Too many divers are trying to fast track something which should be approached with the utmost caution, experience does not necessarily mean how deep you have been or how many dives you have done.
A submersible robot used to explore a 17th-century shipwreck shows how humans and machines might collaborate in other settings.
The Wreck of the Grosvenor, an East Indiaman, occurred on 4 August 1782 on the Pondoland coast of South Africa, north of the mouth of the Umzimvubu River. The shipwreck was close to the place where the Portuguese ship, São João, had gone down more than two centuries earlier on 8 June 1552. The Grosvenor was a three-masted ship of 729 tons on her return voyage to England when she was wrecked, Continued
History is littered with events that evoke powerful memories with the utterance of just one word… Watergate, Dunkirk, and Titanic. When it comes to evoking feelings of dread, there is one that fills the mind with a myriad of destructive imagery and connotation even to this day. That word is Chernobyl.
Thirty-three years ago at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat in Ukraine, a late night safety test went wrong and the world experienced the worst nuclear accident of all time. Dozens of people were killed in the immediate aftermath and thousands more in the ensuing years. The disaster released 400 times more radiation into the atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and contaminated millions of acres of surrounding land. Few people realise though that the scale of destruction could have been far worse if it weren’t for the bravery of three volunteers.
On 4 May 1986, just a few days after the initial disaster, mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko, senior engineer Valeri Bespalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov stepped forward to undertake a mission that many considered to be suicide. They were advised that if they did not survive their families would be taken care of. The outcome of their mission would decide the fate of millions of people; its importance was unparalleled in its magnitude and represents one of history’s greatest sliding doors moments. So what exactly was their mission?
On the day of the disaster and in an effort to control the blazing fire, firefighters pumped water into the nuclear reactor. One of the side effects was that it flooded the basement with radioactive water. This basement contained the valves that when turned would drain the ‘bubbler pools’ that sat beneath the reactor and which acted as a coolant for the plant.
THE BLAST WOULD HAVE HAD A FORCE OF 3-5 MEGATONS LEAVING MUCH OF EUROPE UNINHABITABLE FOR HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.
Within a few days it was discovered that molten nuclear material was melting through the concrete reactor floor, making its way slowly down towards the pools below. If the lava-like substance made contact with the water it would cause a radiation-contaminated steam explosion that would destroy the entire plant along with its three other reactors, causing unimaginable damage and nuclear fallout the world would struggle to recover from. The pools containing some 20 million litres of water had to be drained and the only way to do that was by manually turning the correct valves down in the now flooded basement. Enter our three heroes.
If the three courageous men were not successful in their mission the Chernobyl death toll was likely to reach the millions. Nuclear physicist Vassili Nesterenko declared that the blast would have had a force of 3-5 megatons leaving much of Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years.
Dressed in wetsuits and equipped with just a flashlight, the three volunteers jumped into the darkness of the basement below and went in search of the crucial valves. The events that follow have been turned into somewhat of a modern myth. For decades after the event it was widely reported that the three men swam through radioactive water in near darkness, miraculously located the valves even after their flashlight had died, escaped but were already showing signs of acute radiation syndrome (ARS) and sadly succumbed to radiation poisoning a short while later. They were apparently buried in lead coffins.
Andrew Leatherbarrow, the author of the 2016 book Chernobyl 01:23:40, spent five years researching the disaster and discovered a slightly different yet no less heroic turn of events. The basement was flooded with radioactive water but firefighters had previously pumped some of it out, so by the time the men jumped into the water, it was only at knee height. They weren’t the first to enter either as others had already gone into the basement to measure the radiation levels, although little to nothing is known about the fate of these people.
The discovery of the valves was still miraculous though, as Leatherbarrow states, ‘The men entered the basement in wetsuits, radioactive water up to their knees, in a corridor stuffed with a myriad of pipes and valves…it was like finding a needle in a haystack.’ Yet they found that needle before the molten reactor core above them had melted its way down through the ceiling. A sigh of relief was breathed all round.
THE MEN EXITED THE BASEMENT AS HEROES AND REJOICED WITH THEIR COLLEAGUES OVER A ‘JOB WELL DONE’.
Ananenko was later quoted as saying to the Soviet media, ‘Everyone at the Chernobyl NPS (nuclear power station) was watching this operation. When the searchlight beam fell on a pipe, we were joyous: The pipe led to the valves. We heard the rush of water out of the tank. And in a few more minutes we were being embraced by the guys.’ The men exited the basement as heroes and rejoiced with their colleagues over a ‘job well done’.
The three men would live longer than a few weeks and none would succumb to ARS, as modern myth would have you believe. As of 2015, it was reported that two of the men were still alive and still working within the industry. The third man, Boris Baranov, passed away in 2005 of a heart attack.
Although our knowledge of the event is now somewhat clearer thanks to Leatherbarrow’s research, he admitted that some of the best sources on the subject of Chernobyl have yet to be translated since the Soviet government wanted to downplay the disaster.
Over thirty years later and the true scale of destruction caused by Chernobyl is still a hotly debated subject. What is not up for debate though is the incredible level of bravery shown by these three men on that fateful day in May 1986. They knew exactly the risks involved and were prepared to give up everything in order to save the lives of an incomprehensible number of people.
