Cave Diving, Cave Exploration and Cave Mapping in Yucatan, Mexico
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Category — Cave Diving Sites, Cenotes and Systems

Wreck Diving and The Pit

Hello trusty readers!  This week I find myself in South Florida with Andrew Driver of Blue Foot Diving.  I am here for 5 days of wreck diving.   In about 20 minutes we will be leaving for the Lowarance.  It is in about 170ft of water.   The plan is to do a hot drop, swim around the wreck for 40 minutes and then deco out in the drift.  I think it is going to be a very cool dive.  I will write more about it later today.

In the mean time, while you are at work slaving away, enjoy this video by Pietro.  Pietro is a fabulous videographer and photographer in Playa del Carmen.  He is also a super nice guy!  The video is of a dive upstream from The Pit at Dos Ojos.  I think you might find the shots of the road and the gear setup interesting.  It think it provides a little perspective on the logistical challenges of diving at The Pit.  In any event, enjoy it is worth while!

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February 16, 2009   1 Comment

Abaco Island Cave Exploration, Dreaming About Diving and Setting Depth Records

Every once in a while I read about some really cool diving that is going on that reminds me how basic the stuff I am doing is.  Brain Kakuk is continuing to make headway in the Bahamas and has blessed us with a write up about exploration at Dan’s Cave on Abaco Island.   Take five minutes are read about it, it got my juices flowing.

Cave Exploration in Dan’s Cave on Abaco Island, Bahamas.

When you are done reading about the diving, make sure to check out his photo gallery, the formations are stunning!

Now that we have that out of the way, do you ever dream about diving?  Well, I do!  And last night I had the craziest dream.  I thought you might enjoy a retelling, it is ridicules.  So, the dream started in the middle of a dive at The Pit.  Victor, Santiago and myself were working our way into the BMB passage.  (I haven’t been there yet, so I don’t know what it looks like.)  In my dream, the passage narrowed down the width of two people and angled down.  Then the passage continued through a hole in the floor.   The line was run was against the ceiling entering the passage, onto the floor and then against the ceiling through the hole and it was slack.  I was the third man.  When we got to the hole, Victor was looking in trying to figure out how to pass the restriction and kept moving the line back and forth forcing me to keep crossing under the line.  This was all taking place at like 330ft in my rebreather with bailout.  To say the least, it was a little stressful.  After sometime of watching them and getting very upset about having to repeatedly cross under the line and wasting my dive time, I hit my turn time and called my dive.

After calling the dive, the dream skipped right to the point I was out of the water and laying in bed continuing to decompress, at which time I noticed I had forgotten to wear my X1 and I never set my PO2 above .4.  Actually, I realized that I hadn’t ever looked at my PO2.  I decided that I must have followed Santiago’s open circuit schedule and I was freaking out.  (When I woke up my jaw was sore from being clenched.)  I wanted to get out of bed to check how much deco I had omitted, though I didn’t know what set points to use.  And I couldn’t figure out when laying in bed had become part of deco.  I knew I should be bent in the dream and I kept checking my right elbow.  The dream ended with me thinking to myself that it was awesome that I wasn’t bent and that I had gotten lucky.

What a wild dream!  Well, it was for me.  If you have ever had a really crazy diving dream, please post it as a comment.  If it is really long and interesting,  you can email it to me at and I will post it as an article.

And to tie things off, right before going to sleep last night I watched “Pod Cisnieniem” or “Under Pressure”.  It is a movie (DVD) about an open circuit depth record dive by a Polish team in the Red Sea.  I got the movie from Patrick who was teaching Jacek Szymczak this week.  Jacek is the deep diver in the movie.  Watching the movie really got me amped up and I think it inspired my dream about The Pit.  I love the idea of participating in a big project like that and supporting something extraordinary.  With any luck, I will have the opportunity one day.

Unfortunately, the trailer is in Polish.  However, the DVD is subtitled in English and well worth watching. Here is the trailer for the movie:

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In another coincidence, Leigh Cunningham, the deep support diver, was Patrick’s trimix instructor in Egypt.  It was really cool to see his instructor in action.  I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I did!

January 30, 2009   1 Comment

Sometimes You Get the Bull, Sometimes the Bull Gets You.

Last week I wrote about an awesome cave dive to The Wakulla Room at The Pit.  Well, three days later, Saturday, I returned to make another try.

Over the last two weeks, I also wrote about some oxygen sensor trouble, trouble might be overstating the issue.  My 02 sensors had come to the end of their lives and needed replacement.  Unfortunately, after many hours of preparation for my dive on Saturday including staging all my gear in the water and starting my dive, I experienced another sensor failure, or sensor abnormality.

To recount the chain of events, on Saturday, 1/17/09, I went to Vaca Ha to do some cave diving on the unit.  The night before as I prepared my Megalodon, I discovered the number 2 sensor was dead, no voltage.  I didn’t think anything of it, the sensor was old and I hadn’t fired up the unit in three months.  I replaced the sensor with a new one dated July 2008, calibrated the unit and dived it.  During the dive at Vaca Ha, the number three sensor became current limited.  It wasn’t a big problem; I took the appropriate steps and exited the cave.  In preparation for my Pit dive on Wednesday, 1/21/09, I replaced the number three sensor with a new one dated March 2007.  That sensor was pretty old, but I wanted to give it a go.  Maybe it only lasts 6 months, maybe it lasts a year.  It was vacuum packed from the factory.  I calibrated the unit and went for a dive at The Pit.

During my 2 plus hours of deco I noticed the number 2 cell started to read a little lower than the other two sensors.  I checked to see if was current limited and I flushed, both checked out.  I didn’t think much of it. I assumed that the cell had come out of calibration as it baked in during the dive.  I figured, I could recalibrate the unit and all would be well.  The number one and number three sensors agreed.  Since I calibrate before every dive, it would be taken care of in my next pre-dive.

And that brings us to Saturday, 1/24/09.  I had another dive scheduled at The Pit.  Again, the setup and gearing up process went very smoothly.  I was super relaxed and ready for an awesome dive.  I finished my in water meditation and dropped down the deco line to check my staged tanks.  At the surface I had a PO2 of .4.  At the 20ft station I stopped and gave my gear the “In Water Two’s Check.”  My PO2 looked fine.  But for some reason, I decided to watch my primary handset as I descended.  This is not something I normally do, usually I check the handset and my HUD periodically to confirm the PO2, but I don’t watch it.

As I approached the 70ft station to check on my 50%, my number two sensor spiked to 1.97.  The other two sensors were in range at 1.0.  I had been adding diluent (7/71) on the way down.  I stopped and hovered staring at the handset trying to figure out what I was looking at.  I watched the PO2 fall on the number two cell from 1.97 to .8, while the other two sensors held steady at 1.0.

At this point I made a mistake; I didn’t flush the unit and put a known gas in the loop.  I just stared at the numbers trying to figure out if I should go for a dive.  Luckily on at least two separate occasions in the past week, I flushed the loop instinctually.  This time due to some mental twist, it never even crossed my mind. I think because it was so near the beginning of the dive and I thought I knew what should be in the loop.  The truth is I had no idea what was in the loop!  I wrongly assumed that I started the dive at .4, maybe I started the dive closer to 1.0.  I really didn’t know at that point, and what is worse is I didn’t know that I didn’t know.  I thought I knew.

After less then 1 minute, I decided to call the dive.  I couldn’t see going for a 4 hour 350ft cave dive with a unit that may or may not be broken.  I decided that when I surfaced, I would replace the number two cell again and try and go for another dive.

When I surfaced four minutes later, I hoisted the unit out of the water and changed the number two sensor with a brand new one.  I fired the unit up to calibrate it and the brand new sensor read 9.4mv.  I stared at it for a minute and realized, I couldn’t remember the proper range for an oxygen sensor.  My sensors had always started above 10mv, and that was my mental low limit.  I asked another CCR diver, Victor an Evolution diver, and he told me 8-13mv was the acceptable range, though I wasn’t sure if that same range applied to the R-22D sensors.  Later, I found out that the sensor was in range.

