Guidelines for Success
By Larry Green and Susan M. Smith
Edited By Debra Green and Johnny Richards
© 2010 by the National Association for Cave Diving All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of the National Association for Cave Diving (NACD) Board of Directors.
First Edition, February 2010
For those who went first…
Safe cave diving is no accident. Over the years, many divers both trained and untrained in the art of safe cave diving have died in caverns and caves. Despite the fact that divers are better educated today about hazards of the cave environment, the deaths continue. Trends show that the cave diving community is effectively educating divers who lack cave training. Numbers of deaths among those who lack training have decreased. Surprisingly, the numbers of deaths trending upward are among those who have been certified to cave dive.
We know what the contributing factors are for deaths. Why are cave divers still dying?
It is because of this question that the National Association for Cave Diving (NACD) has produced this book, Guidelines for Success. Times change and so do divers, techniques and technology. With this in mind, we hope to offer the newest information available with a style that is positive and encourages divers to focus on making smart choices. This book will be directed specifically at those already certified for cavern and cave diving because of the growing trend of fatalities in that group.
We hope that Guidelines helps you look at cave diving safety with a new perspective that encourages the use of your most critical piece of equipment…your brain.
Motivations for Safe Cave Diving: Our Past, Present, and Future
We should all understand that “safe” cave diving is a relative term. This is an activity with inherent risk. Just one mistake or a bad decision may lead to disaster. With that in mind, we should all strive to make the experience as safe and enjoyable as possible. Cave diving safely is an art all on its own, so take pride in doing it well.
Why did you decide to take cave training in the first place?
What does safe cave diving mean to you?
Remember to be true to yourself, honestly understanding your own motivations to cave dive. Part of understanding why certified cave divers are dying is in exploring these motivations.
In the early days of cave diving, many divers died from lack of knowledge, training, and equipment. As the sport grew, a small number of highly experienced divers began teaching cave diving. It was very difficult to find an instructor to accept you for training. Apprenticeships were long and intense. These were small, tightly knit groups of divers who had little money, but a lot of dedication to the sport. Many cave divers were younger, fit, and disciplined. Sites were more difficult to access. It was not easy to get air fills. Skills slowly advanced with comfort and repetition over many dives, so divers had to be patient. Equipment was difficult to come by, much of it made by hand and on request only. A small number of divers specialized in making certain items such as lights or reels. Diver skill level had to be high for many reasons. Caves had no permanent line, so lines needed to be placed on every dive. Equipment reliability was not as high as today, causing divers to be well-versed in problem prevention and management. Cave diving procedures were still being developed by trial and error.
Today’s average cave diver is different. Newer cave divers are older and generally less fit. More divers have undiagnosed or chronic medical problems and are taking medications. It is easier to find a cave diving instructor, access and navigate dive sites, and obtain reliable dive equipment. Technology continues to evolve faster than some safety protocols or common sense can keep up. The temptation to push too far is abundant. For example, a new diver can purchase a sidemount rig or DPV (diver propulsion vehicle) off the shelf and go to a spring. Closed Circuit Rebreathers (CCR) and Semi-Closed Circuit Rebreathers (SCR) are much easier to obtain then ever before. Divers spend less time with their instructor in mentoring relationships. More divers have available finances for cave diving, but remain stingy in areas of value such as hiring an instructor to guide them or do a cave diving refresher. More divers are cave diving less routinely, thus failing to develop and maintain proficiency. Those who cave dive less often or travel may be tempted to try picking up where they left off last, rather than taking a slow and easy pace at the start of a trip. Some are unwilling to dedicate themselves to high quality cave diving once or twice a day, instead focusing on cranking out quantity. Those who cave dive more often may become complacent, foregoing typical safety procedures. Today’s diver generally seems to mirror what we see in society. We are more comfortable with and reliant on technology than ever before. Unfortunately, these behaviors and choices are consistent with instant gratification, complacency, and denial of risk, as well as lack of discipline and consistency. These problems cause us to face a challenge to our sport. It creates an environment that is extremely dangerous for those who refuse to stop, think, and make smart choices about cave diving. If today’s diver pushes too far too fast, access is available for them to move beyond their limits. Ultimately, these combinations are contributing to a recipe for disaster. This may result in narrow escapes from trouble or even fatalities.
Why You Should Care
Injuries and fatalities in the sport of cave diving hurt all of us. It’s easy to be detached and proclaim that someone died because they were “stupid”. By blaming deaths on stupidity, we deny that it can happen to us. We also set our sport up for extinction. The more cave diving injuries and deaths are publicized, the more media attention is gained. If it becomes prominent enough, government intervention may take place. Divers do not like the idea of government telling them when, where, and how they may cave dive. Cave diving could be severely restricted and time consuming permit processes may be put in place to access sites. Entire dive sites could be completely closed by landowners who are afraid of being sued by families of the deceased. Furthermore, in being cold or detached we expose family members, friends, and dive buddies of the deceased to more emotional stress. Our caves also benefit from us adhering to sound diving and safety practices. With repetition and practice comes comfort and proficiency. If divers move at a slower pace, they appreciate features in the cave they never noticed before. By waiting to advance until skill and comfort is developed, the cave is better conserved by careful technique. This enhances the experience for everyone. As comfort and skill improve, divers have more fun.
