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Cave Diving, Du’an China Edition

Finnish tech instructor and explorer Jani Niskanen takes us for a plunge into the underwater world of South China Karst, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Break out the NAV kits.

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by Jani Niskanen. Special thanks to Edmund Yiu for additional information on cave diving in China.

Photos by Jani Niskanen unless noted.

Du’an, located in rural southern China, offers majestic hills and clear rivers, is quite the contrast to the bustling megacities of China, and is only a two-hour drive from Nanning, the provincial capital of Guangxi. Du’an is easily as beautiful as the world-famous Yangzhou area, with fewer tourists. Divers are attracted to the magnificent landscape of rivers and caves and underwater cave formations, which are some of the most beautiful in the world. 

Karst landscape and settlements between the mountains.
Author’s equipment ready for the dive at Tun Bang sinkhole.

The area is part of the huge expanse of the South China Karst system which spans from Guizhou, Yunnan, and Guangxi provinces all the way to Vietnam, and was designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2007. In fact, according to one estimate, the province boasts more than 10,000 kilometers of underground rivers that supply water to the people in the area. As a result, there are many entrances and stairways built by villagers to collect water, some with pumping stations, that were not originally made for diving access. Getting access is not easy as they are located in rural mountainous area with no cellular reception or GPS navigation. Instead, one must rely on guides who know the area.

Leaving the daylight zone.
Cave divers all set and ready to start the dive into “Panda” Cave.

Cave diving in Du’an began in the 1970s when the first Russian divers  visited the area, to observe the underground rivers. According to local knowledge, the next team to visit was a British group that entered the area in the end of the 1980s. The actual official underwater research and mapping were started by a French team of divers in 2011. After that, they visited the area annually until 2019. 

The caves in the area vary in size from the spacious cavities to extreme restrictions that a diver can hardly negotiate through. Inside the caves, seasoned explorers can admire stunning stalactites and stalagmites formed thousands of years ago when many of these caves were dry, though the deeper areas that have been carved out by water flow are not decorated. In fact, in some of the deeper passages the walls are perfectly smooth as a result of water flowing through them over millennia. Diving in these caves feels as if you are diving through time.

Tank carrier. A local farmer helped us to carry tanks to the cave, which he was compensated for. He has perfected his carrying technique and made it look almost easy.

The Du’an region experiences strong seasonal fluctuations in water level, which in some places can vary as much as 40m/130 ft between dry and wet seasons, affecting both the flow and visibility. Diving in Du’an requires a Full Cave rating, and other technical diving training is highly recommended since the caves are rather deep and you will be likely racking up deco during your dives. 

The deepest explored caves in Du’an exceed 230m/750 ft, however average depths for our dives ranged from 30-40 m/100-130 ft. According to the locals, the best time to dive in Du’an Caves is in either April to May or October to November, some say as late as January, when the water situation in the caves is optimal.



Our Underground Journey

Our ten-day dive trip took place at the end of April, when the underground water level had just begun to rise in the springs; consequently, there was almost no flow, and we were forced to carry our tanks far inside the cave to begin the dive. We dived open circuit, and typical gas set up for the dive was to have 32% enriched air in our sidemount tanks and then we left a tank of 100% oxygen for decompression on the line at 6 m/20 ft. We managed to dive ten caves with a total runtime of 576 minutes.

The water temperature in the caves in the area is pleasant 20 degrees Celsius and thus gloves are not needed.
From the patterns on the wall of the cave, one can see how the water has created grooves in the limestone and smoothed the rough edges over the millennia. 

In some of the caves, we encountered extremely narrow passages, making sidemount configuration and single cylinders better for safety, convenience and logistics. Although the visibility ranged from 15 m/49 ft to 2 m/7 ft, the water temperature was a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit. Drysuits are recommended, but gloves weren’t needed, which made our exploration more enjoyable. At the end of the ten days, we realized we left plenty to explore for our next expedition to this amazing region.

