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Earth Science

The Search For the Mount Everest of Caves 233

Posted by kdawson
from the drop-a-rock-and-it-goes-spee-lunk dept.
NoMeansYes writes "An interview with James Tabor, author of the new best-selling book Blind Descent, introduces a pair of accomplished scientists — American Bill Stone and Ukranian geologist Alexander Klimchouk — who are the two most prominent figures in extreme caving. Both have figured prominently in the ongoing quest to discover the deepest cave on earth. Tabor describes what conditions are like inside supercaves like Cheve (-4,869 feet) and Krubera (-7,188 feet), before discussing Stone and his far-reaching technological innovations. These include the Posideon Discovery Rebreather and NASA's ENDURANCE. Extreme caving probably won't remain underground (so to speak) much longer, however. The article notes that James Cameron is planning to release a 3D film next year about extreme cave divers."
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The Search For the Mount Everest of Caves

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2010 @06:52PM (#32870182)

    Features blue characters much like his last film Avatar, however in this case it's due to a lack of oxygen.

    • by moderatorrater (1095745) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:43PM (#32870452)

      Features blue characters much like his last film Avatar, however in this case it's due to a lack of oxygen

      Which they overcome by embracing the wisdom of the natives. In the end, the protagonist (a white man) will become better at caving than even the natives, thus showing us again that Cameron thinks white men are the best at everything they do.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by PopeRatzo (965947) *

      Features blue characters much like his last film Avatar, however in this case it's due to a lack of oxygen.

      It might also be due to methemoglobinemia.

      I saw the Blue Man Group recently, and I wondered if they each applied their own makeup or if they blue each other.

  • by DJRumpy (1345787) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @06:53PM (#32870186)

    Something as simple as stirring up some dust can mean death to a cave diver. It takes a special kind of person (nut) to do this. I watched a few specials on this and how easy it is to die. All I've got to say is that it must take a pair the size of the the former twin towers. I'm not fearful of enclosed spaces in the slightest, but this is just insane. On top of that, if you manage to get that deep, you have to account for the trip back, meaning if you exceed your air supply by getting lost in dirty water, or any other number of potential gotchas, you could easily end up overstaying your welcome and just not have enough time to get back out again.

    I could actually see myself paying for a feature film about this. Not out of an interest in doing it myself, but seeing the extreme conditions man will venture into to quench an unstoppable curiosity.

    • And whatever you do, never ever call them "spelunkers".

      They hate that.

    • by moderatorrater (1095745) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:46PM (#32870466)

      seeing the extreme conditions man will venture into to quench an unstoppable curiosity.

      Or to get chicks. Some people will do anything to impress chicks.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by OttoErotic (934909)

      On top of that, if you manage to get that deep, you have to account for the trip back, meaning if you exceed your air supply by getting lost in dirty water, or any other number of potential gotchas, you could easily end up overstaying your welcome and just not have enough time to get back out again.

      That's what she said.

    • by swb (14022) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:38PM (#32870710)

      It'd be nuts to "free" dive in caves, without a rope or some other guide back. For these extreme dives you'd think they'd also work their way down with spare air tanks so they never had to worry about going all the way back up to the top, just back to the last air tank drop.

      I also wonder if they couldn't engineer some kind of capsule that could be inflated in a larger chamber to serve as a base on longer dives, possibly with an air line from the surface, sort of a base camp.

      Regardless, you gotta really not have even a hint of claustrophobia. I usually enjoy cave tours, mine tours and that sort of underground thing but the idea of diving in a cave makes me sick to my stomach nervous.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by jd (1658)

        I would say yes, you could make an inflatable base that could be installed in a cave. You'd need to have some fairly ingenious materials tech to prevent such a capsule from shredding itself on any sharp rocks or being at-risk in general from any uneven surfaces. You'd also need a fair amount of extra air in order for any kind of airlock system to not flood the capsule. Overcoming the pressure sufficiently to expand and then reducing pressure to equalize would also pose technical challenges. However, I see n

    • by zippthorne (748122) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:44PM (#32870734) Journal

      I've done it.