Are We Part of the Problem?
Just as there are more certified cavern and cave divers today than ever before, there are more instructors. Experienced divers know one of the most critical choices to make is who they ask to be their instructor. Unfortunately, more instructors may not mean more quality. More agencies offer cavern and cave training then ever before, with standards ranging all over the spectrum for student divers, instructor candidates, and practicing instructors. Standards have eroded over time, partly in an effort to be politically correct. Required apprenticeships for instructor candidates are much shorter or nonexistent compared to the thorough relationships in years past. Some students have come to expect that payment means certification rather than education. Some instructors don’t screen students or automatically agree to take any candidate into a course instead of treating the activity with due care and respect. Less qualified instructors who have not yet refined their technique are training others.
Potential students must be responsible and interview instructors, inquiring about qualification to cave dive and teach cave diving, just as they should expect to be screened. Instructors unwilling to have discussions like these should be avoided.
Recreational dive agencies have come together with success to create minimum standards for training. The cave diving community should also consider doing so. Cavern and cave training agencies could unite, take responsibility for the issues, and form universal standards for training, including accountability for compliance. Emphasis should be on the quality of education students receive, including developing a strong foundation, mentoring relationships, and making smart choices.
The Mind of the Diver
Experienced cave divers know that this sport is a brain game. Psychological health and comfort are critical to development, skill, and enjoyment. Dives may feel great when you are attuned to what is happening. If you fail to tune in, everything you do can seem like an effort. This causes the diver to be less aware and less likely to prevent or recognize problems in themselves and teammates. The best cave divers make everything look easy, but they have invested considerable time practicing their art. Choose to learn from their dedication and discipline.
Historically, common factors in cave diving fatalities have been looked at in two groups: the untrained and those who are certified to cave dive. These factors are included here as a reference.
Certified Cave Divers
Exceeding Training or Experience Level
Revised Contributing Factors
The focus of Guidelines is to provide information to certified cavern and cave divers. Because of this, we have a revised list of contributing factors for those already certified.
Equipment and Maintenance
Advances in technology permeate our daily lives. Seasoned divers may remember learning to keep quarters in their first aid kit so they could call for help at a pay phone. Today, divers use hand-held GPS (global positioning systems) to arrive at dive sites, check e-mail after dives, and make phone calls almost at will in remote areas. We see newer technologies in use on a daily basis. Dive computers or computer-generated tables are the norm. DPVs and sidemounting gear are on the shelves of dive centers. Rebreather technology in caves is more available and common than ever before. While it is an exciting time to be a diver, it is still important for today’s cave diver to use caution with these technologies. Dives that were cutting-edge just 20 years ago are now considered routine. Divers are seen entering the water with multiple stage bottles who later talk excitedly about how far they got into the cave. After some thought, it may become apparent that with skill refinement and more experience, those divers could go to the same area on back gas and less work. Some divers using DPVs add stages without knowledge for planning proper gas and DPV reserves. For divers who lack discipline, it is easy to outstrip one’s envelope of comfort. It is critical that divers resist the temptation to move forward at breakneck speed, instead making smart choices that allow comfort, fun, and gradual skill development.
Nitrox has replaced air use at many locations. Trimix is more attainable with little lead time in some areas. Additional cylinders are taken on dives, sometimes without consideration for need. Some divers treat serious cave dives with little respect, relying upon the clearer head gained by diving trimix to progress into deeper dives instead of slowly building personal experience at other sites. Keep dive plans and logistics as simple as possible. Take what you need, be conservative, and use clear MOD (maximum operating depth) markings on your cylinders. Take the time to double check your gas analysis. Divers have saved their lives with this simple step. Avoid making dives using stage bottles without adequate experience. Minimize your exposure to factors that increase narcosis. Keep your END (equivalent narcotic depth) low on dives, preferably less than 130 feet. Avoid excessive PO2 (partial pressure of oxygen) at depth. Be aware that any time you take a regulator out of your mouth and switch gases, you increase risk for yourself, your team, and the people who love you.
