Why Cave Diving.

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“You have to be taught this stuff, that mountains, and rivers, and trees, in this order, are nice.”

– Billy Connolly

You see pictures of these places, of Arizona, or southern China, or central Australia, and they’re beautiful. And you go there expecting to feel a certain way, to have this reaction, to be moved by it. Shamelessly ungrateful as it makes me feel, though, I never was. They are beautiful, of course they are, but I never had the reaction to them that I thought I would have. It was like learning an instrument and wanting to discover that this was the thing you were born to do, that you are one of those people who finds something transcendent in this process, but ultimately it’s not, of course, and you aren’t. You’re just a kid making a some music. It’s fine, but it’s not life changing. Does everybody have that experience as a teenager, that search for the thing that you will finally feel at home with? I’m not sure.

When I learned to dive, it was just something that I thought would be fun. I’d always liked fish, when I was a kid I loved going to the aquarium a few suburbs away and seeing the moray eel in its huge tank in the centre of a dimly lit room. It was alien and somehow special, nothing like a dog or a cat, something altogether different. Otherworldly.

Unless you are an astronaut, or a base jumper, diving is the closest you can get to flying. Base jumpers fall at terrifying speed and then at slightly less terrifying speed; we float. Breathe in, you’ll rise. Breathe out, you’ll sink. This is the thing that makes diving so strange when you start – for the first time you are able to move in three dimensions, up and down as easily as any other way. You flap and flail trying to get used to it, but slowly you do, and it becomes normal. It is slow, and quiet, and wholly unlike walking or running or even swimming. I don’t know if it’s evolutionary, or embryonic, or simply imagined, but it often feels more natural to me now than movement up here. It’s easy. It becomes meditative, somehow. It is quiet down there in a way that it is never quiet up here.

The first time I dived a shipwreck I had the feeling of seeing something secret – something familiar, but which should no longer be accessible. I suppose most people have seen the submarine footage of the titanic, this ghost ship which should be beyond our reach, and yet, there she is. Chandeliers, ballrooms, plates still stacked in cupboards. Right there. It’s the same feeling one gets in abandoned buildings, this sense of being let in on something. I find this feeling in caves as well, some of which are the most beautiful places I have ever seen. They are like nowhere else on earth. I don’t know how to tell you.

I am at the absolute beginning of this sport, and even so, I have been in places that probably only a few thousand other people have seen, if that. It sounds like a lot, but on a planet of six billion, it’s not really. 25,000 people climb Kilimanjaro each year. We are everywhere up here. I am the low risk end of a high risk sport. I look at the people at the far end, decades ahead of me, and I am chilled by what they have to do to reach the places they are finding ways into. At the same time, I think I understand the impulse. Base jumpers fly. Mountain climbers stand on the roof of the world. We see the earth’s last hidden places. Of course we take the risks. Of course we do.

DAN: Women underrepresented in diving fatalities.

Note: apologies to divers, but I’ve tried to edit out or clear up most of the acronyms and jargon so this post is accessible to non-divers.

For non-divers: I’m going to refer to some skills and activities which are totally meaningless to you, but hopefully the general point is still clearly illustrated. A “reg” is the thing you breathe through on scuba, and your valves control the flow of air from the tank to the reg. “Tech diving” here refers to dives in caves, or deeper than 40m / 120ft, or involving decompression, which all involve much more extensive training than most divers will undertake. Tech diving is very male-dominated, and this training tends to be conducted in a way that intentionally places students under a lot of stress, which I believe is counterproductive. We’ll get to that later.

Divers Alert Network (DAN) have just published a pretty accessible report on 351 diving fatalities which occurred in Australia between 1972 and 2006. It’s unfortunately limited by my pet frustration: the lack of reliable data on the number of dives which actually occur. None the less, the results do illustrate some general trends.

A lot of it is pretty straight forward and has already made it into the conventional wisdom. One thing really shocked me which I don’t think is well known yet: 8% of deaths occurred on a course. PADI (the major international certification agency for recreational scuba) released a report a few years back which confirmed that Discover Scuba Dives (where an instructor takes an unqualified person diving for the first time) involve the most fatalities of any course, and the stat from the DAN report that 17% of deaths occurred on a first ever dive supports that. Clearly, though, quite a few people have also died while learning unofficially or teaching themselves. This is pretty scary, but it’s not what interests me most.

PADI reports that between 2002-2006, women made up around 33% of certifications. However, in Australia between 1996 and 2006, we were only 19% of deaths (95% CI: 15% – 23%; p<0.0001). We are significantly underrepresented in fatalities, and I think I know why. I’m reasonably certain it’s because we’re more willing to call dives off early. I’ve done it. I’ve had a problem with a valve before a night dive when I was feeling seasick: I stayed on the boat. I’ve had someone try to convince me I’d be able to get a 30kg set of tanks up a 6m ladder after a pier dive: I told them no. I stopped my cave course during the first in-water session because the instructor’s aggressive attitude was preventing me being comfortable performing tasks I would probably have been perfectly capable of doing with someone else. I’d already panicked on a tech course during a stress test at 40m, and I had no intention of doing it again. It achieves nothing.

All of this, I’m sure, has been seen by some people as evidence that I’m a wussy girl who can’t hack it and shouldn’t be involved in the sport. I’ve seen this attitude again and again in cold water diving and tech diving, in both men and women. Usually women who have been in the sport a while, who I suspect too concerned about proving how tough they are to the boys to recognise and admit their own limitations. The pressure to harden up and keep diving when you’re sick, cold, sleep deprived, hungover, injured, exhausted or stressed out is intense. The subtext is always that if you don’t want to risk breaking your neck carrying gear that weighs almost as much as you do up ladders or down hills, can’t do three 50min dives in 10•C water in a 5mm wetsuit after three hours sleep, or don’t fancy having your mask ripped off your face and your air turned off X times an hour every day for a week, you just shouldn’t be here. It’s sad, and more than that, it’s dangerous.

I’ve met other people, though, who recognise that nobody learns better under stress. Boot camp doesn’t work. If you want somebody to learn a skill so well that they do it automatically when they’re under stress, they need to learn it by rote when they’re not stressed. They need to get so comfortable doing it that when you do rip their mask off and their reg out, they don’t need to think about what to do. A panicking person will do whatever is most deeply embedded in their brain, and that will not be the skill you tried to teach them five minutes ago while distracting them with how uncomfortable they were. New divers shoot for the surface. When I screwed up my stress test at 40m and got myself out of air on my decompression course, I went for my instructors reg instead of my tank valves, because I’d only had the valves a day and a half. I can do a shutdown cycle using both hands in 23sec now, because I practiced it a whole lot in 5m with my mask on. By all means test people with masks off and regs out, but don’t teach them like that. Nobody’s learning anything when they can’t breathe.

It seems this idea is slowly gaining currency in parts of the tech instructor community – I once saw a very experienced techie write about “staying in touch with [his] inner chicken” and just staying out of the water when it didn’t feel right. I was taught my cavern course by two people who recognised the importance of all this. The rest of the community here seems to think they’re a bit soft, but swimming upstream and refusing to buy into the boot camp bullshit takes more courage, I think, than acting tough and hoping for the best.