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I See A Darkness: A Descent Into Germany’s Felicitas Mine

We join Italian explorer and tech instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini on an poetic exploration of the Felicitas Mine in Germany, as he and his teammates ponder the life of the German miners who once occupied its passageways. Be sure to check out his video documentary below!

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Text and video by Andrea Murdock Alpini. Photos courtesy of PHY Diving Equipment.

The more time passes, the less is the distance that separates you from the object of your desire—in this case it’s a place. Watching, observing, studying, writing, and pinning drafts of questions that are waiting for an answer. 

Deciding to follow a line, understanding its feasibility, its esthetical beauty, and the historical meaning. Few hours separate us from the place where German miners had been working for centuries, we are going to dive into Felicitas Mine where hundreds of workers lived and dreamt for decades covered by a soft, sooty layer of slate. Advancing across tunnels and caressing the black dream of ancient slate rocks, coexists with personal loneliness of cold water, rock, writing and breath. Descending below the edge of earth, to move closer to the surface of life. Our story will be only a layer of dry walls who built Felicitas in the past. “The anonymous history is stratified”.  

Black Blade Feelings

In the morning we moved out from our base camp in Hutten. In the last few days, we had measured more than a thousand meters of cave line. We clarified our main targets and the areas of the mine I wished to film. We fixed our checkpoints by dropping off cylinders and spots where we placed our directional markers. My Cave-Van was filled with nineteen deco cylinders and twinsets ready to be used in Felicitas Mine. 

Fifty kilometers separated us from the arrival. Now the houses’ façades were black, as well as the roofs. The houses were built with the pure German Style “Fachwerkhäuser”. Looking out the car window, it seemed to be on top of Golgota mountain during Easter Sunday. The sky was obscured by deep black clouds, the color the same as the surroundings. The black is more than a shadow, was authoritarian. It was fascinating and absorbed all the rays of opaline light.  

Approaching the mine and reading the old billboard “Abela Heilstollen” was exciting. I wished to be there, inside the mine, in front of the water. As soon as I arrived at the spot, I started walking around the ancient barracks. We were surrounded by corn fields. Far away, at the end of the field on the left, I saw a cement turret rising over the corn plants. This was the end of the left branch of the mine: one of our main targets. Watching it and estimating the distance that we would have to fill later, swimming in open circuit, was impressive. The right branch, also known as “The Old Mine” was closer—530 m/1740 ft from the starting point of the dive. On this day we wished to reach the end of it. 

When we got inside the dry part of the mine, everything was the same as it was left a few decades ago, when the mine expired its vocation and was sold to a new society for another business. Slate machinery has been abandoned inside the hangar. Our team started to unload the heavy diving equipment from the van. We split it into three groups: mine, Gianni’s area, and finally Flavio’s one. He was the surface assistant and gas mixing supervisor, checking regulators, tank MODs and, last but not least, our interpreter, Mr. Wolf. 

Our daily plan consisted of three different dives, each one with a different final goal. 

The very first dive was focused on setting down our strong main-line, a 120 m/394 f length of solid 8mm rope. During the second dive, we were to carry six cylinders of safety gas (in the end) and EAN 50 plus Oxygen at 21 m/70 ft and 6 m/20 ft depth to complete our decompression procedures. At the end of the main-line there is a “T”, and turning left brings you directly into the NEW Mine, on the opposite side we had the OLD part of Felicitas Mine.

During our second dive we explored 270 m/886 ft of old tunnels, leaving directional markers with distance and we clipped safety gas cylinders along the way. We also visited the Santa Barbara, a real bunker where explosives were safeguarded. A layer of concrete separated the TNT from the slate tunnel. Inside, the room looked like a bank caveau, and what I found in front of my eyes was not so different from watching Mecca’s Kaaba. We had planned the basis for our third dive of the day, and it was time to start decompression. 

