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Getting Back in the Water with Caveman Phil Short

With local diving slowly opening in the wake of the pandemic, InDepth caught up with British cave explorer and educator Phil Short to see how he navigated his post lockdown re-submergence. And what about those 14, 15, 16 month old oxygen sensors?

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by Michael Menduno

Header photo by Michael Thomas. Phil Short swims under Wookey Chamber 14.

With diving just beginning to resume in various parts of the world after what felt like an interminable shutdown, we thought it would be interesting to check in with some of our friends to see how they were approaching their return to the underwater world after such a long hiatus. 

British caver Phil Short sporting his colours. Photo courtesy of Phil Short.

Ironically, it’s been the longest that 51-year old British cave explorer, scientific diving officer, exosuit pilot, educator and film consultant Phil Short, principal of Dark Water Explorations Ltd. has been out of the water in his entire 30-year diving career. How did one of tech diving’s indefatigable pioneers plot his re-submergence, and what would he offer up to colleagues about to take the plunge? 

We chatted up Short just as he was booking his first dive project trip abroad; this is what the ardent caveman said.

InDepth: Maybe we can start with you explaining a little about the circumstances in the UK. I know you were on lock down as far as diving was concerned, and they are now in the process of opening up.

Phil Short: Basically, when the COVID-19 crisis began, the country went into lockdown for all nonessential activities. So obviously, any type of sport and recreation was included in that. And then, after about two months, they slowly started to reduce the restrictions, certainly for more normal activities and allowed certain sports to take place again. There was a lot of controversy over diving, because COVID-19 is a respiratory or lung-borne disease. So there was concern that it could create additional potential hazards with lung expansion injuries and embolisms.

In the UK, we have a group called the British Diving Safety Group, which is made up of various organizations including diving training agencies: the British equivalent of the Coast Guard, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is our version of OSHA and the diving industry trade organization, and SITA (Scuba Industries Trade Association). I am a member, and we met to determine what the safest and most prudent, most expedited means were to get people back in the water. We consulted with the hyperbaric medical community, COVID-19 related medical experts, the agencies with the authorities that control charter boat operations, and with the HSE. 

The first permissions were for small groups. Basically, you and one buddy could do shore dives. We adopted recommendations by the NSS-CDS as to how gas sharing should take place, and safety or S-drills so you are not breathing from each other’s equipment. 

So when did you go diving?

As a member of the BDSG committee, I was very diligent not to go in the water until the evening we announced that it was permissible to go beach or shore diving. The next morning, 28May 2020, I left my house at 4 AM to go and do a beach dive on a landing craft from the second world war, a genuine World War II wreck. I descended at 6:23 AM and it was just heaven because I had been out of the water for 86 days because of the restrictions. And it was just great to get back in.

Where did you make your last pre-COVID-19 dive? 

My previous dive had been on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands off of West Africa teaching a trimix rebreather class. It was a 93m/303 ft dive. I got on the plane, flew home, and the lockdown started almost immediately. And then 86 days later, I was doing a 12m/39 ft dive off the beach in the UK. It was my longest break in diving in the 30 years I’ve been in the industry.

The Wreck of P&O Liner Salsette off U.K South Coast 12th July 2020 (Post COVID Lock Down.) Photo by Marcus Blatchford.

Let me ask you, did you have a conscious strategy or approach to getting back in the water? You didn’t start back in at 90 meters.

Yes, it was conscious. Certainly rebreathers, it’s not just like riding a bike. You do need to keep current. I recommend to my students to be doing at least one skill dive on the rebreather per month, minimum, to maintain currency. 

So I decided that for the first dive, once the permissions had been given, to go make the beach dive on doubles. I’ve got a nice little twin 8.5L set that’s small enough for walking over the beach. It still had the redundancy, but it was simple scuba and a simple depth of just 12m/39ft. Basically, the first thing I did when I got in the water was descend just a few feet and made sure that I was proficient with doing a shutdown and isolation drill on the doubles. 

Then I went for the dive on a good nitrox with a long no-decompression time and surfaced way before I was getting anywhere near decompression. I took it gently. First time back in 86 days, I took it gently, and then over the last six or seven weeks, I’ve started to build up from there.

I know you’ve talked and probably compared notes with colleagues and other divers. Do you think people there are approaching getting back in the water sanely or is it a bit of a madhouse? How would you characterize things in the UK?

