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Diving Rocks! The Traverse from Ship Rock to Bird Rock
Tech instructor and musico Francesco Cameli reports on a recent team dive traversing the two humongous rocks that bookmark the San Pedro Channel, max depth 70m/230 ft. Power up your DPV; you’re in for a 1189m/3900ft ride!
by Francesco Cameli
Predive click: “We will, we will rock you, rock you. We will, we will rock you, rock you”—Queen
Well, I wish I could say it was my idea, but it was not. It was, in fact, one of my favourite team mates Jim Babor who came up with it. In his mind, he had been wanting to do this for a couple of years. It looked doable, but he hadn’t done the research to figure out if in fact that was true. It was in fact doable.
So, about six months ago with the pandemic in full bloom and Jim out of work, he decided to open a chart of Catalina Island (Two Harbors, specifically) and see what we would be looking at for depth and distance.
The chart said a max depth of 76 m/250 ft and a distance of about 1189 m/3900 ft. Based on that, the traverse seemed totally doable with time to spare!
He originally planned on 46 m/150 ft a minute on the scooters once we started, as long as there was no current. Big Blue, the boat we used, had actually run the course about a month before the dive and confirmed that the max depth was right at 70 m/230 ft, and the deepest part would happen in the first third. The bottom is shaped like a “V” so it would be easy to plan the dive and the decompression.
Now that he had an idea the dive could be done he had to get six divers that could, and wanted to, do the dive. So, he reached out to David Watson, Mark Self, Karim Hamza, Nir Maimon, and me. We all agreed to the 230 feet max depth with no more than a 60 minutes decompression obligation. Travel time would be 26 minutes, but we agreed to travel for 35 minutes max in case we needed extra time to find Bird Rock. We could still travel and do our accumulated deco—at that point anyway.
One final thing about the plan: navigation. Jim really wanted Karim to navigate because he’d been on many project based dives with him, and Karim is super reliable always, and on target.
In the morning when we got to the site, we ran the course one final time in the boat. We briefed and made it clear that one person would navigate and one person would verify—Watson—and that we would not navigate by committee. The hardest part about that is just not doubting yourself and your compass along the way, which is something we talked about before we jumped in. You see both the starting point and finishing point are two firm Los Angeles Underwater Explorers (LAUE) favorite dive spots.
Location Location, Location
SHIP ROCK is a small pinnacle that protrudes out of the water just offshore from Two Harbours in Catalina. It lies off the Isthmus about two miles. It takes its name from its great resemblance to a ship under full sail.
The top hundred feet under the pinnacle are nice enough, but it’s beyond 30m/100 feet, in my opinion, that it truly becomes magical with structure down to the sand at 52 m/170 feet and plenty of outcrops at 55m/180 ft, 61m/200ft to 77m/250 ft. It is also at times visited by a large great white which the locals call the landlord, although no one can be sure it is always the same shark or merely a term used to describe the different ones that frequent it. I have yet to see one there. All that said, it makes a great site for recreational and technical divers alike.
BIRD ROCK: Lays about a half-mile off Fisherman’s Cove, it appears above the channel waters as an oval, rounded, cemented rock about 91m/300ft by 152m/500 feet in extent and 6m/20 feet high. The rock is white with guano and is bare except for a limited patch of vegetation on the southeast side. The vegetation consists mostly of Opuntia among which grows about forty individuals of Cosmos gigantea, six shrubs of Lavatera, and a few plants of Malva rotundifolia. This rock is doubtless the original Catalina station for Lavatera and the place where it grows naturally.
This site, on the other hand, is only good to 49 m/160 ft or so, but to say only good, is not fair. The site itself is stunning with a great shelf at about 6m/20 feet which makes a great spot to end deco and is frequently visited by sea lions that love to play around as you pass the time before surfacing.
It’s only downside, due to the amount of bird guano, is that Bird Rock smells somewhat unpleasant!
We spent so much time diving these two sites, I’m kind of surprised no one thought of doing this until now.
