Is Cave CCR the Ultimate Challenge in Diving?

by Steve Lewis:

rebreather in cave

As if cave diving isn’t challenging enough, how should we feel about adding a rebreather to the mix?

When asked, which happens from time to time, I’ll explain to anyone who’ll listen that the easiest way to really give your diving skills a workout is to enroll in a cave diving class. The customer feedback from folks, who take this piece of advice, and dive into a technical overhead program, usually makes extensive use of the words “humbling” and “embarrassing”. The phrase: “brought me down a peg” or something similar often makes an appearance too.

Cave diving, and to some extent Advanced Wreck Diving (i.e. wreck penetration), is fundamental to technical diving. Most of the information covered and the majority of skills and techniques taught in any technical diving program have their foundations in basic cave diving. The presence of a rock ceiling, rock walls, and a rock floor (often covered in a deep layer of fine-grained mud) tends to focus the mind and put a special meaning and strong emphasis to the sage advice that bailing out to the surface is not an option. As any technical diver will tell you, it’s very unwise to bolt for the surface on any dive, especially one that’s incurred a decompression obligation, but in a cave several hundred metres or feet from open water, that option is completely off the table. Problems of all shapes and sizes have to be fixed at depth.

One result of not being able to surface at will, is the cave diver’s conservative approach to gas management: specifically, carrying enough gas to get them and a buddy back to safety in the event of the most horrendous equipment malfunction at the back of the cave. The Rule of Thirds, the starting point from which cave divers traditionally begin their gas volume calculations, is the ubiquitous gas management technique adopted by virtually all technical divers.

Also, the techniques developed and refined by cave divers operating in North Florida and the Caribbean for communications, propulsion, equipment selection and configuration have to a great extent become the best-practice defaults for almost every technical diver around the world.

Furthermore, it’s long been accepted that the standards required for cave instructors (and their students) to earn their certifications to teach (or dive) in caves, are among the most stringent. Broadly speaking, the consensus is that cave divers and the men and women who certify them, are among the most meticulous and squared away of any group of divers.

So, what happens when we take the rigors of a cave diving course and apply them to a new program for which the core life-support systems have been changed from open-circuit to closed?

To begin any comparison, it’s fair to say that TDI’s training department and advisory panel thought long and hard about the best ways to evolve its successful cave diving curriculum to include the special needs of closed-circuit rebreather diving. I was not at head-office for the whole of the development process, but I know it was the work of a larger development team than any previous program. Which is hardly surprising given the magnitude of responsibility to “get it right” when combining the complexity of a rebreather with a supremely challenging underwater environment. Hardly surprising and somewhat comforting!

Given that, let’s look at what they came up with!

The basic shape of most cave courses is the same regardless of what type of gear the diver opts to use. The first step is Cavern Diver. Graduates from Cavern can move up to Intro-Cave Diver; and once that level is achieved are able to sign-up for Intro to Cave and Full Cave courses.

In the briefest of terms, cavern divers are severely limited in where they can venture; intro-cave divers have to stay on the permanent main line or gold line and are not allowed to make any jumps to side passages; and full-cave divers have a license to learn in most of the cave’s main and secondary passages.

The progression has stood almost unchanged since the first organised cave diving programs that pre-date the formation of most of today’s mainstream certifying agencies… in other words, it’s a progression that’s stood the test of time and held its value well. It then follows logically that TDI’s CCR Cave program follows this same structural paradigm.

WHAT’S A CAVERN?
I don’t think there’s any real confusion about where open water ends and a cavern begins: if you cannot swim straight up to the surface and fresh-air, you’re in an overhead environment. If the ceiling is wood or metal, chances are that you are inside a wreck, and if the ceiling is rock, you’re in a cavern.

There might be more confusion about the other end of the cavern and where exactly it turns into a cave.

The standard definition is that the primary source of light in a cavern is daylight. If you and I swim into a cavern and lose sight of the entrance and daylight, we have exited the cavern zone and entered the cave proper. And for the record, there are no caverns at night… and some cave systems do not have a cavern zone to speak of at all. (The Eagles Nest system in Florida as an example.)

That definition does not change for rebreather divers, but there is a subtle change that fundamentally sets up one of the challenging limits for overhead training on any CCR.

One absolute limiting factor for all open-circuit divers is the volume of gas they and their buddy or buddies are carrying. That volume (X litres or Y cubic feet) helps to define just how far they can travel into an overhead environment… given that they follow the established guidelines for gas volume management.

In TDI’s open-circuit (OC) cavern course, penetration is limited to one-third of the volume of a single diving cylinder or one-sixth if the divers are using double cylinders. This is somewhat further defined to explain that the available volume for penetration for the whole dive team is set by the team member with the smaller cylinder or who has the smaller(est) starting volume.

The same volume limit is suggested for OC intro-to-cave graduates.

This limit very effectively helps to “police” or control new cave divers’ return access to open-water and safety. Since running out of gas is #1 on the list of things to guarantee a cave diver is going to have a bad day, the one-third in a single / one sixth in twins guideline goes some way in keeping new cave divers from venturing too far into the cave.

