Andy Torbet cave diving

Interview - Andy Torbet BBC presenter and dive product tester

Andy Torbet is best known as a presenter on BBC’s ‘The One Show’. But the former paratrooper is also one of the world’s leading extreme divers, a career that has led him into the highly technical world of dive computers and product testing.

Andy Torbet is what the tabloid papers like to call a “hard man”. When you see him on national TV, he’s the presenter who gets called up for the white water rafting assignments, the 120m cave and wreck diving slots, and jumping out of aeroplanes at altitudes where most people are settling back with a film and a bag of airline peanuts. Since leaving the army a decade ago, he’s made a living from extreme diving. It’s a technology-driven market ranging from the wristwatch-style dive computer, to the futuristic exo-suit, which is practically a hard-shell articulated wearable submarine.

According to Torbet, “nobody gets injured cave diving”. This sounds like a strange claim to make on behalf of explorers of the most inhospitable environment on the planet. Yet on elaboration, the diver’s position becomes dramatically clear. “In cave diving, you either come out alive, or you’re dead.” Unlike mountaineering or polar exploration, “in cave or deep diving you are wholly reliant on the technology you have on your back to keep you alive”. He goes on to say that while in sky diving or climbing - both of which are part of Torbet’s extreme world - “there is a graduation of outcome. You could twist an ankle or break a leg. You could break your back or end up in a coma. You could die”. His point is that there is an escalation of danger and injury when there’s trouble. “But in cave diving, if something goes wrong with your technology, you either fix it, in which case you get out fine. Or you don’t and you die. There’s no middle ground.”

The 39-year-old Scotsman, who hails from the north-east Highlands between Aberdeen and Inverness, has a military background, having served for a decade as a paratrooper and bomb disposal officer. Of the latter he says: “That’s another area where you don’t come out injured. The guys on patrol might. But for the bomb disposal officer, it’s another black and white environment. We’ve lost guys because normally, when it goes wrong, it goes wrong in a lethal way.

“This is where I developed the mindset I use in cave diving, deep diving and skydiving. You learn how to do a very honest risk assessment. You learn to ask how you can make something safe. You start in a potentially very dangerous situation and make it secure. The use of technology is one of the critical methods of doing this.”

Torbet says that deep diving and cave diving take him into some of the most hostile environments we’ve ever encountered, and he’s not just talking about terrestrial exploration. He equates the world of extreme diving to space EVA (extra-vehicular activity) operations. He says that cave diving is on the same level as a spacewalk, “because at the extreme end of technical diving there is no environment that we are less adapted to for survival”.

“It’s not just the fact that you can’t breathe without technological assistance. After a certain depth, say 120m (which isn’t too extreme), at that point I’m at 13 times atmospheric pressure. That pressure changes the way the body deals with the environment. So if I spend one hour at 120m, I’m looking at spending a further eight coming back to the surface to decompress. Even then, there is still a risk of getting the bends if you ascend too fast.” Torbet says that the best analogy to describe this is shaking a bottle of a fizzy drink and then opening the cap quickly. You’ve got all this nitrogen saturating your tissue, and then you off-gas too quickly. So you have to unscrew that cap very slowly.” Torbet describes other effects on the body such as acute oxygen toxicity: “On the surface it would be bad, but it wouldn’t kill you. Underwater, you will go into a coma and you’ll drown. If you do too many deep dives you end up with chronic oxygen toxicity where basically your body rusts from the inside.” The cure - hyperbaric medicine - “is still in its infancy and is a best guess scenario at the moment”.

If the nitrogen and oxygen doesn’t kill you, then there is a good chance that exposure will play a role. With water 25 times more thermally conductive than air, “even in warm seas you can get in trouble as your body heat is drawn from you. Diving in -2°C in the seas around Antarctica, things can get a bit tricky as we are wholly unsuited to the environment”.

Testing the technology

As with space exploration, deep divers are reliant on the technology. Torbet works closely with Finnish manufacturer Suunto to assist in developing their dive computers. Closely resembling conventional ruggedised digital sports watches, the purpose of the dive computer is to take the pain out of calculating the diver’s safe ascent profile by replacing the decompression tables, in much the same way as calculators once replaced log tables of trigonometric functions. Yet there’s more to it than that: dive computers automatically monitor depth and time, temperature, pressure, gas mixture, remaining breathing gas, as well as providing data on oxygen toxicity. Calculated in real time, the data can assist in prolonging the period the diver can safely spend under water, while ensuring that low-risk decompression schedules are available. In other words, it is an indispensable piece of kit that needs to withstand the rigours of diving to depths of up to 150m.

Torbet explains that there is “masses of mathematics behind the algorithms that go into the computer. This has to be proved with real-life test diving. They might look like everyday wristwatches, but the amount of research and development (R&D) that goes into these systems is mind-blowing. What I like about working with Suunto is that everything happens in just one building”.