The average cave diver is becoming older, less fit, and is more likely to have unknown or chronic medical issues. They are also more likely to be taking medications as a result. It is not fully known what effects our bodies will experience with these drugs during dives. Much as pregnant women are not inclined to experiment with diving to see what happens to a fetus, many divers do not volunteer to find out the effects of medication and diving. Vitamins, supplements, prescription and over the counter medications all bring up concerns. You may contact DAN (Divers Alert Network) or a diving physician to see what information is available on particular drugs or supplements. When in doubt, be conservative. DAN is associated with the Duke University Medical Center. Learn more on the internet at www.diversalertnetwork.org
It is important to maintain ourselves for diving, ideally with a routine that includes cardiovascular conditioning, strength, and flexibility. It is also important to be well rested, hydrated, and to maintain a reasonable diet. Cave divers don’t need to be fitness fanatics, but we should recognize that being reasonably fit adds to our fun and safety in diving. It is also important to get a routine physical exam. This may help identify and prevent problems before you get in the water.
Equipment and Maintenance
When you first trained in open water scuba, your instructor may have described the gear as life support for diving in an otherworldly environment, like what astronauts rely on in space. Use of high quality diving equipment is important, particularly in the cave environment. Reliability, proper function, and good maintenance of gear is critical. Fortunately most problems with equipment are preventable, so keep a routine for servicing gear. Watch for problems or wear through periodic inspection. Take the time to have additional service done as needed, particularly with periods of inactivity or heavy use. Understand how your equipment works. Use a streamlined configuration and be able to explain why your gear is set up a particular way rather than just copying what others do. Periodically evaluate your rig, looking for ways to be more functional, streamlined, and safe.
Have trouble remembering? Give yourself a present to help. Complete routine service for your birthday each year or use it as a reminder to drop gear off with a service tech. Include replacement of your oxygen sensors and disposable batteries. If you don’t know how to burn test your equipment, learn how or have a friend help. Burn test your light as well as your DPV, if you have one.
World class athletes don’t get to the top of their game by disregarding the basics of their sport. This is also true with our diving skills. If we don’t develop a strong foundation of skills and maintain them, skill level will decay. This leaves less available resources to draw from during stressful situations. How can we expect to save ourselves should we become lost off the line if we don’t ever touch a reel to run a line into the cave? Proficiency and speed will come with repetition and time. Anyone who has taken a break from cave diving knows that the first dive or two after coming back is awkward. As a result, you might initially limit yourself to simple, main line dives after a break to increase comfort and skill level at a relaxed pace. If your dive partner’s skills are rusty, encourage them to take it easy and focus on the basics first. Focus instead on the quality of your diving experience. If is has been a year or more since you went cave diving, consider contacting a cave instructor for a refresher.
Solo cave diving has been around as long as our sport. In cases where the deceased was solo diving, we can never know precisely what happened nor will we know if a qualified buddy would have been a life saver or a second victim. Just over half of certified cave divers who have died were engaged in a solo dive at the time they died. What does this mean? Should you make the choice to solo dive, it should only be after serious forethought and preparation, if at all. You must have a sufficient foundation of cave diving skills to operate safely as well as the appropriate resources to handle problems. Be honest with yourself when making these decisions. Also understand that no matter what, you can’t duplicate your brain which is the most critical tool you have. This can only be provided by a competent buddy. Divers must also consider the effect their risk-taking may have on their loved ones. If you die, your loved ones must live with the decisions you have made.
From another viewpoint, many solo dives are carried out safely but go unrecorded. There is not a system in place to track these successes. We take note only when these divers die. Many exploratory dives are made in areas that are inhospitable with little visibility or elbow room. To have multiple divers together in such a situation could itself pose a hazard. When we train for cave diving, it is emphasized that divers must be fully self-sufficient even when team diving. This helps keep us from reaching too far outside the envelope of personal comfort and skill. Relying on buddies to bring you further than you would go alone may create dependent diver or “trust me” relationships.
A Strong Foundation
Under the guidance of their instructor, cave divers create a foundation of skills. This increases safety and comfort, adding to the quality of their experiences. Added benefits include relaxation, reduced gas consumption, and opportunities to experience the fun we seek by cave diving in the first place. The cave environment itself is better protected by the thoughtfulness and skill of these divers. Once the foundation is in place, the diver is responsible for maintaining it. Instructors help by functioning as mentors. Divers may slowly advance in training and practice while developing better skills along the way. As cave divers gain skill and experience, they unlock new levels of awareness and capability.
What makes a strong foundation?
Emotional and physical health
Divers with great attitudes learn more readily, strive to be the best diver possible, and seek out the best instructors. They welcome the challenge of a great course and continue to advance in skill even after certification. They demonstrate positivity, maturity, patience, consistency, and discipline in their diving. Divers with great attitudes choose to follow safety practices and expect their teammates to do the same. They commit to diving honestly within their own limits and those of their team. These traits help the diver make smart choices and conduct safer, more enjoyable dives.