7:10pm—The Endless Path

We put our heads underwater, again. We left Flavio’s “OK” signal and swam the first 120 m/394 ft of the mine; we had to be quick and save time for the following part of the dive. We wanted to reach the end of the Old Mine’s tunnel. When we arrived at a fork, we got inside an old brick tunnel that was stunning. Below us, the ancient rail track slid away. More or less, we were 350 m/1148 ft  from the entrance, 170m/558 ft separated us from the “touchdown.” Along the way, we observed that many parts had collapsed, sometimes there were walls, and some others were debris that had fallen from the rooftop. 

Large ruins marked out the area, and at around 430 m/1411 ft, we had to swim for 100 m /328 ft more before reaching the farther part of the old branch. The ambience sometimes appeared scary and gloomy. This part was very tricky and precarious. Visiting the right branch was a great adventure, definitely a “must see” place of Felicitas.  

We were back then to the main “T”, where the path split. I was in front of an iron sacred shrine—a holy place where miners used to pray every day before starting their jobs, as well as before leaving the mine. On my left I could see our floating deco cylinders, clipped on the line. I was struggling between a “holy and profane love.” 

Barrel of Black Powder

At fifteen minutes to six pm, the third dive of the day was waiting for us there in Felicitas.  On this morning we placed the emergency line along the left branch. Large, empty spaces and huge machinery left inside the modern part of the mine characterized this area: a main tunnel with added side rooms. Felicitas Mine had closed the extractive industry in 1997.

My mind goes back to this morning’s dive, when we dove at around noon. The planned bottom time was fifty mins, just enough time to  drop our cylinders for further progression. On this day, we would not explore the mine to the end, so we decided instead to simulate different diving scenarios. We wanted to be ready for the main dive on the next day. so. We spent a lot of time below the Steel Barrel Tunnel, always upwards, the steel seemed to be very fragile. On top of the barrel, some massive and huge stones covered its roof. 

Out of the Steel Barrel Tunnel on the right side, 10 m/33 ft ahead more or less, there was the first of the large-scale empty rooms where slate had been mined. On the left of the main path there was a small storage space, and we used its rooftop as cylinders pick-up/drop-off stations. All around was muddy and sometimes foggy. Probably the silt had been stirred up by unstable rocks that fell down.

We moved forward and later we went back. Passing the same spots again and again helped me to memorize this place wrapped in darkness. At the end of the day, we calculated the full length of penetration (return): 1500 m/4900 ft, each of us always carrying from 4 to 6 cylinders, moving ahead by fins only, without the aid of a DPV. Afternoon ran to its end; the last dive of the day was calling us, the most demanding one.

We needed to drop the heavy 20 liter tanks filled with Helitrox 30/10 (30% oxygen, 10% helium, balance nitrogen), on the farthest checkpoint on the map. This was our “home plate.” For the first time, we passed over the final fork. There the tunnelwais narrow and we went ahead, as slow thoughts passed through my mind and brought me back to the main “T”. Another tough scuba diving day in the mine was over. 

Check out The author’s documentary of their mine exploration

I see a Darkness

The Big Wednesday came. We were submerged up to our hips. I switched on my powerful video lights. No video shooting on our way in, we had spread our stage tanks with extra gases on the main line during the last two dives, now it was time to swim quickly. On this day we wished to reach the final target: the end of the left branch. Felicitas Mine was awaiting. We had to go west!

Thirty-five minutes passed, when we reached the planned checkpoint: the “anvil” 20 liter tank of trimix. After we reached it, I thought we were not too far from the End. 

Staying focused on breathing, being calm and relaxed, was what we had to do. This was a blind tunnel with no way out and no chance to find a different way back. We had to pay attention while we swam and moved forward, because a wrong frog-kick and visibility would drop to zero in no time. 

At the end of all the  black shadows we left behind, the slate was simply amazing.

A stunning atmosphere surrounded Gianni and me. I filmed the moment, and I wanted to live it again and again, in time. The rocks of Felicitas gave us crispy feelings. We are enthusiasts. Colors of rocks turned from black to yellow, gray, fire red, and finally light, bright blue. Awesome! I was breathless and without words. 

