The new extreme: Underwater cave diving

By Natsumi Penberthy 28 April 2010
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Daring divers explore dangerous, submerged caves in a quest to push the limits and be the first to discover a new, underwater world.

CAVE DIVERS BRAVE TIGHT spaces, confusing tunnels and all the inherent dangers of taking a mammalian body underwater – just to float through some of the last lost worlds.

Perhaps the best way to describe the lasting mystery of flooded caves is to mention that the Maya once thought that their entrances – cenotes – were portals to the underworld. Cave diving (exploring totally flooded cave systems) later developed as a branch of speleology (the study of caves) when scuba gear was used to pass flooded passages. However, it quickly morphed into a sport in its own right and as diving technology has advanced enthusiasts have uncovered caves that range from huge liquid aquamarine chambers, cut with shafts of sunlight, to sinkholes boasting gardens of silent fallen trees. These beautiful and fascinating watery worlds are accessed just as often via unremarkable holes in paddocks as they are from sites that drop off dramatically in remote locations. 

However, pushing the subterranean boundaries has never been for the faint-hearted. Between 1972 and ‘73 no less than eight people died in Australian underwater caves. These deaths brought about such public consternation that in September 1973 the Cave Divers Association of Australia was formed to put in place a system of permits and training that reduced the level of risk; resulting in only two fatalities in the past 36 years.

THE DANGERS ARE immediately evident when you look at a cave – getting lost or miscalculating your air supply are the most common ways fatalities occur. So then, beauty aside, why are divers so willing to send themselves headfirst into wet, hazardous holes in the earth? Experienced cave divers usually cite a few different reasons. The challenge of gaining the technical and logistical skills required is certainly one. Secondly, because new equipment allows it; rejigged rebreather units enable divers to go deeper while nifty little scooters pull you smoothly through the water so your flippers don’t raise a silty cloud and obscure the view. And, lastly, there’s that age-old chestnut – to see something nobody has ever seen before.

Richard Harris, an experienced Australian cave-diving explorer, certainly chases that thrill of the find. “One of my favourite sites at the moment is Piccaninnie Ponds in South Australia where a group of other experienced cave divers and I recently found a new 40 x 15 m chamber,” he says. Although this sounds like daredevil stuff, Richard, who is also pushing boundaries in New Zealand’s Pearse Resurgence, had to put 18 months into organising the right permits and the appropriate gear to get access to deeper sections of Piccaninnie Ponds. So is cave diving dangerous? Oh, yes. But then, so is mountain climbing and all else that we do for adventure.

Source: Australian Geographic Adventure Nov/Dec 2009