An Underground Perspective on GUE’s Cave Curriculum
It’s difficult to objectively compare and contrast technical courses from different training agencies, and many agencies are less than enthused about the prospect. So when I learned that NSS-CDS cave instructor and training council member, Chris Brock had completed GUE’s cave curriculum, I was eager to get his perspective. On the record of course!
by Michael Menduno
It’s difficult to objectively compare and contrast technical diving courses from different training agencies, and the agencies themselves rarely encourage the juxtaposition. Each has its own particular philosophical bent, focus, and of course, what the organization deems its secret sauce, which can be hard to quantify. As a result, thoughtful, informed perspectives are hard to come by, though they can be illuminating when you’re trying to grok the depth and breadth of our tech community’s education ecosystem.
Needless to say, I was excited to learn that my former cave instructor, National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section (NSS CDS) instructor Chris Brock, had taken GUE’s Cave 1 and Cave 2 courses—the equivalent to the CDS Cave Diver course with decompression procedures and its Stage Cave Diver course. Note that Brock is also a member of the CDS Training Council and an Instructor Sponsor. Accordingly, I reached out to him, hoping to query him on the record, of course, about his experience.
The circumstances of the 52-year-old cave instructor’s participation in GUE classes were somewhat unique. Brock had agreed to assist his friend and fellow cave diver Meredith “Mer” Tanguay, who was completing her GUE Cave 2 Instructor Exam with Instructor Examiner (IE) Daniel Riordan in late 2020, in the midst of the global pandemic.
Tanguay presciently acted to “bulletproof” her IE class—Mer managing Mr. Murphy—by making sure she had qualified ‘students’ at hand in case there was a dropout. Brock had previously completed Cave 1 under Tanguay’s tutelage in preparation for that eventuality, so when she received a cancellation a week before Cave 2, he was ready to go. What a guy!
I should note that Tanguay, principal of Wet Rocks Diving, is one of GUE’s ardent, hard working recreational, technical, and cave diving instructors, a Fundamentals Instructor Trainer (IT), and an IE for Rec 1 & 2. She has been diving with GUE for 18 years. She was the first female to successfully complete her GUE’s Cave 1 and Cave 2 instructor rating, and is currently the only one teaching both GUE Tech and Cave, and GUE’s only female Cave 2 instructor, which until now had long been the sole province of the boys.
As luck would have it, I was able to connect with Brock, a former public school teacher who is also a TDI, IANTD and PADI tech and cave instructor, to ask him about his experience with the GUE cave curriculum. Here’s what the man had to say.
Let me ask, if you had to pick one word or phrase to describe your experience taking Cave 1 & 2, what would it be?
Chris Brock: Procedural! Everything you do in GUE has a set procedure. For me, having been away from GUE for 10 years when I took my “Fundies” class, it was hard at first to be procedural when I have so much muscle memory from just doing the dives all these years without thinking about it. It was difficult for me. It was very procedural and I had to slow down.
Danny had a memorable piece of advice for me. He said, “You just have to slow down because your mind is thinking so fast about it and the way you do it. You have to just take it step by step and slow back down.” So, my takeaway at this point is that it was ‘highly procedural.’
Ha! GUE IE Guy Shockey, describes the work of GUE courses is teaching divers “how to do simple things precisely.” What did you like most about the courses?
What I liked most about the course was seeing different ways of teaching the same concepts that I teach. I found a lot of value in how GUE does gas switches. I plan to do that from now on and incorporate it into my teaching.
Now, will I encourage my students to dive in a Hogarthian configuration? I don’t know that I can do that fully, but I think we can incorporate Hogarthian principles into every configuration, even if they choose to use a chest strap and things like that. I think there is simplicity there as well as some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up from Danny and Meredith that will be helpful to students.
Danny also addressed some of the things that I’ve seen as a weakness to it, to the Hogarthian configuration. He showed me a lot of little tricks that I had not seen before that I will also incorporate. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m going to try to add into my courses as well.
What did you like least about the courses?
I told Meredith and Danny this too: I think the strategy of GUE from what I saw over the two weeks of class, is a whole lot of push, push, push, push procedure. And they push the intensity level so high that some divers don’t have time to assimilate it and let it sink in before the instructors push students further.
