These Five Courses Will Help You Discover a Deeper Self — Literally
Shining a light into the unknown — there’s nothing that feels more like exploration. But that’s not the only reason divers who enter caves become hooked. It’s a sport where record-breaking discoveries happen every year, and there’s no shortage of boundaries yet to be crossed. But underground glory isn’t the real reason to consider cave train- ing. Even if you never venture much farther than the sun shines, these courses will give you a degree of physical and mental confidence you never thought you could muster.
“I’ve had students who have recently finished open water training and have just 25 dives under their belt up to advanced trimix open water instructors,” says Johnny Richards of those who enroll in his cavern diver courses.
All must relearn buoyancy, given that the jump from open water to overhead environments can be jarring.
“Open water is very forgiving,” says Richards. “Vary 3 to 5 feet and it’s no big deal — but in a cave, that can put you on the floor or ceiling.” To help divers cement a new buoyancy foundation, focusing on fine-tuning trim and breathing, Richards instructs in north Florida’s cave systems. These caves better prepare students for one reason: They have flow. On entry, divers power against a current measured in millions of gallons per day. “Flow affects everything — trim, buoyancy, propulsion,” Richards says.
Richards’ favorite classroom is Devil’s Den in Williston, Florida, about 100 miles northwest of Orlando. This cave extends 35,000 feet and flows at 42 million gallons per day.
“Train in complex environments and you’ll easily go anywhere that’s not as challenging,” says Richards. “If you know what Devil’s feels like, you can get a sense of other places.”
Environments like Devil’s Den also help divers shed another nasty habit: the instinct to kick more than necessary.
On the return route, these caves present yet another challenge. “With flow behind you, you have to anticipate buoyancy-control changes before they’re needed,” says Richards. “As I approach the exit at Devil’s Ear, it’s imperative
I make buoyancy changes before that change in depth — otherwise, if I’m neutral, with flow behind me, I’ll have a sudden rapid ascent.”
But even this situation is one that students build up to, starting at Ginnie Springs, 80 miles west of Jacksonville, or an hour north of Devil’s Den. Ginnie, another high-flow cave, is even better suited to beginners thanks to its flow of 35 million gallons per day and a coarse-sand bottom.
“Generally speaking, high-flow cave means low silt potential,” says Richards.
For new cave divers, almost always guilty of kicking too much, this means their zealotry won’t result in a fog of silt and lost visibility for too long. But causing a silt-out is part of the process; divers gain an understanding of what it feels like to have successes and failures. Says Richards, “This isn’t a course where I expect divers to come in and know what they should be doing — it’s a time where a lot of mistakes can happen.”
Go Now: cavediving.com
INTRO TO CAVE DIVING
One of the first things aspiring cave divers must get used to is starting expeditions in the middle of nowhere — often a field or forgotten forest, reachable only by two-track dirt roads. To access Mermaid’s Lair, one of cave diving instructor Cristina Zenato’s favorite classrooms, start by heading to the eastern side of Grand Bahama.
“Old Freetown Road is abandoned,” says Zenato. “It used to connect the two sides of the island, and now it’s just a very nice, scenic drive that adds to the adventurous feel.”
Mermaid’s Lair is worth the trek due to how well it suits the needs of beginners. For starters, Zenato rerigged the ropes running through the cave.
“I changed the line, so it’s continuous, with no navigational changes — you can’t take jumps or turns.” Neither of which is allowed in the intro course.
In other words, getting lost would be pretty hard. Nor is depth an issue: Mermaid’s Lair dips to roughly 70 feet, giving divers ample time to practice buoyancy and what Zenato considers the key skill to begin developing at this level: global awareness.
“When you’re cave diving, you can’t think about just one thing,” she says. “You have to be like a little computer, calculating all these things at once, like the line, the light, the cave — and your buddy.”
Part of global awareness is taking in the environment — and that can mean appreciating the scenery.
“In Mermaid’s Lair, the formations change from a rusty orange to a sheen of black to yellowish-white crystals — and then, all of a sudden, everything is covered in black crystals. You don’t expect it to be so different in such a short environment,” says Zenato.
It’s something she’s reminded of nearly every time she shares the cave with someone new. She can hear the “ooh” through the regulator. And afterward, reactions vary wildly.
“Some people talk nonstop, and some are silent, and I can tell their hearts are so full with what they just experienced,” says Zenato. “Either way, I know when they’re hooked.”
Go Now: unexso.com
FULL CAVE DIVER
For Alessandra Figari, graduating a full cave diver is like set- ting a tourist loose in a Venice glass shop. If divers meet her standards for the course, she knows they’re skilled enough to closely approach formations as delicate and unique as hand-blown curios.
Before she turns them free, she guides them through the blanker slates of Riviera Maya’s underground realm — the caves with fewest decorations. But even those are not without beauty. Chikin Ha is one of her top picks for training full cave divers. Divers first pass through two cenotes lit by thick bands of sunlight. From there, darkness.
“Then it’s two big blocks of rock, and you can’t help but have that feeling of being under the earth,” says Figari. “It’s like being in a Gothic cathedral with all these different pieces of art.”
Inside, trainees work toward following a line in no visibility, handling a lost-diver scenario and sharing air in an overhead environment.