It is critical that divers establish control of buoyancy prior to attempting other tasks. Buoyancy control is not something that happens overnight. It takes time and effort to develop. Divers beginning to use doubles will benefit from the help of an NACD instructor to aid in that transition. Before cavern or cave training, a diver should have good ability to hover, turn, and swim without disturbing the environment or visibility.
Divers should be able to function well in a horizontal position. Good posture for cave diving also takes time to develop and refine. Posture must be maintained even when movement stops to make transitions during dives.
Propulsion should be efficient without disturbing visibility or the cave environment. A consistent, comfortable pace should be maintained. Divers must understand and properly apply the best propulsion techniques for the environment.
Breathing should be efficient, preventing buildup of carbon dioxide. Cave divers maintain their breathing rhythm even when carrying out tasks or experiencing stress. Divers should be able to closely estimate gas supply prior to verifying it with gauges.
Heightened levels of physical and emotional health will help divers focus. Reasonable fitness provides more endurance, comfort, and additional reserves to deal with problems. Emotional health aids relaxation and control. Stable divers are rational and honest, avoiding needless risks. With this combination, cave divers can work towards developing skills and preventing problems, reducing the risk of emergencies.
Helped in part by honest attitudes, awareness allows us to sense comfort and readiness. It improves over time with experience. This helps us grow and tune in to ourselves, our team, and the cave itself. Good awareness is a key to anticipate and prevent problems.
Safety Awards and Security Blankets
The NACD recognizes divers who achieve 100, 500, and 1000 cave dives or hours of bottom time in the cave zone. These are the Bronze, Silver, and Gold Wakulla Awards. Unfortunately as a result, some divers choose to focus on quantity rather than quality of dives. This may be because some sites require safety awards as a prerequisite. Other divers may become complacent, assuming a safety award means they can cut corners to conduct more advanced dives without appropriate training and experience. An example of this occurred when the survivor of a cave diving accident stated he believed DPV training was unnecessary because he had a safety award. Lack of DPV training was a significant contributing factor to the death of his teammate and his own narrow escape from harm. Make a smart choice and refuse to allow complacency to tempt you or your teammates away from following safer practices.
Contributing factors implicated in cave diving deaths may be used to shape procedures for cave diving. Bear these factors in mind when you dive, but understand that following these rules will not eliminate the risks of cave diving. We can only minimize and manage the risks we take. If you believe you can’t be injured or killed when cave diving, then you are wrapping yourself in an invisible security blanket of denial. This is also selfish and unfair to your teammates and loved ones.
Positive Peer Pressure
Peer pressure is frequently perceived as being negative, such as one diver goading another into making poor choices, but peer pressure may also be positive. By working to create an environment where divers encourage each other to make smart choices, we can elevate levels of safety and fun in cave diving. We can use this to reinforce that safer practices are the accepted and desired practices in cave diving culture.
The Difference between Certification and Qualification
Earning a card makes you certified. Qualification is something you gain later with dedication, patience, and experience. It can’t be bought or developed overnight and you will never be issued a card for it. Experience is a great teacher and only dedicated cave divers will achieve this level of expertise. Having a cave card, but being inactive for over a year may not be enough qualification to jump back into cave diving. Cave diving routinely at the same sites, then trying to tackle a very advanced cave dive also may not demonstrate qualification. Be honest and mature in your decision making.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Many cave divers have notable contributions to our sport. Some of them were innovators, explorers, pioneers, mentors, or teachers. Cave diving has been deeply influenced by them. Some names who have contributed to the sport include: Berman, Exley, Holtzendorff, Martz, McFaden, McGuire, Sherwood, Simmons, and Turner.
What do all of these cave divers have in common?
How much experience, dedication, and qualification do you think these divers possessed?
What does this mean to you?
We Are All Vulnerable
To date, it is believed that only one cave diver has died despite observing common safety guidelines. His name was Parker Turner and he died while diving at Indian Springs in 1991, when a sand slide blocked the exit.
All the divers listed previously were talented and experienced. They were the top of their sport, yet they all died while cave diving. Be aware that they were vulnerable, just like you. They had people who love them and need them, just like you. They did not wake up in the morning and think, “I’m going to make a mistake and die today”. Always remember that at the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is go home safely. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in a cave worth dying for.
Four case studies will be presented for you to review. Consider the information and share how you feel about the accident. Think about the choices made by the divers involved and how they may have shaped the final outcomes. Think, visualize, make notes, and interact during this exercise.
Case Study One
Two certified cave divers were using back mounted doubles and stage bottles. Their bodies were found just upstream of a restriction, at about 850 feet of penetration. They were oriented in position to exit the cave. Both bodies were found in a vertical position against the ceiling. Victim One had 500 psi of gas left in his doubles and his long hose was deployed. His left post was closed. Victim Two had no back gas remaining and his doubles had been removed. The victims were a short distance from their stage bottles, which were just downstream of the restriction. Regulators were in good working order. Two reels had been deployed and another was off, but not deployed. All reels were found upstream of the restriction with no line run through the restriction. The main line was broken and the divers were entangled in the exit side of the line. Victim One’s knife was in place. Victim Two did not have a knife. Maximum depth on their dive computers was 78 feet.
