Cave Diver Training

Cave training is drastically different than most other types of scuba training you have previously been exposed to, but figuring out how to proceed can be confusing due to the different names used by the various training agencies. For instance, “Intro to Cave” with one agency may mean basically the same as “Apprentice” with another, but “Cave 1” could mean something completely different. This may make someone think that “agency x” or “certification y” is superior, but at the end of the day, almost every agency that offers cave training has their training progression geared towards one specific outcome. It’s just the path to get there is what is different within the agencies. This is gonna be a bit long winded, but hopefully it explains it all.

What specifically is that outcome? Generally speaking, every single training agency that I’m familiar with (NSS-CDS, NAUI, GUE, TDI, IANTD) pretty much agree that the final outcome of the cave training sequence should be a diver that is capable of safely diving within caves, including complex navigation (circuits, traverses), full gas planning that includes utilizing up to a maximum of 1/3rd of the starting volume for penetration, utilizing stage bottles as needed, and conducting decompression as necessary. Typically, to get from “no cave training” to “fully capable cave diver” takes a minimum of 9 or 10 days of total training time and a minimum of 20 training dives with an instructor. Sometimes it may take longer, depending on student aptitude and skill level. It probably should never take less than 9 days.

However, the reality is that trying to do 10 days of training in one fell swoop would be difficult for most people – just the physical and mental exhaustion after 5 or 6 days of training and diving usually causes people to lose the ability to pick up new material, lose the ability to develop new skills, and probably lose their mind. So, the solution agencies came up with is to break the training into smaller digestible bits. These smaller bits give the students time to absorb the material and really hone the skills they’ve learned before moving to the next step in training.

Where those break points exist is where the disagreement is between the agencies. This isn’t unexpected, get three cave instructors in a room and ask them how to install a jump and you’re likely to get 7 different answers (candidly, I teach 5 ways to run a jump). But basically, if we were to look at “total number of days of training” and correlate it to a training level, it would look something like this:

Cumulative Total Training Days Agency Course Cumulative Dives Completed Minimum Pre-Reqs Abilities
2 TDI, IANTD Cavern Diver 4 Dives AOW, 25 dives experience No more than 200′ from the surface, must always be able to see daylight, no decompression
4 TDI, IANTD Intro to Cave Diver 8 Dives Cavern Diver Main line only – no navigation (no T’s, Jumps), 1/6th of starting volume for penetration, no decompression.
4 NSS-CDS Apprentice Diver 8 Dives AOW, 25 dives Same as Intro to Cave, but up to a maximum of 50 cubic feet of gas (or 1/3rds, whichever is smaller) usable instead of 1/6ths.
5 GUE Cave 1 10 Dives Fundamentals Tech Pass No navigation, roughly 1/4ths for gas (“1/3rd of 2/3rds”), no decompression.
5 NAUI Cave 1 10 Dives Intro to Tech Limited decompression (if deco trained), 1 jump or T, 1/3rds for penetration
8 TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS “Full” Cave Diver 16 Dives Intro to Cave or Apprentice 1/3rds for penetration, full deco (if trained), full navigation, no stage bottles
10 NAUI, GUE Cave 2 20 Dives Cave 1 + 20 dive experience Full 1/3rds for penetration, full navigation, full decompression, stage bottle use.
10 TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS Stage Cave Diver 20 Dives “Full” Cave Everything with “full” cave plus stage bottle use.

So as you can see, each of the different course offerings are really meant to give people breakpoints somewhere along the cave training progression. The breakpoints are important for a number of reasons, I mentioned a few above, but another important consideration is that some people simply just don’t get the “cave bug” and the breakpoint is a good time to be honest with oneself and decide if they want to finish training, or drop out of the activity. However, the bottom line is if someone does have the cave bug, they should finish their training and not stop at one of the mid-way points forever.

Personally, I’ve found that people that have significant experience technical diving in either doubles or sidemount can get through a NAUI Cave 1 program without too much difficulty, but if they don’t they are better at stopping at the 4 day break-point (Intro or Apprentice). As I said at the top, stopping to gain experience and hone skills is also very import: I have found that people that proceed to gain significant experience at one of the breakpoints, instead of charging right through a “zero to hero” program, tend to be better cave divers.

Now the biggest problem I repeatedly encounter with people that stop as an “Intro to Cave Diver” at the 4 day break point is that eventually they start ignoring the gas rule and diving past 1/6ths, which can be dangerous to them if they don’t fully appreciate the risks, responsibilities and implications when diving to 1/3rds. When someone is stopping at the Intro level, I have a long talk with them where I say they need to either decide to quit cave diving or come back and finish training.

In terms of “Full Cave” – most of the agencies don’t include Stage as part of the “final” cave class, only GUE and NAUI do, the others have it as an “added specialty” after full cave. NSS-CDS has an “Advanced Cave” instead of “Full”, which does include staging, but most of the agencies make staging an added specialty or let people figure it out with some mentorship. There are problems with mentorship and staging though, I’ve seen a lot of misinformation at dive sites which can lead to someone blowing thirds unintentionally, and it’s a reason why even if someone is just planning on doing a TDI or NSS-CDS Full Cave program I try to cover staging over the course of one day to make sure they know how to do proper gas planning.

So, even though all the agencies have different courses for cave training, in the end they all lead to the same place, it’s just those pause points that are different.

I’m proud to offer cave training for either open-circuit or CCR divers, as well as Cave DPV and Cave Surveying programs, at both the diver and instructor level through TDI, NAUI, and the NSS-CDS and will be glad to work with you to meet your goals based on your prior training and experience.

Where to Begin?

Cave 1

For people that have a technical diving background, or have passed Intro to Tech and gained some experience, the Cave 1 program may be a good beginning. Make no mistake about it, Cave 1 is the most intense course that I teach because it takes the diver with some technical diving background and introduces them to the concepts and techniques used in cave diving with the most advanced beginning cave program. The skills we will focus on include introduction to the cave environment, tweaking buoyancy control and fin techniques in order to not disturb silt, team concepts / team awareness, working with a reel, and stress management. This course must be taken in either side-mount or doubles, single tank diving is not allowed in Cave 1.

Throughout the course you will be required to run a primary reel, deploy backup lights, perform zero visibility (blackout mask) exits, conduct zero visibility air shares with blackout masks, perform lost buddy drills, perform a lost line drill, and navigate jumps/T’s.

The course is typically taught over five days and a minimum of 10 dives, with the first day being lecture, land drills and an equipment workshop. On day two we typically spend a full day at one of our local springs, learning how to run a reel on land before going into the water for at least three dives. We will then move on to other sites for the remainder of the course.

The NAUI Cave 1 program is the most challenging and difficult entry level cave training, period. Graduates of the NAUI Cave 1 program are allowed to use a full third of their gas for penetration, conduct a single navigational decision, and have up to ten minutes of decompression if they have had previous decompression training.

The Cave 1 program is 5 days long and is $1750.

Cavern/Intro or NSS-CDS Apprentice

For someone that is new to technical diving, the TDI Cavern/Intro to Cave (NSS-CDS Apprentice) program may be the better option, but make no mistake about it, the TDI Cavern/Intro to Cave program is also very challenging.

The course is typically taught over four days and a minimum of 8 dives. On dives throughout the course you will be required to run a primary reel, deploy backup lights, perform zero visibility (blackout mask) exits, conduct zero visibility air shares with blackout masks, perform lost buddy drills, and perform a lost line drill.

Graduates of the combination course are able to dive into caves using up to 1/6ths of their starting volume of gas, but are not allowed to perform navigation or conduct planned decompression.

The Cavern/Intro program is 4 days long and is $1400.