by Steve Lewis:
Scuba diving seems to make an appearance on just about every sports writer’s list of the most dangerous recreational activities; and my guess is that when asked, every single one of the men and women compiling those lists would rank cave diving the most dangerous form of scuba diving. For example, Forbes, the venerable business magazine famous for listing things like the world’s richest person, most expensive car, or blingiest wristwatch, puts cave diving right up there with bull riding, base-jumping and surfing monster waves. With respect – and with a nod of the head to the personal bias resulting from being an avid cave diver – I feel we should temper any belief in the accuracy and relevance of these lists with the knowledge that they are put together by writers happier conforming to uninformed generalizations, than researching primary data and supportable statistical evidence… but let’s not go there right now.
Let’s say instead that although cave diving presents divers with an alarmingly long list of potential risks, those risks are well-managed and suppressed to a perfectly acceptable level by following a few quite simple rules. Sure, cave diving has the potential to be dangerous, but when we follow best-practice guidelines, the stats reflect a totally different perspective: in short, the level of danger is inversely proportional to how closely we stick to well-established guiding principles!
Paramount among these principles is having the relevant instruction, up-to-date experience and practice with the appropriate kit and skill set, and staying within personal limits.
For example, let’s consider entanglement… and the steps cave divers learn to reduce the dangers entanglement present.
Even if you have never been inside a cave, you may already know, those dived on a regular basis have a network of permanent lines and navigational markers in them. These lines (usually color-coded kernmantle), are fixed in positions that make them easily seen, and not easily tangled in fins or other gear. This helps to make getting snarled up in them unlikely: especially compared to divers who penetrate wrecks, which often have a horde of cables, nets, wires, and ropes ready to reach out and grab at passing dive gear. But cave divers are also taught a few skills to further ensure any interaction with lines is visual only.
The first step in the process of managing entanglement risk is to streamline one’s personal dive gear. This is part of the process that every Cavern/Intro Cave/Full Cave student is walked through with his or her instructor usually well BEFORE diving in an overhead environment.
Chief culprits are the “danglies”: any accessory, any piece of harness, any clip, reel, spool, light, or regulator second stage not tucked away either out of sight in a pocket or pouch or “hidden” making contact with permanent lines improbable.
Another step in the streamlining process is to “trim the fat” from one’s dive gear. This means to take only what’s needed, and to leave behind what’s not. For example, some divers like to adorn themselves with every piece of kit they can pick up and carry to the water. It’s not unusual to see divers (even cave divers) with five or six additional reels and assorted spools attached to their harnesses. Make no mistake, every member of a cave-diving team MUST at all times carry a safety reel or spool, but taking “three or four or five extras just in case” is overkill. Especially when the dive plan calls for no deviations from the main line or gold line. OTT (Over-The-Top) accessorizing is unnecessary and encourages the Christmas Tree approach to kit configuration!
With this in mind, we can segue to the topic of “line traps”, places on a diver’s kit or person that a line might get pushed into, making removal difficult, time-consuming, or darn right dangerous. Classic line traps include manufacturer’s standard fin and mask straps (which are either taped or replaced with better options); swing-gate boat clips (which are sometimes called suicide clips and typically replaced with bolt snaps); anything behind the diver’s back such as a doubles manifold or a tangle of reels and spools clipped to the diver’s butt; or a side-slung stage, bailout or decompression bottles (which should be pulled in tight to the body’s lateral line a la sidemount configured tanks). Most of these can be managed or eradicated completely using a little creativity, judicious gear selection and editing, and common sense, but some simply have to be accepted as inevitable (the behind the head paraphernalia for anyone diving backmounted doubles or a rebreather for example), and dealt with accordingly.
And this brings us to what is perhaps the most important skill, and certainly the one most difficult to acquire: positional and situational awareness.
Cavern and cave diving students learn that they should strive to develop complete control of their buoyancy and the ability to maintain their body in an attitude best suited to the conditions: often, but not always, horizontal trim. As these skills begin to develop and become finely tuned, a diver’s awareness expands to provide them uncanny feedback regarding the exact position of their hands, feet, fins, body, equipment, accessories, etc. relative to their environment. This makes it possible for them to maneuver through restrictions, glide past snags, over, around and under lines without coming into contact with anything.
Most of all perhaps, the seasoned cave diver understands the Zen-like concept of being in the moment… and being in no rush to get anywhere. Yes, the most common mistake made by new cavern and cave divers is to behave like a puppy at the beach… or perhaps more like a bull in a china shop. Slowing down, taking one’s time will certainly be helpful, and will help avoid entanglement. And in the cases where something does become snagged, the Stop, Think, Act response taught in basic SDI open water classes, remains the best advice.
So, go out there and have fun, and if you should bump into that writer from Forbes, take the time to explain that cave divers are not nutcases with a death wish!