In late June, a dive operator in the Gulf region passed along details of a diver fatality off Pensacola Beach that did not make the news. What the news stories said was that one person died and another was injured after “coming up to fast.” There is a lot more to this than just that.
The underlying story is that two individuals, after taking part in a one-afternoon scuba discovery experience, decided this was all the knowledge and skills they needed to attempt a 60 m/200 ft dive off their own boat. What could possibly go wrong?
After the first victim bottomed out his tank, both men raced to the surface. One made it but had to be airlifted to the chamber. The second victim didn’t make it, sinking to the bottom. A third victim jumped in and brought the body to the surface, getting bent for his trouble. By then it was too late for victim number two.
A reminder of days past
What struck me about this story was how rare this sort of incident has become. In the 1950s, fatalities among untrained divers were common. By the 1960s, however, diver training and certification were readily available. You couldn’t buy scuba gear or get your tanks filled without that all-important c-card.
It reminded me also that we once had a similar situation in cave diving. Until the early 1990s, anyone could drive up to sites such as Madison Blue, Telford, Peacock, Orange Grove, Royal or Little River, throw on their single AL80, fire up their “flashlight” and go cave diving. Fatalities were inevitable.
In the 1970s and 1980s, we’d typically see at least one such incident a month. Sometimes two or more. That’s 12 to 18 every year, someties as many as two dozen. There were repeated calls by politicians to outlaw cave diving but, fortunately, they never got anywhere. Meanwhile, the body count continued unabated.
Then, in the early 1990s, things changed. Dramatically. Untrained diver fatalities in caves became increasingly rare. At the same time, however, we began to see fatalities among certified cave divers. Prior to this, such fatalities had been all but nonexistent.
We can chalk the certified cave diver fatalities up to the fact so many people were learning to cave dive, a certain number were inevitable. Also, with advances in equipment and technology, cave divers were beginning to push the envelope in ways they hadn’t before. But this is a topic for another time.
In this article, we want to discuss the factors that not only “flattened the curve” of untrained diver fatalities in caves, they all but eliminated it. In other words, what was it that took us from 12 to 18 or more open-water diver fatalities every year to two or three per decade — all in just the span of a few years?
Blueprint for Survival
In 1979, cave diving pioneer Sheck Exley published what has become the foundational work on cave diving safety. Basic Cave Diving: Blueprint for Survival outlines the factors that contribute to cave diving fatalities and how to avoid them. These include:
- Maintain a continuous guideline to open water.
- Follow the Rule of Thirds.
- Avoid deep cave dives.
- Have at least three sources of light.
Curiously, while the book mentions both Cavern and Cave Diver training, this is not listed as one of the Rules of Accident Analysis (although it’s since been added). Four decades later, these rules still form the basis for cave diver training.
Obviously there are parts of the book that are clearly dated. However, these are apparent and provide a fascinating insight into how things used to be. More importantly though, all of the safety information remains as true today as it was then.
Blueprint for Survival began showing up on dive store bookshelves throughout north Florida soon after publication. It helped save the lives of those who read it and were smart enough to follow the advice it offered.
While you are unlikely to find this book in stores, you can download a PDF version at no charge from the NSS-CDS website. Many cave diving instructors continue to make this required reading for students.
Odds are, the first thing you noticed when you entered an underwater cave for the first time was some sort of warning sign. These have been around since the dawn of cave diving. They were among our earliest attempts to keep unqualified divers from dying in caves.
But do they work? It’s a tough question to answer. In the 1980s, Jeff Bozanic researched this issue and, we are told, decided that warning signs were “ten percent effective.” In other words, for every ten unqualified divers who would otherwise enter an underwater cave, warnings like the NSS-CDS Grim Reaper sign and the NACD Stop sign will be enough to turn one back.
This may not seem like a lot but, for every 100 potential body recoveries, this is ten we didn’t have to do. So something is definitely better than nothing.
Disappearance of the guidebook
In 1975, the northern Virginia dive center I worked for had me take a group of students to Crystal River. Prior to this, I’d never seen an underwater cavern or cave. The cavern at King Spring looked very different then than it does now. The opening was bigger and the water was crystal clear.
I was hooked. I wondered if there might be other sites like this. Luckily, the dive store at Port Paradise sold copies of Ned Deloach’s Divers Guide to the Florida Springs. It was through this that I learned about Ginnie Springs, Peacock and Orange Grove. Fascinated, I planned a return trip to north Florida as soon as possible.
