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Gary Linger

Many people hit that "big" birthday and their thoughts turn to buying a red sports car and dating women who wear fewer clothes than an Ann summers advert! But some of us decide the better option is to get clad in neoprene and go to a pitch black flooded cave... I guess that's different levels of insanity for you!

So it was March 2007 when I and 4 of my best friends (Aidan, Andy, Celehte and Paul) decided to fly to Mexico and get drunk on tequila and strap on twinsets. A wider band of divers and professions you couldn't get: from a full time professional Course Director and Advanced Trimix Instructor to an Advanced Open Water diving dentist, logged dives ranging from between 50 to well over 5500! Our destination? The world famous Cenotes and Cave systems of the Yucatan Peninsula, to a small town called Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.

Fun and games started when, flying via the USA, a passport official looked at our tattooed and pierced friend exclaiming "Boy, you need to find Jesus in your life!" Hardly able to contain himself, his travelling companion sidled up to said official where she promptly asked "Does your Mama know you're travelling with him?"
Surf And Turf Safaris
Cenote entrance The cave course is structured for a natural progression from Cavern Diver, Intro to Cave to full Cave Diver over 7 consecutive days. For technical divers an extra day would earn them the cool title of Technical Cave Diver. The course involves classroom academics and practical training of new skills and drills performed on land before entering the water. These skills were to be perfected before even entering a cavern environment, much less a cave. We learnt quickly that the IANTD method of training has none of PADI polite or positive reinforcement methods (and understandably so, cave diving is fun, but dangerous). You are more likely to hear "That was crap do it again" than the "you need improve on some things but I like the way you breath!" It takes some getting used to, but upon entering your first cave you realise that the environment is unforgiving and "nearly" getting a skill right is not an option. This was going to be a test for the best training organisation as we had a variable bunch of divers.
Dive Worldwide PNG
Welcome to the Taj Mahal (system) The guys at Protec Playa, based in Playa del Carmen, have a long history of training cave divers and our instructors Nando and Scott were easily identified by beards and tattoos. There seems to be a sub culture of cave diving instructors which requires beards, (luckily not for our female instructor Bernadette) ink and a love of loud metal music at that point I realised this was the sport for me... anyone who likes music that can burst eardrums is OK in my book! Protec is situated a few streets away from the "main drag" in Playa, which meant beer, and tequila of course, at the end of the day was never far away. We exercised restraint though, as this intense course demanded levels of concentration and knowledge intake that a mind and body corrupted by these beautiful vices could not cope with! Indeed we put a rest day in our course to celebrate my 40th birthday in the proper manner by ensuring our bodies were soaked in the evils of tequila,sambuca, beer, wine and... well frankly I cannot remember, always the sign of a good night.

Whilst cave diving is considered an extreme sport in Mexico, the safety record is impressive. In fact, only one death has occurred due to the environment when a sand wall collapsed blocking the only exit for the 2 divers. It shows ingenuity and bravery when you are told that they took off their wings and used their backplates to dig their way out, although sadly, only one diver survived this experience.
Surf And Turf Safaris
Rock don't Roll And so training starts. The first day was purely academics learning about cave formations and the rigours and requirements for passing the course and whilst we were disappointed at not getting wet we all came away thinking "this is gonna be a tough course". Cenotes are deep natural holes found in limestone, these caves are solution caves which mean they have been formed over millions of years by rain finding fissures and weakness in the rock and the erosion of acidic rain. Over countless years this process hollows out rooms, tunnels ranging from the smallest crack to rock cathedrals that wouldn't look out of place with one of Ridley Scott's aliens inhabiting them. The effect of limestone being literally melted away forms rooms filled with stalactites and stalagmites from the smallest nib to the massive columns where the two have met and could support the largest tower block. These caves are almost spiritual places and they were holy places for the ancient Mayans, who used them as places of sacrifice. Remains of fires have been found deep inside the caves that have been flooded for thousands for years and it's easy to imagine pagan rituals being performed in them when they were dry in their early life.
Denney Diving
Twinset Divers We spent the following few days with academics as a big part of our day, learning the need for correct kit configuration (It seems obvious, but you can't have anything dangling when you're pushing your way through narrow holes. Hence streamlining and simplicity are vital) and gas planning. The sobering thought when gas planning is most people who died cave diving, died within the sight of light (and thus exit and safety)... no rapid ascent can help you in a cave unless you can bust through solid rock!!! In Mexico though, the percentage of people who have died is minuscule (we were told it is significantly higher in Florida).
London and Midlands Diving Chambers
Cave Entrance With so many new skills acquired, long hours were spent both outside our hotel rooms, to some very strange looks from our neighbours, and at the dive sites, setting up lines around trees and furniture. A make shift gold line within caves with which we practised new fangled ways of tying off reels and spools, making jumps and gaps. And our all time favourite: The Zero visibility, touch contact exercise which involves a game of trust, following your team mates blindly on said rope circuit, all the while learning touch signals and silent communication in a pitch black cave. A skill that was to be practised over and over again, both on terra firma and daily in the water. So important is this skill, that for the first 4 days nobody exited a cave with their eyes open!
Blue O Two
Tequila... The first day spent in the water was a long and tough one, with one of our number wearing a twinset for the first time ever, then being asked to perfect gas shut downs, while neutrally buoyant in under a minute no mean feat for the most experienced (in the event of a major equipment failure such as a tank o ring blowing or a minor problem such as a free flowing regulator, it's vital to preserve as much gas as possible hence the standard is a full shut down and reopen of all the valves on your twin set). Though when our novice managed to get this down to 1minute 10 seconds our spirits lifted...
Adventure Divers La Manga
Other drills involved following a traversing circuit of lines while neutrally buoyant with blacked out masks to simulate total light failure in the cave so after many hours with increasingly more complex, challenging drills and skills, we were finally allowed into our first cavern into the Ponderosa Cenote. This simply took our breath away! We were still within the light zone and the effects of the light from the brilliant Mexican sun filtering through the small holes and fissures above us onto the cavern walls were spectacular! We could only guess at the beauty that awaited us in the caves.

