Cave Diving principles for Open Water dives

Cave diving is one of the most dangers sports. Don't ever enter a cave unless you are trained and properly prepared.

Cave diving is one of the most dangers sports. Don’t ever enter a cave unless you are trained and properly prepared.

If you know anything about me, then you know that I enjoy pursuing extreme or difficult activities. With diving there are a few ways that you can increase the difficulty of your dives. Firstly, you can start tec diving on two gases. If that isn’t enough you can push that to it’s limits with trimix or even further. If that still isn’t enough then you can flip it on it’s head and make it a technical penetration dive. So clearly I am drawn to technical penetration diving, otherwise known as cave diving.

At the moment I am clearly not ready to do either a technical or a cave dive but that doesn’t mean the principles that are used there cannot be used in recreational diving.

The two most popular PADI specialities are deep and wreck. This means that there is a good chance that a lot of divers will make either a deep dive or a penetration dive (maybe even a combination of the two). PADI recommends that when partaking in a penetration dive that you must not penetrate further than 40 metres from the surface. This means that if your wreck is at 18m then you cannot penetrate further than 22m inside the wreck. This is an important consideration when you are diving because it is easy to forget this in the excitement of the dive.

I recently purchased and read Basic Cave Diving – a blueprint for survival by Sheck Exley. It is a very interesting read. The book was written in ’79 and was last updated in ’85. However, the case studies and information is invaluable for today’s divers. Though the 10 rules that Sheck gives are specifically for Cave Diving they can be adapted for Open Water diving.

The original 10 recommendations for safe cave diving.

The original 10 recommendations for safe cave diving.

So here is my attempt at adapting them.

1. Always use a single, continuous guideline from the entrance of the cave throughout the dive.

Ok, I am aware that this first one doesn’t seem that it could be easily transferred to Open Water diving, however as Wreck Diver is one of the most popular specialities that means that entering a wreck should be done using a guideline. The reason for this is that some wrecks can be confusing inside, and if you don’t have a guideline to help you exit then you are really hoping that nothing will go wrong.

Laying a line and following a line are part of the skills that you must do on the Wreck Diver course. This is a skill that you should practice before you decide to do a penetration dive.

This can also be thought of as navigation to and from your entry and exit points. Make sure you know the way out from your dive. Take a compass, make notes, or follow a guide. It can be easy to become disorientated when you are diving. Visibility and conditions can change rapidly. I remember when I was diving in Marsa Alam. I was diving in a buddy pair and we were diving away from the group. On our way back to the dive boat the swell kicked up the sandy bottom and visibility dropped to a few metres, luckily my buddy had a compass and we followed that back towards the dive boat. In this situation it wasn’t very dangerous, we could have easily surfaced and seen where we had to go but it could have easily been worse.

2. Always use the “third rule” when planning your air supply.

Air is one of the most important things to a diver. Obviously running out is not an option. That means that you air management should be good. The “third rule” means that you use one third of your air supply getting to the point where you turn around, the remaining two thirds is for your return. Now in Open Water diving, there is nothing overhead (unless you enter a wreck) this means you can be a bit more liberal with your air usage. So normally what divers use is the rule of halves. However, you need to be aware of the water conditions and adjust appropriately for the conditions, and if you are planning a penetration dive use the rule of thirds.

Being aware of your remaining air is important. A good idea is to guess how much air you have remaining before you check, this should help you build up a 6th sense for how much air you have used. Check your gauge often and that of your buddy’s as well.

3. Avoid deep diving in caves

It is important to become accustomed to deeper diving. Just because you have your Deep Diver speciality doesn’t meant to say that you must go to 40m. PADI states that any dive over 18m is considered a deep dive, also with any deep dive there is a risk of nitrogen narcosis. So build up slowly, excess nitrogen in our bodies effect each of us different. Learn to know your limits and don’t rush in.

4. Avoid panic by building up experience slowly and being prepared for emergencies.

It is easy to become panicked on a dive. I remember a dive when I was in Malta where I was having trouble ascending and couldn’t get past 30m. I relaxed, breathed deeply and thought my way out of the problem. Perhaps on that dive I was out of my depth (pun intended) however, I learned from it and now have several different ways to get out of that situation.

How many divers actually take a compass, a knife, a torch (flash light), a DSMB, a reel, or a whistle with them? Having seen many divers in the shops that I have been through, there aren’t that many who have these items. When I started diving I didn’t have these items and thought that I wouldn’t need them. I look back now at myself with shame. Being prepared for any eventually is an important element of avoiding panic. Having the tools and methods for getting yourself out of a problem is a good way to be. I don’t think that I will not dive without them and although these items can be expensive can you really put a price on your own safety?

5. Always use at least 3 lights per diver.

This isn’t just about dive lights, this is about redundancy.  Having spares when you are going diving or when you are actually diving can make the difference between life and death. It is a good idea to make a “dive save kit”. This is a kit that contains spares and other items that can save your dive from not happening. It is also a good idea to carry two reels/spools and two DSMBs. When doing a night dive each diver must have one torch each, PADI recommends that you take two torches.

6. Always carry the safest possible SCUBA.

This means that you should keep your kit regularly serviced and in a good working order. If you are unsure that your regulators or first stage are working properly before you dive, if you have any doubt in your equipment, don’t use it. Swap it or change it for something that is working.

A friend of my didn't rinse his reg after a dive and left it in his dive bag...this was the result.

A friend of my didn’t rinse his reg after a dive and left it in his dive bag…this was the result.

7. Avoid stirring up silt.

This goes without saying. Some dive sites are not silty and you don’t have to be worrying about that but you should. Avoiding stirring up silt is really about buoyancy control. Get your buoyancy sorted. Perhaps take the PADI PPB course. You’ll enjoy your diving more as you will be worrying less about your touching the bottom. You’ll use less air as you are making less corrections to your BCD. Plus you will not be “that diver” who destroys the view for everyone else.

Learn different finning techniques and become proficient in them. Not all finning techniques are created equal some are better for speed others for reducing silt outs.

8. Practice emergency procedures with your partner before going diving , and review them often.

How often do you practice your out of air drills? Or any other emergency procedure for that matter? I am willing to bet most recreational divers haven’t practised these skills since they did there OW course. Obviously this isn’t a good situation to be in. Not being able to perform the procedure is going to make a bad situation worse. Technical divers practice their safety drills at the start of each dive.

When I did my rescue diver course I practised lifting an unresponsive diver to the surface, I haven’t practised it since, the problem being is that my buddies haven’t been keen to do it. I need to rectify this quickly.

9. Always carry the equipment necessary for emergencies, and know how to use it.

This related to #4. However, it re-iterates the fact that being prepared and having the necessary equipment is an important aspect of diving. Also being able to use the equipment correctly is important. Having a DSMB but having never practised using it, how can you know that you will be able to do it when it really matters?

10. Never permit overconfidence to allow you to rationalize violating recommended safety procedures.

Many divers think that because they have completed hundreds of dives that they rules that they learnt on their OW course can be ignored. Most deaths in diving either occur from inexperienced divers diving in situations that were too advanced for them or the deaths occur when experienced divers ignore the rules that they learnt. Everyone can make mistakes so follow procedures as closely as possible.

Sheck Exley (author of Basic Cave Diving) was a highly experienced technical/cave diver with over 4000 successful cave dives. He pioneered the use of the octopus and made numerous other contributions to scuba diving. Regardless of his experience and contributions to safety he died while attempting a dive to a depth over 300m. No one is immune from errors.

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