In the coming months and years around 600,000 decontamination workers, known as ‘liquidators’, were brought in to help clean up after the accident. They significantly helped to limit the short and long-term damage that the disaster had caused but thousands of them paid the ultimate price. Their bravery and sacrifice should also be remembered alongside the heroism of the Chernobyl divers.
Divers may be tempted to think that, without any rulebook, diving etiquette is for the birds. With how many of instructor Peter’s pet peeves can you relate?
One could say that I have dived quite a bit. I have dived in South Africa (obviously), a little in Europe, the Caribbean and Indian Ocean Islands and of course the Red Sea. I have dived from liveaboards, in caves and from shore. I have dived deep, shallow, long, in warm and cold water and even underneath ice. I have dived in holes, mines, quarries, wrecks and once even in raw sewage! So, one can safely say that I have dived a bit.
At all of these various dive sites, having dived with a variety of weird, different and passionate people, I have noticed a certain diving etiquette and sometimes a certain lack of said etiquette. There is no diving etiquette manual; there should be one, but there is not. This does not mean, however, that you can just forget all that your mother has taught you the minute you encase your buff summer body in sleek neoprene. Allow me to elaborate.
The night before
I know, you are bulletproof. You can party till you drop and still be okay to dive tomorrow morning. I know you can, but do not do it. You are not alone. You reek of alcohol. Your eyes are red. You are the only person that thinks you are cool. It is dangerous. If your divemaster does the same, then change divemasters.
Get there in time. I know, I know, you have done 40 dives, having started diving with Jacques Cousteau, and that you can kit up faster than The Flash, but just humour your divemaster and everyone else on the beach and get there early. Contrary to popular belief, the entire boat will not wait for you just because you have paid. In fact, you might still have to pay and just not dive. Being late for the first launch simply means that all the launches afterwards will now be late as well. Choosing between one tardy diver and upsetting three other boatloads is sometimes a surprisingly easy choice for dive resort owners to make.
Kit up your own gear and check it yourself. Skippers laugh at divers (admittedly on the inside) who complain loudly on the boat that: everything worked on the beach and that “they” did not fill the cylinder, or (my favourite) that “someone” must have damaged, stolen, substituted or modified their O-ring (this normally when kitting up an A-clamp to a DIN cylinder neck).
These are simple, all you have to do is listen. If you do not agree with the dive plan, then this is the time to voice your discontent. If you feel that the briefed dive is not up to your normal superior diving skills or that the present company is way below your extremely rigid and self-imposed diving standards, now is the time to change boats. The wrong time to impose your chosen course of action on the others, or to plan your own daring adventure, would be underwater when it is too late.
Briefings have two purposes, namely:
- It makes the dive masters look amazingly cool. With bare feet firmly planted in the beach sand whilst staring bravely into the shining orb that is Ra, majestically rising over the hazy ocean, they share the lore of the deep with their exotic black (sometimes pink) clad soon-to-be explorers of the unknown blue waters. This is the ultimate career-changing experience.
- It tells you what should happen on the dive and what you should do if “what should happen” does not happen. Concentrate on this bit. Do not talk – listen. This is where most dives go wrong.
Push. We all have to. That is how the boat gets into the water. When the skipper tells you to stand/sit somewhere other than opposite where you have loaded your precious kit, just do it. The boat is not a democracy. The skipper is the boss, a dictator if you will, the main man, the alpha, the big kahuna. Like the skipper or not, listen to him or her. The skipper is the one who takes you there and brings you back. Skippers only get paid if they bring the boat back with the same divers they left with.
Life jackets are for you too! It is not a choice. Your wetsuit, side-mount BCD, ping pong balls in your pocket or aeroplane blow-up pillow are not legal heads-up flotation devices, but your life jacket is. Tie the front; if you do not and the boat flips you will be found dead (floating yes, but dead) with your face in the water and a flirty vibrant orange skirt around your waist. This is a beautiful but deadly fashion accessory.
When launching: Sit down, keep quiet and hold on. Whilst screaming every time your face gets splashed with water might be considered sexy to certain maladjusted people, it is not. It is irritating and distracting. You do not do it in the shower, so do not do it on the boat. The skipper has enough to worry about getting a two-and-a-half tonne vessel through raging surf to also worry about what specific danger your particular scream might indicate. You are not warning the skipper of any impending doom by screaming, he or she is very well aware of the tsunami bearing down on him or her from the right. Let the skipper handle this in peace and quiet and if he or she dies let it be in peace.
Sit down. I personally believe that the RMS Titanic only sank when all the people rushed to the starboard side to see the iceberg they had struck. If they all went to the port side, the gash would have been above the waterline as the ship listed to the left and they all would have made it to New York safely. Standing on a wobbly, small inflatable boat is the prerogative of the skipper and when so instructed by said skipper sit down promptly.
When the boat stops, listen to the instructions of the crew. Holding weight belts up and shouting “blue with 20kg” for two minutes is not how dive masters intend to do CrossFit.
Check your gear and check your buddy’s gear, exactly like you were taught, every time (even if you already have 40 dives behind your name).
Check your own air whilst breathing on your regulator and looking at the gauge at the same time. I have had countless divers asking a buddy to “open” their cylinders, only to have the buddy close it accidentally. Your left hand and right hand turn in opposite directions, imagine that. You only realise this silly mistake at about 5m deep when the now half-turned open tank valve just cannot supply enough gas anymore; that is, of course, when you get to blame that famous “someone” for closing your tank. Or you can blame the skipper or the dive master. Or you can just check your own gas, after all, you are the one that needs it most.
