What do you think when you hear cave dive? Some people think of a horror movie where you swim into a cave and meet some sort of biblical monster and battle it to the death. Others think of cold darkness, with an eerie feel swimming into the unknown without an idea of what's ahead. I think of excitement, of wandering off into a new experience, of letting your guard down and trusting yourself to come out on top. It takes a certain person to go dive into a cave without a whole lot of experience, but luckily we were in good hands, and we were swimming into a hole that wasn't as challenging as you would think. The only intimidating factor was that we hadn't planned on this, the opportunity presented itself and we spontaneously decided (underwater mind you) to follow through.
This dive started out as a normal one would, customers on board, mostly full boat, and a few of us DMT's (Trainees) on board to learn and backup our instructor. There was also a good friend on board tagging along on what we call a "fun dive." He was a seasoned Divemaster who had completed his training there, and was a friend of the shop, and filled in as a lead when they needed it. He is one of the most excellent divers I've ever had the privilege to swim with and follow. Our drive was only about ten minutes from the shop, so once we were loaded up and underway we didn't have much time for a briefing or explanation for what we would be doing. There were a whole lot more of us DMT's than needed, and we were always goofing around with each other since we had grown so close being side by side each day. We chug along to the spot, our instructor gives the briefing to the guests, and we all chat and ask what is needed of us. The answer was "not much."
We have moored up and are currently floating along a shallow reef, less than twenty feet deep. One by one we all file off of the stern of the boat (know which part that is?) and all get together in the waves for a gathering before our descent. The sea is choppy and it is too hard for us all to stay close, so our instructor signals for us to go down giving us a thumbs down motion. We slowly descend under the surface and as I look up I can see the boat getting thrown around, and many waves crashing all over. I look back to our instructor and my friends and we head over towards the deep water following the shallow and colorful reef just below. The current isn't rough at all at this point, and we easily cruise over to the drop off. This particular reef is vibrant and full of sea fans (they look like giant leafs) of all colors, brain corals, and a myriad of other lively sea life. The reef drops off however just in front, and our shallow fifteen foot depth is abruptly replaced with a two hundred plus drop into the depths.
We slowly swim over the wall and ride it down to about sixty feet, which is a great depth to explore and conserve air. I could stay at sixty feet for the whole dive, unless something thrilling pops up and a chase is involved. The side of the wall is the same as the top, colorful, vibrant, full of life. We saw a giant school of Jacks (common fish that travel in huge packs), many other types of fish on their own, exotic little shrimps, just an endless world of action.
The first twenty minutes or so was spent exploring small openings, looking for new species we hadn't seen before, and pointing out the exotic ones to each other. Every now and then we would hear or supply a tank bang (smacking a metal clip on our tank to garner attention) and see a sea turtle, sting ray, and even a giant barracuda. The one larger fish that I could never get over was the Parrot Fish, these things would swim all over with these big goofy teeth always showing, making it look like they are laughing or smiling at you. Look it up, it's the silliest thing, I almost drowned because I was laughing so hard at some of those.
Some time had passed and my friend banged on his tank for my attention and was pointing down at the ocean floor. I looked at him and threw my hands up like I didn't know what he was talking about. Obviously we can't talk down there, so we usually had our own sign language and after diving together for a while we could communicate quite easily. He made a signal like he was driving a car, then pointed down again. There on the sea floor was the hood of a car, white and almost invisible laying in the sands on the bottom. Our seasoned friend swam up with his eyes large and full of excitement, this had reminded him of something. He signaled for us to follow him, so we did, and we swam hard to keep up but had to know what he was so giddy about. He stopped, turned around, and pointed to an opening in the wall and gave us the "excellent" signal (thumb and pinky out, middle fingers closed). We all looked at our instructor and she signaled to us to go ahead and go in, she would take the guests along, and we would meet back at the boat.
I had never trained on cave diving, I honestly had no idea what to expect, but luckily I had brought the shop camera with me! I filmed the whole experience, and will post the video at the end of this post. I let everyone go before me so I could film us, and our buddy that had done this before lead us all into the cave. It was single file, there were very narrow parts and shallow parts that could barely fit one diver at a time, little less two. Everybody disappeared into the hole, and all I could see now was the last set on fins from my last buddy going in. Here goes nothing, camera is on, and it's time to carefully streamline myself and enter.
I am holding the camera with two hands stretched out in front of my face, arms extended and straight, swimming with a normal freestyle kick instead of our usual frog kick. The cave starts around sixty feet, and slowly ascends almost all the way to the surface. It takes quite a bit of technical skill to control our ascent, and avoid the walls to our sides, as well as our tanks that are strapped to our back. It is usual practice to never use your hands while diving, you just lock up your arms and hands and use your breathing and legs to direct yourself, but in this instance hands were necessary to keep from running into the sides that could have fire coral, or other harmful agents.
As we enter the cave, it is dark, blue, and narrow, the visibility at first is minimal. Keep in mind this was spontaneous, so we didn't have our nigh lights as we normally would if it was planned. We swim in and it is an immediate climb, it is a steep climb with fuzzy rocks on all sides, but no other life to see at first. We slowly climb avoiding the rocks as much as we can, and follow up and up and up. This was a real test of our skills, and it was a fun experience and a crash course on control. Once we reach the top we are only about ten feet from the surface, and it is bright and cramped. We can't all fit up there, so our lead has to turn upside down and swim head first in a vertical position down the other side before we get there or we won't be able to fit. Once I get to the top our lead has already started down the other side, and my friend in the middle is fins up getting ready to follow. As I enter the "pool" at the top I'm not paying attention as I'm filming and a giant claw speeds by the side of my face. I jerk away and look over and see a giant crab, the body about two feet across and not happy. Apparently he was living right in that spot and wasn't thrilled about all of us swimming through, so he was on the attack once I pulled up the rear. He snaps at me again and again, but doesn't leave his nook, so I think it's time for me to speed it up and descend now. I flip the camera back on and catch my friend swimming straight down, and I slowly follow keeping an eye on the crab, as well as making sure I fit nicely through the little crack in the rocks.
It gets dark again, but not dark enough that we can't see, as long as we can see the fins in front of us we are fine. Deeper and deeper we swim, through the rocks, through the darkness, wondering when the opening will show up. It is impossible to know how deep you are without your computer, but there isn't enough space to see it so you just trust in the cave itself, and hope you will eventually pop out on the other side. Under more rocks, and through the rest of the cave we slowly go, trusting and following our lead until eventually we see an opening. I'm running low in air, with all this excitement and concentration I forgot to check how much I had before the entrance. It's okay, we made it to the end of the cave, we are right back where we started and it is time to head back to the boat.
Doing something spontaneous can be one of the most amazing experiences and stories you will have ever had. Always think about whether it is a good idea first though, even for a minute, because if we didn't have an experienced diver who had been through this very same cave before the consequences could have been disastrous. I know it isn't fun to think about safety, but it is imperative in certain situations. All of our boxes were checked before we did this, and even so, one of our friends didn't feel comfortable with it and proceeded along with the instructor and skipped it. It's okay to say no if you aren't comfortable with something, but if you can make a quick list in your head and check off everything, trust yourself and go for it. This ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I have a video of it and will remember it forever. Oh yeah, always have a camera with you, you never know what you might be able to record!