The Final challenge was the boat captain and crew. Jim had been in constant contact with Captain Sheldon beforehand, and he was nervous about us doing the dive mainly because we would go under (albeit at 61m/200 ft) the main boat lane in and out of Two Harbors. We all totally respected the Captain, and it was his boat, so if he didn’t want us to do it, we wouldn’t do it, no questions asked.
However, after educating him on our plan and informing him that if anything happened, we would not make a direct ascent to the surface (we would incur a deco obligation pretty soon into the dive anyway, before reaching the boat lane), the Captain was comfortable and on board with the plan.
As mentioned the team was made up of Jim, David, Karim, Nir, Mark and me. Sadly, Mark had his car broken into the night before, so he did not join us on the dive.
The two sites are separated by approximately 1189 m/3900 ft. The maximum depth we were expecting to see between the two was 70m/230 ft, and, in fact, we saw 69m/228. The expected travel time was 26 minutes with a rise 2/3rds of the way there up to 46m/150ft then back down to 55m/180 feet before climbing back up to the rock.
The plan was to take a heading and try to stick to it the best we could, while remembering to keep the underwater mound to our right as we passed it on route. If we missed the rock, we would hit the main island a few minutes later at another favourite spot called Blue Caverns. This is a series of caverns at about 70 to 80 feet on the face of Catalina island just outside of Two Harbours.
Due to Mark not making the dive we had four JJ-CCR (closed circuit rebreather) divers and one open circuit diver, so we decided to split into a group of three with the OC diver between two JJs and one team of two, but the plan was to all stick together as a group of five. So, we travelled as a reverse triangle, three at the front and two close in behind. The CCR divers wore their long hoses above the loop in case of necessity to donate, a common GUE practise in mixed teams.
At depth and in the darkness, it was easy to keep track of each other’s lights—not unlike on a cave dive. The formation kept together nicely with the occasional diver dropping all the way to the deck to check max depth and perhaps inspect an object or two that we passed along the way. The plan, however, was not to dilly-dally but rather to stay on course and on time!
The JJs has trimix 12/65 diluent and bailout. In the GUE JJ configuration, there is a common set of doubles (LP50s in the states) which is both trimix bailout and dil. Additional bottom stages or deep deco gas can be carried in additional aluminum 80s (AL80) as required by depth and gas calculations. 50% and 100% were the deco gases. The open Circuit Diver was on trimix 15/55 with 50% and 100% deco gases. Every diver carried enough gas for the dive to ensure we had plenty in case of separation. Typically, as GUE divers we never dive with “team” bailout but always carry our full complement.
Traversing the Rocks
With all the planning done well ahead of dive day, we loaded the boat and took the one-hour ride to Ship Rock, where we anchored. After all our pre-dive checks and pre-breathes, we got into the water and took one last heading toward the rock to make sure. We dropped to 30 m/100 ft where we paused briefly to make sure all systems were good to go before heading to Bird.
Karim Hamza was given the task of navigating, so he aimed his DPV and we all speed matched. We were on our way!
A few words from Karim as the navigator: “Jim had already done a run with the boat using the sonar. Based on that, we knew that our max depth would be around 230fsw. If we got deeper than that, we knew we were off course to the left, and if we got shallower at the wrong time, we knew we were off course to the right. Then we used certain depth markers, such as a shallow pinnacle before Bird Rock, as navigational waypoints. We made the decision to specifically use digital compasses, as the number and marker would be easier to follow.
We had a little confusion at the start since David, Jim, and I actually had different headings, which meant the digital compasses were not calibrated the same. After a quick discussion, we decided to each take a dead reckoning of Bird Rock, mark it, and use the marker as the direction of travel. The plan then was for me to navigate, for David to verify or backup my navigation, and for the others to follow. We did not want to navigate by committee underwater. One crucial thing that we discussed was the fact that after some time, we may start to doubt our navigation and where we were on the course. This, in a lot of ways, is the most critical point in the dive. It is important at this point of doubt to trust your own experience, your data, your compass, your teammates’ verification, and everything you planned to stay on course, and to not waver and miss your mark.
