By Michael Menduno and Nuno Gomes
Header photo showing Nuno Gomes during his 1996 record deep cave dive at Bushmansgat. Photo by Theo van Eeden
A little more than a year ago, we ran an InDepth article, “Extending The Envelope Revisited: The 30 Deepest Tech Shipwreck Dives,” which compared the deepest tech shipwreck dives as of 2020 with those conducted in the 1990s when mixed gas technology was just emerging. Not surprisingly the story drew a lot of reader attention. As a result, it seemed fitting that we publish a similar article examining deep cave diving. Accordingly, I teamed up with deep diving pioneer and Guinness world record holder Nuno Gomes, who had already completed much of the needed research for his 2016 book that he co-authored with Olo Sawa, Beyond Blue: Journey Into the Deep.
Since the 1990s, technical divers have explored considerably deeper in caves than they have on shipwreck exploration dives, which is not surprising. The cave environment is far more conducive to staging equipment such as gas and scooters required for deep dives, conditions are also far more stable and rarely subject to weather compared to open water dives, and caves may also offer more psychological comfort for divers, for example, there is less sense of depth then a vertical plunge in open waters.
In addition, with the possible exception of Jacques Cousteau, cave divers were arguably the original tekkies and worked out many of the initial fundamentals of tech diving in terms of equipment and protocols. Again, likely due to the environment, they were also the first amateur diving community to begin experimenting with mix technology. In 1967, South African British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) divers Roly Nyman [Gomes’ original cave instructor], Ian Robertson, John van der Walt and Danny van der Walt conducted the first trimix (an oxygen, helium, nitrogen mix) dive by cave divers to 107 m/350 ft in Silent Pool, in Sinoia, Rhodesia. After some unsuccessful attempts during the seventies, in 1979 Dale Sweet dived to 110 m/360 ft at Diepolder II in Florida, marking the first successful use of trimix by sport divers in the US.
Swiss diver Jochen Hasenmayer was soon to follow in 1981 with a trimix dive to 145 m/476 ft at Fountain of Vaucluse, France, using modified tables from pioneering commercial diving Oceaneering. This was the first of a series of ever deeper dives conducted by Hasenmayer, which inspired cave explorer Sheck Exley to begin his record-setting, deep mix dives.
Others, like cave explorer Bill Stone with his Wakulla Springs 1987 Project, as well Parker Turner, Bill Gavin, Lamar English, and Bill Main, who went on to form the Woodville Karst Plains Project (WKPP), began conducting mix exploration dives with the help of decompression physiologist Dr. Bill Hamilton. Similarly, in Europe, divers such as cave diving and rebreather pioneer Olivier Isler, as well as Stuart Clough, owner of Carmellan Research, who worked with British tech diver Rob Palmer, also embraced the new deep diving technology.
In contrast, the US wreck diving community didn’t begin to adopt mixed gas diving in earnest until the early 1990s, with help from tech diving pioneer Capt. Billy Deans, owner of Key West Diver, Key West, Florida—the first tech training center in the world. In fact, most wreck divers didn’t even use oxygen for decompression until the late 1980s; again, Deans was instrumental in helping the Northeast wreck diving community develop safer decompression protocols.
The View from aquaCORPS Circa 1993
In December 1993, my magazine aquaCORPS published reports from Sheck Exley, and Jim Bowden under the header “DEEP UNDERGROUND,” along with a table and explanation provided by Exley titled, “Comparison of Sub-500 foot (150 m+) Technical Dives,” that listed 13 known dives to depths beyond 150 meters. That table is shown below. All of the dives were cave dives conducted in fresh water with the exception of Jim King’s dive to 209 m/683 ft at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. Note that the listing, JB’s 170 Fathom, as it was initially called, was Zacatón, in Tamaulipas, Mexico, where Exley died in 1994.
Note that the dives were dominated by Exley, and to a lesser extent Nuno Gomes and Jim Bowden. Not listed are likely some further dives by Hasenmayer including his 1989 dive at Lake Wolfgang, Austria, where he suffered decompression illness and was paralyzed. Note also that Bowden’s partner Dr. Ann Kristovich made the list with her (woman’s) record deep dive to 170 m/554ft at Zacatón.
