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Cameras Kill Cavers… Again

Cave explorer, photographer and instructor Natalie L Gibb wants to make “taking pictures” the sixth rule accident analysis. How can toting a camera underground get you into trouble? Take a breath, clip off your camera, and say cheese, Gibb will explain.

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By Natalie Gibb
Header photo by Natalie Gibb

I squinted my eyes against 30,000 lumens of blinding light aimed directly into my mask. Somewhere in that burning star was my model, hovering expertly below crystalline stalactites, fragile as glass. I had schlepped seven lights into the passage and balanced them precariously around the chamber where they would not leave marks on the cave. It was beautiful, but after a few minutes, neither of us could see very well.

On the way back from a jump in a cave in Mexico.
Photo courtesy of Cyril Buchet.

Considering that cave diving is a navigation-intense style of diving, it makes sense that temporarily blinding oneself with bright lights while engaged in a task-loading activity such as photography can have disastrous results. In this case, I managed to back over a jump line while repositioning myself. When the shot was finished, I turned into the cave along the jump line, thinking I was turning into the direction of exit. I glanced at my compass (a habit whenever I make a turn) and looked at the cave in front of me. Whoops, wrong direction, wrong formations! I thought to myself, and finished turning back to the mainline. There was no incident, just a split second moment when I turned the wrong direction, thinking I was pointed to the exit.

Divers following along the line.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Gibb.

Yet, how many cave divers visiting Mexico’s caves know the lines as well as I do? My tiny mistake had zero negative consequences because I was shooting in a cave I have dived well over 100 times. I recognized the jump line because I have swum down it many times, and even though the mainline twists and turns, I know the cave well enough to know the exact direction of exit in that section, and I have a safety protocol to implement that knowledge.

A visiting cave diver making the same mistake would likely swim down the jump line away from his exit, at least until he hit a landmark indicating that he was going the wrong way.  Even then, his safety would depend upon his noticing that landmark or reference point, and then having the humility to admit he made a mistake and turn around before it was too late. If he continued to fuss with his camera, he would have no chance.

Cameras Killed Cave Divers

Even when working with weaker lights, using a camera in a flooded cave is extremely distracting in an environment where one cannot afford to be distracted. Most, if not all, of the modern cave diving accidents in Mexico involve cameras and navigational mistakes as a contributing factor.

Cave environments are very unforgiving of small mistakes it. Fatal accidents often begin with becoming separated from ones buddy.
Photo courtesy of Cyril Buchet

The famous Kalimba accident over ten years ago saw four divers follow an arrow away from their exit toward Grand Cenote, which they could not reach. Two of the divers had cameras. In the same cave, a more recent accident involved two divers with a camera and stages, who over-breathed their tanks while shooting, and then similarly followed arrows away from their point of entry and stages towards Grand Cenote. 

A cavern diving incident in Calavera a few years back involved tourists with GoPros who swam off the line. Two years ago, in Grand Cenote once again, an instructor shot photos of a recently certified cave diver on the Cuzen Nah loop before they were separated, and one of them perished.

What’s going on? I think the caves in Mexico are so spectacularly beautiful that any photographer or videographer with functioning eyeballs will find themselves inspired to document the beauty of the cenotes. Add to this the improvements in modern photography gear (you don’t need to be a professional photographer to get good cave images) and the dopamine rush of receiving hundreds of “likes” on Instagram—which only reinforces someone’s ego and sense of identity as a badass cave diver—and it’s clear why cave photography is becoming more and more popular.

The beauty of warm and shallow Mexican caves can be overwhelming.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Gibb.

Yet many of these people are only visiting our caves and do not have the experience in cave diving, the familiarity with Mexican cave navigation, or the understanding of their particular shooting site to safely take photos in the caves. Taking photos when new to the environment has certainly proven to be a recipe for disaster. In many cases, not only do the divers capture fabulous images, they helpfully document their own demise for the accident analysis team. Do not underestimate Mexico’s shallow, warm caves.

Is Safe Cave Photography Possible?