Do not give advice to other divers (other than romantic if you have ulterior motives). You are not qualified to. Having 40 dives does not equate to a teaching qualification and neither is knowing an instructor or even owning your own gear. The worst advice you can give anyone is to tell them to use less weights. Your on-the-spot assumption that the other diver is entirely over-weighted is based on what information? Could it be that particular person’s body mass index, wetsuit thickness, water retention, cylinder size and construction material? Are you familiar with the diver’s experience level or are you basing your decision on your own misguided belief that brilliant divers such as yourself should use no weights at all? Weights needed for a dive are based on many factors other than your acute observation skills. One such factor you might want to consider for instance is the Archimedes’ principle. Without having a firm grasp on this principle and also knowing the person’s exact weight, including all their gear, and the exact displacement volume of the person and their gear, bringing the density of the water that they are soon to be immersed in into the equation, you are just plain guessing. If the diver has too much weight, they can always inflate their BCD, if they have too few weights, they end up not being able to do safety stops or have uncontrolled accents.
You have learnt to dive with a buddy, to do controlled descents, to follow established diving and safety practices and you have paid good money for this. Yet, on your first dive after being qualified, you seem to forget everything. You start listening to the guy across from you, who has five more dives than you, telling you to take off weights (see above), you hit the water and go fins up, racing the others to the bottom with absolutely no regard for your buddy, your safety or the briefing (that moment when the dive master was forlornly staring at Ra rising above the waves).
Unless you have done a drift diving specialty course and unless you have lots of experience (more than 40 dives), do not duck dive. It is unsafe, unnecessary and will only add to your diving woes. Of course you might have to duck dive if you listened to that guy across from you who told you to take off some of your weights.
Do what you were taught: Feet first, look at your buddy, dump air, gently descend and equalise often while looking at your buddy and making sure you both get to the bottom together. If you happen to come across a duck diving dive master, get hold of the buoy line and do the same as above. If the dive master complains that you held onto the line, change dive masters.
Diving is fun, not just for you but for other people too. So do not kick them. It is not nice and is considered bad form in diving circles. In fact, just do not kick at all. It is called mastering buoyancy. This way you will not kick and kill the reef either and in your own small way fight global warming.
Fifty bar, that is the end of your dive. It is not about your amazing air consumption; it is about the gas you will need as well as your buddy in the event that he or she needs to get to the surface safely due to not watching his or her gauges. Get out early and live to dive another day.
This is also the time to cast your mind back to the briefing and remind yourself on the agreed time and depth, so eloquently orated to you by the son (or daughter) of Poseidon on the beach earlier, and ascend. We do preach slow ascents, but spending half of your dive on the ascent is not what is meant by ascending slowly. Roughly 10m per minute is slow enough. This means that two minutes from 18m depth or three minutes from 30m is perfectly adequate.
When safely arriving at the safety stop (not the deco stop as is so often misquoted), stay there. Do not fin. The whole point of the safety stop is for safety, hence this cleverly named stop. You are supposed to be resting at the safety stop, so if you are furiously fining, either up or down to maintain your level, you are not resting. If you pop out, stay out and do not fight to get back down. It is safer and you will not look like a complete upside down idiot.
And then there is the latest craze: The surface marker, which for some inexplicable reason is now deployed from the safety stop. Why? The poor skipper has six orange buoys pop up around the boat which potentially means, to skippers, that there are six divers in danger. It is called a surface marker, meaning that it makes you more visible on the surface and deploying it from 5m depth has absolutely no definable purpose other than annoying the skipper who now has to contend with thousands of metres of floating line just waiting to catch the boat (the same boat you want to go back to the beach with).
Use the correct gear for its designed purpose. Using a delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) when you are separated from the group is a safety measure. But, then you would already have spent five times the money on a proper DSMB and most probably received training in deploying it from depth (because that is where you lost the group). Using a surface marker on the surface is also a safety measure when you find yourself at the surface with no boat in sight, but only then. Doing a safety stop under your surface marker is dangerous. Since you have lost the group initially (which should be the reason you deployed the surface marker originally), now sitting at 5m depth in a current makes you more lost, not more safe. Instead of taking two minutes deploying your surface marker from the safety stop, swim up. It takes thirty seconds, just calculate it. Once at the surface you can wave, shout and blow your whistle while at the same time inflating your surface marker. It is easy, simple, effective, safe and clever.
Once at the surface, it is important to get attention fast. Not from the bedraggled, booger-covered hunk or mascara-smeared honey next to you, but from the skipper, who is the person who will be taking you home (see where the surface marker comes in handy?). Also, watch the boat at all times. Do not snorkel unless you have an extremely compelling reason to do so. Floating on the surface, staring at the cute little remoras mating with your new super black fins below you, while a two tonne behemoth is smashing its way towards your soft, vulnerable, helpless and completely oblivious body is not a compelling enough reason. You have no idea how really, really small you look from a boat.
When you finally catch the boat, hold on to it. You can take your weight belt off with one hand – if you cannot, get your money back from your open water instructor. The boat will either drift away from or over you (depending on the wind direction) while you are trying to rescue a heavy weight belt from drowning with both hands. It is your call if you do not hold onto the boat.
