Narrative #6 - Cave Diving
"Unlucky Dive #7"
By: Ron Reil
Some of my many interests came together while I was stationed at the US Naval Facility on the northern end of the island of Barbados in 1968-1969. Living on this beautiful island was wonderful for me. I lived in a cute little bungalow right on Gibbs Beach. The white coral sand beach was my back yard, and the Caribbean Sea was my playground.
I was very lucky when a beautiful little yacht, "Sea Dart", sailed in from England one day and was put up for sale. I bought the teak wood boat in preparation for an extended cruise around the world after my tour of duty in the Navy expired. Much of my free time was occupied in sailing and diving the tropical waters surrounding the island. I already owned a sleek little yacht,"Vega", so for a short time I would have two very different yachts sitting out in back at anchor.
My early years of diving took place in the western Pacific as a teenager. My father was stationed on the island of Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. I became comfortable with the sea at a very early age, learned the skills of SCUBA and skin diving, and how to sail small boats, all before I was 13 years old. Another interest that I developed was in the exploration of the many natural, and manmade, limestone caves on the island. Even though it was illegal to go in the caves, by military order, I couldn't restrain my curiosity and spent many exciting hours crawling through the winding passages of the many cave systems nearby.
My interests in cave exploration and SCUBA diving came together in Barbados where there were many unexplored caves. Deep within some of the caves were underground lakes and rivers, and many flooded passageways. The object in all cave exploration is to discover new cave that has never been seen before. One of the proven methods for this is to dive the flooded passages, and hopefully come up into new, dry, cave beyond.
By this point in my life I was an expert diver, having been a diving instructor, and having spent thousands of hours underwater photographing marine animals in the Caribbean. With my long time friend, Jack, I dove a number of flooded passages in the caves of Barbados. We had been very successful, discovering some large and beautiful new cave systems using this technique.
Jack and I were very fortunate to become members of a joint Barbadian/Danish caving expedition to Barbados while we lived there. My job in these explorations was to dive the flooded passages when we found them. A dive I made deep within a cave we had discovered is the subject of this story. Because it was my seventh cave dive I call this story Unlucky Dive #7.
I was most fortunate to become part of a select team of speleologists from Denmark who had come to Barbados to explore and map some of the previously unexplored caverns. The expedition was headed by the world famous speleologist Ole Sorrensen. Ole was also the only one who spoke both Danish and English. Both Jack and I had been invited to take part in the expedition for a variety of reasons, but that is another story.
One of the caves we had scheduled for exploration was a cave that had been known for over a hundred years. It had been visited by thousands of people over the years, and had been highly vandalized in the process. Since there were few native people that were interested in cave exploration, it was highly likely that there could still be unexplored crawl ways in the cave. Most people would walk by the tiny mud filled crawls without considering them for exploration. We were counting on just that fact to have preserved some parts of the cave in a virgin state. We were not to be disappointed.
After considerable time and exploration we found a tiny crawl way that twisted around back and forth several times and finally dropped vertically into a deep clear pool of water. A passage could be seen leading out through the bottom of the pool to the side away from the main cave. This was just the sort of lead that could well "go", and end up taking us into a new cave system.
We gathered on a ledge about 10 feet above the water and discussed the passage as we looked down into the crystal clear water. The ultra still conditions under ground can lead to pools of water that are so clear that the water is virtually invisible. We were only able to tell there was water blocking our way by the color change of the rock that was covered in water. It was amazing how clear the water was.
Since I didn't have my little pony tank with me I didn't want to try diving the passage at that time. Since it was late in the day and we were all tired I suggested that we return the next day to "push" the passage. One of the Danes was of a different mind however. He lowered himself down into the pool and promptly dove down to the bottom and disappeared into the tiny conduit at the bottom. I considered that pretty gutsy considering that the passage was too small to turn around in. He would have to back out the way he had gone in. Going in on a breath hold dive could be very dangerous.
The time passed very slowly as we waited for him to back out into our vision. After a minute had passed we began to be very concerned. We waited and watched, getting more and more concerned as we did so. Finally it became apparent that something had happened to out comrade. We were pretty well in agreement that we had a body recovery situation on our hands. The tension in the small chamber could have been cut with a knife it was so thick. For someone else to go in after him on another breath hold dive was out of the question. We simply had to leave the cave to get our diving gear and return to bring out the body, a crushingly depressing thought.