Du’an has one diving center, Blue Flag International, which was originally set up by the Tourism department of the Du’an county government with the help of the French exploration team in 2010/2011, who put in an extensive gas blending system. This modern and fully equipped dive operator is ready to serve even the most demanding of divers. They can support mixed gas divers conducting open circuit trimix and closed circuit  rebreather diving. Oxygen is relatively inexpensive and easy to source locally, and helium is generally less expensive in China than in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Cave diving instructor and local legend, Han Ting, runs the shop. He has explored over a hundred caves in this area and has leads to many more—there are many caves waiting to be explored.

Inside the Veins of Mother Earth. Photo by Vincent Lou

Scuba diving is a growing sport in China. Before COVID-19 restrictions, Chinese divers traveled to Southeast Asian tropical destinations, such as the Philippines and Thailand. Now that the restrictions are in place, divers have sought out domestic dive sites like those in Du’an and diving clubs and shops have begun to organize trips within the country. In addition to the caves of Du’an, there are domestic destinations like Hainan Island, which offers tropical warm waters. An even more exotic location is diving sunken portions of the Great Wall of China.

This story was originally published in Sukeltaja Magazine, the magazine of the Finnish Diver Federation, in May, 2021 

Additional Resources

UNESCO: South China Karst

World Heritage Datasheet: South China Karst


My name is Jani Niskanen. I am an SDI/TDI and PADI instructor with multiple specialties, including TDI cavern. I am TDI Full Cave Diver, and PADI Trimix. I am experienced in sidemount, single and double back mount diving in different environments, warm and cold waters. I am an EFR and FRIT instructor and a registered nurse with over 14 years of experience in the field in ATLS/ACLS emergency care mobile unit. I am a veteran and I have worked several years as a combat medic with the Finnish defense forces in many deployments. I am a scuba technician, compressor operator and trimix blender instructor. I have worked with diving in Thailand, Philippines, Mexico, China and I am dedicated to making good divers and not just “ticking the boxes”. Currently I work at the Finnish Embassy in Beijing, China.

You can find Jani here on Instagram and on Facebook at Expeditiondivers

Art

Limestone, Light and Water

These are the elements that British expat photo-alchemist Tom St. George transmutes into pure visual gold.

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By Tom St. George

Located in Southeastern Mexico on the Caribbean coast, the Yucatan Peninsula is the home of cenote diving. The Cenotes are the natural sinkholes that serve as the entrances to the underwater cave systems. In local mythology, they are the entrances to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld where the gods and ancient spirits reside. 

When you dive into the cenotes, you enter a world of crystal clear waters and dancing sunbeams. As you venture further into the caverns and caves, you swim amongst ancient stalagmites, stalactites, and intricate formations ranging in size from tiny soda straws to enormous columns, with room after room of changing vistas.

Julia Gugelmeier hovering effortlessly in the sunbeams, midway between the hydrogen sulfide cloud and the entrance of Cenote Maravilla.
A multi-image panorama of Cenote Kukulkan with Julia Gugelmeier.
Recently qualified cave diver Christine Tamburri hovers transfixed by the stunning formations at Cenote Xulo (lighting by Roger Williams).
Julia Gugelmeier expertly lighting up a stunning chamber at Cenote Otoch-Ha.
Adrian Stapor enjoying a cave dive at Cenote Cristal after completing his Intro to Cave certification (lighting by John Knoepfle).
Anne-Laure Huynh exiting a restriction and Cenote Zacil-Ha (lighting by Arthur Nguyen-Kim).

I discovered my passion for diving over 20 years ago when I emigrated from the UK to New Zealand. A decade later, the wanderlust struck again, but this time with renewed force, so I quit my full-time job to pursue diving in far-flung places. This journey eventually led to settling in Tulum where the magical cenotes truly brought my dual obsessions of scuba diving and photography together. 

