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Cave Diving Training

Freedom at Depth – Reaching beyond a disability

Words by Jill Heinerth

When she’s not cave diving, Diane Morrell works for Spinal Cord Injury Ontario as a rehab counsellor. She is also a Director of Freedom at Depth. Photo: Rita Lemgruber

There is a stone embedded in the pavement of my old Florida home, the embossed message reads “Gravity Sucks.” It is a humble reminder that I find my grace underwater. Frankly, I am a bit awkward on land, having flipped my van, crashed my motorcycle, and fallen off my bicycle quite spectacularly. Having that message under foot reminds me to think about risk every day.

For me, diving is a chance to escape the unpredictability of the surface world. It also provides equality. Whether big or small, young or old, we can all float effortlessly in the delight of neutral buoyancy. Divers are elegant in their fluidity of motion and I feel completely free of earthly limitations when I am immersed.

I have walked away from my tumbles with gravity with only bumps, bruises, and a few cracked ribs, but others have not been so fortunate. For people with disabilities, access to sports and recreation can be frustrating and expensive. Diving can be entirely out of reach. My friend Hubert Chrétien has sought to change that, offering people with various disabilities a chance to cast off gravity. His mission is simple, to train people with disabilities to the point where they have the ability and the confidence to dive and keep diving once certified. Despite challenging logistics and lengthy time commitments, he ensures the training is offered at rates that equal those enjoyed by divers without a disability, and if financial difficulties make that an unreasonable burden for a client, he provides the training for free.  

Sometimes we need to ask ourselves if fear is serving us or limiting us – there is a balance, and it’s okay to push a little

Chrétien first experienced the wonders of diving at the age of 11 and has been teaching divers with disabilities for over 25 years. He has trained men and women with various types of disabilities: people with paraplegia, quadriplegia, persons who are blind, persons with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple scleroses, spina bifida, traumatic brain injury, and others. But it doesn’t stop there, because Hubie encourages his students to become active divers, continue their education, and travel with him to destinations all over the world. His protégés are qualified as night, deep, wall, and even ice divers. They travel to the Red Sea, Australia, Indonesia, and all over North America and the Caribbean. As one of only two Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) Course Director trainers in the world, Chrétien trains other scuba instructors in curricula including diving techniques, basic physiology, psychology of disability, access, and general disability awareness issues.

I first met Chrétien almost a decade ago when he was seeking to continue his education and intern as a cave diving instructor. After years of hard work and diving in caves around the world, he achieved that status and something even more exciting. With some of his clients wishing to experience the overhead environment, Hubie set his mind to helping them learn to cave dive. Working together with local instructors, he has now trained several divers with disabilities in cavern and intro to cave diving. Recently, he traveled with Diane Morrell, a member of the board of his organization, Freedom at Depth, to the Bahamas to train her as an Intro Cave Diver through TDI with fellow cave diving instructor Brian Kakuk.

Top left: After completing her Cavern Diver cert, Diane set her sights on Intro to Cave – she got past
the sign! Photo: Tim Inglis

Gravity-free zone

Morrell’s interest in scuba diving began about fifteen years ago. She called a local dive shop to inquire about lessons but was turned away due to her paraplegia. The shop trainer did not feel qualified to help her out. It was a big disappointment because it had taken her a lot of work to feel ready to take on the challenge. “After acquiring a disability, it took me quite a bit of time to get comfortable in the water again. I credit my husband and my son with their encouragement in getting me back into a lake to swim with them. I remember my first time in the lake (twenty-some years ago), and I used a pool noodle to hold onto and swim, and I held it tightly. As my confidence grew, I was able to move more freely in the water and no longer needed a float. Then came trying a mask and snorkel, and the progression toward scuba seemed to be inevitable. I loved the water because it is a gravity-free environment and one in which you can move around with great freedom. Something that isn’t possible on land when needing to use a wheelchair for mobility.” So, it was fortuitous when in 2009, she met Chrétien after a referral from a friend who had taken his open water certification.

Hubie has built his own home as a specialized facility for training. The house in Québec has a wheelchair accessible pool with a lift, student apartment, and all the equipment needed to address individual needs. His boat in Brockville, Ontario makes diving in the St. Lawrence possible, but he also travels to warm water locations with his clients in the winter months. His facility has also enabled other instructors to gain experience working with clients under his tutelage. Morrell began her training at Freedom at Depth Canada (FADC) with HSA Instructor May Loo. They both stayed in the onsite apartment in Hubie’s home and completed training at Morrison Quarry, Centeen Park, and on ABUCS/SCUBA boat in Brockville, diving on the Robert Gaskin wreck. 

