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Friday, June 07, 2013


Cave Diving

There is for some reason much confusion between ‘dry’ caving (no SCUBA required) and cave DIVING. I’ve never been sure why but 50% of people think its the same thing. A lot of cave divers get bored with the same dive sites and begin to wonder what dry caves are like, and likewise many dry cavers get drawn into cave diving often because it allows access to more dry cave. Many VSA members are also cave divers. A big reason for this is that a significant number of good cave dives (especially on the Nullarbor) need dry caving skills to get to the dive site, so VSA attracts divers who need to learn dry caving techniques.

Cave Diving has a reputation as a VERY dangerous sport. This is based on the fact that unfortunately there are fairly regular (although not necessarily frequent) deaths around the world. This was why the CDAA (Cave Divers Association of Australia) was formed. The CDAA was formed in September 1973. At the time landowners throughout the Mount Gambier area of South Australia, were contemplating the closure of all holes to diving following a spate of diving fatalities in the water filled caves. With the forming of the CDAA, sinkhole divers hoped to prevent the wholesale closure of the dive sites by presenting a united voice in defence of their sport. They wished to indicate to landowners and the public at large that they were able to regulate their activities to acceptable standards of safety and training. The newly formed CDAA set up a series of criteria and testing procedures. Initially these were a listing of all the popular cave diving sites divided into three different categories based on their degree of difficulty. Cards were issued to divers to display to landowners to indicate their competency. The landowners gained confidence in the ability of the CDAA to produce safe divers and, as a result, the holes remained open.

Now the training to reach the certifcations is strict, comprehensive and thorough, although it is achievable if you take your time and work up to each level. The deaths of cave divers are almost NEVER your standard recreational divers who are careful and conservative – it is actually the elite of the sport who push the boundaries and take risks who come to grief. To get the highest qualification – ‘Advanced Cave’ – your performance needs to be flawless. Any slight hiccup and you are not passed. This is how serious the CDAA is about safety.

This brings me unfortunately to the death of two cave divers who died in the last 2 years. These were Agnes Milowka and Tony Morris. Both ‘Advanced Cave’ level divers (the highest certification possible) and EXTREMELY experienced divers. They both passed away in the same cave – the famous Tank Cave which is the longest and most complex cave dive in Australia. There was a third death a year or so before Agnes died also. Frustratingly we will never know exactly why Ag and Tony died as they were not with another diver at the times of their deaths. 3 deaths within 3 years was unlucky for the CDAA who had an unblemished safety record since it was constructed – a period of over 20 years with no incidents! Agnes particularly was considered a world class cave diver by the time she passed away and had dived in Florida and Mexico with some of the other world famous cave divers. Tony Morris was a VSA member and did a lot of dry caving as well as cave diving, and actually helped teach me some of my first SRT skills in Buchan. For the 99% of cave divers who don’t push it, it is NOT a dangerous past time, but there will in any extreme sport always be those who are prepared to take the risk in order to achieve the glory of finding new cave. RIP Agnes Milowka and Tony Morris.

For those of you who are interested in trying cave diving, check out The first qualifaction is called ‘Deep Cavern’. The pre-requisites for Deep Cavern are that you need to be an advanced open water diver for at least 12mths, have done a min. of 25 dives, including 2 night dives and min. of 5 dives to 25m. You don’t have to be on a manifold system, twin independents are also acceptable, but either way you need two tanks on you (one major premise of cave diving is you have two or more of EVERYTHING so that if one link in the chain fails you have a backup). Almost all cave divers use twin tanks with a manifold and a wing BCD. You also need to have a min. of 3 lights, one of which should ideally be a STRONG purpose built dive light and a 7ft hose in length. Short bladed fins are recommends rather the split fins because the finning technique used in cave diving is more productive. The max. depth for this rating is 40m. And the max. liner distance that you can penetrate is 60m but still have natural daylight seen if you turn towards the exit. The CDAA run Deep Cavern courses very frequently, and they consist of several days of theory, a day in the pool, and then a few days in Gambier. The course is not easy and the instructor will task load you so you have to deal with several things at once whilst maintaining neutral buoyancy – but having said that you are not expected to be perfect at beginner level. The idea is that you hone your skills for at least a year, diving regularly, so that you are ready for the next level eventually. But once you are qualified the sites you have access to are spectacular. Again, he has no affiliation to this site but my instructor was Andy Higgins, one of the most experienced instructors in Australia, and I cannot recommend him highly enough! A patient, knowledgeable and talented instructor. There are many other instructors who are all excellent too.
(with one exception called DD4 near Portland) The only cave diving in Victoria is sump diving in Buchan, which is quite a different thing. In the Gambier caves it is generally possible to swim through without disturbing the silt or losing visibility. In the sump dives in the 4 or 5 Buchan caves that sump out, you lose ALL visibility straight away and the sumps are usually VERY tight. It is about as extreme as cave diving gets, and only a special breed have the constitution for it! You generaly need to take gear off and push it through infront of you to get through the restrictions. All the cave sump dives in Buchan have been pushed to their limits or conclusions over the years, apart from the Elk River (Potholes Master Cave) which is still being explored. It is over a km in length but only 150m of it is accessible to non divers. The late Agnes Milowka was the first diver to make it through the downstream sump. Regular trips are currently being held extending the cave which will no doubt be the deepest in Buchan and may end up being the longest. Each sump dive in Elk River requires a team of at least 3-4 ‘sherpers’ who help carry all the tanks and gear through the dry section of the cave. It is a tiring, long and difficult journey which requires SRT skills, squeezes, caving ladders, roof sniffs and several acrobatic manoeuvres in the horizontal section – on trips with dive gear it would rate at a 4, probably one of the hardest overall trips in Buchan. Without carrying dive gear it is a lot easier and about 3 times quicker.

Cave diving is not for egotistical or macho individuals. You need to be a logical, thoughtful and calculating individual. A diving quote for cave diving (and all diving in general) is that ‘you plan your dive and dive your plan’. On the darker side they also say that with cave diving – ‘there are no rescues, only body recoveries’.  If you stay conservative, follow the golden rules, and remember what you learn in your courses, you’ll be fine and have an amazing time.
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