Cave Diving

There is for some reason MUCH confusion between Caving and Cave Diving. By now you should know the difference. But given the amount of cross over, it’s important to know a little about it.

I’ve never been sure why, but 50% of people think it’s the same thing. Many open water divers start to do sea caves and enjoy them, and then start cave diving before they necessarily do any dry caves. Also, many dry cavers get drawn into cave diving often because it allows access to more dry cave, and pushing the limits further to find virgin cave.

Many VSA members are also cave divers or have trained with VSA to expand their knowledge, in particular about learning SRT to be used on dive trips. A significant number of productive cave dives, such as caves like Elk River, need dry caving skills to get to the dive site, so VSA attracts divers who need to learn dry caving techniques.

Are there any cave dives in Victoria?

Victoria has some fresh water cave diving locations, but they are all sump diving which is very different from your garden variety cave diving. Sump diving is generally zero visibility, cramped (occasionally requiring gear to come off and be pushed through ahead, and wearing tanks on your side instead of on your back). However, the majority of sumps are mercifully short, not being longer than 10 or so metres, and not deep. There are 4 or 5 sump dives in Buchan, and a sump dive in DD4 in Western Victoria.

Cave diving has a reputation as a very dangerous sport. This is based on the fact that unfortunately there are fairly regular (although not necessarily frequent) deaths around the world. This was why the CDAA (Cave Divers Association of Australia) was formed.

The Cave Divers Association of Australia

The CDAA was formed in September 1973. At the time landowners throughout the Mount Gambier area of South Australia, were contemplating the closure of all holes to diving following a spate of diving fatalities in the water filled caves. With the forming of the CDAA, sinkhole divers hoped to prevent the wholesale closure of the dive sites by presenting a united voice in defence of their sport. They wished to indicate to landowners and the public at large that they were able to regulate their activities to acceptable standards of safety and training.

The newly formed CDAA set up a series of criteria and testing procedures. Initially these were a listing of all the popular cave diving sites divided into three different categories based on their degree of difficulty. Cards were issued to divers to display to landowners to indicate their competency. The landowners gained confidence in the ability of the CDAA to produce safe divers and, as a result, the holes remained open.

Now the training to reach the certifications is comprehensive and thorough, although it is achievable if you take your time and work up to each level. The deaths of cave divers are almost never your standard recreational cave divers who are careful and conservative – it is actually the elite of the sport who push the boundaries and take risks who occasionally come to grief. To get the highest qualification, your performance needs to be almost flawless. Any major hiccups and you are not passed. This is how serious the CDAA is about safety.

Recent cave diving deaths

This brings me unfortunately to the death of two cave divers who died in recent years. These were Agnes Milowka and Tony Morris who passed away in 2011. Also, in 2010 another cave diver Rob McAllister passed away also in Mt. Gambier at the Kilsby’s dive site. Both Tony and Ag were ‘Advanced Cave’ level divers (the highest certification possible) and extremely experienced and proficient divers. The author of this site ‘dry’ caved extensively with both Ag and Tony. They both passed away in the same cave – the famous Tank Cave which is the longest and most complex cave dive in Australia, and only accessible by approved CDAA Advanced Cave level individuals. 3 deaths in a short time was unlucky for the CDAA who had an unblemished safety record since it was constructed – a period of over 20 years with no fatalities.

Agnes Milowka

The late Agnes Milowka, who died tragically in Tank Cave on 27 February 2011. At the time of her passing she was considered one of the worlds elite and most extreme divers. The author knew Agnes well and she was truly talented under water and under ground (and both at once)

Agnes particularly was considered a world class cave diver by the time she passed away and had dived in Florida, the United Kingdom, Tasmania and the Australian mainland, and had caved with some of the other world-famous cave divers. Tony Morris was a VSA member and did a lot of dry caving as well as cave diving, and actually helped teach me some of my first SRT skills in Buchan in my early days. For the 99% of cave divers who don’t push it, it is not a dangerous past time, but there will in any extreme sport always be those who are prepared to take the risk in order to achieve the glory of finding new cave.