Decompression schedules for these dives were calculated using modified Oceaneering Tables, Hamilton’s Diving Computational Analysis Program, (DCAP), and Exley’s software program Dr. X. The table also includes some discussion of the first reported cases of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS) by sport divers, in this case Exley and Gomes.
Bowden’s Deep Diving Chronology Circa 1998
In 1998, Bowden, who had conducted the deepest cave dive to 282 m/925ft at Zacatón in 1994, which was later surpassed by Gomes in 1996, compiled a chronological list of 38 sub-150 meter dives conducted from 1982-1998. Along with the table, Bowden wrote a short (unpublished) essay detailing his experience and views on deep diving, DCS, HPNS, depth calculations. We titled it, “Thoughts on Diving To Great Depths.” Bowden’s list is shown below.
All but six of the dives detailed in Bowden’s list were cave dives: there were five lake dives (one on the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, Michigan), and one dive in the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to Exley, Gomes, and Bowden, some of the new names that appeared on this list and subsequent lists as shown below are Pascal Bernabe, Olivier Isler, and Gilberto Menezes de Oliveira. Again, Kristovich remains the only woman to make the list.
Note that by 1998 several new decompression programs had gained favor by the faithful including British tech pioneer/engineer Kevin Gurr’s ProPlanner, a decompression model by French commercial decompression engineer JP Imbert turned tech diver, and the Abyss software model marketed by Chris Parrett and Joel Silverstein.
The Darkness Continues to Beckon Circa 2000
In 2000, British cave diving pioneer and author Martyn Farr published a list of the 14 deepest cave exploration dives beyond 150 m/489 ft. His seminal book, The Darkness Beckons, first published in 1980, and subsequently updated in 1991 and 2017, details the history of cave diving beginning with the early British dives at Wookey Hole. Farr’s list is shown below.
All but one of the divers can be seen on previous lists, and all of them are men. Note that five of the 14 dives were conducted by Brazilian cave explorer de Oliveira, while Bernabe claimed two of the deepest dives.
The Deepest Cave Exploration Dives Today
In 2016, Gomes published a list of deep dives in his book, Beyond Blue. He updated and refined the list for this article to focus on the 13 deepest cave dives, all beyond 250 m/816 ft—the new demarcation for über-deep cave dives vs. sub-150 meter dives in the 1990s. Seven of these 13 dives were conducted after the year 1999.
Note that obtaining an accurate measure of extreme depths can be challenging, especially in the cave environment, depending on the topography; divers sometimes have to rely on estimates. Few gauges are rated deeper than 200-250 meters, and even then, pressure sensors are not usually calibrated to read accurately at those depths. Gomes used an imperial Parkway gauge that went to 999 feet and then started counting again from zero. In practice today, depths are calculated using a combination of gauges, ropes, sonar, trigonometry and ROVs.
Gomes’ table is shown here and lists the dives by their nominal depth, but includes a column for altitude adjusted depth. Note that Bushmansgat is located 1550 m/5000 feet above sea level. When adjusted for altitude, Gomes’ dive was equivalent to a sea level dive to a depth of 339m/1,112 ft making it the deepest cave dive on record.
It should also be noted that all of the dives shown on Gomes’ table were solo dives (though there were support divers at shallower depths). Gomes believes that’s the only way these dives can be conducted. “It’s safer,” he explained to me. “If something goes wrong, only one diver dies instead of two.” The problem according to Gomes is that it’s not possible to save someone at these depths in the event of trouble. “You are pushing so close to the physiological envelope that you can hardly save yourself let alone someone else, if something goes wrong. You don’t have the time or the capacity, you have to concentrate on yourself,” he said.
New to the deepest cave diving list are French cave explorer and former military and commercial diver Xavier Méniscus, and Polish cave explorer Krzysztof (Kris) Starnawski. Insiders say there is a healthy competition between the two über-divers reminiscent of the rivalry between Exley and Hasenmayer back in the day. Watch this space.
Interestingly, Miniscus, Gomes, Exley, Bowden and Starnawski each account for two of the deepest cave dives, while the others on the list claim a single entry. All of the divers are still alive with the exception of Exley and David Shaw who both died conducting extreme deep dives. Spanish cave explorer Jordi Yherla Santaolalla, suffered decompression illness at deep depth during ascent from his 253 m/830 ft dive at Font de Estramar, France in 2014. He was aided to the surface by his support team and was treated for DCI.
