Friday, August 18, 2006

Cave Diving: A dangerous hobby if untrained

In the Suwannee Democrat, August 17, 2006

Published: August 17, 2006 06:06 pm Reprinted with Permission

Cave Diving: A dangerous hobby if untrained

Cave diving is dangerous! In Suwannee County, according to Chief Suwannee County Deputy Ron Colvin, there have been five cave-diving related deaths in the past five years.

John Orlowsky is the Sheriff’s Office go-to guy for recoveries. Colvin said often they don’t have to call someone to recover a dead diver because their buddies go in, find them and bring them out. For river rescues and recoveries, the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office uses the Taylor County dive team.

Orlowsky has been on many recoveries. He pulled two out of Convict Springs in Lafayette County in the early 90s. In May of 2003 Orlowsky pulled a diver out of Cow Springs. According to Orlowsky, the diver was found in the upstream section of the spring with gas in the tanks and a full buddy bottle.

Right after New Year’s Eve in 2005, Orlowsky pulled a diver out of Peacock 3. This diver was cavern-certified only and Orlowsky found him 1300 feet into the system. From the diver’s wrist-mounted computer, Orlowsky determined the diver had descended as far as 180 feet. He was found at 55-60 feet. His death was ultimately attributed to a heart attack, according to the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office.

On Nov. 8 in 2002, a diver was recovered from a Peacock Springs cave. This diver also died of a heart attack.

All these deaths could have been prevented by paying attention to Orlowsky’s first rule. “If it doesn’t feel right turn around,” Orlowsky said.

Colvin echoes that sentiment. “If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.”

Orlowsky said mind games play with you when you’re really deep inside a system. That’s called the time/stress factor.

“I teach my students to listen to it,” Orlowsky said. “As soon as something feels wrong mentally or physically, turn around.”

Since Peacock Springs became a state park, the numbers of divers dying in caves in Suwannee County has dropped. Rangers at the state park only allow certified CAVE divers to dive the springs. According to Orlowsky, it’s not cave divers that die in caves, but open water divers. There are signs clearly posted at Peacock Springs that say “No open water divers.”

A local dive instructor and owner of Cave Excursions Bill Rennaker, a dive shop specializing in cave diving instruction and outfitting Bill Rennaker, says his number-one rule for cave diving is always have a continuous guide-line to the surface.

Rennaker says there is a whole new set of rules for “overhead environment diving.” That can be diving under rock (caves), under steel (shipwrecks) or diving under ice. The separation between open-water diving and overhead environment diving is when air bubbles from the divers can’t reach the surface.

“You can’t put an open-water diver in a cave,” Rennaker said. “Everything we do in training is in total darkness because that’s the environment.”

Rennaker stressed the darkness factor. He said without any light in water, humans get mixed up and turned around so badly, they can’t tell up from down. That’s why he stresses the guide-line. If the lights go out, it’s a cave divers only path to the exit.

Because of the danger of cave diving, there are no open-water divers allowed in Suwannee’s cave systems. Divers have to take special classes, (and that’s where Orlowsky comes in), to become certified in cave diving. Even after becoming certified, divers can only enter some caves if they have a certain number of recorded dives to their credit.

Even for certified, experienced cave divers, cave diving can be deadly. Suwannee County’s Sheck Exley was one of the most famous cave divers ever. He was a pioneer in cave diving and lived near Falmouth Springs. Exley owned Cathedral Sink Hole in his back yard. This sink connects to the Falmouth Springs system. As experienced as Exley was, he died pushing himself to the limit in a very deep cave in Mexico. Exley died at over 900 feet trying to dive deeper than any man had gone before in a cave.

The National Speleological Society, NSS, cave diving section, has a great website at At this website it says, “Are you planning a CAVE DIVE but you are . . .

1. Neither formally trained nor certified in Cavern or Cave Diving?

2. Making one of your initial dives into a spring, cave, or blue hole?

3. Not using at least two dependable underwater lights, a guideline on a reel, a submersible pressure gauge, and an additional second stage?

If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, then you are typical of most cave-diving fatalities. Since 1960, more than 431 divers fitting the above description — that is, untrained, inexperienced, and improperly equipped — have died in cave diving accidents in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The website states that no amount of previous open water diving experience or training can adequately prepare you for cave diving.

According to the NSS-CDS website, regardless of the prior open water experience, most cave diving accident fatalities were untrained in cave-diving procedures, inadequately equipped for the planned dive, and/or making one of their initial cave dives. Many were extremely experienced in other types of diving. No less than 19 were FULLY CERTIFIED OPEN WATER SCUBA INSTRUCTORS — but without any training in the specialized area of cave diving.

Interviews with some of the surviving dive buddies suggest that frequently the divers originally planned only to take a quick peek “just inside the cave entrance” — that they weren’t really planning a full-fledged “cave dive.” But in many instances the divers got into trouble immediately — “just inside the cave entrance!” In other cases, they decided to continue further into the cave despite their plan and became hopelessly lost. When their bodies were recovered later, there was every evidence that their pre-death experience was panic-stricken and horrifying. At the website, you can read the rules and learn how to become certified.

The Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office said they support the rules of the NSS-CDS. “We encourage all divers to practice all of the rules of cave diving,” Colvin said.