Lost in a Cave: Becoming the Aware Cave Diver

Lost in a Cave

Over the last few years, I have studied the general dive ability and attitude of cave divers. Most understand that their awareness level is not optimum but have no idea how to improve it. When teaching cave diving courses, I always use an accident analysis theory session by talking about something that happened to me at the beginning of my cave diving career in order to show how important paying attention is. I tell my students about a navigational mistake that caused one of the scariest moments of my life. I had completed about forty cave dives when I nearly quit diving them altogether.

The dive plan was for a long but shallow dive into a pretty complex system which I had not yet visited before in the Yucatan. The cave already had a permanent guideline in place and the dive plan required two jumps off of the main guideline onto secondary lines.

After a predive check, it was time to get on the main guideline which started in open water and was very easy to find as it was tied to the platform. A few minutes into the dive, I found the jumps and installed reels connecting the permanent lines so that my exit was clearly marked and there was a continuous line to the open water.

The cave was spectacular. To this day, I have seen very few caves as beautifully decorated. I was in my own little world, enjoying the amazing view while keeping the line in sight. After an hour or so of penetration, it was time to turn around and go home. I knew it was going to be more than 45 minutes before I saw sunlight but at least the view would be fantastic along the way.

At the start of cave courses I often ask my students what scares them the most about cave diving. Nine out of ten say they are more fearful of a collapse than anything else.

Collapses are extremely rare and diver error is responsible for almost everything that can go wrong during cave dives. Inexperienced cave divers forget to take this into consideration since they are used to being in total control during very forgiving dives in other environments. Unfortunately, the nature of this type of diving is that sometimes the diver will not even realize a mistake was made until hours later. Adding complacency to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

Somewhere near the halfway point of the exit portion I saw something ahead of me that froze every muscle in my body. One of my worst fears was coming true and I was not ready to handle it.

Getting lost inside a cave is a powerful fear that many cave divers posses. Although we are trained to prevent and overcome getting lost, every cave diver has thought about it at some point or another. I swam up to the unmarked T (intersection) on the guideline and could not believe it was there. A million questions went through my head as I stared at it for what seemed like an eternity. Did someone install it while I was in the cave? Was this the same guideline used during the entry? Did I get turned around somehow? How did I miss this on the way in? Which way is home? Sitting there was absolutely useless and a decision needed to be made since I was chewing through gas pretty quickly. I tried to piece things together by replaying the dive in my head but my mind was completely blank.

The dive was so beautiful that I did not pay any attention on the way in and that would now cost me. It was probable that the T was there during the entry and I simply did not see it. It did not matter. I had no idea which way would get me out but it was time to start moving as the clock was ticking. I decided to turn left.

The water was incredible, crystal clear, and that made me very uneasy. I swam along this line for a few minutes when a very powerful feeling came over me that I was going the wrong way but everything was an uncertainty. Are the jump reels just around the corner or was I just getting further away from the entrance? The water was just too clear. There was no way that I had been there before. If anyone had been diving in that section in the last few hours there would be sediment, percolation, or bubbles on the ceiling.

Turning around to head back towards the T was terrifying. Gas was getting low and there was no time for another change of heart. It had to be the other line, but even if it was, would there be enough gas in the tanks to get out?

It is counter intuitive to slow down when in a time sensitive situation but it was the only way to conserve the remaining gas which I desperately needed. Managing stress so that things don’t worsen is extremely important. Slow, stay calm and breathe slow.

lost_in_a_cave_2The T came much sooner than I expected but there was no time to stop to analyze it again. In the best case, air was about 25 minutes away and there was barely enough gas to make it out. Compared to having zero awareness on the way into the cave, this was hyper awareness. I noticed everything, and it all looked so unfamiliar. Enormous doubts entered my head about which way was out. I was my own worst enemy but I knew that turning around was not an option. I would simply drown somewhere near that dreaded T if I turned back. I had to keep swimming. A few minutes later, I saw the second most amazing thing I have seen in my life. A jump spool with my name in big white letters was attached to the guideline. This was my way home. Now that I knew I was going the right way, all I hoped was to have enough gas to get me out.

After the dive, analyzing my memory of the incident was not helping me understand what happened. The stress I encountered erased some of the details. I knew that I had to repeat the dive for a couple of reasons. First, I would never cave dive again if I didn’t. Second, I needed to understand what I did wrong to correct it so I repeated the dive that evening. On the second dive, I found the T without much effort. It may have not been the easiest intersection to see, but I should have caught it during the initial dive.

The incident caused me to become obsessed with awareness. Taking very detailed mental notes of where things are in the cave has become a top priority. I found that awareness is crucial to the sport and has become the focal point of the cave courses that I now teach. Every one of my students is repeatedly drilled on skills that will help develop advanced awareness levels. Keeping the dive time reasonable is a major factor in maintaining awareness since long dives increase fatigue and make concentration impossible. The admiration of rocks, formations, and fossils has very low priority in order to survive cave dives. Awareness helps the diver understand where they are, how to best conserve the cave environment, what the team is doing, and what they should expect during the remainder of the dive. It is the key to efficient problem solving. Elevated awareness will also help avoid mistakes like the ones I made and assist in the development of very competent cave divers.