Be nice and ask the skipper if you may haul yourself onto the boat as he/she is busy tying down the cylinders and dodging weight belts. When the skipper has satisfied his or her bondage fetish and all the gear is now tied down firmly, you will be allowed to get onto the vessel. It is called manners. Those things your mother was supposed to have taught you.
You might or might not recognize yourself somewhere in this article and you might disagree or even agree. You might even want to add some of your own pet hates, but ultimately, thinking a little bit logically about how and why you do or not do things in diving might make your dives safer and more enjoyable – including making the lives of those long-suffering skippers and dive buddies a little bit rosier.
Article by Peter Herbst, PADI Course Director
“I have done this many times before, yet I feel a tremor of uncertainty as I put the regulator in my mouth, take one deep lungful of compressed air, then make the familiar circle with forefinger and thumb to confirm that all is well. I remind myself that although what lies beneath us is a water-filled cave 15 storeys deep, it is just another dive. Still the butterflies won’t settle.”
Old, bold South African divers usually say: “You haven’t dived till you’ve dived Wondergat”
Those who know me know that Wondergat has a special place in my scuba heart (my heart pumps water and not blood) and my eyes light up whenever I get the chance to talk about Wondergat. Those who have dived Wondergat will know that the hole has a certain flair to it that other dive sites do not. I find the site both beautiful and scary at the same time. You have no other choice than to respect this sinkhole because if you don’t ‘the lady at the back of the cave’ might get you!
This excerpt is about ‘THE Wondergat’ and the dangers one faces when diving this site. The book was published in 1988. If you have ever dived Wondergat or heard the ghost stories surrounding this place take a 10 minute break from whatever you are doing and travel back in time with me…
The Wondergat Experience
By Charles Norman
This is no time to have second thoughts. Together, diving buddy Alan Hume and I release some air from our buoyancy vests. With a hiss of bubbles we sink beneath the surface, past the dangling feet of the three other divers who follow is in 30 seconds, and on down into the depths of the Wondergat, this freak of nature set in the middle of the Transvaal Bushveld.
For the first few metres of our descent the light is bright and there are small, colourful fish around us. But as we sink deeper the light fades, and there are no more fish. The air spaces in our body are becoming compressed by the increasing pressure, and we are starting to sink fast; too fast. We release air into the buoyancy vests to slow our descent. Our depth gauges show we are passing through the 30-metre-mark.
Most of the sun’s light now is filtered out by the water above us, and although our faces are only a metre apart we can no longer see each other clearly. We keep giving each other the circle sign of “I’m alright – how are you?”
The 40-metre-mark passes in near darkness. We are now past the point where it would be possible to get back to the surface if our equipment were to malfunction. Beneath us the gloom vague shapes are taking form. A few more metres and we have reached the floor of the Wondergat, though not its deepest point.
My eyes are becoming accustomed to the gloom and a few metres away I see a metal plaque embedded in a slab of concrete – a memorial to the Pretoria twins Anton and Andre Nieuwenhuizen, who were the last – but not the only – persons to die in the treacherous depths of Wondergat.
There is no time for more than one quick photograph and then Alan is gesturing that we must move on. We still have a further descent to make, and we are working against the clock. We do not have enough air for a decompression stop on the way back up, and our total bottom time before starting our ascent can be only seven minutes.
Ahead of us, starkly black against the sheer grey-green rock walls, looms a cave mouth the size of a railway tunnel. We swim into it and switch on our torches, breathing slow and deep to conserve our precious air.
The floor of the tunnel is flat for only a few metres before tilting downwards at a steep angle. It is almost like the entrance shaft of some disused mine, but the hand of man had no part in its making.
On down we go, taking care to stay well above the floor so that our flippers do not raise the powdery, blinding silt. Ahead of us our torches now pick out the yellow gleam of our objective. It is a large metal sign, with black lettering on a yellow back-ground, and it reads: You have never lived till you have almost died and for those who fight for it life has a special flavour the protected will never know. SAP Special Task Force.
Rather corny, perhaps. But with the equivalent of 12 storeys of water above you, and the knowledge within you that any mistake could result in death, then those sentiments do not seem quite so soppy.
I take my pictures and Alan is signalling that it is time to go. Now I feel euphoric, reluctant to leave this place, all sense of fear gone. Am I being affected by nitrogen narcosis, the false sense of well-being caused by the increase under pressure of nitrogen in the bloodstream?
Probably, I decide, but if I am slightly “narked”, then the affect is not strong enough to affect my judgement, merely to give me a sense of pleasure, Alan and I swim out together and join the others hovering like protecting angels at the mouth of the cave, dark silhouettes against the faint light from above.
A barrage of “all right?” signals, triumphant smiles gleaming through facemasks, and then we are heading slowly for the surface far above. Almost immediately the light starts to improve. I am brining with satisfaction over having achieved something significant. At that depth there are no second chances.
Even back in the time of Cecil Rhodes, when the wagon trail north passed not far away, this natural sinkhole near the present-day town of Mafikeng laboured under an evil reputation. It was said to be bottomless, and rumour had it that a despotic local chieftain disposed of his enemies there.
In more recent times Wondergat has become a mecca for inland scuba divers, for there is no other place on the Highveld which comes close to its estimated depth of 70 metres. (Actually nobody knows for sure how deep Wondergat is because the end of the tunnel has never been reached; rumours still persist that Wondergat is linked with the Sterkfontein Caves some 200 kilometres away.)
