Just don’t

Don’t be a Cookie Monster

According to our recent survey on cave diver behavior, two-thirds of the 341 respondents say they put personal markers on the line at intersections. The reason is to help prevent leaving someone behind.

Clearly, this is a thing now. It’s what all the cool instructors teach. I guess we here at aren’t cool because we like to keep things simple.

Where did this come from?

The practice of leaving personal markers everywhere has its genesis in a handful of tragedies taking place over the past few years. These few incidents followed the same pattern:

  • Teammates became separated.
  • Upon reaching a jump, the team leader simply assumed the missing diver made it out ahead of everyone else.
  • The team leader then pulled the reel, leaving the missing diver to die in the cave with no continuous guideline to the exit.

Divers were aghast. Obviously, we must “do something.” Why not teach a complicated procedure to prevent this? After all, the more we make students do, the more valuable our training must be…right?

How it works

If you learned to cave dive in the past five years, your instructor might have taught you the following:

  • When making a jump (or negotiating a tee), each team member places a personal marker, such as a cookie or REM, on the line.
  • Upon returning to the intersection, each team member pulls his personal marker.
  • When all personal markers are gone, the team leader can pull the reel, confident the team is leaving no one behind.

What happens when a team member goes missing?

We would hope team members notice a missing buddy long before reaching the next intersection. Having realized they’d misplaced a diver, the “team” (which could consist of just the missing diver’s buddy) would then initiate the lost-diver procedure, searching until:

  • They find the missing diver.
  • Their remaining air does not allow them to search further.

If upon arriving at the first intersection on the way back, they find the missing diver’s marker gone, the team breathes a collective sigh of relief and exits. If the missing diver’s marker is still in place…well, that’s unfortunate.

  • The team could turn around and search further. Of course, if they already searched until lack of gas forced them to call the dive, this probably isn’t wise.
  • The only remaining alternative is to exit and let others go back to search. More than likely, this will be a recovery, not a rescue.

Festooning every intersection with cookies and REMs must be a great system…right? It’s what many instructors teach these days. It makes you wonder how we survived over four decades of cave diver training without it. I mean, it’s not as though there is a simpler and possibly better way. Or is there?

Rule Number One

There is a reason we managed to get this far before abandoned buddies suddenly became a problem. It’s the fact we used to teach a simple procedure which guaranteed missing divers would not be left in the cave without a continuous guideline to a safe exit. We called it Rule Number One for primary, jump and gap reels and spools. It’s this:

Each time a team reaches one of its jump, gap or primary reels or spools on the way out, the team leader stops to ensure:

  • Every team member is physically present and he clearly recognizes each one.
  • All team members are on the exit side of the reel or spool.

Only when these two conditions are met does the team leader pull the reel or spool.

You’ve probably heard at least one of the horror stories explaining why we “must” litter every intersection with cookies and REMs. Consider the facts carefully, though. It wasn’t the lack of cookies or REMs which killed the victim. It was the fact the team leader failed to follow Rule Number One.

But is there a downside?

Okay, so maybe leaving a trail of cookies and REMs behind you isn’t a necessity if following Rule Number One. But does it hurt anything? It can. Let’s start with the minor stuff.

  • The whole Cookie Monster thing may be less of an issue in places like Mexico, where it is unusual to have more than one team in any part of a cave at one time. Florida is a different situation, though. On a busy weekend or holiday, you can have a dozen or more teams in a cave such as Devil’s Eye. Imagine the bottleneck if teams must wait for the two teams ahead of them to painstakingly add or remove markers from the line.
  • In theory, we should all be able to add or remove markers while remaining perfectly still, in perfect trim. In practice, more than a few divers are likely to flail a bit, bumping into fragile rock formations or stirring up silt. The damage can be minor, but cumulative. And the caves are already getting beat up enough as it is.

