If your answer was "yes" to any of these questions, then you are typical of most cave-diving fatalities. Since 1960, more than 570 divers fitting the above description -- that is, untrained, inexperienced, and improperly equipped -- have died in cave diving accidents in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Regardless of their prior openwater experience, most cave diving accident fatalities were untrained in cave-diving procedures, inadequately equipped for the planned dive, and/or making one of their initial cave dives. Many were extremely experienced in other types of diving. No less than 19 were FULLY CERTIFIED OPEN WATER SCUBA INSTRUCTORS -- but without any training in the specialized area of cave diving.
Interviews with the surviving dive buddies suggest that frequently the divers originally planned only to take a quick peek "just inside the cave entrance" -- that they weren't really planning a full-fledged "cave dive." But in many instances the divers got into trouble immediately -- "just inside the cave entrance!" In other cases, they decided to continue further into the cave despite their plan and became hopelessly lost. When their bodies were recovered later, there was every evidence that their pre-death experience was panic-stricken, horrifying, and filled with thoughts of their own stupidity, their families, their dead buddies and their own lost life.
Why did these divers drown? The answer lies in part with their ignorance of the unique HAZARDS found in caves, and their failure to prepare for, recognize and deal with these hazards appropriately.
For example, when cave diving, the cave CEILING restricts direct access to the surface, making you completely dependent upon your equipment and its proper function. Should an emergency such as air failure occur, you cannot make a free ascent to the surface as you would when diving in open water you must first swim out of the cave the way you came in -- out, and then up. Yet many divers, unaware of this consequence of having a ceiling, fail to plan for such an emergency.
In addition, many divers also fail to realize that because of the ceiling, normal openwater rules for air reserves are completely inadequate in a cave scenario -- that it will usually take at least as much air to exit the cave as it took to enter, since the divers must swim back out of the cave the same way they went in. Any kind of time-consuming problem or emergency, or the catastrophic loss of an air supply by one of the dive team members, will require MUCH MORE air -- even two or three times more air. Other divers depend only on their dive light and memory of the cave to navigate the cave's MAZE-LIKE PASSAGEWAYS. But should their dive light(s) fail (which is very common, especially when a light inadvertently bumps into the walls or floor of a cave) or memory fail, there are only two things that will help them exit safely: having learned special emergency procedures (reducing the panic factor), and having a safety guideline from the entrance, which ensures direct access to the surface.
Another unexpected hazard is SILT, or loose sediment that is found on all underwater cave floors and walls. Some of the most popular cavern and cave diving locations feature entrances which are nearly silt free; yet just a few feet beyond the entrance, the floors are covered with deep, potentially treacherous silt.
Normal open water swimming techniques can easily stir up silt, reducing visibility from a hundred feet to near zero with only a few strokes of a fin blade. Imagine swimming forward into clear, beautiful water, only to turn around and see a wall of impenetrable silt when you attempt to exit. Again, only having a continuous guideline to the surface and having practiced and learned emergency procedures will insure a safe exit.
The most important single piece of equipment for cave diving is also the most hazardous to use. Many openwater divers have thought that if they carried a guideline, they could explore a cave safely. Nothing could be further from the truth, and there have been many deaths as a result of these divers getting tangled in their own guideline. Only formal cavern and cave diving courses can teach you the safe and effective procedures for deploying, securing, and following a guideline. Many hours of classroom, field, and underwater training are devoted to guideline usage.
Yet despite these potential hazards, thousands of cave dives are made each year in complete safety by those who have learned to cave dive properly. They are divers much like you, differing only in that they have completed the specialized training and have learned about the quiet, strange and beautiful environment of underwater caves, and respect the caves' unique hazards.
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