Cave Diving

Why? Isn't it dangerous, aren't those who participate foolish? What is the big attraction? Is it for adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers? The answers to these questions might surprise you. This article is not designed to give you a complete in depth detail of cave diving, but more a breif summary of cave diving to give a general overview from one cave divers point of view. Although I am very passionate about the sport - I have attempted to do my best to write up a non bias point of view to the best of my ability.

Topics covered:

Isn't cave diving dangerous?

What's the attraction?

What are the different definitions / ratings?

What Training is involved?

Isn't cave diving dangerous?

This isn't a simple yes and no answer. Is snow skiing dangerous? There are those who go down ski slopes where many have gone before at resorts where dangers are known about and avoided. And then there are those who jump out of helicopters at the tops of peaks in virgin snow that risk causing an avalanche or breaking bones - and the two are very different.


Cave diving is very similar to snow skiing in that respects. There are those who are involved in what I like to call Recreational Cave Diving. These are those who go into sites that have previously been explored many times, have already been surveyed and mapped out and benefit from the risks that others have taken who have gone in before them.

Then there are those involved in what I like to call Exploration Cave Divers. These divers want to see new sites. Be the first to explore a tunnel or system that has never been explored before. Like the snow skier jumping out of a helicopter on a mountain peak that has never been skied before - this sort of diving contains a degree of greater risks.

Recreational Cave Diving (which is what most cave divers are mainly involved in) has unfortunately gained a reputation that it does not deserve. Many people have been using partial facts about cave diving to make it sound like one of the deadliest craziest things you could ever do. This comes not only from people who know nothing about cave diving, but also sadly enough from some cave divers themselves, trying to make themselves look more mucho and tougher than they really are.

While cave exploration diving is hazardous, most of us cave divers owe a lot to people who have gone previously before us, who have helped find passage ways, maps, noted dangerous areas to make general cave diving a much safer sport.

"But so much can go wrong!"... is a phrase I've heard many times when describing cave diving. When I ask 'like what', the same answers are normally given, but when explored a little more one finds that there isn't as much risk as previously thought:

Concern   Details
You can run out of air.
  When one is trained in cave diving we first learn about redundancies and the "rules of thirds". We carry a minimum of 2 separate scuba tanks (sometimes more) and only ever use up 1/3rd of our gas supply going into a cave. This gives us 1/3rd to come back out with, and another 1/3rd spare. If something goes wrong with one (or even two) of our tanks, we still have enough gas to get out between two buddies. Having more divers in the group increases the safety margin even further.
The equipment might fail.
  Cave divers carry at least 2 (and in some cases 3 or more) of everything. This way if something does fail, there are backups in place, and then theirs your buddies backup, and then maybe more backups again.
You could lose your way.
  Cave divers have a rule that there must be a continuous line going back to the surface. This allows them to find their way out, either by sight, or by feel if things get very bad.
What about all those who have died?
  Back in the 60's and 70's there was a spate of deaths in the Mt Gambier region. The media headlined these to their advantage, and those deaths have remained in peoples minds now for more than a quarter of a century. However much has changed since then. For instance - back then, none of the redundancies listed above were used, and there were no 'escape plans'. People used to dive with only one tank, one light, no lines to find their way back out, and no rules with air as to how long or far they could go before they should turn around. As such there were a number of deaths back then. Since the forming of the Cave Diving Association we enjoyed 25 years of a vibrant active cave diving community with no deaths. If you're interested in the deaths that have occurred, more information can be found on our Cave Diving Fatalities.
You can get stuck
  Only advanced cave divers with a Penetration (or advanced Cave) rating are permitted to go into tight spots... and then if they so choose to. Most cave passage ways are very open, allowing at least 2 divers to dive side by side. Getting stuck is difficult when there is this much room to move in. Squeezy spots are only left to the most experienced of cave divers, and this then moves out of the realm of general cave diving, into exploratory (or advanced) cave diving.
I still think it's very dangerous.
  Unfortunately there is a push to keep cave diving looking scary and dangerous, and a lot comes from prejudice. And people run with this! Do a google search on 'most dangerous sport', and you'll see cave diving come up over and over again as one of, if not 'the' most dangerous sport out there. Some use part facts - others totally absurb information such as this article which amongst other dangers in cave diving includes being eaten alive by a cave creature! They're not the only ones to use the 'eaten alive' reason too. It's also been used for the introduction in a 2009 documentary on Australian Cave Diving by the Childrens show 'Totally Wild'! With crazy reports like this, it's no wonder that many people already have a biased view on cave diving without any real knowledge. I should know... I was one of them.