I decided against diving that day.  It was unfortunate that I couldn’t remember the proper range because I would have been able to continue my diving.  It amazes me how the smallest issue can sometimes put a dead stop to something that took hours and hours to prepare for.  It was a case of not being sure of a fundamental piece of information and paying the price.  In any event, I had hit my limit for the day.  Jorge and I packed up the gear, waved to Santiago and Victor and headed back to Playa for an afternoon on the beach.

The next day I called Patrick Widmann and Andrew Driver to discuss the sensor issue.  The very first thing they both did was give me a good flubbing for not flushing the unit.  The lesson is, know what you are breathing and don’t assume.  It was a good reminder that at any point in the dive, I may need to flush the unit to determine what gas is in it.  It may save my life.  As a result of my discussions, the sensor that spiked has been pulled from service. I am going to take it with me to Florida and put it on a cell checker.   The 9.4mv sensor is going to stay for now; however, I am going to watch it closely.  The bull got me.

January 28, 2009   4 Comments

Smile! A Fabulous Dive at The Pit.

A solo trimix CCR cave dive to the back of the Wakulla Room.

After our dives at The Pit in October I was pretty rattled about deep diving and CCR diving.  During those three days at The Pit, I lowered my rebreather into the water with the BOV open, twice.  The first time I know I made a mistake and luckily only suffered a little water in the loop, not enough to cancel the dive.  The second time, I double checked the BOV was closed before I lowered it.  After twenty minutes, I noticed the Megalodon was floating kind of funny.  When I checked it, it was flooded bad.  The bottom of the can was full of water and the sorb was shot.  I called my dive that day due to “technical difficulties” and waited on the surface for Patrick.  When he returned in pain, I got rattled.  The combination of making a very pedestrian error, one which I was taught not to make in basic CCR, twice and then seeing Patrick injured me, just put me off CCR diving and deep diving all together.  I just wasn’t sure I was cut out to play at that level if I am going to make basic mistakes.  I spent some time considering selling the rebreather and just diving open circuit.

I didn’t dive the CCR for a couple of months and concentrated on sidemount/survey diving.  I gave myself some room to rebuild my confidence, see Patrick’s outcome and to get some distance.  Finally, with Patrick back in the water and the season for deep diving returning I thought it was time to get back in the saddle.  I had a choice, I could dive the rebreather or get rid of it.  No reason to have it sitting in the corner depreciating.  I decided to dive it with a renewed focus on checking everything twice.  I started with a couple of dives at Vaca Ha.  Both of those dives went very smoothly and I was really stoked to be back on the machine.

Then Victor & Santiago told me they would be doing a week of deep diving at The Pit and asked me if I wanted to join.  I thought, “This will be good.”  It will be a chance to get back to The Pit and concentrate on myself.  Victor & Santiago would dive as a team and I would dive solo.  Learning from our October experience, I hired a sherpa, Jorge, to do the heavy lifting.  He would be responsible for raising and lowering the tanks and moving them from the truck to the water and back, which was an excellent investment!  The three of us split the cost of the sherpa and it was the best 80 Pesos I have spent in a long time.

The two days before the dive were filled with the typical work: planning, blending, and double-checking gear.  The rebreather needed a new #3 cell so that went in and was calibrated.  The gases were mixed: 10/60 for bottom and 5 different blends for bailout.  Tuesday night was spent poolside doing bubble checks and assembling the gear.  The tanks were loaded into the 4Runner and the rebreather was assembled.   I cut my dive plans and hit the sack calm and ready for my dive.  I was in bed by 11:30.

Jorge arrived at 7AM on the dot and we loaded the remaining gear and Chico, my Black Lab.  We were on the road by 7:30AM.  It is really amazing how much smoother things go without 3 other divers involved.  Normally, it would take us and hour to get loaded and out of Playa.

We arrived at The Pit by about 8:45.  Jorge and I set to work.  In short order the tanks and rebreather were in the water.  As soon as the rebreather hit the water, I jumped in and checked it.  Everything seemed to be sealed up nice and tight.  About 9:30, I had my wetsuit on and I was in the water.  I kited up and pre-breathed the machine.  I played the dive over in my head a couple of times.  Everything was going so smoothly, I was very happy.  Once everything was on and I was comfortable, I lay back in the water and did my five minute meditation.  I cleared my mind and took nice long deep breathes and listened to my heartbeat.  I could hear it slowing to a nice rhythm.

When the five minutes were up, I waved to Jorge and calmly dropped down the deco line.  At 20ft I stopped and checked the O2 bottle, it had pressure and was off.  Then I dropped down to the 50% and checked it, though I checked it more thoroughly.  I noticed something strange, it only had 2500PSI.  The 50% should be full I thought to myself.  The 02 is the bottle that was short.  Then I looked at the MOD sticker and I realized that I was looking at the O2 bottle.  It was at the wrong depth!  I thought to myself, “Damn it!”  I unclipped the bottle and ascended to the 20ft station.  I swapped the bottles, reconfirming them and then dropped back down to deposit the 50% at the right depth.  All this was handled in the span of a couple of minutes; however the clock had started to run at that point.

I am very glad I checked the tanks before I left.  In the past, we lowered the tanks and assumed they were fine.  It would have been a nasty surprise to arrive at the “50%” and find that I was looking at a bottle of 100%.  Without in water support it would have been especially problematic, because it would have required that I break my ceiling by 50ft to retrieve the 100% while breathing the 30/30.  I know I should have enough gas to deal with the situation, but the fact is it was avoidable and in fact was avoided by double checking the gassed at the deco stations.  During stage class and deco class we are taught to check and recheck the gas we are breathing, the same lesson goes for staging gas on a deco line.  Another lesson learned.
With the gases at the correct depths, I left for my dive.  I started to make up for lost time, though I arrived at the 150ft stage depot a minute late.  By the time I got to the 220ft way point I had slowed my swimming to limit my exertion I let go of the fact that I was late.  I was still a half minute behind.  I arrived at the By-pass and felt great.  The cave is awe inspiring; the scale of it is really remarkable.  The Cardea Passage and Wakulla Room are huge, both wide and tall.

I swam through the By-pass and beyond my previous distance.  This trip I had some time to really enjoy the Wakulla room (Map of The Pit by Nick Toussaint).  I had scheduled 20 minutes for my deepest segment, so I just took my time.  At 15 minutes I arrived at the second T in Wakulla.  I thought for a second trying to remember the way to BMB, I took the left, a moment latter the line drops off towards the BMB.  I had reached my distance goal, but I still had time.  I decided to drop down and try and catch a glimpse of the BMB.  I got down to 317ft at minute 18, two minutes ahead of schedule.  I stopped and peacefully enjoyed the moment.  All of the anxious excitement of my first dive to Wakulla was absent.  By minute 19 I had turned and was heading out, by minute 24 I had exited the By-pass and started my ascent.

The ascent was super peaceful; I was really stoked about my progress and execution.  I had about 2 hours of deco ahead of me and I wasn’t dreading them.

I arrived at my 40ft stop around 11:30AM.  I could see Victor & Santiago getting into their gear.  I was really excited for them; I hoped they would have a great dive.  While I was on my 20ft stop, another team came up from the deep.  After some puzzling, I thought I recognized the diver in doubles, it was Dennis from Aquanauts.  It was nice to see him.  We exchanged glances and hand gestures to pass the time.  At minute 164 my dive was over, I was floating on the surface chatting with Dennis.  It was an awesome dive.

I floated around for 30 minutes just relaxing.  I pulled off my CCR and got it read to lift.  Jorge, with some assistance from Dennis, lifted the CCR and the tanks.  What a luxury to have help.  Jorge and I cleaned up our mess waiting for Victor’s team.  We got them out of the water and squared away.  Jorge, Chico and I headed for home around 3PM.  It was a fabulous day of deep diving.  Almost everything went right and I had a huge amount of fun.  The pay-off was huge for the effort.  With any luck, I will be back there in 4 days to give it another go.

Of course, no dive is executed by only one person.  I want to thank Jorge for his time, he was a life saver.  I want to thank Patrick Widmann from Protec for mixing up some excellent Trimix and loaning me his deep bailout.  I know I need to blend my own.  I want to thank Santiago and Victor for having me a long.  And I want to thank Chico for being the loving attentive friend that he is.

