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by Justin Barbour
Header photo by Justin Barbour
There is always one style of diving that most divers are quick to avoid: Cave Diving. It has developed a reputation as being one of the most dangerous styles of diving in the world, and the divers who do it regularly tend to be categorized as insane. This was definitely my thoughts when I initially signed up for my cave diving class. I was constantly told that cave divers were tempting mother nature to flick them into the afterlife at high speed.
So why sign up for a class that you’re scared of? I was looking for a new challenge. After one of my teammates returned from Mexico from his first cave class it was all he could talk about. I joined him in Florida at the GUE Conference last year and decided to test the waters out in Ginnie Springs at The Ballroom. The moment I passed through the opening and saw the whole room open up I was hooked. The feeling of being able to overcome the fear of the unknown was something I truly never thought I would be able to do and it was incredible. Swimming around the room and looking at the rock work, exploring the cracks and crevasses, experiencing a new kind of darkness, it can easily be seen how addicting this could be. The next day my teammate Fred Espino and I signed up for our Cave 1 class in Mexico.
We trained for months diving as often as we could both during the day and night to simulate the feeling of being in a cave. Running line around rocks, a seemingly endless number of valve drills and s-drills, and fine tuning our positioning kicks to make sure we were ready to hit the ground running when we arrived. After every dive I caught myself thinking “are we really about to fly to Mexico and hop into a cave?” I asked myself that question even right up to the point of throwing my carbon fiber backplate into my pelican case the day before my flight.
Once in Cancun, it’s about an hour-long drive to Zero Gravity (ZG). At times the roads can feel a bit like Mario Kart brought to life, but it only added to the sense of adventure we were embarking on. Once we arrived at Zero Gravity, we were immediately introduced to Christopher Le Maillot and Fred Devos, the two owners of Zero Gravity. Between the two of them they have an uncanny ability to make you feel immediately at home.
There are early mornings at ZG. Before the sun rose on our first day we were up and working on our gear. We had dives planned that day to get acclimated to diving in this new environment and some last-minute rehearsals on skills. We arrived at the Dream Gate cenote and were in awe. We briefed and got our gear together with our guide as fast as possible and climbed down the ladders to get inside of the cave. Once in the water, trying to take in this wild moment in our lives, I realized that any notions of fear that I had were completely gone. It was only the giddy feeling you feel as a kid coming down the stairs on Christmas morning.
As we descended into the cavern, we quickly realized how people can get hurt. Caves are the darkest places on Earth, and yet inspire a sense of wonder. As our can lights cut through the darkness, they begin to reveal the true beauty of the cave. The speleothems, or decorations, are some of the most magnificent parts inside of the caves in Mexico. These stalactites and stalagmites are remnants from when the cave was dry before the last ice age. As we swam through the cave, we realized that we are truly swimming through a frozen moment in time. Looking at the walls you can see the different types of rock layers as they were built up over tens of thousands of years.
The next morning, we got to meet our instructor Laszlo Cseh. We spent most of the first day in the classroom going over theory, the history of cave diving, and the basics for why the rules are set in stone. Laszlo seemed to have an endless supply of examples for these rules in real life scenarios which seemed to be calming rather than alarming to us. That afternoon we drove to our first cenote Xtabay where we got to run through safety drills and such to make sure our fundamentals were down before running our first line into the cave. After a few practice runs in the open water portion it was time to try our first line run into the cave.
The cave initially opened up into a massive room with an enormous triangular rock in the middle of it from the last time the roof collapsed. Once we got to the top of the rock, we were able to tie into the main line and do our initial checks of gas, time, and a quick flow check. Laszlo however had other plans for us. Running up and down the line practicing our kicks to make sure they were perfected for our first official cave dive the following morning. Even that little rush of running the line from open water to the main line was amazing.
The following morning, as with every morning, we were up and downstairs bright and early analyzing our tanks and making sure our gear was good to go so we could get to the cenote first. Upon arrival we quickly set our gear up, listened to the briefing by Laszlo, and walked back into Xtabay for our first official cave dive. Fred ran the line in this time and made quick work up to the main line. From there we were able to proceed into the cave.
One of the first things we realized when in the cave is the vastness of it. Shining our lights ahead we couldn’t see where the end of the beam was, even with crystal clear water. Once we left the entrance, we immediately came to what is known as a Halocline. This is where the saltwater in the bottom of the cave meets with the freshwater creating a false ceiling. As you pass over it, it looks like you’re swimming over a pool inside of the cave. This is something that can play tricks on the mind particularly to a disorientated diver on heading out of the cave.