It certainly is! The main issues with cameras and cave diving are distraction and navigational errors. There are ways to avoid this, but no quick fixes. Here are four suggestions for safe cave photography:

The correct placement of directional markers is crucial in cave diving.
Photo courtesy of Cyril Buchet.
  1. If you are new to an area, hire a local guide or dive with another diver who is experienced in local protocols for at least a few days. If you are diving in Mexico, get a feel for Mexican cave diving and the complexity of the navigation before ever bringing a camera into the cave.
  2. Do not attempt to photograph caves you have never visited before. Scout a potential photography site first. Become familiar enough with the lines that you will be able to recognize if you get turned around. This means that you should dive past any potential scenes you plan to photograph, so that you will recognize the cave if you go the wrong direction. Even better, familiarize yourself with a cave first; it will allow you to plan a shoot which will get you better results in the end.
  3. Bring a diver along who is not involved in the shoot. This diver’s job is to stay out of the way and run safety. They can help to carry lights and gear into the cave, but once the shoot starts, their job is to observe the model(s) and photographer, ensuring that they do not become disoriented, that they mind their gas limits, and that they do not unknowingly impact or damage the cave. Local guides make great safety divers, as they are more familiar with the caves than visitors and less emotionally involved in the shoot.
  4. Always have navigational references in place when shooting. Place an arrow on the line as a mark for your model, but also to reconfirm the direction of exit when the shoot is done. Know the compass heading of your exit, and reconfirm this heading before beginning your swim out.

Where Art Thou Accident Analysis?

Why don’t we hear more about cameras killing divers? How is this not taught in basic cave courses? Perhaps it’s because no one talks about their mistakes anymore. When was the last time a formal accident report was released to the cave diving public? In our modern, politically charged and lawsuit-oriented society, stating that a cave diver made a mistake resulting in his death seems to be akin to saying the person deserved to die.

A camera is another large piece of equipment that requires a significant amount of attention underwater.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Gibb.

The only way cave diving became reasonably safe in the first place was through accident analysis—cave divers observed how others died and then decided, well, guess I won’t do that. These days, not only does cave diving lack accident analysis, it lacks incident analysis, the review of non-fatal mistakes. How valuable would it be if cave divers, experienced and novice alike, publicly announced their mistakes to the world? If you read that it’s important to check all your gear before every dive, it sounds like a reasonable idea, so you might do it. However, if your wreck diving hero admits he got complacent and ended up with a total light failure because his back-up lights had low batteries and he didn’t check them, it has a different and more powerful  effect.

Having observed my own mistakes while filming and shooting, as an experienced cave diver with over 5,000 cave dives, I can say that what keeps me safe is vigilance and a strict adherence to safety protocols. In short, doing everything right except for my one small mistake has been what’s saved me. I have lived to tell my tales, but I will be the first to admit I am not infallible. I have missed a T intersection, swam onto a jump line while filming, and knowingly swum into an unstable cave.

Understanding that real divers, even ones more experienced than you, can and do make silly mistakes serves as a valuable reminder that no diver is infallible. This improves diver safety by keeping us vigilant against complacency and the normalization of deviant behavior. Yet, these days, it’s almost professional suicide to admit one’s mistakes so that others will learn from them, and as a community cave diving is weaker for it. Instead of ridiculing mistakes, we should thank those who admit their errors and endeavor to learn from the mistakes of others.

A camera disrupts the normal dive team dynamic.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Gibb.

How many cave diving accident reports have you read recently? I don’t mean message board rumors or third-person synopsis, I mean the original, impartial report? Have cave training agencies actually run the statistics recently and analyzed incidents in the light of modern cave diving, with the advent of all the modern technology most divers use in the cave? I think perhaps that information is going missing somewhere, and  one piece of that information is the prevalence of cameras in cave diving accidents.

I have been pretty vocal about what I consider the sixth rule of accident analysis which in my opinion should join the other classical five rules taught in cave diving courses. Cameras are frequently a contributing factor in cave diving fatalities, distracting divers from navigation, gas management, and a host of other safety concerns that they would normally adhere to, and I think it’s time that we talked about it.

Additional Resources

Famed explorer Sheck Exley’s original work on cave diving accident analysis, “Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival,” is available as free download by the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section.

