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Friday, September 05, 2014

Daredevil cave divers exploring depths across Nullarbor Plain

John Vanderleest
Cave diver John Vanderleest explores the underwater caverns of WA's Nullarbor. Picture: http://lizrogersphotography.com
DAREDEVIL divers are exploring remote underground caves across the Nullarbor Plain, swimming below millions of tonnes of rock where one mistake can prove fatal.
But they say taking the ultimate risk is worth it to pioneer a world most of us will never see, in water so stunningly clear that it is "the closest you can come to being an astronaut on Earth".
Their view backs up Lonely Planet's list of top dive spots which shows WA's Nullarbor ahead of the Great Barrier Reef.
While that outraged tourism bosses in Queensland, a hard-core club of about 50 WA cave divers say Lonely Planet was right to name Cocklebiddy Cave, 1150km east of Perth, as one of the world's top-10 dive locations.
"You shine your light and it is so magnificently clear it makes a swimming pool seem murky," Nullarbor veteran and Cave Divers Association of Australia director John Vanderleest said.
"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.
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