Documentary: Diving into the Unknown

Having recently dived into the 21st century (with a Netflix subscription), I looked up this Finnish documentary as soon as it became available. It covers events that took place early in 2014, when a group of Finnish cave diving friends started a traverse of a massive, deep cave system in Norway. Two did not surface from the dive.

Diving into the Unknown
Diving into the Unknown

The Norwegian police, advised by Rick Stanton, a well-regarded British cave diver, closed the cave and announced that it was too dangerous to attempt to retrieve the men’s bodies. Their dive buddies, who had pioneered exploration of the more than 100 metre deep system and felt they knew it like the back of their hands, disagreed. They also felt a duty toward their friends, and therefore planned a mission (illegally) to retrieve their bodies.

Their dives were filmed for this documentary, which features interviews with the surviving divers and another of their friends who trained some of them as cave divers, and accompanied them on their mission. Whether events mirrored those that took place at Boesmansgat in 2005, or whether the ending was quite different, I’ll leave you to find out.

Unless… you read this excellent article from the BBC, before watching the documentary. It will reveal the outcome of the body retrieval dives, but it may also enhance your enjoyment of the film. A chance to study a map of the cave system, which featured in the film but was introduced too late for it to be truly helpful, and a chance to familiarise oneself with the difficult Finnish names, may be of benefit.

This is hardcore diving, to incredible depths, on rebreathers, in overhead environments, and under ice (to start the dive, the men cut a hole in the ice covering a lake surrounded by snowy hills and bare trees). Most of us will never do anything like it. The scenes filmed inside the cave range from serene clarity to heart-stopping moments of claustrophobic intensity as the divers work through obstructions and labour to free their friends’ bodies. Even though this is likely not aspirational for many of us, the questions raised by the men’s mission, especially whether it was wise to go back into the cave at all, make for some interesting discussion.

See the documentary on Netflix, or get the DVD here (South Africa) or here. Here’s the official trailer:

Bookshelf: Blind Descent

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth – James Tabor

Blind Descent
Blind Descent

In Blind Descent, James Tabor has written a rip-roaring account of the race to find the deepest cave on earth. Two “supercaves” (Chevé in Mexico and Krubera in the Georgian Republic) were in contention for the world’s deepest cave. The “deepest” measurement is one of vertical depth. Bill Stone and Alexander Klimchouk led multiple expeditions, over a period of years, to Chevé and Krubera respectively, striving to extend the deepest known point of each cave.

One of the two men Tabor profiles in this book, Bill Stone, sounds like a real-life Clive Cussler character (I do not say this with unalloyed admiration). Among other impressive accomplishments, Stone invented a type of rebreather (later acquired by Poseidon) that he tested and refined during his cave explorations. (Stone has subsequently turned his attention to space exploration and mining. It turns out I read an article about him from 2004, some time back – it’s a cracking good read and gives you a sense of the man.)

There are many ways to die in a cave – for example by falling, contracting an infection, drowning, getting lost or trapped – a litany of horrors. An array of specialised skills is required to explore supercaves. Cavers spend weeks underground, often in damp, unstable conditions.

An integral part of any team doing caving of this nature, are cave divers. Their role is typically to explore sumps – passages submerged underwater. Visibility may be poor, the water may be in motion, and it is usually unclear whether the sump has an exit at the other end. Squeezing through confined spaces, after doffing dive gear, is not unusual. They also have to get themselves and their dive gear into the cave, rappelling down vertical cliffs, crawling through tunnels, or whatever is required.

Having grown up (as a diver) believing that cave diving is one of the ultimate technical and mental challenges, and certainly one of the pinnacles of diving accomplishment, I was mildly amused and puzzled that Tabor did not make more of these individuals in Blind Descent, and glossed over many of the aspects of cave diving that make it so ridiculously challenging. At certain points he actually makes it seem like something someone who qualified as an recreational scuba diver a year or so ago can do, if they just get shown how the controls on a rebreather work. Right. (If you are brave, watch Sanctum for some dramatised spelunking and cave diving.)

This is definitely not a book about cave diving, but there is some of it in here and it gets overshadowed by other feats of strength and endurance. Blind Descent is, however, a gripping read and I do recommend it.