Frank Gutierrez
Blue Life: Riviera Maya, Mexico

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19 replies
  1. Lee Kresge
    Lee Kresge says:

    Having been off the line once, I know the feeling that likely knotted your stomach. What I can’t imagine, though, is having taken THAT long to get your orientation straightened out. I found the main line (in a familiar cave I might add) in less than 60s with my safety reel already in my hand. Had it taken any longer, I may have been another statistic…

  2. Frank
    Frank says:

    Oh man! I feel you. This was a bit different though, as I never lost contact with the guideline it was just a matter of not seeing a hidden T on my way in. Definitely a life changing event…
    Safe diving,

  3. Rob Wallace
    Rob Wallace says:

    I am not a cave diver and am frankly fairly petrified at the thought… Kudos to you guys for the excellent use of your training and nerves of steel.

  4. Scott Grigg
    Scott Grigg says:

    Frank…thank you very much for the story. always good to see a lessons learned so we can apply to our own diving. best scott from NC

  5. Francisco Pellat
    Francisco Pellat says:

    Thanks for sharing!
    What I most enjoy in cave diving is indeed the high level of awareness, and how every other though just go away out of my head.

  6. Scott Bonis
    Scott Bonis says:

    I have always taught my students that any piece of equipment can fail and by far, the most important piece of equipment that any diver takes into a cave is the computer between his ears. On several dives, I have seen a buddy forget to leave an arrow on a line and therefore left one myself. This includes one left at least every 10 minutes on even a straight line in an unfamiliar cave. I do not condone solo cave diving which in this case seems to have contributed to your dangerous situation.

  7. Annie martyn
    Annie martyn says:

    I held my breath throughout this story. I’m doing my cave training in September and far from finding these real life events a put off I find them incredibly instructive and consider them an important part of my training and education, so thank you Frank for posting.

  8. Roland
    Roland says:

    Scary!! Thanks for sharing your experience.
    I find that reading about other peoples incidents is a great way to learn.

  9. Frank
    Frank says:

    Thanks for the great feedback. The point of the article was exactly this, for fellow divers to take something away from the mistake(s) I made a very long time ago. I’m happy if it makes just one diver a little safer.

  10. Nick Sch
    Nick Sch says:

    What a great and honest story – thank you, Frank! I had a very similar experience in my early days of cave diving in Yucatan. I was on my way back to a T that I came from when I encountered an arrow I didn’t see before pointing in the opposite direction to where I was heading (back and out). I was not very familiar with the cave and naturally it looked very different in the reverse direction. Your story describes very well the feelings and doubts that I experienced at that very moment. I made an uneasy decision to keep going in the same direction for a bit before trying to swim the reverse direction. Luckily, after a couple nerve-wracking turns I ended up at my T with my clothespin hanging intact – what a heavenly relief. Basically, I had not seen the one arrow on the line that happened to point in the opposite direction as the line was looping back towards the exit (because I was admiring the sights). This was a life-changing experience for me which made me a true believer in complete awareness and progressive penetration over multiple dives to build understanding of the cave layout and visual memory before pushing further. Trying to see as much as possible on the first dive or two in a new cave is a terrible idea. If that’s one’s primary objective (which it may be if one is on a tight vacation schedule), then hire a local guide. Otherwise explore progressively with utmost care. That’s what I preach to my own students.

    As for solo cave diving, I salute the divers who do it. Diving solo demands the highest degree of self-awareness, responsibility, and risk judgement (and thus it’s not for everyone). I would dive any day with a diver who practices solo diving as he is amongst the safest most skilled divers out there. You just know that such a diver has passed Darwin’s tests with flying colors, can take care of himself, and has full awareness of his surrounding. One thing I like about TDI-SDI is that it does not reject divers who choose to be self-sufficient.

  11. Denny Ray
    Denny Ray says:

    What kind of helmets are the divers wearing in the picture above?
    I’ve been wanting to get a helmet and they look like the type I would want.
    Thanks for any info: brand, where to buy, price etc.
    Thanks. DR

  12. Frank
    Frank says:

    Hi nick,

    Thanks for sharing. It would be great to meet and talk about different awareness building techniques next time you are in the area.

    • Denny Ray
      Denny Ray says:

      HI Frank, Thanks! So although I’m not cave diving, more open water at this time, and starting to get into wreck diving, and this looks like a good choice for protection from any bumps and also mounting the go-pro camera. I like the idea of the red color for visability in and on the water. I do have a question…
      I know it sounds kind of silly, but I have to wonder if the color “red” would have any affect with the sea life, such as causing any agression from sharks, baracuda, or any other large underwater creatures. If anyone has any info please let me know. Thanks again.

  13. Dan
    Dan says:

    Your training kept you alive – and it’s why full cave is progressive and really requires preparation to get comfortable experiencing caverns and basic/apprentice cave dives. I do have a question. When planning your dive did you not consult the Cave system map when planning your dive? It seems to me that I usually note jumps and intersections that will proceed or preceded my planned root to avoid such confusion- plan the dive – dive the plan. Or did the system not have a map?

  14. Becky
    Becky says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I hope that everyone can learn from it. Were you solo on this dive? I find that a lot of accidents happen solo but that’s imho. I too have had a lost feeling and I can honestly say it was the worst experience i’ve ever had underwater. The pit in your stomach and as you stated hyperawareness is unlike anything you can describe. Even with proper training if you dive enough things like this can happen. I’m glad you’re safe and again i’m glad you shared your experience.

  15. Robert - Washington State
    Robert - Washington State says:

    Was the best article on stress that I have seen in awhile. I too had experience on a similar situation. But, since then I have incorporated pattern recognition and analysis into my diving sequences. It complements the attention to detail that we often focus on during diving. Seeing or noticing the big picture around us every few minutes continually eases my stress levels. Practice it on walks, runs, and other out door actives so it comes naturally when diving. Medical research and social dynamics proves humans are superb at recognizing patterns that then lead to indictors (details of a cave, for example). Anyway, thanks for the great example!!


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