Once upon a time in Mexico…
Truthfully, it really was a little over twenty years ago in Mexico that I did my first big cave diving exploration. A team of five of us explored caves that had been on the Earth for tens of thousands of years but were rarely visited by humans. Two dives a day, trekking through the jungle, down rickety staircases, with gear that weighed nearly as much as we did. At night, we drank margaritas on the rocks, ate the best food I’d eaten in my life, and hashed out the plan for the next day’s dives.
If you are a dive bum, you were living the life. If you were a normal, sane human being, you had the nagging suspicion that death stalked your every movement.
The trip was twofold: first, exploration of new and well-known caves. Second, a photoshoot for what, at the time, was one of the few dedicated dive equipment manufacturers for cave and technical diving. They footed most of the bill for our excursion and we posed for the necessary photos between gawking at the most beautiful rock formations known to mankind. We were able to get our photos as well as explore new caves, but with twenty years of hindsight, I now recognize how batshit insane the entire trip was.
Why is cave diving different?
First, if you have any experience as an open water diver, think of your favorite dive. It’s probably the bright, clear, and warm tropical waters of the Caribbean or Bahamas. Cave diving is done in dark, truly lightless caves. Many have silty floors that will obscure all sight with the flick of one errant fin. And finally, because they are caves, untouched by the warmth of the sun and fed by frigid unground aquafers. Cave diving is not for everyone. There are no beautiful fish or coral heads. This is a sport for people who enjoy pushing themselves to the limit, against the odds, and with the risk of death.
Clearly, you can see how I was drawn into it. (That and having a parent who was a fully certified instructor willing to lend/loan me all the very, very expensive gear I needed.)
Cave diving differs from open water in three main ways: environment, training, and gear. The most obvious is the environment described above. Open water divers are not certified to enter any overhead environments. This can be a wreck, cavern, or cave. The line between cave and cavern is drawn where sunlight ends. If you can no longer see sunlight, you’ve entered the cave. The cave and its overhead present unique challenges. In an emergency, where an open water diver can choose a direct ascent, even risking decompression sickness and a trip to the decompression chamber in an extreme emergency, this is not an option for a cave diver. In the event of a medical emergency or catastrophic gear failure, the only way out is the way in, the long trek back the way you came. That way back out can be fraught with narrow passageways and silty floors. When I say that this sport risks death, I mean that very literally. I know five folks who have died while cave diving, including one of the men from our Mexican expedition.
These challenges bring us to the second difference: training. The unique environment requires divers to learn specialized skills like how to find the guide line in near-zero visibility, crucial to a safe exit. They also must learn new kicking skills and practice precise buoyance control to keep from disturbing a silty floor, thus creating low visibility conditions. They also must learn different gas management techniques. In open water, when you hit your decompression limits, you start an ascent. In cave diving, one carefully manages their gas to turn “on thirds” or when you’ve used one third of your gas. This ensures you have twice the necessary gas to get back out in case of an emergency such as you or your dive buddy suffering a gear failure that requires you to share air.
Finally, the third difference between open water and cave diving: gear. Cave divers carry everything an open water diver carries, minus the snorkel, which could create a safety hazard by becoming entangled in lines or rocky outcroppings. Their wetsuits are thicker for the colder water, fins are stiffer for fighting currents, and they will usually carry two tanks. In addition to the standard open water gear, they will also carry three lights and a spare reel of line. Cave divers also tend to carry multiple tanks to ensure a longer dive time and have backups in case of a catastrophic gear failure. Finally, they rig up their gear to keep from having “the dangles,” free-floating gear that can get snagged or entangled.
Who actually does this crazy stuff?
Well, I did. Members of my family have as well as friends. Most cave diving instructors will not begin training you until you’ve met a threshold of open water dives, anywhere from twenty to fifty dives. You also need specialized gear, as noted above. The required prerequisite training, dives, and gear are expensive to obtain, which means cave diving is also for rich people. How did I, a broke college kid with only four open water dives, no income, and no gear of my own manage to enter the murky world of cave diving?
My father. Yup, that guy. He, in his supposed infinite wisdom, decided that an 18-year old with only four open water dives and no other experience was ready to start cave diving. And, because he owned enough gear to outfit a small army and was a fully certified instructor, he had the means to do it. Money? No. But he had the equipment and training required. And I, who had been more or less abandoned since age 12, was only too happy to try and build some kind of relationship and too naïve to realize how monumentally stupid it was to do what we did.