In front of me there were two stairways to heaven. The first one was a wooden stairway, the second one made of fragile steel. Climbing them were the only fast exits that this mine had. The entrance was 650 m/2133 ft far away, and reaching it during an emergency would be impossible on foot, let alone swimming. 

It was time to go back.

Shattered Ground

The beginning of a mine corresponds with its end. Miners or divers must walk the same steps before reaching the surface, again. When you turn in one direction and leave the black shadows behind you, the darkness swallows everything in the path. Only human memory can preserve the spirit of the life of someone who lived in that manner. The mine doesn’t care how powerful the lights are that you bring inside its rocky belly; it will always give you dark and obscurity in return. 

In July 1969 the Man left a footstep on the Moon. One of the most beautiful memories I collected from Felicitas Mine was looking at the worker’s footsteps on the ancient ground. Along the tunnels, the paths and traces of anonymous miners, pickers, and serial drinkers will remain forever, frozen in time. 

Coming back to Felicitas to learn more  about its stories and secrets, to discover more forks and find an even more beautiful place to film, this was my mood when I left Germany during the  summer of 2020. Diving inside the German’s lode was a human journey between history, economics, and anthropology. 

A Last Shot for the Miners

The last night we spent at Felicitas Mine I decided to honor its working class with a tribute. Each dive we did in the mine had been made possible only because the hands of mine workers had dug the slate for centuries. We had visited incredible places who were stolen by the rock with TNT, pickaxe, sweat, and blasphemies. No dive we did could have been made without the tortuous  job the miners did. Most people know how the working-class men love drinking strong alcohol at the end of a hard day of work.

I had forbidden my team to drink during dive days, even though, by the way, we had been used to having a tiny taste of a traditional Italian bitters every night before bedtime for digestion. When I was finished writing my daily report from the darkness, I proposed to the team: “Why don’t we offer a last shot from our bottle to the miners?”

The following day, before leaving the mine, we dedicated our last dive inside the black slate tunnels of Felicitas to the miners. I put a message in the bottle and we left it inside the Mine, and we offered a last shot to the workers amongst the black slate’s powder. 

Well, you’re my friend
Many times we’ve been out drinking
But did you ever, ever notice
Well, you know I have a love
And you know I have a drive
But can you see this opposition
That it’s dreadful imposition
And then I see a darkness

Diving Team: 

Andrea Murdock Alpini, Gianni Cecchi, Flavio “FlaK” Cavalli, Luigi “Mangiafuoco” Parolo, Michael “Flower” Forenzi, Marco Setti

Team’s Sponsor:

PHY Diving Equipment

Team’s Partners:

Scubatec, Tecnodive Booster, Big Blue Lights, TEMC Gas Analyzers. 

Dive Deeper:

InDepth: Out of the Depths: The Story of British Mine Diving by Jon Glanfield

Divernet: A TALE OF TWO MINES by Stefan Panis

Other stories by Andrea Murdock Alpini:

InDepth: A Baltic Elegy: Åland Islands and the Wreck of Nederland

InDepth: My Love Affair with the MV Viminale, the Italian Titanic

InDepth: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

InDepth: No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

InDepth: Isverna Cave, Diving An Underground Dacia


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

Cave

Plan The Shoot, Shoot The Plan

Gas planning is an essential part of tech diving but how does it apply if you’re planning to conduct a photoshoot in multiple specific locations in the overhead environment of a cave? Arguably one of the most artful cave photographers today, and a high-level tech diver, Fan Ping explains how he calculates gas requirements when making pretty pictures in the dark!

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By Fan Ping. Header image: Bedding Plane at Jug Hole by Fan Ping.

Plan the dive, dive the plan. That’s something I have been hearing since the beginning of my diving career but never really mastered until I started my cave diving training with Global Underwater Explorers (GUE). I was surprised by how powerful dive planning can be as a tool, down to a minute, a meter and a few bars. Of course, there is flexibility, but the whole point is you will be aware of what is going to happen next, and have control over the entire process of the dive.