Read a review of Blind Descent here and an interview with Bill Stone here. Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Peet’s Vulcan Rock video

Urchins, brittle stars, corals at Vulcan Rock
Urchins, brittle stars, corals at Vulcan Rock

Peet made this amazing video while diving Vulcan Rock with us. There is a huge cave with several entrances at the bottom of the reef, and he went inside to check it out.

Dive sites (Red Sea): Jackfish Alley (Ras Mohammed National Park)

Swimming towards the reef
Swimming towards the reef

Jackfish Alley (also called Fisherman’s Bank) is inside the Ras Mohammed National Park, which covers part of and borders the Sinai Peninsula. We also dived Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef inside the park. Jackfish Alley was probably our favourite dive. Neither my words nor the photos or videos we have can explain how spectacular it was. The visibility was endless – I don’t actually know how to estimate anything much over 15-20 metres, so suffice it to say that it was a large number!

The other divers traverse a sand spit
The other divers traverse a sand spit

The captain reversed our boat towards a cliff face, and we leaped off into the water, which was approximately 800 metres deep. I searched briefly for the bottom, and then remembered the briefing and realised that I probably wouldn’t find it. Staying at about six metres we swam directly towards the reef wall, into a small swim through. The water inside the little cave, which formed a sort of a dog’s leg shape, was 24 degrees, which felt bracing compared to the 27 degrees outside. (As an aside, there is apparently quite a large, deep cave system here!)

Batman approaching the swim through
Batman approaching the swim through

The remainder of the dive entailed a lovely drift dive next to a wall that opened out onto a sandy alley from which the site gets its name. The sensation was like being in an amphitheatre. I don’t think I’ve seen such spectacular underwater topography before. The site is known for the large pelagic species that can be seen there, owing at least in part to the very deep water that is close by, and the currents experienced at the site. We didn’t see anything enormous – I saw some groupers and a ray – but to be honest I wasn’t really looking out to sea. The site itself is enough to keep your eyes busy.

Dive date: 20 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  24 degrees

Maximum depth: 17.8 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration: 54 minutes

Squaretail grouper
Squaretail grouper

Bookshelf: Submerged

Submerged – Daniel Lenihan

Submerged - Daniel Lenihan
Submerged – Daniel Lenihan

Until his retirement, Daniel Lenihan had a dream job, combining diving and archaeology, at the US National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Unit (formerly the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit or SCRU, and renamed in 1999 to include natural resources). He cut his teeth diving during the heydays of the sport, and became a skilled cave diver working with Sheck Exley in Florida in the 1960s and 70s, and deployed many of the principles of that sport when penetrating historical shipwrecks in the United States and around the world.

Submerged, a memoir of Lenihan’s time in the National Parks Service, is a cracker of a book – Clive Cussler wishes he could write like this, and it isn’t even fiction. A competing volume (if you will), Adventures of a Sea Hunter, by James Delgado – a sometime colleague of Lenihan – covers some of the same ground, but with far less impact and immediacy. Lenihan is clearly a doer, and has the requisite ego and charisma to make things happen, even in a bureaucratic setting.

The SCRU team dives and maps wrecks all over the world, from freezing, rough conditions in the Great Lakes in the United States, to a war grave in Pearl Harbour, Micronesia, the Aleutian Islands, and Bikini Atoll, where the US conducted multiple nuclear weapons tests. The chapter that made the greatest impression on me, however, was Lenihan’s account of a body retrieval that he and a buddy did of a diver who had gotten lost and drowned inside an old building that is now submerged in a dam. His account of diving in visibility measured in centimetres, trying to figure out where the diver could have gone in that confined, dark space, is riveting and terrifying. I was also very interested by the tests his team did on submerged motor vehicles, to determine how quickly a car fills up when it is driven into water. Lenihan himself drove a car into a dam, with scuba gear on the seat beside him, and his team attempted a rescue. Because of the air pockets in the vehicle, it was far less stable and much harder to access while submerged than the team initially expected.

The toughness, rigour, safety awareness and innovation that the SCRU team brought to their work is marvellous to me, particularly as they were technically part of an arm of the US government. None of the arms of government are particularly effective in South Africa! This is a fascinating, wide-ranging read that will interest divers and those fascinated by history, particularly its relics that lie underwater.

