Saturday, January 5, 2008

Cave Diving by Michele Carvale

Michele documented our cave dives by way of e-mails to her boyfriend and after a month of my hounding her, she has sent me her e-mails. These give you more of an idea of what we got up to during our course:

Day 1 -- There are 3 students in the course, myself, Anna and strangely enough, a friend named Paul that we know from Hoboken Dive Center.

This morning it was pouring rain so rather than risk getting soaked, we grabbed light snacks at the convenience store across the way. Our instructor had us assemble our gear so he could look at our setup. He seemed satisfied that we were in order and told us we could disassemble and stow in the car. We loaded our gear and then drove as a group to the dive site. Of course on the way to the site, I realized I had forgotten my bottom timer and dive computer. Excellent first impression....lucky for me, most of our drills would be on land or shallow so this proved to not be a problem. One of my classmates was crazy enough to have 2 computers and a bottom timer and generously loaned me the latter. OK - first hurdle which I created overcome. This dive site was pretty and there was a group of snorkelers there as well. There was actually a bathroom which I was pleased about and benches to set up our gear. We put things together and then did line drills on land.

The instructor is quite stern when teaching but I suppose this is a serious course. He laid line on trees for us and then had us walk in a line while he timed us. The next 30 minutes were spent with us walking back from the tie off point to the primary tie off either individually or as a group using touch contact. 90% of these exercises involved him telling us we killed ourselves and he seemed to delight in pointing to the place on the line where we exceeded our thirds air supply. He was was tricky timing how slow to proceed on the way in in order to make it out in the same amount of time w- your eyes closed. Of course he threw in a few surprises like grabbing the line out of our hands or randomly putting another line on ours without us knowing.

Sidebar - the mosquitoes are crazy down here and denghi fever recently so I have been applying bugspray liberally. I may be growing a third boob out of my forehead from all this spray but I'm fine with it. An extra boob may come in handy someday.

Back to reality - Time to gear up and walk down the stairs (so happy there are stairs and not a muddy path) to a beautiful pool like opening in the middle of the jungle. There are people snorkeling and it is beautiful. It is a large area and the instructor sets up a circuit w- his reel which takes about 5 minutes to swim with eyes open and no stress. We then repeat the land skill under water and this time he´s really messing with us. He managed to grab the line out of my hand once on the swim to teach me I needed to hold on much stronger. Lesson learned. I somehow managed to come across another diver in this simulated no viz exercise and although I tried to communicate with hand signals to see if they were ok and to signal the way out....I received no response and instead they seemed interested in going around me so I continued on. I could feel our instructor moving around me from time to time and would all of sudden feel like a giant spider swept over me as I would find my fins, manifold and any other protrusion of mine wrapped in line. Each time, I waited for the spider to finish his weaving and then would slowly untangle before resuming the position of protecting my head and pressing on. I managed to make it to the end of the simulation intact but no doubt, well beyond thirds. During the debrief, we discussed coming across another diver who inadvertently had gotten turned around themselves. Seems the rule of thumb is if you are already having your own emergency, you can be of little help to someone else without putting yourself at jeopardy - best to move on without them. Creepy. The talk of death in the course is prominent.

We then did this same exercise several times with no viz using touch contact as a 3man buddy team. It is literally like having the shit kicked out of you since you are so close to the other diver and you´re trying to be quick about exiting the cave. We lived though in the simulation so that´s all that matters.

There was quite a bit of discussion about needing to improve
buoyancy, not using hands for movement, etc. It was not always the kindest feedback but I think each of us knew when we were at fault. Sometimes, your best critic is yourself. The instructor warned us there is no filter from his brain to his mouth and that this is too serious to not be harsh so harsh is what he gives.

After this we did a 30 minute cavern dive which was so beautiful. The cavern was huge the viz was good and it was very nice. There is a
thermocline here which can be a bit of a pain when swimming behind someone. Interestingly, our instructor advised us to stagger on each side of the line to avoid stirring it up badly for the diver behind you. This seemed to make it more manageable.

I'm adding some photographs here that I found off the
Internet here to show what a halocline looks like:
It looks like the divers in front are diving through a big mirror. when your over and passing through the halocline it looks fuzzy like a mix of oil and vinegar.

Day 2 - We return to the Eden cenote and do one line drill on land to refresh our memory of touch contact eyes out no viz. We do this quite well as a dive team - we are gelling.

Dive 1 - skill is backup light exit, I am team leader. Tie in with a primary and secondary tie-off and then start the journey into the cave looking for the main line. It feels pretty far into the cave and I realize without gloves, my goodman handle is too big so I do my best to position it comfortably without fussing. We go past an eerie grim reaper sign which reminds us there's nothing worth dying in there for. Well said....I wonder if I should turn around but I have full tanks and am curious so I press on. I find the main line and tie my reel off there, leaving it behind to follow the permanently installed line. We proceed on with no events. It is beautiful and the room is huge. The instructor tells me to turn the dive, which I am a bit bummed about since it is well before our turn pressure and time but if he says it's time to go, I'm certainly going to go along with it. I give the turn signal to the diver behind me but instead of confirming the signal which is the protocol, the diver proceeds to check his pressure gauge and give me the remaining pressure. I repeat the turn signal and get a blank stare in return. By now, the instructor has swam over like a bat out of hell and taps the diver on the head rather hard and asks if he's ok. Without hesitation, the instructor gives the thumbs up sign to end the dive so instead of making a leisurely exit out on a turn dive signal we make an immediate exit. No more fun looking around. We are told to turn off our primary lights and switch on our backups. Creepy dark when all the big lights are out but I hold onto the line before i turn it off to be sure I know where it is.