As we prepared to leave the cave, a sudden motion at the bottom of the pool caught our attention, and there was our friend coming out of the hole, head first! Apparently he had found something beyond the pool and had gone exploring without telling us. We were very happy to see him alive, but also quite angry that he had let us go through the mental anguish of thinking he was dead.
When he had climbed up to our ledge he told us, in Danish, how he had only traveled a short distance under the wall and had come out in a fantastic new cave. He couldn't resist going for a short exploration of the new cave, after all he had discovered it at considerable personal risk. After our tension subsided we elected to leave exploration of the new cave for the next day, and to go out for a big celebration that evening of the discovery of what seemed to be a major new cave system. We also wanted to unwind a little after the emotional experience at the pool, although no one admitted to that.
Before we left the cave Ole gave the new cave a name. He elected to name it "Shedith's Cave" after his wife back in Denmark. For me Shedith's Cave would prove to be a very dangerous and unforgiving place.
Among speleologists the discovery of a new and possibly large cave is one of the most exciting events that can happen. We were all very excited that evening and celebrated our discovery until late in the evening, actually early in the morning! We finally gave up the merriment and turned in as the next day was going to come early. We were all anxious to pass the pool and see what Shedith's Cave would prove to be.
The next day, with our previous night's activities fogging our minds, we trudged down the path to Cole's Cave loaded down with all of the equipment we thought we might need, including SCUBA gear. The gear I would be using was a very special set of twin tanks that contained air at over twice the normal SCUBA tank pressure, 7000 psi! A normal tank will take 3500 psi safely. These tanks were rigged as a tiny double tank set. Each tank was only about 4 inches in diameter and perhaps 14 inches long. They had their own special regulator, harness, and needle pressure gauge. If I conserved my air by using controlled breathing techniques I could get up to 30 minutes out of the miniature SCUBA equipment.
We worked our way through the open chambers of Cole's Cave burdened with our load of gear. When we finally came to the tiny twisting tube that lead to Shedith's Cave we had to resort to crawling along while pushing or pulling the heavy sacks containing our equipment. Finally, we were all gathered at the pool, or as many of us as the confined space on the ledge above the pool would allow, the remainder of the team being strung out along the tube waiting their turn to emerge and pass the pool. We were assured that the new cave was just beyond the wall submerged by water. Even with his assurances ringing in my ear it was difficult to commit myself to the short breath hold dive into the new cave.
With my heart in my throat I dove to the bottom and entered the small passage while pushing my gear along in front of me. It was only a short distance, perhaps 20 feet, and I emerged safely into Shedith's Cave for the first time. I gathered my thoughts and relit my carbide light as I waited for the rest of the crew to join me. Soon we were all together, and anxious to be off exploring this totally virgin cave.
We took turns leading, as we did in all our caving, so that every member of the group would have the excitement of discovery. Those that were doing their time in the rear of the column could hear the present leader's exclamations of delight at each new formation or chamber. The cave we had emerged into was nothing but a small side passage which soon entered the main river passage of the cave.
When we entered the main cave we had a choice to go upstream or downstream. We decided to do the upstream direction first. As we proceeded up the big passage it was difficult to walk because the floor was covered with cave pearls, small spherical calcite formations resembling in appearance and layered origin their namesake. Parts of the cave floor had a thin calcified layer overlying soft mud with the small river flowing on top. As we walked, we broke through the calcified layer into the soft clay. It not only made progress slow and difficult, but we also destroyed a lot of cave pearls in the process. It is the first law of caving to preserve the formations of the cave, so this was particularly frustrating. We had to destroy the cave to explore it!
We didn't discover anything very spectacular, in fact the cave was pretty barren other than the cave pearls. We finished the exploration of the cave, finally arriving at a deep pool of water at the bottom end of the cave where the stream ended at a deep pool of water. The river may have entered the water table, or possibly it could reemerge into new cave beyond the pool. My dive would provide the answer.