And as a closing treat, a friend forwarded me this video from YouTube.  I thought was great, though unrelated to diving.

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January 22, 2009   1 Comment

Getting Stuck at Vaca Ha!

Wow, the last time I wrote about diving was on December 23.  That feels like a long time ago.  Well, the reason I haven’t written is the diving I am doing hasn’t provided much that I can write about.  I am involved in a resurvey project; Alain and I are collaborating with 2 other fine gentlemen, I am sure you would recognize both of their names if I mentioned them.  Most of my diving has been in the same system laying line and surveying it.  So far we have surveyed 2400ft of cave with an error of about .75%.   We are very pleased with our progress.  Eventually, I will write about in detail.  Now that you have been updated, we can move on to the new dive site I visited today, Vaca Ha.

Patrick and I have been talking about making some CCR dives at Vaca Ha and Tortuga for almost a year.  It seems like the perfect site, good depth and big cave.  Every time we had the time to go, we decided to go somewhere else like The Pit.  Well, I needed to dive somewhere new after a month on the aforementioned project and I decided to hit Vaca Ha.

On Friday night I assembled the breather.  It had been a couple of months since I used it.  Actually, it had been since Patrick’s accident.   It needed a good once over and when I fired it up I found number 2 cell was completely dead.  Luckily, I have a bunch of cells on hand and I made a quick swap.  Everything else checked out.

Since I hadn’t been to Vaca Ha before I needed to get some information on how to access the site and what I should expect.  I called Steve Bogaerts and Bil Philips.  Between the two of them I got the information I needed.  It ends up that Bil Philips mapped Vaca Ha, so I called the right guy.

Vaca Ha Cenote and a Team from Cave Heaven

Entrance to the site is 80 Pesos and the key can be picked up from the land owner, Latacia, in Tulum.  With Bil’s directions getting the key was easy as can be. Vaca Ha is about 5 miles out of Tulum on Coba Road.  Once through the gate drive straight back, don’t take the road to the left, it goes to Tortuga.  The Cenote is a small pool at the edge of a swamp.  It is just big enough for 4-5 people to float around in and do bubble checks.  The guideline starts in open water under the rock overhang.  The pool drops down to 10ft then a smallish cave drops down to 20ft and you enter a minor restriction.  After some tight passage the cave opens up into a beautiful chamber at about 35ft.  Vaca Ha is on the deeper side, my max depth was 76ft and most of my dive was below 50ft.

My first cave dive was up the main line for 35 minutes.  At the 25 minute mark I came to a T.  I took the T left and then came to another T.  I took the T to the right and it ended in a couple of hundred feet.  I turned and checked the other branch; it was going and big enough though I had reached my distance limit for my bailout.  I returned to the first T and checked the other branch, that tunnel was going though it was getting smaller.  I believe it goes to the Strip Tease Restriction and then is too small for CCR after that.  On the way back I checked a couple of the other jumps to the left.  It was an excellent dive.  If you removed the stalactites and stalagmites this cave reminded me of Orange Grove.   Vaca Ha has smooth walls and keyhole shaped passages, very reminiscent.  Maybe it has been a long time since I had been to OG or maybe they are similar.  My first dive ended with out any deco.  It was really satisfying to be on the rebreather again.

On my surface interval I took a 1 hour nap and ate some tuna and an orange.  Not the best tasting combination, but it was food.

Recently, I added half-inch tall d-rings (Manufactured by Steve Bogaerts) to the font of my waist strap in an attempt to get my tanks to ride more level and tighter to the body.  This is a very similar setup to the adjustable rings I use on my sidemount harness for when the tanks get light.  In any event, I used the new d-ring location on the first dive and it really made a difference in the water, I was much more comfortable and I felt more streamlined.  I found the band too low on my tank, so I adjusted up to try and make it ride more smoothly.  It worked well, though I am going to try it even higher on the tank tomorrow.  Moving the clip from the butt plate mounted d-rings to the front of the hips made a world of difference.

On my surface interval I was contemplating where to go next, luckily Adam Korytko from was there guiding.  I asked him and he replied that there is a jump about 13 minutes down the main line to the right and down.  It is marked with a red arrow.  He said it is a beautiful dive and there is a tight restriction.  He wasn’t sure I could pass with the rebreather.  I looked at the team that had just passed it and figured that if they could make it, I could.  I kitted up and hit the water.

Right on schedule I got to the jump.  The jump is down into the halocline and into a short silty passage, so buoyancy has to be the first order of business.  I have to admit that making the requisite adjustments on the CCR and running the spool without a Goodman handle was a little complicated.  I made the jump clean and didn’t add any new damage to the floor.  About 10-15 minutes up the line it doubles back on itself and enters the restriction.  When I arrived I checked my gases and PO2.  I hovered for a minute or two examining the restriction.  It is sort of peanut shaped.  That is if you bend a peanut in the middle and put the concave side down and rock it so it is sitting on the right lobe.  The restriction makes a slight right turn, so unless you enter inverted you have to arch your back to make the turn.  It was deceiving small and a real bender.  After examining it for a minute and taking into account the team that had passed it, I decided I could make it.

I entered the restriction and immediately made contact with the lid of the canister.  Still convinced I could make it, I wigged in a bit more waiting to pop through.  Before I knew it, I was in the middle and couldn’t go forward or back.  The restriction is more then body length and I was committed.  My chest was on the floor and my canister was key-holed.   I slight wave of fear poured over me.  I struggled for a minute.  It was a shock how much larger I was in my rebreather then in sidemount.

I stopped everything and decided to take inventory of my situation.  I checked my access to my bailout regulator and then dumped all the air out of my wing.  It was time to make myself smaller.  The more I squeezed in, the more my counter lungs were compressed.  I held my breath for a minute to listen for bubbles, one of my fears was tearing the loop and being stuck on bailout.  I started to work my way through again moving left and right looking for the biggest spot.  I twisted a bit to try and unhook the canister.  Still stuck I stopped again and decided to think and breathe for a couple of minutes.  I wanted to make my chest smaller and I wanted to confirm the machine was working correctly.  It is easy to loose track of the machine if you are struggling with something else.

I started to list my options: remove my bailout tank to make some more room, remove the rebreather or work on passing the restriction in my kit.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure I could remove either piece of kit and the idea of removing the breather and possibly loosing control of the bailout tank scared the hell out of me.  That would be the last resort.

Another minute or two passed and I decided to give it a go again.  I wiggled and then decided to push my chest down and put my face in the floor to try and point the lid down.  POP!  I was out on the other side.  On the other side I hovered for a minute or two to collect myself.  I checked the machine over and decided to exit.  I had had enough excitement for one day!

As you can imagine the exit was no joy.  I got stuck again, however not as bad.  I found a better path through and was able to make myself a bit smaller.  Having passed it once, I was sure I could make it again.

On the exit side, I decided to pass the restriction again to determine the best approach.  As I checked over the machine, I saw one of the 02 sensors was more then a .20 low and stayed that way.  I did a 02 spike to confirm the cell was current limited and it didn’t rise at all.  I held my thumb out, called the dive, lowered my set point to put the cell back in range and did a hearty loop flush to confirm my electronics.  Luckily, the change didn’t negatively impact my deco obligation.  I was relieved I had the cell failure and I didn’t go back through the restriction.  Getting stuck the first time was scary.  The cell failure was worth paying attention too, though not a crisis.  The rest of the trip home was uneventful.

This got me to thinking.  What were my viable options once I was stuck?  I know I had the option to not enter the restriction, so set that one aside.  How could I have made myself smaller or change my shape?  The first thought that came to mind was to try and unclip the lungs and swing them out in front of my so I could push my chest into the ground, though I have never tried this while staying on the loop.  This seemed the least problematic.

The next thought was trying to swim out of the breather.  I wasn’t sure how I could accomplish that and maintain control of the bailout and the rebreather.  There was a drop off after the restriction so there was no place to rest the tank.  And after removing the unit I would be stuck holding a tank and a rebreather in 60ft of water.  I would have to push the rebreather back though the restriction and don it again.  I thought about that for a while and decided I would need a no mount harness to clip the tank to once I was out of the CCR.  I would also need to be able to reach my waist to unclip my harness.  Plus, my weight is on the back plate so I would be positive as soon as I was out of the rig.  That seemed like the least pleasant option short of drowning.

