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Education, Enjoyment and Exploration…

End of the Road – NACD Journal 4th Quarter, 2008

What a fantastic looking cave, the slime dripping off the walls and the reduced visibility give the system a very eerie, but cool feeling. A side passage looms ahead and I decide just to have a quick look, so I head on down the twisting tunnel. The silt in here is just unreal, vapid looking strands hanging from the ceiling and an extremely thick looking layer on the floor. As I gaze around in amazement, I think what a truly majestic place this is. The cave looks like it’s pinching off just ahead, so I decide to retrace my steps. I flip around; accidentally drop a fin and all of a sudden the passage is zeroed out. No biggie, I’ll just get on the line. Wait, where is the line? I’m feeling around in this silt soup and can’t find it anywhere, I make a mad dash into what I think is the right direction, smack my head straight into the wall and start thrashing around in my confusion. Was it this way, was it that way? Where’s the line, how do I find it again? Crap, I can’t remember, why am I here? I can’t see anything in this muddy hellhole, I just want out. I knew I shouldn’t have dived this cave, but I never thought this would happen to me! I’m breathing like a madman and can’t seem to get a handle on my breathing rate; I’m not trained for this…..HELP!

 I flail around for what seems like hours and I desperately try to see how much gas I have left. I can’t see anything in this goop and to make matters worse, if that’s possible, my regulator’s starting to get really hard to breathe! Deep down, in that ancient primeval part of us that never really goes away, the dragon awakens in my breast, kicking in the ancient fight or flight syndrome. The end comes quickly now as I start to hyperventilate and descend into full blown panic! Just before I take my first inhalation of water, visions flash before my eyes; my cave instructor telling me not to dive above my training, my kid sitting at home with my wife and I realize there’s so much left for me to do in life. This isn’t how I wanted to die, please God, just let me outta here, I’ll never be so stupid again and I don’t want to die! But the timeless cave doesn’t ever hear desperate pleas for mercy and after a while my struggling ceases and the cold, dark water lays all my hopes, dreams and fears to rest.

What causes this? I would think that most of us whether we admit it or not, cringe at the thought of drowning in a cave, taking that last breath and knowing you’re toast. Do you want to know what thoughts go through one’s head at a time like this, the certainty of death in a watery, dark tomb and no time to say or do anything that you wanted to do, let alone have a chance to say goodbye. I’ve come close once or twice, as some of you know, mostly due to some serious stupidity on my part! Luckily I’d had a decent amount of training and experience at the time and was able to work my way out of these situations by staying calm and working through the problems. Obviously, I changed my habits after these dives and they became learning experiences, rather than fatality reports.

Unfortunately, it’s those times that we have a fatality within our community that brings out both the best and the worst in people. On the one hand, we have folks involved in the recovery effort, who in most cases know the victims fairly well, and go do their job to the best of their ability. On the other hand, we have people finger pointing saying they died because of this or that and it was so and so’s fault etc. We get the usual blanket statements, we need to ban cave diving, more safety rules are needed, we need to start policing ourselves better etc whereas it simply comes down to a lack of personal responsibility. You and your buddy are the ones that make the decision to dive and only the both of you will know whether this particular dive you’re doing is over your head. Responsibility starts with knowing your limitations and not letting anyone talk you out of them, don’t give in to the peer pressure of doing a dive that you’re not ready for, the repercussions of your decisions may have far reaching effects that you may not realize at the time.

Every time I’m teaching a cavern class, I spend so much time on Accident Analysis, emphasizing safety guideline #1 which states that lack of training or exceeding one’s training is the number one reason why untrained divers die in caves. Why is this so hard to understand, do people think that the rules don’t apply to them? That they’re invincible, charmed, that these thirty or so years of gathering data on cave fatalities doesn’t count because they’re different from the others? People are telling you don’t do these dives for a reason, not because they dislike you! We’re your friends, we’re trying to look out for you, so please do us all a favor and ignore whatever other silly reason you’re going to come up with, just so you can justify blowing our well meaning advice off.

You have to understand that while you may be okay diving above your limitations and drowning in a cave, the rest of us are not! We don’t want to attend your funeral; we want to dive with you for a long time to come. A recovery team will have to put their lives on the line to get your body back, a family will be overwhelmed with grief, you run the possibility of getting a cave system closed, plus you’re just asking the government to get involved so they can protect us from ourselves…. This is why when we offer advice to you, please listen! We’re doing it not only for your sake, but for the rest of the community as well. So if you happen to read this article and think we’re talking about you, please don’t be so selfish and so caught up in your own little world, that you ignore our advice and tell us that we’re holding your back or other such nonsense. We’re doing it for you and also the good of the community as a whole!

Even if we don’t ignore our safety guidelines and act like we should, if you do this sport long enough, you will probably have a “come to Jesus” dive. What you do when that happens is what will define you as a cave diver. Some will sell all the gear and quit the sport, others will knuckle down and learn from the experience and become better cave divers because of it. You think I’m kidding you? Ask some of the people who’ve been doing this for a while, and they’ll confirm what I’ve said!

Anyways, I really want to hammer home a point here, we’ve had a number of senseless deaths this past year and if we don’t get a hold of ourselves, someone else will do it for us. We need to start talking to people who are known for unsafe diving practices and if they refuse to listen, maybe shunning from the community is called for. Whenever my student’s call me up and ask if so and so would be a good dive buddy, I tell them the truth and explain why. If they choose to ignore my advice so be it, but I can definitely sleep better at night knowing that I made an effort.

Well, as always, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please have fun, be safe out there and please stay away from dives that are above your ability and comfort level when diving in the overhead. Listen to what others advise you about diving, try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

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