The Five Rules of Accident Analysis

When Cameras Can Save Lives


Natalie L Gibb’s passion in life is underwater cave exploration and conservation. With her exploration partner Vincent Rouquette-Cathala, she has led her team to discover over 20 previously unknown cave systems in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, mapping more than 80 kilometers of cave passageways. She is a public speaker, author, photographer, and videographer, and a member of the Woman Diver’s Hall of Fame. Natalie is co-owner of Under the Jungle, a cave diver training center in Mexico, and a TDI Full Cave Instructor.

Cave

No Dicretion Home: Un’avventura di immersioni in grotta Slovena

Affetto dal blocco di Covid, il giovane, poetico esploratore italiano, istruttore e produttore di ingranaggi, Andrea Murdock Alpini, ha deciso di prendere le distanze sociali al massimo! Ha preparato il suo furgone delle caverne appositamente progettato e ha intrapreso un viaggio da solista di tre settimane per immergersi nelle grotte piene d’acqua che si trovano sotto il suolo sloveno. Il suo rapporto e il registro video, soprannominato “No Direction Home”, un omaggio al docu di Bob Dylan di Scorsese, probabilmente soddisferanno quei più profondi impulsi di avventura. Ho menzionato la colonna sonora assassina? I bambini non lo provano a casa!

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Testo: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Foto & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini.

Un ringraziamento speciale a Cristina Condemi per la sua assistenza editoriale.

Here is the story translated into English

L’autore del testo e delle immersioni solitarie in grotta non vuole incentivare in nessun modo la pratica della subacquea solitaria. Il viaggio e le immersioni descritte dell’articolo sono il frutto di un lungo addestramento.

Nota editore: Global Underwater Explorers non autorizza le immersioni in solitario.

Voglia di libertà e distacco è stato lo spirito con cui agli inizi dello scorso mese di giugno sono partito alla volta di un viaggio in solitaria tra grotte, laghi alpini e miniere abbandonate.

Il #lockdown era finito da poche settimane, la scottatura del forzato distanziamento sociale si percepiva ancora molto forte. In tasca avevo un paio di lettere editoriali fornitemi dalla redazione di Nautica Report, il passaporto.  Il WreckVan per l’occasione era stato riconvertito a CaveVan ricolmo di bombole, miscele trimix, compressore a scoppio a 300bar, booster, bi-bombola di vari tagli, zaini, scarponi da montagna, pinne, tenda e fornelletto, mute stagne e nuovi prodotti di intimo termico di PHY Diving Equipment che dovevo testare prima di metterli in produzione.

Quando ho varcato il confine con la Slovenia mi sono emozionato.
In poche ore sono passato dal non poter andare oltre i 200m dalla mia abitazione a potermi muovere liberamente nella natura. Lo stacco mentale fu enorme. Ho fatto una sola telefonata dall’estero, la sera di arrivo, dopo funambolici colloqui in russo al termine del primo violento temporale che mi avrebbe accompagnato sotto forma di pioggia battente per altre tre lunghe, interminabili settimane.

Il mio viaggio avrebbe dovuto articolarsi tra Slovenia, Lago di Garda, Sud Tirolo, Austria, Alpi Apuane, l’Altopiano di Campo Imperatore sotto il massiccio del Gran Sasso e infine la Majaella. Le piogge hanno stravolto la mia pianificazione rendendo pericolose e inagibili molte grotte e miniere che avevo preventivato. Così dopo oltre venti giorni trascorsi a montare smontare la tenda, dormendo al freddo e con poche ore di sonno sono rientrato distrutto e claudicante verso casa.

Ho filmato tutto il viaggio con il solo dispositivo che tutti portiamo sempre in tasca: il telefono cellulare, null’altro. 

Avrei voluto raccontare la mia esperienza subacquea dal punto di vista del viaggio terrestre in cui l’acqua altro non è una parte del contesto. Tre capitoli compongono questa mini serie sulla Slovenia. 

Il primo giorno di grotte in Slovenia è stato rocambolesco per certi versi. Tuttavia ancora non sapevo cosa mi avrebbe riservato il secondo giorno. 

Attorno alle sei del mattino inizio a preparami per uscire. Piove ovunque, vento freddo e secchiate di acqua. La maggior parte delle grotte in entroterra sono inagibili, penso. Guardo più a sud, verso il confine con la Croazia. Attraverso la Slovenia da nord a sud, mi imbatto in un villaggio abbandonato, visito qualche malga campestre poi riparto alla volta del confine.



