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The NSS-CDS Is Updating How It Teaches Cave Diving

Founded in 1973, the graybeards of Florida cave diving, the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Division, are rethinking how to teach cave diving. Here CDS chair, Renee Power, along with CDS stalwart, Lamar Hires, explain the reasoning and results, with a bit of underground history thrown in.



By Reneé Power and Lamar Hires
Header photo L2R: Reggie Ross, Harry Averill, Lamar Hires, Paul Heinerth, Renee Power, Steve Forman, Pam Wooten at DEMA 2019. Photo courtesy of NSS-CDS

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”  Lao Tzu

Most will agree that change is not always easy.  It is more comfortable to just keep the boat steady and for Heaven’s sake, don’t rock it!  Often when there is directional change in an organization’s structure or processes, philosophies are challenged, egos get bruised, and we find ourselves clinging desperately to “the way we’ve always done it” because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Maybe this object of change wasn’t broken ten or twenty years ago, but could it be now?  Could we recognize it and are we open to self and process evolution?  

The National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS) cave diver training program has a long and storied history. Over the years, the cave training organization, which is one of the few training agencies in the world solely devoted to cave diving, has made changes in their teaching approach along the way that made sense at the time. However, when Reggie Ross (instructor # 286) was elected NSS-CDS Training Director in 2019, the Training Committee decided to take a step back and look at its entire training program. 

The committee discovered that most of the programs and training levels were not a good fit for today’s cave and technical diver and, if we were honest, really needed an overhaul in philosophy and presentation. The four-level modular program that we used until the fall of 2019 was instituted many years ago and allowed divers to progress at a comfortable pace, gaining experience between levels. The program was based on North Florida cave diving as it was three decades ago when the springs had higher outflows and longer flood seasons.  Sadly, the North Florida springs now have reduced flow that more mirror Mexico and other destinations. 

Eric Albinsson, Dave Robbins and Chris Brock. Photo courtesy of NSS-CDS.

The entire training program needed to be adjusted in order to accommodate newer styles of cave diving as well as other environmental considerations. It was decided to update the format and progression of the past three decades to provide more bottom time in the configuration that the student planned to dive in, versus simply have them progress from a single cylinder to a back mounted or side mounted doubles configuration.  

Historically, the NSS-CDS Cavern Diver Course was the first step in overhead training and was conducted in a single tank or a double tank configuration with limited gas use. Cavern limits kept students on a single line and taught them to manage their reel, their lighting and their basic overhead diving skills.  Over the years, it transitioned from a stand alone course for safe cavern diving to the gateway to a cave diving program. 

The next level of cave training was the Intro-To-Cave Course that was again conducted in a single cylinder. The Basic Cave Course was the same course only it was conducted in a double tank configuration using limited gas. The limited gas usage rules limited penetration, to avoid decompression, especially the popular North Florida training caves. The course focused on perfecting buoyancy and trim, basic cave dive planning and confident execution of emergency skills and drills, as a prerequisite to advancing further.

The next two levels in the NSS-CDS cave training program were, Apprentice Cave and Full Cave with focus on progressively complex navigation, gas management, decompression strategies and dive planning. With a “temporary” Apprentice Cave rating, the student diver was expected to gain experience prior to enrolling in the Full Cave Course. 

When dive computers and Enriched Air Nitrox came along in the 90s, it became obvious that divers would likely go further into the caves, ignoring the gas limitations set for their level of training. After all, what could go wrong by going into the cave “just a little bit more.”  

Remember Y2K? This “Millennium Bug” was prophesied to negatively rock our world.  Thankfully, the predictions were largely incorrect. However in the diving world, a limit-crushing cylinder configuration came out of the closet and, like it or not, went viral. Hello sidemount! 

Initially, sidemount was a tool utilized by cave explorers to traverse much smaller passages that was simply not possible using traditional back mounted doubles. But then sidemount mutated from a useful exploration tool to a lifestyle choice, at least some of it due to back problems, and the consolidated weight of back mounted doubles.

Students at all levels wanted to train in this configuration. Fast forward to today: sidemount, backmount and rebreather divers all want to dive together, presenting new challenges for traditional training that had to be addressed. 

Out With The Old; In With The New

The Cavern Course

Today, the Cavern Course is again an awareness and safety program. It is strictly a survival course utilizing restricted training limits to help the student develop awareness of overhead environment dangers, how to prevent problems and how to manage them should they occur. Students are taught finning techniques and gas management suitable for the cavern environment along with very basic guideline handling.

Arguably, the course is a critical step in a recreational diver’s mind shift as they learn more about trim and buoyancy while task loaded, and how to manage critical data such as depth, time, and gas supply. Equally important they will experience why these skills are important through discovery learning. This single cylinder course is no longer a prerequisite nor does it count toward further cave training.

The Cave Program

The new NSS-CDS Cave Program is now a two-step process; Apprentice Cave and Cave.  

Apprentice Cave is the first step leading to full NSS-CDS Cave Diver certification. It takes the place of the old Cavern, Basic, and Intro-to-Cave Diver courses.