I think you should push a diver only so far, let them relax for a little bit and understand what they’re doing, then push them again. And in that sense, I don’t think there’s enough time for assimilation because there was constant intensity on all 10 dives. There was a push on all of it. So that’s one thing I did not like.
The second thing I did not like was that in some ways I found it too procedural to where they were stressing valves, stressing lights, stressing and breaking everything rather than teaching these people how to cave dive. [Ed. Note: GUE tech and cave classes focus heavily on scenario i.e. failure-based training.]
Teach me proper technique in this type of tunnel, so that I can transfer that learning on how to do it in that tunnel over there. Or teach me proper technique for diving in flow, so I can transfer it to how to dive in a high flow tunnel, that sort of thing.
There wasn’t enough of that modeling, in my opinion. There wasn’t enough of that kind of modeling from the instructor showing me how to cave dive. I mean the instructor would correct things. She would say, “Your frog kick needs work or has some weaknesses in it.” But sometimes, and I do this—I did it in your class—I’ll say, I want you to follow me and do what I do. I think instructors should do that. Those were the two things I mentioned in my debrief with Meredith and Danny. I told them that that’s not what I would choose to do.
Ah yes, I remember. You had me do that at the mud tunnel at Ginnie Springs, “Follow me and do exactly as I do.” I was going to ask you about that because it really struck me when I worked with you and Reggie [Former NSS-CDS training director Reggie Ross, who passed away in 2019] that your course focused on the cave, the cave environment, and dealing with the cave.
GUE tech courses are typically scenario-based. I was curious about what your take was on that. I talked to Meredith and she told me that GUE’s focus is 50% on the cave and 50% on what one would call problem-solving. So, you’re saying that it seemed to you it was less on the cave and more on problem solving.
From my point of view, yes. They told us, “The first half of the dive is yours, the second half of the dive is ours,” and they offered some coaching, and modeled and tried to correct our technique. The problem with it was this: Everybody knows—or learns quickly by living through the first few dives—[that] it’s hard to relax during the first half of the course. In the first three and a half or four days of the six-day course, you’re not enjoying those dives. Because it’s all about breaking you down and stressing you out.
I understand why Meredith says 50-50. Because they do coach on that 50% in. But there was never that time, and maybe it’s because I was there, that she didn’t have to do as much modeling. She could always put me in front, and there you have it. And she could stay out of the team by doing that. Yeah, that’s just my feeling on it; we did have a conversation about it. I think there should be more teaching cave diving techniques and not just breaking every valve under the sun.
Right. You mentioned that you thought there should be a bit more time for students to absorb the lessons between high stress periods. And you have a unique perspective because you are already a cave instructor. But let me ask, do you think that the focus on problem solving—that is, dealing with continual multiple failures—helps students build confidence and capacity?
That’s a tough one to answer. The answer is yes and no. I think that managing these situations within the team and getting everyone out safely definitely ups the student’s capacity. Where I think it’s a no is that sometimes a set procedure of doing things is not necessarily the only or even—in my opinion—the best way of dealing with certain failures. But it does focus problems back on the team rather than on the individual and the prescribed procedure for dealing with them.
I do find the whole thing very interesting and very challenging for those making the standards for GUE education. I mean writing procedures that can easily be utilized across all types of diving is a challenging undertaking.
You raised a topic I was going to ask you about, the team. Obviously GUE is known for its team focus versus focus on individual diver. Was that different? How did that come through in the class and how does that compare with CDS training? Did you find more focus on the team in this course than you would in a CDS class?
Yes, there was much more emphasis on the team because in a CDS course we can teach a single diver and we put ourselves as the dive buddy with them. After going through this process I do believe having that second teammate is very important. Learning how to work together as a team is sometimes more difficult than learning to cave dive.
“After going through this process I do believe having that second teammate is very important. Learning how to work together as a team is sometimes more difficult than learning to cave dive.”
Ha! Like a lot of things, it’s a learned skill, or at least can be improved with training.
Exactly! In the GUE course, you’ve got to have at least two student divers. Now, in both of these courses we were teams of three. It was interesting, on the first course (Cave 1) we had one guy that had a difficult time fitting in with the team. That’s not to say he was a bad person or anything like that. His personality was just different than the others and it was a difficult mix. The differences in how we looked at things did create some friction in the course as all of us had strong opinions. It was interesting.
