Advanced Diving

Mango Inn & Utila Dive Centre

Mango Inn – Main

In the early 1990’s the dive industry on Utila was in it’s infancy with few centres and training programs.

Utila Dive Centre (UDC) was set up in 1991 by a group of passionate Diving Instructors who want…

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What It’s Like To Be A Cave Diver

Illustration of Cave Diver

Steven P. Hughes

What It’s Like

To Be A Cave Diver

I swim through the veins of Mother Earth, exploring shadowy recesses inside the planet. The ominous portals of underwater caves repel most people, but I am attracted to the constricted corridors, squeezing through, relying on sophisticated technology for every sustaining breath. This is my workplace. Within the darkness of my office, life depends on a finite balance between fear and discovery. A bad decision at work could cost me my life.

Cave diving has been called the world’s most dangerous sport, as well as the edgy frontier of earthbound scientific exploration and discovery. Even with modern equipment and training, about 20 people die every year in the dark catacombs of water-filled caves.

As a filmmaker and photographer, underwater caves represent the ultimate challenge: creating art while monitoring life-support equipment at task loads that take my mind and body to the limit. Sometimes solo, and other times as a member of a scientific expedition, I must be entirely self-sufficient. There’s no Mission Control to solve my problems while I am blindly groping for a lost guide line in a zero-visibility silt-out or am pinned by the current, with numb hands barely responding, beneath towering columns of jagged, deadly ice.

Despite the risk, I’m like a kid in a candy store, working with biologists discovering new species, physicists tracking climate change and hydrogeologists examining our finite freshwater reserves. I’ve discovered grisly sources of pollution, the roots of life inside Antarctic icebergs and ancient skeletal remains of Mayan civilizations. It is a privilege to uncover these hidden shrines and share mysteries concealed deep inside our planet.

Want to follow in Heinerth’s footsteps? Learn how to become a cave diver here!

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Top 100: Diving in Bonaire

From the pioneering work of the flamboyant and determined Capt. Don Stewart to its oft-copied marine-park model, Bonaire has been a leader in establishing ocean-conservation standards in the Caribbean. After arriving in 1962, Capt. Don, who died last year, recognized Bonaire’s underwater treasures, and he helped persuade locals and the government of the Netherlands to establish meaningful protections. The result is an island beloved by divers— and by our readers. Bonaire earned four No. 1 awards in the Caribbean and Atlantic region in our 2015 Top 100 Readers Choice survey, for macro, advanced, beginner and — for the 22nd consecutive year — shore diving. It also notched three top-five finishes, for underwater photography, overall diving and overall best destination.


Even divers who have been here so many times they’ve lost count are required to attend an orientation class and make a checkout dive. Then they’re required to purchase a $25 annual tag or $10 day pass. If that seems like a hassle, consider how easy it is to dive here. All you have to do is rent a truck — often included with resort packages — load it with tanks (usually available 24/7) and choose between dozens of sites, most of them along the island’s leeward west coast. You’re the boat captain and divemaster! No schedules to adhere to, and no enforced bottom times. Although there are dive resorts and operators that offer this dream setup, there is not another place in the Caribbean that caters to divers this way islandwide.


The signs are everywhere to remind visitors that this island is tailor-made for divers — red-and-white fags fluttering over dive shops; yellow stones along the roadside, pointing to dive sites; license plates inscribed with “Divers Paradise;” 24/7 tank-refill stations. Counting the dive sites that ring Klein Bonaire, there is a total of 86 places where divers can blow bubbles — many of them accessible from shore and open to divers any time of the day or night. The road to building this underwater utopia hasn’t been without bumps, but islanders were quick to realize the value of their marine resources. As Capt. Don noted in his ship’s log when he first sailed into Kralendijk’s harbor, “Bay like glass, a spectrum of shimmering blues, extraordinarily clear. To the north, a craggy silhouette of small mountains sloping southward to a fat spit of coral- rimmed beach. Brilliant tropical fish of all varieties. Looks to be a fantastic underwater island.” Indeed it is, and readers named it the No. 1 spot for shore diving and No. 2 for best overall diving.