Once we started, we were on a time limit, and we did have to stop for a few minor issues; communication of scooter speed, one team member had a light issue that had to be resolved, and one team member decided to do a zig-zag sightseeing course along the way which was very distracting for me, as I was trying to stay on course navigating. I didn’t realize how distracting it was until we got back on the boat and discussed and debriefed the dive.
Finally, once we made it across—and along the way recognizing the landmarks we had planned for—we ended up on an upslope that came up to 36 m/120 ft on our right. This was not something we had planned and was confusing at first (this is where the self doubt starts to kick in). I decided at that point to take a 90 degree heading to the left, go back down to 46m/150 ft, turn right 90’ and after five minutes we were at a recognizable part of Bird Rock that we had all dived many times before.
From the 30m/100 ft shelf Ship Rock drops quickly to 70m/228 ft where it stayed for the first third of our journey. This took us along a mainly flat, sandy bottom with the odd dusting of medium rock and a large anchor that someone obviously lost. About nine minutes in, we started to climb, this was supposed to lead us past an underwater pinnacle that rises to some 18 m/60 ft, we were supposed to leave this to our right and climb to 46 m/150 ft. As it turned out, we had ended up on the right side of the mound, so at 34 m/110 ft, we were able to cross back over and drop back down to 55 m/180 ft as expected. At that point, we readjusted our heading back toward the rock.
The depth remained constant as expected for a few more minutes and then it started to climb with groups of rocks. Then, only three minutes behind schedule after our small detour, boom we hit the rock head on. We were at 34m/110 ft, and the sea lions confirmed we were on the right site. We were at a spot we call the aquarium—a firm favourite of mine, with multiple steps covered in lush Californian kelp. It is visually stunning and punctuated by playing sea pups. This led us to a wall which I have done many tech dives on. We kept the wall on our right and commenced our ascent along the wall.
Deco was uneventful as planned with only David who was on open circuit doing his gas switches at 21m/70 ft to his 50% and 20 ft to pure O2. At 6m/20 ft we slowly kicked around passing the time in the kelp. Two minutes from surfacing, we deployed a surface marker buoy (SMB) and were met by the boat as we broke the surface.
As it turns out, with our average depth at 52m/170ft rounded to the nearest 3m/10 ft, the OC and CCR deco profiles tracked very closely, with the CCR divers obliging very slightly longer stops deeper to let the OC diver do his stops and vice versa at 6m/20 ft where an extra couple of minutes were required by the CCRs, so we all stayed together and did all the deco as a group. This was very much in keeping with what we had planned with our Deco Planner software before the dive. In the end, it was just a case of confirming which deco profile we were going to do based on our average depth and time.
Plan the Dive, Dive The Plan
We planned the dive and dove the plan with a small re-adjust of direction midway through. The team reacted calmly and got back on track as is expected of a well-oiled, high-functioning technical team. We realized we were on the wrong side, confirmed with brief hand gesture discussion, and rectified the situation to eventually end up exactly where we had planned. On we went, would we find the rock? Well, we could not have hit Bird Rock more dead on! Kudos Mr. Hamza for your navigation! And only three minutes past when we had calculated we would arrive.
On the whole, the dive was relaxed, uneventful, focused, and a lot of fun. Just how we like ‘em. Our total run time was about 100 minutes.
Unfortunately, we had no cameras or video of the dive. We didn’t think of it beforehand and, honestly, we all wanted to just be focused on what we were doing. Also, no top side photos. The only photos of us are the ones on Facebook of us all napping on the way back, haha! We would like to do it again at some point—take a go pro video of it and speed it up 10x’s and make a three-minute video out of the whole thing. Jim thought that might be cool. After a surface interval, we did a recreational dive on the nearby Isthmus reef. A great day of diving for all. Thanks to Big Blue’s Captain Sheldon Jones and our very own GUE diver and DM Nicole Coleman for the surface support.