Diagram of The Flooded Chamber In Shedith's Cave
The above diagram is not to scale. I suspect that the slope of Shedith's Cave as it approaches the flooded chamber is not as steep as shown. The rock fall came from above so the roof of the cave must have extended upwards with the boulders filling it to the top. There was no passage over the top. The air chamber was just big enough for me to get my head and shoulders above water as I leaned against the mud bar that projected up from the floor of the passage. The distance from where I entered the water and the rock fall probably didn't exceed 100 feet.
Although the diagram above would indicate that the passage above the flooded chamber was fairly big, it was actually too small for our 7 expedition members to gather together at one spot. With Jack's help I got into my diving outfit attached the half inch diameter nylon rope tether to my waist and shoved off into the flooded passageway. I had a diving mask and dive light but they were useless. As soon as I started moving and stirred up the water the semi liquid mud on the floor of the passage filled the water blocking out all visibility. The blackout was so complete that even with my hand and the light held almost touching my face plate I couldn't see any trace of my hand or light.
I had experienced such total blackouts during other dives in caves so was not concerned. I progressed forward, slowly feeling my way along. The rope tether was also my method of communicating to my friends waiting by the water's surface. We used a series of tugs on the line to relay information. In such totally black conditions the tether was a powerful psychological link to the safety of the open cave behind me.
One of my first observations was that the ceiling of the chamber was almost totally flat and smooth. It stretched off in all directions with the same regularity and texture so that it gave no indication of which way the passage ran. This would prove important upon my return.
As I moved along the passage I explored the ceiling and the muddy floor with my hands but I never touched any walls on either side. I finally bumped into large boulders in front of me, and after some exploration determined that I had come to a break down room, a place where large pieces of the ceiling had collapsed forming a pile of debris. Usually such piles of rock can be passed over the top, or around the side, but I could not find any passage. The boulders were piled up in an open arrangement with numerous small and large passages between them. Some were big enough to allow me to squeeze through.
All was going well, my breathing was slow and rhythmic, and the tether was responsive to my tugs and signals. I decided to push ahead and try to penetrate through the pile of boulders. All went well except that the tether was beginning to have considerable resistance to being pulled forward as I progressed. It was getting caught up in the many twists and turns my route through the boulders took.
After a relatively short distance a void opened in front of me where I couldn't feel any other rocks in front or to the sides. I emerged into a chamber, and at the same time slid up on a mud bank. I felt overhead and found an air chamber. I had emerged into a tiny room that was no bigger than an inverted bath tub, perhaps even smaller. I could just get my head and the top of my shoulders above water. Everything was mud, but the tiny opening gave me the chance to look at my needle air gauge. It showed that I had used half of the air in my system.
I saw no reason for concern since I had the tether to follow during my return trip through the rock pile. As I looked around it was apparent to me that I was at the extreme bottom of the cave. I had reached the water table, the point in most caves where the flow of the water slows and deposits its load of sediments, thus the mud bank I rested against. To go any farther would be pointless and dangerous considering my air situation. With one last look around I turned and submerged to return the way I had come. I was in for a nasty surprise.
I yanked on the tether to signal that I was returning and to start taking up slack. I was surprised when there was no answering tug. I was even more surprised when I pulled hard on the rope and it wouldn't move, it was jammed in the rocks somewhere. I tried several times with no better success. I decided to just follow it through the rocks and free it when I found the place it was jammed. Following the rope without having the slack taken up by my companions as I moved forward was not easy because I had taken my tanks off to get through the rock pile and carried them in front of me. To carry the tanks and handle the accumulating tangles of rope was difficult. I couldn't chance getting tangled in the tether in these tight confines where I couldn't maneuver to free myself. In the close confines of the passage I would be unable to even reach my diving knife if needed.
I started sliding my hand along the rope as I entered the big rock pile for my return trip. I had not gone more than a few meters when I came to a hole that the rope passed through but was too small for me! This was a shock as my first thought was that the rocks had moved trapping me. As soon as I felt the first cold fingers of fear creep along my spine my breathing rate increased using more precious air. I forced myself to relax and started using enforced breathing controls, difficult under the circumstances.
