How Logging Your Dives Can Make You a Better Diver

Here are a few items you can include in your logbook to help you stay organized and honest, track progress, and work on self-improvement as a diver.

The Most Important Equipment for Cave Diving

I’ve had the good fortune to be in the company of some of the most respected overhead divers/instructors/instructor trainers spanning the globe.

Cave Diving: Directional and Non-directional Markers 101

Cave divers use a distinct set of markers to determine direction and distance traveled in a cave.

Cave Training at a Young Age

I constantly have to remind myself that gushing about my new dive toys to my friends at lunch will only be met with confused facial expressions, while discussing teenage gossip with a group of seasoned divers will have the same result.

Caves and DPV’s: What You Should Know

With a DPV, as with overhead environments and rebreathers, a diver must master the basics first and foremost

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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Tel: 888.778.9073 | 207.729.4201

Cave diving: more teamwork than a marriage

cave_diving_teamworkThe only plan we had when TDI Instructor Trainer Ben Reymenants asked us to join a trip to Chiao Lan lake’s floating rafthouses was to do nothing at all; read a book and relax for a couple of days on the water. The group we went with was packed with cave divers and students ready to explore the secrets that hide inside the local caves. Our initial plan was to tag along and make one or two dives to peek into the dark abyss in front of the cave. Well, it didn’t turn out as planned. Curiosity got the better of us and we decided to enroll in the cave diving course. I’m fairly certain Ben knew that all along because he had equipment ready for us to use.

Dark as a night; one only sees the wide light beam emitted by the torch held by your small shaky hand. There is a good chance that you may not see your own light if the diver in front of you decides to stir up some sediment. That’s why you have to obey the one golden rule – no matter what happens or what you are doing, never ever lose your guide line. It just so happened that somebody (not pointing fingers) gently removed our masks and as you might know, seeing underwater without a mask is a bit complicated. Here we go, now it’s time to start exiting!

You must be certain the direction you’re going is the right way out. If you lose the line, you’re in trouble. By holding the line and feeling the previously placed directional markers on it, we started slowly moving towards the exit. Usually when something goes wrong other things that were good until this point start to go wrong as well. It becomes a downward spiral. For example, you may run out of air in addition to zero visibility. That’s another reason to have a good teammate in there which is why I think cave diving is more teamwork than a marriage.

It’s not an ego thing that demands a cave diver to be in good shape. You need to be able to swim long distances without getting tired.  Inside a cave, you no longer have the option to go up when you would like to end the dive.  As far as you swim in, you must be able to swim out.

There are thousands of years of history recorded in the caves. The caves in Chiao Lan are formed by acids found in the ground and rainwater that dissolved limestone and made cracks in it. It takes thousands of years more until cave systems are formed until, for some natural or artificial reason, the caves are flooded and become home to a very unique ecosystem.

There are stalactites hanging down from the ceilings revealing time stamps and stalagmites grow from the floor like trees. There is almost no vegetation and fauna is quite scarce. You can find some near blind cavefish that may bounce off you during the dive because of they don’t see you (obviously), along with white crabs and lobsters, mustached catfish and snakehead fish dating back to ancient times.

cave_diving_teamwork_2During the last couple of years, it seems I constantly have to test my limits. Like now – I didn’t know anything about cave diving but Ben Reymenants and Paul Kirby taught us the skills necessary to navigate in the caves, deal with entanglements, find the exit in zero visibility, and much more. Over the time I’ve developed some sort of peace and mindset that I’ll do the things as well as I can. A cave diver has to know how to lay a line and tie knots because the line that leads you into the cave is like an umbilical cord; it’s your lifeline that supports you. I practiced my lifeline skills a lot during that week, invented some totally new knots and mastered the known ones.

Tuuli Piirsalu is working as organization development manager for Daimler Financial Services in Singapore. Before urban life she worked as a diving instructor in Egypt, Maldives and Thailand.

Contact SDI TDI and ERDI
If you would like more information, please contact our World Headquarters or your Regional Office.