By focusing on the risks, one will always have a negative view of any sport. Most sports are given a more balanced view point. Look at fishing as an example. Evey year we hear of missing fishermen. Boats capsizing, fishermen being washed off rocks. The media doesn't report in the same frenzy way about them as some other sports. Then there is football. Many people end up needing surgery each year, and deaths on the football field occur on almost a yearly basis too. However most football players aren't scolded or thought of as foolish because they play the sport and risks are involved. Why? Is it because there is a more balanced view of the sport - people can see the risks, but they also see the advantages of the sport and what it has to offer? Even rock climbing (that has a much greater accident rate) doesn't get handled with the histeria that cave diving does. Maybe cave diving should be given the same benefit by those who don't really understand it?

Unfortunately, almost all the information I have heard about cave diving from people outside of the sport, whether it be the internet, family, dry cave guides, friends and even the media / press has been based on false speculations, partial facts and rumours - and extremely misleading. If you want to understand the sport - talk to a real cave diver. The one exception I have seen in all this was a segment by 60 minutes. To understand cave divers the reporter went to the extent of doing part of the training, and diving in a couple of the sites. The result was the only balanced, well expressed and relatively accurate report I have ever seen by the media.


What's the attraction?

  Crystal Clear Water You wont find water any more clearer than what you'll find with fresh water cave diving! The best way to describe it is like "swimming through air". If you like great visibility, you'll love cave diving!    
  Weather Independent Weather will never effect you. You can dive any time of the year, in all conditions. Finally - an outdoor sport where you can plan a weekend, and not worry about the weather!    
  Exploration Why do people like caves at all? The chance to explore. Imagine not only being able to walk through a cave system, but being able to fly and float through a cave system. That's what cave diving is like. Even when others have been there before you, it's still nice to be able to see it for the first time yourself.    
  A Challenge If you like a challenge and mastering new skills, then you can find what you're looking for with caves. There are 4 different 'levels' of cave diving Cavern, Sinkhole, Cave and Penetration (see below for more information).    
  Experience Once obtaining one of the cave ratings, you will find that it opens up many other non cave related dive sites. Cave / cavern diving experience is considered ample by many commercial operators at other dive sites and negates the need for additional certificates including Deep Diver and Wreck Diver that would normally require other specialty training above and beyond an Advanced Open Water Certification. (As you would have normally undergone training with your cavern training that covers these other aspects).    
  Tranquility It might sound surprising, but talk to many cave divers and they'll tell you that there's not much that equates to how tranquil and peaceful a nice enjoyable cave diving weekend can be. It's a great way to 'get away from it all', and 'leave the world behind you'. Weightless, in crystal clear water, no surge or current, and no weather to worry about. Rain, Hail or Storm - underneath it's all very peaceful and still.    

Note that adrenaline is not listed above! You will hear many people say that cave divers are adrenaline junkies - and once you do - you can safely discard everything they are telling you. Cave diving is the opposite. It is relaxing, tranquil, and enjoying. If a cave diver experiences an adrenaline rush - you can be assured that it was not planned, or enjoyed. We don't go diving for thrills and to seek risk - but the opposite.


What are the different definitions/ratings?

