I've never been near an underwater cave before. To me, the thought of going in an overhead environment never appealed. The lure of diving has always been about navigating the surf or inconsistent bottom terrain, observing the reef structure or millions of creatures that inhabit various rocks, interrupting various mating rituals and negotiating the kelp. What of that is there in a cave? What would a beach-loving diver ever find in common with polar opposites?
My jouney started about five months ago when Jeff Seckendorf both mentioned and invited me to attend Cave Week 2 in Tulum, Mexico. My first thought was: "what the f--k? I'm not a cave diver, he knows that". My second reaction was a much more tame excitement at the mere invitation of it. To help me determine whether I wanted to go that route I signed up for an Overhead Protocols class. After passing I decided to proceed with signing up for both a cave class (Cave 1 and 2 combined) and Cave Week.
As D-Day approaches I feel increasingly anxious. Thoughts of exploring the various underground labrynths destroy just about any other imagining in my head only to be subsumed by concerns about whether I would actually enjoy the sport. Would I be clausterphobic? Would I panic? How well will I reaect to zero viz in the real enviornment? I've been a UTD diver for a while now. Tech 1 certified, UTD Divemaster, serious about the sport but still a bit young in it. I'm accustomed to virtual overhead environments; all DIR diving presumes a virtual overhead. Presumably the real thing would not be different.
On the first day we arrive at the Cenote "Car Wash". It's a humble little pond. Hard to imagine that what lies beneath could be a coffin to the unwary goer. It is so beautiful and serene above. The water clarity strikes as a calendar photo; perhaps a 'Nick Ambrose' rendition of a cover of a calendar where all the other photos are what lies beneath. A brief dry-run of zero-viz exit introduces us to the class for the day. Satisfied we won't kill ourselves the instructor has us copy a line map of the cave, gear up, and drop.
Entering in the system was rather anti-climatic. We do our primary tie-off, secondary, then navigate towards the gold line. Pretty much just procedure and protocol. There is a bit of awe one feels when entering the cave. Surely this is much more than just 'Wet Rocks'! Millions of years of stalagmite and stalactite growth, the tube itself chizzled away by eons of flow! The colors, formations, and soul gripping darkness. Zen! More Zen then Zen! A happy place for me! No fear, no more concerns about whether I feel comfortable! Very quiet and surreal!
Quiet, that is, until I hear bubbles on my right post! Stop! Signal! Close post! Ahhhh! That quietness again until my heartbeat occasionally overrides it with an increasingly rythmic tha-thump! All is good, buddy signals okay, switch back to primary reg, flow check, and on our way. After pushing further in, a team member experiences a primary light failure! We re-order the team and proceed to exit. When we arrive it is easy to be struck with awe at the direction of the way out (or is it the way out?)! There is little indication which way it actually is, there's about 10 obvious choices. But the line we ran doesn't lead to either of them. This was the moment when the reality of what I'm doing sinks in! The line is life! Life is the line! No line, no life! PERIOD!
The day continues in such a fashion: various valve failures, always a bind-exit, pushing further in each dive, OOA scenarios while blind, et cetera ad naseum! We pushed about 350' or so into the cave though it feels more.
The following day we arrive at "Mayan Blue" It's a little more in the jungle! Raining! But quiant. James made the mistake of heading to check out the basin and bringing back five million mosquitos with him. I must have received more mosquito bites in the first hour there than in 10 of my lifetimes prior. The water is quite tannic! We were warned of a crocadile but I think the instructor was just joking! The entrance here is a little restriction that drops vertically at a steep pitch. Not an easy place to lay line (for us at this point in our training and experience level). We did more of a repeat of the previous day.
The second dive was in 'B' tunnel. The entrance is similar but much smaller and more steep. We have to enter head first, not a textbook DIR trim position! The run of this cave averages about 50 ft and a good portion of it is in a halocline. Above the halocline is a dark, dungy kind of formation, while below it is a completely different white formation that is just beautiful to behold. Perhaps my favorite dive spot now! We pushed about 650' into the system this time. And if you want to behold any of it, you better have your team formation right or it'll be very distorted. More failures Iin the halocline which makes for interesting learning experiences) and blind exits. Here we learned that we need more practice at handling the confused manifold failure. Nothing a little 'reinforcing' doesn't resolve. Our exit time dramatically improved, also. So did our OOA resolution.
Day three we do Pondarosa. There are many swimmers here, a family place! The rocks that litter the cave floors are much more remaniscent of a bone yard than a cave. The plan is a bit different this time: we must do our lost-line and lost buddy scenarios. We head in, resolve a few minor right-post failures and eventually realize that buddy 3 is missing! Sweep! Cover light! Drop an arrow, write our gas calcualtions, attach the safety spool and go and get him. Thumb the dive. Two buddies got lost on this dive... what's going on?
