The alleged death of a diver in the cave located at Vortex Spring brings this subject up. The diver had no previous overhead or decompression training, yet he had supposedly made several dives in the Vortex cave. There is videographic evidence of at least one dive he made there, so he was entering the overhead. The presence of several cylinders in the system also indicates he was probably doing decompression dives there.
Let’s take a look at the type of cave Vortex is. The cavern zone at Vortex is not very large. Fifty feet into the passage and natural day light is no longer visible. However, several open water divers make the trek back to the gated grate located about 300′ into the passage. While this isn’t encouraged by Vortex management, the dredging pipe located in the passage, along with the holiday type lights that lead back to the Piano Room (the room where the grate is located) makes this cave somewhat inviting. Once past the grate, the passage narrows significantly and the ceiling drops closer to the floor. While the first 1000′ or so is passable in backmount, there are a couple of sections where passage in backmount cannot be made without having contact with the cave. The average depth in from the gate through the backmountable passage is in the 110-120′ range. At the point the passage becomes unpassable in backmount, it also drops down into the 150-160′ range. At this point, one must be in sidemount. About 1400′ into the cave is a tight restriction that makes passage without contacting the cave impossible. Exiting from this point is usually in low to zero visibility. This is definitely an advanced cave dive that requires trimix and significant experience.
Cave diving is a very safe activity IF the proper training has been completed and the five guidelines of accident analysis (proper training, continuous guideline, air management, appropriate gas mix for the depth, and good equipment that is well maintained) are followed. Violating any of these guidelines increases the risks significantly, the greatest risk coming with the guidelines in the beginning of this list. Not having the proper training is the number one reason for deaths in caves.
Cave diving training is intensive, requires the appropriate gear, and a great amount of dedication. It’s not something someone can learn by reading about it in books or on the Internet. Of the approximately 600 documented deaths that have occurred in caves since we started keeping track of them about 40 years ago, a majority of those deaths occurred due to lack of proper training.
The following four guidelines are all taught in cave diving training, but someone who has not received that training may not be aware of the guidelines and how important they are to preventing incidents from happening. Air management is more than just diving to 1/3s. In fact, diving to 1/3s is the most liberal way to conduct a cave dive and there have been incidents and deaths that resulted even when this guideline was followed. Using the appropriate gas mix for the depth not only requires knowing what mix to use, but also how to follow an appropriate decompression schedule for that mix and the length of the dive. This requires additional training outside of cave diving training. Violating any one of these guidelines is enough to keep someone from leaving a cave alive. Violating more than one, or all of them, is a near guarantee that the outcome will not be good.
Cave diving training and decompression training are expensive and time consuming. The average cost to complete cave diving training is in the $2000-3000 range. This does not include the gear required to conduct these types of dives. Add another $3000-4000 for that. Then don’t forget the decompression training. Depending on the level of training someone decides to pursue, this can range anywhere from $800-3000 just for the training. A cave like Vortex requires about $1500-2000 in training. There are also additional equipment costs. Breathing gas costs will also be about $100 per dive. Yes, this sounds expensive. It is expensive. But it’s worth every penny if it brings you out of the cave alive.
It’s not worth it to take shortcuts and try to do these dives without the training and experience they demand.