Technical diving guru Lamar Hires visits New Zealand. Interview by Dave Moran

Dave Moran (DM):

How did your diving lead you into cave diving and the development of sidemounts and rebreathers.

Lamar Hires (LH):

I started diving in 1979, after openwater certification the closest dive sites were the North Florida Springs. Living in Jacksonville, Florida, there weren’t any dive boats and the nearest charter boats were five hours south in the West Palm Beach area. My dive buddy, Mike Chapman, and I explored the springs and were lured into the caves. We had a few close calls but didn’t know any better because there were no ‘Prevent your Death’ signs and cave instructors were a rare breed. We met Wes Skiles (1958 – 2010) at Pro Dive Center in Jacksonville, Florida, while getting our tanks filled. We got into a conversation that lead to ‘Where are you guys diving today’? After we told him where we were going he became really anxious and handed us a copy of Sheck Exley’s book, Basic Cave Diving. A Blueprint for Survival’. After looking at the price my first comment was we’d get it next time. He said ‘You don’t understand, I’ll give it to you but you must read it.’ It was a series of fatalities and the reason the divers died. As Mike and I were driving to the Springs I read a chapter and it sounded like our dive the prior weekend, but these guys didn’t make it out. It changed the way we thought about diving in the Springs. Now it had a label ‘cave diving’. We returned the shop and told Wes he had our attention and he trained Mike and I to cave diver level. The first thing we discovered was to be a cave diver you had to make your own reels and lights. There was nothing available on the market to fit the needs of the North Florida cave diver.

I worked with Wes at Branford Dive Center in Branford Florida from 1982 to May of 1984. Back then Branford was the only dive shop in the area that catered to cave divers. I made over 500 cave dives between 1979 and 1984 and explored some local caves. It was here I met Mark Leonard and during a long spring flood of 1984 I decided to leave Branford Dive Center and start Dive Rite with Mark. Cave diving was a growing market and new divers wanted to buy tested equipment that they didn’t have to build themselves. Dive Rite was the only company that addressed this specific market. We listened to divers and designed what was needed.

I became an instructor in 1984 and after teaching the minimum number of openwater classes NAUI required I became a cave instructor, number 91, with the Cave Diving Section of the National Speleological Society.

I wanted to explore and map caves. All the popular caves were mapped so my close friends and I focused on the end of the line in the popular caves or the smaller caves the legends of our day had ignored because the bigger caves were still yielding passages to be found.


What is the allure of cave diving?


To be able to go somewhere no one else has been is an adrenalin rush! You have no idea what’s around the corner; it could be a big room or all of a sudden it might drop to over 100 metres, you have no idea. So a lot of it is just the thrill of not knowing what’s around the next corner. There is also great enjoyment and challenges swimming through the passages and tunnels that have been mapped. A lot of the time it’s figuring out routes. Your personal discipline is critical. You are as close to being an astronaut as you can be. There is no bigger emergency than finding yourself half a mile from an entrance without preplanning for such an emergency.  How will you deal with it? How did you plan for it? Did you have the attitude that it couldn’t happen to you? I still haven’t lost the passion to go to a site that I’d been in many times before; it’s a lot of excitement and fun. We are based in Lake City; the closest spring to my house is 20 minutes.  I test new gear there. We’ll develop the prototypes and I’ll take it diving and if I like what I’m seeing, I’ll hand it to the rest of the staff who are also cave divers and let them use it to see what their comments are. I try to test everything to failure to see what it can handle sometimes it isn’t pretty. Then we’ll go into the next stage in terms of developing the product for the marketplace.


: When did you first come up with the idea of sidemount?


We knew about sidemount, the Brits had been doing it for years but their style and purpose didn’t fit our needs. We went into caves with good visibility and we wanted to keep it that way so we focused on what we later called ‘Florida style’ to our British cave diving brothers. Rigging cylinders to swim through big passages and have manoeuvrability in tight areas was our goal. My first sidemount experience…

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