Planning can also apply to underwater cave photoshoots and filming. As a fulltime underwater photographer and director of photography (DP), I plan my shoots in the caves all the time and teach it as a part of my Underwater Cave Photography Course. It definitely makes my job much safer and more efficient. There are two parts of the shoot plan: diving and photography. They work together and can sometimes be complicated, especially when shooting at more than one location. I usually start with the diving part. Knowing exactly where I am going for the photo, I can easily calculate how much time and gas I am going to use to get to the location, and then recalculate a third so I know how much time I have to shoot the photo.

Then I plan the photo part, usually based on a sketch with lighting indicated. Having a sketch of the photo can be very helpful, as it tells me how many lights I am going to need in total and where to put them, both on location as well as when traveling with them. I will also know how much time I am going to need to place and retrieve them, and that adds to the total bottom time too, so I can have a relatively accurate time for actually clicking the shutter.

Plan The Shoot on CCR

It’s the diving part again after the shoot—whether to a second location or to the exit—and in the end, I will have a deco time and total runtime, so I can make sure we are not locked in the park and have somewhere to go for dinner.

Red is in, blue is out, shoot location is in yellow. Map created by Jeff Hancock, partially shown for planning purpose only.

Let’s start with a more straightforward example with one location on rebreather. My buddy Derek Dunlop and I planned a photoshoot at the fissure on Sweet Surprise line in Ginnie Springs. We wanted to scooter to the jump at 670 m/2200 ft on mainline in 20 minutes, drop DPV and sidemount bailout, then swim for another 200 m/656 ft to the shoot location in 20 minutes. The depth of the location is about 28 m/92 ft, which is also the maximum depth of this dive, and the average depth is about 24 m/79 ft before 6 m/20 ft deco, so it was well within our bailout radius, somewhat conservative considering the flow in this cave. (I have LP50 or 7.8L doubles + 1x sidemount 11L, Derek has 2x LP85 or 12L OC bailout. Assume we both have 11L x 2 x 200bar = 4400L OC bailout gas, SCR = 20L/min, ATA = 4, so we have 4400/20/4 = 55min to get back to the cavern. Swim speed = 10m/min, DPV speed = 40m/min, and it will take no more than 40 min in a real situation.)

We plan to shoot until the batteries of the lights die, which will take 40-45 minutes, plus 10-15 minutes to place and retrieve the lights, so it’s a 1 hour shoot at the location. That gives us a 150 minute bottom time plus 25-30 minutes of deco at 6m/20 ft (O2 setpoint: 1.2 bar), 3 hour total runtime.

Derek at the fissure. Most walls are very dark as it’s less traveled.

I usually use the GUE EDGE, i.e., GUE’s predive checklist, for planning, as it is a very good base to start with, no matter if you were trained with GUE or not, and it is very difficult to miss important information with it:

Goals: Photo at fissure on Sweet Surprise line. 

Unified Team: Derek diver # 1 and model, Ping diver # 2 and photographer.

Equipment match: Derek has 1 light on tripod, Ping has camera and 4 lights.

Exposure: Max depth 28m, average depth 20m; 20 min on DPV to jump, 20 min swim to shoot location, turn at 100 min. Total runtime 180 min.

Decompression: 30 minutes deco.

Gas: Sufficient OC bailout gas for each diver, 5.7L AL tank filled with oxygen to 200 bar.

Environment: Normal flow.

Filming at Jug Hole back in 2019.

Plan the Shoot—Open Circuit Edition

Here is another example of a short but multiple location photo shoot at Jug Hole in Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida, with my buddy cave diving instructor Joseph Seda as the model.

We planned to take a photo at the Diamond Sands restriction first, then an HDR panorama photo in the bedding plane right after the reaper sign, and a cavern shot if not too late.

The Diamond Sands restriction is only 80 m/262 ft on the mainline, but the flow in this cave is strong, and the bedding plane at the beginning is very low, so my swim speed would be about 8m/s, and it will take me 10 minutes to get to the first shoot location from the cavern. 