We need to recognize open doors when they present, without taking a chance some of the time nothing will happen

“I recall the first challenge was in the pool with gear. It took a bit of time to develop balance in the water to stay upright. When you don’t have your legs to help balance you, this simple task becomes much more challenging. You have to use other muscles, and it takes time to figure it out.” Underwater trim presents another formidable challenge. With little muscle mass in her legs, they tend to float. She says, “Depending upon the thickness of my suit and other gear that I may be wearing, my balance and trim can be different. For instance, having a reel attached to my gear on one side really messed with my balance and it took a little while to figure that out. So, ongoing challenges are balance and trim issues, and needing to be aware of these additional challenges.” A qualified HSA dive buddy can help by placing or moving weights on a diver with a disability to effect trim. Ankle weights can be shifted up to the knees or lowered to the calves as required. But Diane and other paraplegic divers must propel themselves with their arms and despite the presence of one or more trained partners, must be able to independently right themselves and perform all the skills that a diver without a disability would do for qualification.

“Rockhound” Diane nailed her line drills. Photo: Tim Inglis

After her initial qualification, Morrell continued her education and experience as a diver. But it was still a bit of surprise to her when Hubie asked her if she might be interested in learning to dive in the overhead environment. “I wasn’t sure how I felt about being in an environment with no direct access to the surface, but I felt confident in Hubie’s ability to teach me, and my ability to learn more regardless of whether or not I attained certification. Certainly, there was also the draw to do something that very few others have ever done. I was quite happy as an open water diver, but as I took more courses and learned more skills, I realized that everything I learned made me a better and safer diver, not just for myself, but also for my buddy.”

Cave diver

The first step of a cavern diving class laid out the fundamental skills for cave diving. “I had to learn a new way to move in the water while deploying a reel. Swimming with one arm, not silting, and not tangling a reel is a challenge. So is managing the rest of your gear while using only one hand. I enjoyed the challenges while in the pool, as I like problem-solving a physical challenge. Sometimes it was frustrating, but very rewarding when it works out. The valve drills were also challenging. Because I use my shoulders for mobility (pushing my manual wheelchair and to transfer, which means lifting my body from wheelchair to other places), they are strong, but they are also getting unusual wear and tear, and I have a bit of reduced range of motion. So, to reach my valves, I had to pull my BC up on my body, and this changed my trim in the water.  I end up being upside down for the drill, which was a little uncomfortable. While I’m upside down focusing on the task at hand, I also have to focus on maintaining buoyancy at current depth, and in shallow water that is a delicate balance. Maintaining a calm head while doing these skills is a challenge, but one that I appreciate in myself. [Managing] these stressful learning situations are the things that I am most proud of for myself.”

I can move anywhere in the water and get up close to pretty much anything, it is the ultimate freedom

After achieving her status as a cavern diver, Diane set her sights on the next step of becoming an Intro Cave Diver. For this, she and Hubert traveled to Abaco to work hand in hand with cave instructor Brian Kakuk. The Bahamian island boasts some of the most beautiful caves on the planet, so Morrell was understandably nervous about preventing any damage to the underwater paradise. “I was more stressed than I thought I would be and even had a mild meltdown before entering the cave [the first time].” But Kakuk and Chrétien recognized the standard pre-cave diving stress. She recalls that Kakuk “spoke in a calm tone.” But first cave dives for anyone don’t always go smoothly, and Morrell is not afraid to share the experience with honesty, “I had a terrible time with my balance in the small entrance in shallow water trying to deploy my reel…I was so focused on what I was doing, I know I couldn’t appreciate the amazingness of where I was and what was around me. Once I got through the halocline, I was able to relax a little, and the dive experience began to feel familiar. Having to do skills though meant that I had little time to enjoy the cave, as I burnt through my third of a single tank pretty quick.” But as she turned toward the exit, she recalls a moment of pure amazement, “I saw three cave shrimp that were climbing on my knee weights that I had left at about 30 feet [9m] or so.  I didn’t want to touch my weights, because I didn’t want to scare them away. I thought to myself that I am probably the first person with a disability such as mine to have seen these!” 