“I make students share air from the deepest point in the cave,” says Figari. “It’s meant to help them work on stress levels.”
When the way in and out is the same, and something happens after 40 minutes in, you have to swim out 40 minutes.
“The only thing that determines whether or not you come out is how you handle yourself,” she says. “The full cave course teaches you how to handle emotion and control the mind in these situations.”
The basics of that control are the same as with any dive course. It comes down to breathing. “If we breathe incorrectly, we cannot control the mind, and that is when we get into big trouble,” she says.
Once they prove themselves, divers are handed the keys to rooms holding even more fascinations, places like the cave Nohoch. Inside, tight passageways are lined with white formations.
“Everything is so small that you feel you should freeze, that just your presence could compromise this environment,” she says. But worry not. “No, of course it won’t. Otherwise, I wouldn’t take anyone there.”
Go Now: cavetrainingmexico.com
DPV CAVE DIVER
Now you’re going places — or, at least, you will be after the diver propulsion vehicle cave course.
The main motivation for divers to commit to the DPV course might appear to be the intense pleasure of zipping through extended cave systems — a roller-coaster ride past exponentially more formations and decorations than with fins alone.
But there’s a much more practical reason as well: DPVs buy you time.
“You get decent bottom time while keeping reasonable decompression times,” says cave diving instructor Johnny Richards.
This is an understatement. Instead of draining your gas supply on stretches you’ve seen hundreds of times, you zip past the familiar and start your dive with the new.
As for the course itself, says Richards, “It’s fairly arduous —lots and lots of skills and drills, such as dead-scooter swims and dead-scooter tows.”
There’s not much on-scooter time during the course, but afterward, it’s free rein. For Richards, use of a DPV opens up places like the Super Room inside Eagle’s Nest, a cave in the town of Weeki Wachee, roughly an hour north of Tampa.
“It’s a big monster of a room with a lot of features and fossils — mostly shells; this was all ocean floor at one time,” says Richards.
In the Little River Spring system, about 90 minutes west of Jacksonville, Richards likes to tar- get the Florida Room before continuing on by fin.
“There’s a point where you must drop the scooter,” says Richards. “The cave becomes like a roller coaster in places — then it becomes tight, with high amounts of silt. From there, you can swim 3,400 feet to the end of the line.”
He’s quick to point out that divers should never actively pursue that marker as a goal.
Says Richards, “It’s something that will naturally occur at some point given time and experience.”
Go Now: cavediving.com
“Cave Diving is all about expanding your comfort zone, step by step,” says Patrick Widmann, an advanced cave diving instructor in the Dominican Republic. The full cave diver course allows finishers to explore a cave using one-third of their tanks; stage cave diver teaches students how to safely add a cylinder to explore even farther.
Skills taught include team protocols and how to stage and retrieve tanks blind, which simulates a silt-out caused by a tank dropped atop sediment.
This course also aims to strengthen confidence, especially with distance stress — “your mind telling you that you are a long way from home,” Widmann says. “Distance stress never leaves you, even after thousands
of dives. It just becomes a question of when it will set in.”
And it happens farther in after more training dives. For the stage cave diver course, Widmann teaches primarily in two caves. Cueva Taina and El Dudu. Cueva Taina, near the Santo Domingo airport, presents students with a halocline followed by rooms of white walls, stalactites and columns. El Dudu lies near the town of Cabrera, two hours east of Puerto Plata on the northern coast. Past its giant sinkhole opening, the cave’s route, 20 feet deep, winds past unusual water colors, walls stained with tannins and rooms filled with dark-dwelling critters such as bats, scorpions and tarantulas.
When students complete the course, Widmann takes them to Manantial El Toro, a cave outside Punta Cana that is the country’s longest, requiring stages to explore.
Distance stress can be heightened from the start thanks to the cave’s dramatic entry. It’s a 30-minute hike from the car park, then you descend 130 feet by foot. “The entrance is mind-blowing,” says Widmann. “It’s a ginormous dry cave with tree roots hanging from the roof.”
El Toro’s warren unspools to a variety of rooms and terrain, all serving as mental practice for future cave settings. With each new hurdle, divers are tasked with monitoring distance stress.
“There’s a tunnel filled with really rare bacteria that stain the water an opal green,” says Widmann. “It’s studied by NASA scientists.”
Like Alice in Wonderland, divers must be prepared to feel small in a large room, or huge in a small space.
“Going through a room a plane could fly through is much different from a tunnel the size of a computer screen,” says Widmann.
Either way, he reminds divers that it’s not so much about the conditions, but how you handle them.
“If I perceive something as dangerous, my body will react that way with increased breathing rate and risk of accident,” says Widmann. “Rather, we’re training ourselves to perceive our environment as safe so our bodies stay relaxed.”
Go Now: dr-ss.com
What It’s Like To Be A Cave Diver
“A privilege,” says filmmaker, photographer and Scuba Diving contributor Jill Heinerth. You can read why caving is so addictive in the November/December “What It’s Like” column from this caver, who is a member of the Explorers Club and Women Divers Hall of Fame, recipient of the Wyland ICON Award for making a difference for our water planet and the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Scuba Diving‘s Sea Hero of the Year in 2012.