It is easy to see why Wondergat has become the source of sinister legends. The 100-metre-by-50-metre-pool, with its sheer sides of weathered rock and its sill heart, black as coal, looks both ominous and bottomless. And in the 20 years that divers have been plumbing its depths, it has aggravated that reputation by claiming eight lives while attempting to take many more.
According to the records of the South African Underwater Union medical officer, Pieter Landsberg, the first to die in modern times was a young Wits University student who ran out of air on a deep dive in September 1971.
Although he had a reserve air supply, the pull-rod to release it was missing from his tank. He panicked and went for the surface, impossibly far above. Cause of death was given as drowning, but was probably blackout caused by ruptured lungs. He had five hours diving experience.
Four years passed before Wondergat, in October, 1975, claimed its next victim, a visiting diver who asked to accompany the members of the Transvaal Sub Aqua Club on a deep dive. It is probable that nitrogen narcosis overcame him; at any rate, when the other divers swam out of the cave carrying him at a depth of 50 metres, he was already dead.
All his equipment was in working order and there was still air in his bottle. Only later did it transpire that he had been unqualified and almost totally without experience…a pattern that was to be repeated many times in the years ahead.
But it was not only inexperienced divers who got into trouble at Wondergat, nor was it always the diver’s fault. Robbie Keene, now chief instructor and owner of the Johannesburg-based Central Diving School, is one of the Highveld’s most experienced divers, yet during a night dive – a spooky experience at best – Wondergat almost claimed him. “I was at 43 metres, “recalls Robbie. “When I felt myself attacked. For a second my mind went blank, then I realised that a strange woman was trying to get my regulator away from me having run out of air. This was in the days before octo-regulators and the woman was in a state of total panic. There was obviously no chance of getting her to buddy-breathe.
“Luckily, I’d just taken a deep breath myself, so I made an instant decision, unbuckled my tank and headed for the surface. There was a bright moon that night, and I just went for the light. The second half of that ascent was a red blur in my brain, but I made it. So did she, carrying my bottle in her arms. She said she was ‘very sorry’!
“Fortunately, this was my first dive of the day and I was within the no-decompression limits. After getting another cylinder from our surface standby divers, I proceeded to go through the long, cold procedure of missed and omitted decompression, as tabulated by the united States navy.”
Alan Hume, head of the Teljoy Marine Research Unit, with whom I dived at Wondergat, remembers his club’s nearest brush with tragedy there, and the inexplicable decision that robbed Wondergat of a certain victim.
“Two of our guys went down,” says Alan, “when the lead diver, Sava Zavier, turned round and found that his back-up man had vanished. Usually when something like that happens you would assume that some problem has forced the other guy to the surface, so you’d go up as well to look for him.
“But Sava, for reasons that he couldn’t explain afterwards, decided to go deeper. And he found his buddy drifting down into the depths, unconscious. Sava brought him out and we revived him. He was fine, but had no memory of blacking out and we still don’t know why it happened.”
Some divers were not so lucky. In February 1977, a young diver from the Eskom Diving Club was in Wondergat when he gave his buddy the signal to surface. Though he did not appear to be in trouble, such signals are not ignored. The two began to surface. On the way up they found themselves under an overhang, and by the time the rear diver had negotiated it his buddy has vanished. His body was recovered later from the bottom of the pool.
Later that same year, in August, Wondergat claimed its first double drowning. The victims were a young couple from the Wits Diving Club who had been on a night dive. They had been attached to a float meant to keep them from going deeper than 10 metres.
Nobody will ever know what went wrong, but one theory is that while they thought the buoy was keeping them at the required depth, they were actually swimming steadily downwards dragging the buoy after them.
By the time they discovered their depth, if they ever did, it was too late to get back to the surface on their remaining air. Once again, inexperience was a factor – the man had little experience and the woman none at all.
After that, as though its hunger had been appeased by the double sacrifice, Wondergat was quiet for almost six years. Then, on February 12, 1983, the Nieuwenhuizen twins made their fatal night dive. Later enquiries brought to light a classic list of errors.
Neither of the twins was qualified, and one was using a bottle dangerously out of date. Neither wore a buoyancy vest, and they were so over weighted that the divers who found their bodies the following day could not lift them off the bottom. Although they dived in a party of five, the twins became separated from the others.
Perhaps most significant of all, they carried only one torch between them – it was this torch bobbing to the surface which first alerted watchers on the rocky rim of Wondergat that something was wrong. By then, it was too late.
Gravity is so much part of our lives that few people who don’t dive can appreciate the total disorientation possible in the wightless environment of water. In the dark, without a point of reference, a diver has no way of knowing whether he is moving up, down or sideways.
Whether losing their torch caused the twins death, or whether they were already in trouble when they released it, will never be known. But few stories illustrate the dangers disorientation better that that of Normalair diver Chris Bell and three companions who came close to adding another fatal chapter to the Wondergat saga during a night dive.
“We entered the water and swam to a shotline we’d placed earlier in the day,” says Chris. “What we didn’t realise was that the SAP Special Task Force had also placed a shotline, but for some reason they’d put theirs in upside down so that it read 45 metres at the surface and zero at the bottom. And in the dark we swam to their shotline instead of ours.
