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Mental Models: Decision-making isn’t as logical as Lego

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By Gareth Lock

What do the following all have in common?

  • When I started to dive a drysuit, I recognized that as I descended the drysuit compressed, and when I ascended, the pressure came off. At the same time, I was using my depth gauge to determine whether I was ascending or descending by looking at the screen. As I got more experienced, I didn’t need to look at my depth gauge to know if I was moving up or down in the water column, I could tell if I had moved 30cm/1ft because the suit pressure changed.
  • When I descended through the clear waters of Angelita Cenote in Mexico, I saw a layer below me where the hydrogen sulfide was captured in the halocline. I knew the visibility was going to be bad as we descended into it, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that bad.
  • When I was doing my advanced trimix (GUE Tech 2) training, the early dives were using a twinset and three stages, all full of 32%. The first time I pulled the dump valve to stabilize at the first stop, a lot more gas escaped than I thought would because I was much heavier than previous dives I had done before, and I sank back down! With practice, I worked out how long to open the dump valve in order to stabilize correctly.
  • When I started to dive on a rebreather, I remember breathing in to arrest my descent after getting it mostly there using the wing inflate. I didn’t stop and hit the bottom.

All of them represent mental models that I had or had developed as I learned to dive in different environments. These mental models allowed me to ‘not think’ about what I was doing, the new actions were based on subconscious thoughts. However, it took time to develop them because the early models were limited or flawed, and as a consequence, I either made mistakes or was task loaded trying to solve the problem, which meant I wasn’t efficient.

Gareth exiting from Ponderosa Cenote, near Tulum, Mexico. Credit: Ellen Cuylaerts


But mental models don’t just relate to the physical or technical skills we develop, they also apply to the decisions we make and the risks we take. We are ultimately biased in our decision making and we need to be aware of this. The 175+ biases listed on the Cognitive bias Wikipedia page can be reduced down to four. Ironically, this in itself is a result of one of the biases!

  • Too much information. There is just too much information in the world, we have no choice but to filter almost all of it out. Our brain uses a few simple tricks to pick out the bits of information that are most likely going to be useful in some way.
  • Not enough meaning. The world is very confusing, and we end up only seeing a tiny sliver of it, but we need to make some sense of it in order to survive. Once the reduced stream of information comes in, we connect the dots, fill in the gaps with stuff we already think we know and update our mental models of the world.
  • A need to act fast. We’re constrained by time and information, and yet we can’t let that paralyze us. Without the ability to act fast in the face of uncertainty, we surely would have perished as a species long ago. With every piece of new information, we need to do our best to assess our ability to affect the situation, apply it to decisions, simulate the future to predict what might happen next, and otherwise act on our new insight.
  • What should we remember? There’s too much information out there. We can only afford to keep around the bits that are most likely to prove useful in the future. We need to make constant bets and trade-offs around what we try to remember and what we forget. For example, we prefer generalizations over specifics because they take up less space. When there are lots of irreducible details, we pick out a few standout items to save and discard the rest. What we save here is what is most likely to inform our filters related to ‘Too much information’, as well as to inform what comes to mind during the processes mentioned in ‘Not enough meaning’ around filling in incomplete information. Unfortunately, it’s all self-reinforcing.

Although we don’t like to admit it, many of the decisions we make are based on assumptions that something will happen the way it did the last time, because this allows us to reduce the mental energy we consume. We often talk of complacency as being a bad thing, or that ‘making assumptions’ makes an ass out of you and me, but in reality, these concepts are what allows us to operate at the pace we do.

Lanny descending into the hydrogen sulfide filled halocline at Angelita Cenote, near Tulum, Mexico. Credit: Gareth Lock


As divers (and humans) we need to change our attitude towards complacency and assumptions and recognize that we can’t stop using these tools. Rather we should look at when such automatic behaviors and associated application of mental models will get us into serious trouble if we remain on autopilot, and then slow down or stop to take a little more time to look at the situation. Sometimes this is difficult given the way our brains work because we don’t want to miss out on an awesome dive or because there are pressures to complete the dive. In fact, the more we are invested in a dive e.g. time, money, long-transit or road journey to get there, peer pressure or not wanting to let our buddies/teammates down, the harder it is to say, “We are not doing this dive” or “I’m thumbing it now”. While anyone can thumb a dive at any time for any reason, sometimes it’s not that simple when you are there in the moment, especially if your previous experiences of doing this were negative.

In addition to targeted training, three simple ways to reduce the impact of biases are:

  • Using briefs and checklists to ensure that the assumptions the dive leader/diver has are aligned with the reality of the situation and what the team/diver thinks is happening.
  • Using debriefs to understand if the assumptions which were made prior to the dive were indeed valid. In addition to the four key topics I teach divers to use in a debrief (What did I do well? Why? What do I need to improve on? How? What did the team do well? How? What do the team need to improve on? How?), I also get teams to consider ‘What was the greatest risk we took during that dive/task?’ as a way of learning how close they got to the failure line and what they could/will do differently next time.