      Dust can mean death, but the real enemy is complacency. If you get a few dives in you and you start to skip steps, that's where the dust (silt/clay, actually. Sandy bottoms aren't as big of a danger) cloud (blowout) can cause problems. or if you start doing it without the proper training (i.e. learning from everyone else's mistakes instead of repeating them. It's critical to learn from others' mistakes when a small mistake can be fatal.) you can achieve similar results.

      Just stirring up silt shouldn't do anything worse than just end your dive (or in a popular cave, piss off other divers who will also have to end their dives early....) - you follow the line you'd been laying back out of the cave. A lot of the training is training yourself to be comfortable in disorienting black-out conditions, so you make the right choices.

      The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt. It starts out with you not drilling out-of-air emergencies on the surface before every dive, and before you know it you're tying your cave line further and further in instead of starting it in open water every time. You're swimming across gaps without laying line because you didn't bring enough gap reels and you think you're familiar with this part of the cave.

      Then you start using gear that has no business being in a cave: scooters and rebreathers. Both of which can get you further into the cave than have any business being, when complacency causes you to fail to lay the groundwork for your escape in the event of an equipment failure.

      Anyway, my point is that you don't have to be that crazy to dive caves, especially if you don't go that far in, and stick to well-explored areas. but you do have to be vigilant about maintaining both your gear and proficiency. And the reward? You'll have to try it and find out.

    • by pipingguy (566974)
      Believe it or not, people do this. It doesn't take "balls the size of the former twin towers". It's just training and desire.

      These dive teams leave nothing to chance. Your sixth sentence indicates an ignorance of how these things are really done.
    • by misfit815 (875442) on Monday July 12, 2010 @06:23AM (#32873068)

      Used to be quite into caving before that whole "family" thing got in the way. In the periodical I received, there'd be an annual accident report summary. Twisted ankles, broken arms, etc. Then you got to the cave diving section. Fatality. Fatality. Fatality. When cave diving goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.

      On a lighter note, it was quite a unique activity. When you kill the lights, it is *dark*. That sounds obvious, but it's something you just have to experience. Plus, all of the movements needed to traverse caves in my region mean that it's quite a workout. Your whole body gets used.

      And if you are 3 hours from the entrance, then you are a minimum of 6 hours from help should something actually go wrong. That thought always gave me an appreciation for it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2010 @06:54PM (#32870190)

    Is that involved for extreme caving ?

  • Freud? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Oyjord (810904) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:07PM (#32870264)

    I wonder what Freud would say about such "extreme caving"?

  • by blackest_k (761565) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:07PM (#32870268) Homepage Journal

    The articles quite interesting, new antibiotics , a rebreather letting someone say underwater for 10 -12 hours at a time and then theres the nasa mission to europa...

    making a movie is the least interesting thing mentioned.
     

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:11PM (#32870296)

    Looks like Hollywood acknowledges that their movies are too superficial.

  • by vk2 (753291) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:13PM (#32870304) Journal
    Jon Stewart interviewed the author a month back - http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-june-15-2010/james-tabor [thedailyshow.com]
  • and you could really see it in avatar: all that beautiful day glo flora was obviously inspired by your average earth coral reef

    and cameron has said avatar ii is going to be an aquatic adventure on pandora:

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2010/04/james-cameron-talks-the-enironment-the-avatar-sequel-and-more.html [latimes.com]

    We created a broad canvas for the environment of film. That's not just on Pandora, but throughout the Alpha Centauri AB system. And we expand out across that system and incorporate more into the story - not necessarily in the second film, but more toward a third film. I've already announced this, so I might as well say it: Part of my focus in the second film is in creating a different environment - a different setting within Pandora. And I'm going to be focusing on the ocean on Pandora, which will be equally rich and diverse and crazy and imaginative, but it just won't be a rain forest. I'm not saying we won't see what we've already seen; we'll see more of that as well.

    considering how cameron's diving hobbies inspire his creative works (look at titanic and the abyss), i welcome whatever comes out of the creative ferment of his mind from his interest in deep caves. perhaps the abyss ii? some sort of horror movie? avatar iii will be in a galactic cave? who knows...