Just a sampling of dive sites gives you an idea of how sweet it is to dive the waters here. It’s a short swim out to the wreck of the Hilma Hooker, a 236-foot cargo vessel with a shady past (25,000 pounds of marijuana was found in a false bulkhead after the ship had engine problems and was towed to Kralendijk). It’s a popular site — get an early start so the only crowds you’ll bump into are the mobs of fish here. Bonaire isn’t known for wall diving, but it is possible to get vertical at north-western sites like Rappel, famous for its healthy stands of swaying sea fans, and Wayaka, in Washington Slagbaai National Park. These drop-offs aside, Bonaire’s fringing reef is mostly a terraced affair, sloping down gently from about 30 feet to 130 feet. It’s a reason why the island earned a No. 1 award for beginner diving.


Bonaire’s advanced-diving opportunities — another No. 1 award — are truly challenging. Northwest sites like Playa Funchi, Playa Bengi and Bise Morto, in Washington Slagbaai, are slammed by heavy current. But if you’ve got the stamina, you’ll be wowed by the most pristine corals found not only in Bonaire but in the Caribbean. As you drop down, look for schools of horse-eye jack.


Bonaire’s waters teem with nearly 400 fish species, according to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and underwater photographers (the island got a No. 2 nod from readers in this category) will appreciate setting up for reef scenics that pulse with marine life. If you’re a fan of tiny critters (No. 1 for macro), the island is silly with flamingo tongues, seahorses, and hermit and coral crabs. Is behavior more your thing? Look for jawfish aerating their eggs, sergeant majors protecting their nests, and juvenile spotted drum flying their dorsal fins like pennants in the wind.


Along with the fishy reefs, you’ll fall in love with the warm and friendly locals — learn a few words, like mi dushi (“my sweetheart” in Papiamento, the Creole language spoken here) — the charming Dutch-inspired architecture of the capital Kralendijk, and the crazy-quilt landscape that looks a little like the American Southwest plopped down into the Caribbean. The island’s salt ponds are a natural habitat for brine shrimp, a favorite meal for hundreds of pink flamingos and other migratory birds that flock to the island. By the time you pack for home, you’ll be saying, “Mi stima Boneiru” (“I love Bonaire”). Our readers certainly do, giving the island a coveted top-five listing for best overall destination.


The dive resorts all have beach bars, including Plaza Resort’s Coconut Crash (, or venture of premises to Kralendijk’s harborfront and drop in at Karel’s Beach Bar for a lively happy hour (


Choose between two restaurants at Divi Flamingo: Chibi Chibi or Pureocean ( Either way, you’ll have calming views of the Caribbean. In Kralendijk, you’ll find eateries with inventive menus, such as At Sea — the terrace is lovely.


With two swimming pools, its Ingridients restaurant, drive-thru air-fill station and house reef, Buddy Dive Resort (buddydive .com) is perfect for the do-it-yourself diver. Want to do your own cooking? Apartments have fully equipped kitchens.


When To Go It’s dry and sunny year-round. Bonaire enjoys a lucky geographic location — it lies outside the Caribbean tropical storm belt and averages only 22 inches of rainfall annually.

Travel Tip Consider getting a room or suite with a fridge — the markets in Bonaire are well-stocked, and you can get fresh fruits and vegetables at the harborfront in Kralendijk.

Dive Conditions Water temps average in the low 80s. On most sites, viz is a dependable 100 feet.

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Lessons for Life: Inexperienced Diver Drowns in Cave System

A Diver Loses His Life After Exploring a Cave

Miko Maciaszek


Diving was diving, right? Rex was sure his experience diving on wrecks and reefs would carry him through. After all, it wasn’t the first time he had ventured inside of something with a roof over his head.

Rex decided to take a quick look into the cave system attached to the lake he was diving. It was dark, but he had a small light with him. He kept it in his BC pocket and had almost forgotten about it as he geared up. Rex thought the cave system was pretty cool — until he turned around and couldn’t see the way back out.


Rex was 47 years old, with an advanced open water certifcation. He had a couple of specialty ratings, but no training diving in caverns, caves or overhead environments. He had logged a few hundred dives over 10 years; most of his experience came from boat dives in Florida and in the Caribbean.


