Teaching an old(ish) dog, new tricks

A really good friend of mine who runs a charter boat out of Florida has a wonderful phrase to describe divers  who are really set in their ways and somewhat complacent when it comes to dive prep. You may have seen them on a dive boat near you. They always dive exactly the same gear package, right down to the back-up lights on their shoulder harness, double cylinders, a stage bottle, canister light and a full complement of reels, spools, and sundry accessories; including a scooter.  Now he is first to admit there’s nothing inherently wrong-headed about that, except they dress the same regardless of whether the day’s target is a 150 foot dive on a brand-new wreck or a 25 foot bimble in a local quarry.

He calls them One-Dimensional Divers.

“I think they are so blinkered and taken with the self-importance of being a technical diver,” he says. “They forget to stop, smell the roses, and kick back!” He says that the real sign of a one-dimensional diver is that they can turn the simplest of dives into a major undertaking. “And where is the fun it that?” he asks.

And after 18 years of lugging a full North Florida Cave Diver’s rig around the country, and using it on even the most straight-forward dives, I felt I’d fallen into the one-dimensional mode myself. I told my buddy things had to change; and he offered the perfect solution. “Buy a closed-circuit rebreather.”

Working for a training agency gives an old guy like me a slightly off-kilter prospective on dive gear, dive travel, and the whole business of diver education. For example I figured I knew quite a bit about CCRs (closed-circuit rebreathers) because I have an instructor rating on a SCR (Semi-Closed Rebreather), have proofed rebreather manuals, and have logged lots of hours on several different CCR units doing everything from try-dives to bona-fide courses.

How wrong I was.

The seed change was actually getting a unit of my very own to look after. Not a loner, not one that a manufacturer suggested I take a look at, but one that I had to take apart, clean, keep spiders from visiting, change its do-dads from time to time, reassemble, and learn to dive from ground zero with the express goal of getting comfortable enough on it to drag it halfway around the world to dive the wrecks of Truk Lagoon.

To be blunt, it was one of the best things that has happened to me and my diving in a long while; and it certainly has also been among the most instructive.

The reasons for this are varied and many faceted but let’s keep things brief and simple and start with the whole one-dimensional / complacency thing. No matter how hard one works at keeping focused and realistic about skills, planning, only taking into the water what’s needed on the dive, and doing things to the letter, human nature has a wonderful way of turning short-cuts into “best practice.”

On open-circuit dives, it is very easy for an experienced diver to become one-dimensional. So much so that at times, dive plans for commonly done personal dives – ones that fall into the “I have done this a thousand times before” category – became marginally adequate at best. As little as it turns out I know about CCRs, I did know enough to understand that the one-dimensional / complacent approach will quickly get you in a very deep pile of trouble.

Occasionally doing something totally outside the norm, helps adjust one’s attitude. Training on and then diving a piece of kit that resembles nothing you are used to diving, definitely turns a few knobs.

As you know, a rebreather recycles exhaled gas, scrubs out the carbon dioxide, squirts a little oxygen back into the mix to compensate for the stuff used by the diver’s metabolism, and is designed to keep the process going for hours at a time. It also mixes gas so the diver breathes “best mix” regardless of depth and it does all this in a compact package (read this to mean, less weight than a set of doubles!).

The other side of the coin turns up the nasty little vagaries attached to rebreather diving, and understanding and working around these is the central theme of a rebreather class.

In short, a CCR can deliver too much oxygen one minute and not enough the next; both harbingers of a bad day at the office for any diver. The little chemistry set that extracts carbon dioxide from the breathing gas can suddenly stop working for all sorts of reasons; most attributable to user error, and again bad news all round. The unit can leak a little making breathing an awful chore, or it can leak a lot, flood and cease working at all; both of which are good reasons to bailout and go home with one’s tail between one’s legs.

All this of course comes as a real eye-opener to the experienced open-circuit diver who has been diving the same kit configuration since Reagan was in the White House.

