The Guided Cavern Experience
By Natalie Gibb from Under The Jungle
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would like cave diving. Cave diving just sounds scary, and with no frame of reference, I couldn’t visualize swimming through a flooded cave. I had nightmare visions of being trapped in tight, dark places, confused, and literally buried underground. Flooded caves are so different from anything else on the planet that the sensation of diving underground is unimaginable until you try it. There’s a saying among cave divers when we’re asked to describe why we love our sport: You won’t know if you don’t go.
I never would have given overhead diving a chance if I had not moved to Mexico’s Riviera Maya for a an internship. The dive centre I was working at offered me a chance to hop on a guided cavern tour when a slot opened at the last minute. I accepted, but expected to hate the experience. Imagine my surprise when I dropped down into the dark maw of the Dos Ojos cavern, pointed my tiny light into the cold darkness, and found…peace.
Since that life-changing moment, cave diving has become an integral part of my life. Yet, I would never have even put a fin in a cenote if doing so had required me to enroll in a costly, difficult, and time-consuming course. A guided cavern tour, just like the one that I went on, is a wonderful opportunity to see how you feel in the overhead environment, to draw your own conclusions, and to decide if you like caves or not. It’s a great way to get a feeling for a potential cave diving instructor or training center. However, like most adventurous activities, it’s important to understand at least the basics of what you are doing in order to be safe.
A guided cavern tour is a way for experienced open water recreational divers without a cave diving or cavern diving certification to get a taste of the cavern environment. In overhead diving jargon, the cavern zone is the area at the entrance of the cave. In the cavern zone, divers should always be able to see daylight, stay in big open spaces, and penetrate no more than 200 feet (60m) underground. The cave zone is further back, where divers lose site of daylight, penetrate further, and may enter more restricted areas. The cave is only accessible to divers who are cave certified or enrolled in a cave diving course.
A cavern is still an advanced diving environment and should be treated as such, both in terms of diver safety and conservation. The relatively good track record of guided cavern tours for recreational divers does not mean that cavern dives are without risk or do not require skill. There is the obvious consideration of the rock ceiling preventing a direct ascent the surface, but the more subtle aspects of cavern diving are really what increase difficulty.
Due to the nature of the environment, a diver must follow the natural profile of the cavern, ascending and descending many times throughout a dive. This makes buoyancy control more difficult, as a diver is forced to constantly make micro BCD adjustments throughout the dive. Most caverns are shallow, so these required buoyancy adjustments are finicky. Moreover, excellent buoyancy control is a necessity because any contact with the ceiling or floor can result in damage to the cavern or reduced visibility from silting. A diver embarking on a guided cavern tour will also need solid, horizontal trim and non-silting kicking techniques, such as a proper frog kick or modified flutter kick.
For these reasons, cavern tours should be reserved for reasonably experienced divers—not because a new diver can’t achieve good buoyancy and trim, but because with rare exceptions, a newly-certified diver will not have these skills ingrained to the point that they are automatic.
Caverns are incredibly lovely, but the presence of a guide does not mean that a diver can just zone out and enjoy the beauty. All divers must vigilantly follow safety rules, such as staying within arm’s length of the guideline, carefully monitoring breathing gas, and having a clear idea of the nearest exit at all points of the dive. Each diver is ultimately responsible for his own safety, tank pressure, and ability to exit—a concept that is sometimes lost on new divers who are used to floating around in the ocean and fish gazing without the need to navigate.
Safe operations and guides will approach a guided cavern tour as a mini-course. While it’s not essential to sit in a classroom and study cavern techniques for half a day before diving, guides should explain the important safety and diving rules clearly, and enforce them.
The enforcing of the rules is often the issue. Too often, I hear negligent guides offering “special dives” to guided cavern divers—you are a good diver, we can go off the line and into the cave a little. I think the guides are hoping for extra tips. Do not allow yourself to be flattered, if certified cave divers do not go off the line, you shouldn’t either! Guided recreational divers can (and have) died by breaking the rules even though they were with a guide. It’s frustrating, because cavern diving can be such a safe, magical, and controlled experience when done correctly. Find a shop that takes safety rules seriously and you will be happier and have a better experience for it.
While I would encourage experienced divers to try cavern diving, make sure you are ready for the experience. Don’t let a shop up-sell you a guided cavern tour on your first day back in the water after a year; don’t let someone talk your newly-certified husband into going on a cavern tour with eight dives under his belt. It’s not safe and you won’t fully enjoy the experience. Too often, cavern diving is offered as an Instagram-ready add-on or a bonus for completing open water training. This is dangerous.
When conducted safely, a guided cavern dive can be a fantastic way for a diver to expand his or her horizons. Curious divers can test out the environment before enrolling in cave diver training, and get to know a potential cave diving training center.
Will you like caverns? Maybe you will fall in love with caves like I did. You won’t know if you don’t go!
Natalie Gibb Is a full cave instructor, explorer, and researcher based in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. She is a published author, international speaker, and cave conservationist. Visit: www.underthejungle.com