As we swam through it the fresh and saltwater began to mix clouding the visibility to near zero. Once we staggered on either side of the line however we were able to maintain visual contact with each other, the line, and were able to enjoy the 86ºF/30ºC saltwater that we just dipped into.
The colors in the cave were incredible. The blues and greens were striking as our lights slowly moved about the cave. The rock walls were white in the saltwater, and a tan color in the freshwater.
As we moved room to room, I glanced at my computer and realized we’d been swimming for 30 minutes. While that’s not an unusual time for an open water dive, I rapidly came to the realization of “wait, if something goes wrong, we’re going to have to turn around and swim at least another 30 minutes to get back out.” It was this sobering thought that helped me understand the severity of what we were doing. Nothing a few glances around the cave couldn’t snap me out of the thought and continue on with the dive.
As we continued to swim, we came upon a bed plane section of the cave. This is where the cave narrows, but not too small, vertically and can stretch for hundreds of feet horizontally. As we swam forward, we truly started to feel like cave divers. Alas only a few minutes into the dive we hit our turn pressure and had to exit the cave.
As we surfaced Fred and I immediately popped our regulators out of our mouths and exploded with excitement. It seemed like months of hard work and uncertainty finally paid off in that moment, and it was only day two of the class. Laszlo, in his usual Laszlo calm and collected nature, reigned us in with a subtle, “Meh it was ok, let’s see how you do in the cave.” Little did we know the gauntlet that was ahead of us.
Throughout the class we would arrive first thing in the morning, set up our gear, run through dry drills, gear up, and do three to four dives in a day. Upon finishing those we would drive back to ZG and would be in theory for a few more hours before finally being sprung loose for tacos at Marre Marre across the street. They were very long days to say the least, yet every morning we would wake up before our alarms and couldn’t wait to see what the next set of dives had in store for us.
The next few days were filled with every failure that Laszlo and his trusty bubble gun sidekick could think of. From light failures (primary and both back up lights), to regulator failures, we drilled until it became second nature. On one particular dive we were particularly tested. As we swam through the cave just as we were passing through a thermocline I had a simulated primary light failure. After going through the procedures for stowing, deploying backups, etc. Fred and I turned the dive and started our exit. Suddenly he also experienced a simulated primary light failure and had to go through that process. One thing after another happened honing in our focus to the point where we found ourselves in total darkness. As we stayed in touch-contact we moved along the line as a unit. This shows a level of trust in not only your training, but your teammate as well.
Though as the days went on our confidence began to grow swimming around in the caves. Our awareness began to expand to allow us not only to focus on the team, but also begin to actually see the cave. Looking for the jump lines off the main line, seeing more of the details in the room, genuinely being able to take in the vastness and natural beauty that helped shape these caves over millennia.
On the final day we were tasked with two of the most important skills a new cave diver can learn: lost line drill while blindfolded, and gas share exit while blind. These are skills that hopefully a diver never needs to use, however we are going into a hostile world every time we enter a cave, so it’s important to train for every scenario to be prepared for whatever is thrown our way. In a strange way having the blindfold on elicited a sense of calm like I’d never felt. One hand on the line, the other out in front feeling our way out, with Fred hanging onto my elbow, we moved as a unit through the cave, navigating each station (tie off on a rock) as we moved. It felt like a new puzzle each time we came to a station as we moved our way out.
By the end of the day, Laszlo decided that we’d been through enough and we officially were Cave 1 divers. The feeling was hard to describe for a number of reasons. Chiefly both Fred and I had finally reached the moment we had been training for, studying for, and fearful about. We passed. We were officially apart of that group of divers most people think have a screw loose.
Looking back on what we learned and experienced, it’s clear to see that there are really only a few hard-fast rules to follow, similarly and readily transferable to open water dives, which minimize the risk we take on in the caves. First, plan your dive and dive your plan. This includes careful gas planning, and everyone taking responsibility for their own gear, gas, and navigation. Having a continuous guideline starting in open water, so that even in zero visibility you can always find your way out. Maintain your equipment making sure all regulators, valves, and lights are in prime shape to avoid potential problems in the caves. And lastly, ALWAYS be aware of the mainline. With these in mind one can go around the world swimming through the history books in caves and mines exploring what once was and embracing the beauty of what is.