In the second course (C2), I was paired with a husband and wife and they were fantastic. Just fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed being teammates with them and we worked well together. Not to say there wasn’t friction on occasion, but never anything where you felt like the team was fragmenting. I enjoyed that piece of it quite a lot.
Because you learned something?
I actually enjoyed it a lot because for me, it was a different way of thinking about stuff. I’m so used to doing most of these things on my own with one or two students. It forced me to be more conscientious of others around me and I had to make some changes in how I communicated. Having worked with Reggie, I am used to very direct communication. And I had to temper that on occasion with certain teammates because they did not respond well to that. So, I had to adapt.
That was helpful. Meredith would actually tell me, “Chris, you’re a little too direct; you’re being a little too direct underwater.” And I said, “Well Meredith, they’re doing X, Y, and Z.” And she said, “I know they are. I know they’re making mistakes. But you need to realize that these aren’t people that have done 1000 cave dives. You are raising their stress level with the way you are communicating.”
So, I said, “You know what? You’re right. I need to work on this.” And so, I enjoyed that piece of it. In the CDS, we rarely teach teams of two and three, so it was good to participate in that.
I know that you did the classwork on Zoom beforehand and then got together for the diving. I have two questions here. First, I am guessing that with the pandemic still raging, more and more instructors from all agencies are conducting Zoom classes these days. How did you find that?
Second, I’d be interested to get your take on the knowledge content, how it compared to a CDS or TDI cave course. Did you feel it was complete and well presented, that kind of thing?
I think Meredith does a fantastic job. She has gone to great lengths and spent countless hours putting her courses into an online learning environment. She has put a lot of time into lecturing online, presenting PowerPoints online, and providing supplemental resources online, and I found that very, very helpful.
We were running at eight in the morning until around seven at night, every night. And if you were to throw another hour and a half lecture on that, it would’ve been impossible. I have been using the TDI online course for my students, and I do like it. However, it is a supplement to my own lectures. The difference being that currently most of my presentations are done in person.
I worked through the TDI online full cave module a few years ago as part of my research for a story. It’s very different from a live lecture over Zoom.
Yes, Meredith does active instruction because there is no packaged online course module for Cave One or Two. So, it’s active lectures and she answers questions and it was very helpful. I learned some things. There are also some videos that I want to use, and I plan to incorporate GUE.tv in my own courses. So, I found it very helpful. I think the way that she is approaching online learning is the wave of the future and I think a lot more instructors should incorporate that into their teaching.
No doubt, things are going to remain crazy for a while, so this is a good impetus for instructors to think about online learning. I know many GUE instructors have gone that route.
Here’s what it does. As a student you get this very high level of instruction ahead of the course, and then you then have the opportunity to review that material as you’re getting closer to the course. You have an opportunity within the course to go dive and experience it, and there’s the opportunity to have much deeper conversations than you normally would because now you’ve experienced it three times before you ever really get into it. So, you’re already at a state of being able to formulate really relevant questions at the conceptual level versus just rote knowledge.
I like what she’s doing with this. She’s raising the bar on getting the content across. It’s very good, it’s very good.
The class you took was Meredith’s Instructor Examination (IE) to become a Cave 2 instructor. I know you have participated in CDS Instructor Institutes. Talk to me from an IE perspective. How did the instructor examination come across? How did it compare to CDS’ instructor development process?
It was completely different. In the CDS, we can do our IEs in several different ways. Yes, if a candidate has a group of students, then we can just observe them teaching their students and that can be their IE. So, we can do that. But most of the time, candidates come to us. They do classroom presentations for us, they do land drills for us, they do in-water work for us. So we see all of that as instructor evaluators.
In this case, Meredith had to take care of all of the details and she was being evaluated on everything: from logistics and pacing of the course, dealing with events that happened within the dive, the debrief, corrections that she would have to make in the dive regarding safety, or whatever. We had a couple of instances, two that I can think of. One student had had an ear problem on a dive and then we had a problem with a student that just wasn’t feeling it and he thumbed the dive early. Danny was of course evaluating everything.
It was completely comprehensive. I mean the whole thing was being looked at. That’s a lot different than what we do at the CDS. Meredith was really put through the ringer, without a doubt.
All of my GUE instructor friends, most of whom have other agency certs as well, tell me that GUE sets a very high bar for their instructors: it’s hard to become one, they have to do a partial requalification annually, and a full requalification every four years.
