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By Becky Kagan Schott
When I began diving twenty-five years ago I heard the phrase, “A good diver is always learning,” and in many ways I’ve lived by that motto throughout my entire diving career. I’ve been humbled underwater, and I’ve had days when all of my training and years of experience have come together, allowing me to create inspiring imagery with my camera. I wouldn’t be able to do that without experience and the thirst for knowledge. Leave your ego out of it. I mean, we all have one, but the environment doesn’t care if we are male, female, black, white, young, or old, so your ego won’t help you much, but being humble will. I practice skills frequently. I teach others to stay sharp and pass along my knowledge and most of all, even as an accomplished tech instructor, I am always finding new techniques and trying new things. I still take classes and seek mentorship from more experienced divers. I am always learning.
A few years ago while shooting a cave exploration documentary in the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas with Brian Kakuk and Brett Hemphill, I found myself back on open-circuit sidemount, although I prefer to be on closed-circuit rebreather (CCR). We had several stages, and I pushed a large Red Epic Camera along with me. I find open-circuit sidemount to be the most difficult configuration for me to film in. Constantly checking gauges, changing regulators, and moving tanks around, while trying to keep the camera steady and focus on the environment around me, as well as simultaneously directing a team of divers, is challenging. I’ve always enjoyed diving sidemount, and after that shoot I had a handful of other projects that required yet more sidemount diving.
I’ve always felt there is no reason to move on until you have a need to, and after twelve years on backmount CCR, I finally found I needed another tool, a sidemount rebreather. I began a yearlong process of looking at different units, demo’ing some, and talking to explorers and people way more experienced than I in sidemount CCR. For over a decade, one of my best dive buddies, Evan Kovacs, dived a Prism Topaz sidemount unit, and several other dive buddies use them, so I wasn’t that unfamiliar with them. I had a list of options that were important to me, and I began to talk to manufacturers and to watch as more divers started making the transition.
In the end, I chose the Divesoft Liberty sidemount unit because I liked that it is neutrally buoyant and can be clipped off, just like a traditional sidemount bottle with no fuss. It has both onboard diluent and oxygen (O2) cylinders, a water trap in the counterlung that sits up high against your chest, a 5.5 lb radial scrubber (short), and its clean design with the Manual Addition Valves (MAV) running up the loop to the Diver Supply Value (DSV) (i.e., mouthpiece), which makes adding diluent or O2 manually very easy. This is a clean design, and while I’m shooting I’m not fumbling around looking for any MAVs. There is also an Auto Diluent Valve (ADV) that can be activated by just breathing, if you’re in a head-down position or if you need more loop volume. I found that to be really nice for descents. The unit has sophisticated electronics that some divers may like or dislike.
I thought it might be overwhelming, but a lot of thought has gone into everything on this rebreather. I like the built-in checklist and the ability to make a lot of personal adjustments in the menu system. The calibration is easy, and the unit walks you through predive checks, including positive and negative checks, even showing millibars of pressure. I also like that it’s sold ready to dive with little tinkering. Travel is important to me, and the unit is just 50 lbs/23 kg in a pelican case (minus tanks). Lastly, it has several modes that include CCR, manual CCR (mCCR), and a bailout rebreather mode that I may use down the road.
Putting It to the Test
I was nervous about how I’d feel on a sidemount rebreather after years of diving various backmount units. I put the DSV in my mouth and opened it up—at first a little awkward because I was standing on the steps at Ginnie Springs. I went horizontal in the water and descended into the basin. I immediately felt comfortable and made a few small adjustments, like moving the unit to a D-ring further back and adjusting the loop hoses into a more comfortable place under my arm. I couldn’t believe how well it breathed and the ease of activating the ADV or manually adding gas using the MAVs.
After becoming certified on it, I spent another 15 hours practicing skills in open water and then another 20 hours in the first 500 ft/152 m of Devil’s Cave system, just practicing and getting used to the idiosyncrasies of the unit and pulling random drills on myself. Changing set points is easy; I like the vibrating to give you alerts, and the Heads Up Display (HUD) and buddy light are easily seen. I took a camera, and it felt really natural to me. I had fun learning this new tool and gliding through the cave, and it felt really streamlined and clean. It was actually the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in sidemount. I used it with my Hollis Katana harness, and everything trimmed out nicely and felt comfortable in the water.