RIP Agnes Milowka and Tony Morris. Never forgotten.

For those of you who are interested in trying cave diving, check out http://www.cavedivers.com.au/. The first qualification is called ‘Basic Cave’. There are some pre-requisites to get to this level in terms of how much open water experience you have. You don’t have to be on a manifold system, twin independents are also acceptable, but either way you need two tanks on you (one major premise of cave diving is you have two or more of EVERYTHING (aka redundancy – so that if one link in the chain fails you have a backup). The first basic course is fun and you aren’t expected to master it straight away, it’s more about an introduction and getting you started, and giving you skills to work on.

Almost all cave divers use twin tanks with a manifold and a wing BCD. You also need to have a minimum of 3 good waterproof lights, one of which should ideally be a very strong purpose-built dive light. Cave divers generally use a long 7ft hose in length, so that air can be shared if the other diver is in front or behind you. Short bladed fins are recommended rather the split fins because the finning technique used in cave diving is more productive. The maximum depth for the first rating is 40m. And the maximum distance that you can penetrate is 60m but still have natural daylight seen if you turn towards the exit.

Cave diving courses and instruction

The CDAA facilitate courses very frequently, and they usually consist of several days of theory, a day in the pool, and then a few days in Gambier. The instructor will task load you, so you have to deal with several things at once whilst maintaining neutral buoyancy, which is the central skill at this early level in many ways. If your buoyancy in a cave is poor you risk hitting the floor of the cave and stirring up the silt, resulting in poor or completely zero visibility. Or hitting the roof of the cave and damaging your equipment. The idea is that you hone your skills for at least a year, diving regularly, so that you are ready for the next level eventually. But once you are qualified the sites you have access to are spectacular, and in Australia are mainly located in Mt. Gambier, SA.

Tom (Author) diving in Ewen's Ponds in Mt. Gambier. If you are interested in cave diving this is a great starting point. It only needs basic open water qualification and no special gear. The visibility is unbelievable (40 odd metres). Doing it at night with a torch is also awesome. Just remember to change your weights for fresh water otherwise you will sink like a stone and silt the place out - BAD BAD form if you do, as the silt takes hours to settle and you are ruining it for the next divers that come after you. There is a dive shop about 45 mins from Mt. Gambier where gear can be hired from. An awesome dive!

Tom (Author) diving in Ewen’s Ponds in Mt. Gambier. If you are interested in cave diving this is a great starting point. It only needs basic open water qualification and no special gear. The visibility is unbelievable (40 odd metres). Doing it at night with a torch is also awesome. Just remember to change your weights for fresh water otherwise you will sink like a stone and silt the place out – BAD BAD form if you do, as the silt takes hours to settle and you are ruining it for the next divers that come after you. There is a dive shop about 45 mins from Mt. Gambier where gear can be hired from. An awesome dive!

 

Sea Caves

There are some small sea caves in Victorian waters. Sea caves don’t need any kind of certification because a) They are generally short with little or no dark zone, b) because the floor is shells and not silt, so low visibility doesn’t occur, but also largely (realistically) because it is just impossible to police. In a sea cave, plan carefully, know where each other’s secondary regulators are, dive side by side, do an air check at the mouth of the cave, and take care with your buoyancy not to scrape your tanks (especially your valves) on the roof of the cave. And tell your dive master, or someone on the boat, you are planning on doing that particular cave. If there is any complexity to the cave, you should probably think twice, but if you do want to continue, draw a map on a slate on your arm.

The most exciting and current cave diving in Victoria is currently in Elk River Cave (AKA the Potholes Master Cave) which is a relatively new cave (only around 14 years old) and very much still being explored. It is over 3km in surveyed length but only 150m of it is accessible to non-divers. The late Agnes Milowka was the first diver to make it through the downstream sump – a gutsy dive in cramped and zero visibility, not knowing what was ahead. Cavers had been searching for the main drain in the area for 60+ years and its discovery was the most important one in decades. The early explorers of Buchan are quoted to have said, ‘well we saw the lead, but there were so many other new caves we never checked it out’. Big mistake. See more information about Elk River in the ‘Murrindal’ caves section of this website.

