Josh is a graduate of the University’s BSc (Hons) Ocean Science with Meteorology course, 2013.
Josh Bratchley MBE selects a diving canister and half lifts, half drags it into the doorway of the equipment room. He selects a gauge from a shelf and spins it into place, noting the pressure of the compressed gas inside. There is a precision to his every action – one that belies the fact that today he’s merely going through the motions for the attendant photographer. It’s a telling trait of someone so well-versed in handling equipment upon which a life could depend.
Few understand this better than Josh, a Met Office meteorologist, graduate of the University, and a cave diver whose name is synonymous with the remarkable rescue of a junior football team from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018. While the world held its breath, 13 divers, including Josh, held their nerve, transporting the children one at a time through the system of submerged passageways.
“It’s so hard to describe,” he says when he’s asked to put into words that subterranean scene. “We were in deep canals with steep muddy sides – there was a lot of brown! We had to try to dig shelves in the banks so that we had somewhere to rest and a means of pulling the children out of the water if we needed to change tanks or administer more sedative. The only light was from our torches, and everything felt very remote. There may have been millions of people watching, and thousands gathered outside, but there were only 13 of us beyond the flooded section who had the power to do anything.”
Today, Josh has returned to his University, and the city of his birth, seeing for himself how the dive centre where he undertook some of his recreational training has transformed into a new, multipurpose Marine Station. He takes time to chat to members of staff, fondly recalling trips to Bovisand with instructors past and present.
“It’s great to see that the University values diving so highly,” he says. “Few, if any, have this kind of facility.”
Josh’s path to the University was a slightly circuitous and serendipitous one. A former pupil of Callington Community College, Josh had become a first-class ‘fixer-upper’ during his teenage years and spent much of his free time with his dad in the family garage, working on cars. It was, he believed, his calling.
"Although I was into the sciences at school, I had this feeling that I was done with learning by the time I finished my A levels,” he says. “So I joined the Fire Service as a technician mechanic and started a training scheme with them. I very much enjoyed it at first, but after a year I realised that the mechanical side was not as in depth as I had thought. It was more a case of servicing vehicles and that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Finding himself at something of an early career crossroads, Josh took inspiration from the sky as to what he should do next.
“I’d been learning to skydive,” he says, “And that meant that I was becoming increasingly interested in the weather. I began to think that maybe I should study it at university.
I spoke to some friends and then attended an open day where I met Dr Tim O’Hare, the course leader. That conversation was instrumental in my decision to come to Plymouth.”
By that stage, Josh had missed the application deadline, but through Clearing he secured a place on the BSc (Hons) Ocean Science with Meteorology degree. He handed in his notice at the Fire Service and within one week had moved into a student house in Mutley.
It’s fair to say that Josh threw body and soul into university life, sometimes with spectacular and painful results – none more so than when he crashed while mountain boarding with the Students’ Union club and seriously damaged his shoulder. He soon bounced back, however, and signed up for the Adventure and Expedition Club, through which he would make a lifechanging discovery.
“It was February 2011, and we went on this trip to the Mendip Hills in Somerset,” he says. “I’d joined the club to do climbing, but on this occasion I tried caving – and it was amazing! I barely missed a trip from that day on. In fact, within four months, I was organising them myself every Wednesday and weekend.”
By Josh’s own admission, caving (or potholing as it is also known) is something of an acquired taste. Recognised as a sport from the middle of the 18th century, caving in the UK usually involves squeezing through small spaces and getting your hands in the 'scrotty stuff'. For those more fearful of heights than claustrophobic crawl spaces, there are plenty of vertiginous voids that require navigating. It begs the question, why would anyone do it?
“Yes, it is dark, often cold and you have to deal with tight spaces,” Josh concedes. “It can be uncomfortable and some people never get used to it. But I like the sense of unknown that you get with caving. You can’t fly a drone over a cave, or look at it from a satellite. The only way to see it is to go in there, and I enjoy that exploratory aspect. I like to go to places that few others have been to.”
Initially, it was cave photography that interested Josh, and he succeeded in getting a number of his pictures published in print and online media, including the Daily Mail and The Telegraph. Then he and a caving friend began to talk about the possibility of learning to become cave divers – and from that moment, a whole new frontier opened up.
“On many occasions, I had been going through a cave and when I got to the end there was water,” he says. “I knew that there was more cave to explore beyond that point and it didn’t seem such a huge obstacle to overcome. But clearly I didn’t have the skills to negotiate it.”