In my opinion, a sidemount rebreather is an incredible tool, but it doesn’t replace a backmount unit. It’s a tool for a specific environment or purpose. Like any rebreather, it’s important to put the time on it and practice your skills to become proficient.
I spent more time with it back home in Dutch Springs. That was fun, considering it was March and the water temperatures were a balmy 37 degrees Fahrenheit or 3 degrees Celsius. I had no issues with dry gloves, but everything did take me a little longer to get together in colder water, wearing thicker undergarments. I had added Shearwater transmitters and an offboard gas addition supply, since it didn’t come with any. That’s important to me, and I easily added one to the unit. I added the transmitters to clean it up because I found it difficult to read the gauges or button gauges under my arm.
A Belize cave project suddenly came up at the end of March. This is exactly the reason I wanted a sidemount rebreather and a perfect project with friends. I’d been to Giant Cave and Winter Wonderland on several past trips, so I was also somewhat familiar with the systems. I decided I wouldn’t change my configuration too much and continued to dive drysuit, but instead of a steel tank, I went with an AL 80 in the warm water since the unit is neutral.
Giant Cave is an advanced cave system that’s located off the island of Caye Caulker in Belize, and the entry is in the ocean just off a dock. It’s fascinating in many ways, but one thing that can’t be timed is when it’s siphoning or springing. It siphoned every time I entered the cave that week, making visibility less than 2 ft/0.6 m. It’s a challenge because you drop down a hole that narrows into a small fissure crack that you have to go through head down about 40 ft/12m into another open chamber before squeezing through about 100 ft/30 m of restriction that goes up and down sandhills and twists and turns.
There are also other considerations when diving a sidemount CCR, such as water traps; flooding; work of breathing; positioning; bailout planning; and how many cylinders to take and types (H valve or multiple tanks). There is a lot to consider and, as always, more to learn.
Luckily the jellyfish weren’t there this time so they weren’t siphoned in with us! I’ve done this entry almost a dozen times in the past but never in a siphon when I couldn’t see, and never on the sidemount rebreather. I knew the head-down position was going to be tough, and breathing might be hard during that time. I went for it and before getting to the bottom, in no visibility, I got tangled in the line. Inverted and unable to breathe, I signaled to my dive buddy and safety diver Anthony Tedeschi for some assistance. He was on a KISS Sidekick but he’s been diving it for over four years. He helped me out, and I caught my breath as I descended less than gracefully into the open chamber below. I caught my breath easily since the ADV activated, and I manually added diluent to get a proper loop volume. At this point, a lot of sediment was getting sucked into the cave, but we could see the line, and we slowly followed it in, passing crabs, sponges, and little coral pieces. Once through the restriction, the cave opened up into a huge room, and the visibility was clear. We had a good dive and shot some great video that day.
Exiting the cave was a similarly uncomfortable experience, as now I had to go vertical again, but in a head-up position where all the gas wanted to push its way out of my mouth. It’s a different feeling, trying to hold it in and only let out little bits. If you let out too much, you’ll drain the counterlung. The head-up and head-down positions are the biggest things to get used to. Going slightly head up or down is no problem, but being vertical is more challenging.
Each day the entry and exit became easier as I committed to the entry and just went without hesitating. Once inside the huge, clear cave system, I could easily stay in horizontal trim, which is where the sidemount rebreather performs best.
I’m so happy I took the Liberty with me to Belize for this project. It’s probably the most challenging cave I’ll ever take it to, and it was a great tool for this particular shoot. We dived for a few hours each day, and I’d usually have only a few tablespoons of water in the counterlung and nothing in the canister. After a week in two different sea caves, both sidemount entrances, I was very happy to have gained experience that was totally different than my dives in the Florida caves on the unit. My plan is to continue to gain hours on it, in all types of environments, so that when opportunities arise, I’m ready and more confident. It’s important to me to have the tools that can help me do my job as an underwater image maker and be safe while doing it. I’m looking forward to putting more time on the sidemount CCR and taking it to some awesome locations this year. So far it’s been a fun new journey practicing, and enjoying silent sidemounting.
