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Cave Diving

Not the Most Dangerous Sport

By Natalie Gibb

Photo: Natalie Gibb

Not all caves are claustrophobic or extremely technical. If you have seen beautiful images of underwater caves and think they look amazing, but are unsure about the riskiness of the sport, this article is for you. 

Although diving in flooded caves is exciting, the correct mindset should be one of precision and control—the polar opposite of adrenaline and excitement. Once basic skills are mastered, cave diving is 95% a mental activity. Good judgment, the ability to create a clear dive plan, and methodical control during the execution of that plan are some of the most important attributes of a safe cave diver. In a flooded cave, a diver should be completely calm—the moment she is not, it’s time to turn around for the day. In fact, the ability to assess one’s comfort, and the willingness to end of a dive when uncomfortable, are some of the things I evaluate in my students before issuing a cave diver certification—pushy divers don’t pass. Proper cave training helps divers to achieve a calm mind state while performing to a high level, and some students have mentioned that this training has helped them in other aspects of their lives. 

Good judgment can prevent every major cause of cave diving deaths. Accident analysis reveals that nearly all cave fatalities have resulted from at least one (and usually a combination of) the following factors: (1) diving beyond training and experience level, (2) diving deep, (3) failure to maintain a continuous guideline to the open water, (4) mismanagement of breathing gas, (5) failure to confirm that all gear is functioning perfectly in the water before the dive and failure to carry an adequate redundancy of all vital life support equipment, and (6) distraction through camera use. In every one of these cases, the issue causing the fatality was created by a deliberate choice that the diver made to break safe cave diving procedures. If you have the ability to judge what is safe and the mental fortitude to refuse to enter an unsafe cave diving situation in the first place—despite occasional peer pressure—there is no reason that cave diving should be risky. Safety in cave diving is a result of the choices a diver makes. 

I truly believe that any diver who wants to put in the effort to become a cave diver is capable of doing so, but the path won’t be easy or fast for all divers. Nor should it be. It is essential to become adept with each new set of skills before moving on to the next. Until a diver is perfectly comfortable in his technical gear and basic skills, there is no point of continuing into basic overhead training. Until a diver is proficient at the first level of cave diving, there is no point in moving forward to the next. To become a solid cave diver, plan to enroll in courses with significant breaks in between for practice, you will be a better cave diver for it!  No one wants to be an “okay” cave diver; be excellent or don’t go into the cave.

Cave training is likely to be the most meticulous and difficult diving course you will ever take, and it’s normal to be a bit overwhelmed with the amount of information and requirements at the beginning. Give yourself time to learn and master the skills, and cut yourself some slack at the beginning. You won’t start out training as an excellent cave diver—I certainly didn’t!

Becoming a cave diver is an attainable goal, just focus on small steps and take your time. Good cave training programs are broken into stages, resembling but not always identical to the following:

Basic Doubles Skills

Whether your choose to do your cave training in backmounted or in sidemounted doubles, you will need have basic skills in the configuration of your choice. This includes the ability comfortably hover motionless, mastery of kicking techniques, and proficiency with emergency management procedures such as valve shut downs and long-hose air sharing. Cave training requires mastery of these skills to a higher level than required in most open-water or technical courses, so expect a skill evaluation and refinement by your cave instructor even if you come into the course with sidemount or backmount experience.

Entry Level Overhead Training

Most programs start with a Cavern Diver, or Cave 1 certification, which introduces skills such as line following, map reading, simple navigation, reel work, dive planning, and basic emergency skills. In an ideal world, it’s best to stop at this level and gain a little experience by independently diving with a buddy who is similarly certified. In Mexico where I work, sadly, there are not many places where divers can independently cavern dive, so you might need to move towards Intro to Cave Certification and then gain experience independently diving with a buddy. It’s best to get a minimum of 25 dives at your current level before moving on to the next. 

Full Cave Diver Training

Follow up your entry-level course after gaining experience with a Full Cave or Cave 2. The skills introduced in these courses vary a bit by organization, but expect more advanced navigation, restriction practice, and potentially more advanced deco planning. After this level, divers will be ready to go out and dive most caves that are open to the public. Divers should not rush into advanced cave training, stage diving, or DPV diving before gaining a significant amount of experience at this level. There’s no need! You can dive the rest of your life as a full cave diver and not run out of dives.

Depending upon the location you choose to dive, it may be necessary to enroll in advanced nitrox and decompression procedures in order to be certified to do light deco. This is less of a concern in Mexico, and a much greater concern in Florida and other locations with deeper caves. While decompression certification is not a requirement for all training agencies, a working knowledge of decompression theory, regardless of cert card, is essential for safe cave diving. 

Cave divers are just regular divers who fell in love in the caves and invested the significant amount of time and effort to be able to dive them comfortably. If you have seen images of flooded caves and feel drawn towards them, or if you want to float effortlessly in what feels like a different dimension altogether, you should go for it! A good first step may be to go on a guided cenote or cavern dive and see how you feel in the environment. This is also a good way to evaluate potential instructors or shops to decide with whom you want to train. But I warn you, that first cavern dive can lead to a lifelong addition. 

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: Under The Jungle

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