Sunday, December 20, 2009

Diving in Thailand

Gwen and I are currently sitting in the Minneapolis airport, waiting for our connecting flight back to Salt Lake City.  We left Phuket Thailand about 30 hours ago and we still have another 6 hours before we will be home!  Wow, really a long trip!

We had a great time in Thailand.  The trip was to celebrate our 30th anniversary and was not a dedicated dive trip, although we did dive a couple of days.  I didn't take my CCR with me, because it was a long way to travel and since we were only diving for a couple of days, I thought we would keep it simple with our recreational OC gear.

We dove at a couple of locations.  The first day was called Phi Phi (pronounced "Pee Pee")  The diving was very easy going and quite good.  We saw lots of Leopard sharks and some very cool large Jelly Fish. We also saw a Mandarin Shrimp that just sat out of its hole and let us inspect him as long as we would like.    The biggest downside to the diving was that the dive operation was very into baby sitting the divers and we had a nervous Nelly dive master that was hovering around us the entire time.  Additionally, it was a 14 hour day to get from the hotel, take a 3 hour boat ride each way, do the dives and then get back home.  Not sure it would be worth doing day trips in Phuket area multiple days in a row.

The 2nd dive day was at the Similan Islands.  The viz was much better, but the animal life was a little lacking compared to Phi Phi.  Similan is supposed to be rated in the top 10 world wide by many people, but like most rankings, I was underwhelmed.  The diving was alright, but not spectacular.  Both dives were drift diving in a pretty ripping current.  The top side scenery was spectacular and I'm glad that we made both trips.  I does rub me the wrong way when the dive masters are constantly asking you what your remaining pressure is.  I would hope by this stage in my diving career, I am capable of keeping track of my own gas consumption!  Oh well, that's what you get when you dive with Thai Cattle Boats!  We had a good time none the less!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas came early at my house!

My wife Gwen was very kind and bought me an amazing underwater video setup for Christmas this year. (Of course, I left some pretty specific hints as to what I was looking for!) And even better, she let me open it early

It's a Gates Housing with external video monitor, Greenforce 250 Watt HID lights, wide angle dome port that will go from 2 millimeters to infinity, and a Canon XHA1S HD Video Camera.

I took it in the pool today for a trial swim with my CCR. No camera, just that housing. I wanted to make sure that everything was water tight before I dunked the camera. It was absolutely awesome. The housing is a little positively buoyant without the camera in it, so I'll do another pool session with the camera before I start slapping weights on it. It comes with quite a bit of lead, so I'm sure I'm going to have to put some on it.

I'm really excited to get started with this. I have done quite a bit of underwater still photography, but this is really my first serious attempt at video, so it should be a challenge! Once I get something that is halfway decent, I'll post something! (Might take awhile!)

OK, back to reading my owners manual!


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Steve Lewis' presentation at the NACD conference this past week