These divers drove a long distance for this trip. This dive was their first of the trip and they had not yet reached their final stop. Neither diver was certified as a Stage Diver.
What was the recipe for this disaster?
Step back even farther and think again. This time focus on the divers, their possible thoughts, and choices rather than rules. What else contributed?
These divers died, but who else has been hurt?
Who will have to live with the consequences of this disaster?
Case Study Two
During a trip, two of four certified cave divers in a team died. Victim One had 125 cave dives with three years of experience. Victim Two had 75 cave dives with three years of experience. Survivor One and Survivor Two had 300 caves dives and 31 years of experience each. Another team with five divers was planning to dive the same site. The two teams planned to enter and exit the cave from the same sink entrance. They would begin following the main line to its end where they expected to fine a snap and gap line already in place that they had seen during a dive the previous day. It was discussed during pre-dive that this snap and gap was usually left in place over the last few years by other divers. This snap and gap was a twenty foot long jump line with a large red carabineer. This connection was already made and the divers agreed to leave it in place. A non-directional marker would be placed on the jump line near the carabineer to indicate divers were using it. The last team out would remove the marker and would leave the carabineer connecting the T’d intersection. After the jump, the divers would turn left from the carabineer and swim downstream approximately 65’and do a jump just before a 90 degree turn in the line. At this location the first team with five divers would use a jump spool to “T” into the line they were following and install a jump to the beginning of another line. The jump spool had brightly colored line and the jump spanned approximately 6’. The line the jump spool connected to leads upstream towards another navigable exit. Non-directional markers were placed to reference the guideline and use of the spool by the first team. One non-directional marker was placed on the exit side of the jump next to a permanent arrow that was also pointing toward their exit. Another non-directional marker was placed on the jump line next to the spool reel to show a team was using the jump spool. The jump spool and the non-directional markers were shared by both teams. The two teams agreed that the first team to exit the jump would remove the non-directional marker that had been placed next to the jump spool. The last team to exit would remove the jump spool and the non-directional marker indicating direction of exit at the T’d intersection. A map was used for pre-dive planning involving all members of both teams to help ensure understanding and coordination of the dive plan. The dive plan also included that the team of four divers expected a shorter dive and planned to exit first.
The team of five, after installing the jump spool and markers, would head toward another exit for a brief surface interval and then return along the same route to their exit.
The four divers swam to the carabineer in approximately 32 minutes, turned left and swam approximately 65’ to the T’d intersection. The team followed the jump line and continued past the spool. Shortly after this, Victim Two called the dive. After swimming back to the jump spool, Survivor Two removed the non-directional marker from the line by the jump spool and left the marker on the exit side of the T’d intersection. Both survivors stated they remembered seeing the marker at the intersection, but were unable to explain why their team swam in the opposite direction rather than turning right and swimming for 65’ back to the large red carabineer that would lead them back to their exit. Survivor One had been taking photos throughout the dive with a digital camera while Survivor Two assisted with one of the strobes.
The team of four continued to swim in the wrong direction about 1400 feet, reaching the end of the line they were following. During this period of time, the team passed multiple directional line arrows which pointed downstream. At the end of this line there was an arrow pointing out towards another line that was out of sight nearly 80’ away and which lead to another exit approximately three minutes away. Victim One deployed his safety spool and began a search by tying his safety spool into the end of the line. Victim Two turned around, swimming back upstream towards the area where the dive was called with Survivor Two and Survivor One following. Victim One stopped his search and caught up with the other three divers. Survivors One and Two moved into the lead. About 100’ before the 90 degree angle in the line, Survivor One clipped his digital camera to the line. Upon reaching the 90 degree turn, the divers found the jump spool and non-directional marker had been removed. The marker from the carabineer intersection had also been removed by the team of five who thought the team of four had existed since the non-directional marker was removed from the jump spool line. The team of four continued upstream, across the jump line at the carabineer and towards their exit. At this point both buddy teams were in an air-sharing configuration. The two teams began to separate, although the two survivors in front stated they could still see the other team’s lights. During the exit, Survivor One donated her long hose to Survivor Two. At the surface, Survivor Two had 200 psi and Survivor One had 500 psi. After the survivors surfaced, divers from the other team re-entered the water and searched for the two remaining divers.
The victims were found about 250 feet from the original entry point. Both had their regulators out of their mouths and they were on the ceiling in an exiting position. Victim One had deployed the long hose and the two were in gas-sharing position. Both were out of gas. Victim One’s primary light was off and stowed. His back up light was engaged and laying on the floor below him.