Becky is a five-time Emmy award-winning underwater cameraman and photographer whose work appears on major networks including National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Red Bull. She specializes in capturing images in extreme underwater environments including caves, under ice, and deep shipwrecks. Her projects have taken her all over the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many exciting locations in between, filming new wreck discoveries to cave exploration and even diving cage-less with great white sharks. Her biggest passion is shooting haunting images of deep shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. Becky is a frequent contributor to numerous dive magazines, both US-based and international, and her photography has been used in books, museums, and advertising. She is also a technical diving instructor and leads expeditions all over the planet. www.LiquidProductions.com www.MegDiver.com
Cameras Kill Cavers… Again
Cave explorer, photographer and instructor Natalie L Gibb wants to make “taking pictures” the sixth rule accident analysis. How can toting a camera underground get you into trouble? Take a breath, clip off your camera, and say cheese, Gibbs will explain.
By Natalie Gibb
Header photo by Natalie Gibb
I squinted my eyes against 30,000 lumens of blinding light aimed directly into my mask. Somewhere in that burning star was my model, hovering expertly below crystalline stalactites, fragile as glass. I had schlepped seven lights into the passage and balanced them precariously around the chamber where they would not leave marks on the cave. It was beautiful, but after a few minutes, neither of us could see very well.
Considering that cave diving is a navigation-intense style of diving, it makes sense that temporarily blinding oneself with bright lights while engaged in a task-loading activity such as photography can have disastrous results. In this case, I managed to back over a jump line while repositioning myself. When the shot was finished, I turned into the cave along the jump line, thinking I was turning into the direction of exit. I glanced at my compass (a habit whenever I make a turn) and looked at the cave in front of me. Whoops, wrong direction, wrong formations! I thought to myself, and finished turning back to the mainline. There was no incident, just a split second moment when I turned the wrong direction, thinking I was pointed to the exit.
Yet, how many cave divers visiting Mexico’s caves know the lines as well as I do? My tiny mistake had zero negative consequences because I was shooting in a cave I have dived well over 100 times. I recognized the jump line because I have swum down it many times, and even though the mainline twists and turns, I know the cave well enough to know the exact direction of exit in that section, and I have a safety protocol to implement that knowledge.
A visiting cave diver making the same mistake would likely swim down the jump line away from his exit, at least until he hit a landmark indicating that he was going the wrong way. Even then, his safety would depend upon his noticing that landmark or reference point, and then having the humility to admit he made a mistake and turn around before it was too late. If he continued to fuss with his camera, he would have no chance.
Cameras Killed Cave Divers
Even when working with weaker lights, using a camera in a flooded cave is extremely distracting in an environment where one cannot afford to be distracted. Most, if not all, of the modern cave diving accidents in Mexico involve cameras and navigational mistakes as a contributing factor.
The famous Kalimba accident over ten years ago saw four divers follow an arrow away from their exit toward Grand Cenote, which they could not reach. Two of the divers had cameras. In the same cave, a more recent accident involved two divers with a camera and stages, who over-breathed their tanks while shooting, and then similarly followed arrows away from their point of entry and stages towards Grand Cenote.
A cavern diving incident in Calavera a few years back involved tourists with GoPros who swam off the line. Two years ago, in Grand Cenote once again, an instructor shot photos of a recently certified cave diver on the Cuzen Nah loop before they were separated, and one of them perished.
What’s going on? I think the caves in Mexico are so spectacularly beautiful that any photographer or videographer with functioning eyeballs will find themselves inspired to document the beauty of the cenotes. Add to this the improvements in modern photography gear (you don’t need to be a professional photographer to get good cave images) and the dopamine rush of receiving hundreds of “likes” on Instagram—which only reinforces someone’s ego and sense of identity as a badass cave diver—and it’s clear why cave photography is becoming more and more popular.
Yet many of these people are only visiting our caves and do not have the experience in cave diving, the familiarity with Mexican cave navigation, or the understanding of their particular shooting site to safely take photos in the caves. Taking photos when new to the environment has certainly proven to be a recipe for disaster. In many cases, not only do the divers capture fabulous images, they helpfully document their own demise for the accident analysis team. Do not underestimate Mexico’s shallow, warm caves.
Is Safe Cave Photography Possible?
