A thought experiment concerning “team bailout” when diving CCR in a cave…

LongO'THREE

First off: Can anyone explain the rationale behind “Team Bailout?”

Hang on… that needs to be rephrased.

Let’s start with this: Is it just me or is the concept of “Team Bailout” for CCR Cave Diving just bat-shit crazy?

Yea, that’s way closer to what I was thinking…

Ok, for those of you who may not be familiar with the team bailout concept, it suggests that a buddy team diving CCRs in a cave environment – you know, wet rocks, hard limestone overhead, perhaps an hour or more from the surface – that they carry sufficient bailout gas “…to get one team member back to fresh air from the point of furthest penetration.”

In certain circumstances, this approach may sufficiently protect team members from harm, but those circumstances should not include the category of diving the vast majority of us engage in.  I believe, a better, more satisfactory practice is for EACH diver to carry MORE gas than is required to get themselves back to fresh air from the point of furthest penetration.

The arguments I’ve heard against using this more conservative tactic is: 1) carrying multiple bailout cylinders is a pain; 2) the likelihood of more than one CCR failure among a team is too slight to consider; 3) calculations for the volume of gas required in a high-stress situation adhere to a well-defined formula corrected for all variables, and therefore it is possible to calculate with a degree of accuracy sufficient to be safe.

Experience is a better guide to best practice behavior than deductive logic, and I have limited experience in this area. So, perhaps my paranoia is unjustified; but here’s a scenario we might all give some thought to before our next cave dive.

Here goes:
Three CCR divers were in the back of a low-flow cave. Each carried an aluminum 40 filled to capacity, which lumped together was enough gas to get any one of them out of the cave and back to dry land. Even at double their normal consumption rate, this was the case. Their dive was well within the parameters of team bailout therefore.

At the worst possible time, Diver A’s CCR went belly up. He could not revive it in any way, and has to bailout. The team began its swim out. A little sooner than expected, but still more than one-third of the way out, Diver A’s bailout cylinder was empty, and he asked Diver B for her cylinder. She suddenly realized that by giving it up, she will have no contingency gas herself. The surface was still a good swim away. Very reluctantly, she handed over her bottle. Momentarily distracted by her thoughts, she floated to the cave’s ceiling and took a minute to recover, which held the team’s progress to the surface still further. Stress levels in all three team members was now peaking. None of them was comfortable.

They were in fact, more small failure, one additional glitch away from a total melt-down. A surprisingly short while later, Diver A – who had been thinking for the past several minutes, what would happen if he got a bottle with a dodgy regulator or had a free-flow, and whose respiration rate had understandably elevated – once again was down to seeds and stems. This time in his second bailout. He turned to Diver C. Diver C had been thinking about this hand-off for a while. He was VERY uncomfortable donating his gas… however, he did so. Several minutes later, the team arrived in the cavern area. Diver A had barely sufficient gas to conduct a safety stop, but did so. Just as the team left the overhead, his regulator began to breath very, very hard.

On shore, while shucking their gear, the group was uncharacteristically silent, each with their own thoughts. What do you think the outcome of this incident was:

  1. This group did not cave dive together ever again
  2. This group rethought their bailout strategy
  3. This group  continued to dive team bailout

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Mine Quest 2.0

Bell Island Mine 2.0

Winter in Newfoundland can be bleak and is most definitely cold, but this week, a group of volunteers and Bell Island Heritage Society staff ignored the weather and did a huge amount of setup work getting things ready for Mine Quest 2.0.

As well as building a platform/staging area for the exploration team to work from, during mid-February’s expedition, they carried several hundred kilos of materials more than 225 metres down a ten-degree incline from the surface to the water’s edge. Before the building commenced, using pickaxes and shovels to clear away loose rocks from the roof and walls of the mine shaft, then installed temporary lighting.

mineshaft

After the clean-up… the mine shaft we will be working from

Eventually, it’s hoped the mine on Bell Island will feature permanent infrastructure that will add dive adventure tourism at the historic site to the world-class wreck diving found just off the island’s coast. For the time-being, the hard work will help simplify, and aid the success of an effort to add the the two kilometers of passage explored and lined during the 2007 project I was lucky enough to be part of.