    • by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:19PM (#32870616)

      considering how cameron's diving hobbies inspire his creative works (look at titanic and the abyss), i welcome whatever comes out of the creative ferment of his mind from his interest in deep caves. perhaps the abyss ii? some sort of horror movie?

      Maybe he can go spelunking in a library, and learn how to make an original plot and put that "3D" concept to work with his character construction.

      galactic cave?

      o_O

  • by labnet (457441) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:26PM (#32870344)

    Most of the world uses metric, and it now it is just plain distracting to articles in feet, miles etc.
    Here's is a suggestion for Google: Have a translation option that converts these pages into metric on the fly!

    • by brxndxn (461473)

      It's already been patented about 30 different ways by 10 different companies in the middle of 40 legal battles and will never be useful in any way to the public.

    • Imperial is not quite the same as Standard. One difference, for instance, is that the gallons are bigger...

    • Adoption of the metric system is the first step on the slippery slope to communism. I will grant the difficulty of converting back for those nations that have already made this mistake, and so I move that we rechristen the "kilometer" the "freedom mile."
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hcdejong (561314)

      There's a Greasemonkey script that will show the conversion in a tooltip:
      script [userscripts.org]

  • Will slashdot's far reach cause more people to get stuck in caves? People are always diving in caves. People seeking new passages through small holes get stuck all the time.

    Will the movie result in an uptick in caving deaths? 60 percent [cavediver.net] of cave deaths in Florida are related to cave diving. I've always wanted to go caving, except that everything I read about it, is about someone dying.
    Push-Pull.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "60 percent of cave deaths in Florida are related to cave diving."
      What are the other 40% related to? Cave skating, cave jumping, cave carpooling and cave sleepwalking?

  • Deepest? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Drishmung (458368) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:34PM (#32870396)
    They've gone down 2km. That's still about half the depth of the 3.9km TauTona mine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TauTona [wikipedia.org] and far short of the 11km of the Challenger http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Challenger_Deep [wikipedia.org]. Now if there were some caves below the oceanic trenches...
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They've gone down 2km. That's still about half the depth of the 3.9km TauTona mine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TauTona [wikipedia.org] and far short of the 11km of the Challenger http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Challenger_Deep [wikipedia.org].

      Now if there were some caves below the oceanic trenches...

      Natural caves not mine shafts.

    • by EdIII (1114411)

      Now if there were some caves below the oceanic trenches...

      Perhaps Cameron could make a movie about what they find deep down in the oceanic trenches...

  • by rbrander (73222) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @07:52PM (#32870496) Homepage

    I second the statement, "I'm not claustrophobic, but this is insane". It's the sheer un-rescue-ability of it all, if you simply get wedged, that gets to me.

    A young man died cave diving in the Rockies not far from Calgary a few years back. The awful bit was that he got delayed coming back, wasn't sure how far it was, went to the limit of his air, turned the little knob that gives you the last five minutes, and used that time scratching out a goodbye to his family on the air tank.

    Right around one more corner from where he would have seen the flashlights of his friends waiting for him.

    Lessons I took from it:

    1) Cave diving is insane.

    2) If you're ever certain you're at that last moment of your life, nevertheless spend it trying to survive. Your family actually knew you loved them already.

    • by mad.frog (525085)

      As a longtime caver, parent is correct: cave diving IS insane. (I'm glad some insane folk exist, as the knowledge they glean from this is valuable. Nevertheless, the risk is huge, and makes BASE jumping look safe by comparison...)

    • Cave diving is insane.

      Indeed it is! I'm a caver. I do not cave dive for several reasons:
      1) I'm not a diver.
          Cavers who wish to cave dive must spend years honing their diving skills and working as a team. They are also, usually, fairly acclimated cavers.

      2) Cave divers have a near 100% fatality rate where "accidents" have occurred. Don't believe me? See the National Speleological Society's Caving Accidents report.