One final note about GUE standard gasses. These have been formulated keeping a number of variables in mind. Max PO2, Max Density, Equivalent Narcotic Depth (END). These have been arranged and arrived at for easy memorization, as well as the ease of cross blending between them when the agency is on a project and they have been arranged into easy to remember and common depth ranges. The primary purpose for this standardization is to remove the guesswork and maintain team cohesion for deco. If everyone is on the same gas, then there should be no difference in deco obligation from team member to team member, making for an altogether safer ascent.
Typically, we try to maintain a PO2 of no more than 1.2 for the deep part of a tech dive with a max PO2 of 1.6 on deco. Also, 50% spikes at a 1.56 at the gas switch depth of 21m/70ft and then drops until we spike it again to a 1.6 with pure O2 at 6m/20ft. We run an END of no more than 4 ATA, an equivalent air density depth of no more than 5.2 grams/litre.
Born in France but hailing from Italy via England, Francesco’s passion for the ocean was ignited early on by the work of Jaques Cousteau, and Luc Besson’s film, The Big Blue. Growing up in the seaside village of Portofino, Italy, Francesco spent just about every daylight hour of his summers freediving. In his 20s and 30s, he found himself locked in a recording studio in London or Los Angeles making records for the likes of Queen and Duran Duran as well as Korn, Stone Sour, Avatar, and others. Francesco rediscovered the ocean on a trip to Kona, which is where his scuba journey began in earnest. Since then, he has averaged over 200 dives a year cultivating his own skills. Once he found GUE, he worked his way through the curriculum and became a GUE instructor in 2019. That year, the passionate and exacting polymath was one of the busiest GUE instructors in Los Angeles. He is now a Tech One Instructor. Some say you can occasionally hear him singing to the fish.
A Perspective on Teaching Cave CCR
Veteran Irish cave and CCR instructor cum sports psychologist Matt Jevon explains how he teaches divers to become competent underground rebreather divers who “err safely” and thus are likely to return home at the end of the dive.
by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of Marissa Eckert
“To err is human” Alexander Pope
In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” However, if you are not prepared to err safely in cave or rebreather diving, you will come face to face with your preferred divine being, begging for forgiveness.
Stratis Kas’s book, Close Calls, a compilation of stories from a roll call of “who’s who” in diving, attests to the fact that the very best of us can and do make mistakes, or err. That they are still here to share these lessons with us affirms the huge amount of training, preparation, and experience required—and, as many will admit, no small amount of luck.
Gareth Lock, author of Under Pressure, is fond of the phrase “fail safely,” and with good cause. As he puts it, and I paraphrase; the human in the machine is at the heart of likely outcomes. In my own experience as a psychologist with expertise in human performance, the best systems, processes, and technologies are often outwitted by an unwitting fool or an arrogant wise man.
Today there is a surge of divers wishing to become cave divers, perhaps because it is perceived by some as the pinnacle of diving—in skill and status—or perhaps because it is seen as more accessible. Certainly, social media has given access to the incredible and beautiful environments that were once the playground of a select few. Divers are discovering that cave and modern diving practices, equipment, and training are making it a much safer environment until they start exploring virgin caves. Closed circuit rebreathers (CCR) are now mainstream and in wide use by many divers. In cave and deep dives, I would say they have become the primary tool; the limitations of open circuit scuba are seen as making it inappropriate for most “big” dives.
By the time a diver reaches their CCR cave course, they will, or should be, a knowledgeable, skillful, and competent diver on a CCR. Perhaps the odd one will find a shortcut, but it is the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the majority will already have some open circuit cave training, at least to intro level if not to full cave. The pathway from zero to hero in the cave is much longer and more difficult to shortcut than, say, open water to instructor status. Starting cave diving on CCR from cavern to full cave is, and should be, a much longer route.