Diving since 1998 from the Maldives to the Midwest, Justin is a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer and GUE Diver who brings a courageous mentality and humorous demeanor to the water. From 2015-2020 he spent countless hours volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific applying his expertise to educate children on sustainable ocean interaction.
As a boy he would read constantly about marine biology, wanting to see it for himself he dove right in and has hardly been up for air since. Most intriguing to him is exploring and learning the history of shipwrecks. Justin’s life above sea level includes a career path that has taken him from medical sales to tech startups, every endeavor inspired by the tenacity of being a former collegiate athlete. His goal is to never stop pushing himself, allowing the water to continually reveal character and to share those experiences with others.
No Dicretion Home: Un’avventura di immersioni in grotta Slovena
Affetto dal blocco di Covid, il giovane, poetico esploratore italiano, istruttore e produttore di ingranaggi, Andrea Murdock Alpini, ha deciso di prendere le distanze sociali al massimo! Ha preparato il suo furgone delle caverne appositamente progettato e ha intrapreso un viaggio da solista di tre settimane per immergersi nelle grotte piene d’acqua che si trovano sotto il suolo sloveno. Il suo rapporto e il registro video, soprannominato “No Direction Home”, un omaggio al docu di Bob Dylan di Scorsese, probabilmente soddisferanno quei più profondi impulsi di avventura. Ho menzionato la colonna sonora assassina? I bambini non lo provano a casa!
Testo: Andrea Murdock Alpini
Foto & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini.
Un ringraziamento speciale a Cristina Condemi per la sua assistenza editoriale.
Here is the story translated into English
L’autore del testo e delle immersioni solitarie in grotta non vuole incentivare in nessun modo la pratica della subacquea solitaria. Il viaggio e le immersioni descritte dell’articolo sono il frutto di un lungo addestramento.
Nota editore: Global Underwater Explorers non autorizza le immersioni in solitario.
Voglia di libertà e distacco è stato lo spirito con cui agli inizi dello scorso mese di giugno sono partito alla volta di un viaggio in solitaria tra grotte, laghi alpini e miniere abbandonate.
Il #lockdown era finito da poche settimane, la scottatura del forzato distanziamento sociale si percepiva ancora molto forte. In tasca avevo un paio di lettere editoriali fornitemi dalla redazione di Nautica Report, il passaporto. Il WreckVan per l’occasione era stato riconvertito a CaveVan ricolmo di bombole, miscele trimix, compressore a scoppio a 300bar, booster, bi-bombola di vari tagli, zaini, scarponi da montagna, pinne, tenda e fornelletto, mute stagne e nuovi prodotti di intimo termico di PHY Diving Equipment che dovevo testare prima di metterli in produzione.
Quando ho varcato il confine con la Slovenia mi sono emozionato.
In poche ore sono passato dal non poter andare oltre i 200m dalla mia abitazione a potermi muovere liberamente nella natura. Lo stacco mentale fu enorme. Ho fatto una sola telefonata dall’estero, la sera di arrivo, dopo funambolici colloqui in russo al termine del primo violento temporale che mi avrebbe accompagnato sotto forma di pioggia battente per altre tre lunghe, interminabili settimane.
Il mio viaggio avrebbe dovuto articolarsi tra Slovenia, Lago di Garda, Sud Tirolo, Austria, Alpi Apuane, l’Altopiano di Campo Imperatore sotto il massiccio del Gran Sasso e infine la Majaella. Le piogge hanno stravolto la mia pianificazione rendendo pericolose e inagibili molte grotte e miniere che avevo preventivato. Così dopo oltre venti giorni trascorsi a montare smontare la tenda, dormendo al freddo e con poche ore di sonno sono rientrato distrutto e claudicante verso casa.
Ho filmato tutto il viaggio con il solo dispositivo che tutti portiamo sempre in tasca: il telefono cellulare, null’altro.
Avrei voluto raccontare la mia esperienza subacquea dal punto di vista del viaggio terrestre in cui l’acqua altro non è una parte del contesto. Tre capitoli compongono questa mini serie sulla Slovenia.
Il primo giorno di grotte in Slovenia è stato rocambolesco per certi versi. Tuttavia ancora non sapevo cosa mi avrebbe riservato il secondo giorno.
