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Cave Diving Fatalities
There have been thirteen fatalities involving divers in fresh water caves in Australia from 1969 to 1983. These fatalities occurred in six separate incidents between 1969 and 1983, (summarised below). All incidents occurred in the Mt Gambier region (as listed below). The region then had a quarter of a century of safety record until another incident occurred in the region, in 2010. These are as follows...
Kilsbys Sinkhole (1969)
Two male divers, both aged 18 with almost no experience (which had just undergone open water training which would be considered woefully inadequate compared to today's trainings) entered Kilsbys with the intention to exceed the depth of their previous dive (being to 50m).
There gear was very basic, with no content gauges, no redundant air supply, rudimentary torches and no watches.
They ran a rope from 27m towards their destination, but after they failed to surface, another diver found them drowned at 40m with their gear in some disarray, but air remaining in their cylinders.
Contributing factors included: Narcosis, poor lights, gross inexperience, inadequate air for such depths, and possible panic.
Picanninnie Ponds (1972)
One male diver aged 20 who had recently finished a basic SCUBA course entered Picanninnie ponds and completed a dive to 30m in the main chasm and cathedral. With less than 1/3rd of their air remaining, they chose to dive into a cave off to one side of the first pond.
They entered the cave without guidelines and it took only seconds before they were totally engulfed by silt and became separated. The survivor found the entrance after 3 to 4 minutes of desperate searching. His buddy drowned, and his body was recovered several hours later, only a short distance from the entrance of the cave.
Contributing factors included: inexperience, no guidelines, no formal cave training, inadequate air, poor silt management and no understanding or appreciation of the hazards.
Death Cave (1972)
Three out of four divers (two male, one female) died in 1972 in what became unfortunately known as "Death Cave". The team of four divers chose to have a quick look at a cave in the pine forest east of Mt Gambier. The most experienced of the group told the others to wait at the entrance while he checked it out (without guidelines), but the others decided to follow him through the low entry tunnel into the cave, and quickly silted out the chamber.
In the ensuing chaos, one diver fortunately found the entrance as he breathed the last of his air. The other three drowned. The bodies were recovered the next day, at which time the whole cave was still completely silted out.
The unfortunate name "death cave" arose from the hysterical newspaper report that followed, calling the site "death cave" gave the impression that the cave was the killer, rather than any errors on the part of the divers. The legacy of this unfortunate title still persists in the minds of many non divers.
Contributing factors included: no guidelines, no formal cave training, no redundant air supply, poor silt management and no understanding or appreciation of the hazards.
The Shaft (1973)
Four out of eight divers (three male, one female) died in 1973 after entering the shaft with the intention of diving beyond 70m on air! The divers were all experienced ocean divers, but had almost no experience in caves. They had recently completed a series of deep dives the preceding days, and wore single cylinders with no redundant air supply and ran no guidelines.
The dive was inadequately planned, with no decisions on buddy pairs, air management strategies, turn around times, and was conducted with typically inadequate torches for the environment. Their procedures for their previous dives had been to dive until their air ran out, and then ascend. Several of the group typically surfaced with no air whatsoever!
Survivors reported that the team became disoriented and confused at depth, and lost sight of the surface. Only four divers returned to the surface, and despite several brave but foolish dives back to 50m by two of the survivors, none of the bodies were recovered at the time.
The press reports bordered on the hysterical, and once again the term "killer cave" was used. It would be 11 months before all bodies were recovered.
Contributing factors included: narcosis, no guide lines, inadequate air for such depths and inadequate dive planning.
Picanninnie Ponds (1974)
One diver drowned after he and his buddy visited Picanninnie Ponds illegally in 1974. (It was closed at the time). Both of them had no cave diving experience, and planned their dive to 60m. They set up a surface float with a hang tank, and ran a spool of green shark line. They wore single cylinders and carried very poor "non diver" torches.
They reached 60m, and then when beginning to ascend found that one of the divers had become severely entangled in the line which was also hooked on something at depth, thus stopping the ascent. This crisis coincided with both divers beginning to run low on air. The survivor made a brief attempt to free his partner, and then raced to the hang tank and breathed it dry. He then surfaced and raised the alarm.
When the body was recovered from 50m, it was wrapped with line from the waist down. The victims knife was still in place, but his mask and regulator were displaced.
Contributing factors included: narcosis, poor guideline management, panic, inadequate air for such depths and inexperience in cave diving.
Picanninnie ponds (1983)
Two male divers died after visting Picanninnie Ponds illegally at night. Only one was trained in cave diving (by the recently formed CDAA). The other was not qualified for caves, and questions on whether he was qualified for any diving remains unknown. They chose to exceed the site's legislated maximum depth of 36m by a huge amount. The following morning, another group arrived to find their vehicle in the car park, but no sign of the divers. When they reached 36m they saw a guideline running into the chasm, but there were no air bubbles rising. After a short descent, they could see the glow of a dive light and raised the alarm.
Police divers found the victims at 70m, lying in deep silt severely entangled in their guideline. To reach this point, they had passed through a significant restriction at 58m.
The way the guideline was deployed at depth seemed to indicate a serious degree of confusion during the dive.
This was the only fatality to occur since the formation of the CDAA for more than 25 years, and was done illegally with one of the buddies having no cave training.
Contributing factors included: narcosis, illegal diving which also exceeded the legislated depth for the site, and poor line management.
Kilsby's Sinkhole (2010)
One male diver died after visiting Kilsby's sinkhole with his buddy. Only the two of them are known to have dived the site on the day. We are still awaiting the outcome of the official coroners inquest as to the cause of the accident and what the contributing factors were.
Tank Cave (Feb 2011)
A female diver passed away whilst performing an advanced explorational solo dive in a new section of tank cave. We are still awaiting the outcome of the official coroners inquest as to the cause of the accident and what the contributing factors were.
Tank Cave (Oct 2011)
A male diver passed away during a dive with a buddy after becoming separated. We are still awaiting the outcome of the official coroners inquest as to the cause of the accident and what the contributing factors were.