My other eye was opened by our CCR instructor, a good friend who for that reason alone cut me and my buddies zero slack during the whole week we worked with him to earn our certs on the Pelagian manual CCR we had opted to buy.  He pushed us relentlessly and continuously picked up on any fuzzy logic we fell into using. He watched us with the eyes of a caffeine-crazed hawk as we prepared our units for our underwater escapades; and once in the water we were on a very short leash and ANY moment of distraction or deviation from our plan resulted in yet another simulated failure and drilled contingency action. In short, he treated us like the rank novices we were and took no account of the combined 30 or so years of technical diving experience, and technical instructing we had between us.

Actually, that’s a lie. He did make a special mention of all those open circuit dives we had made. And that was what brought things into focus. “You guys,” he told us, “are swimming in dangerous waters.” He explained that we had to understand and believe that we were right back to where we were when we first started diving open-circuit scuba. We had to plan and dive beginner dives again and not be tempted to think that it was ok to dive to 60 or 70 metres because we’d done that on open-circuit a thousand times.

“It doesn’t matter much,” he said, “how many dives you have or where you’ve been on open-circuit. That was the stone-age and is all in your past. You are starting with a clean slate now, and it’s important you learn to paddle around in the shallow-end of the pool before you attempt to swim the English Channel!” (He’s a Brit.)

Now here is the cool part. As soon as he let us loose with cards that said we were certified to dive without adult supervision, we starting to rack up the hours on the type of dives we had not done for years.

We went back to shallow wrecks we had ignored for more than a decade and a half. We planned weekends of multiple two-hour dives in sheltered little spots we would have swum right by if we had been diving open circuit. We relearned the simple pleasure of gradually working around a very much narrower comfort zone and competence level. We practiced bail-outs, we obsessed, we had great fun, and in the final analysis, we changed back to being a little more multi-dimensional in our dive planning and dive execution. I think it’s fair to say that becoming a weekend CCR diver, improved my OC skills.

Oh, and Truk Lagoon. Well, a story for another day, but we worked hard to build our competence and it paid off. What incredible fun to dive a CCR in that environment, even if we did opt to give some of the deeper wrecks a miss… you see, as far as the CCRs are concerned, we’ve only been diving a year.

Some thoughts about cave training…

First off, I need to declare a bit of a conflict here: Since I am a tech instructor and more importantly work for a training agency (and we do have cave diving courses on the menu), my take on certain aspects of “diver education” are bound to be biased. But all that taken into account, the primary message goes something like: If you want to dive caves, get trained. Simples, right?

In my opinion, cave diving is the oldest and purest form of technical diving. A whole lifetime ago, when I lived in England, I was a dry caver and heard about a small group of nut-bar pioneers who were making pushes through sumps in the Mendip Hills on scuba. At about the same time in the USA, a similarly labeled group of local lads where exploring the network of caves that honeycomb Florida’s North-western quadrant from Tallahassee in the north, south to Hernando County. These folks wrote the rules for extreme diving and 30 years later many of the techniques and kit modifications that they learned by trial and error, have become the gold standard for tech divers around the world.

One of the early gifts from cave diving to the rest of the tech diving community is accident analysis and specifically a shortlist of things to help keep divers safe.

  1. Seek proper (appropriate) training
  2. Maintain a continuous guideline to the surface (safety)
  3. Work within proper gas management guidelines
  4. Observe depth limitations
  5. Use appropriate, well-maintained kit

Over the years, those five points, whose authorship is attributed to the late explorer Sheck Exley, have been refined and developed to take changing attitudes and different environments into account.

Regardless, these guidelines remain a pretty good first step in the process of risk management, and they form the basic structure for building a modern technical diving course.

In case anyone is interested and for the record, the current interpretation of Risk Management is the identification, classification, avoidance and mitigation of risk with regards: Attitude, Knowledge, Training, Gas Supply, Gas Mix, Exposure (the combination of Decompression and Depth), Equipment, and Operations. These are expanded a little from that original list but certainly owe a lot to it.

