Cave Diving

The sport of scuba diving has shown itself to be one of the safest of water sports and over the last fifty years it continues to enjoy an exemplary safety record. Properly trained divers make millions of dives every year around the globe and although accidents, injuries and regretfully fatalities do occur, they are few. Recreational diving is safe, but once divers step out of bounds by pushing the envelope, the odds turn around and can become lethal. Deep wreck divers are a breed unto themselves and their forays to visit the ghosts of the deep have claimed many lives from decompression sickness, embolisms and the unthinkable terror of getting lost in the bowels of a wreck. Wreck diving can be dangerous with the divers exploring in an uncontrollable environment, and at times with no direct access to the surface, but, without a doubt, the most dangerous undertaking in the underwater realm is cave diving.

Compared to the millions of certified scuba divers, cave divers are a small fraternity and the penetration of cave systems is complex, challenging and can be as dangerous as typhoid. The one main factor that makes cave diving so hazardous in the simple fact that the divers are working in an overhead environment that offers no direct return to the surface. There are also many other hazards for cave divers. Some caves offer crystal clear water and others diminished visibility, but even clear water can go to zero visibility with just a few careless kicks of the diver’s fins. Long distances to exit points are the norm and divers must calculate their air consumption to the breath with sufficient reserves. The rule of thirds applies to air supplies with one third going in, one third for the exit and a reserve third for emergencies. Deep water caves are even more complex with the addition of decompression factors thrown in.

The popularity of cave diving increased in the early 1970s and more and more divers were making forays into the submerged labyrinths with little or no training. The end result was catastrophic and over 100 fatalities were reported during that decade. In 1977, the indomitable Sheck Exley’s book, “Cave Diving- A blueprint for survival”, came out and became the training bible for newly forming cave diving organizations. In the book, Exley offers scenarios of cave dives gone badly and outlines the basic rules that are in place today.

Training for cave diving is taught in academic segments with hands on experience and the novice progresses from one step to the next while being prepared for any possible contingency. It is stressed that’s divers should never overstep the boundaries of their training and experience. The training and techniques are so ingrained that it is unusual that properly trained cave divers get into trouble.

Guide lines are tied off outside the entrance of the cave, tied a second time just inside and are laid out off a reel along the route by the leader. The guide line is keep taught with the proper tension applied to the line and in the event of a complete ‘silt out’ the divers can follow the line out to the cave entrance. The number one cause of fatalities of untrained divers is because of not using a guideline.

Even in openwater diving, the deeper the dive the greater the hazards and in cave diving it is paramount for the diver to carefully calculate air consumption, never exceed the planned depth of the dive and carefully monitor their decompression status at all times. Nitrogen narcosis may be more pronounced during deep cave dives and can leave the diver disoriented and with impaired judgment.

Caves have no interior lighting and cave divers supply their own by carrying three lights each. This ‘tridundant’ system assures great odds of redundancy and if one light fails there are two backups. A stringent rule applies that if one diver loses even one of his light sources, the dive is aborted and all members will return to the entrance.

The exploration of cave systems around the world are finding cave divers pushing farther with diver propulsion vehicles, rebreathers and progressive penetrations ferrying breathing gas. Divers have penetrated systems, pushing back many miles and with maximum depths of 300 feet and more. With cutting edge dive technology these bold inner space explorers will continue to push farther and farther into the bowels of the earth.


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