          Here's their website [caves.org].

      3) Of particular interest is year 1994. [caves.org] Scroll to the bottom to see the cave diving "accidents" report. Check out year 2000 [caves.org], also.

      4) See my original discussion on this [slashdot.org] topic on slashdot. Clickey [slashdot.org]

    • by metlin (258108)

      I don't cave dive, but I do pursue high-adrenaline sports, including climbing and base jumping.

      In my mind, the sheer "un-rescue-ability" of the whole thing is what makes it interesting and worth pursuing.

      When people explored the world in the days of yon, they did not do it expecting a rescue. Nor did people those who attempted first ascents.

      Not that I disagree with the rest of your piece on doing everything you can to survive...

  • Yes (Score:4, Funny)

    by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @08:15PM (#32870594)

    The article notes that James Cameron is planning to release a 3D film next year about extreme cave divers.

    And the year after that will see "Cavatar"

    A man falls in love with a female from a tribe of green, subterranean lizard people, and helps her fight off the evil white American oppressors who want to drill her (wink wink) home for sub-crustal oil.

  • The endurance device looks really cool as an autonomous submersible that can find it's way back to the transducer dropped through the opening in the ice. Here are a few problems;

    Getting to Europa the package needs to set down in an area where there is a "lead" in the ice where it is thinner. Trying to drill or melt your way through a kilometer of ice would be a serious challenge that we would even have a problem with today (an opening the size of Endurance).

    To make a hole would either require an automated drilling system or a nuclear power source to melt it's way down to below the ice. Since RTG (radioisotope thermal generators) require a significant amount of plutonium or radioactive thorium to generate even a small amount of thermal energy it would require a "real" reactor to create enough heat to melt a hole. As the reactor and ENDURANCE melts their way down they would deploy a tether back up to the surface. As they melt downwards the water will freeze above them, leaving the tether encased in ice.Once they break free of the ice layer and make it into the depths of Europa's ocean the reactor can be powered back and act as a docking station, recharging station and communications hub for the ENDURANCE explorer. Data would be relayed back up the tether to a satellite relay station to send data back up to an orbiter.

    With a "down hole" power source the ENDURANCE probe could carry out extended exploration missions down to the crush depth of the submursiable and missions could last for months (aka the Mars rovers).

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The AUV that will be used to explore Europa will need to be much smaller than the ENDUANCE AUV, the large vehicle size is mostly for prototyping software and hardware. Also it allows room for an accurate inertial measurement system and relatively large science payload. The ice penetrating robot concept is currently being prototyped using power over fiber. The eventual Europa vehicle will, most likely, require an RTG to melt through the ice and power the AUV for months / years.

      If funded this project will be

  • I read Blind Descent and had mixed feelings. While I have the utmost respect for the folks who enter caves of this nature (aka "supercaves", a term not used in the caving community), the author plays it for maximum drama.

    The truth is that there is a long continuum of people who explore caves, and this book is just profiling the people at the highest of the high end, but at the end of the day, they want the same thing as most other techno-geeks: to be the first to find something really cool. (They just happe

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mad.frog (525085)

      The other thing that bothered me about this book was the author's persistent implication that it's *possible* to find "the deepest cave".

      Until we come up with a universal earth-scanning technology that can reveal all subterranean openings (that are passable to humans), this title can't be granted with any certainty.

      Krubera has the current title, but then, many other caves have held the title in the past. It's not like a mountain, where height is (reasonably) verifiable with current technology -- finding the

      • by Ironsides (739422)

        Until we come up with a universal earth-scanning technology that can reveal all subterranean openings (that are passable to humans), this title can't be granted with any certainty.

        Wouldn't Reflection Seismology [wikipedia.org] be a method to do this?

  • by pongo000 (97357) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @10:50PM (#32871338)

    ...describes how something can go horribly wrong in a cave dive [away.com] (in this case, Bushman's Hole, one of the deepest freshwater caves in the world) even with the best planning efforts of experts in the field. It's a long, but incredibly sad, read. If you want to read something really haunting, Dave Shaw's website is still online [deepcave.com]. The video is out there too (aired on ABC in 2005). I leave the video links as an exercise to the reader. It's not something I really want to dig up again.