Attorno alle sei del mattino inizio a preparami per uscire. Piove ovunque, vento freddo e secchiate di acqua. La maggior parte delle grotte in entroterra sono inagibili, penso. Guardo più a sud, verso il confine con la Croazia. Attraverso la Slovenia da nord a sud, mi imbatto in un villaggio abbandonato, visito qualche malga campestre poi riparto alla volta del confine.
Mentre consumo un fugace pasto da campo preparato a bordo grotta, tra muschi e licheni, appena terminata l’immersione a Bilpa, la polizia di frontiera e l’esercito mi raggiungono per il controllo passaporto accompagnato da altra burocrazia. Tutto va per il meglio. Torno così alla mia zuppa e poco dopo mi metto in viaggio, di nuovo. Uno spiraglio di sole mi scalda le ossa e tempra il clima dentro il CaveVan.
Rientrato al campo base pianifico la giornata dell’indomani e decido di dedicarla unicamente ai sopralluoghi speleo, da est a ovest da nord a sud, di diverse coordinate GPS che mi sono annotato. Guido per molte ore e ne cammino altrettante tra sentieri nei boschi o in aperta campagna. Ritornerò al mio letto distrutto e affamato, dove mi preparò un nuovo brodo caldo accompagnato da abbondante parmigiano e frutta secca per dessert!
Fisarmoniche inaspettate all’uscita dalla foresta, orsi, fiumi in piena dentro le grotte e un doppio turno di verifica (mattutino e pomeridiano) alla stupenda grotta di Suha Dolca per monitorarne la fattibilità.
NO DIRECTION HOME è entrato nel vivo dello spirito di viaggio, natura solitaria. Questo è ciò che è successo nei giorni centrali della trasferta in Slovenia, questi sono alcuni dei passaggi raccontati nel secondo video capitolo della serie supportata da PHY Diving Equipment.
In tasca sempre e soltanto il mio cellulare per filmare le giornate e le esperienze vissute sul campo, nella testa una miriade di pensieri, negli scarponi una moltitudine di storie da tramandare.
Due giornate di stop forzato per le piogge abbondanti mi hanno costretto in superficie. Ho speso il tempo per sopralluoghi e organizzando i primi materiali raccolti dal viaggio in Slovenia.
Gli appunti di grotte e coordinate andavano riordinati e con essi anche le idee su come procedere. Ho rinunciato a diversi spot pensando di ritornarci in un’altra stagione, magari d’inverno, come piace me. Certo le condizioni esterne non sarebbero delle più facili però le condizioni dell’acqua all’interno delle grotte sarebbero sicuramente più stabili e gestibili.
Sono tornato spesso sui miei passi alla ricerca delle condizioni favorevoli, quasi sempre l’acqua mi ha indicato la via del rientro, dopo alcuni sguardi mi ha convinto a girare le spalle alle spelonche e riprendere il mio sentiero.
Il terzo capitolo sloveno NO DIRECTION HOME è quello a cui sono maggiormente legato. L’indecisione dell’ultimo giorno se restare ancora e aspettare condizioni migliori oppure partire, mettermi gli orsi e le grotte alle spalle per tornare in Italia. Sapevo che mi avrebbe aspettato qualche relitto sul Lago di Garda e poi avrei iniziato a risalire la china verso il Sud Tirolo e da lì ai laghi alpini in Austria.
Stanco, affaticato e con lo sguardo che corre più lento dei pensieri decido di fare un ultimo tentativo a Suha Dolca prima di dire definitiva conclusa la mia avventura in Slovenia. Torno al lago che antecede la grotta, il paesaggio e stupendo avvolto nell’ora pomeridiana. Scendo lungo il sentiero che conduce all’imbocco dell’antro.
Verifico le condizioni, finalmente la grotta è agibile!
Preparo le attrezzature, scendo molteplici volte il sentiero per portare pezzo a pezzo tutto l’equipaggiamento al punto di vestizione. Nell’ultimo viaggio, quando ho già muta stagna indossata, incontro un paio di cave divers sloveni con cui scambio alcune battute. Il tempo di salutarsi e mi preparo per entrare finalmente in acqua e raggiungere l’ingresso di Suha Dolca.
Riemergerò tra migliaia di canne spezzate dal vento che creano un tappeto naturale che fluttua sulla superficie dell’acqua. Mi sento un po’ un castoro. Alle 21.30 circa oltrepasso il confine con l’Italia.
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.
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