Over the next several weeks, and certainly during Expedition Week (February 13 – 20), I’ll try to keep you up-to-date on progress and exactly what’s planned.

 

In the meantime, hats off to Mark ( Magoo) McGowan, John ( Johnny O) Olivero, Nick Dawe, Kyle Morgan, Rick Stanley, Ron Reid, Teresita ( Teddy) McCarthy, Des McCarthy, and Tom Spracklin.

Thank you for your efforts folks.

 

For a comprehensive line-up of who will be working on the project, visit my friend and co-leader’s blog… Thanks Jill.

http://www.intotheplanet.com/newfoundland/

 

Adventure Tourism “Under the Bell”

LongO'THREEDiving Bell Island Mine

In 2006, while visiting Canada’s newest and easternmost province to dive on four excellent WWII wrecks, I was asked if I had any interest in leading a small expedition to check out the flooded Bell Island Iron-ore Mine in order to help determine if it had the potential to become an adventure dive destination.

In January/February of the following year, that expedition laid around two kilometers of line, discovered countless artifacts and items of interest. We also lost a valued team member during the exploration. Despite Joe Steffen’s untimely death, our final report recommended the opening of portions of the mine to qualified divers.

Unfortunately, during the intervening years, Bell Island Iron-ore Mine has not been added to the list of North America’s ‘must-visit’ dive sites. The exceptional, matchless cultural and historic story it has to tell its visitors in face-to-face meetings, is left untold.

However, after three days of diving in the mine filming for a TV show this past week, I have to say: I hope that changes soon.

The mine is a fantastic heritage resource. It gives us vivid insight into an important part of Newfoundland’s history and the daily lives of Bell Island’s working people. It also connects the region to what remains perhaps the most iconic conflict of the 20th Century.

Uniquely, Bell Island Mine focuses several major tourist attractions: firstly, the current mine museum and underground displays, the four ore carriers resting on the ocean floor a few hundred metres from shore, and of course the surrounding scenery: truly all remarkable experiences. Secondly, the portion of the mine workings now underwater have a very special appeal. The mine is filled with artifacts – machinery, tools, even the graffiti left my miners – and it fills its visitors, who still number less than 20, with a sense of wonder.

As a viable tourism product, certainly the potential buyers of structured and regulated physical access to the flooded Bell Island Mine are limited. Diving in an overhead environment (cavern, cave and mine diving), represents only a small percentage of the total scuba-diving market. But it is an influential population. Clearly, divers trained and equipped to dive in the Bell Island Mine will never flock to the area by the truckload. However, what the flooded mine on Bell Island has to offer, should be made available to those who wish to visit. The quality of the cultural and historic experience are simply too great not to be shared.


What follows is the text of an original article I wrote several years ago for TDI’s eNewsletter. Actually, the brief for the article was “The Benefits of International Dive Travel” but I used it as an excuse to promote diving in Newfoundland, the value of diving the Bell Island Iron-ore Mine, and the wrecks of four merchant ships sunk while loading with iron ore during WWII.

 

OK, before drilling into a few of the real benefits and surprises waiting for us when we decide on International Dive Travel, and certainly one of the most interesting associations with “foreign lands” in my diving career, we need to walk through a very quick geography lesson, followed by an equally brief history lesson!

Newfoundland is a big island off the east coast of North America. In fact, it is the most easterly point in the whole of North America and Signal Hill outside of Newfoundland’s capital St. John’s is where Marconi set-up his apparatus to receive the first radio signal sent skipping across the Atlantic from Cornwall, England in 1901. Like most of that part of the world, Newfoundland is rich in Celtic culture thanks to the influence of its early Irish-Ulster-Scot settlers, and the locals still sound more Irish than American. The waters surrounding the island are chilly (think icebergs drifting down from nearby Greenland… even in June!), are filled with the most amazing marine life — including many species of whale – and are home to four of my favorite shipwrecks anywhere in the world. We’ll get to those in a few moments.