What factors contributed to this accident?
These divers died, but who else has been affected?
Upon reaching the end of the line where Victim One deployed his safety reel, what different action could the team have taken to increase the chance of survival for all team members?
Case Study Three
A team of two certified cave divers died while conducting an advanced cave dive. Prior to the dive, the victims discussed their plans to scooter the cave with several people on site. The victims’ dive computers also provided information about their dive.
Victim One was an active cave diver. He was certified and had 10 years of experience as a cave diver, five years as a trimix diver, and two years as a DPV diver. He used a DPV owned by Victim Two.
His oxygen cylinder was an aluminum 80 marked with an oxygen cover. It had 2600 psi, the valve was shut, and analysis confirmed 100% oxygen. His nitrox decompression cylinder was an aluminum 80 and marked “70”. It had 2700 psi, the valve was shut and gas analysis showed 33.4% oxygen. His stage cylinder was an aluminum 80 marked “120”. It had 1400 psi, the valve was shut, and gas analysis showed 12/45 (12% oxygen, 44.8% helium). His back gas cylinders were double steel, low pressure 131s. The doubles were empty and the isolator manifold was open. Dive computers showed back gas programmed as “12/43”. His END would have been about 150 ft at maximum planned depth.
Victim One’s two trimix computers showed a maximum depth of 290 ft. His gases were programmed in the computers. His mask was in place, containing blood and water. He carried one 75 ft gap spool and one 150 ft safety spool, which had not been deployed. The DPV he borrowed for the dive was found on the bottom at a penetration of about 680 ft. His equipment was in working order.
Victim Two was also an active cave diver. He was certified and had 1.5 years of experience as a cave diver, and one year as a trimix diver. He did have previous experience using scooters, but had recently failed a DPV course.
His oxygen cylinder was a steel 80 marked 100%. The valve was shut and analysis confirmed 100% oxygen. His nitrox decompression cylinder was an aluminum 80 and marked “110”. It had 2700 psi, the valve was shut, and gas analysis showed 35.6% oxygen. His stage cylinder was an aluminum 80 marked “13/47”. This cylinder was bottom clipped to his left side hip D ring. The top was unclipped. His back gas cylinders were double steel, low pressure 112s. The doubles were empty and the isolator manifold was open. Dive computers showed back gas programmed as “12/44”. His END also would have been about 150 ft at maximum planned depth.
Victim Two’s two trimix computers showed a maximum depth of 286 ft. His gases were programmed in the computers. His knife was missing from its pouch. His 18 watt HID (high intensity discharge) primary light was flooded and a small pinhole was seen in the cord. (Recovery divers believed it would have taken hours to flood with such a tiny hole). He had one safety reel. His DPV was found clipped to the D ring on his crotch strap. Both scooters were owned by Victim Two. His equipment was in working order (with the exception of his primary light, which may have taken hours to flood).
The team entered the water at 12:38 pm. Their oxygen was staged at 30 ft in the basin of the dive site. Their nitrox decompression cylinders were staged shortly into the cave at a depth of 130 feet.
The divers scootered downstream towards a restriction. Victim One’s trimix stage bottle was found here at about 550 ft of penetration and a depth of 250 ft. They went through the restriction at about 650 ft of penetration. The permanent line they followed was run down the right hand side of the restriction. This area is very silty, deep, and has a change in elevation. Divers on DPVs normally swim their units through this area as it may take hours for silt to settle here.
Recovery divers found Victim One’s scooter on the bottom 30 ft from the main line. There was no evidence of a lost line search. His body was found further into the cave beyond his DPV at 1100 ft of penetration and a depth of 240 ft. He was found oriented towards the exit and on the main line. His regulator was out of his mouth and he was out of gas.
The recovery team located Victim Two in a pocket near the main line, past the restriction at a penetration of about 710 ft and a depth of 286 ft. His regulator was out of his mouth and he was out of gas. His body was significantly entangled in his own safety line as well as an old line believed to be left by previous divers. His trimix stage bottle was not top clipped, but was bottom clipped at his waist D ring. This bottle was also empty. His DPV was clipped to the D ring on his crotch strap.
There is additional information to consider. According to a family member, one of the divers indicated he would never dive with the other again due to safety concerns. Briefly before the fatal dive, he indicated he changed his mind due to lack of dive buddies. One diver was found to have traces of an illicit drug in his system by authorities.
Focus on the divers, their possible thoughts, and choices rather than rules. What was the recipe for this disaster?
These divers died, but who else has been hurt?
Who will have to live with the consequences of this disaster?
