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Cambridge Underground 1974 pp 9-11

The Psychology of Cave Diving

Cave Diving is, without doubt, the most dangerous sport in the world; and whilst all cave divers know this, it seems to make little difference to their attitude to the sport. This is simply because, in coming to terms with the psychology of the situations that one meets underwater in caves, the diver comes to regard the relative infamy of the sport as only a small worry in comparison. Although I am no psychologist, I have done some cave diving and this article attempts to outline the attitude of mind that the potential diver needs.

Let me begin by describing a typical dive situation. The location is Old Ing Cave in the small upstream sump at the far end of the tributary passage. The sump descends for about 15' to a narrow rift off to the right. The rift is entered at floor level where it is about 3' wide. It is best to keep to the floor as the rift rapidly narrows down to 1' at a depth of 10'. After about 10' of rift, the width decreases somewhat, and a small window a foot high reveals itself at floor level on the left. A remarkably awkward little thrutch leads into a similar rift positioned parallel to the first and about 4' wide. The window carries the whole flow of the inlet and this emits a strong current. The whole sump is a paltry 30' long but in fact takes about five minutes of thrutching to get through. Entering the sump in high water conditions, two divers proceeded through using hand held 15 cubic foot sets. The intention was to explore the new passage at the other side, found on a previous dive. On the dive in, all went well as the visibility was good, the water being clear and the current, as they were going upstream, proved to be little problem. After the exploration was completed, quite a large quantity of mud had been stirred up in the extension and the visibility had been reduced to about one foot (still not too bad, in other words). The first diver entered the sump on the return dive and got through in about three minutes, giving the customary three tugs to signal the second diver to dive when ready. The second diver submerged and entered the parallel rift and after about 20' the window loomed up on the left. The guide line had pulled taut on one side of the window, but by the time he had realised this, the current had caught him and his body was pulled into the window. Since the diver was blocking half the squeeze, the current was doubled in strength and the clouds of silt raised by it reduced the visibility on the downstream side of the window to zero. To make matters worse, the bottle was jammed on the wrong side of the window in such a way that the hose was stretched through the window to the diver's head. Fortunately the diver had the presence of mind to reverse as quickly as possible before the head of water had time to build up on the upstream side and pin him helplessly in the window. Luckily nothing snagged and he was able to reverse clear first time. The line positioning was then immediately rectified and the squeeze passed in proper mode, ie. with the body correctly positioned and pushing the bottle through first. The diver emerged at the other side after about five minutes in all, feeling quite relieved to get back into his "natural element" again.

If you think that's not too hairy, then consider the following which could easily have happened:

  1. The diver's hose could have been severed by the sharp rock edge of the window as he was pulled into the hole by the current. Nett result:- Drowning.
  2. Having become stuck in the window, the diver could quite easily have panicked. This would quite probably have resulted in his attempting to squeeze as the downstream end of the sump was so close, and not trying to reverse back. (NB. a panicking diver invariably tries to surface as quickly as possible - the solution in this case was to stay submerged). This would have resulted in either his being pinned in the squeeze or his air hose being ruptured in the window. Nett result:- Drowning.
  3. The diver's mask could have flooded as the current pulled him into the window. One crisis is bad enough but two simultaneously is most unlucky and makes survival almost impossible. Nett result:- (i) or (ii) or, what actually happened, the correct solution to the problem.
  4. The diver could have been unable to reverse out due to a jammed weightbelt or cell. This is even more horrifying as it is totally beyond the diver's control, particularly in nil visibility. Nett result (i) or (ii).

From these considerations we can see that this dive could so easily have been fatal. Whilst it could be argued that this is an extreme case, I have found that crises of this magnitude or greater happen once in about every ten dives. To the seasoned diver, then, this is the norm, and his psychological approach to a dive is markedly affected by experiences such as these.

It is clear that the cave diving environment is second to none in psychological "exposure". Consider a situation in which visibility is low (ie. you can't see a thing except maybe the glow of your headlamp through the mud), the passage is low and wide so that you feel the roof and floor but no walls, you are pushing your tank in front and trying to manipulate an evasive (aren't they always) line reel as well:

Sense data:EYES-Nil.
EARS- Muffled banging of bottle and reel, heart beating rapidly, demand valve working, bubbles.
TOUCH-Roof and floor, COLD

Can you possibly imagine a situation in which the conscious brain is more cut off and yet is expected to exercise sound judgement and make quick rational decisions? This kind of situation is commonplace in modern cave dives.

What conclusions can we draw from these typical situations? Well, I suggest the following:

  1. Cave Diving is essentially a caver's sport (ie. the main techniques are those used by cavers, except that sense data to the brain is drastically reduced). It is definitely NOT for open-water divers, no matter how experienced, who want a bit of extra spare-time excitement and glory.
  2. The cave diver needs to be physically fitter than a normal caver (since "carrys" to sumps are invariably strenuous and the dive itself is physically demanding), and he needs to have sufficient experience to know how to handle minor crises without panicking (eg. mask flooding, nil visibility, getting tangled in line, and so on).
  3. He must have complete confidence in his equipment. There's enough to worry about already without worrying whether one's valve is going to pack up.
  4. He must have the presence of mind to make the correct decision quickly when his brain is under the most extreme psychological pressure. This only comes by either
    1. extensive caving experience (ie. at least several hundred trips in top caves) or
    2. A gift of God (which very few have).

To wind up this discussion I would like to make two important points:

  1. If you feel the slightest doubt about taking up cave diving then.. DON'T
  2. If anyone takes up the sport then it is vital to remember that the division between a quietly confident dive and sheer terror-stricken panic is one of the smallest things known. Don't take on a dive if you are worried about it before you start, and guard against overconfidence. Once a cave diver panics he is as good as dead.

*** NB. The views expressed here are purely personal, and do not reflect the attitude of any official body.

Rob Shackleton

County Clare
CU 1974 Contents Page Next:
Expedition diary