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Monday, May 20, 2013

The Technology of Extreme Cave Diving

If you thought mountaineers were the world's toughest explorers, you have to read the Failure Magazine interview with James Tabor about deep cave explorers, author of the new book, Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth. Tabor glosses the careers of American Bill Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk and the caves that made them famous Cheve in southern Mexico and Krubera in the western Caucasus, respectively.
It turns out that Stone is more than a brave guy with a high tolerance for dark, tight spaces. He's also an inventor is working with NASA on a possible robotic explorer for scooting around under the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa, which is considered one of the likeliest places to harbor extraterrestrial life in our solar system. He's also put his mind to work on technology for Earth. When he and his cohort reached the limits of traditional scuba gear in the late 80s, he hacked together his own "rebreather," a closed-circuit breathing system that allowed him to dramatically extend the time he could dive in the world's wet, partially flooded deep caves.
Here's Tabor's description:
[. It took him ten years to develop one in his home laboratory, and the model that he invented is now being marketed by a company called Poseidon, which is headquartered in Sweden. The Poseidon Rebreather weighs about forty pounds fully charged and gives the diver eight to twelve hours of continuous time underwater. Stone remained underwater for twenty-four hours with a prototype, and the only problem he had was staying awake.
How does the rebreather work? It recycles the air that you exhale. That air has been mildly enriched with carbon dioxide and stripped of oxygen. By running the air through scrubbers that capture the CO2 and adding oxygen from a tank, the recycled air can be returned to breathable air. While a rebreather requires carrying a tank of oxygen, the use of your own exhalations reduces the volume of gas that you must carry.
If all this sounds like it might be delightful on the big screen, James Cameron agrees with you. He's working on a movie called Sanctum about extreme cave divers. And yes, of course it will be in 3D. In the meantime, check out Bill Stone's TED talk embedded above. 
Cave diving: A hidden world awaits
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Cave diving: A hidden world awaitsDiving Cenote Angelita
Much like entering a secret world hidden away from the masses, cave diving allows you to view underwater landscapes you may never see elsewhere, as well as the amazing creatures or plant life that might live in there. With thousands of cave dive sites around the world, you can find options almost anywhere you travel. Here are five legendary locations to put on your dive bucket list:
  1. Great Blue Hole, Belize - The 300-meter/984-foot circle in Belize’s Lighthouse Reef appears like an eye peering out of the turquoise waters, but really it’s an underwater sinkhole where a variety of caves and caverns can be found. Not surprisingly, the Great Blue Hole is one of 10 top scuba diving sites in the world, according to Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
  2. Devil’s Eye, Florida-United States – With more than 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) of mapped passageways, the Devil’s Eye cave system provides plenty of opportunity to explore. The system is so large, there are parts of it that have yet to be mapped. While you won’t be the only diver at this popular site, its resort location provides plenty of amenities, like warm showers before dives
  3. Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe - The warm, dark blue waters of the Chinhoyi caves of Zimbabwe allow for impressive year-round cave dives. The serenity you’ll find in these caves is only made more magical by the history and folklore surrounding them.
  4. Sistema Sac Aktun, Mexico – The Yucatán Peninsula has many cave dive locations, but the Sistema Sac Aktun system is considered by many to be the best of the best. Off the coast of the ancient city of Tulum, the caverns reward those who venture here with very detailed cave decorations sure to be camera-worthy.
  5. Nereo Cave, Italy - Named after the mythological figure Nereus, or Old Man of the Sea, the biggest marine cave in the Mediterranean Sea offers beautiful arches and tunnels begging to be explored. The warm waters of Sardinian are a welcome start as you glide through the structure, viewing red coral and yellow leptosamnia along the way.

Cave Diving: Into the Earth

by Brooke Morton

JP Bresser

Cave Diving

Into the Earth: Stake a claim on the last unknown frontier: it lies just beneath our feet. 
Daredevil cave divers exploring depths across Nullarbor Plain
John Vanderleest
Cave diver John Vanderleest explores the underwater caverns of WA's Nullarbor. Picture: Source: Supplied
"You can't articulate how crystal clear it is. You're floating in a giant cave that's so crystal clear you don't even realise you're underwater. It's like you're floating in space."
And it's almost as dangerous as a trip to outer space.
More than 90m below ground, divers are beneath millions of tonnes of rock. And at 6.5km long, Cocklebiddy Cave is the longest underwater passage in the country, up to several hundred metres wide, along a fault line in the biggest slab of limestone on the planet.
In 1972 and 1973, at least eight people died cave-diving in Australia, prompting the formation of the cave divers association and the introduction of a permits and a training system that has kept fatalities to two since then.
That record was almost ruined in 1988 when producer Andrew Wight led a Nullarbor cave-diving expedition and a freak storm caused the entrance to collapse, leaving 15 people trapped underground.
A rescue mission was mounted and everyone survived in a harrowing ordeal that inspired the movie Sanctum.
So mysterious are the world's giant, flooded underwater caverns, the Maya believed the entrances to them to be portals to the underworld.
"It's an unforgiving sport. You can't afford mistakes. If anything goes wrong, you have to deal with it underwater," Mr Vanderleest said.
He said the Nullarbor's six regularly dived caves were among the most popular in the country for Australia's small and highly trained group of cave divers, who number about 800, including up to 70 in WA.
Phenomenal visibility is the result of artesian basin water that has taken thousands of years to filter through the limestone surface layers, the cave divers association's scientific officer, Ian Lewis, said.
And exploring the underwater realm isn't cheap.
"A re-breather will be $12,000-$15,000, an underwater scooter $5000, but people don't mind the expense because when your life is reliant on equipment, you don't want an old VW, you want a Ferrari," Mr Vanderleest said.
Perth diver Craig Challen holds the "crown of Cocklebiddy" for going deeper than anyone to the end of the cave system, where it branches into several tight passages. Another Perth legend of the sport is Paul Hosie, who has mapped more than 15km of virgin cave-diving passages in the Nullarbor and elsewhere.
Fellow diver Geoff Paynter has tackled Cocklebiddy more than a dozen times since it was discovered in the '70s.
He said most West Australians had no idea that the treasure existed.
"People are literally driving over the top on their way to Perth or Adelaide and they don't realise what's below," he said.

