Thoughts on cave training

For years, there has been a myth that the best divers in the world are cave divers. In support of that myth, perhaps you have heard that the hallmark of a cave diver is to have incredible buoyancy control, the ability to move through a narrow passage without disturbing the least bit of silt, and the ability to remain calm while facing the most stressful situations.

Back when I started cave diving there were pretty much two groups of people that took up the sport. The first group was made up of people that started out as divers that wanted to dive and explore the caves and springs in the area. The second group was made up of cavers that wanted to learn how to dive so they could continue exploring past sumps and partially flooded caves.

Every cave instructor that I knew who was teaching during this period was a highly skilled and dedicated cave diver, with years of teaching and cave diving experience behind them. One of the credos of cave instruction was that cave instructors did not try and encourage people to take up the sport, but would steer individuals toward training when those individuals expressed a strong desire to pursue the activity. When discussing the training, instructors focused on the safety aspects of the program rather than selling the sport for other reasons.

With the growth of internet forums, including rec.scuba and eventually sites such as ScubaBoard, the stories about cave divers being the best in the world started to grow. As the stories of how great cave divers were, demand for cave instruction increased, and we saw an increase in cave instructors to meet the demand. Some instructors began actively promoting cave training to recruit more students.

Unfortunately, this does not always serve the best interests of the students enrolled in these courses, and to my chagrin, I am sure that some people have been encouraged to continue cave training even though they have no business doing so. Because the dangers in cave diving including a risk of death due to failure to perform, some people simply have no business taking up the activity. Cave instructors have a moral obligation to discourage some people from pursuing the sport.

Hopefully, every cave diver you ever meet does have incredible buoyancy control, great anti-silt technique, ice water in their veins, and are some of the best divers you will have the pleasure to dive with. But that does not mean you need to become a cave diver to be a great diver yourself. If you live thousands of miles away from flooded caves, and are not drawn to see the cave environment, then you really do not need to take up cave diving. You can develop great buoyancy control, anti-silt technique, and a calm cool demeanor without ever going into an overhead environment if you just put the effort into it.

Cave Exploration in Merida (1999)

(ed. I wrote this article in 1999 after returning from Merida. I never published it).

Merida.. Where do I start? Oh yeah, the beginning..

Some guys from Texas A&M contacted a friend of mine, Jesse Armantrout, to have us explore an underwater cave system they had received permits to dive.

The A&M guys had done the last of the exploration in there, but couldn’t get more then 1000′ into the cave. They contacted my group because the depths of the system were greater then they had experience diving (190′ on the floor in the deepest parts), and I’m part of an exploration project that is considered to be the most experienced in the world at deep cave exploration (a sidebar, check out last months National Geographic for more information, if you read the stuff on the Woodville Karst Plains Project exploration at Wakulla Springs, well, that’s us).

They told us that if we could add an additional 100′ of explored passage to the system we’d pretty much be considered the local heros. Heh, boy were they in for a shock.

The people from our group that decided to go on the expedition included Jesse Armantrout, Brent Scarabin, George Irvine, Dawn Kernagis, Bill Mee, Derek Hagler, John Rose, Chuck Noe, and myself. In our pre-trip planning we concluded that every diver would need to ship a set of doubles, a couple of stage bottles, and a couple of deco bottles down there. We all decided to carry our scooters on the plane, but shipped the batteries with our tanks to save the weight. Granted, this was before crazy airline baggage fees, but it was a way to lighten the load.

With no ideas as to what depths we could expect, we each went ahead and mixed several stage bottles and doubles for 230′. Getting the gear to Texas was orchestrated by Jesse Armantrout. He loaded up a trailer full of our gear and took it to the boys at Texas A&M. They were then responsible for getting our gear to Merida. I’m not sure what the customs agents thought of a van full of college kids and scuba tanks.

Nine members of our team arrived in Merida on Friday the 12th (March). We were picked up at the airport by the A&M guys, and delivered to our hotels. We spent the rest of the day preparing our dive gear, making sure all of our tanks made it in good shape, and getting ready to start the exploration of the system the next day.

The cave system was at the Cenote X’Lach which is in the middle of the Maya Ruins at the Archeological Site of Dzibilchaltun. This was a pretty big deal, Dzibilchaltun is about 25 minutes from Merida, and is more extensive then other well-known Maya ruins (such as Tulum, Uxmal, etc). There have been over 8500 structures identified at Dzibilchaltun, and at the height of the Maya culture (circa 1200-1400 AD) it is believed there were over 50,000 inhabitants. Pretty damn impressive for a bunch of people in the jungle 700 years ago. It was also really cool as hell to go diving and surface to find yourself surrounded by a ton of ruins (I’m big into that stuff).

Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan. The governor of the state of Yucatan was extremely happy to have us there. For the past 10 years or so, the state of Quintana Roo (which is adjacent to Yucatan) has become a serious tourist destination (ever here of Cancun or Cozumel?). In particular, Q. Roo has gotten very popular for their cenotes diving and snorkling tours. Cenotes are essentially sinkholes that open up into the aquifer underneath, but the cenotes in the Yucatan Penninsula are quite decorated with beautiful stalagtites and stalagmites from the last ice age. Because the cenotes in the Akumal (Q. Roo) area are fairly shallow, they’ve become prime tourist attractions.

The governor of Yucatan wants to develop the cenotes in the surrounding area to Merida as a tourist destination as well. Unfortunatly, most of the cenotes that we saw in Merida are much deeper then is considered safe for recreational scuba divers (recreational divers are recommended to stay shallower then 130′, several sinkholes in Merida are in the 200-400′ depth range). At any rate, they were excited as hell to have us there. The governors office had a representative from the Department of Ecology and Tourism act as our guide. This guy carted our tanks around in his truck, loaded them and unloaded them, and busted his butt for us. The hospitality of everyone in Merida is truly amazing, it makes you think differently of how people in US cities act (when was the last time you went to a place where strangers invited you into their house and fed you just to talk to you?).

We got started on the exploration on Saturday. We had two objectives, explore the cave system, conduct some science for the profs at A&M. We decided we’d focus on exploration on Saturday, and continue with that until it got too ridiculous then we’d focus on the science. Remember what I said about that 100′ that they’d think we were gods?

Our first dive team went in, they proceeded to extend the exploration of the cave out to 2300′ from the exit, exploring an additional 1300′ of passage in the process. A slight miscommunication from that team inhibited the second exploration team (mine), we were under the false impression they had finished the exploration of the cave system, so we spent the majority of our dive looking for side passages. This cave is absolutely amazing, the walls are 120-150′ wide, floor to ceiling is 30-40′ wide, the floor sits at 180-190′, the ceiling at 150′. Some parts it gets smaller and we have an interesting phenomenon where the salt water and fresh water mix, which produces an effect like looking through vasoline on your lenses in those smaller passages, pretty wild.

When we reached the end of the previous teams exploration line we were shocked to find out the cave still went, so we tied in an exploration reel (you have to use lines in underwater caves to find your way out in case you get lost), and extended the exploration out to around 2800′.

The third dive team (we work in teams of 3, 9 divers=3 teams) went in and continued exploration. They explored the cave out to 4300′ where it pretty much was finished. So, in one day we finished the known exploration and extended the cave by over 3000′, quite a bit more than anyone expected.

After dumping 3k of line and walling out the cave on the first day, in a rather nonchalant voice, one of our team told our hosts, “Well that was a fun day, do you have anything else for us?”

On Sunday we went back, just in case we missed anything. We did some science (I set some traps for blind crayfish in 190′ of water 2000′ from the exit), and during our decompression, one of my dive team members discovered another section of the cenote. This was a never before discovered area that was too narrow for a diver wearing tanks to negotiate the entrance. Later that day a friend of mine went in pushing a tank in front of him, and found pottery and bones which made everyone excited. We had a professor of ecology from the university in Merida there, and he was pretty stoked by that find.

On Monday we were taken to another cenote to look at. You had to repel down 100′ to get to the water, and the cenote was a good solid 2 hours from Merida. The locals setup a pulley system to belay all of our gear in the water (which was a metric crapload, let me tell you, scooters weigh 100lbs each, tanks rigged a good 100lbs as well). Over the course of that day the local Merida news station came and interviewed everyone, which was kind of cool. Also, the local “mayor” (more like village chief) for the little village near the cenote had his wife cook all of us lunch and brought it out to us so we had a nice warm meal after diving.