“We descended until we felt we’d reached our required depth, then checked the reading. The marking on the line said 30 metres, although our depth gauges read only 20 metres. This was confusing, but in such cases one always trusts the shotline. So we decided to ascend…but as we did so the markings on the shotline showed we were actually going deeper. “By now we were getting a little panicky – we’d already done one deep dive that day, and not enough time had passed for us to do another one. If we were really at 35 metres, as the shotline said, then we were in danger of getting ‘the bends’, where nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream and can cripple you.
To make matters worse, while we were deciding what to do we drifted under an overhang where our torches showed a barbell swimming along the roof of the cave above us – but by now we were so disoriented that we didn’t know if we were upside down and the fish was actually swimming along the bottom.
“It was an ugly situation. We were running low on air and not only were we unsure of our depth, we didn’t know which way was up and which was down. The one of the guys took off his weightbelt and held it by the end. In the torch beam we could see which way it was hanging, and that’s when we realised that the shotline had been put in upside down. I don’t ever want to go through an experience like that again…”
Just why does Wondergat continue to cause so many problems? Former Transvaal Underwater Union Chairman Rick Bruschi feels that the answer is simple, perhaps too simple for many people to comprehend; “Because it’s dangerous, that’s why. Any deep dive is dangerous, but Wondergat is exceptionally dangerous for a number of reasons.
“For a start, it’s a cave dive, which few people seem to take into account – they just don’t realise that at Wondergat they’re diving into a deep cave, with all the added problems that creates, such as going into supplementary caves and getting lost in the muck they kick up, or of finding themselves suddenly against cave roofs and overhangs.
“Wondergat is also dangerous because there’s no gradual slope to deeper water – it’s just straight down. Even a shallow dive at Wondergat incorporates all the potential problems of a deep dive, because if something does go wrong there’s nothing beneath you but 40 metres of water. That’s very different to the waters in which guys do their training, where they can’t go deeper than ten metres even if they do run into trouble.
But one of the greatest dangers is that inland divers simply don’t get enough experience of deep diving. They don’t have the experience to cope with things like narcosis, or mentally appreciate that Wondergat is not just another dive. When you start getting down to those sort of depths it’s a whole new ball game. Wondergat kills people because it does not forgive mistakes – and unfortunately, there will always be people who are unable to grasp that fact.”
Too true. With Robbie Keene and Alan Hume I watched a party entering the pool for a night dive. They wore buoyancy vests, no watches, no depth meters, their tanks had no pressure gauges to show the amount of air left, and they carried homemade torches. Alan and Robbie shook their heads in wonder. Later that evening I made my own first night dive with the Teljoy Marine Research Unit team. Each diver wore a buoyancy vest, carried a marine torch and had fixed to his headgear a Cyalume tube which glowed in the dark with green phosphorescence.
All aspects of the dive had been discussed in detail beforehand, and with the most experienced divers at the front and rear we descended to our agreed depth and circled the pool.
Carried out with that sort of precision, modern sport diving is not dangerous. But there is no legislation to stop the merest novice from buying a bottle, just as there is none to stop the aspirant mountaineer from buying climbing gear. The difference is that the mountaineer’s inexperience is likely to defeat him before he can get himself into trouble, whereas the most amateur diver can descend into the gloomy depths of Wondergat.
Going down is easy – it’s getting back to the surface alive that can be difficult.
Things that are taken for granted by experienced divers sometimes come as fatal surprises to novices. Such as, for example, the fact that one consumes much more air at depth than in the shallows. Or that one becomes heavier as one goes deeper, so that a diver who maintains his level easily in shallow water might find himself struggling to do so at depth.
Or even that if the demand valve on a bottle is not turned completely on, that the bottle will still supply air at surface pressure but might not be able to do so past a certain depth.
Lack of such basic knowledge has killed many divers. It is the job of SAUU medical officer Pieter Landsberg to investigate each accident and make recommendations that will prevent a recurrence. Most of the standard safety procedures carried out by local diving clubs these day are as a result of Landsberg’s recommendations after lessons learned from an accident.
It is also Landsberg who has initiated a procedure known as Divermed Emergency, which is geared to give accident victims treatment and, if necessary, get them to the large decompression chamber at the Institute for Aviation Medicine in Pretoria, where several divers who stayed too deep too long in Wondergat have been treated for the “bends”.
Now buoyancy vests and pressure gauges are mandatory equipment, as they are in many other parts of the world. There is some opposition, however, because the vests are expensive and it is felt that such a move would make it more difficult for students to take up the sport.
“Don’t people realise,” snorts Robbie Keene, “that this is life support equipment we’re talking about, not some toy? What’s a few hundred bucks against somebody’s life?”
As analyses of accidents increase knowledge of what causes them and as new equipment improves on existing safety standards, the number of diving fatalities will continue to decline. But eliminating them altogether is too much to hope for, given the nature of man.
For one of the earliest diving maxims remains as true today as when it was coined:
“There are old divers and there are bold divers – but there are no old, bold divers…”
20 years later – the message Charles Norman has is still as valid today as it was then; Do not underestimate the Wondergat. Since 1988 Wondergat has unfortunately seen more fatalities. The site had it’s heyday in the golden years of scuba diving (1990’s) with a lot more traffic than it currently has (it looked like Miracle Waters or Bass Lake on a busy summer’s weekend). It went from being the most visited inland dive site in South Africa to being the eerily quite and isolated site it is today that maybe a handful of divers will visit once a month. If you do decide to dive the Wondergat be sure to read the last minute reminder on the board as you are making your way down the steps: “THERE IS NOTHING HERE WORTH DYING FOR.”
