Welcome to the Dark side
Cave diving is an activity not every diver would enjoy. A cavern is generally defined as the first part of a cave, when you can turn around and still see the exit. The cave starts when you swim around a bend, and you cannot see daylight in any direction. In this article I’ll refer to both types of diving as “cave diving,” because cavern diving is where it all begins for those of us drawn down into the earth— to places so few people will ever see.
To fin along a path less trodden is part of the attraction, but there are many other reasons divers explore caves. With no sunlight to sustain bacteria and no water movement to hold silt in suspension, visibility can reach astonishing distances — up to 60m in some caves. In an enormous chamber, divers may be able to see another tiny pair of divers and their lights all the way over on the other side, the water so clear it is literally invisible — like floating in space. Some caves actually look like the surface of the moon, with pale white limestone carved into strange, unearthly shapes. In other caves the water moves along rapidly, and divers swim against the flow going into the cave and, if the passages are large enough, fly along with the flow heading out. Dives like these are truly remarkable experiences. On the other side of the coin, sometimes the water flows inward from the entrance, and divers need to be extra cautious to turn around with enough remaining gas to swim against the flow and still make it out with gas in reserve for safety. (Planning these kind of dives are a big part of your cave diving course)
To the trained eye, caves offer as much variety as exists between different shipwrecks or different reefs. Some caves have white walls, some dark walls that eat your torchlight, and some have stripes from alternating seasons that either send dark water into the cave or clean water to flush it out. Because they are most commonly made of limestone, many caves have beautiful fossils embedded in the walls. Strange animals live in caves. Having adapted to the cave environment over eons, they may lack pigmentation and appear pale white; many are blind with extra-long feelers to detect food in the complete dark.
In the same way ocean divers often develop a store of knowledge over time, so too do cave divers, and conversations leading up to and following dives are as animated as those on any dive boat. In short, cave diving offers an opportunity to visit unique environments with adventure aplenty and as part of a dive group that shares a passion.
How to Start Cave Diving
The path from recreational diver to cave diver is now clearly marked. First, we start in caverns and learn the basics of safe cave diving. These include the five golden rules, which cover gas planning, maximum depth, adequate lighting, marking the trail and the need for training. New skills introduced at this time include finning techniques such as the frog kick. This kick can minimize the risk of stirring up silt, which could disorient divers and cause them to lose their way.
After the cavern diver course, we usually go dive caverns as much as we can until we start shining our torches around the bend and thinking, “I wonder what’s down that passage.” The next level of training is usually an intermediate phase in which divers start diving with more than one cylinder and practice running line. Several types of reels are available today, and divers should learn to use the ones they will be using after the course.
Some caves have a “gold line” from the entrance through the main passage; some require the lead diver to lay line beginning some distance beyond the entrance to prevent curious novices from following the gold line into the cave. This training level usually comes with some restrictions so we don’t go too fast too soon: “no leaving the main line to explore side passages” or a gas restriction such as “no diving beyond a third of a pair of doubles,” for example. Different training agencies have different restrictions, but they are all intended to encourage new cave divers to gain experience before moving even farther into the earth.
After making a number of cave dives, which seem incredibly adventurous, you’ll be ready for a course to become a “full-cave diver.” This level of training includes learning to dive complex caves, running short lines (called “jumps”) and using line markers such as arrows and “cookies” to record information such as who is still in the cave and which is the shortest way out. Each level of diving increases the amount of potential anxiety divers may experience, so they should gradually add to their experience before progressing. (It is possible to do cavern diver – full-cave diver consecutively. This usually depends on your level of experience and how well you perform during your course)
In the early days of cave diving, fatalities were significantly more common than they are thought to be today. Research at DAN examined more than 300 American cave-diving fatalities over a 40-year period and found that modern approaches to cave-diver training, probably coupled with more regulated access, appear to have stemmed the tide of young, untrained and ill-equipped divers drowning in caves. Today it would be difficult to find a recreational diver who does not know you need special training to safely dive in caves. With this said, if we look at South African cave diving fatalities they were more common in the 80’s and 90’s and mostly occurred in Wondergat where depth and narcoses played a big role every time.
With that training comes the expectation of suitable gear, and such gear usually costs a bit more than the equipment used for ocean diving. Many of us have been diving for years before we get into the darker side of diving, as cave diving is affectionately known. Considering the experience, the cost of the gear and the expense of the additional training, today’s cave diver may be a few years more seasoned and a bit more cautious. In general, we also have high-quality, well-maintained gear and, above all, advanced training.
One of the added benefits of getting trained as a cave diver is that the skills developed along the way carry over into the rest of our diving. Many of us change the way we fin even when diving reefs so we don’t throw pressure waves down onto the wildlife. We feel more comfortable carrying an extra cylinder and regulator when making deeper dives, and our gas consumption tends to drop as we improve our trim and buoyancy control. This means we use less gas on average, so our dives become less physiologically demanding.
Cave-Diving in South Africa
- Komati Springs – Flooded mine with a vast network of shafts
- Wondergat – Deep caverns
- Bobbjaansgat – Expedition dive
- Wetsgat – Must be dived on Sidemount
- Boesmansgat – Expedition dive
There are only a handful of cave diving instructors in South Africa. You will be able to do a cavern diving specialty course with an instructor that is a full-cave diver (there are more of those around than full cave instructors). Before signing up for a course, try to contact someone who was trained by the instructor you’re considering. ALL instructors claim they are ‘the best’. This isn’t some reef fish weekend specialty. You don’t want an instructor who takes shortcuts and passes you for the ‘cert’. DO YOUR RESEARCH before you book a course. The value of a patient instructor when you’re heading into the overhead environment cannot be overestimated. Don’t be afraid to let your instructor know if something is beyond your comfort zone. Progress cautiously, gradually gaining experience, and above all, remember: Anyone can call any dive at any time.
If this sounds like a path you would like to follow, the best advice is to locate a good instructor. CONTACT US
Cave diving equipment – start today
If you are new to diving but your goal is to one day become a cave diver it’s a good idea to buy the right equipment from the start – gear that will be suitable for the cave environment.
Keep the following in mind:
- Fins – Open heel fins that are not: Split fins, free diving fins.
- BCD – Buy a backplate/wing BCD from the start. They can be used for both sport diving and technical diving (jacket style BCD’s CANNOT be used for technical diving)
- Regulator – DIN is the tech standard. (You can easily convert a DIN reg to yoke)
- Torch – If you need a torch for night diving, purchase a torch that can one day be used as a backup light in tech diving.
- Dive computers – Consoles may be great on reefs but they’re too bulky for tech diving.
Article by Jacques Bezuidenhout