Tragedy in the Depths: The Source du Doubs Disaster of 2008

Incident LocationDiver Full Name
France, Source du DoubsJohn Manley

The Source of the Doubs makes for an unforgettable walking destination. As you set foot on the 100-meter forest path, you’ll be greeted by a serene atmosphere filled with breathtaking landscapes and captivating trees. The sound of rushing water grows louder as you progress, heightening your senses and fueling your curiosity about what lies ahead. Soon enough, the tantalizing sound of the water will lead you straight to the entrance of the source. This is John Manley’s story and the source of the Doubs cave diving disaster of 2008.

Setting the scene

Bonjour and welcome to the “Little Siberia” of France, nestled in the Jura mountains. Moth is notorious for being the coldest town in France, with temperatures plummeting to minus 39 degrees in winter and soaring to a scorching plus 36 degrees in summer. Thus, it has earned itself the nickname “Little Siberia” due to its extreme climate. The Risu mountain range, a heavily forested area in the Jura region, runs in the southwest-northeast direction and forms part of the national border between Switzerland and France.

Description of the Source du Doubs

Despite the frigid temperatures, the source of the Doubs, located just two kilometers from Moth, is a popular natural attraction in the area. The Source du Doubs sits at the foot of Mount Risu and Le Gros Roc. It is a frequently explored cave system situated at an altitude of 935 meters above sea level and serves as the source of the Doubs River. Due to the cave’s springs’ quick response to rainfall or snow melt, the current discharge can be easily monitored online. However, if the water level exceeds 0.6 meters cubed, diving is not permitted. A permit is required for diving, which can be applied for at the Mayor’s office.

The mysterious cave

The water in the cave remains at a constant temperature of 6 degrees Celsius throughout the year, retaining its pristine clarity regardless of weather conditions. The cave keeps its mystery since divers have yet to determine the origin of the waters that weave their way through the rocks in a complex network. It is truly a secret kept by nature. The source of the Doubs has been a pursuit for daring cave divers for decades.

Early explorations

In 1969, the source was explored for the first time by two Swiss cave divers, J.C. Fracco and P. Petroquin, up to the S2 section of the cave. Then, in 1987, Italian diver St. Leko pushed the boundaries, breaching a depth of 50 meters or 164 feet in the S3 section. However, it wasn’t until 1989 that the late and legendary Swiss cave diver Jean-Jacques Bolas made the groundbreaking discovery, reaching the previous end of the S3 section after 322 meters or 1056 feet on his last dive. But he could not go any further as there was a fall that he could not pass. The fact that it took so many years to get to this point of the cave speaks volumes for the incredible achievement Jean-Jacques Bolas achieved.

New discoveries

Fast forward to November 18th, 2007, when a new chapter in the cave’s history was written. John Volanthen, a seasoned diver, fearlessly plunged into the depths, braving the obstacles and laying 145 meters or 476 feet of line, successfully passing through the formidable vault that had stopped Bolons years before. A year later, on September 10th, 2008, Andre Gloor and Pedro Bilardi passed the fall and laid a second marked line, setting a new terminus at a total distance of 472 meters or 1549 feet from the entrance. The following dives continuously extended the terminus until they reached the jaw-dropping distance of 1050 meters or 3445 feet.

John Manley’s ill-fated exploration

Nearly 18 days after, on September 28th, 2008, with the ambition to etch his name in the record books of this cave, John Manley set out to explore the Source du Doubs accompanied by two of his trusted friends, who were certified divers. Little did John know that fate had a somber outcome in store for him. Unfortunately, his name would forever be associated with this cave, but in the most heart-wrenching of manners. The cave that he sought to conquer would forever be associated with his tragedy rather than triumph.

Background of John Manley

Born in 1976, John’s insatiable thirst for learning led him to excel academically at King’s Manor School, where he absorbed knowledge at a prodigious rate. In his youth, he found solace in the scouts, relishing the open-air life and the company of his peers. As he stepped into adulthood, John worked for various local companies before finding his true calling at Ricardo Engineering in Shoreham, England. This global engineering consultancy tasked with solving complex issues for a safe and sustainable world was the perfect fit for John’s sharp mind and exceptional skills.

John’s passion for adventure

John had a love for motorcycling and scuba diving that took him on thrilling adventures. He was trained locally before eventually joining Brighton’s British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) and quickly became a reliable member. Ever restless, John’s thirst for exploration was unquenchable as he became a regular diver, pushing his fellow club members to discover new wreck sites and adopt safer diving practices. He enjoyed several diving holidays with many friends, diving the Normandy shipwrecks and those around the Isle of Wight.

Venturing into cave diving

But that wasn’t enough for John. His passion for diving led him to acquire a rebreather and undergo specialized training, which took him to more adventurous diving groups and much deeper wrecks. After acquiring his rebreather and the training to accommodate it, he eventually ventured into cave diving in the UK and France. However, he always made sure to return to dive with his friends in the sea on a regular basis while keeping them all excited with captivating tales of his underground exploits and explorations.

The ill-fated dive

While living his life adventurously, John was always careful, entirely competent, looked after his equipment well, and understood exactly how it worked. However, an unexpected twist of fate was about to change everything. On September 28th, 2008, John Manley, John Volanthen, and Charles Reed Henry reached the Source du Doubs. Their plan was for each of them to independently dive and explore the cave system without assistance from others, known as autonomous diving. It’s worth noting that John Manley was wearing a very large rebreather, making further exploration of the cave extremely challenging.

