Cavern diving suddenly got popular, but with that popularity have come avoidable deaths and a consequent threat to access to cavers' favourite sites. Martyn Farr believes he has the answer, and it is one that would benefit all divers
You've seen it on TV and video. You've read about it in magazines and books. Perhaps you thought: "That looks interesting: I wonder how I could learn about it."
Not so long ago you would then conclude: "It's too dangerous." And that would, perhaps, be a sensible, rational response. Diving into a cave, wreck or any overhead environment poses considerably greater risk than that encountered in open water.
But scuba horizons are continually expanding. High-performance regulators, larger cylinders, new generation drysuits, computers and a host of ancillaries, combined with acceptance by the recreational world that there are gas mixtures other than air, facilitate longer, more comfortable and safer diving.
Add the human instinct to explore beyond established frontiers, and we arrive at the borders of technical diving, which encompasses the overhead environment.
Cavern diving does not require all the gizmos and gadgets that seem to be the badge of the "tech diver": it does however require an awareness and respect derived from experience and training.
Not so many years ago it was frowned on in Britain; one major diving body went so far as to disassociate itself from the activities of the Cave Diving Group, the national governing body of the sport, and virtually banned all reference to such practices from its manual.
Today the subject is viewed as an acceptable area of sporting interest. That is where the problems arise a lot of people want to do it, and they don't all learn to do it properly.
The springs of Florida or the Blue Holes of the Caribbean are among the finest dive sites on the planet. The clear, blue and inviting water accounts for both their popularity and the high occurrence of fatalities. More than 400 divers have lost their lives in the springs and caves of Florida alone since the mid-1960s. A tenth of these fatalities were associated with open-water diving instructors who, by and large, were inexperienced and unaware of the special requirements of overhead environment diving.
The loss of life is partly avoidable and all the more tragic for that. Unfortunately it is also having serious repercussions for our sport.
This is the age of litigation. Landowners are becoming acutely aware of their responsibilities when allowing access to dive sites. In exercising a "duty of care", it is tempting for them simply to ban sporting activities such as diving and caving altogether. Years of goodwill can disappear overnight.
Cessation of activity at particular sites as a result of such accidents is happening now in France: areas such as the Lot and the Dordogne offer some of the finest diving on mainland Europe, and every year more and more divers have been visiting the area from Britain, Germany and further afield. But divers are concerned that access to some prime sites will become increasingly difficult in the future.
Various attempts have been made to avoid proliferation of diving at certain sites. One method that has been found wanting has been to restrict information; how can you do that when the Internet, guidebooks and videos cover every subject and venue under the sun?
In fact we are bombarded with so much data on dive sites, equipment and techniques that we need to discriminate carefully between sources. This is where the most important subject comes in specific training.
In a crisis it is those skills that were poorly learned, or in which we have the least confidence, that are the first to be lost. Never mind how much experience we have, we all know that once our heads are under water the ability to think clearly is significantly diminished.
You can buy state-of-the-art equipment and acquire all the information in the world, but without suitable training what does it count for?
A training programme such as the Cavern Diver course provides a structured, well-supervised introduction to diving in natural overhead environments. It introduces the student to many of the basic survival skills associated with cave diving.
Cavern Diver is an internationally recognised qualification, and divers with this card are allowed access to similar sites worldwide; it is the first important step in a series of programmes leading to full certification.
If you want an enjoyable time, as opposed to a traumatic "not for me" experience, get taught properly through a reputable instructor/ training organisation rather than just going off with a bunch of mates. During a dive, when you are rather more tense than you had anticipated, it is reassuring to know that the person you are with is giving you 100 per cent attention.
Such training can be undertaken in the UK. The venues might be less inviting than the Blue Holes of the Bahamas but the lessons learned are perhaps even more valid. Qualifications gained in environments such as the Red Sea or Caribbean are at best poor preparation for the turbid waters of more temperate climes. It is far easier for someone thoroughly trained in British waters to adjust to an overhead environment in the Yucatan than vice versa.
Overhead environment training is worthwhile for every diver. Even if you do not intend to dive in caves or mines, the next time you dive a wreck you will be that little bit more aware. If you have an open mind, some of the lessons learned will be immensely beneficial in the area of diving you enjoy the most.
The overhead environment is special. This world of darkness is fragile and vulnerable, and it can be a great and moving privilege to visit some of these dive sites, but they must be treated with respect in the interests of preserving both them and you.