It’s also interesting to note that in addition to claiming the deepest cave dive, Gomes set the Guinness World Record for the deepest (open water) scuba dive of 318 m/1,044 ft near Dahab in the Red Sea in 2005. Several weeks later, Pascal Bernabe claimed he set an unofficial record to 330 m/1077 ft in Corsica. Their records were supposedly bested almost a decade later by Egyptian ex-military diver Ahmed Gabr in 2014 with his reported dive to 332.35 m/1,090 ft in the Red Sea which earned him a Guinness World Record.
However, Gabr’s record remains under a cloud of doubt in the tech diving community, as evidence that suggested that he did not actually make a record dive surfaced last summer. In February of this year, Guinness announced they had investigated claims that Gabr faked his record dive, and said they found “no conclusive evidence which establishes foul play.” However, it did not address specific allegations, nor did they interview Gabr’s support team.
Not shown on Gomes’ list are the recent remarkable deep exploration dives conducted by Australia’s Wet Mules led by Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris, and Craig Challen in Pierce Resurgence. In early 2020, Harris and Chalen pushed the cave to the amazing depths of 243 m/792 feet, which fell just shy of the 250 meter cutoff. Note that Harris and Chalem dived as a team vs as solo divers. I’m sure the discussion of diving solo vs. as a team will continue as cave divers dive deeper. And we will.
Comparing Today’s Deepest Dives to The 1990s
Diving equipment has significantly improved since the 1990s, and rebreathers have become the tool of choice for deep diving, as the ever prescient Stone and Isler predicted. Six of the seven deepest cave dives conducted since 1999 were done on rebreathers; all of the 1980-1990s dives were done on open circuit.
There have been no major changes in decompression algorithms short of adding conservative factors and adapting the algorithms for constant PO2 rebreather diving.
However, Gomes pointed out that divers are breathing mixtures with far greater helium content consistent with the new research on gas density and diving safety. In addition, more attention is being paid to transitioning gases from helium to nitrogen during the ascent to avoid isobaric counterdiffusion.
Note as of yet, no women have made the deepest dive list. Currently, Vera van Schaik, holds the Guinness World Record for the deepest scuba dive (women) to 221 m/721 feet, which she made in October 2004 at Bushmansgat, surpassing Kristovich’s record of 169 m/554 ft. Van Schaik went on to write a book, Fatally Flawed: The Quest to be Deepest, about her experience, and also wrote the forward to Gomes’ book.
Since Van Schaik’s dive at Bushmansgat, two female divers have died trying to break her record. Forty-year old French diver Brigitte Lenoir died in Dahab, Red Sea, in May 2010. Then in September 2017, 45-year old Bulgarian technical diving instructor trainer, Teodora Balabanova, died attempting a dive to 231 m/754 ft, while her husband, Mihail Balabanov, who had accompanied her, was injured.
Today, as this article is being written, one of Gomes’ students, Karen Van Den Oever is planning to dive beyond 250 m/816 ft at Bushmansgat on March 25, 2021. If she does go through with it, we plan to announce the results in the issue. [See: “South African Cave Diver Karen van den Oever Sets New Women’s Deep Cave Diving Record.”
Cave Divers Do It Deeper
How do the deepest cave exploration dives compare to those of shipwreck divers? The ten deepest cave dives today average 284 m/926 ft (adjusting for altitude and freshwater), compared to an average depth of 209 m/682 ft for the ten deepest cave dives in 2000, or approximately 75 m/245 ft deeper.
In contrast, the ten deepest shipwreck dives today average 176 m/576 ft, compared to 121 m/398 ft for the ten deepest shipwreck dives in the 1990s (see Extending The Envelope Revisited: The 30 Deepest Tech Shipwreck Dives). In other words, the deepest cave dives exceed the deepest wreck dives by 108 m/352 ft on average, and as a result of depth and geography are also likely considerably longer on average.