It was apparent that my tether had not followed me through the labyrinth and had slid over or under rocks into a position that I could not follow. I thought about the situation briefly and decided that I had no recourse other than to drop my tether and forge ahead without it to locate another route through the rocks. I knew the risk, but because I could not get any response to my tugs on the rope it had to be badly jammed and therefore useless to me.
Once free of the tether, movement was easier with one hand free to search my way. I moved ahead finding tiny passages that I hoped were going in the right direction. If I should come out into some other flooded part of the cave my future would be very grim. After what seemed a very long period of searching my way through the maize I emerged into deep water without the confining rocks. The elation of breaking free of the imprisoning rock pile was dampened when I drew the last breath of air from my tanks. I was now totally on my own!
I assumed that I was pointing in the right direction, and being a very good free diver, I felt that I could easily swim the distance remaining to the life giving air at the other end of the passage. I pushed off and swam steadily but with considerable force. I was so confident that my direction was correct that I did not have my hand out in front of me. I was stunned when I ran headlong into a solid rock wall with my head! I hit hard enough that I saw stars, but more important, my confidence evaporated instantly. I was now in trouble and I knew it. I had air remaining for only one more try. I had to make it count.
Once again I pushed off, favoring my right, as I still felt that I was going in the correct general direction, at least I hoped I was. I swam steadily for what seemed an eternity, only to run into a rock wall once again, this time my hand connected before my head. It didn't matter, I was done. My air was gone, and I couldn't go any farther. I hung suspended against the flat ceiling of the flooded chamber in total liquid darkness as my consciousness started to fail. I made up my mind that I would not take a breath of the water, but would go to the end with the regulator in my mouth. I didn't want to die with my lungs filled with that muddy water.
As I hung there, the reality of my situation slowly faded, and my oxygen starved mind took me elsewhere. I found myself looking down on my suspended body from above, and then I was thousands of miles away looking down on my mother and father as they sat at their breakfast table reading a newspaper with my name in the headlines,"Walt Reil's Son Dies in Barbados Cave". The shock of that headline, or pain in my head slowly brought me back to the cave, and a dull awareness of my situation. My head HURT!
Not just my head in general, but my scalp hurt. I was not aware enough to realize what was happening yet, but I was about to be given a second chance at life. My partner and dearest friend Jack had been timing my dive. He knew that my air had to be gone, even using the most expert controlled breathing techniques. When he was convinced that I was in serious trouble he had one of the Danish cavers hold him by the ankles and shove him up under the submerged ledge. He reached out as far as he could and swept his arms around as far as he could reach. At the extreme end of his reach he touched HAIR, my hair!
Jack grabbed on and pulled for all he was worth, and that was the pain I felt in my scalp, and what brought my consciousness back slightly at the very end. He pulled me out of the flooded cavern, and the next thing I knew I was looking up into the bright caving lights of all my friends, and above to the grey limestone of the ceiling of lower Shedith's Cave. Unlucky dive #7 passed into history.
I recovered quickly and was soon up and on my way out of the cavern with the rest of the team members. When we came to the flooded passage that I had to dive to get back into Cole's Cave I had a very difficult time forcing myself to push through the flooded tube. After a short delay, and some encouragement from my friends, I was soon on the other side and then out of the cave system into the warm tropical air. Walking up the trail through the sugar cane, smelling the rich fragrance of the various tropical flowers and plants, was one of the most beautiful and intense moments of my life. The air never smelled so sweet before, and the sky had never looked so blue.
I continued caving with the expedition, in fact I still love caving, but I have never put on the air tanks to dive another flooded passage again. I was given a second chance by my partner Jack, and I am greatful for it. Having explored seven flooded passages is enough. I know what cave diving is all about and have experienced all it has to offer. I enjoyed most of it, but there are other challenges more worth while still waiting.
Of all the various outdoor sports, cave diving is the most deadly. Even today, with triple tanks equipped with separate regulators, BCs, and all the other advancements in diving technology, the sport still claims a very high toll in young lives every year, especially in Florida where cave diving remains controversial. Legislation has been considered to outlaw the sport because of the extreme risk involved. I do not agree with such drastic measures, but I do have a unique viewpoint on the sport. I dedicated this narrative to all those divers who were not as lucky as I was. It is only because of the close attention of my friend Jack that I am not counted in their number.