Many dive trips have been held in Elk River, extending the cave, which is in theory the deepest in Buchan and probably the longest. I say in theory because nobody has physically gotten from Elk River Cave to the Dalleys / Sub Aqua system where the water ends up (proven by dye tracing). Each push in Elk River requires a team of at least 3-4 ‘sherpas’ who help carry all the tanks and gear through the dry section of the cave. With all the gear it is a tiring, long and difficult journey which requires SRT, squeezes, caving ladders, water, and a bit of scrambling in the horizontal sections. On trips with dive gear it would rate at a 3.5, probably one of the hardest overall trips in Buchan. Without carrying dive gear, it is a lot easier and about 3 times quicker, and it’s in my top 10 list. If you want to see Elk River, one of the best ways is to volunteer to sherpa dive equipment in on the next push. It is a great cave with lots of variety and your name will be added to the story of Elk River’s exploration.

The Buchan sump diving is HARD CORE!

Spare a thought for the divers who have it even tougher!! Many trips have seen the divers underground for more than 24 hours as they map and explore new cave. The sometimes-high water level has disrupted its fair share of trips too. But you can bet there will be more trips. The team is working hard on the project with very skilled divers and support teams.

Angy Higgins entering a sump dive in Elk River Cave. Note the side mounted tanks which are easier for underwater squeezing. Photo by Doug Henry

Angy Higgins entering a sump dive in Elk River Cave. Note the side mounted tanks which are easier for underwater squeezing. Photo by Doug Henry

A note of interest is that there is also a lot of work going into finding a third entrance into Elk River from the surface. The VLCT Caving Club, and others, have been digging in several promising spots that are directly over the stream as mapped by the divers. They have come close, finding small streams which no doubt flow into Elk, but the caves have been too tight for humans to pass through. The race to find the third entrance is on! The first entrance found to Elk River is sealed now due to Parks Victoria’s assessment that the entrance is unstable. The entrance now used is through a very old, and well-known cave, Baby Berger, that has been around since the very beginnings of Buchan, but the lead was simply missed for all those years.

The other cave dive (sump dives) in Buchan have all been pushed pretty thoroughly. Some have broken through into more cave or into other existing caves such as Wombat Walk in East Buchan. M4 cave in Murrindal (Buchan) has a final sump which has been dived about 6 metres to a restriction too tight to get through – but who knows how much more passage lies beyond. Dalley’s Sinkhole in Buchan has had a lot of cave diving take place, but not recently.

The other interesting sump dive is at the end of Jones Ridge (DD4) cave in Drik Drik, Western Victoria, which has a  terminal sump which Agnes Milowka also attempted, and she did manage to push it to 20+ metres, but it became too difficult even for her, so the sump remains un-conquered. Sherpering tanks in DD4 is difficult as the sump is several hours into the cave with a lot of muddy rockfall that needs to be climbed over, which is probably the main reason that less energy has gone into the DD4 sump.

Cave diving is not for egotistical or macho individuals. You need to be a logical, thoughtful and calm. And you need experience. Many cave divers, especially those going for the most advanced rating spend hours and hours under piers or in caves honing their skills. A diving quote for cave diving (and all diving in general) is that ‘you plan your dive and dive your plan’.

Like dry caving, with cave diving you start simple and over time build up your skills. Agnes Milowka had been diving for many years before she even thought about underwater caves, and she got to elite status by simply putting in the hours in caves!

But if you stay conservative, follow the golden rules, and remember what you learn in your courses, you’ll be fine and have an amazing time. And remember that sump diving as described above is the extreme end of the sport. Most caves are far larger and if your buoyancy and technique are adequate the water is crystal clear. In Victoria we are lucky to have Mt. Gambier, a world class cave diving area, just over the border and with a fairly easy car trip.

web-banners-wilsh