    • by PPH (736903)

      I'm not a diver, but one thing strikes me as odd about this dive: What happened to the "buddy system"? In spite of all that planning, one person goes down alone. Something goes wrong. And there's nobody there to check each other.

      If the dive is so extreme that a second person can't be found (or money for a second set of equipment) to make the dive, it can't be made at all.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by miketheanimal (914328)
        Sorry, cave divers don't work with buddies, because it doesn't work. Zero visibility, passage too small for two people side by side, etc., etc. Cave divers may be insane but they are not mad!
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by PPH (736903)

          passage too small for two people side by side, etc., etc.

          So you go single file, with a safety line between divers. And you can check on each other (even in zero visibility) by tugging on the line periodically. Or other means of communication.

          The whole lone diver/mountain climber/whatever is just a form of macho posing. Particularly when the mission was to recover a body. There was no new frontier being opened up.

          I just hope people like this don't leave any famlies with children behind. Besides the obvious grief for a lost father, it defeats Darwinism.

    • I'm reading this article and this sounds a lot like the mountain climbing movie the North Face (2008) aka Nordwand (German) [imdb.com] that I would highly recommend watching because the real-life story of the climbers parallels the events in this article.

      This whole extreme climbing thing is very dangerous whether it is going up mountains or going down caves because any little incident and not even an accident usually turns out fatal later on, even when it is something out of your control such as unexpected critical eq

    • by ledow (319597) on Monday July 12, 2010 @07:13AM (#32873236) Homepage

      It's wrapped in extreme amounts of emotive narrative, but that story just describes how something can go horribly wrong if you do extremely dangerous things without planning them properly, and don't follow established rules. A diver's (Deon) dead body, that's been there for years, found in a deep cave, is recovered for no particular reason than to be heroic. The equipment they use is new, improperly tested and mostly "home-brew" for the situation they want to use it in. Some of it breaks.

      The body-recovery is then portrayed as something brave and necessary, instead of just plain silly to go EXACTLY where a previous expert, experienced diver has died and whose body is STILL stuck, and as a single diver (with only backup crews who won't dive that far down) try, on your own, to recover the body. Something killed the original diver, and you're going to have to stand there and deal with whatever that was in order to free the body.

      To quote, when they reviewed the footage of that *solo* diver who died going in to recover a body that was already *trapped* in place, the video (recovered only by sheer chance, and recorded on bog-standard video camera in a home-brew housing) showed the body floated. "This was totally unexpected. Deon, as it turned out, was not completely skeletal, and he was no longer stuck in the silt. Instead of decomposing, his corpse had mummified into a soaplike composition that gave it mass and neutral buoyancy. And for some reason--no one has an explanation--the body had become unstuck from the mud as soon as Shaw started working on it. "The fact that the body was now loose, and not pinned to the ground, was not one of the scenarios that we had thought about," Shirley sighs. "The body was not meant to be floating." It's a lot easier to slip a bag over an immobile body than a body floating and rolling in front of you at 886 feet."

      Amazing that a body comes loose when you're disturbing it in order to loosen it. And amazing that a body isn't completely skeletal given that recovery of bodies in every extreme has shown some to be remarkably well-preserved.

      After the video shows the recovery diver's breathing rate increasing (and he's very experienced in dealing with that and the intoxication of breathing diving gases): "Watching the video with a clear head, it is hard not to wonder why Shaw didn't just turn around right then and abandon the dive." The "attempted recovery dive" that he was stating when he was on the surface. And he's quoted earlier as saying "Better one dead than two".

      But he pushes on: "He keeps working to control the body, letting go of his cave light so he can use both hands... Shaw has been at it for two minutes, and the cave line is seemingly everywhere. It snags on his cave light, and Shaw pauses to clear it. At this, Shirley and Herbst bridled. A cave diver should never let gear float loose. "It's a recipe for disaster," says Shirley, who will always regret not being present when Shaw told Hiles (ON THE SURFACE!) he would put the light to the side at times. "Do not do that," he would have warned him."

