Keeping Your Cave Skills Fresh
Words by Natalie Gibb
Are you cave diving as much as you would like? Unless you are fortunate enough to live in a location with local cave diving, it’s safe to say that the answer this year is a resounding “No!” Even in less apocalyptic times, cave divers can find it difficult to create space in their busy lives to get as much underground time as they would like. We all know that flooded caves are one of the most unforgiving dive environments on the planet, and solid, engrained skills are paramount to diver safety. Of course, one of the best ways to keep cave diving techniques fresh is to cave dive often. When you can’t go cave diving (or even diving!) regularly, what’s a cave diver to do?
Divers who can meet up with their cave buddies safely and actually dive have an advantage: they can go diving and simply treat every dive as a cave dive. Even if you don’t have access to your cave buddy, you can still practice cave skills while accompanied by a recreational diver. Of course, a quarry is not a cave, nor is a kelp forest or reef, but that doesn’t matter if you take a cave diving mindset underwater.
When possible, use your full cave diving gear even if it is total overkill for the environment. Wear your drysuit in 82°F (28°C) water. Carry your primary reel. Yes, you might look a little silly in backmounted doubles with a 4000 lumen primary canister light mounted to your hip as you swim at 20 feet (6m) of depth over a tropical reef in bright daylight, and you will probably get some strange looks from the recreational divers on a boat when you clip on your sidemount tanks and strap on a cave helmet, complete with backup lights, over your 7mm hood. But it’s worth the censure to keep your muscle memory current. I am normally an advocate for minimalistic, safe, and redundant gear for the dive environment you’re in, but times are weird. Throw that rule out the window and stay familiar with your gear if you won’t make it to the caves in your foreseeable future.
Use your imagination
Treat even a pool dive as if your are just about to enter a cave with your buddy. Perform all your standard gear reviews, leak checks, and even gas calculations as if you were in your favourite dive destination. Half of the battle of cave diving is getting into the water with a safe, clear plan and a fully-functioning set of gear. Checks and planning are an important cave skill. Practice them!
Once you are underwater, there are plenty of cave diving techniques to practice. Simply maintaining strong base skills can go a long way towards your eventual return to the caves. Practice good trim and proper kicking techniques. Brush up your back kick, modified frog, flutter kick, and flat turns. Film your buddy and vice-versa, and get those skills a close to perfect as possible. Whenever you can, practice simply hovering motionless. Being perfectly still in the water is one of the most difficult but rewarding skills a technical diver can learn, and it will help you with your reel work and emergency management. Place a positional reference or a line, and just try to hold position without moving. If you tilt or need to fin to stay flat or in position, work on your body position and on the trim of your dive gear. Get it perfect.
Simple skills are also worth practicing. I often see cave divers fixate on the most difficult tasks, but neglect to practice ‘easy’ skills like switching to a back up mask or deploying a back up light. Review cave procedures for these skills and practice them as if you are in the cave: in contact with the line, neutrally buoyant, trimmed, and with good buddy communication.
Practice, practice, practice
If you can dive with your cave buddy, practice emergency cave skills such as valve shut-downs and air shares in the shallowest water possible, maintaining a still position and perfect trim and buoyancy. Swim with your primary lights, and if you have a dark enough environment, practice light positioning (passive communication) and signaling with your lights.
At a dive site that permits, such as a quarry, create a virtual cave by running your primary reel as if it were a cave line. Practice tying into it with an additional reel, as if it were the start of a cave dive, and practice making jumps with your jump spools or reels. Place cave markers. Once your line playground is set up, review zero visibility touch contact exits, zero visibility air-sharing exits, and lost line zero visibility drills (the last while your buddy observes to ensure your safety).
For divers who do not have access to a dive site with tie-off points, consider creating them. Many of us have a little too much free time right now, and in a pinch, you can create silt stakes out of fallen branches or PVC, and drive them into a silty or sandy floor (if environmentally acceptable) or place objects in a pool to tie off onto. Get creative.
Can’t go diving at all?
Sadness. Still, for cave divers who cannot get into the water, or for those who are looking for additional activities that can help to keep their cave skills fresh, there is hope.
Assemble your dive gear (on tanks if possible) and test all the gear. Burn test your lights and cycle rechargeable batteries. This can help to ensure that your cave gear is still functional after a period of disuse, but additionally gear assembly and checking is a legitimate cave skill. After a dry spell, I often see cave divers take a very long time to assemble and check their gear, often in the hot sun with copious mosquitos. Efficient and correct gear set up is often key in maximizing your dive times, comfort, and stress in remote locations. Practice it!
Now is also the time for protocol reviews. Read through your standard predive checks, get on the phone with your cave buddy, and practice them. Review gas calculations such as the rule of thirds, dissimilar tank matching, and gas consumption rate calculations, and emergency recalculations for lost buddy searches. Verbally, or even physically, walk through emergency procedures with your buddies – your cave instructor almost certainly first presented cave skills as land drills during your course, and there is no reason why you can’t perform land drills with your buddies or verbally review procedures on the phone with your friends. Excellent review topics include zero visibility touch contact procedures, navigational techniques, and air-sharing protocols. Reread your cave textbook or notes from your course.
Run a cave line around your home or in your garden to practice tie-offs and line work procedures. If possible, practice with your harness and cave light, to make the scenario as realistic as possible and to practice gear access on your harness and light management. Create jumps, tie into a ‘mainline’, and use your cave markers as you normally would.
Learn to service your regulators and valves. For some reason, many technical divers view these essential pieces of vital life support as a dark mystery. They are relatively simple, and the basics can be understood with a little effort, even by non-technical people. If you can, enroll in a regulator service course for your brand of regulators, or at least look up online videos of others servicing the valves and regulators you use. Even if you are not qualified to service your gear yourself, this makes trouble-shooting at a dive site much more effective, and will allow to know what sort of in-field repairs are rational and within the realm of possibility for you to make safely.
Similarly, while any leak or gear issue is cause to end a cave dive, understanding what is going on with your gear in the unlikely event of a failure can help you to more accurately assess a situation. For example, small bubbles from a valve are not cause for terror during your exit if you understand how valves work: you’ll know you can continue to breathe from the tank while you make your way to safety. As cave diving is an equipment-dependent sport, a deeper understanding of your gear will lend you confidence, both on normal dives and in an emergency.
Learn to read cave maps!
Somehow, I meet many divers who make it through cave training without even the most basic map-reading skills. Look up cave maps online, and if you have time and inclination, join a dry-caving club. Your appreciation and understanding of the environment will increase, you will become less likely to get disoriented in the cave, and you won’t ever need a guide to find your way to the best parts of the cave again. Obtain maps of your favourite dive sites and plan future dives.
The current global situation makes maintaining cave skills even more difficult than normal, but the caves will not vanish. They will be there when you can travel to your favourite cave destination once again. While there is no substitute for actual cave diving, hopefully these suggestions will help cave divers to be as prepared as possible when they can finally return to their favourite caves.
Natalie Gibb Is a full cave instructor, explorer, and researcher based in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. She is a published author, international speaker, and cave conservationist. Visit: www.underthejungle.com
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