They do. Meredith had to do her requalification too. She had to do the swims and climb stairs wearing her doubles. The whole enchilada.
So from an instructor’s perspective, how would you compare and contrast GUE’s overall approach versus the CDS’s?
If you get a good instructor, a good, tough instructor in any agency, you can get a good cave class. But if you get a burned-out instructor, in any agency, you can get a bad cave class.
What I saw was certainly the cream of GUE rising to the top. I saw Meredith’s best work; her preparedness was point-on because of what she was going through. And I’ve been around her in other situations where she’s teaching and she does set the bar at a very high level for cave instruction. I’m very impressed with her. Very impressed.
I would say GUE’s courses are well suited to people that are very motivated, high-level achievers who love that team camaraderie. And if that personality type is who you are, I think GUE is a fantastic route for you to go. If that’s not the kind of personality that you have, then you might struggle within it.
“I would say GUE’s courses are well suited to people that are very motivated, high-level achievers who love that team camaraderie. And if that personality type is who you are, I think GUE is a fantastic route for you to go. If that’s not the kind of personality that you have, then you might struggle within it.”
So to say that it’s better than TDI, CDS, any of that, I can’t say that it’s better. Is it more intense? I would think, by and large, it is more intense. I do a lot of stressful stuff in my courses, but I don’t raise it to that level. I don’t know how I would’ve handled that if I hadn’t a lot of experience already. It wore on me over the days.
In my experience, GUE courses tend to be fairly intense. Heck, GUE is fairly intense. Ha!
Yeah, they are. But here’s one thing, I will say this. One of the debrief questions at the end of the first course was this: Do you consider yourself a GUE diver? And I said, no, I’m not a GUE diver, I’m a cave diver. I’ll dive with anybody, anytime, who’s safe and looks out for their buddy.
Now, at the end of the second course they didn’t ask that question so I told them, you should’ve asked me that question again. And Meredith said, “Okay, what would you say?” And I said, “I would’ve said, yes, I am.” Because there is something rewarding about being tested that hard, and receiving that credential. You earned it. You really earned that certification.
“Because there is something rewarding about being tested that hard, and receiving that credential. You earned it. You really earned that certification.”
I don’t know that I am a GUE diver, but will I dive with GUE guys? Sure. Do I think there is some of the bullshit that hangs over from the old days? Absolutely. There is still some of that under the surface that I see, but by and large I have met a lot of really good people.
I find your take on the type of diver who might find GUE appealing interesting. In my younger years, I was like, 150% pushing all-out, all of the time to improve my diving. And now, I find that mindset just doesn’t fit me quite as well. I’m more like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, can we just go diving?” Maybe it’s just old age, I don’t know. I think it may actually be a bit healthier for me to not to push all the time. You know what I’m saying? I’m just a little more chill.
I’m the same way, and that’s kind of why I would challenge them. I don’t know if Meredith spoke to this. She could’ve had a much easier IE if I hadn’t been there. I was the guy that was challenging her on every point while she was getting evaluated on her responses to every challenge I made, by Danny.
Ha! Right, some friend you are! Making it harder.
And Danny spoke about that in our debrief together. He said, “Chris, you brought a whole other perspective and Meredith had to defend what we do. That was good for her to have to defend it. Because you understand the various aspects of cave diving and are coming in and asking, “Why?” Tell me why because I’m not going to believe it on face value like a normal student who listens to the instructor say, “Do X, Y and Z,” and says, “OK,” instead of, “Why do you do it this way and not that?”
And I’m with you—I think that there is a personality type that fits GUE and there’s a personality type that doesn’t. And there’s a personality type somewhere in the middle that fits GUE sometimes but maybe not all the way. Perhaps that is me. Overall, I think it is a pretty solid program. I really do.
So you think there may be other GUE courses in your future?
I do. I’m looking forward to my next professional development course with GUE. Either Tech 1 with Meredith or possibly a DPV course with Danny. As an instructor in both of those areas I am curious as to how that content is presented as well.
“I do. I’m looking forward to my next professional development course with GUE. Either Tech 1 with Meredith or possibly a DPV course with Danny. As an instructor in both of those areas I am curious as to how that content is presented as well.”
Thanks Chris! Thanks for being willing to share.