Josh and his friend went to Jamaica to obtain the PADI Open Water qualification and then joined the Cave Diving Group (CDG), where they had a maximum of five years to develop the skills needed to become a Qualified CDG Diver. This ‘apprenticeship’ involved repeated diving, mainly in Britain and France, and Josh also joined the University BSAC-affiliated open water club to gain further experience.
It is, we suggest, remarkable that he managed to find the time for University work (he had also joined the Devon Cave Rescue Organisation). “Not a bit of it,” Josh retorts, evidencing his high 2:1 average across his three years. Indeed, he reflects with some pride upon the balance achieved and his approach to university life in general.
“Obviously I would have liked to have earned a first, but that would have meant pulling back on the extracurricular activities,” he says with a knowing smile. “I was at university for more than just a degree – I wanted to make friends, do new things in life and learn new skills. So many people do nothing at all related to their degree in their world of work, and I was happy with the path I took.”
Josh’s career has most definitely followed on from his academic study. After graduating in 2013, he secured a place on the Met Office’s training programme, and though his start date was delayed by 18 months owing to an injury he sustained to his hand in a car crash, he joined the organisation in April 2015. Twelve months later, he had qualified as an Operational Meteorologist, and is now based at RAF Valley in Anglesey.
“My role concerns flight safety for trainee fast jet pilots,” he says. “It’s an intricate part of the operation of the base. I am expected to deliver detailed briefings each day to the pilots, and the forecast will be to the nearest few hundred feet or metres and is far more detailed than you’d get in a domestic setting.”
Using satellite technology and information obtained from local stations, Josh has to predict the weather patterns, which can often prove challenging owing to the base’s location next to the Irish Sea. His role also takes him to remote locations around the country and overseas, such as acting as a consultant on offshore structures owned by oil and gas companies.
Josh says: “It is very challenging because you might be in a situation where you’re the sole forecaster on board, and that entire 200,000-tonne vessel and its crew are relying upon you 24 hours per day. And no day is ever the same – the British weather usually sees to that.”
That theme of reliance leads us inexorably to Thailand – to the very heart of Josh’s story – and to Tham Luang Nang Non Cave in Chiang Rai Province. On Saturday 23 June 2018, 12 boys aged 11–16 from the Wild Boars junior football team entered into the cave with their 25-year-old assistant coach. Heavy and continuous rainfalls pushed the party deeper into the system, and before they realised the danger they were in, they became trapped by rising floodwaters.
When the story broke, Josh was on a ‘via ferrata’ holiday with friends in the Italian Dolomites – navigating rugged terrain using pre-placed wires to assist with the climbing. As he and his party made their way from hut to hut along the route, Josh monitored developments and began to realise that there was a chance he’d receive a call from the British Cave Rescue Council. When attempts to pump the water from the cave ended in failure, that call duly arrived.
“They needed me to be on a flight from London to Thailand at midday the following day with all of my dive kit,” he recalls. “I had a quick think and said ‘Yes’. I went down the mountain, drove to the airport and flew to Gatwick.”
Arriving at 11pm, Josh was met by a member of the South East Cave Rescue team, who drove him through the night to his home on Anglesey. Josh grabbed his gear and was then given a lift back to London by the North Wales Cave Rescue Team, where he met yet another colleague from South Wales, who had been dispatched with a police escort to bring him some specialist equipment. When he landed in Bangkok, Josh was greeted by the Thai military and government officials, who escorted him alone off the plane and to a transferring flight north to Chiang Rai.
“It was all very surreal,” he says. “Looking back, I’m so grateful to those volunteers who did the overnight driving, and to the British Cave Rescue Council, who arranged all of the travel. I let myself be taken, which helped me to conserve energy. I could also begin to mentally prepare for what I was about to do. And on the day I flew out, we heard that a Thai Navy Seal had drowned and suddenly it was all very real.”Owing to the complexity of the rescue mission, and the relatively small size of the cave in which the boys were located, just four experienced British divers – John Volanthen, Richard Stanton, Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewell – were assigned as the leads. They were then supported by Josh and eight others, who would help to relay the boys through different sections of the route.
“It was effectively a shuttle run with cave divers staged throughout,” he says. “The transporting of the child was the primary concern – they had not done anything like this before, and we had to ensure that they did not panic. We also needed to ensure that they were easy to transport, and that is where our CDG training came in, because we learn to transport ‘packages’ and that is exactly how we had to view the children.”