Anyway, in North America, the oldest technical agencies are the two originally formed to teach cave diving to local divers. The NSS-CDS (National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section) and the NACD (National Association for Cave Diving) have been offering structured overhead courses to punters for over a generation. They are both based in North Florida. They both have instructors operating in Mexico (another hot-spot for cave diving), and the Caribbean, and so by default essentially focus operations on North America. The global situation involves some other agencies such as IANTD, NAUI, TDI, CMAS et al. And today, cave training is available through lots of channels.

Bottom line, there is no excuse NOT to take training if you are interested in diving caves.

There seems to be a sort of consensus among the major agencies and the process of earning a full cave diving certification takes about eight days and is broken into three or four steps: Cavern, Intro, Apprentice, Full. There are “post grad” programs that teach more advanced techniques like scootering and diving with stage bottles, sidemount diving and so on but the vast majority of certifications fall into those first four categories.

Actual standards and outlines vary a bit from agency to agency but the outline from NSS-CDS runs like this:

Cavern Diver As originally conceived, the Cavern Diver course was a recreational diving course, taught to recreational divers using basic recreational diving equipment. It was assumed most participants had little interest in penetrating caves beyond sight of the entrance. Today the need for that sort of a program has diminished. With readily available cavern diving sites in north Florida, such as Ginnie Spring and Blue Grotto, and the system of guided cenote tours in Mexico, recreational divers don’t necessarily need to take a complete, two-day course in order to enjoy a safe cavern experience. What is more common now is to use the Cavern Diver program as the first step in the complete eight-day Cave Diver curriculum.

It is where we introduce students to basic cave diving skills, such as equipment configuration, guideline and reel use, and specialized buoyancy control, body position and propulsion techniques. It is also a way to screen students to make sure they possess the necessary abilities before allowing them in the fragile cave environment.

Basic / Intro Cave Diver This is where students begin making actual cave dives — under some fairly strict limitations. By limiting penetration gas to roughly 40 cubic feet, avoiding decompression and prohibiting any sort of jumps, gaps or complex navigation, we allow students to focus on things like basic dive planning, communication and emergency skills. Students who want to gain limited cave diving experience on their own, at the completion of this program, may do so — provided they understand that the cave community will be keeping them on a fairly short leash.

Apprentice Cave Diver By the time students complete the Apprentice level, we will have covered most or all of the academic knowledge and emergency skills required for full Cave Diver certification. Students may receive a limited introduction to decompression diving procedures, as they pertain to cave diving, and will make some simple explorations off the main line. It is at this point that students are ready to gain some more realistic cave diving experience on their own, if desired. Nevertheless, they are expected to keep all dives well within the limitations of their overall experience.

(Full) Cave Diver The final step in the process, the focus here is on gaining additional practice of all fundamental and emergency skills, under more challenging conditions. Students are expected to demonstrate their readiness to be full-fledged members of the cave diving community.

Although a total of 16 training dives is required to reach this point, it is not unusual for students to have made many more practice dives on their own before full Cave Diver certification.” One of the first questions most divers have about cave training is what will I get out of it?”

ANY technical training is designed to challenge participants and to show them exactly where the borders of their comfort zone are. This is very true of a cavern or cave course. Other side-effects would be greatly improved basic skills; for example, progress in a diver’s mastery of buoyancy and trim, situational awareness and emotional control are big indicators for an instructor that someone is “getting it.”

AND of course, a cavern/cave class will take you to places that “normal” folks just don’t get to.

The next pieces of the puzzle of course are to decide where to take training and with whom.

Where is easy: Train where you are going to do the majority of your diving. Cave diving in the Yucatan is a whole order of magnitude different to cave diving in Ontario or Wisconsin. France is different to Brazil. North Florida is not the same as Australia. They all have their moments.