Footnote by Meredith:
Appropriately challenging both “normal-track” Cave 2 students and a student with over 1000 cave dives in the same class most definitely added another layer of difficulty to my Cave 2 Instructor Exam class. It was certainly a challenge, and I like challenges, so I thank Team FIYD FIYD for that! [Ed.—Inside joke] Our job as instructors is to provide challenges to improve on each diver’s starting set of skills and help them become better and more efficient, even the ones that are already solid divers. This makes every GUE class different and customized for that unique team of students.
Meredith Tanguay, principal Wet Rocks Diving
Chris Brock, principal, Cavediving.com
Michael Menduno/M2 is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning journalist and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for more than 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.”
His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving and he produced the first tek.Conferences and Rebreather Forums 1.0 & 2.0. In addition to InDepth, Menduno serves as an editor/reporter for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, a contributing editor for X-Ray mag, and writes for DeeperBlue.com. He is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA), and a member of the Rebreather Training Council.
Earlier this summer Jake Bulman and the Protec Team launched their 2023 expedition to Madagascar’s formidable Malazamanga cave known for massive tunnels, formations the size of buildings, and its unbelievable cobalt blue water. They then journeyed to Anjanamba, which despite enormous passageways, consistently turned into tight, restrictive spaces before opening up again. Having appeased the cave spirits and returned safely, Bulman offered up this account.
by Jake Bulman. Photos by Phillip Lehman. Lead image: (L2R) Jake Bulman, Patrick Widmann and Ryan Dart motoring through the first mega-room after Ryan’s Chamber, Malazamanga.
Deals made. Plans Laid
As I sat in the Paris airport working on my computer, Patrick Widman gestured to me to remove my headphones. He and Phillip Lehmann sat across from me and asked if I wanted to make a deal. Assuming I was walking into some kind of joke, I replied with a hesitant “Sure.” “Next summer you come with us to Madagascar, if you…“ “Yes! Deal, ” I answered before he finished explaining my end of the deal. It didn’t matter, the answer was yes. Patrick finished laying out his already agreed deal, headphones went back in and everybody went back to what they were doing, except for my thoughts, which went to “Holy Shit! I’m going exploring in Madagascar!”
Now nearly a year later in June 2023, we were back in Paris, this time packing all of the bags for the flight to Antananarivo (“Tana”), Madagascar’s capital city. When we got there we met up with Tsoa, who is the local contact, translator, organizer, and overall critical part of the team. Our bags headed to Toliara with the drivers while we spent the day doing some errands.
The next day was important to me, not because i turned 30, but it marked the end of a bet Patrick and I made in 2020, for which I had now won $100. The victory was short lived, however, as I spent that day stuck in my hotel room violently sick. Welcome to Madagascar!
After a short flight, overnight in Toliara, then an hour long boat ride along the coast, we reached Anakao Ocean Lodge. This place is a bit of a shock to the senses after traveling through the poverty stricken cities. Luxury in the middle of nowhere; it would be our basecamp for the trip. As Patrick and I posted a photo of the place, Phillip sarcastically mourned the loss of any “hardcore expedition” image people would imagine.
The next day we planned to meet up with the National Parks’ representatives, organize porters, transport all the equipment to the site, then get in the water and place all of the deco tanks and scooters we would need, and finally be out by dark to avoid being stranded overnight. This may seem overly ambitious, and it was, but is a good example of the overall approach of the project. Always go all in, no shortcuts or laziness, and if it was not possible in the end, no worries at all. The goal is to have fun with the group and do awesome stuff, which we always did.
”This is the most epic cave ever”Phillip Lehmann on Malazamanga
Musing on Malazamanga
Malazamanga, a cave of indescribably massive tunnels, formations the size of buildings, and amazing blue water dominated the first part of the trip. We set up a little basecamp in the mouth of the cave, each of us with our own spaces to change, hang up our suits to dry, and change sorb each day. The entrance swim is a tediously frustrating one for rebreather divers: 20 minutes of low ceilings, bouncing from 20 m to 5 m/66 ft to 16 ft and back several times, never allowing space to sit “in trim”, and no flow to remove any of the inevitable silt that came from passing with multiple scooters, stages and divers.
However, once you reach Ryan’s Chamber, the first big room, you find a staging spot for leaving scooters and tanks for the following day, and a small tunnel leading to the real, intimidatingly massive, Malazamanga.