In just one short week, I was a qualified cavern diver. One week after that, I was a fully certified cave and Nitrox diver. To put my youth in context, my certification photo is of me holding my father’s cat because I was more enamored with the cat than the diving.
The dives were more than a little bit terrifying. The conditions were scary. It took a lot of physical effort to kick into a cave against the flow of the current. It took a lot of mental stamina to stay in a cold, dark, environment, where one wrong turn could lead you to death by suffocation and drowning. My father opined on this constantly. He went on long winded diatribes about how mentally and physically superior cave divers were to “the average fat tourist in the Bahamas.” Secretly, I would have taken the warm Bahamian waters over frigid caves, but since Dad wasn’t going to the Bahamas, I stayed in the caves.
For a time, cave diving granted me access to my father in a way I never had before. I thought maybe if I could build enough time underwater, get an instructor certification of my own, he’d be proud of me. He certainly harped on me to finish enough dives to get the certification. But I had other dreams. I had dreams of silver wings pinned to a blue services dress uniform. I can’t say “eventually I had to choose” because the choice was made before I ever certified. I chased the dream I’d had from childhood. I got a commission in the United States Air Force and went to navigator school. I earned those silver wings.
And I never dove in a cave again.
Ok, that’s not true. Some time in 2015, a decade after I’d last been in a cave and on one of the few occasions my father was still in communication with me, he invited me along for another photoshoot. Being a model for cave diving equipment doesn’t require beauty, which is in plentiful supply. Modeling cave dive equipment requires a diver who can hold still, hold their breath (no one wants bubbles in the photo), and move just right so their hair fans out in a wave behind them. I’m no stunner, but I fit all the other requirements, so I was brought along for the shoot. Unfortunately for him, I was training for my first attempt at the Mississippi 50k and had fallen on my face, scraping the hell out of my chin just before showing up. I was politely excused from top side photos but pulled in for all the underwater shots. This was the last time I would see my father in person and the last time I would ever cave dive.
What Was It Worth It?
I did have fun. The Mexican expedition was cool to a 19-year-old kid. I met and hung out with divers twice my age who respected my skill as a diver without simply dismissing me as “the kid,” a type of respect I hadn’t had before. I’ve got interesting stories, some of which are the seeds that would grow into scenes in my books. It afforded me an opportunity to chase a man whose respect and love I craved, even if I never really got it. While my father was a pompous windbag and most of his tirades were racist and bigoted, I did absorb his respect for fitness and mental toughness. A true irony because when pushed, I rise and he withered.
But was it worth it? The friends I’ve lost to caves would say no. The terror I felt the few times I thought I would die in a cave says no. The prohibitive cost that makes it a very narrow, very niche, and not welcoming sport says no.
It was fun for a moment, but it wasn’t worth it. Except for the stories…
Excerpt from Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena by KR Paul (2021, Force Poseidon Publishing)
Relieved that Wilson hadn’t seemed to catch his underlying interest, Ares steered her back to the thread of conversation Powell had started. “Mexico seems pretty remote for a dive.”
“Yeah, you aren’t kidding! You fly into Cancun, then you have drive to Tulum in whatever rickety rental you can get. Don’t even get me started on the ‘roads.’ Oh, and keep a few hundred pesos around because if the Federales see you driving they’ll find a reason to pull you over for a shakedown.”
“And the dives?”
She gave an indelicate snort. “Cake walk. Compared to north central Florida, it’s benign. The caves are shallow, so you don’t worry about a ton of decompression, and they go on forever. And there are always dive groups to join for company.”
Ares glanced at Powell who nodded again. “What’s the deepest you’ve been back in those caves?”
“Oh, we got a good way back on scooters one year. I mean, you can only really reach that spot on a scooter or by rappelling in. But if you fast-roped in, you’d have a hell of a time hauling out yourself and maybe sixty pounds of gear.”
“Can you show me?” Ares asked.
“Show you?” She looked confused for a moment. “Oh—yes, of course. Athena told me about the image transfer thing. Yeah, it’s beautiful.” She rose again and held out a hand. With a wicked grin, she grasped Ares’ hand.
Ares caught the image of the cave, with dark stalactites clinging to the ceiling, the room illuminated by a single beam of sunlight from a shaft many feet overhead. He caught an image of her wrist computer showing she was only thirty-some feet underwater, but there was the slightest hint of anxiety. This was the farthest in she’d ever been, and she was nervous that if her scooter died on the way back, she wouldn’t have enough air to make it out without being towed by another diver in the party. Even then, survival wasn’t assured.
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