When the Second World War erupted in Europe, Newfoundland — which today is a Canadian province — was part of Great Britain. Hence, when that country’s Prime Minister declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, Newfoundland was automatically part of the Allied headcount. Canada followed close behind them, but it was not until a very closely fought referendum ten years later in 1949, that Newfoundland joined the Canadian Federation to become one of its ten provinces.

So, what about those four favored shipwrecks?

Just outside of the city of St. John’s, in the middle of Conception Bay, sits a small blob of land called Bell Island. During the years leading to the beginning of WWII. Bell Island had a very productive mine that exported iron ore to steel mills in several countries, including Germany. At the outbreak of war, steel mills, a little to the south of Newfoundland in Nova Scotia, accounted for about a third of Canada’s steel production vital to the British war effort. With shipments from the Bell Island Mine to German factories cut off because of the war, it was inevitable at some point that the Germans would attempt to interrupt production and throw a “spanner in the works” for the flow of steel to Great Britain. And interrupt they did.

On the night of September 4th, 1942, a German U-Boat sneaked into the anchorage at Wabana, Bell Island where ships loaded ore to be carried away to various “customers”. The next morning and within sight of the guns of the Bell Island Battery, the U-Boat sank two ore carriers moored at the loading docks: SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona. Twenty-nine men were killed in the attack, all of the victims were seamen aboard the Saganaga.

The Battle of the Atlantic had suddenly come to within a few hundred metres of North America’s shoreline.

The strategic importance of the mines on Bell Island did not diminish of course, and just a couple of months after the first attack, a second U-Boat crept into Wabana and found several ore carriers at anchor.

The U-boat captain fired a torpedo at the 3000-ton Anna T. It missed and exploded ashore ripping into part of the loading dock and disturbing the sleep of many inhabitants on the island. In the next several minutes, two more torpedoes were fired at SS Rose Castle. Rose Castle sank, taking twenty-eight of her crew with her, five of whom were native Newfoundlanders. The Free French vessel PLM 27 was the second target. She sank almost as soon as a torpedo hit, taking twelve men to the bottom of the bay with her.

In the space of less than 15 minutes, two ships, several thousand tons of ore and 40 men had been lost. The U-boat escaped even though there were three allied navy escort vessels in the area.

The four Bell Island wrecks sit today at reasonable depths (the PLM 27 the shallowest at around 23 metres / 75 feet, the Rose Castle the deepest at 43 metres / 145 feet), and within a radius of a few minutes boat ride of each other and only a stone’s throw from land.

When I was first invited to dive the Bell Island wrecks, I must admit that Newfoundland seemed as remote to me as the dark side of the moon. Newfoundland was, at least in my ignorance, nothing but folk singers, remote fishing communities, moose, and wild, wild countryside battered by strong winds and salt spray off the North Atlantic. Through a number of visits over the following few years, I discovered that it was all of this and so much more.

The wrecks were one of the first surprises. Four shipwrecks each more interesting and more crammed with history than the last. After the first handful of dives, I christened the area Truk Lagoon North. Perhaps using a little poetic license but the things that seemed common to both areas were history, the awe inspiring evidence of the destructive power of torpedoes, the sadness of the lives lost, and the contrasting beauty of the creatures that had made the wrecks their home. Like many divers, I have a fascination with WWII casualties and the story all wrecks have to tell those with time enough to listen. Like the Japanese fleet in Truk, The Bell Island wrecks are master story-tellers.

One of the best pieces of luck I had on my first visit to Newfoundland and Bell Island was meeting Rick Stanley. Rick is a proud local who owns and operates Ocean Quest Resort, which was home-base for our group during our visits. Rick is a strong advocate for all things relating to Tourism for Newfoundland, and almost single-handedly has promoted responsible diving on the wrecks, as well as campaigning to have them designated as a war grave and a protected site.