"Cave Diving" is a generalised term used to describe a variety of different situations. The Cave Diving Association of Australia has split cave diving into 3 separate categories:

  Deep Cavern

A site that undercuts back in on itself on an angle with a general maximum dive depth of 40m. (Exceptions can apply with additional training). Up will normally lead out - or to a sloping roof that slopes to the exit - once again, some exceptions apply.. These sites can also include Sink Holes (almost unique to us here for diving in Mt Gambier) - which can be a near vertical walls with extensive depth that may undercut with depth.

This course used to be two separate courses (cavern and sink hole), but has been recently changed to try and adopt to international standards. (Although it's not that simple when we have sites that are unique to Australia)

  Cave A site where horizontally you may need to go down before you can go back up and exit. Maximum penetration is 1/3rd of your air on twin tanks. Caves are normally much shallower than sink holes or deep caverns, so 1/3 of air can get you quite some distance in, and a number of hours diving. It also permits you to go into many wonderful sites that are relatively open. They need to at least be big enough for two divers to go side by side, so there is no risk of 'getting stuck'.    
  Penetration / Advance Cave

This is the "unlimited rating". - Unlimited penetration of caves. Some sites require special considerations such as a penetration rating plus additional experience are required for certain sites (such as Tank Cave in Mt Gambier). Anything that other certifications won't get you into - Penetration (or Advanced Cave) will. This is where the risk level changes as it can involved tighter areas where one may not be able to turn around in, and may have to 'back out' - adding a potential risk of getting stuck.

Most divers never go beyond 'cave' rating, and even those who do many times choose to stick to safe passageways.



What training is involved?

  Deep Cavern

Usually a 4 day course which involves theory and training with buoyancy control, running reels, contingency maneuvers, communication, anti silting techniques, physiological considerations, decompression, climbing, abseiling and belaying techniques, and stress tests (such as out of air, and following a line back without a mask in a blackout situation, while you and your buddy are sharing air).

Previous experience required includes a minimum of 12 months Open Water Scuba, plus Advance Open Water Certification (or equivalent experience) with 25 dives post that experience, as well as 2 night dives, and 5 dives to a minimum of 25 meters.

The deep cavern course is probably one of the best courses you can undertake, as it has extensive training that covers training to many other non-cave areas. (Such as increased depth to 40m on air in dark environments, access to wrecks, and other sites that normally require additional 'specialty' courses). It is a very safe rating provided one sticks to their training and rules.


A 3 day course (deep cavern, or the original cavern or sinkhole ratings are prerequisite, as well as a certain level of experience required) working with lines and contingency maneuvers and stress tests (such as following a line back without a mask, whilst buddy breathing)

Previous experience required includes a mimimum of 30 cavern dives totaling at least 15 hours, or 15 sinkhole dives totaling a minimum of 7.5 hours.

The course includes additional theory covering the differences between Deep Cavern and Cave.

This is a relatively safe rating too - with very little risk of getting stuck or running out of air provided one sticks to their training and rules. It's a great way to explore caves safely.


A 5+ day course, this course is one of the strictest, where failure to perform to cave levels, or additional levels when trained on any dive, or failing the stress test can cause immediate failure and ending of the course. It starts with an instant fail stress test. Training includes black out drill, lost line search, gear removal / restriction exercise, additional air, and involves a number of dives in CDAA rated cavern, cave and penetration sites.

Previous experience required includes a minimum of 15 cave dives totalling at least 10 hours (which realistically considerably more experience would be required before anyone could pass the Penetration test).

This rating gives the diver the opportunity to leave the safety of the other ratings behind and venture from general/recreational cave diving into explorational cave diving. They can take stage bottles to 'drop off' along their underwater route, and pick them up later on. It also allows for diving in any area of the cave regardless of how small or tight it can be.


As you can see - there is quite a bit of cave diving that can be done safely, and it's not all crazy and risky as many people make it out to be. If you're interested in cave diving training, see our learn to dive page for more information on who to contact.

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