This is a copy of the presentation given by Steve Lewis at the National Association of Cave Divers conference this past week.  Steve gave me permission to post it here.  I think his thoughts are right on the money and should be required reading by all technical divers Cave, Open Circuit and Closed Circuit Rebreathers.  Thanks Steve!
Forgive me for straying somewhat from the agenda, but it seems the diving community needs your help; needs help from us all.
As many of you know, there appears to be a general misunderstanding among the general diving public about standards, protocols, guidelines, rules. Call it what you will, but something is just not squared away with the tech diving community; and people are getting themselves killed because of it.
Every one of us knows that diving is dangerous. And we know that anyone telling us otherwise is either delusional, completely ignorant in the art of risk assessment; or they are lying.
Technical diving, what we are most interested in, is extremely dangerous; perhaps an order of magnitude more risky than common or garden sport diving. But we render the risks manageable by simply following some really basic rules. These boil down to staying within the limits of our training, our skills and our experience; making a dive plan that takes into account the lessons learned from accident analysis; PLUS we adapt our plan to account for the actual environmental conditions we find at the site on game day; and, of course, we stick to our plan.
Risk management is even better assured by resisting any temptation to push our comfort zone or that of our companions. And we are well armed against the wiles of Murphy if we are prepared to react creatively when the dynamic nature of diving presents us with “real-time” challenges without warning.
In any high-risk activity where we want to weigh the odds of a favorable outcome, the normal path is to follow what’s called Best Practices or Best Practice Behavior. It’s really just a label we stick on a process that leads us along the, statistically speaking, safest pathway through a series of conditions that present threat; either physical, societal, financial or psychological.
However, there are few guarantees and every year divers die.
In rare cases, divers die even though they have followed best practices. They do everything according to the book, but die regardless. The issues in very many of these incidents are truly accidental; often an underlying unknown health problem; and heart problems seem to top that list.
But in the great majority of cases, people die as a direct result of NOT following best practices.
In some cases, their mistakes or the mistakes of their buddy or instructor were errors of omission. What I mean by this is that they forgot to do something important or maybe were unaware that conditions, equipment, personal needs or a combination of all three were going to demand something they could not provide. These events are sad.
At the other end of the scale of culpability, and a factor in the majority of diver deaths, are mistakes that are errors of commission; which in this context I take to be deliberately refusing to follow what they knew at the onset of their dive was best practice. They knowingly did something negligent and these events are tragic in the truest sense of the word because they are avoidable; totally, 100 percent avoidable.
Now, all this is pretty obvious to you and me, but in the past couple of years, our community (the technical diving community at large) has suffered several shock looses and almost every one appears to have been a direct result of divers trying to pull off dives using the wrong gas, wrong kit, having inadequate skills, or inappropriate training. In at least one case — a young man diving air to 75 metres (about 230 feet), well beyond the most extreme limits for that gas in consideration of narcosis and oxygen toxicity — a strong influence would appear to have been pressure from an employer slash instructor; in other words, someone they looked up to.
When invited to come down here and talk to you folks today, I jumped at the chance because I like cave country, I like cave diving, and apart from a bias against Alabama in favor of the Gators, I feel comfortable among cave divers.
My intention was to give a light-hearted presentation pointing out some of the influences that North Florida cave divers have had on the wreck diving community and underline the way we wreck divers have evolved the basic cave diving kit and skill sets to fit a very different environment. We are still going to look at that but from a viewpoint influenced by several recent deaths. None of us knows much about any of these incidents, but there is a common theme in at least almost every case; Lack of Training. Specifically here in North Florida, divers who had no cave training, dying in caves; what a sordid cliché that is, and how sad it’s still happening.
Of course it begs the questions: what can be learned from the misfortune of others, and how can you and I help prevent, by example or influence, others from repeating the same mistakes?
Let’s start with a few declarative statements.
Number one: Wreck diving is very different to cave diving. They are cousins, siblings even, but certainly not identical twins.
Number two: If we accept number one, it follows that the skills required for diving wrecks and diving in caves are NOT interchangeable. The skills have the same names but their deployment is different because the environment is different.
As a result of these two issues, it is NOT possible to train cave divers in wrecks nor can one train wreck divers in caves. To attempt one or the other is wrong and it is dangerous. Since technical diving is risky to begin with, sending the wrong message to the people we train in either of these activities just throws a wrench into the whole risk assessment / risk management exercise.
OK, let me add one more statement to those two. Without simulating or demonstrating the specific risks associated with a special environment – such as a cave – those risks do not exist for the student. In other words, taking a student into any overhead environment OUTSIDE of a course specific to that environment, be it cave or wreck, sends the wrong message. As mentioned, the risks do not exist unless they are explained and outlined with the big black magic marker of demonstration, guidance, performance, feedback and repetition.
OK, let’s start with some history, because if we go back to the start, we may get a better idea where the confusion comes from; and why some people think wrecks, caves and deep open water are similar.
A generation ago, when technical diving was coming out of the closet and before it became a convention, there really was only one place to go to get serious training. And that was Florida. Cave diving was and still is as far as I am concerned the original and purest form of technical diving. If you wanted to become a better wreck diver, and you wanted to learn techniques to make it so, you made your way to High Springs and signed up for a cavern/cave class, because organizations such as the NACD were the only ones offering an alternative to mainstream sport diver education.
Without doubt, because of this simple slice of history, almost everything that is the norm among technical divers around the world today, from Sydney Harbor to Seattle owes a serious debt to Florida Cavers. The classic back mounted rig; backplate, wing, doubles, long hose et al, had its genesis here in North Florida. Today, for some mystifying reason, this rig gets called DIR, Hogarthian, DW2, and god knows what else… but you and I both know that it is just standard North Florida Cave Diving Kit, and if it were not for the malleability of the road signs used by the Department of Highways, and Greg Flannigan‘s ingenuity, we’d all be diving poodle jackets.
The same is true of side-mount diving. Wreck divers are turning more and more to side-mount configuration for open-circuit wreck diving. In doing so, they are copying or borrowing from the kit configuration cave divers have been using for at least a couple of decades.
The connection is there. Cave divers and cave training agencies wrote the screenplay for wreck diving techniques and training. And so, if they are siblings, then cave diving is the older sister.