What other options exist?  What have you done in this situation?

I think it is worth while to point out that failures and problems come in clusters! Not only did I get stuck but I had a cell failure.  The cell failure is to be expected, they are at the end of their life span.  I wonder how long the cell had been current limited?  Was it the whole time I was dealing with being stuck and did I just miss it, or did it really happen after I exited?  Remember, “Murphy is a cave diver.”

I am going to give this some more thought and try some exercises under the watchful eye of a buddy.  I am interested to know my options and how they will play out.  I am sure this isn’t my last time being stuck.  If I come up with any good results, I will let you know.

January 18, 2009   8 Comments

Getting Bent, How could this happen?

Mhhh…I wish I could entitle this one: “How Not to Get Bent” but unfortunately, that is not what this article is about. I did get bent and this article is just one way for me to analyze what happened and try to find some clues on what I can do different next time.

Most of my personal deep diving experience comes from mixed gas diving in the Egyptian Red Sea. The workload before the dive was minimal since we used a boat to reach the dive site. I usually sat down at the end of the platform with all my stage tanks at arms length. The dive itself was mostly cruising a long a reef wall or wreck at depth, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes for collecting data. Most of the dives were easy swimming since elevating your breathing at depth using Open Circuit Scuba is not really something you want to do. Occasionally, heavy currents made it difficult to hold precise deco stops or forced me to hang on a shot line like a flag in a heavy wind.  Profiles were square shaped sometimes with a single bottom depth and ascent, sometimes a multilevel dive going from deck to deck of a shipwreck for example. Bottom times where typically limited by gas volume and my RMV. Since my resources were very limited in Egypt (80cf tanks only) and I had decided to never make a dive with less then 10min bottom time my depth was automatically limited to about 120m (400ft).

At first I used GAP and later Z-Planner for my custom cut tables.  When I look back on those dives them seem somewhat aggressive, not by choice but by lack of experience and knowledge.  However, I can’t really recall a single time when I felt different after a dive then at the beginning of the dive. Usually, I felt even better because I had spent some time breathing O2.

Doing deep cave dives with extended bottom times requiring long horizontal distances turned out to be way different from doing them in the ocean. These circumstances often force us to do things which can have a very negative impact on our decompression, such as:

  1. Strenuous work before the dive, which includes getting to the site, setting up etc
  2. Strenuous work during the dive, meaning traveling with bigger amounts of equipment long horizontal distances as fast/efficient as possible.
  3. Possible ups and downs as our profile is dictated by the cave which can lead to bounce dives and therefore a higher risk of DCS.
  4. Extended bottom times leading to hours of in water decompression.
  5. Strenuous work post dive, which includes getting all your gear back together and leaving the dive site.

As I reported in the article Three More Trips to The Pit, I believe that our three days at The Pit and my inability to listen to myself, contributed to my accident. Our analysis of the execution of the dive didn’t reveal any of the standard causes, there was no: rapid ascent, dehydration, violation of decompression profile, or ceiling violations.   From an execution perspective, the dive went very smoothly and according plan until the first symptom manifested itself.

Therefore, I have to look for other possibilities to understand the possible cause (if there is such a thing) for my accident or at least identify the contributing factors. Looking at the three days, I believe that I have found a pattern that gradually resulted in me lying in a recompression chamber.  The pattern was driven by the 5 aforementioned points as well as by ego and commercial interests.

Our objectives for the first day were to install a system for evacuating an unconscious diver and execute a dive to Wakulla Room.  During the dive I would fine tune new equipment and bailout at depth to check RMV under realistic circumstances. It took us more time, effort, concentration, work, etc. to install the system then anticipated, therefore we called the dive. For some unexplainable reason, I felt that I lost an opportunity and was behind schedule.  I felt slightly defeated when I left The Pit.

Three days later, we returned with the goal of perfecting the system and executing the first dive of the project. AGAIN, it took way more time, effort, etc. then planned to rig the lift system, however this time I didn’t call the dive. Why? I even thought about it.

I usually tell my students during their training that if they think about calling a dive, the dive is already called and they simply have to inform their team. I didn’t call the dive because I wanted to dive, because of all the effort I had put in, because I had already “lost” one day there, because other people were there to support my dive, because I wanted to know if everything works so I could make further plans, because I have to get this done, because I need to know if my configuration is better, because, because, because a thousand different reasons of which not one has any value compared to the outcome.

Looking back it is all so obvious and clear.  However, it wasn’t back then, I thought I would be just fine. My Ego needed adjustment and it got it!

We entered the water super late; this threw my focus off target, instead of relaxing and visualizing the dive, I focused on the late start.  I did my bailout exercise and finished my dive running a VPM B algorithm which I padded by about 20 minutes divided on the last stops to account for the pre-dive work as well as the workload and higher breathing rate during my fast exit. When I surfaced felt a slight pain in my left shoulder and the right ankle which I explained by the pre-dive work (lowering the tanks with my left arm), heavy kicking on the way out swimming at 60ft a minute in full gear with bailout tanks and the probability of a very minor Type 1 DCS hit. The pain disappeared in less then 10 minutes and I had no other symptoms.

Usually at the end of the dive we rest and eat on the platform, close to the water, for at least 2 hours to give our bodies time to recover before climbing up and evacuating the gear.  However, this time we omitted the rest period because it was getting dark which would have made the drive out more difficult and increased the risk to the vehicles. So, I climbed up and helped the support diver hoist the equipment out as fast as possible.

On the way back to Playa del Carmen, I got a phone call from Alain who happily announced that he had taken the next day off to support us. “Great!” I thought.  Since we had agreed to only dive there with support, every member of our support team is a working dive instructor with very limited time, and with the high season coming in fast, I feared it would be impossible to get enough people together. Maybe that is the reason I felt so pressured to dive.

Back in Playa, we went to Protec to blend for the next day and after a lot of work I finally arrived home at 22:00h. When I cut tables for the following day, I decide to go with the more conservative VPM B/E algorithm.  I took this step to add conservatism in consideration of the pain, all the work and two days of back to back deep diving.  The change to VPM B/E gave me 40 minutes more decompression then the previous dive, Pit Revisited, which had the same profile and longer bottom time.  I considered this more then an ample amount of decompression time.

The next morning, we got out of Playa a little late.  And as Hans was setting up his gear he had an equipment failure and called his dive.  I started my dive alone and felt great.  I found the alternate line into Jills Chamber and was super excited.  The dive was going really smoothly until I experienced a strong pain in my left shoulder on the 12m (40ft) stop while moving my arms. (The hyperbaric physician stated later that excess motion could have triggered bubble formation). Within minutes, the pain pretty much disappeared and so I went through the rest of my decompression padding my stops further due to the unexplained pain.

As I ascended through the last 3m (9ft) the pain in my left shoulder returned and I got a new pain in my both my ankles, the pain was significant. As I contemplated what to do I stayed on O2 breathing from the loop.  After 10-15 minutes, I hauled myself up on the platform doffed my gear and started breathing Open Circuit O2.  I stayed on the O2 until I decided that it wasn’t changing any of my symptoms.  Once off the O2 I started to feel better and better and after 30minutes I was free of pain or any other sign or symptom of DCS.  At this point, I was a bit confused and I scanned my body rigorously for any remote signs. We left the jungle and I felt great! First, my dive was awesome.  Second, I thought I had very closely escaped a chamber ride…Boy was I wrong.

After dropping people and gear I came home and since it was late I ate something and went to bed, still without pain or any other symptom.   The next day I woke up with sore muscles in my left shoulder. Nothing unusual after challenging day in the jungle, however, given the episode I was worried and cautious. As the day passed the pain didn’t change but I had no other symptoms which drove me mad. Here is what I thought,

“If I go to the chamber and tell them the kind of diving I did, they will put me in no matter what and I will not be allowed to dive for at least 6 weeks. Given that diving is my only income and that in the past 6 years the longest brake I took was about 3 weeks that thought was unbearable. It did not help that my work calendar was filled with bookings.”