[Ed.note: There are arguments against allowing a student to pursue any form of diving before gaining open circuit experience. Some argue that one should first become competent on open circuit in the relevant environment and THEN train in that environment on RB/CCR. This argument asserts that RB failures will find a diver on open circuit, requiring them to be proficient on this equipment in the relevant environment. These factors may be progressively more relevant with more complex environments.]
So, the CCR cave instructor is not dealing with an inexperienced CCR diver; nor, if they are as careful in their acceptance of students as most are, will they be dealing with an adrenaline seeking-junkie. See “Why We Cave Dive” (video) for reasons why some divers seek out the karst realm, as well as examples of divers we hope to encourage into the sport and those we prefer to avoid it.
The job of a cave CCR instructor is not to prevent all errors or mistakes. It would be both arrogant and foolish to believe that instructors can overcome human nature and the situational factors found in closed circuit cave diving. The instructor’s role is to lessen the frequency and severity and to mitigate the consequences of those errors as, and when, they occur. The instructor must do this in the course, ideally exposing students to likely errors or challenges in controlled conditions and embedding appropriate solutions. Students should acquire appropriate and controlled emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.
Being a cave instructor has a few significant differences from being a deep technical rebreather instructor. Here are a few:
Cave diving demands a greater equipment load. The number of backups can be summarised as “Three is two, and one is none.” So, three sources of light sufficient to complete an exit, three cutting devices, reel/spools, markers, breathing sources, and more. Before entering any overhead environment, the instructor must help students configure, become familiar with, and master accessing and manipulating their configuration. For this reason, cave divers opt for simple, easy solutions that are robust and definitely not prone to failure. This applies to their primary gear (CCR choice) and to every single piece of backup gear.
My own choices are primarily sidemount-based in the cave; the Liberty rebreather; Divesoft computers, primary reel and markers; plus O’Three 90ninety shell suit; and Apeks regulators and spools, all based on a Razor Sidemount System. In backmount I use a JJ-CCR, but I am now using the Liberty Sidemount rebreather as a bailout system. All simple, proven, tough, and each piece having substantial built-in redundancy/failure management options.
The instructor’s primary role—despite what many believe to the contrary—is, in any diving, to ensure that the students are safe and that they go home unharmed medically, physically, or mentally. Secondary to this is teaching skills, having fun, and awesome and epic dives. What a big ask in cave diving!
Progression in open water diving is more straightforward, especially using mixed gas. In the absence of narcosis, divers can build up deco time gradually and have a pre-rehearsed familiar exit/ascent permanently above them. Although not different in terms of time to exit, an open water deco ceiling somehow seems, to most, to be less of a psychological threat than several hundred tons of rock.
I have seen cave divers suddenly go from a point of being perfectly happy to being very unsettled and distressed within a few meters. There is actually a term for this: penetration stress. Penetration should be slowly built up over time with confidence in the linear distance built through many dives—some, but not all, including stressful exits (blind, bailed out, manual control, or touch contact).
To do this, an instructor needs considerable empathy. Some instructors may shy away from this and instead use a pseudo militaristic approach by battering, bullying, or belittling the student, constantly tearing off masks, shutting down gas, or more. (We are talking personality types here, not problem solving training.) Stay away from these people at all costs.
Instructors cope with a high task load. Not only do they have to monitor the group’s penetration distance, navigation, and teamwork, but they also need to monitor the students and their own PO2, decompression obligations and time to surface (TTL), bailout supply and limits, on board gas supply, scrubber durations, as well as to teach. In order to do this, a few tricks are employed. Some of these may be useful when diving in any CCR team:
- PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
- Instructor Ghost Mode. Not just used for sneaky (pre-warned and planned) drills, the lights off/blackout ghost mode is often accompanied by pull and glide along ceilings or cave walls where no damage to the environment is possible. Instructors, especially on quiet CCRs, can get within a few centimeters of a student without their knowing, or they can shoot ahead. It is a bad practice to turn off (as opposed to cover) one’s primarily in a cave. The on-off button/switch is a weak point, especially at depth—sufficient working backups are required.