During all my visits to the island, he and his staff, seem to go out of their way to make our group welcome and introduce us to local hospitality… including the infamous Screeching-In Ceremony.

Screeching In is when visitors (people from away, is how the locals refer to tourists) are made honorary Newfoundlanders. Space prohibits a blow-by-blow account of a true Screech In ceremony but proceedings include strong rum, eating local delicacies such as cod-tongue, hard-tack (ship’s biscuit) and dried capelin (a small smelt), singing, dancing, and “kissing the cod” which really does involve getting close and personal with a large dead Atlantic Cod (gadus morhua). Having survived being “Screeched In” during several trips, I can honestly say, it is one of the most bizarre and funniest things I’ve done during the course of several dozen dive  trips.

Partway through my third trip to dive the Bell Island Wrecks, Rick Stanley asked me if I would be interested in putting together a group of divers “Capable of exploring the Bell Island Mine.” Of course I said yes.

The mines were abandoned when it was no longer economically viable to operate them; but the closure was oddly abrupt.

The mines on Bell Island opened for commercial mining in late 19th century and were once the world’s largest submarine iron ore mine with passages occupying an area under the seabed of Conception Bay roughly five kilometers by five kilometers or approximately nine square miles in size.

The mine that Rick was interested in having surveyed and accessed — and that was the project’s main aim — had been closed since Christmas 1949. The story goes that the workers downed tools for the holiday and were never allowed back into the workings.

Rick and the Bell Island Historical Society were curious to have a team of divers explore the mine system — or as much of it as practical in the 12 days available — and look for evidence of cave-in, collapse, artifacts and other things that might interest a different type of visitor than the ones currently coming to the mine museum sitting at the old entrance to Mine Shaft Two.

The questions they wanted answers to where simple: can it be dived? Is it interesting enough to attract divers? Are conditions supportable for regular visitors? There were some side issues that needed to be addressed, but the hope was to open up a unique form of adventure tourism for the island and its economy.

With a background in Tourism Marketing, I was certainly curious enough to take Rick up on his offer, and set about building a team that would be able to pull things off. After a simple exploratory dive in July of 2006, we set a target date for the following January/February, and started planning.

Our goal was to investigate as much of the inundated mine as practical within the short time available. We knew the water would be cold, and because of the surface support needed, we also knew that our efforts would have to be focused on a time when normal tourist activity would not interfere; and that meant winter which also would be cold.

I was lucky to find the perfect group of men and women who were not daunted by the challenges that the season, the logistics, and the challenging dive site would present to us.

Newfoundland in the heart of winter is an interesting study. Stuck as it is with both feet in the Northern Atlantic, and its face weather-beaten by winds coming off the glaciers of Greenland or Labrador, it is not for the faint-hearted. Several of the team where Brits whose experience with a real Canadian winter had been limited to movies and books. They got to experience a true winter storm on arrival, and several of us had plane delays getting into St John’s airport. My plane was almost on the runway but the pilot aborted and we headed back to Halifax International with our tail between our legs and our hearts in our mouths.

But eventually, all 16 of us were together in the lounge at Ocean Quest Resort, sorting gear, knotting line, and pumping gas.

During the following two weeks, the team surveyed the mine looking for any evidence of cave-in or collapse in the mine shaft and laid permanent guidelines from the surface along the main shaft to a depth of approximately 50 metres. The seam of iron ore slopped at an angle of approximately ten degrees and continued many thousands of metres under the overlay of ocean floor below Conception Bay. In addition to the main line, four ‘jump lines’ were laid in side passages. The initial plan was to extend these side passages (roughly horizontal) approximately 300 metres east and west of the main shaft. Overall a total of 2km of line was laid in the mine.

The search for artifacts left behind when the mine was abandoned turned up mine equipment, personal effects such as lunch boxes, and we discovered graffiti, drawn by the miners using the soot from their carbide lamps. The system was mapped sufficiently to enable the conclusion that the mine would make a challenging diving destination for cave divers to explore.