  • The focus is primarily on limited penetration along the main line. It is also where students learn, and master critical emergency skills.
  • Usable gas supply is limited putting a heavy emphasis on gas matching and dive planning.
  • Provides students with the opportunity to gain limited experience and practice fundamental cave diving skills prior to completing the requirements for Cave Diver certification.

After spending time in the Apprentice Course training, the instructor may deem the student qualified and ready for an extension of limits. The new Apprentice Cave Diver “Statement of Understanding” form initiates this process. This is where the instructor specifies what the extended limits are, and the range the student must stay within.  These extended limits may include gas use, distance, limited decompression and navigation. 

The CDS Basics Orientation Course 

A new prerequisite for enrolling in the Apprentice Cave is certification or proof of experience in the use of back mount or sidemount doubles, and demonstrated proficiency in buoyancy, trim, and the appropriate propulsion techniques needed for cave diving. If the student is unfamiliar to the instructor, the CDS Basics Orientation Course is used as a prep course that includes academics, dry-land and in-water exercises. Completion of this course allows entry into the Apprentice Cave course, but is not a certification. The best part is that this orientation course may be conducted in a swimming pool!


This is the second and final step toward an NSS-CDS full Cave Diver certification. Usable gas volume is increased, advanced navigational challenges are added and decompression strategies are discussed and executed. Dive planning is expanded to include multilevel dives and more elaborate gas planning. After completing a four to six day cave program, the divers are now trained and confident enough to plan and execute complex navigation cave dives. 

All of the NSS-CDS Training Standards and Procedures are getting an overhaul section by section to include Special Programs, Specialty Courses and Leadership Standards.  This is an extensive project taken on by the Training Committee.  We expect this undertaking to take some time but we are off to a positive start.

And those aren’t the only changes! We also created:

  • A beautiful new website that looks and works better.
  • A brand new subdomain dedicated to the Training Program. 
  • Regular issues of Training Program News.
  • Better branding with a stunning new logo that is instantly recognizable.
  • A painless renewal process for instructors (yay!).
  • Simplified forms and payment for student registration.
  • International outreach. 

Although Reggie Ross has left this earth, his vision lives on. [Ed.note: Reggie passed on December 24, 2019] Max Kuznetsov was elected as the new NSS-CDS Training Director.  Max and his Training Committee, will undoubtedly continue to lead us boldly into an even better future.

End Note: The NSS-CDS training committee consists of Max Kuznetsov, Harry Averill, Chris Brock, Paul Heinerth, Lamar Hires, Ted McCoy, and Ken Sallot.

Additional Resources:

Check out the History of NSS-CDS

The first issue of what is now Underwater Speleology, circa March 1974
Underwater Speleology May/June 1995 Vol 22 No. 3-Note articles on the “new” Apprentice Cave course by Lamar Hires, and a story on the Hogartian Method by Jarrod Jablonski who went on to become NSS-CDS Training Director before starting Global Underwater Explorers (1998).

Reneé Power conducts computerized tomography at a hospital in Florida and has over 30 years of professional experience. She has served on the Cambrian Foundation dive team since 1999 and has been involved with cave exploration and research diving in Mexico, Bermuda and Florida serving at times as the expedition Dive Safety Officer.  

She is a cave and technical instructor with the NSS-CDS, TDI, and NAUI. Renee is a PADI Master Instructor and IDC Staff Instructor.  She is currently the chair of the Board of Directors for the NSS-CDS and is a member of Karst Underwater Research. Reneé is the owner and founder of Dive By Design and mentors divers to develop skills in a safe and positive learning environment that facilitates growth through performance based progression.

Dive Rite CEO, Lamar Hires started his diving career in North Florida in 1979. Within his first five years of diving, Lamar had logged in excess of 1000 dives. In 1984, the year Dive Rite was established, Lamar earned his open water instructor rating as well as his cave diving instructor rating. He has explored and mapped a number of cave systems in North Florida and around the world. Lamar’s motivation to explore and challenge himself has led to the development of several Dive Rite products and influenced diving techniques, such as sidemount diving.

Lamar’s diving experience includes exploring a variety of cave systems around the world, wrecks of the Great Lakes and the oceans, the warm waters of the Caribbean, and the frigid waters of Antarctica. Along with exploration, Lamar has a passion for teaching and passing along his vast knowledge of diving. He actively teaches rebreather, sidemount, cave diving, and a variety of technical diving specialties. His involvement in the diving community has earned him numerous awards and recognitions.


Finding Zen During A Pandemic: Open a New Dive Center

Who would be crazy enough to open a dive center in the midst of a global pandemic? A triumvirate of trimix-breathing GUE divers, that’s who. What is the sound of one fin back kicking?




By Amanda White

Photos by zen dive co. [correctly spelled with no capitalization]

January, 2020—Zen dive co., a Pasadena, California dive center, just opened in the midst of the global pandemic. Who are these crazy people? Kian Farin, Alex Caillat, and Francesco Cameli co-opened the shop after the concept had been in the works for several years. Each of them brings a different perspective as each is part of a different generation.