It certainly is! The main issues with cameras and cave diving are distraction and navigational errors. There are ways to avoid this, but no quick fixes. Here are four suggestions for safe cave photography:
- If you are new to an area, hire a local guide or dive with another diver who is experienced in local protocols for at least a few days. If you are diving in Mexico, get a feel for Mexican cave diving and the complexity of the navigation before ever bringing a camera into the cave.
- Do not attempt to photograph caves you have never visited before. Scout a potential photography site first. Become familiar enough with the lines that you will be able to recognize if you get turned around. This means that you should dive past any potential scenes you plan to photograph, so that you will recognize the cave if you go the wrong direction. Even better, familiarize yourself with a cave first; it will allow you to plan a shoot which will get you better results in the end.
- Bring a diver along who is not involved in the shoot. This diver’s job is to stay out of the way and run safety. They can help to carry lights and gear into the cave, but once the shoot starts, their job is to observe the model(s) and photographer, ensuring that they do not become disoriented, that they mind their gas limits, and that they do not unknowingly impact or damage the cave. Local guides make great safety divers, as they are more familiar with the caves than visitors and less emotionally involved in the shoot.
- Always have navigational references in place when shooting. Place an arrow on the line as a mark for your model, but also to reconfirm the direction of exit when the shoot is done. Know the compass heading of your exit, and reconfirm this heading before beginning your swim out.
Where Art Thou Accident Analysis?
Why don’t we hear more about cameras killing divers? How is this not taught in basic cave courses? Perhaps it’s because no one talks about their mistakes anymore. When was the last time a formal accident report was released to the cave diving public? In our modern, politically charged and lawsuit-oriented society, stating that a cave diver made a mistake resulting in his death seems to be akin to saying the person deserved to die.
The only way cave diving became reasonably safe in the first place was through accident analysis—cave divers observed how others died and then decided, well, guess I won’t do that. These days, not only does cave diving lack accident analysis, it lacks incident analysis, the review of non-fatal mistakes. How valuable would it be if cave divers, experienced and novice alike, publicly announced their mistakes to the world? If you read that it’s important to check all your gear before every dive, it sounds like a reasonable idea, so you might do it. However, if your wreck diving hero admits he got complacent and ended up with a total light failure because his back-up lights had low batteries and he didn’t check them, it has a different and more powerful effect.
Having observed my own mistakes while filming and shooting, as an experienced cave diver with over 5,000 cave dives, I can say that what keeps me safe is vigilance and a strict adherence to safety protocols. In short, doing everything right except for my one small mistake has been what’s saved me. I have lived to tell my tales, but I will be the first to admit I am not infallible. I have missed a T intersection, swam onto a jump line while filming, and knowingly swum into an unstable cave.
Understanding that real divers, even ones more experienced than you, can and do make silly mistakes serves as a valuable reminder that no diver is infallible. This improves diver safety by keeping us vigilant against complacency and the normalization of deviant behavior. Yet, these days, it’s almost professional suicide to admit one’s mistakes so that others will learn from them, and as a community cave diving is weaker for it. Instead of ridiculing mistakes, we should thank those who admit their errors and endeavor to learn from the mistakes of others.
How many cave diving accident reports have you read recently? I don’t mean message board rumors or third-person synopsis, I mean the original, impartial report? Have cave training agencies actually run the statistics recently and analyzed incidents in the light of modern cave diving, with the advent of all the modern technology most divers use in the cave? I think perhaps that information is going missing somewhere, and one piece of that information is the prevalence of cameras in cave diving accidents.
I have been pretty vocal about what I consider the sixth rule of accident analysis which in my opinion should join the other classical five rules taught in cave diving courses. Cameras are frequently a contributing factor in cave diving fatalities, distracting divers from navigation, gas management, and a host of other safety concerns that they would normally adhere to, and I think it’s time that we talked about it.
Famed explorer Sheck Exley’s original work on cave diving accident analysis, “Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival,” is available as free download by the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section.
Natalie L Gibb’s passion in life is underwater cave exploration and conservation. With her exploration partner Vincent Rouquette-Cathala, she has led her team to discover over 20 previously unknown cave systems in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, mapping more than 80 kilometers of cave passageways. She is a public speaker, author, photographer, and videographer, and a member of the Woman Diver’s Hall of Fame. Natalie is co-owner of Under the Jungle, a cave diver training center in Mexico, and a TDI Full Cave Instructor.
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