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Lost in a Cave: Becoming the Aware Cave Diver
by: Frank Gutierrez
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.
In the best case, air was about 25 minutes away and there was barely enough gas to make it out.
The 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.