PS: Every time I visit Wondergat I take a walk on my own, find a spot on a cliff to sit down and take a couple of minutes to pay my respects to the people who lost their lives there.
Article by Jacques Bezuidenhout, PADI MSDT
When buying your own scuba gear, one important decision to make is whether to buy a back inflation or jacket style BCD. New divers usually do not understand the difference between the two.
What is a Jacket Style BCD?
Jacket style is the more traditional style of BCD, and and it’s probably the type you used for your open water course. The air cell wraps around the diver’s back, sides, and chest.
- A Jacket Style BCD holds a diver in a vertical position when inflated on the surface, keeping his head well above the water.
- Jacket Style BCDs are sometimes easier to deflate than back inflation models.
- All Jacket Style BCDs have built in pockets for your accessories like a pocket mask, rescue sausage or small torch.
- Some come with integrated weight systems (quick release) – less weights on your belt 😉
- You may also look for different options when it comes to inflators – Not all are the same.
- Shopping tip: look for SET Specials – BCD + Regulator and save big!
What is a Back Inflation BCD?
A back inflation BCD features an air cell that inflates only along the back of the BCD. Usually, this air cell hangs behind the diver in the form of a “wing”.
- Back inflation styles tend to roll a diver face down (horizontal), which can be frustrating on the surface for those accustomed to Jacket Style BCDs.
- Diving horizontal is however exactly what you want when underwater, diving is all about being streamlined.
- Modular systems consist of a backplate, harness and wing. Weight pockets can be added or removed.
- A lot of different back inflation BCDs are “one size fits all”.
- Back inflation BCDs are upgradable. You can start out doing recreational single tank dives and as you progress change/add components of your BCD.
- Shopping tip: Yes, your new BCD is a long term investment in your diving but…DON’T buy the biggest wing you can find! This is an expensive mistake. Do research on the correct wing size you need – or Talk to us.
Which way to go?
How serious a diver are you? If your aim is to take the family on a diving holiday to a tropical island once or twice a year then a Jacket Style BCD is the way to go. If you see yourself progressing into technical diving it is a good idea to go for a Back Inflation BCD from the get go.
“the Mount Everest of wreck diving”
On the night of July 25, 1956, the Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria was struck by the Swedish ship MS Stockholmin heavy fog off the coast of Nantucket. 46 people were killed in the collision and subsequent sinking of the ship. Though not the largest or fastest ocean liner of its era, the Andrea Doria was widely regarded as the most beautiful. Its decks were dotted with three outdoor swimming pools, and it was dubbed a “floating art gallery” for its dazzling array of paintings, tapestries and surrealist murals.
Today, lying at a depth of 74m the wreck of the Andrea Doria is known as “the Mount Everest of wreck diving”. Due to the luxurious appointments and initially good condition of the wreck, the Andrea Doria has been a frequent target of treasure divers. The depth, water temperature, and currents combine to put the wreck beyond the scope of recreational diving. The skills and equipment required to successfully execute this dive, such as use of mixed gases and staged decompression, put it in the realm of only the most experienced technical divers.
Peter Gimbel later conducted a number of salvage operations on the ship, including salvaging the first-class bank safe in 1981. Despite speculation that passengers had deposited many valuables, the safe, opened on live television in 1984, yielded thousands of American silver certificates, Canadian bank notes, American Express travelers checks, and Italian bank notes, but no other valuables. This outcome apparently confirmed other speculation that most Andrea Doria passengers, in anticipation of the ship’s scheduled arrival in New York City the following morning, had already retrieved their valuables prior to the collision. Divers have managed to recover various porcelain items bearing the Italia line insignia.
Artifacts recovered from the ship
Artifact recovery on the Andrea Doria has resulted in numerous fatalities. Sixteen scuba divers have lost their lives diving on the wreck, and diving conditions at the wreck site are considered very treacherous. Strong currents and heavy sediment that can reduce visibility to zero pose serious hazards to diving this site. reported that thick fishing nets draped the hull. An invisible web of thin fishing lines, which can easily snag scuba gear, provides more danger. Furthermore, the wreck is slowly collapsing; the top of the wreck is now at 190 feet (58 m), and many of the passageways have begun to collapse.
The Air of Everest
By John Chatterton
Before rebreathers and before trimix, air-breathing wreck divers were testing themselves and their equipment on the wreck of the Andrea Doria. In retrospect, I consider myself lucky to have been there in the 1980s. I was in the right place at the right time.
Long before I made my way to the wreck, it had been explored by virtually all of the sport’s wreck-diving legends like Peter Gimbel, John Dudas, George Hoffman, Mike de Camp and Bill Nagle, yet they barely scratched the surface of the wreck’s potential.
Nagle was the captain of the dive boat, Seeker, my usual ride. He was an experienced Doria diver and my wreck-diving mentor. Before I made my first dive to the wreck, Bill warned me that the Doria was very dangerous. I clearly understood that any wreck in 250 feet of water was indeed a dangerous place for a diver, but that was not what he meant. “The Doria is dangerous because it is so highly addictive,” he said. “You’ll see. You’ll have to keep coming back.”
I thought Bill was crazy. I knew how much preparation, dedication and money it took just to get there. I was not going to make 100 dives on the Doria. I was going on a single trip, it was going to be the highlight of my diving career, and then I was moving on, or so I thought. Ultimately, Bill was right. I would make more than 150 Doria dives before the new millennium.
