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. A lot of cave divers get bored with the same dive sites and begin to wonder what dry caves are like, and likewise many dry cavers get drawn into cave diving often because it allows access to more dry cave. Many VSA members are also cave divers or have trained with VSA to expand their knowledge. A big reason for this is that a significant number of good cave dives (especially on the Nullarbor) 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 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 (often requiring gear to come off and be pushed through ahead), but also mercifully short as most sumps in Victorian caves aren’t longer than 10 or so metres. 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 strict, 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 come to grief. To get the highest qualification – ‘Advanced Cave’ – your performance needs to be flawless. Any slight hiccup 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. 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 within 3 years was unlucky for the CDAA who had an unblemished safety record since it was constructed – a period of over 20 years with no incidents!

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 ‘Deep Cavern’. The pre-requisites for Deep Cavern are that you need to be an advanced open water diver for at least 12mths, have done a min. of 25 dives, including 2 night dives and min. of 5 dives to 25m. 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).

Almost all cave divers use twin tanks with a manifold and a wing BCD. You also need to have a min. of 3 good waterproof lights, one of which should ideally be a very strong purpose-built dive light and a 7ft hose in length. Short bladed fins are recommended rather the split fins because the finning technique used in cave diving is more productive. The max. depth for this 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 run Deep Cavern courses very frequently, and they consist of several days of theory, a day in the pool, and then a few days in Gambier. The course is fun but not easy, and the instructor will task load you so you have to deal with several things at once whilst maintaining neutral buoyancy – but having said that you are not expected to be perfect at beginner level. Buoyancy 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. 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.

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 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 navigation in silted out low vis doesn’t occur, but also largely (realistically) because it is just impossible to police.

But you are still in an overhead environment which means you cannot surface if something goes wrong. I would encourage you, if you intend on doing a sea cave of any significant length (perhaps anything longer than about 10 metres length), plan the dive carefully with your buddy, and tick together like glue through the cave, side by side when can, or close behind/ahead of your body if the passage is too narrow. If you know how, its even good to lay line as you go, if there is any chance of silt or confusing environment getting you lost (but only lay line if you know what you are doing, because entanglement can be a big problem)

I have had a reg fail on me on the dive, and my buddy was 5 metres away facing the other direction – and it happened so fast that by the time I realised my reg had failed I had already inhaled some water and was coughing. I never could’ve gotten to my buddy, got his attention, unclipped his 2nd reg, purged it and coughed out the water in my lungs! The thing that saved me was that on my rig that day (which was a cave diving rig) I had my secondary around my neck on a piece of bungee and was able to instantly put it in my mouth and purge it. If I had been on an open water rig, in theory I could’ve also swapped to me secondary, but often on open water setups it is semi-clipped away and takes a few seconds to find, and unclip, and it can be awkward, and I literally had maybe a second before drowning – I just got the reg in my mouth in time and did not have the time to be fucking around looking for the clip for my other regulator.

So, my advice for doing sea caves…

 

So the moral of my story is on open water gear, in a sea cave, plan carefully, know where eachothers secondary regulators are, dive side by side, do an air check at the mouth of the cave, and take care with your bouyancy not to scrape your tanks (especially your valves) on the roof of the cave. Don’t go straight into the cave upon hitting the floor of the sea bed, swim around for a minute to make totally sure your gear is working. And tell your dive master you are planning on doing that particular cave.

Having now tried to scare you, let me say IT IS AMAZING

I’ve done many sea caves up and down the East Coast of Australia, but there are two sea caves in particular, both of which I have done, that I cannot recommend highly enough! These are: 1) The Waterfall Bay Sea Caves and Pirates Bay Sea Caves at Eagle Hawk Neck in Tasmania, and 2) Fish Rock Cave in South West Rocks, Northern NSW. Both caves are over 100m in length and have proper dark zone.

Fish Rock Cave is also a year-round Grey Nurse Shark colony and there are literally hundreds of large sharks throughout the whole dive. Waterfall Bay sea caves are the most extensive sea caves in Australia with several different routes available. They are not particularly deep either, no deeper than about 25-30m which is a good depth for Nitrox if you have that qualification.

