Subterranean Ireland: the last frontier

 

Ireland’s caves present a daunting challenge to divers, but for Artur Kozlowski, who died in Co Galway this week, that was the attraction

UNDER A LARGE beech tree on John Nolan’s farmland in Kiltartan, Co Galway, several steps lead down to the cave known as Pollonora. The steps have many imprints, for this was where pitchers and buckets were once filled from a community’s well. “There was always water there, even when everywhere else was dry,” says Nolan. The limestone landscape, with its turloughs and underground streams, is more accustomed to flooding than drought.

It was through Pollonora’s narrow stone archway that the 33-year-old Polish cave diver Artur Kozlowski descended on Monday for what was to be his last expedition. As he explained beforehand in a quick chat with Nolan, it would be a “long dive” but one that he had been “looking forward to for the past three years”.

“Artur was the first to explore Pollonora, although we have had cave divers coming here for the past couple of decades,” Nolan says. The labyrinth of sumps, sinkholes and caverns between the Slieve Aughty Mountains and the Burren is to international cave divers what the Aileens wave in Co Clare is to surfers.

It was here that Martyn Farr, a Wales-based speleologist – cave explorer or expert – who trained Kozlowski, had previously set a record for the longest (245m) and deepest (34m) sump exploration in Ireland. Farr was a member of the Dark Shamrock expedition that navigated more than three kilometres of flooded caves south of Kinvara, Co Galway, in the 1990s.

“Ireland was my backyard from 1971 until about four years, ago,” he says. “I came over every summer – to Fermanagh, to Mayo, to south Galway and, recently, to Cong on the Galway-Mayo border – because Ireland is the ultimate challenge in western Europe.”

He adds that the highly specialised discipline of cave diving combines “ingenuity, intelligence, incredible determination and resolve”.

While cavers sometimes have to dive through underground routes to find dry caverns, cave divers are trained to inhabit a murky aquatic world, negotiating seemingly impassable routes at depth, using mixed gases or closed-circuit rebreathing equipment that, by recycling air, can extend the time under water.

The buddy system of pairs is integral to open-water diving, but cave divers often work solo because of the risk of siltation. The conditions involve hours of preparation, setting supplementary oxygen bottles along routes and confirming return times with colleagues above ground.

“It is completely different from open-water diving, in that you can’t just float gracefully down,” says Farr. “There’s an awful lot of wriggling in tight corners, and you don’t have a lot of information, in that you never know what is around the next bend.

“It can really only be compared to space exploration, in that we humans have climbed the world’s highest mountains and explored parts of the ocean, but the subterranean is the last frontier.

“Artur and Tom Malone did a course with me in November 2007, and had such incredible passion for the sport.”

Farr discovered the Pollatoomary cave in the Partry Mountains, in Co Mayo, in 1978. Three decades later his Polish pupil set a depth record there, of 103m below ground, with Malone’s support. “Lots of the projects which Artur embarked upon were akin to an ascent of Everest and the first trek to the South Pole,” says Farr.

It was the potential for discoveries in a world not yet colonised by Google Earth that attracted Kozlowski, a quantity surveyor, to the sport after he arrived in Ireland, in 2006. He was already a qualified diver, but his 13 dives until then were in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. During his first three years in Ireland he worked on the Aviva Stadium and Heuston Square, among other construction projects; the downturn allowed him to devote more time to diving.

He explored Fermanagh’s Marble Arch caves, increasing the known area from 4.5km to 12km. Then, in September 2010, he and a Belgian colleague, Jim Warny, set a new Irish-British record for traversing underground flooded caves in a series of epic dives in south Co Galway.

“He would stay in my mother’s bed and breakfast, or sometimes he’d camp, and he was almost part of the family,” Nolan says. “He would come over with his big wide grin and tell you that he had set another 80m of line that day as he slowly made his way through. In between dives, you’d see him wandering the fields with his Ordnance Survey map, always looking for something new.”

He became a part of the community, and after the floods of 2009-10 he worked with David Murray, a Kiltartan resident, on compiling maps for Galway County Council and the National Roads Authority.

“Artur had spent four years trying to discover the 2.4km channel between Castletown and Kiltartan, one of the main underground bottlenecks between the Slieve Aughty Mountains and Coole,” says Murray. “Our concern related to the repeated flooding, and also the impact that work on a proposed new motorway on the N18 between Gort and Galway would have.”

Kozlowski’s CV, which Murray would include with submissions, recorded more than 200 hours in Polldeelin, Polltoophill, Poulnacapple, Pollbehan, Pollonora and many other caves in the Gort lowlands up to last year.

In August Kozlowski spent time underneath the Cantabrian Mountains, in Spain, where he met the British caver and firefighter Rick Stanton, then setting yet another record. It was Stanton, rescuer of trapped British soldiers in a Mexican cave in 2004, who was asked to assist in the risky recovery of Kozlowski’s body this week.

In an Irish Times interview last year, Kozlowski explained that self-sufficiency was imperative for a cave diver as “no rescue” could be expected, “only recovery, if you are lucky”. His website, hellandhighwater.eu, carried his warning that some of the procedures and techniques described were “not widely used or accepted in recreational cave diving” and should not be tried.

“Exploration is an obsession,” he wrote on his blog in July, explaining why he returned to the place he felt had shaped him as a cave diver: the Hell Complex in Doolin, Co Clare. “Once you taste it, nothing else will taste remotely as good. It will give you all you ever wanted: self-fulfilment, the wildest childhood dreams come true, people’s respect, illusions of grandeur . . . But it’s a jealous and possessive bitch, and if you don’t keep it on a tight rein it will destroy everyone around you.”