So, I decided to breathe oxygen to see if that would make any difference, which it didn’t.  Next, a friend came over, who is working a hyperbaric chamber operator, to give me a neurological exam, which came out totally ok. However, I was still very unsure what to do. After some talking, I decided to go to the chamber and see the physician. He gave me the same exam which came out clean, again.  However, as anticipated he sent me to the chamber for a table 6 treatment.

My shoulder pain didn’t change during the treatment, however my right ankle started to hurt on decent and then stopped. Five hours later I exited the chamber in the same condition I entered, except I was more tired and my lungs were burned. The next day I returned with the same issues and so I went back in for a table 5 treatment which I exited unchanged again.  After 5 treatments and no changes they switched the plan to table 9 and I did two more treatments to a total of 7. The last two days I had some relief in the shoulder in the evenings but the pain pretty much came and went and alternated between my ankle and the shoulder.

It was a very difficult time with a lot of emotional episodes. Blaming God and the world for what happened to me and questioning what went wrong over and over again with endless discussions and the opinions of every diver that crossed my path. (Some of which where helpful).

After that my treatment was suspended due to the fact that it seemed not to change anything. I was prescribed anti-inflammatory medication for two weeks and another doctor visit in two weeks. After 5 Days on medication the pain started to fade and now it is sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes strong, sometimes week. But generally it seems to fade.

I asked the question, “When can I return to diving?” And no one knows. Five different doctors give me 6 different answers ranging from 5 days after pain dissolved up to 3 months. It continues to be a difficult time, I have many questions and there is nobody there to answers them.

Summing up, I think my accident (if you can call it that way) was an accumulation of many things. I believe that the mix of hard work, repetitive long deep dives,  pre-existing injuries caused by the dive the day before and all the other stuff contributed to situation I find myself right now.  Do I regret it? Yes, of course. Will I stop this kind of diving? Of course not! But I definitely learned a lesson or 7.

Safe Diving,

I want to thank DAN and the local chamber for doing an excellent job, Hans, Alain, Matt, Steve, Nando, Etienne, Alex, Santiago, Maura, Victor, Allie, and many more for their moral support. I also want to apologize to my family and my girlfriend for putting them through this.

December 30, 2008   9 Comments

Hitting the Wall.

Advanced Cave – Stage / Multi-Stage Course with Steve Bogaerts

In October, I wrote a story about the DPV course I completed; I brazenly stated that the course was less stressful and difficult then previous courses. I felt great when I wrote that story, all that was going to change in the next two days. I had elected to do the DPV and Stage courses back to back in 5 consecutive days.

In the past, I had never made it past three days of training with Steve. By the third day I was exhausted and had absorbed all my body and brain could. On two occasions we had 4 or 5 days scheduled, and I bagged the extra days. Since I live in Mexico it was never a big deal. We would just reschedule those days in the future and Steve would enjoy his time off. Each time we ended training, I was at a natural stopping point. Any further and I would reach the point of diminishing returns.

The Stage Course was surprisingly challenging. I had done a pretty good job handling the scooter and integrating it with my diving. On Thursday, we headed to Ponderosa for some open water skills with a single stage and then the stage and the scooter. I did pretty well and executed all the required skills. I did discover that my regulators were not optimally setup and that I must have a long torso. We drilled on attaching the stage to the crotch d-ring and towing it with the scooter behind us. My 40 inch hose just wasn’t long enough. We also performed a cavern dive and drilled staging the scooter and a single bottle. I had a little trouble remembering to stop breathing the stage when we hit the scooter 1/3rds. That definitely should have been a warning. The day ended early because I was worn out.

Thursday night I had spent some time re-arranging regulators and filching my wife’s Scuba Pro MK25/S600, I needed one more turret first stage. In return she got an Apeks ATX 200. I think it was a fair trade. A little more wrangling and I ended up with two sets of left and right delivery regulators on turret first stages. I was happy with the outcome. I had wanted to find this combination for a while.

Friday dawned and I met Steve at his place. We got the DPV’s together and headed to Chac Mool. I rigged my sidemount tanks and my two stage tanks. As I started walking all this gear to the water’s edge I felt apprehensive. When I was nearly done ferrying gear to the water, I said to myself, “I can’t believe this is a two day course, I can’t imagine how anyone could do this in two days.” I was subconsciously aware that I was emotionally, physically and intellectually fatigued. In retrospect it is clear that was my gut talking and I wasn’t really listening, if I were I would have been able to prevent the coming mistakes.

The plan for Friday was to make two cavern dives and a long cave dive. The first cavern dive would drill handling one stage and the scooter. I needed to stage both and continue on. Then turn the dive and return in zero visibility and pick up them up. The drill started with us scootering. He signaled that I should drop my scooter. I staged the scooter and swam on. I believe I was still breathing the stage which was a protocol violation, however, I corrected quickly. I prepared to drop the stage. I decided to drop it at a 90degree turn in the line. I thought it would be easy to maintain orientation on my return. I dropped the stage on the wrong side of the line and continued. Steve called the dive and started the zero visibility drill. I reached the stage and immediately picked it up. I had to lift it over the line to the correct side of my body. While doing this, I actually got my body over the 90 bend and I had the line between me and the tank and in both arms. Right before I clipped the tank in, I realized the issue and corrected it. However, it wasn’t pretty and could have made things difficult if I hadn’t recognized the issue. I referenced the tie off twice more to confirm and then proceeded on. I picked up the DPV and called the drill.

In the debrief Steve pointed out some of my mistakes and how I could improve:

  1. I should have dropped the bottle on the right side of the line as I was entering. This way when I returned, I could immediately mount it on the left. I wouldn’t have to cross the line with it.
  2. When I reached the bottle, I should have picked it up and swam down the line a body length or so. This is for two reasons: A. so I wouldn’t be over the tie off and interfere with it or risk getting entangled in it like I did. B. By hovering over the tie off, I was preventing my dive buddy behind me from referencing it while I mounted the stage bottle.
  3. I need to stop breathing the stage as soon as I decided it is time to drop it or the DPV.

The second dive went better. This was my first dive with two stages and the DPV. My job was to scooter the line until I was instructed to stage. At that point I staged the scooter, and the two tanks. The drill went pretty well. We turned the dive and I picked up all my gear with visibility and we surfaced. The debrief wasn’t remarkable.

I was completely exhausted emotionally and intellectually by this time. However, I decided to go on and didn’t say anything to Steve. We ate some lunch and returned to the water. I started to put on all my tanks and I was really struggling with them. Steve could see I was stressed. I went though my pre-dive check and only gave Steve my stage turn pressures. Actually, I gave Steve the amount of gas I could use out of each stage. When I told him I was done, he asked me what my turn pressures were for my sidemount tanks. I looked the gauges and rattled off 700psi each. And this is where things really went down hill. I was over tired and worn out. I had 4 tanks with 4 different starting pressures. And I was using 2 different amounts out of each set of tanks. I only said and processed how much I could use out of each tank. I decided I could remember the starting pressures. I never processed the turn pressure. I didn’t write anything down and Steve allowed me to start the dive. I was already a train wreck. Some lessons are best taught by a big blunder.

We started to scooter up stream. I was only supposed to breathe 1/6 from of my stages and burn the scooter for 20 minutes. Within 15 minutes I had already over breathed my first stage by a couple of hundred PSI, to be honest I am not sure how much I over breathed it. Steve knew there was a problem, he knows my SAC rate and he knew how much gas I had. He let me continue the dive. When I realized I had overshot the mark, I switched to my second stage. I figured I could recover by breathing the second stage short. However, I wasn’t sure how much I should short it and a seed of uncertainty and doubt started to creep in. I wasn’t sure of my gas situation. I knew I had plenty of gas with nearly full sidemount tanks. But I wasn’t rock solid sure. I staged my tank and continued scootering.