But over time things have evolved. Driven by a void or need within the wreck-diving community, technical instructors and training agencies have developed specialized technical wreck or advanced wreck programs. The starting point may have been the NACD cavern course but the program now has morphed into something more appropriate for the wreck environment and with attention being paid to skills that are not required in cave and cavern diving.
We do not have time to drill down into the nuts and bolts of each course and do a line item comparison, but we do have time to think about some major differences. So let’s look at them to justify our statement that the two types of diving are not the SAME.
Here is a partial listing of the skills tested during a TDI or NACD cavern and Intro to Cave courses.
• Gas Management
• Propulsion Techniques
• Deploy Guideline
• Lost Line
• Lost Buddy
• Air Share with Buddy in contact with line
• Air Share with Buddy blacked-out mask through restriction
• Light and Hand Signals
• Light Failure
• Problem Solving
Here is a partial listing of the skills for a TDI Advanced Wreck program.
• Gas Management
• Propulsion Techniques
• Deploy Guideline
• Lost Line
• Lost Buddy
• Air Share with Buddy in contact with line
• Air Share with Buddy blacked-out mask through restriction
• Light and Hand Signals
• Light Failure
• Problem Solving
They look the same don’t they; well, of course they are the same… But if we advocate and advise that caves and wrecks are different, how is that so? The answer is that it is in the application of the skills to the specific environment and not the skills themselves.
Gas Management: The Rule of Thirds is sacrosanct to cave divers and wreck divers but there are few wrecks offering several hundred metres of penetration; and so the rule’s application in wreck diving is far more like the Hub Plan used by CCR cave divers than the classic and simpler one third in, one third out used by OC cavers.
Propulsion Techniques: Wreck divers may have to employ a modified pull and glide to navigate narrow corridors inside a wreck where ANY fin movement is guaranteed to reduce visibility to zero in seconds. One other difference is that when a wreck diver kicks a wall by mistake is moves… it might even fall down. Anyhow, finning is NOT the default propulsion technique in “real” wrecks.
Guideline: Cave divers are warned about line traps. Cave divers can follow and usually do follow permanent lines for miles. Wrecks are one big line trap and a permanent line is the stuff of dreams. One might also consider that a continuous line to the surface covers a wreck diver’s need to be able to deploy a DSMB and decompress in blue water. In fact, that constitutes a required skill: hang off knotted line… keeping track of the knots to judge depth, with a blacked out mask, and counting breaths to track time.
Lost Line: Not a big issue when you carry the “permanent” line on a reel in your hand, but a required skill nevertheless for a wreck diver. However, more often than not, during their search for the lost line, students manage to get a manifold, spg, fin or something wrapped up in hanging cable… or their instructor’s simulation of hanging cable. Last time I audited a cave class, tying up the student was not part of the course work. It is in a wreck class. Another time for rodeo work is when students exit through a restriction with blacked out masks sharing air.
Communications, light failures and so on, are no different, but problem solving is. In a cave, the shortest route to fresh air is almost invariably back the way you came. In a wreck, the surface is closer but not necessarily easier to get to. And once there, getting out of the water may be a challenge.
Now if we stopped right now, some of you might leave here thinking, wow, wreck diving sure sounds tougher than cave diving. And in lots of ways, it is. But if things were that simple, how come we are not looking at a bunch of dead cave divers dying in wrecks instead of a bunch of wreck divers who are dying in caves. To be honest, I am able to turn up a constant and irreversible answer to that. But l have a theory…
Any of you who ski will have seen on the various ski runs leading from the top of the mountain back to the beer and nachos waiting at the bottom of the hill, a classification system indicating how difficult each trail is. A green run is the most straightforward; blue involves more slope and turns; a black diamond is technical and demands experience; a double black diamond is for experts and carries a real and present danger of injury or worse.
A skier can break his leg on a Bunny Hill (the simplest of green runs), but at least this classification system let’s punters like myself know which slopes to avoid on the morning of the first day of skiing after an eight month hiatus.
We avoid the black runs until we have our legs back under us.
There is no really well-established and universal “indication of risk” system in wreck diving or cave diving.
The powers that be do not post a series of Green, Blue or Black buoys above a wreck site for example. Perhaps one of the reasons for NOT posting colored indicators is that an errant fin kick, misplaced line wrap or simple quirk of fate can instantly turn a green dive into a black diamond. All experienced divers can all tell stories about a dive that started as a Green or a Blue but that went completely pear-shaped and immediately became a double black diamond.
But the point here is that many wreck dives and all open water dives offer the potential of a green or blue level dive. And in many cases, the journey to the wreck site is undertaken in a charter boat which gives some opportunity to restrict access to the dedicated black diamond sites.
So let me pose a proposition, and this flavors the magnitude of the request for help that I made earlier: I don’t think ANY CAVE DIVE can be classified as a Green dive. ALL cave dives, even a simple bimble in a place like Peacock, start out as a Black Diamond.
In addition, many cave dives on the other hand are “drive ups,” leaving them more open to abuse.
Touching the hull plates of the Empress or Ireland, counts as a dive, but swimming around the basin at Orange Grove is not a cave dive. If an open water diver wants to “give it a try?” he is totally committed and once beyond the grim reaper sign is participating in a Black Diamond level dive.
In addition, sites like Wayne’s World, the DiePolder system, and Eagles Nest are beyond double black… triple black perhaps. Yet we have divers with zero training, zero experience, who have no business being in there, diving in these spots… and not making it out
Now; who is at fault and how do we change things?
The easy out is to blame the agencies for not “controlling” the situation. But this is a rather naive take on the whole affair. It’s “Tooth Fairy Philosophy;” we can talk about it all we want… it’s still a myth, and believing in it will not make it any more likely to happen.
The agencies have an important role in things; they write standards, they enforce them – under the ‘strong recommendations’ of their insurance underwriters – and they set up a QA infrastructure for the network of men and women who teach under their banner. But agencies can’t work in a vacuum, they need feedback, information.
That leaves us. You and me; and to be completely clear on this, I have no foolproof plan. No guidelines for intervention. No killer argument or presentation of logic that is going to win people over when you bump into them getting ready to take their “Try It” dive in a site where they stand a good chance of topping themselves.
All I can suggest is that we work to educate and lead by example, and become more involved.
And as with any massive change or revolution, it begins with you. Each of us should ask ourselves the question are we diving the plan? Are we diving within the parameters of our experience and training?
As I recently wrote in partial jest, but the sentiment is real… All of you are now deputies, so get out there and kick ass… but before you do so, make sure YOU are without sin before you cast the first stone.
Thank You.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Guy James Cave Diving Review

