My first exposure to cave diving came in a telephone interview with National Association for Cave Diving (NACD) technological chairman Bill Gavin, while researching material for this issue. Working through a list of carefully worded questions with growing fascination, I finally popped the question, “Do you do a lot of decompression diving?” Gavin’s answer was a little more than I was prepared for. “Nah, we don’t do much decompression diving any more. At least not on standard air. Since that time, I’ve discovered there’s almost nothing standard about cave diving.
Unique in their focus and commitment, the cave community represents the underground of diving. Made up of just plain folks (if there is such a thing in this industry), high school teachers, engineers, anesthesiologists, pilots, paramedics and philosophers—cave divers have given new meaning to the phrase “pushing the envelope.” From record penetrations 780 feet down—a dive requiring 10 1/2 hours of decompression—to an intercave traverse 8750 feet long at an average depth of 240 feet, cave divers are redefining the limits of diving. Regarded as crazies by some, revered by others, most critics would agree that the cave diving community sports some of the most technically sophisticated divers in the world.
In the overhead environment of cave systems, a diver can’t surface directly, regardless of the nitrogen uptake. Decompression is one or more stops, and every dive’s a night dive. Line entanglement, zero visibility silt outs, and equipment failures are challenges that must be solved at depth, and for good reason: safety is a matter of life and death. Every accident—a subject for meticulous scrutiny by the prudent—can be fatal, a fact reflected in the cave divers’ handbook, “Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival.”
Environmentally conditioned, cave divers have developed a technical experience base that’s a model for the industry, paid for, as one of its members said, “in blood and tears.”
To the serious cave diver, redundancy is an exacting science. The standard issue includes three lights, an auxiliary reel, dual manifold, back-up regulators, SPGs and masks. Air rules and standard operating procedures are a matter of religious zeal. Dive computers—often 16MHz laptops and minis running specialized mix decompression programs before a dive, supplement “on board” DCs which are carried in pairs. Mixing your own is a matter of course, and tinkers and garage workshop technicians are the rule not the exception.
Founded in 1968, the National Association for Cave Diving and its sister organization, the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section (NSSCDS), has guided the community through the issues of standards, education, training and safety. In its 21 years, the non-profit organization has impacted a lot of lives, including that of its past president, Steve Gerrard. A certified cave diver since 1975, Gerrard is an active cave diving instructor, course director, and editor of the NACD journal.