Having successfully completing our cavern course the next day we moved into full cave and, as would be the formation for the rest of the course, each member of the team of 2 and 3 respectively would take turns leading the dive, determining turn pressures and ensuring all members of the team were configured correctly and knew their responsibility within the team. Before each and every dive we would gear match to ensure we knew exactly what kit we had and how it was configured. We ensured we could provide air in an emergency by deploying a 2m long hose feeding our primary regulators. (known as an S drill ) vital when in single file to fed air to your team member either behind or in front of you. The final confirmation is pressure of gas each diver has, called gas matching and used to determine turn pressures. Cave diving runs strictly on rule of thirds so one third gas in, one third out and one third in reserve in event of any diver having a problem technical divers will recognise this rule but in caves this must be adhered to strictly as divers which have not survived have often drowned within sight of air one bar too little is not enough, no rapid ascent in a cave unless you're Superman!!!

The most unique thing about the Mayan Caves is many are shallow, 10-18m, and contain a mix of salt and fresh water. Where these 2 layers meet, called a halocline. you actually can see the vortices of a divers' fins and the team spreads to avoid it, for to be in the wake of another diver is like looking through rippled glass. The strangest effect when ascending through this layer is, and you wouldn't believe unless you had seen it, you could swear you are entering an air pocket or the surface and this effect alone is worth entering a cave to see.

The days in the cave become increasingly complex with the golden rule "Never lose the line" was being ingrained in us to such an extent it stuck in the mind the same way all divers remember "never hold your breath". Most caves have lines/ ropes permanently installed by divers or exploration teams. These lines are fundamental to a cave diver. Without them the maze of tunnels could result in total disorientation and being trapped therein for all eternity. This should not scare anyone but make them aware they are doing an extreme sport with inherent risks where training and experience is not an option but a life saving necessity.

The drills, various in nature and relentless in practice, become easier and more fluid with our team gelling as a single unit. Especially after 4 days when we never saw the way out of the cave, as our ever present instructor Nando continually gave the signal lights out (switching off our primary lights), eyes closed and the team automatically fell into the touch contact positions on the cave line to exit the cave yet again in zero visibility! In touch contact the team swim out at a fast pace. Gas is limited and while stressed, air consumption increases, so speed and control is vital. We soon learn the weird 3 man technique for fining as a unit with the rear diver providing the majority of the propulsion and signals given by touch, especially relevant when the speed pushes the lead diver off that vital line. The lead diver soon learns the arm in front of the face is vital and this is bought home the first time your head attempts to push its way through solid rock. When this drill involves passing through restriction, defined as an area where two divers can not pass through side by side, the sound of twinsets clunking through rock reverberates as an individual pulls themselves through (pulling and gliding being the ideal technique but not always possible).
The one drill all divers dread is when our instructor signals lights out, takes a diver off the line and is led, with closed eyes some distance away from that vital lifeline. Not that eyes closed makes any difference it is the blackest of blacks and darkest of darkness. Once carried off the line you are dumped on the floor where, with newly acquired skills you are expected to find your way to that "lost line" Hoping to find the main line, in a motion reminiscent of a full body Mexican Wave, you realise, if this was real, this could be a life and death search. From then on, whenever we entered a cave and found that line, we all held on a little bit tighter...

To explain the full training in this article is not possible but take the word of someone who has been under ice, in wrecks and very deep, this is a course that will define you as a diver so much so that our mixed group all felt we had achieved something special and it is a credit to the guys at Protec that we all became IANTD full cave divers, and 3 of us achieved the title of Technical cave diver. We all learnt techniques and methodologies which will stay with us forever and adjusted some of our best practice techniques.

On a personal note I would like to recognise our least experienced diver and resident dentist Celehte Fortuin who started the course as an AOW with 50 dives and frankly kicked arse having never dived in a twin set before the course I must stress this is an exception and there are natural divers who could achieve the same but they are very few and far between so get your experience up, try to get experience in a twinset and then do the course. As I know with circa 500 dives and as an advanced Trimix diver I found it the toughest course I have ever done!

For all this the reason we dive caves it to realise nature is the power on this planet and man can not create the same beauty as a humble drop of rain. The names of the caves evoke a sense of their magnificence, Tajmahal, Eden, Chac Mole, Mayan Blue, Room of Tears, but you cannot describe it so my recommendation is go see it for yourself and have your life and diving changed forever.

A final word of caution, this is a high risk sport and your normal dive /travel insurance may not cover you and do not ever consider entering caves without the proper training. It is not for the faint hearted.

Gary was diving with Protec Playa.

Nearest recompession facility:
Hiperbarica Riviera Maya, Playa Del Carmen Quintana Roo
Tel: 984 8034981
Ralf Tech

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