On your mettle
“If you are willing to deal with and suffer conditions that other people are not, that means you get to see things that other people will never see.”
Andy Torbet spent ten years as a paratrooper, diver and bomb disposal officer in the British Forces before turning his hand to filmmaking and presenting. Using his skills as a pro diver and skydiver, he has travelled around the world to go on extreme and technical adventures for the likes of the BBC, Discover and The History Channel. Highly skilled and meticulously trained, he makes a beeline for the most hostile environments in order to share these bizarre, alien or remote places with the world.
Oceanographic sat down with Andy to discover more about the man behind the mettle.
Oceanographic Magazine (OM): Do you think a sense of adventure is innate in humans?
Andy Torbet (AT): I would like to think so. However, I think to a certain extent we’ve almost bred it. From an evolutionary standpoint the desire to explore new areas, to find food, prey and resources – I think natural selection would have would have selected for that, which is why humans move and spread out. So, I think a sense of exploration is instinctive. But going to seek adventure for adventure’s sake? As humans we need a certain level of stress, it’s just got to be the right sort. For example, going to the gym and then resting in order to get stronger and improve. I think people are now looking for these kinds of challenges and stresses through adventure, because we don’t get them in our daily lives anymore. If life is too easy, that can cause a different kind of low-lying stress because we’re not built for that, we’re built to go and find food and avoid being eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Adventure is subjective as well, it depends on what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing – what one person finds quite mundane someone else might find adventurous. But I think having the occasional adventure, basically makes you happier.
OM: Do you go diving alone?
AT: Yes, I do dive a lot on my own. When deep diving or cave diving, there aren’t many differences between going alone or diving with a team. The principle is the same, you have to be wholly self-reliant because chances are, people can’t get to you in time to sort out any problems. Often the caves in the UK are so tight and the visibility is so bad that even if someone is in front of you, they can’t turn around to get back to you or get past you to help. I by myself alone a lot and even in teams I’m still effectively diving solo. When solo diving, I’m in complete control and if anything goes wrong, it’s up to me. The buddy system is important but if you’re relying on them to sort something out if it goes wrong, then you’re putting an immense amount of pressure on that person if that’s your first option.
OM: Have you ever got lost while diving in caves?
AT: Only once. Getting lost in the cave system can be very, very bad. It’s one of the main causes of death in cave diving, which is why we’re so careful about laying and anchoring line. I was in a mine in Wales quite early on when I was self-teaching cave diving. The line had tucked itself under the edge of an old cart railway track, so when I turned to go back out, I couldn’t see it. I was pretty confident because at any junction your always mark the home side somehow, and I also knew that the map was a grid system, so if I just kept following the right hand wall and always turned right I would get to an opening that would take me back out. Luckily, I found the line, and everything was fine – this situation only lasted a few seconds. But your heart rate starts going up and you become very aware that you have a finite period of time to sort this out. That’s the difference – there are problems that happen underwater wouldn’t be a big deal at all if it were on land, but under the water you’re running out of time, which is usually what causes minor issues to become fatal.
OM: What experience underwater has pushed you further out of your comfort zone?
AT: There are loads of things I’ve done that are outside of my comfort zone – it’s good to push yourself in that way. But underwater, I’ve never felt outside of my comfort zone, that something is too much. If you’re feeling that at 120m or in a cave on your own, that’s something you should have realised a long time ago. Unlike a lot of extreme sports, where there’s a graduation of how bad an accident can be, cave diving is binary. You don’t get injured cave diving. Three things can happen: it goes well and you come out fine, something goes wrong but you sort it and come out fine, or something goes wrong and you die. Cave diving can be done very safely but it’s not forgiving, so it’s not the place to start testing your mettle. You have to be up to the task before getting in the water.
OM: What has diving taught you about control and discipline?
AT: You’d best bloody have it before you get into the water! I think actually that being calm under pressure is not something you are genetically blessed with. Everybody is a good diver when everything is going well but when things go badly, that’s when you find out who’s any good. There’s a phrase in the army ‘train hard, fight easy’, so if a good diver is out of their comfort zone, it’s only ever by a very small amount because they will have trained, both physically and mentally, so that their skills are at a much higher capacity than is required when everything is going smoothly. So if you know you have to go and lift 100kg then I suggest you train to lift 200kg because in the off-chance that something goes wrong you then have the capacity to absorb it. You don’t want to be diving at the very edge of your ability.
OM: So I know you spent many years with the army. What skills did you learn that have helped you on extreme adventures?
AT: I joined the army at 20 and my personality is very much carved from the time that I spent in the forces. I think I will forever be an ex-soldier, but a lot of the skills that I learnt in the army are very transferrable to what I do now. So that initial threat assessment, mitigation and bomb disposal, which I did for a while. It’s a lot like cave diving in that you need to be able to accurately and logically assess the real dangers – not just what you think might be scary – and deal with them. It’s the methods you use to make defusing a bomb safe, to make cave diving safe. It’s not about taking massive risks.
OM: Do you think, then, it’s important to differentiate between types of adventurers?
AT: It’s one of those things – how do you describe yourself? Anyone with a good level of fitness and motivation could jump on a bike and cycle around the world. But no matter how motivated you are, not just anyone could jump out of a plane at 20,000ft or go cave diving in 0°C water. Anyone can do those things, but not tomorrow. You have to put the time and effort into learning these skills in order to be able to do those things. What I do isn’t about taking risks, they’re cerebral challenges. I’ve spoken to stunt people, base jumpers, world class rock climbers and cave divers, and they’re all remarkably cautious and paranoid. That’s how you stay in business for 20-30 years. People often say I must have no fear, that I’m reckless, but I’m probably one of the most cautious person you’re likely to meet, that’s why I do what I do and I’m still alive. I have no intention of getting myself killed and I don’t gamble. These things are skilled based, they’re not about being brave.