Average depth for this part is about 15 m/49 ft, maximum depth is 22 m/72 ft at the restriction. I have a very standard 20L/min SCR, so with 2 sidemount LP85 steel tanks (12L) I am going to use roughly 30 bar in each tank (5 bar/5 min with 12L doubles) before I can start playing with the lights.

Map created and authorized by Adam Hughes.

My tanks are filled with 32% to 260 bar (welcome to cave country!), so theoretically I have 260-30-30×2=170 bar to use for the first shot, with the depth of 22 m/72 ft, it gives me about 35 minutes before I have to turn the dive. 

Lighting is relatively simple here, just 1 light from the model’s back and 2 on the camera, so it will take only a couple of minutes to set up. Diamond Sands restriction is famous for the rolling sands in the flow when a diver passes, and that’s what we want in the photo, obviously from the exit side, and that makes my job easier, as Joseph will be the one placing the light in the back and coming back out of the restriction to pose. So he is diver #1, going in with two lights on tripod (one as backup and for shot two).

Going back to the bedding plane for the second shot only takes about 5 minutes, and getting out of the cave from there will take no more than 5 minutes too, which is about 15 bars in each tank. So usable gas for the second shot is 260-30-170-15-15×2=15 bar.

Diamond Sands restriction. Enlarge to see the rolling sands.

At 15 m/49 ft it gives me only 5 minutes, and I am supposed to get out of the cave with at least 50 bar in each tank, so we will have to shorten the first shot in order to get the second shot, which is a lot more complicated with 6 lights in total to light up the whole scene.

In the end, we got a shoot plan like this with GUE EDGE:

Goals:  Photos at Diamond Sands restriction and in bedding plane.

Unified team: Joseph diver # 1 and model + light monkey for shot 1, Ping diver # 2 and photographer + light monkey for shot 2.

Equipment match: Joseph has 2 lights on tripod, Ping has camera and 4 lights.

Exposure: Max depth 22 m/22 ft, average depth 18 m/59 ft; 10 min to location one, 20 min for shot 1; 5 min to location two, 30 min for shot two, 5 min to cavern.

Total runtime: 70 min.

Decompression: Minimum deco.

Gas: 260 bar to start, 170 bar to finish shot 1, 80 bar to finish shot 2.

Environment: Strong flow, restriction and sandy bottom at location one, very low bedding plane at location two.

*This calculation is relatively conservative, we have twice the amount of gas we need to get out of the cave at any point.

Plan for Safety

The purpose of planning the photo shoot is to make sure we don’t put ourselves in danger while being too focused on the camera in underwater caves. Open water photography is a lot less stringent in terms of planning; however, overhead environments require more precise ideas for how much time it takes to do the job, especially on open circuit. Good planning also makes the shoot more efficient by reducing unnecessary communication and setting up the scene as a team, which eventually leads to a safer dive. There is not one single photo worth a diver’s life, but there are countless caves that are worth diving with a camera

“There is not one single photo worth a diver’s life, but there are countless caves that are worth diving with a camera.”

Dive Deeper

InDEPTH: Cameras Kill Cavers… Again by Natalie Gibb

Here are some of Ping’s other stories:

InDEPTH: Close Calls: I Ripped My Drysuit a Kilometer Back In The Cave by Fan Ping

InDEPTH: Underwater Galaxy by Fan Ping


Fan Ping is a photographer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and is dedicated to showing the beauty of the underwater world to people through his lens. He is specialized in combining artistic elements with nature and complex lighting skills in overhead environments, and this artistic style has brought him international acclaim, including awards from many major underwater photo/video competitions. You can follow his work on Facebook and Instagram: Be Water Imaging.


Be Water Imaging’s Underwater Cave Photography Course is a modular course that includes unique lighting skills and advanced photography techniques in underwater caverns and caves, and shoot planning is a very important part of the course. For more details please check my Be Water Imaging website, and contact Ping at: info@bewaterimaging.com.

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