The diver explains how the organisation’s building outside Helsinki works from the top floor, where there is management, descending to sales and marketing, followed by the designers, dive team and testers, and finally “the bottom floor that is like a Swiss clockmaker’s workshop, where there are all these guys with brown coats and eyeglasses. The products are handmade from start to finish in one place”. This is reassuring for Torbet, because “when you’re at depth relying on data about your gas mixture and so on, you want to know that the technology you’re relying on has been hand-crafted to the most rigorous standards possible”.

“I’m hugely interested in the R&D behind these computers, but as an ambassador for Suunto I don’t just want to be someone who wears the gear for promotional purposes. I want to be a test diver because I want to help develop the products with the needs of the extreme diver in mind.” Torbet says that this is partially a matter of self-interest: “The better the technology becomes the further, deeper and longer I can dive, and so I can explore more in a region that is the last great unknown on Earth. Many people go to the top of Everest or to the Poles, but that’s no longer exploring. That’s adventure or even extreme sport.”

Despite his academic background lying outside of physics and engineering, he has “an interest in it and I find it fascinating. It’s a fact that the more involved you become with technology, the more you understand how it works and the better you become at using it, which ultimately means you are safer underwater”.

When it comes to testing, Torbet will take a prototype in the field along with what he calls the “known quantities” of an older model, of which he might be wearing as many as three. “We go and dive in an area we know well, where we know what depth we are at, where there are benchmark controls. Then you monitor the prototype to see if it is giving the information that you’d expect.”

However, it’s not simply the software that gets put through its paces in testing. “When I was given my first Suunto computer, after a year they wanted to replace it with the latest model and I felt embarrassed handing it back because it was scratched to bits.” Yet the reaction from the manufacturer was positive: “They said that they hadn’t provided me with the kit because they wanted it back in immaculate condition. They gave it to me because they knew I’d take it on extreme cave diving expeditions and thrash it. They took the view as that they wanted to see their prototype damaged due to field action.

“The idea behind their thinking was that if one of their products could cope with what I put it through, then it could cope with anything a ‘normal’ diver could throw at it.”

Diving agenda

Since leaving full-time education, Torbet has spent an equal time in uniform and on Civvy Street. The two worlds have treated him well, although there have been times when it’s been hard for him to convince people of his credentials. Yet, for a zoology graduate (who’s currently studying for a second degree, this time in archaeology), Torbet has a clinical affinity with technology - perhaps not so surprising when you consider that he joined Mensa at the age of 14. He is happy to admit that he’s “always been a bit of a geek” and, in fact, when asked to do this interview, his response to my approach email was “unleash the geek”. If this seems at odds with the fact that we’re doing the interview at his gym in Bristol and that he is physically, to use the vernacular, built like a brick privy, then that’s something he’s learned to live with.

Has he been unfairly stereotyped? “People think that because you’ve been a paratrooper you can’t be intelligent. I sometimes encounter people thinking that you can’t speak with credibility about physics and engineering without wearing glasses and a bow tie.” He says that while his vocational background is in wildlife and archaeology, his decade in the army led him into the highly technical sphere of extreme diving, which is where his aptitude for adjusting to any high-level learning really paid off. “The odd thing about diving is that it forces you to appreciate technology. The more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it.”

What’s changed in those two decades? “Well there hasn’t been any overnight revolution. The computers for sure have come on a huge amount.” Yet the key technology Torbet employs underwater, the closed-circuit rebreather - a gas recycling device - is essentially the same as it was when first invented in the late 19th century. “Of course, it has evolved. In the past 20 years it has improved drastically.”

Why has diving technology had no real breakthrough since the arrival of digital? “It’s a small market. In big areas such as oil and gas exploration, they’re not really using divers anymore. They’re using ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles) and that’s where the R&D money is being spent. The only guys using rebreather technology are astronauts, underwater explorers and scientists. Because there’s no requirement for the technology from big business, there’s no financial impetus for its development on a large scale, and so the technical evolution is very slow.” Yet it has trickled down to the regular diver. “Since the 1990s, this technology has become more widespread, but what you have to remember is that there was never any big manufacturing production as such. The units were mostly built in people’s garages. That was a tipping point of sorts, because there were engineers out there with a passion for diving as a hobby who became interested in refining the technology.”

Torbet is currently putting together plans for a TV production based on the wreck of HMHS Britannic, sister ship of the Titanic, which sank off the coast of Greece in 1916 in 120m of water. The largest ship lost in the First World War (and also the largest passenger shipwreck), Britannic was lost after coming into contact with vibrations from an exploding underwater mine. Torbet’s job will be to explore the wreck for a TV programme. “I’m under no illusions about being the best TV presenter in the world,” he says. “But to film a project like this you need to be able to dive safely at 120m. There aren’t many TV presenters that can do this. In fact, there aren’t many divers who can.
“I tend to get these jobs because of my access skills when it comes to filming in environments like this. I’m sure when the BBC looked at the list of presenters there was a very short list, and I was probably the only person they could safely use for the job.”

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