Diver Dies & His Student Hospitalized After Cave Diving Accident

April 27, 2013
Gouffre de Gourneyras, Saint-Maurice-de-Navacelles, Hérault, France
Earlier this month a 36-year-old experienced French cave diver died, and his 22-year-old student was hospitalized after an accident during a dive in Gouffre de Gourneyras near Saint-Maurice-de-Navacelles in southern France.
On Sunday April 14th, the divers had just begun their way down, planning to descend to -52 meters (170 feet) of the caves -105 meter (344 foot) total depth, when something happened causing the experienced diver to drown.
Unable to help, the young student panicked, abandoned his breathing apparatus, and quickly resurfacing without considering decompression.
Due to his quick assent the student had to be hospitalized for decompression problems, while rescue cave divers from Speleo Secours Francais spent the night searching for the body of the missing man.
The lifeless body was eventually located early on Monday morning at a depth of -48 meters (157 feet) and was brought to the surface for further investigation into the cause of the accident.
Hérault : la plongée dans le gouffre de Gourneyras tourne au cauchemar [ via Scintilena] & Opération de secours Exurgence de Gourneyras – Commune de Madières

Cave Divers Extend Sweden’s Longest Underwater Cave

April 24, 2013
The icy entrance for cave divers during the 2013 Bjurälven Expedition.
The icy entrance for cave divers during the 2013 Bjurälven Expedition.Screengrab via Markus Nord/Vimeo
A cave diving expedition earlier this month in Sweden’s Bjurälven Nature Reserve has further increased the length of Sweden’s longest underwater cave.
Located in Jämtland mountains in northern Sweden, Bjurälven Nature Reserve is Scandinavia’s biggest area of karst topography.
This year’s Expedition Bjurälven, held almost annually (only one year missed) by the Swedish Speleological Society’s Diving Section since 2007, saw some 20 members spend eight days exploring the Bjurälven river which disappears underground for about three kilometers (1.86 miles).
Due to a strong summer rate of flow that make diving impossible, expeditions to the cave are only attempted in the wintertime when the flow is almost nonexistent. However, winter provides its own obstacles for divers including over a meter of ice and snow and freezing surface temperatures around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit).
As a result of their extreme efforts, the this years expedition succeeded in extending the cave 313 meters (1027 feet) making it the 10th longest cave in Sweden with a total length of 915 meters (3002 feet).
Additionally, the team was excited to discover an unexpected dry section of the cave. The 105 meter (344 foot) long section contains a nine meter high hall with water cascading down from the ceiling, giving the team hope that there may be a connection to the surface.

Swiss Caver Rescued After Days Trapped Beyond Sump

April 13, 2013
A Swiss caver was rescued on Friday evening after being trapped underground for two days.
The man, identified as Roland Geiser, was on a solo caving trip in Grotte de la Cascade near Motiers in western Switzerland when the water suddenly rose over three meters, trapping him about 200 meters (656 feet) from the entrance.
A dozen rescuers from Spéléo-Secours Suisse were brought in, including three cave divers from Lausanne who managed to reach the trapped man on Thursday. They brought him food and suitable clothing to wait out the ordeal.
With a strong current, and extremely low visibility in the sump, the idea of getting the inexperienced man to try to swim underwater to freedom was initially out of the question. However, with increased rains on Thursday, the wait was becoming long and the decision was made for two divers to assist the untrained diver out of the cave on Friday evening.
With their help, the man-made it safely out of the cave around 9:00pm.
Although it is not known to have completely flooded before, the increase in water levels in Grotte de la Cascade is common in the spring due to the run off from melting snow.
Grotte de la Cascade [Spéléo-Secours Suisse], Caver trapped underground in Neuchâtel [World Radio Switzerland], Le spéléologue de Môtiers: “J’ai vraiment eu la peur de ma vie” [] & Swiss caver rescued after days in water-filled cavern

Buckingham Palace Recognizes Top English Cave Diver

January 3, 2013
New Member of the of the Order of the British Empire Richard Stanton.
New Member of the of the Order of the British Empire Richard Stanton. Photo via the West Midlands Fire Service
An English cave diver was made a Member of the of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the New Year Honours list recently announced by Buckingham Palace.
Diver Richard Stanton, a firefighter based in Coventry, has received the award in recognition for his 23 years of service as a firefighter and his volunteer work as a cave rescue diver.
This is not the first time the 51-year-old has been recognized for his services.
In 2011, Stanton was voted Hero of the Year by his firefighter colleagues during their Aspire Awards ceremony. Then again, last year he was presented the Bronze Medal from the Royal Humane Society for his efforts to help recover the body of French cave diver Eric Establie who became trapped in France’s Draggonniere Gaude cave system in 2010.
It isn’t particularly unusual for me to get official looking letters in the post because of my international rescue work, but when I got notification of this on behalf of the Palace I was absolutely astounded. I’m just doing work I enjoy to the best of my ability, but I’m thrilled to be awarded the MBE. Richard Stanton, Cave Diver/Firefighter, West Midlands Fire Service
Top Coventry Firefighter honoured with MBE [West Midlands Fire Service via reader Tim Rivett]