Mental models are essential to high-performance teams. They reduce the mental workload involved which means they can focus on the goal of the dive. However, if those mental models are not closely aligned with reality, then accidents will happen. Most errors happen because of poor perception rather than poor decisions based on good information. As a good friend said to me recently, no surprises, no accidents.


  Karim Hamza delivering a debrief to three divers at the performance EDGE event in January 2017 in Seattle.


Gareth Lock is an OC and CCR technical diver with the personal goal of improving diving safety and diver performance by enhancing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes towards human factors in diving. Although based in the UK, he runs training and development courses across the globe as well as via his online portal https://www.thehumandiver.com. He is the Director of Risk Management for GUE and has been involved with the organization since 2006 when he completed his Fundamentals class.

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Out of the Depths: The Story of British Mine Diving

If sumps and solo cave diving are, well, a bit too Brit for you, you may want to consider diving into the perfusion of flooded serpentine chert, copper, limestone, silica, slate, and tin mines that honeycomb the length and breadth of the Kingdom. Fortunately, British tekkie and member of UK Mine/Cave Diving (UKMC) in good standing, Jon Glanfield, takes us for a guided tour.

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By Jon Glanfield
Header image courtesy of Alan Ball.

When many think of the UK’s caves, with wet rocks and their penchant for darkness, often the images conjured are of tight, short, silty sumps, that can only be negotiated by intrepid explorers outfitted with diminutive cylinders, skinny harnesses, wetsuits and typically a beard. These are the domain and natural playground of the well-known, highly-respected, Cave Diving Group (CDG). 

In truth, much of our sceptered isle’s caves are of this ilk, but there is an alternative for the diver who favours a more conventional rig, extra room to manoeuvre, and perhaps a more team-orientated approach—one that is less than optimal in many of the true cave diving environments of the UK.

Holme Bank. Photo by Ian France.

Alongside our natural cave diving venues, we also sport a varied collection of flooded mines across the length and breadth of the Kingdom. In the south and southwest, miners have extracted metals such as tin and  copper, while in South Wales it was the mineral, silica. The Midlands Linley Caverns were a source of limestone before being converted to a subterranean munitions store in WWII. Sadly, access to these is no longer feasible. In the rolling hills of the Derbyshire Dales, flinty, hard chert strays close enough to the surface to be mined. In North Wales, the once-proud slate industry has left its Moria and Mithril redolent halls and tunnels beneath the landscape, while copper and slate underlay parts of Cumbria. Meanwhile, just over the border in Scotland, limestone was the resource that drove us to follow its veins into the earth.

Mike Greathead descending the stairway to heaven. Photo by Ian France.

Undeniably, here in the UK, mine diving has a much shorter documented history than that of its close cousin cave diving, but some of the luminaries of this dark world were, and are, active in both. Some of the initial dives in sites like the Cambrian slate mine were undertaken by the incomparable Martyn Farr, Geoff Ballard, and Helen Rider in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2014 that it was further explored and lined by the likes of Cristian Christea, Ian France, Michael Thomas, and Mark Vaughan amongst others. 

Both Rich Stevenson and Mark Ellyatt, who were part of the vanguard of the technical diving revolution in the UK, had personal dramas on trimix dives in the deep shaft of the Coniston Copper Mines, the depth of which runs to 310 m/1012 ft. Ellyatt made his dive at 170 m/555 ft in the early 2000s in a vertical 2 m/6.5 ft square shaft, dropping away into the 6º C/43º F frigid blackness.

Mines Over Matter

As was alluded to, the differences in cave and mine diving are significant. Conventional, redundant open and closed technical rigs can be employed in mine diving due to the predictably larger tunnels, passages, and chambers. Water movement is negligible, so often regular braided lines can be used, lines which would not endure the flow in many of the UK’s upland cave locations. Small teams can dive in safely. 

No Exit. Photo by Chris Elliot.

In general, it is not common to surface and explore the sumped sections of the mines, due to often dangerously contaminated or hypoxic air quality. Also, in some cases, oils and other contaminants have leached into the water. The ever-present risk of collapse—both in the submerged sections and in the dry access adits or portals—haunt divers’ thoughts and is far more common in mines than in the smooth, carved bore of a naturally-formed cave. Casevac (the evacuation of an injured diver) is complex, long-winded, and often dangerous for those involved, and in the event of an issue involving serious decompression illness (DCI), almost certainly helicopter transportation would be necessary given the remote locations.

