Christine Grosart is qualified as a full and sidemount cave diver through the Cave Diving Group (CDG) and IANTD and holds Cave 1 and Trimix certs with GUE. Through her diving career she has supported divers such as Rick Stanton in pushing the limits of caves including the Fontaine de Truffe and the Marche Pied. Chris has also successfully headed up cave diving exploration of her own and currently has the end of the line in two caves in France and has pushed the dry cave beyond sumps* in a third and has the end of the line in a Izvor Licanke, Croatia. In 2009 Chris broke the women’s cave diving depth record from a solo dive in Wookey Hole (UK).
Her day job sees her working as a front-line Paramedic and an Offshore & Dive Medic, regularly taking a helicopter to work on the gas platforms and vessels in the North Sea. She also owns and is cave leader of WetWellies Caving in the UK. In her free time she volunteers as Secretary, Trustee, Underwater Photographer and diver for Ghost Fishing UK.
*Sump: a hollow or depression in which liquid collects, especially one in the floor of a mine or cave.
After such notable achievements and more than a lifetime’s worth of work, it was high time for Girls That Scuba/Girls that Tech Dive to catch up with Chris for an honest, funny and in-depth interview to get some insider information on trail blazing, realising aspirations and kicking ass in the diving industry.
How did you first get into diving and what made you want to take up cave diving?
I was brought up around divers as my Mum was in a BSAC club for several years. Both my parents dived before I was born and when I was in my early teens would go to the pool night at Mum’s dive club in Bristol.
I had a go in the pool and as a keen snorkeller, found it easy. I was given two choices – horses or diving! Mum pointed out that I had picked the two most expensive sports going and, as she was a single parent and I was an aspiring jockey, horses took precedence and I left diving aside while I embarked on a career in horse racing. Fortunately for her, I was riding other people’s horses!
My Mum and Uncle had always been involved in caving and I frequented the Mendip caving scene in my late teens and early twenties. My Uncle is a keen caver and he dabbled in cave diving but in those days, cave divers perished quite regularly. He figured it wasn’t worth it and stopped.
I watched an HTV programme about the late Rob Parker and knew some of the guys in the film from my caving club. Not long after, I started hanging out with the cave divers in my club and that was that.
I then went on a ‘dry’ caving trip with the great cave photographer Clive Westlake and I didn’t get the memo about needing a wetsuit! I free dived a brown and freezing cold sump in just a fleecy undersuit and despite mild hyporthermia, had a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Clive pulled me aside and in a concerned manner asked why I wasn’t in the Cave Diving Group yet. I didn’t really know – it was partly lack of money and partly that I had been hanging around with the wrong people.
I left horse racing, reinvented myself as a Paramedic and used the time off and increased salary to pay for all my kit and begin the training process.
Clive mentored me through my Cave Diving Group (CDG) training and we had many years of fantastic caving and cave diving adventures, visiting lots of places very few people had ever been and somewhere literally nobody had been.
How have you found being a woman in the sport and owning your own business?
With regard to cave diving, being female hasn’t had any negative impact that I’ve noticed. I’m usually too wrapped up in what I’m doing to wonder about what others think.
If anything, I often noticed quiet encouragement from some of the older cave diving group members and felt that they were willing me to do well, as the group had formed in 1946 and since then only had a handful of female members. I didn’t get any favours or special treatment and didn’t want any. But I never received any sexist remarks or behaviour. I was a cave diver just the same as them. They would email me to ask about a cave I had been to or could I come along and survey something for them. Even when I was a trainee, I felt valued.
I don’t believe that crawling through mud in the back end of some godforsaken hell-hole wearing diving cylinders, no matter how rich the reward at the end, is something that women are naturally drawn to! When I explain what I do, women recoil at the thought far more readily than men, so I don’t think the sport is entirely to blame for the vast disparity in numbers between the sexes.
That said, some of the hardest cavers I know are women and they are often far tougher than the men. Some go to places that would make your hair curl so I didn’t envisage any difficulties in setting up my own business as a female cave leader. On the whole, there was a lot of positive encouragement as women are underrepresented in professional caving.
What has been your best cave diving experience? And have you had any hairy moments?
Discovering virgin cave is obviously an incredible experience, but it is also comes with pressure and a lot of stress. So it doesn’t always make it the ‘best’ experience.
In 2009, going to see the ‘new’ 2005 discoveries in Wookey Hole inadvertently led to a ladies cave diving depth record. I had some solid and very close friends come along to help me carry the multiple bottles through to chamber 24 for my dive. Although they never mentioned it, they knew how much the cave and this dive meant to me. One of them had to shoot off straight after the dive and when I reached for my changing towel, I found a bottle of champagne hidden underneath it.
That meant the world to me.
Photographing the famed Boreham Cave in Yorkshire, was also very special. The cave had been closed for 20 years and showed no signs of reopening so I always assumed I would never get to see ‘The China Shop’ – a stunning array of straws beyond 5 sumps.
I was so aghast when I got there that I almost forgot to unpack my camera!
I’ve had plenty of hairy moments – you don’t get to exploration level without them.
On the deep Wookey dive the return leg was in pretty much zero visibility. There is red mud on the walls and roof and exhalation bubbles turn the sump to chocolate milkshake. I had to do my deco bottle switch by feel.