If you’re in South Africa you can get the book here, otherwise try here or here. For a kindle copy, go here.

Swim throughs at Photographer’s Reef

Yesterday I posted a very short video showing divers at Photographer’s Reef in early August. The visibility was lovely – at least 15 metres. Here are three equally short videos showing a couple of the swim throughs at the site, and one almost swim through. While the reef itself is suitable for Open Water divers doing their qualifying dives, overhead environments definitely are not. This is not cave diving by any stretch of the imagination, but one wants to be qualified and in good control of buoyancy before venturing into an overhead environment.

I’m using the word “swim through” loosely here, as two of these videos don’t actually feature overhead environments.

This one is, however, and it is fantastic. I started recording when I was already inside the entrance. It’s a beautiful L-shaped cave created by stacked boulders. On the way out I had to practically belly crawl so as not to hit the sea fan sticking out from the wall, which – as you can see – has already suffered a little during the course of its lifetime!

Here, Craig swims ahead of me through a passage in the rocks. When visibility is poor, these passages are all but invisible, and you wouldn’t want to venture down them unless you’re very familiar with the reef and sure that there’s a way out.

This passage looks like it should be possible for a diver to fit through it (or quite far down it), but I judged it too narrow and likely to cause damage to the reef and possibly to myself, were I to persist in following it. I am sure someone has been down there before!

A deceptively easy way to die

Tony and I watched this video one evening before going to sleep. We shouldn’t have. I suggest that you rather watch it in the morning. Regardless of how high the sun is, though, the guidelines and warnings provided here should be taken deadly seriously by every diver.

The warnings regarding the overhead environment of a cave are equally applicable to the overhead environments encountered in a shipwreck. If you have not had the proper training, do not go inside. If you don’t know what the “proper training” is, you haven’t had it. The odds that you will die, and possibly cause the death or injury of someone else, are simply too high.

Documentary: A Cave Diver Story

A Cave Diver Story
A Cave Diver Story

Steve Bougaerts is the owner of Mexico-based Aztec Diving. British by birth, he is a renowned cave explorer and cave diving instructor, and A Cave Diver Story tracks (sort of) a day in his life.

Cecil lent us the DVD, and Tony and I enjoyed this glimpse of an underwater world replete with both beauty and danger. The Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, where the documentary was filmed, is riddled with cenotes (like the blue holes of the Bahamas shown in this documentary) connected to a giant aquifer. Bougaerts and his colleagues seek to map the connections between the cenotes, and spend hours both underwater and on land extending their maps. They use old fashioned mapping techniques underwater, and computer software on land to develop the maps.

The diving technique of the cave divers impressed me. They frog-kick (instead of finning up and down), and the smallest movement seems to propel them forward. All the diving they do seems to be sidemount diving, with an intimidating number of cylinders. Access to the cenotes is often down steep slopes or even vertical walls, requiring a lot of perspiration just to get yourself and your kit to the water.

These divers are determined, and tolerance for errors is nil. There are no flustered, disorganised cave divers (not ones that survive, anyway). I am in awe. It’s beautiful and pristine, but I don’t think it’s for me!

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s an extract from the film:

You can buy the DVD here.

Sidemount diving

Cecil donning his kit on the boat
Cecil donning his kit on the boat

Sidemount diving involves a diver wearing his cylinders under his arms alongside his body, instead of on his back as with traditional recreational scuba configurations. It is popular with cave divers, because the arrangement makes it easier to fit through narrow spaces, and also lends itself to easy switching between gases. Two individual cylinders are also easier to handle for some than the extremely heavy twinsets that are used by some cave and technical divers.

Gerard almost ready for a backward roll
Gerard almost ready for a backward roll

The cylinders they use are aluminium (you can see they don’t have nets or boots like the usual steel cylinders used in Cape Town) which give a little extra buoyancy as they empty. You can also see Gerard’s special wing (BCD) inflated on his back. For this kind of diving you need a lot of lift.