This is a review of a cave dive in Guy James Cave by a friend named Skip Kendrick.  I absolutely loved his description of the dive, so I have reprinted it here with his permission.  I hope you enjoy it!

There we were in zero viz searching for the gold line. The cave ain't that big, but dang if I can find the stop sign! I thumb the dive 15 feet in; less than 3 minutes. That must be the record for short cave dives! I would call it a cavern dive, but there was no visible sunlight due to the lateness of the day and the total siltout. Up close in Crawford's face I stuck a big thumb with my light inches from it wondering if he would see it….he did and turned to leave, signaling Marbry to turn the dive too. After they both exited, I looked around (as if I could see anything - funny how you rely on sight even when sightless) and soon found the stop sign and the beginning of the gold line. I tied off and followed the line back out to signal Crawford and Marbry to come on down!

The viz was the usual blue-white haze requiring us to stay on the line, or within an easy reach, as we finned along that little golden highway. Why is it blue-white in the first few hundred feet? We know there's a side passage leading to a rock-filled sink that brings it in, but what is it: limestone run-off? I'm thinking of something dead. You know when you see a dead fish or crayfish on the floor of the cave how it is surrounded by blue-white, and then later it's covered in blue-white hairs? I've seen deer thrown in water-filled quarries and how a simple light touch will suddenly fill the water with bit of flesh and that same blue-white fog….

The cave clears a bit past the bone. It's a big black bone, like a cow femur. And there are hip bones, and pieces of broken bones all laying at the bottom of a break down rubble pile. I've been up and down the rubble pile; up to where tree roots hang down into the water and down to where the rubble thins and becomes rock/clay bottom. There's lots of bones in that breakdown pile and catfish too. They roam up and down the pile digging and pulling, so I'm thinking with lots of cows and lots of sink holes….well let's just say there's plenty of food in this cave!