Tel: 888.778.9073 | 207.729.4201

Cave Diving and the Dangers without Proper Training


“More than 300 divers – including open water instructors — have died in caves just like this one. Prevent your death. Go no further.”

Now, I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but when I was a fledgling open water diver, if faced with a sign that shared that little snippet of information with me, I am pretty sure that I would have turned around and gotten the heck out of dodge. Big signs with that wording and an image of the Grim Reaper are placed at the entrance to most caves in Florida as well as other spots in the Bahamas, Mexico and so on. But sadly, many divers, divers who have no business being in any overhead environment and especially a cave, choose to ignore them.

The question is why?

If you take a look through the standards for SDI’s open-water programs – from beginner to open-water instructor trainer – there are some very specific recommendations to stay away from “overhead environments.” For the record, an overhead environment is ANY spot from which a direct ascent to the surface is not possible. And to further clarify, a direct ascent means that if a diver were to fill a lift bag, DSMB, or balloon at depth and release it, it should make it to the surface without touching rock, wreck, coral or anything else. If that lift bag, DSMB, or balloon DOES touch anything at all, the diver should be trained and equipped, to be there.

OK, more definitions. It’s fair to say that the foundation of most of the skills, techniques and gear associated with technical diving have their beginnings in cave diving. Cave diving is – to many – where sport diving stops and technical diving begins. Certainly, courses in cave diving from TDI are considered “Fully technical” and for good reason.

Since the inception of structured cave diving education, the progress from being an experienced open-water diver to a full cave diver has followed a similar pathway regardless of the certifying agency or location of the program being offered.

It begins with a cavern course. This program is designed to introduce basic skills such as how to swim without kicking up a huge cloud of silt; how to use a reel and deploy a line in water without getting tied up like a Christmas present; how to communicate with your buddy so there’s no ambiguity; and how to manage gas volume so that you and your mate have something to breathe for the duration of the dive even if something goes totally pear-shaped and one of you loses all his gas.

The next step in cave diver training is an Intro-to-Cave class. This builds on the fundamental skills presented in the cavern class and introduces more intensive equipment management drills. Graduates from this level of training can venture into the cave, but still have to function within certain limits, such as staying in the main passageways and making no jumps to side passages.

And finally is a full-cave class which essentially gives a diver a “licence to learn,” inside the cave proper and its off-shoots and side tunnels. But even then, there are limits and several other steps in both experience and training before this diver has “free-run” of the cave.

NONE of the skills required to help keep a diver safe in a cave or cavern are taught in a recreational open-water class… including an instructor class… and the equipment used by sport divers the world over has no place in a cave.

Caves can be beautiful but that beauty can become extremely ugly in a couple of heartbeats. Here are some things that have happened to untrained divers who almost died in a cavern or cave but somehow managed to find their way out.

“We only intended to swim in a little way, but there were lots of passages and we got turned around…”
“The water was really clear but my buddy crashed into the bottom and I lost sight of him and the exit. I think he is still in there…”
“We had a light between us but it went out. It was really dark and I kept swimming into the walls…
“I swum in a little way and then my octo started to freeflow…”
“We followed a line and it just stopped and then I got tangled in it…”
“I panicked when I turned and could not see the exit.”

Let’s look again at some definitions. The definition of a cavern, and the limit of a cavern dive, is that the primary light is sunlight. Cavern divers must still use and carry lights (several of them), but at all times, both divers must be able to see the exit of the cavern. And for the record, the Grim Reaper sign mentioned in the first paragraph is usually placed at the edge of the so-called cavern-zone… the transition point from cavern to cave.

Now, just in case you are thinking to yourself right now: “Well, I guess it’s OK to go and take a peek inside a cavern because the sign telling me to go no further is there and NOT at the entrance to the cavern itself” let’s consider a couple of things including the benefits and reasons behind the skills taught cavern divers.

Remember the first rule of scuba diving: Never hold your breath? Well, the first rule of technical diving delivers more or less the same message: “Always have something to breathe!” That way, you never HAVE to hold your breath and break the first rule of scuba diving.” That makes sense doesn’t it?