Within 5-6 minutes, I hit 20 minutes on the scooter. It was time to stage the scooter and then the second stage tank. I dropped both and placed a cookie on the line at an arrow pointing into the cave confirming my exit. We started to swim up stream on the sidemount tanks. Like a complete moron, I didn’t check my starting pressures for the sidemount tanks and so I had no idea when to turn! The further I swam, the more intense the sense of impending doom grew! Finally, after 20 minutes I had had enough and I called the dive. I was sufficiently freaked out about my uncertainty around my gas volumes. I was in 50ft of water and 2800ft from the entrance. We swam for 5 minutes or less and Steve called lights out. I got on the line and extinguished my light.

At this point the anxiety grew big ugly horns and was breathing fire! I felt doomed. I know the reality is that I had enough gas in my cylinders to get back, however we had departed from reality and had entered the realm of guessing and uncertainty. The longer we swam in the dark the worse the feeling got. I started to slowly unwind in the dark, but I still made good progress.

When I finally reached my stage bottle an overwhelming sense of relief flooded me. It is like popping out of a nasty silty restriction back into clear water, I felt like I could make it home. I struggled to clip the stage on in the dark on the line. I had chosen a really ugly spot to drop the bottle. I finally got it on and we proceed. I decided to breathe from the stage. I reckoned that I could breathe the tank dry and ditch it if I needed. That would provide some reference as to how far I had traveled and give me some definitely information about my gas volumes.

Five minutes later, I think, we came to the scooter, mind you this is all in the dark, and I clipped the scooter to my crotch D-ring and started to make headway. I held the scooter out in front of me and dropped in to a nice steady pace. I came upon my cookie and started to remove it from the line. Half way through the process, I decided to leave it. I thought, if I get turned around in the dark, this cookie will point me to the right way out.

After what seemed like an interminably long time, we reached my first dropped stage. I really struggled putting it back on. Two stages and a scooter in the dark on the line were tremendously difficult for me. I am not sure if it was the rigging or all the gear. I nearly lost the line a couple of times and I definitely stressed the line. Finally, I got sorted and started swimming.

I think this a good time to talk about the dark, real dark. The kind you find 2000 feet back in a cave. It is the loneliest and most baffling experience I have ever been through. In the dark time seems to follow a completely different pace. If you eyes are open your brain starts filling in the gaps to try and stay sane. It is hard to keep it focused, there is no reference. To be honest, I have no idea how long any of the stuff I am describing took. All I knew was that I had to keep hacking at it and make progress. This dive was the longest I had been in the dark to date and it seemed like a long time.

Imagine me lumbering down the line with all this gear. I didn’t know the cave very well and I had no idea where I was or how far I had traveled. After some time, my scooter got stuck in the wall. I thought it was strange. I could feel the wall on my right shoulder. I was holding the line with my left hand. I pulled the scooter back towards me and away from the way. It was pretty stuck. The line was in my palm with no real pressure. I started to struggle with the scooter. I finally yanked on it and it came free. I decided to change the line from left to right hand and swap the scooter. I put my right hand under my left and I cupped the line. The scooter was floating free. I left go of the line with my left and the line pulled through my right hand and disappeared. I gasp deeply. Fuck! I am off the line, in the dark, with 2 stages and a scooter in a cave I don’t really know. This is really bad!

Steve had felt the line being pulled up behind him and turned around. He saw my gauges on the ceiling of the cave. He told me he knew something bad was about to happen. He heard my gasp and then the line went slack in his hand returning to its normal position. He saw I was off the line and could hear my breathing had quickened. He thought about the fact that I was in a large bore cave with a DPV, lots of gear, 2000ft from the entrance, in 50ft of water and lost off the line. He feared I might trigger the scooter in my struggle and really make things worse. This had the makings of a bad situation. He expected me to turn on my lights and call the drill.

I quickly thought about the situation and blindly swept my arms below me looking for the line. I didn’t find it. I considered turning on my lights and then decided that in real life I wouldn’t have that option. I had to stay with it. I was momentarily overcome with fear.

I regained a little composure, thought again and decided the line had to be below me. I hadn’t felt any tension before it snapped free. I put my right hand on the wall, stretched my arms out and descended. I figured I would land on the line. A few moments later, I found the line. I hovered motionless with it in my hand feeling relieved. I spent some time breathing. I needed to get that under control. I regained composure and I was relieved I had found the line. The thought of a lost line search with a DPV was no fun.

I swam up the line and met Steve. We continued in the dark for a short time and then turned the lighting on. He signaled his DPV was broken and I towed him to the entrance.

On the surface we debriefed the dive. It was an intense experience. I had hit the wall in so many ways. I discovered that I can’t track 4 different tank volumes and turn pressures in my head. I also learned that I need to call dives earlier, especially on the surface if I am in over my head, which I was. In the end, I didn’t pass the course. I was sent away with instructions to practice with one stage and a scooter or two stages and no scooter. I was unable to safely conduct a multi-stage DPV cave dive. Whether it was because I was over tired or too task loaded, I made some bad decisions on the surface and really suffered during the dive.

I don’t believe I was ever in mortal danger on the dive. I do believe that I learned a huge amount about myself and my capabilities. Since the DPV course I have gotten an N-19. I have been hesitating to use it. The multi-stage portion of the course really made me trigger shy. I had sunk into some sort of compliancy around gas management and the course really rattled me. I have been much more diligent with my gas management, including writing down my turn pressures. Lately, I have been using a single stage regularly and I find it useful to process the turn pressures by writing them down and saying them. I have also incorporated a 5 minute meditation on the surface before starting the dive. I completely kit up including pre-dive check. Then I float on the surface for 5 minutes taking deep breathes. The idea is to center myself and visualize the dive. I want to lower my heart rate and dissipate the anxiety that is built up as I struggle to kit up.

I think I am going to schedule another day with Steve in January or February 2009 to finish the course. Hopefully, by then I will have a handful of single stage DPV cave dives under my belt. I already have a handful of single stage cave dives and they are becoming easier to execute.

December 23, 2008   6 Comments

A Tattoo, A DPV and Another Way to Waste Your Employeer’s Time.

It is good to be back in Mexico!  I went back to the states for a week and let me tell you, it was cold cold cold.  I was wearing a hat and a winter jacket; My friends thought I was crazy.  I have to admit, my blood has gotten very thin living in Paradise.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do any diving while I was in the states, however, I did bring back some gear which was sorely needed for us to continue our deep work.   The list of new gear includes new climbing pulleys from Petzl for the lift system, a bunch of caribeaners, tank bands, regulators, hose retainers, mouth pieces and some valves.  I am feeling well stocked now.  I also finished my back tattoo. hans-back-tattoo.jpg

On Friday, I visited my friend Jay at Electric Lotus Tattoo in Boonton, New Jersey and sat for two hours.  This was the easiest sitting yet.  The first two sittings were absolute torture.   Both sittings I was in a terrible spiritual place and exhausted when I arrived.  This time, I was spiritually centered, well feed and relaxed.  I was ready. I only got out of the chair once, about 20 minutes in to look at the first new color in more then a year. From that point on, I just sat there, ate Good & Plenty candy and drank a Coke.  I am super stoked about the art and I am glad I kept my head in the game and finished it.  There were times when I was sure I wasn’t ever going to go back and finish it.

Now on to the DPV portion of the story. After many discussions with Steve Bogaerts and Patrick, I elected to purchase a Silent Submersion N19 DPV. In the end I selected it because it was near my price range, though very expensive, and it was a known quantity. Plus, I hadn’t seen the Tahoe DPV (Scooter) Benchmarks which placed the Cuda as the pack leader for a small technical scooter.  I am still happy with my purchase, although it hasn’t been in the water.  I will have to wait a week for my back to heal before I can get wet.  The suspense is killing me. n19-closed.jpg

And now for a good way to waste some of your Employeer’s time, not that you aren’t right now.  David from Cancun turned me on to the Ejido Jacinto Pat Documentation web site this morning.  He wrote,

If want to see more photos and videos of Nicolai and Gang check this “old site”

There are some interesting dive reports about Nahoch Na Chich and Dos Ojos check it out and let me know what you think!

I hope to get back to diving the first part of next week.    In the mean time, we have an article coming from Patrick about his DCS and another article about me not passing my multi-stage course.