Landowner access—or, more commonly, denial of access—is an ubiquitous spectre in the underground realm, dry or wet, and much effort is directed at maintaining relations with landowners to safeguard the resources. Some of the most frequented mines are accessible only via traverse of private property, which could be agricultural, arboreal, and in one case, bizarrely on the grounds of an architectural firm. Careful management of these routes into the mines is critical, as is demonstrating respect for the land owner and complying with their requirements when literally on their turf.

At the more prosaic level though, simply getting into some of the mines is a mission on its own, necessitating divers’ decent levels of fitness, the use of hand lines, and sometimes as much consideration of dry weight to gas volume as the dive planning itself. Careful thought and prior preparation are also required in terms of both accident response and post-dive decompression stress, given the exertion expenditure simply to clear the site.

A passageway in Aber Las. Photo by D’Arcy Foley.

Many of the mines are relatively shallow, mostly no more than 30 m/98 ft with exceptions in the notable and notorious Coniston, and the almost mythic levels in Croesor, extending beneath the current 40 m/130 ft galleries that are known and lined. Though, what the mines lack in depth, they make up for in distance and grandeur. 

Aber Las mine survey. Courtesy of UKMC.

Aber Las, or Lost, is more accurately a forgotten section of Cambrian that extends nearly 600 m/1961 ft from dive base at the 6 m/20 ft level, and a second level 300 m/984 ft long at 18 m/59 ft. The section features no less than 35 sculpted chambers hewn off the haulage ways with varying dimensions and exhibiting differing slate removal techniques. Cambrian’s chambers less than a mile away are larger still, and a lost line incident here could be a very bad day given the chambers’ cavernous aspect.

In The Eye of the Beholder

Beauty is—as they say—in the eye of the beholder, but it would be disingenuous to try to draw comparisons between the UK’s mines and the delicacy of the formations in the Mexican Karst, the light effects through the structures in the Bahamian sea caves, or the sinuous power tunnels of Florida. In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

Parallels are frequently drawn between wreck diving and mine diving, but often the violence invoked at the demise of a vessel—the massive, hydraulic inrush of fluid and the subsequent impact on the seabed—wreaks untold damage and destruction upon its final resting place. In contrast, nature reclaims her heartlands in the mines by stealth: a slow, incremental and inexorable seep of ground water, no longer repulsed by the engines from the ages of men, gradually rising through the levels to find its table. The result is often preserved tableaus of a former heritage with a rich diversity of artefacts left where last they served.

A leftover crate in the Croesor mine. Photo by Alan Ball.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Underpinning, protecting, preserving, and improving these gems of the realm is the UK Mine and Cave Diving Club (UKMC), which formed as mine diving intensified in the mid 2000s. So it was that Will Smith, D’Arcy Foley, Sasha London, Jon Carter, Mark Vaughan, and Ian France, all of whom are respected and experienced cave divers in their own right, forged the club to foster and engage with a community of like-minded divers. 

Sadly, in 2014, Will Smith fell victim to the insidious risks of contaminated air in the Aber Las mine system, which he had been lucky enough to re-discover and in which he conducted early exploratory dives as the club gained traction and direction.

As new members filter into the ranks, new ideas, new agendas, and new skill sets re-shape the club’s direction. At present, we are rebooting the club with a remastered website, focusing on new objectives and seeking opportunities to improve, catalogue, and document the resources we husband.

Lines laid in the Cambrian slate mine. Photo by Mike Greathead.

Exploration continues: the club is laying new line in some areas. What’s more, through our demonstrable respect and care for existing sites, the club is facilitating exploration in previously inaccessible sites, and lost and forgotten sites will resurface. Meanwhile, we’re improving the locations we frequent weekly for the benefit of trainees, recreational (in the technical sense) divers, and survey divers alike. Archaeological projects are rising from the ennui of lockdown; we’re establishing wider links with mine diving communities elsewhere to share techniques, data, and ultimately hospitality.

In Welsh folklore, a white rabbit sighted by miners en route to their shifts was believed to be a harbinger of ill fortune, but for Alice, following the rabbit into its hole led her to a whimsical and magical place. Be like Alice, and come visit the Wunderland!

Additional Resources:


Jon Glanfield was lucky enough to get his first puff of compressed air at the tender age of five, paddling about on a “tiddler tank,” while his dad was taught how to dive properly somewhere else in the swimming pool. A deep-seated passion for the sport has stayed within him since then, despite a sequence of neurological bends in the late 90s, a subsequent diagnosis of a PFO, and a long lay-off to do other life stuff like kids, starting a business, and missing diving. Thankfully, it was nothing that a bit of titanium and a tube couldn’t fix. He faithfully promised his long-suffering wife (who has, at various anti-social times, taken him to and collected him from recompression facilities) that “this time it would be different” and that he was just in it to look at “pretty fishes.” So far, only one fish has (allegedly) been spotted in the mines. The ones Jon has encountered in the North Sea while wreck diving just obscured the more interesting, twisted metal.

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