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Oldest British scuba diver dies at 99

Oldest British diver Ray Woolley
Great British diver Ray Woolley
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After a 62-year diving career Ray Woolley, who for several years held the Guinness World Record (GWR) title of world’s oldest scuba diver, has died at the age of 99.

Divernet had followed Woolley’s remarkable career since 2013, when he celebrated his 90th birthday with a 90ft dive with fellow-members of Western Sovereign Bases Area SAC at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, where he had retired in 1999. 

Two years later he aimed for “29 @ 92”, completing 29 dives around the island. In 2016 Woolley’s goal was for “39 @ 93” but he went on to complete 51 dives to a maximum depth of 45m. 

Then, on his 94th birthday on 28 August, 2017, he claimed and was awarded the official world record with a dive on the Zenobia ferry wreck in Larnaca. Only a half-hour 12m dive was needed to take the record from 93-year-old American Erwin Staller, but in the event Woolley dived for 41 minutes to a maximum 38m.

He then broke his own record with another 40m Zenobia dive the following year, by which time the annual birthday dives had become mass underwater celebrations in Cyprus, and continued in 2019 with some 60 other divers on another 40m-plus Zenobia dive.

The veteran diver, who often enjoyed diving for periods without wearing a mask, was described by his dive-buddy Dave Turner as “game for almost anything”.

Seconded to SBS

Woolley was born in Cheshire in 1923. During WW2 he served in the Royal Navy Radio Branch and was on convoy duties in 1943/44 before being seconded to SBS Special Force 281 to the Dodecanese. He was among the first Allied forces to land on Rhodes when the Germans left in May 1945.

After the war, Woolley worked as a radio engineer. He began his diving career with Portland & Weymouth BSAC in 1960.

Working for the Foreign Office, he was posted to Cyprus in 1964. Over three tours of duty there he was secretary, diving officer, and expedition member of BSAC 107S, and became an advanced diving instructor.

In 1983 his career took him to Dubai, where he was a founder-member and first diving officer of BSAC 1388. In 1999 he retired to Limassol in Cyprus, rejoining his previous club. By then he had dived in Australia, the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Red Sea as well as the Arabian Gulf.

Woolley had long maintained that water sports were the best way of keeping fit. He swam for two hours a day in his pool and paid tribute to his dive-club for helping him to keep open-water diving through his 90s. In 2018 a documentary about him called Life Begins at 90 was made by director Bejay Browne. 

Woolley eventually had to concede the GWR title to 99-year-old Bill Lambert, though the American had taken up the sport only the previous year and was not a regular diver. Another US diver, 100-year-old Arthur Graf Jr, has announced a bid for the title this month.

Lanzarote death

A British scuba diver has died after getting into difficulties while diving off Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The unnamed 60-year-old was said to have suffered a cardiac arrest at around noon on 14 November at Playa Flamingo in the south of the island.

A lifeguard was reported to have tried to save the diver on seeing that he was in trouble but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. According to police the man had “health issues”.

Also on Divernet: Why Older Divers Need To Shape Up, Senior Moments

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