Masters Underwater Imaging Competition 2021

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DivePhotoGuide (DPG) and Wetpixel are proud to announce the winning images and videos in the 2021 edition of the DPG/Wetpixel Masters Underwater Imaging Competition. Once again, hundreds of photographers and filmmakers from dozens of countries competed in what has become known as the “World Championship” of international underwater imaging events.

Created by DPG and Wetpixel, two of the largest online resources for underwater shooters, the competition invited submissions to five image categories and a video category, with entries evaluated by a panel of illustrious industry experts and award-winning photographers: Florian Fischer, Imran Ahmad, Jennifer Hayes, Mike Bartick and Stephen Frink.

This year, Martin Broen received the “Best of Show” prize for his 1st place in the Black and White category. The image, a jaw-dropping capture of the pristine stalactites and stalagmites in a Mexican cenote, earned Martin the top cash prize of $1,000. The 1st place winners in the other categories were Julian Hsu (Macro Traditional), Sander van der Heijden (Macro Unrestricted), Enrico Somogyi (Wide Angle Traditional), Tom Shlesinger (Wide Angle Unrestricted) and Alex del Olmo (Video); each of them received a cash prize of $250.

In a joint statement, DPG Editor-in-Chief Joseph Tepper and Wetpixel Publisher Adam Hanlon said: “Once again, the DPG/Wetpixel Masters competition has demonstrated the incredible talent that exists in our community of underwater shooters. As many of us continue to face lockdowns and travel restrictions, these photos and films remind us of the riches under the sea and why we must maintain our collective passion to protect the oceans we love.”

The organizers are pleased to announce that 15 percent of entry proceeds will once again be donated to marine conservation efforts.

You can see the full results here.

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Egypt | Safaga, Brothers & Elphinstone | 27 January – 04 February 2022 | Emperor Elite

Jump on board this famous Red Sea liveaboard and enjoy diving the famous wrecks of the Red Sea with this fantastic special offer.  Emperor Elite offers a contemporary living space combined with the best itineraries available in the Red Sea.

Price NOW from just £975 per person based on sharing a twin cabin including:

  • Flights from London Gatwick to Hurghada with 23kgs baggage
  • 7 nights in shared cabin
  • 3 meals a day, soft drinks, red wine with dinner
  • 6 days’ diving, guide, 12ltr tank & weights, Marine Park fees and port departure fees
  • Free Nitrox

Booking deadline: Subject to availability.

Call Diverse Travel on 01473 852002 or email info@diversetravel.co.uk.

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