Scuba Diver chats to cave-diving legend Rick Stanton, and finds out what lured him underground in the first place, the challenges of some of his more epic cave dives, and what it was like to be in the midst of the world’s greatest dive rescue.
Photographs courtesy of RICK STANTON
Q: How did you first get into diving or, in your case, cave diving?
A: I’m old enough to have grown up with the 1960s Jacques Cousteau diving programmes on the television, which always fascinated me, especially being under water. I always liked swimming and water activities, including kayaking, but it wasn’t until I was 17 and saw a programme on the TV about UK cave diving that everything clicked into place. I knew that was what I wanted to do, as I totally identified with everything that was going on.
That’s quite unusual, because most people back then started with dry caving and then a very few made the switch to cave diving, but I immediately realised that I wanted to be a cave diver before I even stepped into a cave.
Once I went to university at age 18 I joined its BSAC branch to learn to dive. I also joined the caving club. A few years later, I amalgamated the two activities and taught myself to cave dive in small incremental steps.
Q: Cave diving is considered one of the most dangerous forms of diving. What is it about it that continually draws you back?
A: Personally the thing about cave diving has always been the ability to explore where no man has been before. I know this is a bit of a cliché but caving really is exploration that can be done on the cheap, and even on your own doorstep within the UK. No need to go to remote unclimbed peaks, deep ocean trenches or far-flung corners of the planet… or beyond!
The other thing you should remember is that I just love being in caves, so I don’t particularly consider myself a diver but an underwater caver who just happens to use diving equipment to facilitate this style of exploration.
I don’t view cave diving as having to be the most dangerous of activities. One of the appealing challenges is to make it as safe as you possibly can. I like that aspect, along with the logistical approach one has to take during major projects.
Q: You, along with a select few others, are the go-to people when it comes to cave rescues. What is it like when you first get that call?
A: The principal thing I should point out is that it’s never when you expect it, where you expect it, or at an opportune moment in your life, so there’s always the initial shock. There’s certainly nothing glamorous about any situation at the time.
Once the reality hits you, then you must go about gathering as much information about what’s occurred and think about what you’re going to do, how you’re going to approach the situation and draw on other people to help you. Then it’s organising equipment and transport logistics, none of which is as easy as you might imagine, considering we’re going on a rescue that could be life-critical.
Q: You were a firefighter for a long time – do you think having this background in rescue and intense situations helped to hone your abilities when on a cave-diving rescue?
A: I was a firefighter, but I always maintain that I’d been caving for ten years before I joined the Fire Service and I continue to be a caver since leaving. In many ways, the caving has helped my firefighting. But I do see that I have encountered difficult situations while firefighting and have seen how to manage people, crowds, press and expectations during major events – to reduce things down to the most essential and critical components.
Q: Talking of cave rescues, we inevitably come on to the Thai cave incident. What was it like being thrust into the limelight of the international media while trying to deal with thorny issues of, first, finding the group, and then, two, working out how to safely extricate them?
A: I always say that while we were aware of the press who were present at the incident and that the rescue was being reported all over the world, what we were not aware of was the immense emotional involvement people had in the story. It wasn’t just a passing curiosity but a deep emotional involvement. I’m very good at blocking out distractions and focusing completely on the task in hand, and that’s pretty much what I had to do in Thailand.
We hadn’t necessarily expected to find the boys alive and when we did that was a magical moment that obviously lifted the mood everywhere, but from that point on, in some ways it made the situation worse because we had to come up with a plan that we thought might work, when pretty much everybody else thought that the boys would be doomed in their watery tomb.
Of course we had to make life or death decisions and we tried to keep as much of that away from the press as we could.
Q: Your book Aquanaut: A Life Beneath the Surface focuses on the Thai cave rescue as well as delving into your other cave-diving exploits. What was it like trying to capture everything that went on at the time in print form?
A: My friends always said that I had a book inside me, but the book world’s view of that concept is that most people’s book should remain there. The Thailand rescue obviously gave me a voice that was wider than the caving and diving community, so I was unusually keen to share my story. I wanted to give a warts-and-all account of what really happened and what it felt like to be there.
One thing that hampers me is my poor memory, but I think I’ve pretty much got everything accurate from my point of view. I was also aware that most people’s knowledge of the rescue was very limited due to the poor journalistic reporting and early documentaries, so I wanted to fill that knowledge gap.
I’m seen as one of the best cave divers and I wanted to write a book that not only did justice to myself and my standing within the caving and diving world but to the rescue itself, and to write an outstanding story that would stand alone in the book world. It was a huge set of hurdles to attempt to achieve, as I wasn’t a natural writer.
A worldwide lockdown helped time-wise, along with my co-writer Karen. Being a perfectionist, even when the story was written down it took months of honing to perfect it and to get it reading the way that we wanted.
Q: Hollywood, as expected, is making a movie about the rescue of the Wild Boars – what do you think about having Aragorn himself, Viggo Mortensen, playing you? Have you been drafted in to assist with the production in any way?
A: Ron Howard [the director] rang me up last autumn to say he’d got an actor lined up to play me, but that the actor would only sign up to the film if he had access to me. He wanted to get to know me, how I did things, how I talked, moved, thought. From then I’d been speaking to Viggo on Zoom for about six months before principal filming started in Australia towards the end of last March.
Not only was I coaching Viggo, I was involved from the very start of the project in giving information about the event to the researchers for the script-writers, then the script-writers themselves. I was asked to be present for the filming not just to aid Viggo in his interpretation of me, but to advise on sets and scenes plus other technical aspects of the rescue, or their interpretation of them – to help the film be as realistic as it possibly could be.
Q: What is your most memorable diving experience?
A: Strangely enough, although I’m well known for being a solitary diver in pretty much every cave dive I’ve done, one of the most memorable diving experiences was in a cave in Australia under the Nullarbor desert called Cocklebiddy. This consists of a massive, very clear tunnel and, along with a group of four other divers, all good friends, we traversed 2.5km of it. Each of us was being towed by a scooter and we moved in one big formation like flying acrobats, looping and doing spins, each lighting up the passage to full effect. That was magical.
Q: On the flipside, what is your worst diving memory?
A: I have had a few close shaves under water and some of these are detailed in my book but, as I look back, I can’t say that I have a worst driving memory. I just love being under water and, thinking over this question now, there is nothing that stands out as being bad.
Q: As well as further promotion for your book, what does the future hold for Rick Stanton?
A: Before the Thailand rescue occurred, I’d been happily retired for four years. Now there is light at the end of the tunnel that I might get some of my old life back and engage in some activities I want to do, instead of being preoccupied with post-Thailand ventures.
There will, of course, be promotions for both our drama movie and our documentary, but I see those as entertaining.
Really, all I want to do is go back to the kayaking adventures and journeys I’d been used to, as well as ordinary caving and a bit of very selective cave diving. Maybe even one last major project and, if that happens, you will certainly hear about it.
* Thirteen Lives is scheduled for cinema release on 18 November this year.
This interview originally appeared in Scuba Diver magazine.