People are not born cave divers. Anyone who has witnessed someone going for their first cave dive will agree that it is not a sport that comes naturally to most people. The sight of a novice floundering around dressed in huge amounts of unfamiliar equipment, whilst wondering if they will still be alive in five minutes time, brings a wry smile to most cave divers.
Although I still look back at it as an event of considerable significance, my first cave dive was no different. The wait seemed interminable as I stood at the entrance of Joint Hole in Chapel-le-Dale while two Cave Diving Group members busily prepared the equipment and strapped it onto me. It was only later that I learnt that this was privilege indeed; a cave diver rapidly solves the problem of how to do up stretchy wrist straps one-handed! Finally, everything was on and declared in working order. After a quick briefing on a few essentials, I was launched into the sump pool with all the grace of a hippopotamus.
As I sat in the water putting my fins on I dimly remembered that it was a rule of the Cave Diving Group that a novice should only dive with a fully kitted stand-by diver at base. Where was my stand-by diver? The question did not receive a favourable reply: "We're only coming after you when you're definitely dead; then we can have all that equipment you've just bought!" I made a mental note not to ask any more questions, put the regulator in my mouth and slipped below the surface of the water and.... rapidly came up again, unsure whether I wanted to continue. Immediately my ears were assailed with more talk along the same lines; it seemed that one of my valves was more desirable than the other and an argument over the division of spoils had started. Suddenly it seemed much more friendly below water than above, or perhaps more accurately, less unfriendly.
Slowly, I descended down the entrance slope to about seven metres where the passage levels off. I was amazed at the almost total sensory deprivation; I could see almost nothing and the silence was total apart from my breathing apparatus. The feeling of weightlessness and gloved, clumsy hands heightened the impression of being cast into a void; my only link with reality was the diving line snaking along the floor. As I swam a little further and could no longer see sunlight, even the line seemed to become a mental, rather than a physical, link to the outside world. I was alone. It was time to return.
Many people who participate in dangerous sports would be horrified at such a tale, and urge that the Cave Diving Group take on a rigid certificated regime with organised training courses. This takes no account of probably the most important part of a cave diver's make-up; the self-knowledge required to know one's mental limit. I feel convinced that it is best to make this discovery early on, when the diver will only be a short distance from the surface. Apart from anything else, it makes recovering that expensive equipment so much easier.....