Tuesday I took off from diving since we weren’t really accomplishing much. Myself and three other people of our team went to Chichin Itza, probably some of the most famous of the Maya Ruins. It was a 90 minute drive to get there from Merida, and the whole trip was $20 (including transportation, meals, a beer, and admission). Pretty cool, especially climbing the great pyramid and looking out over the jungle. I had been to Chichin Itza four years before with my wife (we had done a trip to Cancun), but it was still cool going there. Also, there was a lot of excitement because the equinox was that Sunday (if I knew that I would have stayed over for a few more days), and during the equinox at sunset you can see the image of “Culcucon” (the rattlesnake god in Maya mythology) race up and down the pyramid (those Maya were meticulous).

When we got back to Merida we were informed that the governor wanted to have dinner with us sometime while we were there, but unfortunately that never happened because we could never get the schedules straight. The other group spent the day cruising around looking at other cenotes.

Wednesday we went back to Dzibalchultun. This time I had to go pull the traps I had set a few days before. We decided to take one of the A&M kids on the dive since they’d been really hospitable to us, and man the kid told me the 30 minutes spent on that dive were one long orgasm. Heh.

Thursday I flew home. End of trip. Needless to say, I had a pretty good time overall. The people in Merida were REALLY REALLY REALLY friendly, and they all bent over backwards for us. Plus it was really inexpensive (I spent $240 in Mexico, that included a weeks stay in a hotel, all of my meals, a fifth of Cuervo Especial as a gift, a trip to Chichin Itza, and quite a few Dos Equis Lagers). Merida is about an hour from the coast at Progresso (there’s a big beach there), and within 2 hours of several ruins (Uxmal, Chichin Itza, Coba, as well as Dzibilchaltun, Tulum is probably about 3-4 hours away but very beautiful).

Falmouth – Cathedral Radio Locations

Some of you know that I have been spending most of my free time over the past few months working on the Falmouth-Cathedral Springs project, which is a joint project between Karst Underwater Research (KUR) and the Woodville Karst Plains Project (WKPP). I will be writing up a lengthy article in the near future, but Cathedral Canyon is an extensive system which was made famous by Sheck Exley for setting a world record distance penetration in the system. An entire chapter in Caverns Measureless to Man is dedicated to this system.

However, the system is also very important as a lesson in how agriculture and development can impact our water resources. The system connects to the Suwannee River at Ellaville Spring, and trends east several miles past the town of Falmouth. The system cuts underneath a chicken processing plant and several farms from the source on it’s way towards the river.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 8.43.01 AM

Current exploration of Cathedral has put the cave system out approximately 19,000′ from the nearest entrance, but to say that exploration in this system is a challenge would be an understatement. In addition to the large distances from the nearest exit, the visibility tends to run 15′ and the depths vary throughout the system from 70′ to 185′. This depth variations can cause sinus problems and waste precious inflation and diluent gas.

Underwater cave survey is conducted by a simple method – you install a line with knots every 10′ during exploration, and on exit count the knots while taking the azimuth and depth readings every time the system changes direction. Although this method works relatively well, when you start talking distances on the order of 2-3 miles, minor errors can be magnified. A 2.5° error in the azimuth, plus a 3-4″ error in the distance for each knot, can put the cave survey off by up to a 1/4 mile at these distances.

This past weekend, on December 12th, we decided to validate and shore up the survey data by placing radio location beacons in the cave system at 6000′ and 10,200′ penetration. On the surface we then located where the beacons were placed by using radio receivers, which essentially allow us to triangulate in on the signal emitted by the beacons. This did two things for us: it allowed us to validate the survey, and it also gave us proof that the system runs under the spray fields.

Additionally, I believe this may be the furthest distance that anyone has successfully deployed and used an underwater radio location beacon.

12314079_10153799076894776_2852843240316344836_n 12376067_1392464657718761_4554520480403763008_n

Here is the impressive thing we discovered: at a distance of 10,200′, Sheck Exley’s survey was off by only 80′. That’s less than a 0.8% error rate — incredibly impressive given that he used 1980’s era technology when he did his exploration.

This weekend would not have been possible without the help of a great team of people. Derek Ferguson needs to be given a lot of credit for coming up with the initial idea for the project, and proposing to do a radio locate at those distances. Jon Bernot and Charlie Roberson have been driving forces for the project, as well as performing some amazing new exploration. Ted McCoy has been an incredible member of the team — working out logistics in long range exploration, getting the habitat ready, or ready to hop in the water for a 7 hour excursion. Howard Smith has been a silent but steady assistant, always ready to lend a hand and never complaining of the work asked of him. And of course, Andy Pitkin has done an amazing job of converting the raw survey data into a usable format, and organizing and conducting the radio location beacons.