Consider who else must deal with the consequences. It took a full week for this recovery to be completed. A team of over 25 people was needed to execute the operation. This included multiple long exposures to depth, up to 300 ft. The victims and their equipment had to be located, towed, and moved back through the restriction. This was made even more difficult by victim rigidity. One recovery diver had to be treated for DCS (decompression sickness) after a strenuous dive bringing a victim through the restriction. Remember that we don’t just impact the people who love us if we have an accident. The recovery divers who work retrieving the victims and their equipment are also at risk.
How can you avoid a disaster like this one?
What one factor has the most profound impact on making safer, enjoyable dives?
Case Study Four
A solo diver died while attempting exploratory work. The victim discussed his dive plan with another diver prior to the fatality. He planned to scooter to a restriction near the end of the main line while breathing his CCR. He planned to ditch his CCR and continue in an open circuit sidemount configuration with his diluent bottles. He would then swim to where another diver’s exploratory line began. He wanted to replace the line with his own knotted line for the purpose of surveying. Additional breathing gas had been staged near the cavern, 1800 ft, 3200 ft, and about 3840 ft of penetration. Three of these cylinders were staged previously. After survey, he intended to return to his CCR and don it, then scooter back out.
The victim had 15 years of diving experience, 2.5 years as a certified cave diver. He was also certified for DPV and Technical Cave. Eleven months prior to his death, he became a CCR diver. He was certified in CCR Cave for four months prior to the accident. A cave instructor rating was also held for four months prior to the accident. The victim was a trimix instructor.
Three of his stage bottles and one deco bottle were in the cave. His decompression cylinder was an aluminum 40. It was labeled oxygen and found empty. The cylinder was located near the cavern zone and did not have a gauge. An attached pouch held wet notes and a decompression schedule. An aluminum 80 stage bottle was found at 1800 ft of penetration. It was labeled as 32%, MOD 33m. Gas analysis showed 31% oxygen and pressure 220 bar. At 3450 feet of penetration, there was another aluminum 80 found. It was labeled as 32%, MOD 33m. Gas analysis showed 32% oxygen and 3000 psi. Another cylinder was found ten feet from the victim, who was at 3850 ft penetration. This was an aluminum 80, labeled as 32%, MOD 33m. Gas analysis showed 31% oxygen and 3000 psi.
The victim was found laying on his back and head oriented downstream. He was on top of the line at a penetration distance of 3850 ft. and a depth of 108 ft. The bottom was a clay floor. Visibility during the time of his dive was reported to be very low. His fins were in place and had clay on them. His mask was in place and contained a bloody froth. Cylinders appeared to be properly plumbed in to the CCR. The loop was closed and floating in front of the victim’s face. Neither CCR handset was being worn. The handset and HUD (heads up display) he normally wore was behind him. Reportedly, the victim usually dove with one handset behind him. Two high pressure steel 100s were found with the victim. These were used as both CCR diluent and sidemount bottles. One was attached in sidemount configuration, the other was not attached. Both cylinders were empty. The valves were loose enough to be removed by hand after recovery. Both second stages on his diluent bottles were deployed, full of mud, and laying to the side.
His sidemount rig and CCR were on his body and secured. The CCR cylinders were 19 cf each and mounted on the unit. Both were labeled as oxygen. The right cylinder was empty, connected to the CCR, and set to run on automatic (the solenoid would fire at set point of 0.7). The solenoid continued trying to fire when the CCR scrubber was examined after the recovery. The left cylinder was set to run manually and had 200 bar of pressure. The DSV (dive surface valve) was closed. The three oxygen sensors read 0.14, 0.17, and 0.87.
The CCR scrubber canister contained water and foam when examined on site after recovery. Corrosion was seen in the canister and on the electronics. The solenoid was attempting to fire. The CCR was mated to a back plate and commercially made sidemount rig. Equipment appeared to be properly rigged and in good condition.
The victim also had two spools with up to 150 ft of line each. An empty reel that appeared to be home made was empty. The victim was confirmed as having 800 ft of knotted line when he started the dive. His primary light had an estimated burn time of seven hours. All of his lights were functional, including back ups. A dive computer, knife, and bottom timer were worn. His survey compass and wet notes containing survey data were on his person. He carried four line arrows marked 4100, 4200, 4300, and 4400.
Recovery divers confirmed the victim was off the CCR loop and appeared to be on open circuit. After this, they removed all gear except his fins as there was no way to recover him with his rig in place. Recovery took one day with a team of 11 members.
There are other facts to consider when analyzing this fatality. Shortly before the fatal accident, the victim’s significant other had reported him late from a previous dive. A recovery team was being mobilized when he emerged from the cave two hours overdue. She was waiting for him again on the dive when he died. The victim had been on a long break off from his work overseas. He planned to return home and back to work after this cave diving trip. He was engaged and to be married in six months.
Focus on the diver, his possible thoughts, and choices. What was the recipe for this disaster?
This diver died, but who else has been hurt?