- Buddy lights on CCRs are brilliant for instructor/team monitoring, Divesoft’s show up well and Sentinels almost too well. When I was a student, my instructor found ghost mode difficult to fully pull off, since I saw this green light above me every time he tried it!
As an instructor, you want the students to develop their own robust team dynamic. If you are part of this, too often, students will always defer to your authority and default to you for leadership and solutions. So, if you do join the team to make up numbers, always be number 2, the weakest member, and play the part. Students don’t need to see how clever or skilled you are, they need to develop their own skills.
Navigation: Know the cave you are teaching in. For students’ first dives where I may not know them or their capabilities, I like to be in caves where a lost line would not be an issue for me in terms of exiting. Take Ressell in France for instance: A quick glance at the ceiling and a look at the scallop shapes in the rock, and I know which way is out.
These assume a whole other level of importance in cave and rebreather diving. A checklist is useful but only if you properly check everything on it. Turn backup lights on and off, breathe bailout regs at least 4-5 breaths. Fill and dump wings and drysuits. Prevention will ensure survival. It will also give students confidence, which means you are less likely to have issues, you’ll get a better response if you do, and you can actually enjoy the dive. [Ed.—Check out GUE’s Pre-Dive Sequence here]
Here are a few tricks I also like to instill:
- Link routines. For example, PO2 check and back reference. I use a hand mirror, so looking back is easy, and a quick over the shoulder is not difficult. Every time I check PO2, I look behind me. Caves often look very different on the way out and if I can, I will mentally imprint landmarks that I will see on exit. Some caves have distance markers every 100-150 m/328-492 ft on the main line, especially training caves. I’m not a huge fan of these for my own diving, as it’s a bit like graffiti; but, for trainees, PO2 plus back reference anytime you pass any navigational marker is a good routine.
- Wetnotes use. A good habit in a new cave is to make a note of time, distance, gas, and the navigation marking/direction in your wetnotes at any substantive navigation. On some dives, this will be two or three notes. Do this in some Mexican caves and you will get about 300 m/0.2 miles from the entrance and need a new Wetnotes book, so be sensible!
Finally, students will learn a lot of new skills, from what to do when you lose teammates, lose or become entangled in the line, encounter a broken line, have light and equipment failures, and more. Many of these will be done with blindfolds or blacked-out masks (mine say, “Use the force” on the front). On an open circuit, these situations can be challenging. On CCR, doing blackout drills while controlling loop content and volume, handling multi bailouts, and more, requires time both to learn and to embed. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes the lost line drill will provide unique challenges to get it right. If conducted correctly, you will probably get it wrong half the time!
Ultimately, graduating a new CCR cave diver is a moment to enjoy for the instructor—one with a need for appropriate gravitas and consideration. I have certified divers who were less proficient than other divers that I failed or asked to repeat. That was because a student’s attitude, mental strength, and sound decision-making ensured that they would likely go home safely from each dive. As the sign posted at the entrance of almost every cave reads, “Nothing in this cave is worth dying for.” There is an awful lot of cave diving worth living for, and I have been privileged to see some spectacular caves.
Barnson S.C. (2014) The Authentic Coaching Model: A Grounded Theory of Coaching. Human kinetics, Champaign, Il.
Troy A. Moles, Alex D. Auerbach & Trent A. Petrie (2017) Grit Happens: Moderating Effects on Motivational Feedback and Sport Performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 418-433, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1306729
Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella, S. A., Allen, M. S. & Keegan, R. (2017). Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35 (23),2272-2280.
The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr
Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)
Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING
Matt Jevon, M.Sc. F.IoD, is a Full Expedition level Trimix and Cave instructor on OC and CCR with TDI and ANDI. He is a JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines and wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, and he was one of the inaugural Dirty Dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in the high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and expeditionary level diving as a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland (), and hosts the Facebook page “Psychological Skills for Diving.”
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