November 12, 2008   1 Comment

Three More Trips to The Pit

Learning to lift an unconscious diver, confirming an alternate route to Jill’s Chamber and a DCS incident.

After a long brake it was time to go back.  This time we started different; with the success of the previous dives in mind we decided to go full scale this time. The main idea was to make the whole project as safe as possible. We quickly understood that being just the two of us would not cut it anymore. Analyzing scenarios including an unconscious diver, a growing number of tanks, and increasingly complex logistics led us to the fact that we would need more support, at least two more divers.

The search was difficult because we were looking for people who like to spend their days off carrying numerous tanks, being eaten by mosquito’s, spending hours out of the water just waiting to later jump in and shuttle tanks around. They also need to understand their role in the team and why we can’t have them fun dive or risk anything even remotely dangerous.  Plus, the idea of trusting your life with somebody else is quiet disturbing. With Hans continually supporting deeper and deeper we needed somebody to fill his spot and somebody out of the water. After many discussions, Hans and I finally called Alain Pocobelli and Etienne Rousseau.  After we explained the criteria for participation they were super stoked and happy to join…awesome.

We all met at Pro Tec for our first meeting.  We discussed protocols, procedures, and set some goals. Specifically, we developed an idea to build a system to lift an unconscious diver from the water up to the trucks, an emergency and evacuation plan, and the parameters for 5 progressive dives the last of which would be a push dive to the end of the line in the Next Generation Tunnel.  We also agreed to document our experiences, procedures and protocols in a manual.  The manual would be used to educate new team members, in the event of an emergency as well as guide our decisions.

The plan for the first day was to setup the unconscious diver system and dive to the Wakulla Room supported by Alain and Etienne. For the support divers, it would be their first opportunity to learn the descent lines and the start of the main line.  For Hans, it would be his first deep mixed gas cave dive.  I would use the opportunity to execute a practice bailout at 300ft while swimming a horizontal distance through the bypass; the primary objective was to confirm my numbers.

As with all complex plans it was bound to change. Constructing a system for lifting a 235lbs (106kilo) diver with equipment 20ft (6m) from the surface of the water and then swinging him on to a platform was more difficult then anticipated. We wanted the system to be simple enough that a single person could operate it in high stress conditions. With limited climbing gear and other resources it seemed almost impossible. Through trial and error it took us some 5 hours to construct and test a nearly working system.  I write, “Nearly” because it still required two people to operate.

After the enormous effort, Hans and I called our dive.  We were exhausted, stressed and it was late in the afternoon.   With the roles reversed, Hans and I played support and cleaned up while Alain and Etienne made a reconnaissance dive.

That evening, I left with a slight feeling of defeat.   It was the first time I went through the effort of blending, putting everything together, waking up early, paying the entrance fee and then not diving.

Three days later I was back at The Pit with a similar plan, this time with Hans and Chris.  Chris is a professional Cave Rescue Expert from Poland. He and I had been diving the week before and when I heard of his profession, I knew I had to get him out there and learn from him.  He quickly came up with 3 different lift systems. Unbelievable!  To our relief, he thought our system wasn’t bad at all; we were just missing one critical improvement that would facilitate single person operation and swinging the body onto the platform.

Unfortunately, rigging and testing took a lot of time and required considerable heavy lifting.  Just like the day before, we finished setting up late.  As I prepared for our dive, I contemplated calling the dive; however I wasn’t able to leave The Pit again without trying my suit inflation system, my new helmet and the bailout plan. Mistake #1.

It is funny how we can feel pressure where there is none. As we prepared for the dive we were feeling time pressure; therefore we decided to shorten the bottom time. Without my normal pre-dive meditation we hurried into the dive. I laid line and Hans staged his intermediate mix.

Cruising through the bacteria cloud at 190ft (57m) I was super happy to finally be back. At the T before the Bypass Hans and I split, he swam through the Bypass at 281ft (85m) and I took the deeper “Main Tunnel” at 305ft (93m). Surprisingly, it is quiet narrow and more difficult to pass.  Two minutes later we met at the second T where the lines join again; it was time to turn the dive and start the bailout drill.

I signaled Hans and bailed out. I chose a bailout gas with a deeper END than I normally use to make it more difficult and more realistic.  To add to the realism, we planned to exit the cave with haste to simulate the highest possible gas consumption due to stress or CO2 poisoning.  For precaution, Hans closely monitored me ready to donate a shallower END bailout gas or I could go back on the loop in the event the Inert Gas Narcosis was too strong.

The first three breathes brought on the strong narcotic effect and it became difficult to focus on my objectives. Complicating the situation was the fact that my weighting in saltwater was neutral with my wing totally deflated. So being off the loop with gas remaining in the counter lungs made buoyancy management more challenging.

Imagine me swimming at full speed while squeezing through the Bypass, switching the set point down to avoid O2 injection, opening the OPV and rolling to get as much gas out of the loop as possible and I was becoming positive, all under the effect of Inert Gas Narcosis…what a blast. I am happy I couldn’t see myself.

By the time I arrived at the turn at 213ft (65m) I had regained composure and everything went “pretty” smoothly from there.

The main goal of simulating a realistic bailout scenario at depth was absolutely accomplished, I learned A LOT.  The old saying: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” confirmed itself once more, thanks Steve. I use this line like a thousand times per course, maybe I should listen to myself once in a while.

After the dive, we truncated our normal 2 hour break because it was getting dark. As I climbed out to hoist and load the tanks, I felt a slight pain in my left shoulder and right ankle; it subsided quickly.  However, it was definitely an indication we worked too hard before and during the dive and that we needed more conservatism.

As we loaded the truck, I got a phone call from Alain who had taken off the next day to join us at The Pit. Since support was available and we agreed to not do anymore push dives without support, we felt obliged to dive.  We agreed to dive the next day, mistake #2.

Again, it is funny how we feel pressure where there is none.
We didn’t anticipate that our desire to increase safety by having more support onsite would pressure us into something we knew from the beginning was a bad idea?!?

After blending and prepping the rebreathers, I arrived home at about 2200h. I ate, hydrated and went to bed. The next day we started even earlier to hedge against time pressure. However, we left Playa late because we had to reassemble the CCRs, analyze gases and leak check everything in the pool. Once on site we reinstalled the evacuation system and instructed Alain on the improved version.

For a second day in a row, I was late into the water due to Hans calling his dive because of technical difficulties with his Meg and Alain bruising his leg when he slipped and trapped it between the platform and the rock wall.  Calling the dive crossed my mind, however everything was in place and I felt confident it was safe.  Once the dive started, I was slower then normal as I had to swim all my tanks and stage them.  Mistake #3.

My goal was to explore the other passage into Jill’s Chamber and see if it would be easier to navigate with a scooter then the horrible chimney I passed last time. I hoped to find the origin of the line that was paralleling the main line through Jill’s Chamber into the Next Generation Tunnel. To add conservatism, I selected the VPM B/E algorithm.  I wanted to accommodate for the back-to-back days of deep diving, the strenuous pre-dive work and as a response to the way I felt the day before.

I arrived at the end of Wakulla Room only a minute slower then planned, even though I had to stage all my tanks.  As I swam through the BMB, I started to get a little nervous again, anxious to see the size of the restriction.  Before the T, I crossed sides to get a peak up the restriction. Fortunately, it was a little bigger and did not ascend vertically like the chimney.  It’s slope was more manageable as it ascended to 328ft (100m), instead of 314ft (96m).  There it led to a canyon depicted cave, which headed towards Jill’s Chamber.

After a short distance there is another T. Well actually it is a Jump that is “T”ed into the main line. The main line ends about two body lengths after. So I took the T to the left and further ascended into an even narrower canyon, which further ascends towards Jill’s Chamber.

I was stoked because I was nearly 100% sure that I had found the origin of the paralleling line and passed the chimney. About 1 minute later I was in Jill’s chamber and it was confirmed. It is pretty hard for me to explain my emotions; I felt unbelievably awesome! I think it took me like 30sec to gain control over my euphoria. I was 20min into the dive and I had fulfilled my objectives; it was time to turn.