Rex met three friends at a nearby open-water dive site that local instructors used for training. It was a freshwater spring with a large lake divers could explore. The spring’s owners had installed platforms that divers used to perform skills, as well as hoops to practice buoyancy control.

Off to one side of the facility, the natural spring exited an underwater cave. There was a cavern where divers could swim around, keeping the lake directly behind them while experiencing the feeling of the rock face looming large in front of them and over their heads. Beyond that cavern area, divers with the proper training could enter an expansive cave system.

Before Rex and his buddies were allowed to dive in the lake, the site operators briefed the foursome and warned them to stay away from the cave, telling them that many divers had died by going inside without the proper preparation, training and equipment. Rex and his friends signed releases agreeing to take responsibility for their actions, and a statement acknowledging they had been warned not to go inside the cave system. They were told they weren’t allowed to take lights along on the dive, a final measure to keep inexperienced divers from going inside the cave.


After a couple of circuits around the open-water portion of the lake, Rex began to grow bored with the dive. There wasn’t much to see or do, and he wasn’t interested in practicing his buoyancy control swimming through the hoops or the manufactured swim-throughs. He started to get curious about the cave system and then remembered he had a small light in his BC pocket. While his friends were seeing how close they could get to a foating hoop without touching it, he decided to swim away and explore the cave. He told himself he would just go inside the opening to see what it was like. It couldn’t be very different from going into the pilot house of a shipwreck. He had a roof over his head when he did that too.

Rex ignored the warning sign positioned just outside the cave. It took some effort to get through the opening — the water flowing out of the underground spring pushed against him as he crawled through. Inside, Rex took a moment to let his eyes adjust while he shined the light around the cave’s first opening. There wasn’t much to see in that first room, but he knew the cave opened up just a little farther in. He had seen pictures in the dive shop. Rex finned even farther ahead, looking at the tunnels that ventured of to either side and shining his small light around to see what he could see. The water pressure from the spring dropped of significantly inside the cave, so Rex was able to swim more easily.

After a few more minutes, Rex realized his buddies were probably wondering where he was. He checked his air supply and realized it was getting low. He had been in the water about 40 minutes and had worked hard to get inside the cave. He turned to go out and realized he wasn’t sure where the opening to the surface was. He had kicked up quite a bit of the fine silt that covered the bottom of the cave, making the water hazy.

Rex became nervous, but he began swimming back the way he thought he had come, certain he would see the opening just around the next bend in the tunnel. He never found it.
When Rex’s buddies realized he was gone, they immediately began looking for Rex around the cave entrance. The water flowing out of the cave made it difficult for them to do more than peek their heads inside. They didn’t have lights with them, so they couldn’t see anything. They noticed quite a bit of silt coming out of the cave and decided they needed to get help.

They hoped they would find Rex on the surface, waiting for them. He wasn’t there. Rex’s body was recovered several days later.


There’s a saying that watching your air pressure go down to zero is no way to spend the rest of your life. Every year, divers learn this terrible lesson.

Rex made several mistakes, but none more ill-fated than simply letting his ego and curiosity take the place of good sense and sound decisions. He disregarded a warning sign that told him divers had died inside the cave he was about to enter, and he ignored the signs telling him he was not allowed to take a light into the water.

Diving inside a cave or just about any overhead environment requires training, practice, experience and specialized equipment. In a cave-diving course, Rex would have learned not to enter a cave system with only half a tank of air and other rules regarding breathing-gas management. He would have practiced laying a line into the cave using a reel so he could find his way back out. He also would have practiced finning techniques that would keep him from stirring up the silt on the bottom of the cave. He also would have learned that he needed to carry a primary light and at least one backup light, in case one failed. And, of course, he wouldn’t have gone into the cave in the first place without a buddy.


1 Don’t Go Do not enter a cave or other overhead environment without specialized training or equipment.

2 Understand Your Limitations Experience in one environment does not necessarily mean you can dive everywhere. If you’re diving somewhere new, make a guided dive to learn the local ropes.

3 Follow the Rules Rules such as not carrying lights into a lake attached to a cave system are there for your protection.

Eric Douglas co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety, and has written a series of adventure novels, children’s books, and short stories — all with an ocean and scuba-diving theme. Check out his website at

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