Cecil & Gerard's aluminium cylinders
Cecil & Gerard’s aluminium cylinders

Cecil and Gerard have recently been diving with a sidemount configuration in Blue Rock Quarry. Cecil has moved in this direction because he has been extending his education as a cave diver! They came for a dive on board our boat Seahorse, to Outer Photographer’s Reef, and tested their setup on a sea dive. We enjoy catering to all kinds of divers and as usual found Gerard and Cecil’s company to be extremely entertaining!

Dive sites (inland): Marico Oog

I am sure National Geographic wants this shot too
I am sure National Geographic wants this shot too

Marico Oog is a natural spring, the source of the Marico River. It is located on a farm in the North West Province of South Africa, and we visited it on our way home from Botswana in March. It’s possible to dive in the spring, which is mostly why we took a detour off the N4, the boot of our tiny rental car loaded with a couple of rented cylinders and our dive gear.

Heading off for a dive
Heading off for a dive

The water in the Oog is crystal clear, and water lilies grow around the sides in the shallow (1-3 metre deep) water. The bottom is covered by lush green vegetation that looks like salad, and the bottom in the deeper areas is silty and causes great clouds to obscure the visibility when it is disturbed. Entry is via a ladder, and the initial swim is through shallow water filled with lilies, their long stalks curling towards the surface, where lily pads provide landing spots for dragon flies.

Water lilies
Water lilies

A small pool (less than 10 metres wide) that drops down to about five metres’ depth appears on the right; the very bottom here is muddy, but lilies line the edges. A small ridge separates this pool from the main pool, which is perhaps 20 metres across and has three distinct zones of vegetation. The top area surrounding the pool has a flat bottom and is covered with water lily plants. From 3-6 metres there is green foliage, and from 6 metres to the bottom of the pool is mud.

A platform is suspended from drums at about 6 metres, and is used for skills training by the Johannesburg dive schools who sometimes bring their students here (not much sea in Gauteng). At the very bottom of the pool, a pipe descends under a rock, from which the spring water is collected for bottling. The rock apparently forms part of a swim through, which I was not about to try. Willie, the owner of the farm, told us that a trained cave diver had reeled out 100 metres of line (resonably taut, I hope) in a dive beneath the rock, so there’s enough space to travel quite far below the Oog towards the very source of the spring.

Crab
Crab

The fauna inhabiting the Oog is not prolific, but we saw several crabs in the mud, and a number of fish. I’ve struggled mightily to identify the fish, some of which seem to feed from the silt at the bottom of the pools, and others of which look like bass or tilapia and were seen with a huge cloud of fry. There are also eels, but we didn’t see any. We did spot a giant monitor lizard clambering about at the edge of the reeds while we were watching birds returning to roost in the reeds and feed at the Oog in the evenings.

It was interesting to dive in a freshwater environment – in contrast to the usual 7 kilograms of weight I use to sink me and my 8 millimetre Cape Town wetsuit for a shallow dive, I wore 3 kilograms, and not even on a weight belt. Two kilograms were in my BCD pockets, and the 3rd kilo, added as an afterthought, moved from by sternum to behind my knee during the course of the dive. The migration of a square block of lead through my wetsuit was something of a distraction, it must be said.

Marico Oog is a popular night diving destination, and when the moon is full it must be magnificent. It is recommended that not more than eight divers use the Oog at one time, and even this would be quite cramped for my taste. We were fortunate enough to have it all to ourselves, and for my second dive of the day I was all alone. Tony observed the most of my second dive from the pontoon attached to a cable that can be pulled out over the Oog – it was novel to dive in water so clear that we could see each other in the different mediums.

Reeds above the surface, water lily stems below
Reeds above the surface, water lily stems below

I’ve been wanting to go to Marico Oog since Tony told me about it when I met him, but thought I’d never get there because it’s so remote. Actually, it fitted in quite well with flying to and from Lanseria airport and driving to Gaborone – we took a lot of dirt roads to get there, but there’s a tarred road running straight past the farm from Zeerust. If you’re in the vicinity and fancy some total relaxation and beautiful diving, a visit to Marico Oog is highly recommended.

Dive date: 22 March 2012

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature: 20 degrees

Maximum depth: 12.4 metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 36 minutes

Clean water for miles
Clean water for miles