The ten deepest cave dives today average 284 m/926 ft (adjusting for altitude and freshwater), compared to an average depth of 209 m/682 ft for the ten deepest cave dives in 2000, or approximately 75 m/245 ft deeper. In contrast, the ten deepest shipwreck dives today average 176 m/576 ft, compared to 121 m/398 ft for the ten deepest shipwreck dives in the 1990s.
Will cave divers continue to push depths ever deeper over the next twenty years as they did with the last? “Xavier and Kris may push the limits a little deeper. Who knows,” Gomes told me. “However the work of breathing (WOB) becomes a problem at those depths, particularly on rebreathers.” [Note that Dave Shaw died of respiratory insufficiency at a sub-250 m dive at Bushmansgat—see video below]
Will cave divers take a lesson from the cutting edge of commercial diving and adapt hydrogen as a breathing gas for extreme depths? Hydrogen is half the weight of helium, and its slight narcotic properties have been shown to ameliorate the effects of HPNS, which is believed to be a contributing factor in Exley’s death. In fact, ambitious tech divers have already conducted an experimental hydrogen dive according to retired scientific diver of the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) John Clarke’s latest blog, “Hydrogen Diving: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.” Interestingly enough, Sheck mentioned the use of hydrogen and hydreliox towards the end of my 1992 aquaCORPS interview with him, “Exley on Mix.”
It’s also likely that future tech divers may one day have access to lightweight, self-contained one-atmosphere exosuits, similar to what atmospheric-diving-systems (ADS) pioneer Phil Nuytten, of Nuytco Research, is building for the US Navy. Far-fetched? In 2014, British caveman Phil Short piloted an exosuit on a Woods Hole expedition in Greece to depths of 123 m/400 ft in search of the Antikythera Mechanism. It’s not hard to imagine.
I asked Sheck, a few years after his record 264 m/867 ft dive at Mante, what he thought the ultimate depth limit would be. “There is no limit,” he said. “We’ll always find a way to go deeper and deeper. That’s been the pattern all along. Ten years from now, twenty years from now, people will be doing things we’ve never dreamed of, and I see no reason for that to change.”
“There is no limit,” he said. “We’ll always find a way to go deeper and deeper. That’s been the pattern all along. Ten years from now, twenty years from now, people will be doing things we’ve never dreamed of, and I see no reason for that to change.”
What does it take physiologically to dive beyond 250 meters? Here in this story from aquaCORPS #11 Underground XPLORERS, August 1995, we analyze extraordinary number of factors must be considered to conduct a 1000 ft/307m dive and includes Bowden’s decompression table. See: Absolutely Risky Business
By comparison, here is Nuno Gomes’ decompression table used for his record 1996 dive to 282.6m/927 ft.
What was Bowden’s motivation to bottom out Zacatón? Also in aquaCORPS #11 Underground XPLORERS, we interviewed Jim Bowden about his plan to get to the bottom of Zacatón: “I want to see the end of the cave. This one just happens to be vertical.”
You can find out more about Nuno Gome’s diving projects including his record dives on his website.
For the deepest shipwreck dives see: Extending The Envelope Revisited: The 30 Deepest Tech Shipwreck Dives
Video Resources: Deepest Cave Dives
3D maps produced by DEPTHX of the Zacatón Cenote System by Stone Aerospace
Be sure to check out Nuno’s autobiography, BEYOND BLUE: Journey Into the Deep, which includes a lot of important cave diving history.
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.
Nuno Gomes is a professional civil engineer, a CMAS technical diving instructor and a commercial diver. He was born in Lisbon, but his family relocated to South Africa during his youth. He now lives in New York, permanently, with his family. He has done all types of diving all over the world.
He used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to a depth of 321.81 meters (1,056 feet), inclusive of rope stretch, in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt near Dahab, in June 2005. The total dive time was 12 hours and 20 minutes. The descent took 14 minutes with two minutes spent at the bottom.
He also used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to 282.6 meters (927 feet) in the Bushmansgat cave, in South Africa, in 1996. The cave is located at an altitude of 1,550 meters (5,086 feet) above sea level, which resulted in a decompression schedule for an equivalent sea level dive to a depth of 339 meters (1,112 feet) in order to prevent decompression sickness. The total dive time was 12 hours and 15 minutes with four minutes spent at the bottom of the cave.
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.