Every overhead environment presents divers with a number of challenges well beyond the scope of recreational diving. As well as the obvious threats to the team’s well-being — gas management, navigation, light, depth and the cold — the health of one of our team played a role. On Sunday, February 4, Joe Steffen, well-known in the diving communities in both the Great Lakes and North Florida, suffered a massive embolism and died. Joe perished in a few metres of water just a couple of minutes from the surface operations. Ironically “Iron Man” had an undiagnosed problem with his lungs which did not show up during a medical he’d had before joining the team from his home in Ohio, and attempts to revive him at the dive site and the medical facility adjacent to the mine were unsuccessful.

We lost a great buddy, and Joe — a career police office — left behind a wife a young son, and a daughter, as well as many, many friends.

In consultations with the various sponsors — which included TDI, Fourth Element, Whites, the NACD, and Ocean Quest — as well as local authorities, the exploration of the Bell Island Mine continued and its success was dedicated to Joe’s memory.

The following year (2008), Joe’s widow, Jennifer, visited Bell Island for a memorial service which included two of the team (Mike Fowler and Steve Lewis) placing a memorial plaque and an urn containing Joe’s ashes in the main shaft of Bell Island Mine No. 2.

Tourists continue to visit the Mine and divers enjoy the four wrecks that sit above its vast network of passages, but underwater operations at the mine await further work.

The team consisted of: Rick Stanley, Debbie Stanley, David Sawatsky (diver and map-maker), Phil Short (diver, deep explorer), Ralph Hoskins (diver and record keeper), Vlada Dekina (diver and expedition photographer), Dave Clemmens, David Powell, Mark McGowan (dive safety officer), Stephen Phillips (diver), Aaron Bruce (diver), Mike Fowler (diver), Joe Steffen (diver), Steve Moore, Susan Copp, Steve Lewis (diver and expedition leader).

Self-Assessment: an antidote to complacency?

Cleaning out old files and finding a copy of my original dive-plan template – something my buddies and I used for several years when we first started to do deep mix dives – I remember why we scrapped it and drew up a new one: It’s missing an important element.

If memory serves, the error was pointed out by Bret Gilliam. At that time – around 1996/97 – Bret was president of Technical Diving International (TDI) and he was gathering information for student manuals and asking members to contribute things like teaching notes, learning goals, and so on. Among the various bits and pieces I contributed was a spreadsheet template of the dive plan my buddies and I were using, and that I was also teaching students to use.

“It’s good but you’re missing something…” he told me after looking it over for a few minutes. “Something critical.”

I checked it a couple more times and to my eyes the plan looked pretty comprehensive and exhaustive. I told him I could not see what was wrong with it.

“There’s nothing in it about conducting any level of self-assessment before you jump into the water,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s worthy of a line or two?”

There is a well-established maxim that tells anyone who’s listening that complacency kills experienced divers. Checklists and Dive Plans are intended as a good first-line of defence against that sort of complacency. They are intended to counter human nature and swing attention back to things that it’s easy for divers, even very experienced ones, to take for granted and overlook. For instance, I’ve seen divers forget or simply not bother to conduct a positive/negative check after refilling a diluent bottle on their rebreather. A checklist can serve to remind someone with this level of complacency not to be a Muppet.  But, as Gilliam pointed out to me, the most complete, comprehensive and meticulous dive plan cannot prevent things going horribly wrong if the folks executing it aren’t as present-and-correct and as ready as their equipment to do the dive.

Self-assessment is now included in the pre-dive checks for all TDI and PSAI courses, but like the requirement to analyze and mark EVERY bottle of gas, or pre-breathe EVERY regulator – or any of the other listed items on a checklist or dive plan – it is entirely self-policed, and quickly becomes worthless if any one member of a dive team shortcuts that “policing operation.”

The process is simple enough. You ask yourself a couple of easy-to-answer questions and you answer them honestly. Better yet, when the dive leader has completed her self-assessment, she should check with everyone on the team to make sure they all “passed” the self-assessment check.