Many of the several hundred divers who have perished in caves have actually died in the cavern zone: right there within sight of the exit. How, you might ask, could that happen? After all, it’s just a cavern, nothing challenging about that! Well, as surprising as it may seem, they ran out of something to breathe because they could not see daylight. They had flutter-kicked their way a few metres into the cavern and in doing so had totally silted things out so badly that they were suddenly in a black-out. They found themselves lost! Then, with their breathing rate elevated because of stress… and then panic… they had used up their air supply in minutes while searching for the way out. In their confusion, some had actually swum further into the cave.

Occasionally, the poor sap who ends up dead may have been told that caverns and caves are safe, and believed it. There may even have been an open-water instructor telling them that it’s OK to follow them into a cavern or cave. Well, the truth is that is in NOT OK and dive leaders who take untrained divers into an overhead are breaking standards… pure and simple.

There are no grey areas when it comes to this overhead stuff. Going in there without the right kit and training is seriously tempting fate, and there are so many other ways to enjoy yourself with scuba. Please, please, do not go into an overhead until you get training in overhead diving and get yourself some serious kit and gain the experience to use it properly.

Steve Lewis
TDI instructor trainer #6

Contact SDI TDI and ERDI
If you would like more information, please contact our World Headquarters or your Regional Office.

Tel: 888.778.9073 | 207.729.4201

Cave Diving 101

Isn’t it time you learned more?

Click Image to Expand

Perhaps one of the most common questions Technical Diving International’s (TDI) Training Department gets is “why do I need training for overhead environments?” While this question seems pretty obvious to TDI, we understand why it is not so obvious to the average diver. After all, you are breathing underwater, controlling your buoyancy and managing air just like you would on any other dive, right? Wrong. In this article we are going to focus on one specific type of overhead diving: caves.

Caves are one of the most fascinating environments a person can explore. Just think about it: these massive natural tunnels (some only a metre or 3 feet down) are below us, some dry some wet, while life on the surface moves along at its normal pace completely unaware that they even exist. These natural tunnels are responsible for a large portion of our drinking water and for moving water to the oceans or lakes to avoid flooding during rainy seasons and snow melt. Nearly every continent and country contains caves, most undocumented and unexplored. Some of these caves are just barely big enough for an adult to fit though while others are big enough to fit a descent sized town in.

While caves are undoubtedly fascinating, and there is clearly a need for them to be explored, they deserve a lot of respect and require specialized training before they are entered. Not all caves are made alike; some caves are low visibility with high water flow while others have clear warm water. Some caves are solid with no chance of the “roof” collapsing while others have what are called “breakdown rooms.” These rooms are where the earth above has been eroded to a point where it falls to the floor of the cave forming a large cone in the center; when this roof will fall is anyone’s guess. In some areas, even the caves that appear to be very stable are subject to seismic activity and could collapse.

The point here is that before entering any cave system proper training is required. Your TDI instructor, among other knowledge and skills, will teach you how the cave was formed and its stability. You will also learn things to look out for when planning a cave dive like “where do I look to find recent seismic activity so I know when it is safe to dive?”

Cave training is also a progression in training starting with caverns where you learn the basic techniques for deploying guidelines, buddy communication with lights and air management, all while staying in the ambient light zone. The next course is cave which takes you beyond the ambient light zone further into the cave requiring more air management skills and guideline techniques. The pinnacle of cave training is full cave; here you will learn complex circuits with jumps off the mainline and even more air management to allow for decompression dives. Please note: Decompression procedures is a pre-requisite for this course, decompression diving is not taught as part of the full cave course.

At any stage of your cave training you can add in other training such as: cave- diver propulsion vehicle (DPV), cave survey, sidemount or sump diving. There is a lot to do, see and learn just below the surface of the rock we walk on every day, but it requires some training from a TDI Professional. After this training you will be amazed at the exploration you will be capable of, and your friends will love the stories of your adventures.

So if cave diving is something you would like to learn more about, ask your local TDI facility or Instructor for more information. Our website is always a great place to start for additional information, or simply give us a call at 888.778.9073 or 207.729.4201.