Patrick and I went to the deep section right away (45-50 m/138 to 164 ft) and spent three days trying to find the way on, while Phillip and Ryan Dart looked around the shallower parts of the cave (20-30 m/66-100 ft) for any leads that had not been checked. Patrick laid line while I surveyed behind him through a wide but low space that became swirling silt and clay by the third tie off. We reached a vertical shaft, Patrick asked me to hold and ran a line into a smaller tunnel below us that led to a restriction. In spaces like this where zero visibility is guaranteed, diver two will be pushing through restrictions blind, having no idea the shape or size of the space around them, which is a recipe for disaster, so I waited on the line for Patrick to return and started a timer.
As fifteen minutes showed on the timer, it started to feel like a long time. How long do I wait before doing something? Five more minutes rolled by, and my mind started to run… What if he has a problem? Does he need help? Memories of having to get somebody out of a similar space once before came to mind. But this time it was Patrick though, if he truly needed help it would be a serious situation. I decided to give him until 30 minutes from when he left, and then I would go in (slowly). With four minutes remaining, a glow appeared before Patrick explained that “it’s tight, but it goes.” It was a long wait that meant a bunch more deco, but this could be the way on.
The next day I was tasked with pushing the End Of Line (EOL) while he and Phillip looked elsewhere. After twisting, turning, removing tanks, and wondering if this was a good idea more than a few times, I pushed through a few ups and downs, but the cave unfortunately ended in a basement section at 52 m/170 ft. No going leads. Time to head home.
Breakthrough and Packing Techniques
Our daily routine started at 06:30 with a breakfast of bread, fruit, eggs, tea and espresso. We’d leave the garage at 07:00, meet the porters at the bottom of the hill in the national park and send the equipment with them. Phil would then educate us on the risks of breakthrough, importance of proper packing techniques, and the impact of dwell time. All of which are critical to making espresso.
After making espresso, the handpresso is put away, we hike the 30 minutes up the hill, get dressed, dive four to six hours, then head home. Back at the garage by 08:00 pm, fill tanks for an hour, eat dinner at 09:00 pm, and then sleep. All the while making jokes, sharing stories, talking about life, trying to blind each other with lights, and being shown the same photo of Rosie, Phillip’s pit bull, with a “look at this awesome photo” preceding the photo display by a few seconds.
All in all, going diving required some effort, not to mention the week of traveling with piles of luggage to get there, the week to get home, and all of the time spent organizing beforehand. In terms of “cost (time/money/effort) per hour underwater” it is some of the most expensive time I’ve ever spent underwater.
One day, after a significant amount of problem solving in the hot, muddy entrance tunnel of the cave, we finally got everything sorted and started doing checks. Halfway through, Phillip said, “I’m not into this. You guys go. Nobody is paying me to do this,” and started to remove his tanks. Considering the “cost per hour underwater,” I think many of us would go whether we wanted to or not, giving in to a sunk cost fallacy-like sense of commitment.
We reformed a plan for the two of us, a few angry birds levels were completed on the surface, and everybody went home excited to see the survey data. There is a lesson to be had here for many of us, about what is actually important and ignoring those perceived, often self-induced pressures to carry on even if it doesn’t actually make sense.
We scoured every corner of the section we were in, until a hole underneath a formation showed a large room on the other side. I tied in at ~40 m/~130 ft, headed down the slope to where floor met wall, removed my tank, locked the reel, threw it through the hole, and headed in. Once my torso passed the squeeze, still inverted in the water, I put my tank back on, grabbed the reel, and swam the direction that I remembered it went. I passed the cloud and made a tie off. Turn, tie off, into a bedding plane, tie off, big room, tie off, and stop.
The floor suddenly featured huge, wavy marks that everybody recognizes as signs of flow. A lot of it. Massive clay bricks fit together like tiles in the riverbed resembling floor. A promising development, I tied off and ducked my head under the lip of the ceiling. Instantly the ceiling met the clay bed and the cave ended. Water unfortunately doesn’t consider human size in its choice of direction. Back to the drawing board.
“Fuck it, let’s just see what happens”Patrick Widmann
To Breathe or Not To Breathe
At the time, the furthest reaches of Malazamanga was an enormous collapse with no way beyond it except a few air domes. We were aware the air domes may not be breathable, but lacked a proper analyzer for that. After some thought, Patrick decided that we would just give it a go one at a time. We surfaced and knelt close together as Patrick closed his DSV and took a short breath of the gas. Wearing an expression resembling somebody tasting less-than-appetizing looking food he took a second breath.