Each child was sedated with ketamine by anaesthesiologist Dr Richard Harris in the cave, and put into a wetsuit with a full face-mask. Their hands and feet were secured, and they had an oxygen tank and buoyancy bag.
“The initial double dose of ketamine would last for about an hour, and then every 30 minutes they had to be re-dosed,” says Josh. “We received training on how to administer it, and so we were diving with ketamine syringes. It was all very involved and intensive, lots to think about, lots of multitasking.”
It took six hours to pass each child out through the system and Josh and his dive partner would spend 30 minutes at a time with them before the lead diver and child would reach the next team.
“It was all rather insane from a diving perspective,” says Josh. “We had dry passages, flooded passages, canals… it had never been attempted before. It was very nerve-wracking and stressful, and obviously the whole world was watching, but the team worked really smoothly and fortunately it was successful.”
After three days the rescue was completed, and the divers emerged into not so much daylight, as a global spotlight. Josh says: “It’s hard to state how incredible it was coming out of the cave into those celebrations. Everyone was on the same team, and there were so many volunteers supporting the 13 people who were beyond the sump. I couldn’t come to terms with what we had achieved until a long time later. We were all tired, mentally and physically.”
Pride of Britain, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace were all stops on a dizzying publicity tour for Josh when he returned, with the highlight being the award of an MBE in the 2019 New Year Honours List. But with this acclaim came something unexpected, though not unfamiliar to a diver. Pressure.
“For some of the divers, this all came much later in their cave diving career,” he reflects. “I, on the other hand, had only been cave diving for seven years before Thailand and though I had gained a huge amount of experience, I was very aware that there was still so much for me to learn and develop upon. In the media, we were continually referred to as ‘the world’s best cave divers’ and Connor (Josh’s dive partner in Thailand) and I would say, ‘How can we be the world’s best?!’ I began to feel this sense of pressure to set an example, and that all came to a head in Tennessee.”
“It reinforces that idea that I can’t afford to make a mistake. Caving is now more likely to hit the headlines, and that is something that is alien for much of the community.”
In April 2019, Josh had been with a party of friends and fellow divers on a three-week expedition of the Mountain Eye cave system in Tennessee. Over successive dives, they pushed out to the edges of the network, running guide lines to help map out the terrain. All was going to plan until a dive in Mill Pond Cave, when Josh lost his line and became separated from his dive partner.
He recalls: “It was actually quite a British-style cave – a small area with little visibility. There was so much silt, particularly with all of the diving activity, that it was extremely difficult to find the line. My dive partner made several unsuccessful attempts to re-establish connection, and there came a point where I realised that my air reserves were beginning to run low and if I kept looking then I wouldn’t have enough to get out of the cave.”
So with remarkable clarity of mind, Josh hauled out into an air pocket above him, removed his gear, and waited for assistance in near total darkness.
“I turned off the light because I didn’t want it to run out,” he says. “My legs were still in the water, but I was able to dig a ledge into the mud bank, lie on my dive kit and inflate the suit so that I was off the ground and warm. And then I just had to sit there and wait.”
It would be 28 hours later before Josh saw another person, and when he did, it came in the welcome form of Floridian cave specialist Edd Sorenson, from the Chattanooga Hamilton Rescue Service.
“He would not have known whether he was going to find me alive or dead,” Josh says. “So I am so incredibly thankful for the job he did, and all of the teams and my friends outside who helped to coordinate things and keep my family informed.”
Benefiting from improved visibility, the pair were able to swim out of the cave together. Josh thankfully required no medical treatment – merely some replacement calories – but there was to be no escape from the scrutiny of the media.
"Tennessee would have been local news had it not been for Thailand,” he says ruefully. “Everyone makes mistakes and there is always the potential for things to go wrong.”
For a second time in his life, Josh had become part of an international news story, only this time, the narrative was inverted.
“I had to come to terms with it,” he says. “It reinforces that idea that I can’t afford to make a mistake. Caving is now more likely to hit the headlines, and that is something that is alien for much of the community.”
Despite this new reality, Josh’s thirst for underwater adventure is happily unslaked. A trip to France, he says, is just days away and there are countless other destinations calling to him. It’s just a matter of time and money.
Before he leaves, Josh takes one final view out over Plymouth Sound. Is he forecasting the weather or imagining diving down beneath the waves? It matters not; whether above or below, he’s a man at ease with the elements.