Diane explores Dan’s Cave in the Bahamas. Shiftable ankle weights help Diane achieve trim and balance, whilst she propels herself with her arms. She must be able to right herself and perform all skills that a diver without a disability would have to do in order to be qualified. Photo: Tim Inglis

Slowly progressing through the skill set, Morrell gained proficiency until she reached what other trainees have termed as the penultimate cave diving drill. The often dreaded lost-line drill is a sort of hide-and-seek exercise. It is intended to simulate a worst case scenario of losing the guideline in complete silt out. The student diver is blindfolded and taken away from their safety line. Dropped in the darkness and using a reel, they must methodically search for and find the guideline that leads to the exit. “Because I knew I was in a safe environment, with very good instructors, I was not worried about my safety, but it gave me such an appreciation for the seriousness of losing the line in a no vis situation. I was very proud of myself for managing the task well, but maintaining line awareness became very real for me.”

“Our last dive was the best dive as I did not have to do any skills… It was surreal being in a place that very few people have ever seen. I have always been a rock hound, and therefore really fascinated by caves. I have only had the opportunity to see two small dry caves due to the inhospitable nature of a cave for someone who uses a wheelchair. When one has a physical disability, gravity can be very limiting. I love being in nature, but there are so many places that I’m not able to go and so many things that I’m not able to see due to using a wheelchair for mobility. Diving is an environment that I can move around in freely, and Dan’s Cave was amazing beyond imagination! I was able to see everything up close. This is one of the biggest reasons that I love diving in general. All of the limitations from gravity disappear underwater. I can move anywhere in the water, and get up close to pretty much anything. It is the ultimate freedom.”

Hubie Chrétien has dedicated much of his life to training divers with a disability. Photo: Tim Inglis

Keeping divers diving

And for that experience, Morrell feels tremendous gratitude toward Chrétien. She offers, “Without Hubie, there would be very few divers with disabilities in Ontario and probably in all of Canada. People with disabilities can take courses elsewhere, but I’m pretty sure that most instructors do not have the experience to problem solve the diving challenges for people with disabilities the way Hubie does. Hubert is an amazing problem solver and a very patient teacher. As a result, he has adapted gear to meet people’s unique needs, leading to successfully certified adaptive divers.” Hubert credits Jim Gatacre, Founder of the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) for teaching him about disability and diving.

“Furthermore, and more importantly, Hubie keeps his divers diving. He provides ongoing diving opportunities from his boat, or from shore, with a level of knowledge and confidence, that makes it possible. He also offers opportunities to join organized trips to the Caribbean or to dive with seals in Perce, or other beautiful places.  Generally speaking, as a diver with a disability, very few opportunities to dive exist without a dive buddy who is comfortable diving with you. I think other divers see a diver with a disability and only see the disability…not the ability. I understand being intimidated by this, as divers know that diving has inherent risks, and divers aim to manage all risks while diving. I’m sure they see that diving with a buddy with a disability as a risk that is too difficult to manage. So, as a result, it is tough to find a buddy willing to dive with a diver with a disability outside of FADC. Lastly, Hubert encourages us to keep diving and to keep learning and building skill and confidence in diving. He is one of a kind, and I owe so much to him for the courage he has helped me to gain in diving, and that confidence has translated into much better confidence in every other aspect of my life.”

Paying it forward

Today Morrell works for Spinal Cord Injury Ontario as a rehab counsellor, helping people navigate the vulnerable transition after sustaining a disabling injury. She helps people find the information and resources so they can regain independence in issues such as travel, lodging, driving, and engaging in recreational sports. “We are stronger than we know – every one of us, disability or not. Fear is such a strong emotion, and many people with a disability feel vulnerable for a good reason, but sometimes we need to ask ourselves if fear is serving us, or is fear limiting us?  There is a balance, and it’s ok to push ourselves a little out of our comfort zone.”

Casting aside the challenges of gravity, Morrell is also a downhill skier, using a mono-ski to plunge down the slopes. But it is diving that fills her with wonder and a sense of accomplishment. “I have had some amazing opportunities because of having a disability – not in spite of having a disability. Diving with Hubert and Freedom At Depth has provided many of those opportunities. I feel strongly that we need to recognize open doors when they present, and that it may be a small or large leap of faith, but without taking a chance some of the time, nothing will happen…nothing will change we will all stay stuck. One step at a time, we can make progress even if we don’t know where it will lead.”

Yes, gravity sucks, especially for persons with a physical disability, but diving offers us all the equality of a shared experience, floating in the joy of neutral buoyancy. 

For more information on the training offered by Freedom at Depth, visit:

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