The subsequent dive I was pulled off the line to simulate what I thought as a lost buddy. The instructor plants my hands on an oustanding tie off point but expecting someone to come for me I just sit there in the blackness for about 4 minutes before I realize no one is looking for me! Bastards! I'm going to get back myself. Primary tie-off: check! Secondary: check! Shotgun! I was 100% certain the line was in the direction I headed, but I missed it. So I turn back and reel it in to start a new direction when I cross the main line. "How did I miss it?" I think to myself. What happened was I came in under it, and in between my hand sweeping up and down, just happened to cross under the mainline while my sweep was in the down position. No matter! I kiss-the-line, tie off, and call the drill. The other two team members do the excercise and we call the day but not before more s--t happens.
We exit into the basin and do an unconscious diver retrieve and line-repair. Up until this point the class is a direct repeat of Overhead protocols except with upped up ante and in the environment itself. The team I'm with is fantastic: each GUE fundies and UTD Tech 2, well-practiced! Those two are a well-oiled machine! We get along well!
Day four begins Cave 2. Cave 1 is basic navigation by mainline only, no funny business. Cave 2 adds funny business: jumps, T's, gaps, and circuits.
Enter 'Temple of Doom'. A pit in the ground that has swimmers jumping off ledges to enter. It also has divers jumping off ledges to enter. To enter this cave you begin with a line jump then to head to the room of giants you pass a few T's then jump again through the fangs. Until now my breathing consumption has been excessive but manageable. But in this cave, we need to push about 800' in and make a jump that's about 100' (instructor wouldn't tell us but we needed a minimum 200' reel). My breathing rate was high enough we didn't make it to the jump. I thumb and we head back. On our way back the team stops for a few minutes in a zero-viz exit from turning point. The marker we dropped wasn't there to mark our exit direction on the T(the instructor removed it to simulate a possibility that it could happen and to reinforce our attention to the way in and line maps).
Four minutes pass while buddy 1 searches but decided in the likely direction; we all agreed. We death-gripped this line so tight that at one place we relocated it and found ourselves in a wedge that we didn't originate in. Barely large enough for a person to pass through. The line entagles on my fin and I had a hell of a time undoing it in the darkness and in the canyon wedge. Not sure if I undid it or the instructor but she insists I did it to myself. I have a right-post non-fixable, so does the other two divers in front of me. This exit feels like it's taking an eternity. Usually when you end up breathing on your backup with a closed manifold it's a prelude to OOG (simulated or otherwise). I know I'll be out of gas sooner or later. But we all have the same problem, while I know there won't be a simulated OOG, my SAC will provoke one!
Finally we get to our tie-off and cut the drill. Turn on our lights! At that very instant I'm at zero PSI. I signal to buddy for air as he's unclipping his primary and he delivers a non-functinal reg while simultaneously doing a flow check that opens up the air way. I also do a flow check opening up my airway and switch back. I learned the difference between signaling OOG in a drill and for reality. So for the Cave 2 portion of the class I'm out. I could not last long enough to make it far enough into the cave to actually make the jump to get training on the jump. Certainly I'm not happy about it but it is what it is. If that was a real situation the results could have been catastrophic. Cave diving is no joking matter.
Day five we return back to Mayan Blue where I do my checkout dive with a different instructor, laying line, zero-viz returns, line repair and so on. The rest of the team did Tunnel B; jumps and circuits back into Tunnel A. On the exit I had to switch to my backup mask. I noted the rock, grabbed the line and position of my buddy, and switch. Along the way (having a Fusion tech ltd pocket it was not easy to find the mask in the first place and retrieve it and then put my wetnotes back in) I switched hands many times to negotiate the evolution. He signaled 'which way is the exit?' That's easy, I note the rock... look around and find an exactly identical rock on opposite side of line behind me. He's in a slightly different spot than I expected. I look to match the mental note of stalactites but in either direction they look too similar. At that point the other team members just completed their circuit to Tunnel A on their exit so I pointed "exit that way" which incidentally happened to be the way I thought it was because I did not move on the line while I did the evolution which meant the exit would still be where I thought it was.
It was, however, a good lesson in understanding that when you do anything that might cause confusion of direction then you do something to mark the direction of exit (using a marker, or your hand with thumb pointing in the exit direction). If there was a silt or light failure or something else, you don't need confusion to the exit. What you can do with your eyes, you must be able to do without your eyes.
I passed for Cave 1 (them for Cave 2) but need to get my SAC down so I can come back and complete full cave. I would have passed full cave were it not for that, I'm certain of it.
Along the way, different things for different team members, we had to replace a primary light with a brighter one, fix a broken mouth piece, repair a drysuit inflator hose, change primary regs due to 1st stage leaks, repair two drysuits, fix a protruded 1st stage o-ring, and who knows what else. All things that would not have gone wrong if we weren't in a cave. Years of fully function equipment or new equipment has a way of breaking down when your at a cave.
Being a cave diver is much more than just taking a cave class and being a diver in a cave. Being a cave diver is about thinking like a cave diver and activing like a cave diver. Something as trivial as switching to backup mask can cause you to lose your sense of direction, a silt out can cause it, shotgunning too fast to pass underneath the line and miss it, not catching when your buddy has some problem that needs decisive resolve, or just being in the proper mental state to do the dive. In this past week I became a Cave Diver. All three of us.
Hopefully James or Jason can reply to this with their account of days 4 and 5 doing Cave 2 to complete the report and their perspective. They have some good stories about it.