But a fully functional CCR does not have the same sort of built-in restriction. Certainly both diluent and oxygen supply is limited but those limits are measured in hours rather than minutes.

Let’s take the oxygen supply as an example. (Forgive the use of SI units but cubic feet are more complicated and unnecessary to get the point across. If you are only used to American Customary Units, just think of litres as quarts.)

We’re taught that the average per minute oxygen consumption rate for a diver is 1.5 litres. This volume is depth independent. And unlike their OC breathing brother and sister divers, for a diver on CCR, it really makes little difference whether the consumption is measured on the surface or at advanced trimix depth. One’s consumption rate will vary a little with workload, but 1.5 litres makes a pretty good average to work with. For now, let’s make life simpler and a tad more conservative, and use a consumption rate of 2.0 L/min. This is really quite high, but two litres a minute makes the arithmetic even easier than it would be at 1.5.

Now the smallest rebreather tank in common use has a wet volume of about two litres. That means every full atmosphere of pressure in that tank equals two litres of gas. In other words, a fill of 200 bar means there are 200 X 2 litres of gas. That’s 400 litres of gas. Quick math… at two litres a minute consumption, this volume of gas will last up to 200 minutes!

Even if we follow a sort of rule of thirds and suggest a CCR diver only use one-third of his or her starting volume of oxygen, one third of 200 minutes is more than an hour.

This means that if a beginning CCR cave diver follows the same gas rules as an OC diver, he or she can swim into the cave for an hour before having to turn the dive on gas volume! An hour of swimming into a cave usually translates into about an hour swimming out. Sometimes the flow helps to make an exit a little shorter, but an hour would be a fair estimate.

I think even those of us who have zero cave experience will begin to see the potential for a huge problem with this scenario.

If we were to line up the special concerns of those who teach CCR cave diving, at the front of the queue would be: a rebreather is essentially a potentially wicked cross between a time machine and a gas extender. What makes it potentially wicked is that compared to the classic North Florida set of twin steel tanks (even the big ones) the most inexperienced diver can wander deeper in to a cave system… much deeper than he or she should. If something bad happens, an hour is a long swim nursing a problem.

The “magic bullet” designed to help avoid this type of event centers on bailout gas.

Bailout gas is what a CCR diver carries for contingencies. Should the rebreather become completely inoperable, then they stop using it and start breathing from a tank of compressed gas using a scuba regulator. In other words, they fall back on good old-fashioned open circuit.

Some time is spent in the foundation dives for cavern and intro-cave CCR programs working out how much bailout gas each diver must carry, and how far from the surface that gas allows them to venture.

The calculations for this distance are based on a consumption rate effected by a carbon-dioxide breakthrough on the rebreather. A breakthrough such as this would probably result in a diver breathing like a racehorse on the final furlong of the Preakness. Therefore, the calculations are conservative and the guidelines they offer for penetration are written in stone: a sensible diver would never dream of compromising his safety by ignoring these guidelines.

Is your head spinning yet?

The truth is that the task loading for a student taking a CCR Cave class is really high. In addition to the gas management “thing” they have to master all the skills expected of an OC cave diver. They have to run line, place line markers, read the cave, overcome current, learn navigation, perform lost line drills, lost buddy drills, show their instructor perfectly executed bottle swapping in zero vis, and prove they can swim without kicking up a curtain of silt. And when that’s finished, they need to come up with strategies for rebreather-specific issues. They have to run their CCR manually, in SCR mode, they have to deal with depleted diluent, low oxygen, stuck solenoids, and a raft of other “fun” challenges!

Is your head spinning now?

The truth is that I dive CCRs in caves by choice. I believe that all things being equal, a rebreather is the right tool for cave exploration eight times out of ten. (Sidemount covers the other 20 percent!) Like so many high-risk activities, the pay-off is high-value. It’s also a class I love to teach because it is such a challenge and students walk away with a justified sense of accomplishment.

Is Cave CCR the ultimate challenge in diving? I know Brian [Carney, president of TDI] and the team in TDI’s training department well, and I am sure they have other cards up their sleeve; but as it stands, I cannot think of another program that tests a diver’s mental and physical stamina more than this course.

Is it fun? Yes it is. Is it useful? Certainly. Is it tough? Sure thing. Should you start planning to challenge yourself? Well, I don’t know if you’re ready but if you think you might be… Go for it!


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2 Responses to Is Cave CCR the Ultimate Challenge in Diving?

  1. Evan says:

    Some credibility lost at the side mount comment. Once again, It’s simply another tool and it’s job specific. Try harder to avoid fanboy nonsense.

  2. Sounds like a absolute awesome course !
    Anything on paper with regards to a TDI technical
    Rescue course ?
    Sports divers have them, which yes does cover a lot of issues, but
    I beleive as technical diving does advance forwards we need a Technical Rescue Course.

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