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Would you like to explore the bone-filled subaquatic limestone tunnels in Florida? Or perhaps rappelling 236 feet to reach a submerged cave in Brazil is on your bucket list? Maybe you want to behold the stalactites, stalagmites and fossilized conch shells in the underwater caves of the Bahamas?
Accessing these, and many other, undersea treasures requires the adventurously curious to go cave diving – the extreme activity of underwater diving in water-filled caves and tunnels.
What Skills Are Needed for Cave Diving?
However, it takes much more than an adventurous spirit and curiosity to go cave diving, even if you are an experienced open-water scuba diver. A specific pathway of necessary skills and demonstrated experience requirements must be met before scuba diving in a cave.
These qualifications include advanced open water diver, night diver and cavern diver. The cavern diving certification is a stepping stone to cave diving.
Cave Diver Certification
The cavern diver certification allows divers to enter a cave with an overhead environment but only within sight of the cave entrance and unobstructed access to the surface.
To become a cavern diver, the diver must demonstrate diving skills in an open environment over several dives supervised by a qualified instructor.
The cavern diver qualification is available from conventional diving education certifying organizations such as NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) and PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors).
How Cave Diving Differs
Cave diving is classified as technical diving instead of recreational or sport diving and requires certification through specific cave diving organizations. Cave diving also requires different and particular equipment from conventional sport diving equipment.
As many popular cave diving areas are in freshwater lakes in mountainous terrain, there may be additional decompression requirements due to the lake’s elevation, which requires the diver to use altitude diving decompression tables for an elevation above 300 meters.
Whether you’re looking to combine an extreme sport with travel or discover some of nature’s marvels few others have seen, cave diving is an exciting option with lots of opportunities – if you’re willing to prepare and plan for it.
Challenges of Diving
The unique procedures of cave diving mainly emphasize navigation, gas (air supply) management, and performing in restricted areas. Underwater caves and tunnels physically hold divers back from direct ascent to the surface during much of the dive, making exiting a dive more challenging and dangerous.
Most open-water diving skills – like the ability to use a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (a scuba set) – are needed for cave diving. Additional skills, like buoyancy, navigating in darkness, and using guidelines are essential.
Cave divers also need emergency competencies for recovering from air supply (gas) problems while in tight spaces with limited visibility.
Five Rules of Cave Diving
Divers use the prompt “The Good Divers Always Live” to remember five essential rules. The initial letter of each word stands for Training, Guide, Depth, Air and Light.
Cave diving is taught in successively complex stages with each segment reinforced with diving experience to hone skills and manage panic. Divers use a distance line or guideline as a means to return to safety, especially when conditions include low visibility, water currents or difficult navigation.
The depth any diver can dive to is limited by decompression requirements. Cave divers also need to manage time for an emergency contingency more so than sport divers, which further limits the dive’s total time.
Other considerations, such as gas consumption and the effects of nitrogen narcosis, must also be considered as the depth of a dive increases. Divers should also always consider the proximity of a recompression chamber and the quality of local emergency services while planning a dive.
Managing your air supply is critical, of course. The common protocol is the “rule of thirds” in which one-third of the initial gas supply is used for going in, another for coming back, and the final third as a backup in the case of an emergency.
Cave diving usually requires light since sunlight is at a minimum or nonexistent. Divers carry three light sources; a primary light for exploration and two others for navigation backup or emergencies.
Where to Go Diving
Cave diving opportunities are all over the world. Here are a few to consider as you think about and prepare for a cave diving adventure. In all cases, you’ll need certifications specific to the cave dive site.
- Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, Florida, US – It’s been more than half a century since the first divers entered the water and began mapping more than 30,000 feet of the cave system, limestone passages and rooms. There are several major subaquatic landmarks. The Breakdown Room features large rocks that have broken off the ceiling to form a pile on the floor. The Crypt is an area of collapsed tunnel holding the skeletal remains of a large turtle. The Olsen Sink is known for the karst window that formed when a sinkhole collapsed and light streams through from the surface.
- Ben’s Cave – Lucayan National Park, Grand Bahama – Lucayan National Park near Freeport, Grand Bahama is home to the longest freshwater cave system in the world. Measuring at 6 miles (9.5 kilometers), the system is home to mosquitofish, shrimp, freshwater eels and an endemic species of crustacean. In addition to the fascinating mix of fresh and saltwater, you’ll also see stalactites, stalagmites and fossilized conch shells in the cave. Ben’s Cave is ideal for novice divers wanting to try out the world of cave diving.
- Anhumas Abyss – Bonito, Brazil – The Anhumas Abyss is an exhilarating experience. Each day up to 25 people are permitted to rappel than 236 feet/72 meters through a tiny opening at the top of the Anhumas Abyss to an underground lake below. Sunlight only penetrates this lake for a short period each day, yet the water is filled with huge schools of fish. The crystal clear water invites divers to explore the most beautiful portion of the lake, found between 50 and 80 feet (15 and 25 meters).
- El Cenote – Playa Giron, Cuba – Located in the Zapata Marshes near Playa Giron, El Cenote is a limestone formation connected to the sea with a big lake. El Cenote has not yet been thoroughly explored, but it is known that its side fissures travel down to at least 230 feet (70 meters). There are lots of coral reef fish living in the cave as well as interesting rock formations to view.
Whether you’re cave diving, open water scuba diving, snorkeling or free diving, remember to prepare for what you plan to do and for the unexpected.
Not all travel insurance or medical evacuation providers will deliver services if you get sick or injured while taking part in adventure activities like cave diving, skydiving, BASE jumping, heli-skiing or if your trip is interrupted due to COVID-19. Do your homework so you can enjoy your trip with peace of mind.
Author’s Bio: Harding Bush is a former Navy SEAL and associate manager operations for Global Rescue, the leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services.