LONDON — We all have hobbies we enjoy.
Rick Stanton’s just happens to be scuba diving into cold, lightless, claustrophobic, dangerous caves.
Stanton and his diving partner, John Volanthen, have been identified in the British media as the two British divers who first discovered the 12 children and soccer coach trapped in a cavern in northern Thailand.
In the dramatic video footage of the moment when the divers reach the group, nine days after they disappeared, a diver with a British accent is heard talking to the group.
“How many of you? Thirteen? Brilliant,” he says, as a beam from his flashlight shines on the children, possibly the first light they have seen in days. When asked by the group if they will be leaving the cave, the diver says: “No, not today, not today. There’s two of us. You’ll have to dive.”
The elite British divers are said to be among over 1,000 people assisting in the rescue mission, which is far from over as rescuers face formidable challenges in getting the group out. Officials have said that the rescue operation could take months.
Those who know Stanton and Volanthen say that if anyone was going to find the Thai soccer team, it was them. They were not surprised that officials in Thailand ultimately asked them to help with the rescue, along with a third British diver, Robert Harper.
“I said from the outset, if anybody is going to find these kids, it will be these two divers, who are arguably the best in the world,” Andy Eavis, a spokesman for the British Caving Association, told The Washington Post.
“Compared to what Rick and John are normally doing, this is extremely easy diving, the only complication was the flow of the water,” he said, referring to the fact that the pair had to swim against a strong current as they made their way to the children.
Eavis said that Stanton in particular is widely regarded as one of Europe’s best cave divers. “He’s done some very remarkable things. He’s 10 kilometers in a cave in France, and 70 meters down, I mean, that’s extraordinary. They are under water for 36 hours, they have to decompress for 20 hours I mean it’s all world records in cave diving.”
The duo have led high-profile rescue attempts before. In 2010, they led a rescue attempt in southern France to find French diver Eric Establie. Unfortunately, they found his drowned body at the end of an eight-day rescue mission.
They received the Royal Humane Society award at Buckingham Palace for their efforts.
The pair are effectively the “A Team” of cave-divers, said Bill Whitehouse, vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, who has been in contact with them since they discovered the Thai soccer team. He said they described the three-hour round-trip dive to the chamber where the group is still trapped as “a bit gnarly.”
“They are really the sort of A-Team, if you like,” he told the BBC. “They have been at the spearhead of making their way through because they have the skills and expertise to do it. Of course, one of the first things they had to do in pushing through is laying a guideline so that they could get out again and so others could follow along.”
Stanton, a firefighter in his 50s, also led a rescue mission in 2004 in Mexico, where he helped to save six British soldiers who were trapped underground for six days.
He told Divernet magazine that his cave diving rescue work — for which he received an MBE (Member of the British Empire) — was a “hobby” and entirely a “voluntary service.”
Volanthen, who has helped to advance rebreather technology that allows divers to stay underwater for longer, also has a passion for the sport.
In a documentary that follows the duo on cave diving expeditions, Annabelle Volanthen said that on the morning of her wedding day, John escaped the hustle bustle by going cave diving. “It wasn’t just an ordinary cave, it was through a sump that has a notorious unstable boulder choke which has subsequently collapsed but that gives you some indication of John’s character,” she said.
Volanthen, a computer engineer in his 40s, told the Sunday Times in 2013 that the secret to cave diving was keeping a cool head.
“Panic and adrenaline are great in certain situations — but not in cave diving,” he said. “The last thing you want is any adrenaline whatsoever.”
“What you want is nice and boring,” he told the paper. “Underwater, things happen slowly. If a parachute fails on a base jump, you have seconds to contemplate your fate. If something goes wrong 10 kilometers down an underwater tunnel, you usually have until your air runs out to find a solution or make your peace.”