The way out was relaxed since I did not have to pass upside down through a tight restriction. My decompression obligation was substantial due to the more conservative VPM B/E algorithm. I stopped at every waypoint to keep track of exit times, picked up the tanks and did a couple of short deco stops in between the levels.  Forty-five minutes into the dive I could see the open water in the distance and my Time to Surface was about 160min.

At 131ft (40m) Alain greeted me, took my tanks and left me with one 80cf.  I swam around the huge dome to stay warm and to help the time pass a little bit faster. Even though I was warmer then past dives, I decided that this would be my last long dive at The Pit without a habitat.

When I arrived at 40ft (12m) the dive had been going perfectly and I was very happy.  I swam around and moved my upper body a little bit to warm up and increase blood flow. Suddenly, I felt an unbelievably sharp pain in my left shoulder. At first I was shocked but I was hopeful because I still had almost 2 hours of deco ahead. The pain faded about 15 minutes later; however, I decided to extend all the remaining stops.

When I arrived at 20ft (6m) I extend my 65min stop to 75min. The pain was almost completely gone and I started to surface. At 10ft (3m) I added a stop even though the urge to surface after 4h almost drove me crazy. After 5 min I started a super slow final ascent. Almost immediately upon surfacing the pain in my shoulder returned at full intensity accompanied by pain in both ankles.

I stayed in the water on the loop breathing O2 for 20min contemplating what I should do.  Should I get out of the water or go back down?  Eventually, I decided against going back down because of my body temperature, general physical state and a 100%+ CNS clock.

As soon as I surfaced and didn’t come off the loop, Hans was nearby with an 80cf of O2.  When I decided to exit the water, he helped me strip my gear and I pulled myself up onto the wooden platform. I lay there breathing open circuit O2, hydrating and scanning my body for neurological symptoms. After 30min the intensity of the pain hadn’t changed. I decided it was time to evacuate. I climbed up to the trucks and sat down for a moment.   The pain disappeared and the general fatigue vanished.  Coming off the long period of high PO2 it seemed plausible, but I didn’t trust the situation since something felt strange.

As we left The Pit, I continued to scan myself for pain or neurological symptoms related to DCS. I felt great and honestly a bit relieved. The entire drive back I tried to figure out what happened.  I wanted an explanation for the weird sensations I had at 40ft (12m), on my final ascent and shortly after the dive. Why did I feel that way and what can I do different next time?  Arriving home I felt unchanged: no pain, no extreme fatigue, and no other symptoms. A long day had passed and I was happy to be home and ready for dinner and bed.

I am really happy about our progress and our understanding of the cave.  I am also happy that our team is growing and we are taking a more conservative approach to diving and the project’s logistics.  The project is remains very exciting and we are learning so much from each dive.

Looking back it is easy to identify many of the mistakes.  Many of you will ask why I made them? I can only answer that I am human, this is a learning experience and mistakes are inevitable.  Sometimes the cost for a mistake is small, sometimes it is huge.  Life it seems is a hard teacher, many times you get the test first and the lesson later. There was a time when I read articles like this and said: “Ha, I would never make mistakes like that.” But this was also a time when I didn’t do dives like this.

I want to thank Chris for his invaluable input on our rescue system, Alain and Etienne for supporting us and joining the team and Hans for letting me post on his blog.

Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, I suffered a DCS incident.  I am going to follow this story up with another about the DCS.

This is my story about the Pit and it is to be continued.

Edited By Hans

November 5, 2008   7 Comments

The Most Beautiful Cave Dive? Tux Kubaxa

On our ride back from Mayan Blue, Alain and I were trying to figure out where to do our next cave dive.  Finally it struck me, call Alessandro and ask him if he wanted to dive ‘the cave past Chemuyil’.  Alain called and Alessandro accepted our invitation and told us the name, Tux Kubaxa.

For a couple of months I have been hearing about this amazing cave system out past Chemuyil.  It seemed mythical in description.  It was rumored that Robbie from Xibalba had never seen a more beautiful system.  Fortunately, almost no one had been to it and there was no hard information about it.

Monday rolled around and Alain and I headed south to meet Alessandro.  All three of us would be diving sidemount so we needed to pick up a truck load of tanks, 12 in all. I am never happy when I have to drive that many tanks around.  However, I figured it would be worth it.


We picked up Alessandro and headed out into the jungle.  The two lane road turned into a one lane road.  Eventually that one lane road turned into double track.  Then we passed a small village and the one lane turned into a rocky car wide path through the jungle.  The path was rough going and I dragged the bottom of the 4Runner a couple of times.

After 30 minutes of driving through the jungle and passing at least one promising Cenote we reached the end of the drivable road and a clearing.  The clearing was 50M from Three Stars Cenote.  Alessandro had dived there before and according to the maps it is connected to Tux Kubaxa.  The walk from the car to Tux Kubaxa took about 10 minutes over an uneven horse path.  Arriving at the Cenote we found a palapa and a deck.  I really got the sense of being isolated out there and I didn’t want to get injured.

The Cenote is a beautiful offset sink.  The bottom was sandy and the water was clear.  The main line stretched out into open water.  It is a wonderfully beautiful place in the jungle.  We had been blessed with a north wind for the last couple of days, which meant there were no mosquitoes.


None of us had previously dived this Cenote, however we had a stick map.  With great anticipation we planned a dive down the main line to another Cenote.  We didn’t have the scale on the stick map so we weren’t sure how long it would take.  We kitted up and started the dive.  We reached our destination after 40 minutes.  This Cenote was a big air dome with two person sized shafts.  One of the shafts had a rope ladder in it; the other just roots.  It is very similar to Nohoch Na Chich main entrance.

The main line cave is very white, with no halocline and a max depth of 41ft.  We passed 8 marked jumps and 1 T.  All the jumps were in 29-30ft of water.  There was an abundance of decoration with some impressively large ones. The cave is breathtakingly beautiful and in pristine condition.

The dive is a good candidate for backmount and a scooter.  Hopefully you have access to a light weight scooter.  The return swim was uneventful, except for the fact that we were swimming into the current and it took us an extra 8 minutes to get back.  Living in Mexico, sometimes I forget what it is like to swim into molasses.


Satisfied with our first dive, we surfaced and recalculated thirds.  We wanted to quickly check the first marked jump.  Our idea was to do a short recon dive up the branch line and install a cookie for the traverse from Three Stars.  We dropped back down and made the jump.  Almost immediately we were met with a sidemount restriction. I was excited after more then an hour in power passage.  We squeezed through and then we were immediately met with two more nice restrictions.  One of which was a real belly dragger.    After 12 minutes we reached some reasonable sized cave and I called the dive.  We only had 400psi to penetrate with and I felt like we had gone far enough.  I was going to be last one out and the thought of being the third man through three nice silty restrictions made me wince.  Sometimes I am plagued with the idea that my dive buddy is going to cork me in.  When in all likely hood if I can fit through he can as well.  It seems everyone I dive with is smaller then me.  We exited with smiles on our face. It was a nice treat to end the day with.

We planned for two full dives, but it was 3:30 when we surfaced.  I told the team I was done and they could go for another if they like.  Everyone agreed it was late and we should get out of the jungle. No one liked the idea of breaking down and driving out in the dark.  I think we were all impressed with the cave.  The second short dive really sealed the deal for us.  If you are interested in diving Tux Kubaxa, I highly recommend you get a guide.  It is a long ways out into the jungle and access can be challenging.  If you drop me an email, I can hook you up with the right guide.

There is a lot of cave out there in the jungle and I look forward to going back.  The drive home was uneventful, except for the goat herding.  It is amazing the wildlife we find in the jungle.  I love living in Mexico!

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I guess I should tell you a little about the cast of characters.  Alain Pocobelli is a friend and part of our deep diving team.  He is an instructor and is qualified to teach up to Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures.  Alain has joined us on 2 or 3 trips to The Pit and was essential in helping us rig our unconscious diver lift system.  Currently, Alain is working independently and for Yucatek Divers in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Alessandro Reato is also a friend and a dive instructor.  He is qualified to teach up to Intro to Cave Diving.  You can find his website cave diving and scuba instruction website, Il Filo di Arianna.

October 31, 2008   2 Comments