      Then the video shows more of the hazard that the diver was in: "Suddenly he loses his footing on the sloping bottom. He scrambles back to the body in a cloud of silt." (the bottom where the body was already trapped and claimed its first victim).

      Afterwards, doubt is cast on his abilities by companions - extremely experienced, cave-divers - but the author conveniently tucks it away: "But he also wonders whether Shaw should have done more buildup dives to increase his tolerance for narcosis--much the way a climber will try to acclimatize to altitude--and his ability to recognize when it reaches dangerous levels. "When he started putting the body in the bag and it didn't work, he should have immediately turned around and left," Gomes (the only person to have successfully dived that cave that far) says. "I didn't think it was worth the risk of a diver losing his life to recover the remains of Deon Dreyer," he says flatly."

      Arrogance,

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by radtea (464814)

        It's wrapped in extreme amounts of emotive narrative, but that story just describes how something can go horribly wrong if you do extremely dangerous things without planning them properly, and don't follow established rules.

        None of which changes the fact that cave diving is extremely dangerous with a very high fatality rate even when you plan them properly and do follow established rules.

        Cave divers sometimes emphasize the errors people made in a few cases and seem to want to imply that that means everyone who dies while cave diving has made a mistake. But other than entering the cave in the first place that is known to be false: it is possible to die while cave diving even though you do everything right. That's why cave di

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Fumus (1258966)

      And in "Future Plans" there is the whole plan of his last dive. Quite sad nobody has access to his site to add a little "Dave is no longer with us" memo on the front page.

  • by deboli (199358) on Monday July 12, 2010 @12:19AM (#32871752) Homepage

    Exploring caves is the last adventure left to the proverbial "common man". Everything is mapped and surveyed except caves. Even if you climb a mountain as a first ascent, someone has photographed it and its height is known. There is no technology that allows to survey caves without going there and that is the excitement and fun of it. You can do it big as Bill Stone of you can find a few meters in a local cave and you can do it according your technical and physical ability. Just join the local Grotto and you have that chance! Nothing beats entering a passage where no other human being has walked before and where your light illuminates formations that nobody has seen before. You can do this only in space and on the bottom of the ocean but the costs and technology needed for that is beyond the reach of hobbyists.

    There will never be the ultimate deepest cave as we know the highest mountain as there are no means of knowing this until all caves are explored. Estimates place the ratio of explored caves at some 5% of total caves. Some have not even an entrance... Of course, we know the theoretical limit which is the height difference of the limestone bedding that houses the cave but there might always be a higher entrance or a sump or something else

    The reason why caving is not as popular with viewers is that it really is not a spectator sport. All you see is some cavers departing into a deep hole. Comparing this to seeing mountaineers where you can see the mountain, the cliff and where you can admire the challenge you have no such chance with a cave. And if you're not a caver you can not imagine the challenge, the joy, the cold and the misery and the excitement.

    • by dargaud (518470)

      Estimates place the ratio of explored caves at some 5% of total caves.

      I recently moved to a place renowned for its caving (the Vercors, which held the deepest known cave for many years, the Gouffre Berger [wikimedia.org]). On the cliff along the Furon road, in some places there's indeed about a cave entrance every 10 meters !

  • by wandazulu (265281) on Monday July 12, 2010 @08:51AM (#32873984)

    159 comments, as of this writing, and not a *single* Colossal Cave reference? Narry an XYZZY to be found anywhere here? And you call yourselves geeks and nerds. Why, back in my day....now get off my lawn!

    That said, I did a little bit, a very little bit, of cave diving in Hawaii, and while you have to trust your equipment completely when underwater, there was always (to me) the comfort that "escape" is just going straight up. In a cave, you don't even have that. It was quite unnerving and, while I'll always say I had a good time, I was glad when I was back on the surface, climbing into the boat.

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