In order to become a fully certified cave diver, you should already be certified as an open water scuba diver and have some experience with enriched air, dry suits, and sidemount diving. Each course in the four-level cave diving series listed below takes a minimum of two days; however, the first and last two installments are often combined into one minimum four-day segment.
Cavern Diving—basic open-water diving skills refresher, with no cave penetration beyond the cave entrance
Basic/Introduction to Cave Diving—basic cave diving skills with limited cave penetration
Apprentice Cave Diving—proper cave diving techniques; decompression knowledge required
Cave Diving—all necessary skills to dive safely in the overhead environment
Fully trained cave divers seeking more advanced training can take various specialty courses, including survey techniques, stage and sidemount diving, submersible diver propulsion vehicle training and more.
Both major cave diving training organizations in the United States, the National Association for Cave Diving (NACD) and the National Speleological Society–Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS), as well as the largest international provider of cave diving training, Technical Diving International (TDI), offer links on their websites to cave diving centers with certified instructors who can take you through the entire program. Most instructors are based in Florida or Mexico. Be sure to ask potential instructors about their teaching credentials and give them bonus points if they similarly inquire about your diving experience and training before taking you on as a student.
Check3GPS Readiness Quotient
Your supervisor may use the following checklist to determine if you have adequately addressed the risk factors for cave diving. If you can answer “yes” to all the questions below, you should be good to go!
1. Have you previously swum safely underwater to explore caves, caverns, reefs, wreckage, etc.?
2. Have you completed an industry-standard four-course Cave Diver training program?
3. Are you aware of the hazards in and around the caves you will be exploring?
4. Do you use a guideline to assist in egressing out of the cave?
5. Do you have the proper equipment (e.g., mask, fins, wetsuit or drysuit, depth gauge and timer, primary and backup lights, reels and line, markers, knife)?
6. Are you aware that diving to excessive depths can contribute to excessive gas consumption and decompression?
7. Do you cave dive with a buddy?
Top Hazards And How To Mitigate Them
1. LOW VISIBILITY
Mitigate: Make sure that you and your cave-diving buddies are up to speed on proper finning techniques so that no one kicks up a blinding silt storm. Short, stiff fins provide better control and are less likely to stir things up. Silt outs can still happen, and it’s critical to stay calm under such conditions. Panic will only increase your disorientation, accelerate your breathing, and impair your decision-making skills. Remember to follow the guidelines and directional markers to open water. Drilling with blindfolds on dry land will help you stay in control underwater when faced with an actual low-visibility scenario.
2. BUDDY SYSTEM BREAKDOWN
Mitigate: To prevent failures of the buddy system while cave diving, always review the dive plan with your buddy before entering the water. Both buddies should be well-versed in all of the hand, light and touch signals used to communicate while cave diving. While diving, keep sight of your buddy’s light at all times.
3. DIVING TOO DEEP
Mitigate: As a cave diver, it’s tempting to go deep. But the deeper you dive, the greater the water pressure. The greater the pressure, the more nitrogen builds up in your body, which can lead to nitrogen narcosis, especially at depths greater than 100 feet. In addition, ascending from great depths can lead to decompression sickness and arterial gas embolisms as gas expands in your body on the way up. The bottom line: Don’t dive below 40 meters/130 feet unless you are an extremely capable technical diver with a thorough understanding of various gas management models.
4. RUNNING OUT OF AIR
Mitigate: Always follow the “Rule of Thirds,” which prescribes portioning your breathing gas into thirds: one third for reaching and exploring the cave; one third for returning to the surface; and the last third in reserve in case of emergency. Beyond that, be sure to check your remaining air supply at short intervals as you dive. In the event that one of you does run out of air, staying up to speed on the art of “buddy breathing” or gas sharing may well save you or your buddy’s life.
5. FAILURE TO USE PROPER EQUIPMENT
Mitigate: Learn about all of the additional equipment required to dive safely in an overhead vs. open-water environment. These include primary and backup lights, a sharp knife for cutting your way out of entanglement and a safety reel for lost buddy searches. If you will be diving at depths exceeding 30 meters, you need to understand the narcotic and toxic effects of different gases at different depths in order to choose the safest gas mixture for a given dive.
The Five Golden Rules of Cave Diving
Accident analyses of data collected by the Divers Alert Network (DAN) over the past 40 years reveal that the overwhelming majority of cave diving fatalities are caused by drowning after running out of breathing gas. The three most common reasons for running out of air are getting lost due to poor visibility or light failure; getting lost due to the lack of a continuous line to open water; and poor gas management. These findings led the cave diving community to come up with the following list of five golden rules, which, if followed, greatly reduce a cave diver’s risk of drowning.
Considered a technical diving specialty, cave diving requires advanced knowledge and skill well beyond what is taught in an open water scuba diving certification course. Cave divers carry much more gear than open-water divers and require higher-level skills in body position, buoyancy, finning and turning. Divers must complete an industry-standard, four-stage training program in order to safely explore the inside of an underwater cave.
Many cave systems are mazes, with multiple branches off the main passageway. Making navigation even more difficult, divers with less than perfect buoyancy skills and propulsion techniques may bob around and kick up a lot of silt, reducing visibility to near zero. Cave divers should always run a continuous guideline from open water so that divers can find their way back out of the cave.
3. AIR SUPPLY (RULE OF THIRDS)
There are many unforeseen emergencies that can cause a diver to unexpectedly run low on air, e.g., poor visibility slowing the pace; a lost buddy or line; apprehension leading to higher rate of air consumption. The “Rule of Thirds” requires divers to reserve one third of their air for the trip in, one third for the trip back, and one third in reserve for unexpected circumstances. In other words, cave divers must turn around and head back to the entrance when they have used up one third of the air in their tanks.
At depths of 40 meters or more, a diver is more likely to experience the intoxicating effects of nitrogen narcosis and resulting impairment of judgment and performance. Cave divers should limit their dive depths to no more than 40 meters.
The sudden loss of light while cave diving can lead to disorientation and panic. It will be harder to find the guideline leading out of the cave. Everything will take longer to do, and the combination of physical and emotional stress will cause you to consume your air more quickly. That’s why cave divers should always dive with one primary and two backup lights.
Associations & Websites
Largest cave diving organization in the United States, with additional members in 25 other countries
Not-for-profit, member-based, professional cave diver training organization
International, all-volunteer organization supporting all public safety agencies in the rescue and/or recovery of victims in an underwater-overhead environment
World’s leading scuba diving training organization
Source of up-to-date information on various cave diving topics, sites and courses