I would say, as often happens, it’s mixed. So, based on recommendations of the agencies and their instructors, the majority of people are getting back into it gradually like I did myself. But there’ll always be those who say, “Oh, I’m a good diver. I don’t need to do that. I’ve not been allowed to dive for two or three months. I want to go do what I want to do.” And they go straight out and do a 50 or 60m dive, which I think is just foolish. 

Even ignoring the COVID-19 situation, if you were out of diving because of having a kid, or experiencing a job change or anything like that, or after a big layoff, I think it would be prudent to get back in gently and then slowly build up. So, my first dive was shallow with open circuit doubles. My next dive was a very limited penetration, shallow cave dive on open circuit, side mount, again with redundancy. A no-decompression dive but back in my natural environment of caves for a little swim around. 

Wookey Hole Cave (The birthplace of cave diving) at the base of the Mendip Hills U.K. (Post COVID Lock Down). Photo by Michael Thomas.

Gradually over the weeks, because I had better access to caves than I did to the sea, I did more and more cave dives and slowly built up in duration and distance, but still on open circuit. I then got permission from the owner to access one of the inland lakes, and we did some pre-official opening work for the owners of the site. I got back in on the rebreather but again, no-decompression, relatively shallow, no more than 30m/100 ft. Next, I integrated stages and my DPV (diver propulsion vehicle). 

My first teaching was a Level one, Mod One rebreather course that I team-taught with a fellow UK instructor. It was a perfect way to get back in gently because we were running 10 hours over 8 to 10 dives of constant skills for the students. So that was a real refresher. And then finally last weekend, a group of us that had all been doing that type of gradual build up got out on a boat off the south coast of the UK, on a 33 m/108 ft deep wreck on Saturday. On Sunday, we dived a very well-known wreck, the SS Salsette, in 45 m/147 ft of water in beautiful conditions. Calm sea, good visibility, and a real wreck. So I had made a gradual buildup over seven or eight weeks to get to that point, rather than jumping straight back in.

Sweet. You mentioned rebreathers (CCR). Currently, there is a global shortage of oxygen sensors underway as a result of the pandemic. Oxygen sensors are being diverted to the medical industry, which is under siege right now from COVID-19. Any concerns or worries that people will go diving with out-of-date cells? Do you think that’s an issue? 

It definitely concerns me. I’ve been a CCR instructor at all the levels, almost exclusively for the last 15 years, and I’ve seen people go out and happily spend five, six, seven, 10,000 pounds on a brand new rebreather and the training and then go out and be cheap on a £16 fill of Sofnolime or a £16 fill of oxygen. And you’re like, what are you doing? You paid £10,000 for this equipment and you’re risking your life on a £16 refill of consumables? People are so desperate right now to get back to their hobby; they feel like it’s been taken away from them, that I worry they may not always act sensibly. 

Short checking the oxygen sensors on his rebreather. Photo courtesy of Phil Short.

It’s been a battle over the last five or six years to get people to really wake up and pay attention to the fact that these sensors are your life support. There was a very high-profile accident that was caused by overrun sensors a few years back with a quite-well-known person in the industry. He effectively died on the bottom, was rescued by his buddy, then was helicoptered to the hospital where he was put into an induced coma. He came out of it several days later and he was very, very lucky to survive. And very, very lucky to come back to actual diving again. But that was all caused by old, overbaked sensors. 

So what do you see happening?

I think what’s going to happen, you know, is that some people ran out of fresh sensors a couple of months ago so now it’s 14 months, 15 months, 16 months. And some may be thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay. They’re reading fine, they’re working fine.” Some people might be doing linearity checks, doing oxygen flushes at 6 m/20 ft to check if they read high when appropriate. 

But really, the companies like AP Diving, JJ-CCR, Vobster Marine Systems, and others have put a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money into researching and independently testing these life-support machines for functionality, with certain parameters. Much like car manufacturers do so you can drive your family and your kids in a safe car. [Hammerhead CCR developer] Kevin Jurgenson summed it up once brilliantly when he put out a statement saying, ”Okay, people are questioning the duration that a sensor can last. Some people would say 12 months. Others would say 52 weeks. Some would say 365 days.” And he carried on to include hours, minutes etc. Basically saying, a year is a year. Whichever way you try to stretch it, it’s a year. No more.

Personally, I would not violate that because those three simple galvanic fuel cells that represent probably somewhere between $200 and $300 depending on the manufacturer and the unit, representing a tiny percentage of the expense that I’ve outlaid to become a rebreather diver, is not worth my life. 