If asked, the default location that gets my thumbs-up is always North Florida. There are a couple of reasons. First would be the variety of caves. There are little tiny ones that you have to crawl through pushing tanks ahead of you; and there are huge passages that could swallow a hockey arena (whoops, Canadian reference. Sorry).

The second reason to train in North Florida is the quality of instruction. There used to be about three cave instructors I’d recommend but that list has grown to about 30. Some are Brits who fly in just to teach a class; one is Italian; one German; most are Yanks and Canadian; and a couple are even real Floridians.

One thing that is a constant challenge is weeding out the wanna-be instructors from the real thing. Rather than publishing a list of names and forgetting someone, here are eight questions you can ask.

1. How long have you been cave diving and how many cave dives do you make for yourself outside of the training programs you teach?

2. Do you teach full-time or part-time?

3. What other programs do you teach besides cavern and cave?

4. What kit configuration do you use and teach your students to use and why?

5. Can you give me a typical course schedule including dive sites and dive profiles

6. What specific changes do you look for in students before you sign off on their certs?

7. How many students did you fail last month, and how many did you pass?

8. What should be my primary take away from your course?

Cave diving is what I do for fun and relaxation with a handful of special mates, when I want to get away from the dive industry. Ironic maybe but cave diving feels more comfortable and secure than any other type of diving… which is probably why I have managed to resist the temptation to teach it!

When someone asks which cave I like the best, there’s really no answer. I like them all. There are certainly some that I will go out of my way to dive.

When I got word that the Eagles Nest — a deep and massive cave system off in the woods near Florida’s Gulf Coast — was being shut down for an indefinite period about 12 or 13 years ago, I literally left a birthday party early (mine) drove to the airport in Toronto and flew down to Gainesville and a mate waiting for me with a set of twins pumped full of trimix and three decompression cylinders. Next evening, I flew home. The Nest reopened years ago and I occasionally go back, but of the deep caves in that area, strange to say, it is not my favorite. Diepolder II gets that vote.

The entrance to # II is a small pond in the middle of a Boy Scouts of America Sand Hill camp ground just off Highway 50. At the bottom of the pond and its pale blue water is a fissure in the limestone that is wide enough for a diver in back-mounted twins to drop down (head-first) starting at about 15 metres to around 55. At the bottom, the cave opens up into a gallery which on the downstream side is about 40 metres from floor to ceiling with depths of 100 metres or more. Really a very cool dive.

Jackson Blue is another real favorite.

Its entrance is directly below a diving board at the business end of Merritt’s Mill Pond in Jackson Blue Springs Park, which is a few kilometers from Marianna up near the Florida / Alabama border. Yep, really the entrance is directly under the concrete platform that houses the dive board.

This cave is not deep — the deepest part of the main passage is about 30 metres — but it is long — about 3 kilometers at last count — and has plenty of little nooks and crannies to explore. JB is probably best known as a scooter cave. Lots of visitors fly through the first five to six hundred metres with the throttle wide open.

That first section of the cave features a passage that is wide, smooth and straight; perfect for flying in formation and a great spot to practice handling a scooter. The next section — probably from the Hall of the Mountain King on to the Banana Room or Stratosphere — seems to have the major pulling power to bring divers to this cave; however, last November a buddy and I spent a total of about seven hours on CCR playing around in the first couple hundred metres of the cave and had an absolute blast. I guess the object lesson is not to overlook the familiar when rating caves. On that score, JB is a real winner.

Florida’s caves are not decorated with Speleothems — no pretty flow-stones or drapery, no soda-straws, stalactites or stalagmites. To see these, one needs to venture a little south east to the Caribbean or west to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula or a long way south to Brazil.

The easiest decorated caves to get to, at least from my home a little north of Toronto, are in the Bahamas, and if pressed, this might be the one spot I would choose to go to for excellent cave diving year round above all others.

If you are making a list, Abaco Blue Hole, Dan’s Cave and Owls Hole are places I would like to get back to, tomorrow if possible. Send money to…

OK, so those are a few of my favorites, how about yours?