The images I take in the cenotes and caves can generally be categorized in two ways. Some are quite clearly underwater landscapes with—almost always—a single diver to act as a focal point and to give context and scale. Others are perhaps described best as environmental portraits that capture divers doing what they love in these stunning locations surrounded by mind-blowing sunbeams or passing through stunningly decorated sections of a cave.

Best known for my images of the cenotes and underwater caves of the Riviera Maya, I am lucky enough to now earn my living as a professional underwater photographer. I mainly shoot a mix of commercial work for dive businesses and scuba brands and photo sessions for visiting divers and freedivers. As well as making images, I have found a lot of enjoyment is teaching underwater photography, videography, and photogrammetry through both one-to-one coaching and group workshops. I am also lucky enough to usually make a few dive trips each year as a photographer for Dive Magazine (pre-COVID, at least).

Cave diver Caroline Rogers posing for a shot amongst the decorations at Cenote Xulo (lighting by Julia Gugelmeier).
A moody capture of a dive at Cenote Jailhouse with Justin Enzmann (lighting by Julia Gugelemeier).
InDepth’s own Michael Menduno enjoying a stunningly decorated section of cave at Cenote Otoch-Ha (lighting by Julia Gugelmeier).
The debris mound at Cenote Angelita looks like an island surrounded by a ‘river’ of hydrogen sulfide gas (model Julia Gugelemeier).

Diving and photographing the cenotes is a sheer joy for me—the crystal clear waters and the incredible light rays always keep me coming back for more. There is something truly magical about the mix of light and the water. For me, wide-angle ambient light shots are perhaps the purest way to capture these scenes. My approach is very straightforward; it is simply about capturing the light, and very much a case of “what you see is what you get.” 

“There is something truly magical about the mix of light and the water. For me, wide-angle ambient light shots are perhaps the purest way to capture these scenes.”

Whether I’m attempting to capture the breath-taking light beams at The Pit or the soft diffused light of Cenote Angelita, the approach is the same. I prefer to capture the moment, with minimal direction of the diver(s), and so I am generally the one working to find the best vantage point to arrange the relationship of elements in the scene.

Things start to get a lot different when we move beyond the daylight zone and start to capture images of the underwater caverns and caves. We find ourselves now constrained much more by our environment (although it has often been said that constraints can aid in the creative process).

Obviously, for starters, there is no ambient light at all and the only illumination is from the primary lights, video lights, and strobes that we bring with us on the dive. 

When using strobes, you need to be able to visualize what the image will be before you take it, as they only fire to light up the scene when the shutter is pressed.

We no longer find ourselves in wide open spaces with the freedom to move in any direction but are instead constrained by the walls, floors, and ceilings of the caves we swim through and the guideline we follow. 

David Green swimming over the island at Cenote Angelita.
Occasionally heavy rains wash tannic water into Cenote Carwash turning the whole cenote a fiery red (diver Mauro Bordignon).
Caroline Rogers pauses to admire the decorations in a smaller section of cave at Cenote Xulo.

These factors make cave diving photography much more of a team effort. I found out that communication underwater is always best kept to a minimum, which is where well planned teamwork and clear procedures make all the difference. 

My favorite way to work is in a team of three: a photographer, a model, and a lighting diver (who also acts as the safety diver). My life is made easy in that regard as my partner Julia is extremely talented with both modelling and lighting.

We use a variety of lighting techniques with on camera strobes, off-camera strobes and video lights used in various combinations.

I do not tend to “stage” scenes very often; I find placing lights and lingering too long in any one area often leads to a loss of visibility due to percolation and silting. While I would dearly love to get a rebreather to help mitigate the percolation issue, it’s not quite on the cards just yet! Placing lights and posing models can also have a negative impact on cave conservation and so these need a very deft touch. Besides, I generally prefer a more run-and-gun style of photography that captures images of divers as they are diving.

One thing I particularly enjoy is the slow pace of cenote, cavern, and cave diving. There is no rush and everything unfolds slowly. Our dives are generally shallow, and we can take our time and enjoy some respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life.—TSG

You can find Tom St. George through his website and on Instagram



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