With the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the USA, you may wonder whether it’s safe to go cave diving. The answer will depend, in part, on where in the world you live and where you usually cave dive.
Our home base is north-central Florida. It’s what we will focus on here. Depending on where you dive, this information may or may not be helpful.
Shut up and dive
Lengthy pre- and post-dive discussions while floating on the surface or standing in chest-deep water have been a staple of cave diving since the beginning. Unfortunately, their time has passed. This sort of behavior puts people too close together and has them breathing each other’s exhaled air. You need alternatives. Here are some possibilities.
- Conduct all pre- and post-dive discussions out of the water, where teammates can be farther apart.
- Have teammates enter the water with dive masks and regulators in place, and keep them there until they exit. This way, if you absolutely must talk to teammates, they at least won’t have to breathe your exhaled air.
- Instead of walking through pre-dive equipment and buddy checks verbally, drop just below the surface to do so. Depending on the item to be checked, teammates may do this individually or they may work with a buddy, such as when doing a bubble check.
There is a possible alternative to putting dive masks and regulators in place before entering the water. That is to wear a neck gaiter over your nose and mouth. You can wear these all the way from your vehicle to the water, dropping them only to don your mask and reg, then putting them back in place when you surface. And, unlike conventional face masks and respirators, neck gaiters can get wet.
Be aware that, like face masks that don’t meet N95 or K/N95 standards, neck gaiters are porous and offer only limited protection. At best, if you cough, sneeze or can’t talk without expelling gobs of spittle, neck gaiters may provide a limited amount of protection for those around you. You are still better off keeping your distance and limiting the time you spend on the surface pontificating.
No “icky” reg sharing
Nearly every major diver training organization has modified its standards or procedures to eliminate situations in which teammates would have to put someone else’s contagion-covered second stage in their mouth. You should follow suit.
Yes, we know. During training, you were told you should practice actual gas sharing before every dive. Of course, in the real world, almost no one actually does this. And, as it turns out, that’s a good thing. As we now realize, the only time someone else’s reg should ever be in your mouth is if you are actually out of gas.
This helps make the argument in favor or sidemount, CCRs or backmounters carrying buddy bottles — equipment that further reduces the likelihood of ever having to breathe off of someone else’s reg.
Think carefully about where you dive
According to a preliminary study released in mid-June, 70 percent of asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers do not pass the virus on to anyone else. The real culprits are so-called superspreader events.
Superspreader events are typically a large number of people gathered in close proximity to one another, with few if any wearing face masks or practicing social distancing. (‘Sound like any place we know?)
Most superspreader events happen indoors, where air circulation is poor. However, at dive sites where the general public is falling all over themselves, coughing and sneezing with reckless abandon, you may as well be indoors.
- At many of our cave diving sites, such as state parks, there are few people in our immediate vicinity other than fellow divers, and dive groups tend to keep pretty much to themselves. This doesn’t make these sites risk-free, but it does reduce the risk factors substantially.
- Other dive sites, however, easily qualify as “superspreader events,” especially at this time of year. You are best off keeping as far away from them if at all possible.
The problem is that, when sites such as Madison and Peacock are closed due to flooding, a “superspreader” site may seem to be all that is available. So what can you do under these circumstances?
- If you absolutely must go to such a site, avoid weekends and go as early in the day as possible. This will limit the number of nondivers you and your teammate come in contact with.
- While Manatee may not be everyone’s favorite training site, it is a viable one and seldom floods. Just get there early before the park hits their limit on the number of cave diving teams they will let in.
- Don’t overlook the Millpond. While the county park is open to the public on weekends during summer, you can always rent a boat from Cave Adventurers and experience the ultimate in social distancing.
Screen your teammates
It should go without saying that if a teammate shows up with a headache, cough, cold, runny nose, watery eyes or any other potential COVID-19 symptom, they go home. And stay home until symptom-free.
- Many dive operators have invested in touchless, infrared forehead thermometers. They use these to test employees for fever when they arrive for work and divers before they go out on charters. You can get these on Amazon for under US$30…although the better ones cost around US$80.
- COVID-19 virus and antibody testing has become more readily available. In north-central Florida, where many of our instructors live, the local health department is offering large-scale COVID-19 virus testing. If your insurance won’t cover it, it’s free. OneBlood.org offers free COVID-19 antibody testing if you donate a unit of whole blood. Encourage teammates to get tested before showing up for class.
Knowing that both you and your teammates are virus-free creates considerable peace of mind for everyone.
No one says you have to
Ask yourself whether you really need to go cave diving right now. What will happen if you postpone that next cave diving excursion by a few months?
There is no such thing as “safe” cave diving. Like everything else in life, cave diving entails risk. But you can manage risk in such a way that you help stack the odds in your favor. Using common sense in an era of COVID-19 is now part of that equation.