Who will have to live with the consequences of this disaster?
The victim and his equipment had to be located, towed, and moved back through restrictions. Recovery was made more difficult by the victim’s rigidity. Again, remember that recovery divers are put at risk in situations like this. Other cave divers in the system were also affected by significant loss of visibility resulting from the victim’s actions.
How will you avoid a disaster like this one?
How does the mind of the diver tremendously impact dive safety?
Putting It All Together
One common theme shines through in all four case studies. In each situation, divers used poor judgment. The mind of the diver and the decisions she or he makes are critical for safe, enjoyable cave dives. Good choices are crucial for the safety of the team as well as the emotional health and well being of your loved ones. Do not let down the people who care about you! Always have a safety-minded attitude and make smart choices when cave diving.
10 Guidelines for Accident Prevention and Management
Obtain yearly medical exam and maintain fitness to dive
Maintain proper hydration, nutrition, and rest
Maintain excellent physical and emotional health
Consider and respect the environment
Use well maintained, functional equipment
Plan dives as a team and adhere to the plan
Function as team player while remaining self-reliant
Emphasize precision and technique
Report and care for injuries
Someone is Hurt, What Do We Do?
Have an emergency plan in place before diving. This is especially important at remote sites or areas with poor phone reception. Call for help as soon as possible by using your local emergency response number.
Provide oxygen, first aid, and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) as needed. If an AED (automated external defibrillator) is nearby, obtain it. If a diver may have decompression illness, or is “bent”, provide the highest concentration of oxygen possible and alert diving medical help. The DAN emergency number is 1-919-684-4DAN (4326) in the United States. Always call local emergency medical services first, then DAN. Be aware that divers with DCS may express denial. Take signs and symptoms of illness seriously. Report and care for all injuries.
If a fatal accident has occurred, immediately notify local law enforcement. If the diver is still in the cave, quickly call your local emergency response number. In most areas in the United States this is “9-1-1”. The IUCRR (International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery) team will be notified by law enforcement.
Helping Others Who Are Experiencing Loss
Many feel awkward after someone has died or been seriously injured. Discomfort with emotions may make it harder to express oneself. Although intentions may be good, this may cause problems when interacting with the victim’s loved ones or buddies. Compassion and being a good listener are important. Look past personal feelings of awkwardness and try to empathize with the person experiencing loss.
Listen to them. The sooner they can release feelings, the better. Do not judge, minimize their feelings, or problem solve. There is no quick fix.
Avoid using clichés. Instead, say something genuine that lets them know you want to help, such as “this must be really hard for you”. Use eye contact and give your full attention. Accept the person’s reaction, regardless of what it might be. Don’t judge them, even if they are angry at the victim.
Be there. By listening and just being there, you send a powerful message that you care. Avoid saying things like, “I know how you feel” because you do not. It’s all right to confess that you don’t know what to do or say.
Be supportive. Mow their lawn, bring them dinner, or offer to babysit. Do their laundry or sweep the floors. Don’t wait to be asked for help. Drop by to visit with a pizza. Avoid saying “call if you need anything”. They won’t call you. People experiencing grief are not good at recovering from the situation alone. Instead, they may socially withdraw.
If a gesture of help is not accepted, try again later. Remember to refer to the victim by name. Talk about them and the good times you shared together.
The National Association for Cave Diving
Safety, education, conservation, service, and exploration are the pillars of the NACD. The primary purpose of the organization is to provide educational material and information related to the art of safe cave diving. As your cave diving organization, the NACD does the following:
• Establish and maintain guidelines for equipment and techniques
• Promote and encourage safety in the sport
• Encourage and support education about accepted practices
• Provide education and advanced training as appropriate for cave diving
• Work to achieve cooperation and understanding among the members of the cave diving community and with the general public
• Encourage, promote, and support the development of innovative, experimental and/or exploratory diving techniques, practices, and equipment
Training programs available include:
• Intro to Cave (Single or Double Cylinders)
• Apprentice to Cave
• Full Cave
• Instructor Programs
For more information, including a current list of instructors and activities, go to the NACD website at www.safecavediving.com
Who is the IUCRR?
The mission of the IUCRR team is to support all public safety agencies in the rescue and/or recovery of victims in an underwater environment with overhead obstruction. This includes caverns, caves, mine shafts, etc.
Made up of volunteers, this not-for-profit organization is prepared to assist law enforcement upon request with rescue and recovery operations worldwide. Interested cave divers are trained in proper technique for these missions through Recovery Diver courses. Learn more on the internet at www.iucrr.org
Thanks to the IUCRR for sharing their accident files as a resource for this publication.
Make smart choices while cave diving!
© 2015-2016 The NACD is owned by The NACD Membership and is a Not-For-Profit Organization
P.O. Box 14492 Gainesville, Florida USA 32604