OUR WORLD UN­DER­WA­TER SCHOLAR

Sport Diver - - Contents - By Felix Butschek Felix Butschek

2016 Scholar, Felix Butschek, heads to Mex­ico for Cave Camp and learns to cave dive on a CCR.

My lat­est trip as the Euro­pean Rolex Scholar was ded­i­cated to cave div­ing. I trav­elled to Tu­lum, the Mecca of un­der­wa­ter caves, on Mex­ico’s Yu­catan Penin­sula. There, Lanny and Claire Vo­gel wel­comed me at Un­der­world, a brand-new and pur­pose-built dive cen­tre. Their place turned into the venue of Cave Camp, draw­ing to­gether ex­pert in­struc­tors and cave en­thu­si­asts from around the globe.

Caves have been my pas­sion for sev­eral years, but so far I have only made it into dry lime­stone and glacier caves. So, I was ex­tremely ex­cited to com­bine this with my en­thu­si­asm for div­ing. I can­not thank Lanny and Claire enough for be­ing such won­der­ful hosts, as well as Ian France and Sami Paakari­nen, who taught me safe cave div­ing tech­niques.

Ian, one of the UK’S most-com­mit­ted mine and cave divers, taught me the CCR In­tro to Cave course. He showed me how to lay lines into caves and con­nect to the main line, first prac­tis­ing dry above ground be­fore go­ing into the sub­ter­ranean world. To pre­pare for the over­head en­vi­ron­ment, we also per­formed ex­ten­sive checks and s-drills. I soon re­alised that cave div­ing is a psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenge in equal parts to its skill and equip­ment re­quire­ments. This be­came par­tic­u­larly clear when prac­tis­ing zero vis­i­bil­ity or com­plete light failure sce­nar­ios with a black-out mask. The car­di­nal rule of cave div­ing dic­tates to main­tain a con­tin­u­ous line to the sur­face. We trained blind ex­its and sim­u­lated lost line in­ci­dents. These drills drove home the mes­sage that you must take every pre­cau­tion to avoid such from hap­pen­ing in real life. Safe­guard­ing through pre-dive checks si­mul­ta­ne­ous to men­tal pre­pared­ness for the pos­si­bil­ity of calamity be­comes a vi­tal du­al­ism when div­ing be­low ground.

Af­ter four days of the in­tro­duc­tory cave div­ing course, Sami con­tin­ued my train­ing to­wards the full CCR cave cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. He taught me how to nav­i­gate com­plex cave sys­tems mak­ing jumps and bridg­ing gaps. We com­pleted two cir­cuits and con­tin­ued to work on re­breather and cave skills. Advanced dive plan­ning was a key com­po­nent of the full cave course, to make ex­tended dives into the un­der­world and bring suf­fi­cient bailout gas.

My first dives into caves, how­ever, where so much more than a nor­mal course aim­ing to ful­fil skill re­quire­ments. The Mex­i­can cenotes around Tu­lum are beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated mazes, with awe-in­spir­ing speleotherms wait­ing be­hind al­most every cor­ner. Be­low a depth of 8-15m de­pen­dent on the site, denser salt wa­ter fills the cenotes. This per­co­lates the lime­stone from the sea and cre­ates a mag­i­cal halo­cline at the bound­ary to the shal­low fresh­wa­ter layer. When undis­turbed, the halo­cline looks al­most like a false ceil­ing, shim­mer­ing like a mir­ror. Yet once the first diver pen­e­trates this bound­ary layer, the mix­ing of fresh and salt wa­ter blurs the wa­ter into a hazy fuzz. For the team­mates that fol­low, this can feel like look­ing through an un­fo­cused lens, and try­ing to dis­cern the cave line nearly gave me a headache. But sim­ply mov­ing a lit­tle to the side rather than fol­low­ing in the ex­act path of the lead diver eas­ily reme­dies the prob­lem, giv­ing the sec­ond and third team diver gin clear per­spec­tives. Once we en­tered the salt­wa­ter part of the caves, we were re­warded with deep sky-blue wa­ter that ap­pears to re­move all dark­ness from the tun­nels.

It is dif­fi­cult to cap­ture the beauty of the cenotes. Sub­ter­ranean caves held a spe­cial sta­tus in an­cient Mayan and Greek culture. On my dives into this mys­te­ri­ous world, I gained some in­sight into why these civil­i­sa­tions felt such a strong con­nec­tion to the un­der­world. It was a true priv­i­lege to be in­tro­duced to un­der­wa­ter caves by Ian and Sami, two such sea­soned cave divers who I have long ad­mired. And I am look­ing for­ward to join­ing Lanny and Claire for Cave Camp 2017, where they have put to­gether such a fab­u­lous event packed with en­light­en­ing talks, work­shops and great par­ties. Cave Camp was the ideal op­por­tu­nity to learn how to dive over­head en­vi­ron­ments, but it will be just ex­cit­ing to re­turn there to ex­plore more of the Mex­i­can cave sys­tems.

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