And there's plenty of life too. Two species of fish, big wide-bodied big-eyed fish and solitary cigar shaped fish, that seem to come into the cave only in winter. Of course the usual sculpin, southern cavefish, crayfish, and salamanders, the year-round residents, are ever-present. White and black isopods crawl along the bottom and hide under rocks, while amphipods (some are really baby crayfish I think), fill the water if you just defocus your eyes like you do when staring at those dot-matrix three-dimensional posters (random-dot stererograms). When finally you get the focus right, the 3-D image unfolds and it's like you entered another dimension beyond ordinary sight. I can't help but think of these tiny little creatures, normally undetected by human sight, that spend their lives floating about eating microscopic bits of dead flesh and decomposing vegetable matter. 

And of course I think of our human lives as no more than microscopic in the larger scheme of things, of how our planet is but dust-mote in the universe, less even than a speck of nothingness. But my life seems so large! I, my life, must surely have more meaning than the life of a brainless reflexive cave amphipod. Or maybe not. 

My favorite is the southern cavefish. Blind, albino to the most of almost transparent, and if you get close enough you can see the pink heart beating. But getting that close is difficult. I wonder if a rebreather would calm them down, let me get up close and personal. I think of capturing them and taking them home to a basement aquarium where I can stare closely at them for as long as I want….

Whoa, where are we? As I've been lost in daydreams we've been swimming and the water is now as clear as a bell. I look back and Crawford and Marbry are back there, so I turn and swim back a short ways to where the milky-blue meets the nearly clear and play in the halocline. Like a white fog it hangs just so, in gentle hills and shallow valleys. You can put your head down into the milk, then raise it up and look out over the surface of the smoky fog. Cool.

Crawford and Marbry catch up and we continue on, up and over the camel humps where the water gets shallow and the cave walls get close. The bottom is coarse sand and pebbles and you can see the shapes left by currents from when the rains filled the passage with torrential outflow. Up high is a secondary shelf of beautiful chert formations; black rocks in the shapes of flat-topped mushrooms, rounded on one side and sharpened on the other, some up tall skinny stalks with big plate-sized heads and others small and squat, like little pancakes perched on short fat pedestals. Like a forest in some places and all spread out with room to breathe in other places, the chert formations are delicate testaments to the millenniums. This shelf was formed by a millions of years of rainfall, millions of years of water falling to the ground, of being absorbed by the ground, and millions of years of eroding away the softer rock from the harder, separating the two parts to reveal the artistry of Mother Nature.

We drop down and around the sharp corner, where I always fear the line will one day be cut by the razor-like edge, but today it's continuous and on we go. Deeper now, all of 35 feet, we follow the wide high channel. I stick close to the bottom where the small life flits and scatters, where they wiggle in great effort to move small distances and am reminded once again of our lives, how we too wiggle with great effort to move small distances. As if our lives depended on it, we struggle, we love, we hate, we engage and disengage and too often treat our lives as the most important thing on this earth. Then we settle down in a new spot, a new frame of mind, a place that is not there but here and stop wiggling long enough to catch our breathe and pray we are out of harm's way. I pass the little stick of black salamander, smaller than toothpick, no more than a short dark line in the bedding plane and understand that we are two of a kind. My wiggling and its wiggling differ only in magnitude, in quantity and duration. Long after his wiggling has stopped, mine will continue…or so I hope!

I wiggle a bit extra hard and come up on the triangle rock, the rock that was not there when I first dove this cave, and then one day was. I investigated the ceiling from which it fell and can see the exact placement where it once was, like a piece in a jig-saw puzzle and I always wonder what it must have been like to have been there when it fell. But mostly I think of other large chunks of ceiling falling - especially that one place where the ceiling and floor, both solid rock, are separated by no more than three feet, so that if the ceiling fell, you'd be squashed like a bug. It always makes me smile. Now that's a death! I can see my tombstone now: He was squashed like a bug. Here lies a bit of goo that was once you!
When I die I want my cremated ashes distributed in Guy James Cave. I'd really like an urn with a slow release valve, a time-release valve, hidden in some remote part of the system that would release just a bit of my ashes at 10 or 100 year intervals. Or maybe ask Michael Angelo to mix my ashes, some of them, with his artificial cave clay and blend me into that clay bank just where the milky-blue turns clear! Now that's a grave sight. No tombstone, no plaque, but an urn with my name and born/dead dates hidden where no one will ever find it, releasing the molecules that was once me into the cave waters, to join the milky blue haze.