The Doria lies on her starboard side in about 250 feet of water. Back in the 1980s the port side was only about 180 feet deep. On the right day, any open-water diver could swim down and touch the Doria. The problem is that you can’t tell from the boat if it is the right day. Oftentimes the ocean surface will be completely still, but current can be roaring on the wreck. Visibility can be 100-plus feet, but it is more likely to be 10 to 20 feet. One thing is for sure: It’s always cold, roughly 38 to 48 degrees.
Until computers came along, we had to use the U.S. Navy dive tables. Unfortunately, there were no repetitive tables for air dives over 190 feet. We were not going to stay above 190, or sacrifice our repetitive dives. We overcame this obstacle by interpolating the Navy tables in a way I should probably not describe. It was not exactly what we learned in open-water training.
In the 1980s, deep diving was not acceptable to the mainstream. It was outlaw diving and we were bad boys (and girls). Of those who crossed the 130-foot redline, there were divers who were content simply to make it to the wreck and satisfied to touch the exterior. But what made the Doria the Doria was found inside. Its uniqueness was defined by the almost limitless penetrations it offered. Completely unexplored areas of the wreck awaited those willing to enter. This is what made the Doria different from all the other wrecks of the day. It gave you plenty of rope to hang yourself.
Like most of my peers, I became bolder with every dive. Eventually, I could swim solo down to the wreck, drop into the promenade, swim down to the double doors, enter into the wreck on the promenade deck, swim aft to a stairwell, travel in the stairway down two decks to the foyer deck, come out in the second-class foyer, cross into the second-class dining room, swim aft to the bulkhead at the revolving door, drop down to 230 feet, and enter the corridor into the second-class kitchen. There I would find a cabinet and collect a few souvenirs of glassware. Alone, on air, without a penetration line, this was incredibly aggressive diving.
Why break all the rules of diving to risk dying lost and alone? For me, I wanted to go where no diver had ever been. It was about challenging myself and answering the question, “Could I do it?” Could I figure out a way to go beyond where I had been and get back? Maybe others had different reasons. Regardless, it was adventurous diving and there were numerous injuries and fatalities to prove it. Looking back on the way we dove back then should make any modern day certified diver cringe.
Unfortunately, the days of vast penetrations on the Andrea Doria are gone. The wreck is collapsing and is barely recognizable for what she once was. While the Doria has been in decline, diving has changed dramatically, too. Today we know more about both diving and education, and we have better tools. We dive deeper, longer, and we are much better equipped to manage the inherent risks of diving deep shipwrecks. However, for a short time, the Andrea Doria really was the Mount Everest of wreck diving.
Article by Jacques Bezuidenhout
Sources: scubadiving.com; wikipedia.org, andreadoria.org
The use of a single cylinder may provide enough gas to allow an ascent from recreational depths, but the volume of a single cylinder is simply not enough to allow an ascent plus decompression stops from greater depth. One tank means no redundancy and the words redundancy and technical diving go hand in hand (If you don’t need it, leave it. If you do, take 2). The use of twin cylinders/doubles or twinset is a way of providing this redundancy.
A twinset is usually made up of two of the same sized cylinders with a regulator connected to each
cylinder. Twinsets made up of 12L, 15L, or even 18L cylinders are available but, for the majority of technical divers, twin 12L cylinders provide a good balance of weight and gas volumes. 10L twinsets aren’t uncommon with smaller ladies who are ‘light on fuel’ and don’t want to carry the weight of bigger cylinders.
Twinsets can be configured as independent or manifolded. Independent cylinders provide complete redundancy, as there is no link between the two cylinders. Thus, if one cylinder has a problem, the other is completely independent. However, as the two cylinders are independent, the diver has to switch from one to the other in order to balance the gas usage in the two cylinders (just like Sidemount diving). Whilst switching regulators should be easily within the skill set of a technical diver and should be a routine action, it can sometimes be forgotten when the diver is in the middle of a problem. We do NOT recommend independent cylinders.
The other (better, more widely acceptable) option is to manifold the two cylinders together. This involves connecting the two cylinders at the valves by means of a manifold. On an isolation manifold the left and right cylinder valves allow the corresponding regulator to be shut off, leaving the entire gas supply (cylinder) to be used through the remaining regulator. The central valve, separates the tanks into two independent systems, each with its own first-stage and second-stage regulators, which can prevent a failure in one half of the system from losing the entire gas supply. This also has the benefit that the gas from both cylinders can be accessed from the primary regulator. The disadvantage is that, in the case of a problem, the diver must shut down the problem regulator, or isolate the two cylinders by means of the manifold, otherwise the gas from both cylinders will be lost. It is essential that a diver with a manifolded twinset can carry out a ‘shutdown’ to prevent the complete loss of their gas. As a twinset diver you need to be able to do shutdowns with your eyes closed (literally in some situations).
10 years ago most tech divers, especially cave divers would be seen with twinsets. This has changed over time. Rebreathers are almost commonplace now and Sidemount has made a huge entrance in the market.Doubles are quite expensive to put together and a bit heavy to carry outside of the water. But if your back can handle a little bit of extra weight, you will not be disappointed. The added weight works for you when diving a drysuit. The balance is brilliant. Streamlining easy (everything has its place). No HAVING to change regs constantly. And a big plus – modular dive systems. Upgrade parts, not entire setups.