It would be fair to say that, had I not found this book, my career in diving would have taken an entirely different direction. Instead, I learned to cave dive and it has been this that has shaped my entire adult life.
Since the 1970s, the book expanded and became Divers Guide to Underwater Florida. There are thousands of copies in circulation. If there is a spring in north Florida you can so much as dip a toe in, it’s probably in the book.
The problem with the Divers Guide is that it does little to differentiate sites such a Devil’s Den and Blue Grotto, which are appropriate for any certified diver, and sites such as Madison Blue and Little River, which should only be visited by certified cave divers. Many untrained divers have used this book to find their way to the caves which ultimately killed them.
Divers Guide to the Florida Springs has not been updated since 2004. It’s becoming harder and harder to find. And, given its likely role in diving accidents, this is probably a good thing.
Better control over site access
In late 1976, I took a group of students to Peacock. There wasn’t the nice parking lot like we have now, nor were their amenities such as picnic tables, tank racks or porta-potties. In those days, divers just parked directly over the cavern.
What was the same as now is that, by the time we arrived, there were as many vehicles and as many divers on site as we see on a busy weekend today. The catch is, not one of them was a certified cave diver. Nor were any properly equipped for cave diving. This was all too typical of the time. It’s no wonder we were losing so many open-water divers in caves.
Today, the situation is very different. Many of our most popular north-Florida cave diving sites are state or county parks, with rules in place to keep unqualified divers out. Others are privately owned sites with similar rules. Even at sites like Little River, where there is no official presence to police rules, unqualified divers who show up risk having their butts chewed by big, scary-looking cave divers who don’t feel like ending their dive with a body recovery.
This situation has been in place since the early 1990s. It’s a major factor in why we don’t have the plethora of open-water diver fatalities we once did.
Safer alternative sites
In the mid-1970s, if you wanted to experience what cave diving was like in north-central Florida, but without the same level of risk, you pretty much had one choice: Ginnie Spring.
Ginnie opened its doors to divers in 1975. By then, they had the welded grate in place to help prevent unqualified divers from wandering back into the cave. They also had that monstrously thick guideline to help point the way out. And there was a bathhouse with warm showers on site. Past this, though:
- Blue Grotto was open but lacked both the visibility and amenities we expect to see today.
- Devil’s Den would not open to divers until 1989.
- Paradise Spring was undeveloped, and there was no safe way to get into or out of the water.
- As now, Orange Grove and Manatee had large open-water areas but there was nothing to prevent open-water divers from wandering into dangerous cave passageways.
Today, the situation is different.
- Devil’s Den, Blue Grotto and Paradise Spring all provide the opportunity for open-water divers to get a feel for what it’s like to cave dive, but without the possibility of accidentally wandering into an extensive cave.
- Orange Grove and Manatee are state parks. These sites do lead to extensive underwater caves, but can pose minimal risk to open-water divers provided they follow the no-lights rule.
- Vortex and Morrison Springs in the Panhandle also provide open-water divers with the opportunity to experience overhead environment diving without the risk of wandering into extensive, maze-like cave passageways.
The bottom line is that open-water divers no longer need to venture into dangerous underwater caves to get a taste of what it’s like. The sites listed here provide the opportunity to do so, while posing little more risk than divers may find at their local rock quarry.
The only downside is, having gotten this taste, some divers may be tempted to visit actual caves without first getting the necessary training. Fortunately, this is rare.
Readily available training
Of all the factors that have helped eliminate open-water diver fatalities in caves, perhaps none has had more impact than the widespread availability of Cavern and Cave Diver training.
- Introduced in the 1980s, the Cavern Diver course was aimed specifically at the open-water divers who were already diving in popular overhead-environment sites. Designed for divers using slightly modified open-water dive gear, the course emphasizes the Rules of Accident Analysis, basic guideline and reel use, buoyancy control and trim, and staying within clear sight of daylight.
- The various levels of Cave Diver training were designed for divers wishing to go beyond the limits of the Cavern Diver course. Knowledge and skills include the use of doubles, sidemount or CCRs in caves, complex navigation, limited decompression and more extensive emergency procedures.
What’s really significant is this:
- In the 1970s and 1980s, Cavern and Cave Diver training were actually hard to find, at least by today’s standards. This contributed to the body count.
- Today, this training is readily available. Divers need to go no farther than Google to find extensive lists of active instructors in all parts of the cave diving world.
More importantly, today it’s widely understood that, if you want to go cave diving, it’s essential you get the right training and equipment. This mirrors what we had in the 1960s with the advent of entry-level diver certification. And, in both cases, it’s a good thing.