A LOT of original British underwater cave exploration is conducted by Cave Diving Group members; in what follows I’ll refer to these as ‘caving divers’. There are also many competent people from open water backgrounds; let’s call these ‘technical cave divers’. Both approaches are legitimate and there’s a whole spectrum of ways to become a cave diver in between. Caving divers are mainly interested in discovering natural underwater passages or traversing these to enter further dry caves. Technical cave divers are motivated to enjoy spectacular underwater caves with the best conditions, often as an extension to their other diving activities. Their ‘cave’ diving is often done in mines, where still waters may provide gin-clear visibility. This superb guide, a logical ‘part 2’ to Martyn Farr’s earlier Diving in Darkness techniques manual (reviewed in Descent 174), is essential reading for cave divers from whatever background.
The book’s main purpose is to describe a series of high-calibre European cave diving venues, including many of the better UK sites. It performs this task extremely well. The text is clear and unambiguous, and symbols provide an assessment of the seriousness of each site at a glance and quickly convey the main diving characteristics. Diagrams which support the text are beautifully presented, carrying the optimum amount of information. A concise section near the start reminds us of the main safety considerations, itself a distillation of the sage advice in Diving in Darkness. A section in the appendices reminds us of what to do if things go wrong, together with a useful glossary and a comprehensive index. The layout of the book makes it simple to find the required information and to select appropriate sites to visit from among the 140 that it covers.
What makes Classic Darksite Diving so appealing is the great number of high-quality photographs, mostly taken underwater in the sites described. Rarely have I come across a book so richly illustrated: it’s packed with colourful pictures of divers enjoying some of the finest European sites on offer. Most of these were taken by the author; frankly, I’d be happy to settle for just a quarter of his talent behind the lens. Even someone with no inherent interest in cave diving would soon find themselves engrossed, if only because of these photographs. I know only too well, from long and bitter experience, just how difficult it is to produce good images from underwater caves. The sheer number of these which Martyn has included is extremely impressive. He has managed to combine a thoroughly informative guide with a ‘coffee-table book’ photographic approach, in a way which has set new standards for the genre.
The publisher opted for a page size which is just the right balance for achieving the book’s objectives: big enough to showcase the many excellent photographs, yet small enough to retain its portability. Although softbacked, the sewn binding is sturdy and should survive rough use, and the comprehensive website (www.bit.ly/darksite diving) supporting the book will ensure it stays relevant for many years. Martyn recognises that key information for each cave may change and the Updates feature of the website is the perfect response to this inevitable guide writers’ challenge. (This internet resource will also prove invaluable for potential purchasers, in particular the ‘page-turning feature’ which provides a pleasurable browsing experience while displaying a selection of the content.)
The inclusion of Keld Head in a book aimed at technical cave divers, under the ‘Sites to Aspire to’ heading, was perhaps not entirely wise. There is no general permission and the limited access which local divers sometimes arrange is fragile. Any increase in the number of people going to ask (particularly those without years of experience in the subtleties of Dales cave access) could result in permanent loss of the site. Because the diving conditions here are poor it’s perhaps not the sort of place which technical cave divers would enjoy anyway. However, this is the only thing in the entire book which I could criticise (and the publisher immediately added a reinforcing note to the website’s Updates page as soon as this concern was raised).
Classic Darksite Diving is for all cave divers, whatever their motivation. Martyn is an accomplished wordsmith, a seasoned underwater explorer and a skilful teacher. He has that rare ability to provide the best information, with the right amount of detail, in an entertaining and easy-to-read manner. Because the book is so attractively presented I found myself eager to look at the next page, then the next (just like a scenic underwater cave has you wanting to look around the next corner) – and then the next. It’s an invaluable resource to dip into as well as a great book for any diver to read for pleasure. It will appeal to technical cave divers as much as to CDG members and will also go a long way towards helping non-divers understand why we find this type of cave exploration so intoxicating; a very impressive achievement!