When I returned through the penultimate sump, which leads back to the dry Chamber 24, I couldn’t get back through the hole in the boulders I had come through. I had 4 bottles on and the hole was a different shape on the way home. In zero visibility I had several attempts but just kept getting jammed. I sat and thought about it for a bit. I could return back to the ‘Lake of Gloom’- a large airbell between sumps - but by which time I would not have enough gas to make another attempt and would have a very, very long wait for help which may or may not come. Or I could take some bottles off which would leave me with less gas. Or I could just keep trying.
I had not long met Rich Walker and he was planning on meeting up with me after the dive. He had yet to join the CDG (I was his mentor!) so couldn’t come with us. I thought: “Buggered if I’m going to die now, he seems like a really nice guy!” I barged my way through the boulders and popped out the other side, a bit relieved. Luckily, he stuck around.
What’s your best piece of advice for women wanting to get into cave diving or those who are new to it?
Cave diving is a different sport now to when I first started. When I began, there were very few ‘tourists’ and almost everyone I knew was an aspiring explorer.
Many people now just want to holiday in Mexico, France and Florida and push their own limits, rather than that of the caves. So there isn’t really much advice to give beyond go and do a course with a good instructor and enjoy it!
For aspiring explorers, you need to make cave diving your life. I have lost two friends in cave diving incidents (I wasn’t diving with either of them at the time) and the sport can still be very unforgiving if you screw up. Examine your motivation. It is something you have to want to do for yourself.
Exploratory cave diving is extremely expensive, time consuming and hard work. I have reinvented myself twice to afford it and get the time off I need to achieve my goals. It isn’t something you can just dip in and out of.
It does nothing for women in sport to hang on the coat tails of men so I would say that you should plough your own furrow! You’ll get a much better sense of achievement in the end.
I did everything off my own back, paid for my own gear and I’m always skint as evidence! Try to give something back to the sport, whether that be relining a sump, surveying new cave or mentoring new cave divers.
What’s your favourite cave?
Oh that’s too difficult! I have so many favourites for so many different reasons.
A few that I would do again tomorrow are Gouffre du Briant (France), Pen Y Ghent Pot (Yorkshire, UK) and the Saut de la Pucelle (France). The trip to the sump in the Pucelle is one of the funniest trips I have ever had underground – involving one ‘underwater human totem pole’!
I have had some stunning dives in places like Ginnie Springs, Ressel, Indian Springs but last year I was super privileged to dive the famous Wakulla Springs. That meant a lot to me, almost as much as Wookey Hole!
What’s been your longest and deepest dive?
I think my longest dives have been just over 3 hours. I hate decompression and get SO bored. The new She-P helps a lot and now that I’m on a rebreather, I can see this time being extended quite a lot. Not until I have an underwater iPad first though!
The deepest was an open circuit dive to 80m in the Gourney-Rou in France. It is a fairly remote cave and the water was a chilly 8 degrees. The profile is horrific as it goes from 85m back up to 19m and back down to 85m again! There are better places to revisit...
Lots of people would say that cave diving is very dangerous and that they’d be too scared to try it – how would you respond?
It’s not a bad thought to have. It means they have identified the risks and weighed them up. I would never push somebody to try cave diving if the thought terrified them. It is unlikely to end well.
A little bit of fear is good. It keeps you on your toes and sharp. Too much fear can be dangerous.
What’s the future of cave diving?
Cave diving has changed a lot even in the 15 years I’ve been doing it. It is now the next ‘badge’ to collect in the tech diving world. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but as the number of tourist cave divers increases, the number of genuine explorers seems to decrease. I struggle to find suitable people who ‘have what it takes’ to support our expeditions, despite cave diving growing as a sport.
Nobody seems to want to put the work in to earn their place at the end of the line anymore and I think that is quite sad for the future of exploration in its real sense. We live in an “I want it now” society and this has crept into cave diving. You can’t buy experience nor learn it on any course.
And finally, which women divers inspire you?
I’ve actually just spent a couple of weeks in the North Sea on a vessel where one of the ROV pilots was female. The offshore industry still only employs less than 4% of women in the field and most of those are in catering or admin. It was quite nice having two women on board who had significant and important roles to play and neither of us had any difficulty getting into the industry.
Then there is Emma Heron – or ‘Emsy’ as she’s known. She is extraordinary and a very hard-core cave diver with just the sweetest personality. She has regularly visited some of the most vile, remote parts of caves and then got into dive kit...or set about ‘digging’ for hours on end in squalor to uncover some more. She is always smiling and never complains. I recall one caving trip I did with her; we were in a flat out crawl full of sand, which seemed to go on for ages (it was about an hour each way as part of a 12 hour trip). Nobody was really saying anything at this point when all of a sudden this little voice from behind me said “Sandy....isn’t it...” The fits of giggles got us through the trip!
She has supported her partner, the top explorer Jason Mallinson, in his blood curdling expeditions and she is still at it, despite having given birth to their child a couple of years ago. The amazing thing is that hardly anyone has heard of her. The ‘famous for being famous’ brigade should take a leaf as this lady genuinely has ‘what it takes’. And she’ll kill me when she reads this!