As I mentioned, I am now back on my rebreather after starting on open circuit, and if my sensors eventually pass their 12-month date, I’m very happy to return to open circuit for as long as I have to while I wait to buy some new cells. 

I have always believed in my educational career of thirty years in the diving industry to lead by example. Those are my feelings. I know from experience when you make comments like that, and it’s effectively the same as raising your head above the trench in a warfare situation. People are going to take shots; but bring it on. If you’ve got a sensible, scientific argument for extending your cells past 12 months, then I’m happy to discuss it. But I don’t think there is one.



So the moral is, if you have sensors that are past either one year, 12 months, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,000 minutes, or 31.5 million seconds, then you need to go back to open circuit, or not dive until you can get some new ones?

I believe so. The manufacturers whose rebreathers I have dived and taught on over the last 10 years are people that were passionate about rebreather safety. And much like [Sheck] Exley, who focused on improving cave training and cave safety by writing Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival, these manufacturers—people like Martin Parker at AP Diving and Jan Petersen at JJ CCR have gone the extra mile to improve safety.

You know full well from the aquaCORPS days, if you look at the safety record of CCR diving now, versus 15 years ago, we made a difference. It has become safer. Why ruin it, because of impatience and a short-term, relatively short-term, restriction on availability of consumables?

Right. In fact, I have talked to Nicky Finn at AP and also Jakub Sláma at Divesoft who have been in touch with sensor manufacturers regarding shortages, and it seems that the situation may be stabilizing and or easing up, assuming we don’t have a second wave of COVID-19 infections. So hopefully, the situation will improve.

Actually, I’ve heard that from several manufacturers, and I think it will improve quicker than was first anticipated. And that’s even more of a reason for not doing anything foolish and being a little bit patient with this to be safe.

Last question: What’s next for you? Got any big projects coming up? 

I just booked my first flight to travel out of the UK again. This time to Croatia. I’m going to be designing and building a water dredge system for recovering and capturing sediment on an archaeological site for a project that we are going to do in October. This is a follow-up project from one we did in 2017 to recover a US World War II pilot from a wrecked B24 bomber that ditched in the Adriatic Sea. We’re going back to do another recovery on a different wreck. 

The dredge system will be designed to work at the appropriate depth level so that we can basically recover the sediment without losing anything. Specifically, we’re not going to miss any of the crew that are found through that dredging. So, I’ve got a 10-day trip to build that system, test it in the same depth of water, and have it ready for the project. 

“Short suiting up at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) for Nuytco Exosuit pilot training ” Photo by Ed O’Brien, WHOI diving safety officer.

When I come back from that, I’m flying out to Switzerland to train on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount with a good friend and former student of mine, Nadir Quarta. It will be my first sidemount rebreather. I’ve got no intention of moving away from my JJ as my primary rebreather, but I’ve got quite a few cave projects that require a side mount that I can’t do in my back-mount JJ. They don’t offer a sidemount, and because of distance and depth, I can’t do it on open circuit. I put a lot of thought into which unit to use, and am very impressed with Divesoft’s engineering and build. They’re also very courteous and professional to deal with. I like working with people like that.

After training, I plan to attend a Swiss technical dive conference, Dive TEC! in Morges as a speaker, where I will be talking on my 30-year journey as a cave diver and explorer.

Fun times ahead! Thank you, Phil. I look forward to talking to you again soon.

Thank you!


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 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. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.

Cave

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.

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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.

The ultimate dream of becoming a cave diver accessible for all? Photo by Marissa Eckert.

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.

How do we handle tricky situations? Photo by Mirsoslav Dvoracek

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:

Kit

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.

Preparing the kit. Photo by Petr Chmel.

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.

Safety

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.

Penetration stress can occur within only a few meters. Photo by Kathrine Livins.

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:

  1. PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
  2. 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.
  1. 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!
Lights are an integral part of safely experiencing a cave. Photo by Kathrine Livine.

Teamwork

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.

Know where you are and where you’re going. Photo by Miroslav Dvoracek.

Pre-Dive Checks

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

References:

 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.

Additional Resources:

The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr

Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)

Facebook Pages/Groups:

Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING

Diving Educators – Teaching and Learning Techniques (Group)

Human Factors in Diving

Web pages:

www.mattjevon.com

www.swt.ie

www.thehumandiver.com


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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