Safe exit for all with a debriefing focused on hand signals.

Dive 2 - skill is out of air, touch contact exit, Paul is the dive leader. We go in without incident and get a bit further from where we turned last time. We pass a tie-off with a 90 degree turn. Later on the debrief we are reminded of the importance of following the line and looking at each tie-off and placement to ensure no other line exists. We turn the dive on turn pressure and start our exit. Once we get back through the small passage, I see a light shaking - a sign of an emergency. I turn and find myself facing diver 2 - no emergency there. It is diver 3 that needs attention so diver 2 assesses the situation and donates air. The OOA diver moves to the front and I assume the caboose on our exit.

Dive 3 - Drawing a blank on this one so moving on to day 2.

Day 2 Dive 1 - We are down to a 2-man buddy team since our third has moved on to another instructor. We learn lost line drill on land. This involves using your spool (also called a safety reel) to make a primary and secondary tie-off and then blindly swim waving your arm around hoping to find the line. Not very exact but it works. We do this on land once and I struggle a bit to get my tieoff on the rock my instructor leaves me with. This may have been an omen for the exercise.
Anna is dive leader and I am diver 2. She makes a primary and secondary tie-off and we head into the cave past a skull and crossbones sign. Creepy. Again, I think this is pretty but it's not worth getting into trouble over. She ties off and we head in. This cave is very pretty - called the
Taj Mahal and while the rooms are smaller there are stalactites and stalagmites everywhere. The rooms are smaller and bleach white. You can see a half inch of silt on everything on the bottom but we are good with our fins and don't stir it up. We make our way past a few sharp turns which are good markers of progress. I can see the line is spliced together a few times but I check it and it looks sturdy so we press on. The instructor gives me the turn air signal and we head back. I am expecting we'll do the lost line scenario but he takes out his wet notes and writes that we will exit the cave with 1000 psi and we should let him know when we hit that pressure. Our original plan was to turn when I hit 2500 so I shake my head no. That is not enough air to exit the cave for me. I don't like the change in plan and I tell him no. He gives the thumbs up sign and we end the dive.

During our debrief, he advises that he has not taken into account the amount of air needed for the exercise and so our turn pressures would not have allowed successful completion as initially calculated. Regardless, he says it was good to not exceed our own comfortable limits and any miscommunication should be an immediate reason to end the dive. No harm no foul.

Dive 2 - same plan, I am team leader. We head in, he turns us around and then has us get on the main line. Primary lights out backups on. He comes over to me and has me shut off my backup light and close my eyes then takes me off the line to some random rock. Game on. Time to find the line. I had 2200 in my tank and I can feel the instructor is close to me since his breathing is loud so I felt ok doing this. I make my primary tie off which feels secondary tie off feels loose and although I retie it a few times, it's not great. Still, I can't find anything else to tie onto so I make it the best I can and continue. I use the technique he told us to turn around 180 degrees and then start crawling on the cave bottom as instructed moving my arm up and down to find the line. After a while I decided I had gone too far and I retuned to my starting point to find my secondary tieoff had come off. Not a good feeling but my primary tieoff was good so I started over again. This time I hit the line dead on, tied off on the line w- my spool and clipped in the direction I thought the cave exit was. I was correct. Drill over. I am alive. Always a plus. On the debrief, I will learn that on my first attempt I was headed in the proper direction and then started unknowingly turning in my search making a u-shaped path. I think had I stayed negative on the cave floor and crawled, I would've avoided this situation but I was attempting to be a bit gentle in the cave. Lesson - don't be gentle w/ your life - you only get one.

I watched Anna do the same and it was good to see someone else do this so you can see how hard a skill it can be. She found the line on the first attempt but only by sheer luck since there was a 90 degree bend in the line. She had moved parallel to the line she originally was on but with the turn found it. Either way - it was a successful attempt on the first try. She is alive. Good stuff.

Captain Obvious Quote of the Day: The lost line drill is not a good position to be in. Stay on the line and you can avoid this experience.

Dive 3 - out of air diver no viz lights out. Anna is dive leader I am diver 2. We head in and the plan is a longer dive since we each have 2200 in our tanks still. I am looking forward to a longer dive since we keep flirting with a beautiful opening to a room with pillars and beautiful formations. Just as we are about to get there, our dive gets turned. Bummer! The instructor gives me the out of air drill and I turn to Anna. She quickly donates her reg and we then get on the line in formation. I managed to snag my crappy fin on the line and immediately I am grabbed by my instructor. I try my best not to move as he fixes that and also puts us in formation. All the while I am kicking myself for not having my jetfins on. Ho hum. It's a mellow entanglement and I know the Spider will undo the line easily. It's awkward to share air on a line when the line is on the left with the reg coming from the right. Once we are set up it is smooth sailing as we exit all the way to the reel. What a good feeling to find the reel - we are close to home. We stop the air-share drill to clean up. I move up and wait for Anna to retrieve the reel. She swims past it. I turn around and the instructor tells me to retrieve it. I signal not me, her. He insists I get the reel. Fine. I'll get it. He then asks me if I am diver 1 or diver 2. I tell him diver 2 and he has Anna remove the reel. Safe exit.

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