Warnings and challenges

Many narrow and shallow passages posed a great risk of equipment damage in case of an emergency and hindered a quick return. John Volanthen and Charles Reed Henry had warned him the night before that the rebreather would be too big to pass through some of the narrower parts of the cave system, but John didn’t heed their warnings. It’s also important to mention that John had broken his back during a motorcycle accident in 1998 and has since suffered long-term injuries from it. These details become relevant later in the story.

John’s descent

The entrance of the cave is quite narrow, only about 3.5 meters deep or 11 feet, and John moved cautiously, taking care not to get stuck in the narrow passage. After about 13 meters or 43 feet, John reached the upper ledge of the shaft leading into the depth known as S3. As John began his descent into S3, the water became darker and colder, and he relied heavily on his flashlight to guide him through the rest of the cave. John continued his exploration of the phreatic cave passage, carefully making his way down the almost vertical shaft.

He knew he had to be extremely cautious as the slightest mistake could have dire consequences, as we learn from the tragic story of John, an experienced diver who lost his life in the Source du Doubs cave in 2008. As John descended deeper into the cave, he encountered various challenges and made crucial decisions that ultimately led to his untimely demise. This transcript recounts his journey, emphasizing the risks involved in cave diving and the importance of preparation.

The Descent into the Cave

The descent became steeper as John reached the bottom of the shaft at 322 meters or 1056 feet. He noticed a larger obstruction hole covered with blocky material. To the right of the shaft floor, there was a narrow crevice leading to an uphill cave passage. John observed a significant amount of sediment in this area, resulting in strong turbidity. Despite the hazardous environment, John remained focused and alert, aware of the risks involved. He appreciated the beauty of the underwater world, which motivated him to continue.

Navigating Difficult Passages

As John swam through the cave, he noticed a passage on the left-hand side that led to a further running passage on the valley side. This narrow and challenging passage had been slightly enlarged in 2002 for safety reasons. With his training and experience, John carefully maneuvered through the passage, ensuring he closely monitored his depth gauge and air supply. The passage began directly below the known shaft bottom of the S3 section, but the collapse of the hall had buried the first 30 meters or 98 feet. Despite the obstacles, John emerged on the other side with a sense of relief and accomplishment.

Encountering the First Major Fold Zone

After approximately 555 meters or 1821 feet, John reached the first major fold zone. He continued through the steeply sloping passage, noting accumulations of gravel banks along the way. These obstacles prevented him from diving further, but he was satisfied with the progress he had made. As his air supply approached its limit, John knew it was time to turn back. Following the rule of thirds, a safety measure in cave diving, he ensured he had enough air to safely return to the surface.

Reflections and the Journey Back

As John prepared to swim back, he reflected on the awe-inspiring beauty and mystery of the underwater cave system. He felt grateful for the opportunity to witness such wonders and knew this dive would be a lifelong memory. Retracing his steps, John navigated the obstacles he had encountered earlier. He reached the end of the S2 section, facing a series of tight obstructions caused by large boulders. Navigating this section required skill and careful attention to avoid getting stuck or dislodging rocks.

An Ill-Fated Decision

During his initial entry, John had faced difficulties maneuvering through the tight passages with his large rebreather. In an attempt to ease his way through, he made the ill-fated decision to remove the rebreather. He managed to squeeze through the gap and breathe from another bottle. However, upon trying to put his rebreather back on, John realized it was impossible due to the tight passages and his pre-existing back injury from 1998.

A Dire Situation

With limited options, John decided to resurface while holding the bottle under his arm. However, during the ascent, the bottle suddenly became loose from the rubber hose attached to his mouthpiece. He found himself without an air supply, still at a considerable distance from the cave entrance. In a desperate attempt to retrieve the lost bottle, John frantically searched but failed to find it. The severe lack of oxygen caused him to lose consciousness.

Discovery and Rescue Attempt

Meanwhile, John’s diving companions, Vollen and Reed Henry, who had returned to the cave entrance, grew worried about his whereabouts. Concerned for his safety, they called for emergency services and decided to re-enter the cave to search for him. Tragically, their worst fears were realized when they discovered John’s lifeless body trapped under a ledge 26 meters or 85 feet down the main shaft of the cave. They brought his body to the surface, where firefighters attempted artificial resuscitation, but it was too late. John had drowned at the age of 32.

Lessons Learned

This tragic story serves as a somber reminder of the inherent dangers of cave diving, even for experienced divers like John. While he attempted to adapt to the situation and find a solution, it was not enough to save his life. John’s story emphasizes the importance of proper training, equipment, and preparedness when engaging in such activities. Although he made a mistake, his passion for exploration and adventure should not be forgotten. May he rest in peace.

The Source du Doubs disaster of 2008 stands as a chilling account of the risks involved in cave diving. It underscores the need for caution, expertise, and respect for the unpredictability of nature. May this tragic incident serve as a reminder to all divers of the importance of safety and responsible exploration.


What is the Source du Doubs?

The Source du Doubs is a cave system and the origin of the Doubs River located near Moth, France.

Can diving be done in the Source du Doubs?

Diving is permitted in the cave system with a permit obtained from the Mayor’s office. However, diving is not allowed if the water level exceeds 0.6 meters cubed.

What is the water temperature in the Source du Doubs?

The water in the cave remains at a constant temperature of 6 degrees Celsius throughout the year.

Who was John Manley?

John Manley was an experienced diver who tragically lost his life during an exploration dive in the Source du Doubs in 2008.

Rebecca Penrose
Rebecca, an experienced blogger, delves into the world of diving accidents, sharing insights, stories, and valuable lessons learned. Dive in and explore the depths of underwater safety.
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