A Grey Nurse Shark. Fish Rock Cave has literally hundreds of these surrounding you the whole dive, and they are there all year round! Very intimidating, but they are very placid and in fact curious as the author found out personally.

A Grey Nurse Shark. Fish Rock Cave has literally hundreds of these surrounding you the whole dive, and they are there all year round! Very intimidating, but they are very placid and in fact curious as the author found out personally.

Combo of 30m depth, hundreds of sharks, inside a 125m long sea cave

The sea caves I’ve described above are the small variety. If you plan to go to Fish Rock or Eagle Hawk Neck then you will need a leader who is a trained cave diver, ideally an instructor, and definitely on twin tanks that are full at the start of the dive. On my Fish Rock dive, we had a good cave dive leader who had twins on and all sorts of extra safety bits and pieces. But down at Eagle Hawk Neck all we had was a description, so be aware that if you want to do the Eagle Hawk caves try and have a trained Advanced Cave level diver with you.  The Eagle Hawk Neck caves are the most extensive sea caves in Australia, and it takes 3 or 4 full dives to see the whole network and chambers.

There have been fatalities at both sites.

There have been fatalities at both sites, and sea caves demand just as much respect as the inland caves you need training for. Up at Fish Rock there are 3 dive providers that all do the cave every day – the day I was there I counted at least 80 divers spread out over 4 boats. It was crowded in the cave which was annoying. But still amazing.

At Eagle Hawk the cave size varies, and at one point my stomach was on the floor and my tank was scraping the roof – but right at the end it opens into a HUGE cavern with the light in the distance, and just the silhouettes of the other divers in perfect vis – it was one of the best moments I’ve ever had underwater. And at Eagle Hawk we were the only group, which added to the experience. Make sure you buy or borrow a good dive light.

Recommendation for Eagle Hawk Neck

And I recommend the Eagle Hawk Neck Dive Centre, who put together a total package including accommodation, transport to the boat, an experienced driver who won’t dive with you but will give you all the info you need, and hot tea and biscuits between dives. The nice thing about these guys too is that you go out and do three dives in a row, for three consecutive days, quite early in the morning, and you are back on land by 1pm or so to sight see elsewhere. Eagle Hawk neck also has wall dives, a wreck called the Nord, a kelp forrest, and lots of other dive sites once you’ve finished with the caves. Beware a dry suit is almost a necessity. I did 3 days of diving in a wetsuit with a fleece beneath and a hood, and by the third day I had to skip the last dive because I was just so cold. Water temp well below 10 degrees. Please tell them you heard about them from this site, if you visit.

I thought this web site was about Victoria!?

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 perhaps 13 years old) and very much still being explored. It is over a km 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 :)

Regular trips are currently being held extending the cave which will no doubt be the deepest in Buchan and may end up being the longest. Each sump dive in Elk River requires a team of at least 3-4 ‘sherpers’ who help carry all the tanks and gear through the dry section of the cave. It is a tiring, long and difficult journey which requires SRT skills, squeezes, caving ladders, roof sniffs and several acrobatic manoeuvres in the horizontal section – on trips with dive gear it would rate at a 4, probably one of the hardest overall trips in Buchan. Without carrying dive gear, it is a lot easier and about 3 times quicker.

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 in pretty soon. The team is working hard on the project with very skilled divers and support teams. VSA is constantly looking for individuals to help (sherper) divers into Elk River so email the VSA enquiries address (see the links page) if you are interested. It is a great cave with lots of variety and your name will be added to the story of Elk River’s exploration.

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 have digged 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 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.

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 rockfall that needs to be climbed over, which is probably the main reason that less energy has gone into the DD4 sump. Due to the nature of the cave and the fact that the sump is at the upstream end, there is probably not a whole lot of cave after that anyway.

Cave diving is not for egotistical or macho individuals. You need to be a logical, thoughtful and calculating individual. And you need experience. Many cave divers, especially those going for ‘cave’ rating or ‘advanced cave’ spend hours and hours under piers honing their skills. A diving quote for cave diving (and all diving in general) is that ‘you plan your dive and dive your plan’. On the darker side they also say that with cave diving – ‘there are no rescues, only body recoveries’.

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.

 

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