When we dive – even on those dives that seem like a simple bimble around in shallow water – we must ask ourselves if our plans account for any and all hazards. For the purposes of providing a realistic answer, a hazard in the case of diving is any agent or situation posing a credible level of threat to our life, health and property, those of any team member, or the environment in which we intend to dive.

When we make a self-assessment, that assessed risk includes things that are not visible or readily apparent to our buddies. One is our personal level of comfort.

To check this is the case and that our planned dive is within our comfort-zone, ask: Considering ALL the risks associated with the dive as planned, do I find them acceptable? Does the plan cope with things, events, which have some significant probability of occurrence during that dive? Rottweilers hit the fan and precisely when and how depends on circumstances that may not be predicable. Does the plan make allowance for this and am I comfortable if it does not?

Recreational divers, even those engaged in kick-ass technical dives, are under no contract and are not protected by legislation. Each of us is responsible for our safety and well-being, and – to some extent through enlightened self-interest and the tenets of friendship – with that of our buddies. Honest answers to these questions will help keep us safe and should be asked before every dive; no matter how simple and inconsequential the dive seems.

In addition, there are several other questions we might ask ourselves as part of the “self-assessment” process that should be carried out long before we pull on a drysuit. They concern personal health. We need to ask if we are comfortable with: our personal heart health; are we free from angina, epilepsy, diabetes, asthma, dehydration, and fatigue? Is our cardio and physical fitness up to the stress of the dive as planned? Do we have adequate strength to do the dive as planned? Have we learned and practiced the critical safety skills required on this dive as planned? Are we diving drunk, with a hangover or stoned? Are we physically and mentally ready to do the dive as planned and if something hits a fan while we are down there, are we ready to deal with it appropriately?

It may seem a little odd, but self-assessment should also ask: Do we believe in our buddy’s abilities and do we feel they have the skills and experience required to do the dive as planned? Are we being over-confident expecting ourselves and each member of the team to do the dive as planned? Does that hold up if we become separated? Do I feel the same should it become necessary to rescue a buddy on this dive… can I rescue them and can they rescue me?

Self-assessment does not always return a positive answer. But self-assessment is a positive habit to fall into and it needs to become part of the pre-dive preparations for EVERY dive… especially any dive that requires the use of decompression gases to manage a decompression obligation, or that takes place in a hard overhead environment.

Cardiac Stress Testing and technical diving

Around this time every year, most of us hang up a new calendar, and polish up the New Year’s Resolutions. Like me, you probably have a few left over from last January 1. If you do, chances are good that one revolves around “getting fitter,” “getting in better shape,” or “working off all that Christmas pudding.” If that is the case, and you’re a diver, I’d like to suggest adding a slightly different twist for 2012.

During a few recent and very informal discussions with other tech instructors, one of the highest-ranking concerns has been the number of divers – particularly tech and rebreather divers – who have died of heart-related problems either while diving or soon after diving.

There are all kinds of issues that may have had an influence on incidents in the past, but the collective concern was how to help make 2012 a “better year” for the dive community.

One idea floated out was to ask students* to undergo a cardiac stress test as part of the list of prerequisites that need to be met before enrolling in advanced technical programs, such as CCR, trimix and advanced wreck and cave.

A cardiac stress test stimulates the heart – either by exercise or with intravenous pharmacological stimulation – and connecting the testee to an ECG. The American Heart Association recommends this kind of testing for patients with medium risk of coronary heart disease. This includes folks with personal risk factors such as smoking, a family history of coronary artery stenosis, people with hypertension, and folks dealing with diabetes and high cholesterol.

Who knows if it would make much of a difference, but what harm would it do? I’m old and get one for free every year through my insurance (BONUS!), and there is a level of comfort knowing that there are no serious issues with the old ticker.

I believe the cost of a cardiac stress test works out to about the same as the charter fees and fill costs for an open-circuit deep wreck dive. Worth the dough? I think so and certainly worth adding to that list of resolutions… Things to do in 2012!

* Students who have risk factors, or those 45 years and older.

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?