Watching intently, I saw the expression quickly change from hesitant but ok, to uncomfortable to concerned as he put his DSV back in and opened it. I was ready for him to pass out as we sat there breathing, but nothing happened. We knew it was likely not breathable, but I wanted to see what it felt like! I removed my DSV and took a breath. A humid, thick, shockingly hot breath filled my lungs and I was not going to take a second one. No way that was safe, I thought, as the burning in my lungs slowly faded.
Patrick climbed out with just his rebreather (and flowing oxygen) and took a quick look around, but no luck. As he was getting dressed again, I popped my head into a few holes and found a passage that looked to slope downwards on the other side of a tight squeeze. I ran a line in with Patrick behind me, and tried to push through but couldn’t fit. After removing myself and the cloud of unavoidable silt surrounded us, I grabbed the rock that was in the way and flipped it over. If you have ever moved a big rock in a collapse, in a never-before-dived cave, you can imagine the visibility afterwards. We backed out, went to check a few other places, then returned hoping for slightly better visibility.
Patrick was the next one in, leaving a tank on the line with me this time, and he extended the line down the slope on the other side. I heard rocks falling, tanks banging on rock, grunting, laughing, bubbles moving along the ceiling, and then he returned with his hands shaking like crazy. Whatever was over there, was not for the faint of heart it seemed. After a bit of cooling down, he went back into the cloud, which was followed by loud yelling. Excited yelling. We exited, and planned our return for the next day. What lay beyond the 6 m/20 ft deep, vertical, awkward, tank-off restriction was an open space that continued downwards to what appeared to be 40 m+.
The next day, I was going through first. We rehearsed the shape of the restriction and the series of movements needed for passing it on the surface. It was weaving through the space where collapsed boulders met the sloping ceiling, and any extra force on the wiggling rocks meant possible collapse. The plan was for me to pass, tie into the EOL, and head off. Patrick would pass behind me with the MNemo and survey in. Adding tie off after tie off, I headed deeper, then flattened out, then up through an opening to my right. Now it was my turn to yell, the cave had returned to its previous enormous size!! This celebration lasted three tie offs, as we climbed yet another collapse that was quite clearly the end. Cut line, put reel away, look around knowing that nobody will ever be here again, and head home.
On to Anjanamba
Several options lay ahead of us, which Patrick and Phil weighed over dinner. Continue searching in Malazamanga, or get the filming done then head north to Anjanamba, or spend the next two weeks surfing. The last option was apparently way more valid than the joking suggestion I had taken it as. Fortunately, the second option was the choice. We spent a day scootering around with lights in hand and on the DPVs. Screen grabs of the video were used as photos for this article.
We also had two surfing days, where I (having never surfed before) mostly tried to not get annihilated by the waves. My second goal was “not to kill anybody” as Patrick and Phillip repetitively warned me not to do it with my oversized board (only a stand up paddle board was available). Fortunately I’m a very strong swimmer, as I spent large chunks of time crashing and burning, then being tossed around by the ocean.
”This is the most epic cave ever”Phillip Lehmann on Anjanamba
Heading up to Anjanamba featured a boat ride, a seven hour drive that resembled one of those truck commercials trying to show how tough its product is, and a journey through the Mikea National Park which had no paved road either. During lunch break everybody commented how much better it is now than it was several years ago, describing it as “pretty smooth” and “less violent” in the same sentence.
We visited the local village, where residents are the spiritual keepers of Anjanamba, to talk to the chief and say hi to a friend of Tsoa who had just had a baby. While there we got a tour of their newly built school, joked with the children a bit, took a photo and headed home. For a lifestyle that is so drastically different to our own, with so much less of everything tangible, the village seems a happy, lively place with kids running and playing. However it is easy to see the need for food, schooling, health products, and basic medical care to name a few.
Appeasing the Spirits of Anjanamba
Anjanamba is the location of the filming of the “Spirits of the Cave ” series (see DIVE DEEPER below). Described as a much more dendritic, Mexican-like cave with a blue color that puts the famous Mexican salt water tunnels to shame. The name of the series doesn’t come from nowhere; this cave is home to several spirits. In order to appease them, a few things need to be accomplished.
