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Cave diver, engineer and deep-sea explorer Ron Allum has played a key role in some of the most audacious explorations of our time. Born in 1949 into a Sydney engineering family, he left school in his mid-teens and took up a technician traineeship with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He also joined the University of New South Wales Speleologist Society, spending weekends exploring cave systems.
Conscripted into the Australian Army in 1970, Allum was posted to Singapore where he was taught to scuba dive. On his return, he became an ABC technician and moved to Adelaide, within striking distance of the Nullarbor Plain and some of the greatest cave-diving on the planet. In 1982, Allum and three others dived 3.5 kilometres into Cocklebiddy Cave and discovered Toad Hall, a 250-metre, cathedral-like cavern. The following year they pushed even farther, reaching a world record distance of 6.24 kilometres.
Much of this success rested on Allum’s ingenuity in creating sleds and buoyancy systems that allowed life-giving equipment to be transported, underwater, deep into the cave. In 1988, during an Australian Geographic Society-sponsored expedition to Pannikan Plains on the Nullarbor, a freak storm trapped Allum and his team underground.
Fortunately he’d invented a two-way communication system capable of transmitting through rock, which made safe rescue possible. On that trip he also forged a partnership with teammate Andrew Wight that launched them into the world of film and television over the next decade.
In 2000, Allum was hired as technical director for Hollywood-producer James Cameron’s 3D IMAX film on the wreck of the Titanic. Allum’s ability to design and build specialist equipment for use on the expedition’s Russian Mir submersibles earned him the title ‘The Professor’.
In 2005, he began working on building a submersible capable of carrying Cameron to the deepest point on the planet, the Mariana Trench. Working on a tight budget and in utter secrecy, Allum not only researched, co-designed and oversaw the build of the vehicle, but using a cake-mixer, invented a special foam capable of withstanding the intense water pressure 11 kilometres below the ocean’s surface.
Ron Allum’s Deepsea Challenger carried Cameron to the bottom of the trench on 25 March 2012. Later that year he was awarded the New South Wales Senior Australian of the Year in recognition of his outstanding contributions in the fields of engineering, science and exploration.