Mentre consumo un fugace pasto da campo preparato a bordo grotta, tra muschi e licheni, appena terminata l’immersione a Bilpa, la polizia di frontiera e l’esercito mi raggiungono per il controllo passaporto accompagnato da altra burocrazia. Tutto va per il meglio. Torno così alla mia zuppa e poco dopo mi metto in viaggio, di nuovo. Uno spiraglio di sole mi scalda le ossa e tempra il clima dentro il CaveVan. 

Rientrato al campo base pianifico la giornata dell’indomani e decido di dedicarla unicamente ai sopralluoghi speleo, da est a ovest da nord a sud, di diverse coordinate GPS che mi sono annotato. Guido per molte ore e ne cammino altrettante tra sentieri nei boschi o in aperta campagna. Ritornerò al mio letto distrutto e affamato, dove mi preparò un nuovo brodo caldo accompagnato da abbondante parmigiano e frutta secca per dessert! 

Fisarmoniche inaspettate all’uscita dalla foresta, orsi, fiumi in piena dentro le grotte e un doppio turno di verifica (mattutino e pomeridiano) alla stupenda grotta di Suha Dolca per monitorarne la fattibilità.

NO DIRECTION HOME è entrato nel vivo dello spirito di viaggio, natura solitaria. Questo è ciò che è successo nei giorni centrali della trasferta in Slovenia, questi sono alcuni dei passaggi raccontati nel secondo video capitolo della serie supportata da PHY Diving Equipment.

In tasca sempre e soltanto il mio cellulare per filmare le giornate e le esperienze vissute sul campo, nella testa una miriade di pensieri, negli scarponi una moltitudine di storie da tramandare.

Due giornate di stop forzato per le piogge abbondanti mi hanno costretto in superficie. Ho speso il tempo per sopralluoghi e organizzando i primi materiali raccolti dal viaggio in Slovenia.

Gli appunti di grotte e coordinate andavano riordinati e con essi anche le idee su come procedere. Ho rinunciato a diversi spot pensando di ritornarci in un’altra stagione, magari d’inverno, come piace me. Certo le condizioni esterne non sarebbero delle più facili però le condizioni dell’acqua all’interno delle grotte sarebbero sicuramente più stabili e gestibili. 

Sono tornato spesso sui miei passi alla ricerca delle condizioni favorevoli, quasi sempre l’acqua mi ha indicato la via del rientro, dopo alcuni sguardi mi ha convinto a girare le spalle alle spelonche e riprendere il mio sentiero.

Il terzo capitolo sloveno NO DIRECTION HOME è quello a cui sono maggiormente legato. L’indecisione dell’ultimo giorno se restare ancora e aspettare condizioni migliori oppure partire, mettermi gli orsi e le grotte alle spalle per tornare in Italia. Sapevo che mi avrebbe aspettato qualche relitto sul Lago di Garda e poi avrei iniziato a risalire la china verso il Sud Tirolo e da lì ai laghi alpini in Austria. 

Stanco, affaticato e con lo sguardo che corre più lento dei pensieri decido di fare un ultimo tentativo a Suha Dolca prima di dire definitiva conclusa la mia avventura in Slovenia. Torno al lago che antecede la grotta, il paesaggio e stupendo avvolto nell’ora pomeridiana. Scendo lungo il sentiero che conduce all’imbocco dell’antro. 

Verifico le condizioni, finalmente la grotta è agibile!

Preparo le attrezzature, scendo molteplici volte il sentiero per portare pezzo a pezzo tutto l’equipaggiamento al punto di vestizione. Nell’ultimo viaggio, quando ho già muta stagna indossata, incontro un paio di cave divers sloveni con cui scambio alcune battute. Il tempo di salutarsi e mi preparo per entrare finalmente in acqua e raggiungere l’ingresso di Suha Dolca. 

Riemergerò tra migliaia di canne spezzate dal vento che creano un tappeto naturale che fluttua sulla superficie dell’acqua. Mi sento un po’ un castoro. Alle 21.30 circa oltrepasso il confine con l’Italia.


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.

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