OM: What was it like to film Dive Odyssey?
AT: It was very cold! It was the brainchild of a Finnish filmmaker called Janne Suhonen and we filmed it down in some old mines in Finland, in December. The mine system, which was about 2°C, is at the bottom of a freshwater lake, which was about 0°C. We were doing four-hour dives and I was incredibly cold every single dive. But the Ojamo Mine was an amazing place to film – just one of the most mind-boggling things I’ve seen underwater. While it was absolutely beautiful, the thing I’ll remember most was the people. We had a world class team of brilliant divers doing some pretty hardcore diving but just having a laugh with it. I appreciate that more and more now, I think 90% of your happiness is paid by the people you’re sharing yourself with. You can do a rough job with great people and have an amazing time, but if you’re doing a great job with rubbish people you can get pretty miserable. Luckily Dive Odyssey was a great job with really great people.
OM: Is there something about cold water environments that you have a certain affinity for?
AT: On one hand, those are the jobs I tend to get asked to do. If you need someone to dive in 10 metres of 20°C water, there are so many people who are qualified to do that, whereas the pool of people who are qualified and also up for suffering in cold water is a lot smaller. There are more opportunities for cold dives because there are less people that want to do them. On the other hand, I love the technical challenge of diving and the more difficult the environment the better you have to be. I enjoy that challenge. If you are willing to deal with and suffer conditions that other people are not, that means you get to see things that other people will never see. True exploration, i.e. seeing things that no one else has seen before usually involves a degree of suffering. A few years ago someone asked me what I thought the definition of an expedition was, and I said ‘if you don’t spend at least 80% of your time on the expedition wishing you weren’t on the expedition then it’s not an expedition, it’s a holiday.’ But actually, it’s dead easy to be a genuine explorer underwater because there are thousands of miles of reefs in crystal clear blue warm water that has never been seen my humans. But yes, if something is too easy there’s no value in it. If you want to value experience then you have to pay for that in some form or another.
OM: You worked on Operation Iceberg some time ago, what was that like?
AT: I got to do some stuff you just never normally get to do. I dived around icebergs, went ice cave diving, even went free diving in flooded crevasses. The ice cave diving was almost like temporary exploration, in that the caves will be gone in 12 months because the glacier moves on, it fractures and changes. I abseiled down a moulin shaft doing lots of self-filming, which was great. It was amazing to explore these places that only existed temporarily, meaning that actually, no one else will ever explore that exact same spot again. Greenland is spectacular, it’s a true wilderness.
OM: You’ve been filming Beyond Bionic where you attempt to match these amazing creatures of the natural world. What’s been your most enlightening experience?
AT: I free dived 50m under ice in Alaska in winter for the seal episode. It was -20°C on the surface, the water was around 1°C. The big issue for me was that we thought the water would be gin-clear, but the visibility was less than two metres. There was a line that was pegged two metres under the ice but I was at the surface and I couldn’t find it. I was getting cold, I had cameras pointing at me and freediving is such a mental sport – I felt like I was at the edge of not being in a good place to dive. Then I just said to myself: ‘this is the job; this is the path you’ve chosen. It’s time to go to work.” They weren’t quite ready with the camera but I said, ‘I either go now or I don’t go.’ I took a big breath and just went for it. I ended up being very zen about it and stopping for a few seconds at the bottom to take the time to appreciate the beautiful view of the ice above me.
OM: You’ve written that ‘the best way to clear the mind is a day spent chopping wood and then sitting by a fire you’ve made yourself’. When you live a life of extremes why do the simple things resonate with you?
AT: I think because you have to find a way to rest, and it’s not always easy. I see this on social media, a lifestyle that is promoted telling us to sleep four hours a day and just work, work, work. It’s probably a great way to earn two million pounds in two years and have a nervous breakdown, but it’s not sensible if you want to keep adventuring for years and be happy. You can’t sprint for 24 hours. You can’t maintain a high level of mental and physical stress continually, even if it can be healthy in small doses. You also have to find ways of coming down from those big, high stress expeditions. Even though you know you’re safe while cave diving there’s always a constant low level of pressure on you. So it starts with the simple things; camping with my kids, going for a beer with mates, having a bonfire, cooking at home, nights in my own bed.
OM: What does it mean to you to be underwater, to have that capability?
AT: Even though I’ve been doing it for decades I still recognise it as a privilege. Every time you dive it’s like being in a science fiction movie. We now have the equipment and training to go to the most hostile environment on Earth. Forget about the top of Everest, forget about the South Pole, it’s the environment on Earth that we are least evolved to survive in. It’s more alien and hostile than going to the moon. It’s like we effectively have two planets, the green and the blue. We are Earthlings but we now have the capability to be astronauts and visit this blue alien world. I think a lot of people forget that.
Photographs courtesy of Andy Torbet and Richard Stevenson.
Explore the current issue
Beautiful photography. Captivating storytelling.
Take a look inside the latest issue of Oceanographic Magazine.
Subscribe to the digital edition for just £20 a year, or enjoy it for free courtesy of Oceanographic’s partnership with Marine Conservation Society. No cost, no catch.
Beautiful ocean stories straight to your inbox.
Join our community.