Kian, in his twenties, has been working in the dive industry for five years and has been an instructor for several agencies. He is a GUE Instructor Candidate. Alex, in his thirties, is a scientific diver and has worked on Ghost fishing projects and clean ups.  Francesco, in his forties, is the self declared grumpy one and brings the tekkie side of things to the team as a GUE instructor and rebreather diver. 

What possessed this trimix savvy trio to open a dive center in the midst of a viral tsunami that has claimed over two million lives and has impacted nearly every industry on the planet and most certainly diving?

zen dive co. opened on January 15th, 2021. From left to right: Kian Farin,  Jamie Mitchell, Alex Caillat, and Francesco Cameli.

“Initially, we realized there was a bit of a slowdown with COVID but,” Farin said, “at least here in Southern California, scuba diving is one of the sports people can still practice somewhat freely, though there have been restrictions of course. Boats have smaller loads and people can’t gather in big groups, but it’s one of beautiful things. Once you’re underwater, that’s it. And it’s helping with people’s stress.” 

The team of three said the pandemic has given them the time they needed to sit down and create a plan for their business, build the shop, and then also have the opportunity to fix any bumps that come up along the way without being too busy with the day-to-day operations. 

So why did they choose the name Zen?

“In the craziness that’s going on at the moment in the world,” Cameli mused, “there is one place where I can picture myself where I am truly calm, at peace, and relaxed. It’s in the water. So it seems fitting.” 

See a Need, Fill a Need

The three divers have set out to fulfill a need they see in the California area for an innovative dive shop that inspires and supports the community. A self proclaimed “club house” for divers, equipped with its own espresso machine.

The fancy espresso machine for the divers’ clubhouse.
Zen’s rental BCDs are not like the others.

This team of hilarious and dedicated divers are trying to break all the preconceptions of dive shops and the industry. A major one is the color of their rental gear, which—GASP—has stepped outside of the black and grey scale. Their rental wings feature bright blue and orange. But also of interest, they rent only backplates and wings.

“We put a lot of thought into the experience that the diver will have at Zen,” Farin explained. “And additionally, everything in this building within these walls has had a lot of thought put into it as far as its modularity and its multiple uses. Just like our backplate systems that are very mission specific, you can put a different wing for a different dive and a different plate for a different dive, we can rearrange our entire space to accommodate anything from a West Coast GUE conference to a yoga class, to a diving course.”

Zen stocks items such as backplates, wings and longer hoses for recreational divers—no jacket BCDS here— as they believe its the best option for divers.
The unique set up in Zen makes it easy to see the gear, try things out and hang with the staff.

So Is Zen Really That Different? 

All of their introductory courses, whether it’s through PADI, NAUI, or GUE, are taught with a backplate and wing and are taught with nitrox (They only breathe air at the surface.). The courses, regardless of the agency, are taught to the shop’s standards. But what is the most interesting is their approach to instructors. Anyone is welcome to teach there, but they must meet the shop’s standards, not only for teaching and watermanship skills, but also in being stewards for the environment. Like GUE, all of their instructors will go through requalifications to teach at Zen.

Zen’s classroom can be rearranged to accommodate instruction, meetings, or even yoga.

“It’s not just what material is the agency teaching, it’s does the instructor fit what we are trying to do with diving here,” Caillat said. “It’s not just, is this person teaching proper trim, but it’s are they also being stewards of the environment? Are they teaching good ethics? So anybody can teach with us, as long as they meet our quality standards.”

The shop has also brought in distance learning to accommodate for COVID-19. Their classroom has state of the art technology that allows students to video conference with their instructor and a virtual black board. 

Along with their approach to teaching. Zen has started a different process for gas fills that makes the life of a diver so much easier. They bank standard GUE gases, but also can blend you any mixture you would like on the spot. The coolest part, you’re paying by the cubic foot.

“It was something I drew inspiration from Extreme Exposure in Florida,” said Cameli, the gas blender. “Basically where you just back your car up, and we come and fill your tanks. You can even text me what you want. Don’t get out of your car, just pop your boot and I’ll make sure you get what you need. I can even make it on the spot, so I can just connect a hose and just fill you up and sell you the gas per cubic foot rather than, by the tank. It’s like filling up your car at the gas station.”

Zen’s gas blending station. They can do any mix you wish and have the standard GUE gases.

According to Cameli, designing and building Zen’s gas blending station was one of the most consuming tasks that the guys undertook to get the center up and running, that and, of course, selecting a suitably high-end espresso machine to fuel Zen’s coffee bar. Did I mention that Cameli is Italian? Ah, the diving dolce vita.

Other challenges?

According to the team, the hardest part of opening during a pandemic has been keeping everyone healthy and safe. The second hardest part has been dealing with shipping, both incoming and outgoing.

Zen is also a partner with “Malibu Scuba Repair (MSR)” owned by Karim Hamza. Zen is now open by appointment only. You can find Zen here, and make an appointment: zendive.co. Soon you will also be able to shop their online store.

Take a Walk Through Their Shop

Additional Resources: 

Follow Zen on Social: Facebook, Instagram

Amanda White is the managing editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She is a GUE Recreational Level 1 Diver.  Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she is the Marketing Director for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno with a minor in creative writing.

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