First, we must visit a big, double trunked baobab during the walk there. We remove our hats, gather near the meeting point of the trunks, place a pointer finger on one tree and pinky on the other (think bull horns hand shape), bow our heads and ask the spirits for two things. One, that they allow us to find an epic cave that goes. Two, that they grant us safe passage and everybody returns home safely. The ever-present, always watching lizard that lives there looked down in approval. The locals however, who had no idea what we were doing, waved us back to the path with a smile and laugh.
Once that is done, a ritual must happen with the Mikea people (in which the National Park is named after). Patrick and Phil have already been through it, so it’s just me. The chief started the ritual, as they each took a sip from a bottle of rum we had brought. Tsoa explained to me afterwards what they had been saying (asking the spirits to accept me, safe passage etc). Notably, it included nothing about finding mega cave, but we had already covered that during the lizard tree ceremony I guess.
The guys had warned me about the second part of the ritual, which had me eating a part of the cave – sand, dirt, rock, whatever. The chief continued speaking, and Tsoa told me it was time. I pinched some sand, put it in my mouth and swallowed. Phillip verified it was all gone. In the background I hear Patrick stifle a laugh, and my long-held suspicion was proven true, this was not actually part of it. The locals found it hilarious, and it wasn’t as if I was going to say no in any case. Diving time.
As usual, we were quite late and had made very ambitious plans which didn’t quite pan out. But we did as much as we could, then headed back to our new home at “Laguna Blu.” Like in Anakao, we had great food, friendly staff, beautiful views and comfortable sleeping.
Having laid less line than we had hoped in Malazamanga, we were keen to “bash some reels”. Anjanambas current EOL lay at more than 2287 meters/7500 feet with an average depth of 18m/60 ft or so. It featured enormous tunnels and decorated rooms, yet consistently turned into tight, never-quite-ending spaces before returning to vast rooms with pristine formations all over the place.
Patrick and I each carried a stage, and I carried the back up scooter. Passing through the 30 minutes of sideways swimming, weaving up and down, belly scraping, up and down cave with a negatively buoyant scooter in between my legs meant it was not always smooth sailing. Fortunately it usually got stuck when I was in the back so nobody saw. We reached the end of the line, Phillip tied in and headed off with Patrick recording and me surveying behind them.
From my POV, it looked likely to end every 10 tie offs only for the line to weave into a little corner of the room and continue, with nothing but a light dusting of silt at each tie off as signs of my team ahead of me. This repeated for another 457 meters/1500 ft of line until the reel was emptied, everybody cheered and fist bumped with excitement and then decided that we really needed to head home.
Our DPV charging plan didn’t pan out, so after each day Patrick and Phil drove over to a neighboring location and ate lunch while the scooters charged. I went back to Anjanamba and swam some of the closer lines checking for any going cave. After extending a few EOL’s, the sections had been checked without much luck. After a few days of exploring in Anjanamba, which mostly featured a repeating pattern of restrictions then big rooms, we finished our last diving day with nothing clearly going, but a few hopeful areas left.
End of the Line
As we reached the end of the trip, instead of feeling tired as we expected, we found ourselves ready for more. We had lots of sorb left, but had used every last liter of oxygen. Unfortunately, it was time to take a group photo with the locals, dry our equipment and start the journey home. Not only did we have flights to catch, but we had classes to teach less than 12 hours after landing in Mexico.
After five weeks of expedition, we had managed to get the most out of every day, be on time almost never, and explore some amazing cave. More impressively, I don’t recall a single argument or bad mood at all, which is rare when you spend 18 hours per day with the same people. Until next time, the villagers return to their normal lives, we go back to the Caribbean, and the spirits of Anjanamba can rest again.
We did have one last day before heading home, in which we would make a discovery. What will come of it is yet to be seen, but I’m sure it’s going to be a mega-epic either way. In fact, probably the most epic cave ever.
The Protec Team‘s past Madagascar Expeditions:
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave (2017)
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave 2 (2019)
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave 3 (2020)
Originally from Canada, Jake Bulman is a full-time cave diving and CCR instructor at Protec Dive Centers in Mexico. The last several years of teaching have been almost exclusively sidewinder focused, from try dives to CCR Cave classes, 4C to 24C, and in several countries around the world. Outside of work, he can be found on exploration projects in local caves of a wide range of depths, distances, and sizes.