The more serious concern

It’s one thing if you place your “attendance marker” on your own guideline. But some instructors teach putting these on the permanent line. Look at what can happen if just two teams do this:

Now imagine if three or more teams did this. It would be harder to determine which marker is yours, and easier for someone else to pull your cookie or REM by accident. (“But it has my initials on it!” Do you really think this guarantees anything?)

The problem goes beyond this, though.

  • Examine a cookie or REM closely. The edges of the slots through which the line passes may not be razor-sharp, but they are not exactly rounded, either.
  • Every time you put a cookie, line arrow or REM on a line, you cause an imperceptible amount of damage. When hundreds of divers constantly add or remove markers from the same stretch of guideline, the damage accumulates. The result is guidelines which wear out or break prematurely.

There is no Line Fairy. Volunteers maintain guidelines and, as often as not, pay for them. Good-quality guideline isn’t cheap. It behooves us all to minimize damage.

Remember also the fact broken guidelines have played a substantial role in more than one diver fatality. Is this something you want to help cause?

The greatest concern of all

We’ve heard of instructors actually telling students to violate Rule Number One. “If you return to the intersection and find your missing diver has pulled his marker, you can go ahead and pull your reel or spool.”

No, you can’t. The fact your missing diver’s marker is gone does not prove he is safely on his way out of the cave ahead of you.

  • Markers can easily come off a guideline all by themselves — especially if installed in haste, or if the guideline is so tight it prevents making an additional wrap through at least one slot.
  • As pointed out earlier, it’s not unusual for a diver from another team to pull one of your markers in error.
  • Stressed-out divers often make inexplicably poor decisions. We know of more than one instance in which panicky divers have come to an intersection, only to make a wrong turn. This is despite ample line arrows telling them to go the other way. So, again, the fact your missing diver pulled his personal marker doesn’t mean he’s headed in the right direction.

In other words, whether you choose to be a Cookie Monster or not, you never pull the reel or spool in a missing diver scenario.

  • You can always come back and retrieve the reel or spool later.
  • The recovery team can always come back and retrieve your missing buddy’s body.

We think you’d much rather come back for the reel or spool.

What about tees?

Tees simplify matters somewhat because there is no issue of whether to pull the reel or spool. Otherwise, the same concerns apply.

However, while we are on the subject of tees:

  • Should you come across a tee devoid of any line arrows, use one of your own to point to the closest exit. Then leave it behind for others.
  • If you intend to exit in a direction other than where the line arrow points, mark your intended direction of travel with a cookie or REM. This applies to non-tee intersections as well.

No guarantees

It’s possible the only reason you are leaving personal markers at intersections is someone told you this is something you “must” do. Guess what? At least three present and past NSS-CDS Training Chairmen will tell you don’t do it. Not as long as you follow Rule Number One.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for doing the Cookie Monster thing was explained by one of our fellow CDS Training Committee members.

  • Your team misplaces a member.
  • Upon realizing the cave goblins have snatched him, you search diligently until lack of gas forces you to call the dive.
  • You approach the next intersection with trepidation, knowing if the missing diver’s marker is still in place, you may lack the gas needed to go back and search further.
  • You reach the intersection to find the missing diver’s personal marker is gone.
  • You breathe a collective sigh of relief knowing, when you reach the exit, your missing buddy will probably be there waiting for you.

There are no guarantees, though. And the price for this peace of mind could be inconveniencing others or even putting them at risk.

If you are determined to be a Cookie Monster…

Let’s say the whole Cookie Monster thing makes you feel sufficiently warm and fuzzy you’re willing to overlook the problems it may cause others. If so, at least:

  • Put your personal markers on your own guideline. Do not damage the permanent line or increase overall confusion by placing them there.
  • Even if an absent marker suggests your missing teammate may have made it out ahead of you, do not violate Rule Number One. Pull reels and spools only if all team members are present and on the exit side of the intersection.

The practice of being a Cookie Monster is what we like to call a “creative solution to a nonexistent problem.” Just remember, you seldom make things safer by making them more complicated. You can, however, make things safer by keeping them simple.

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