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The Joy of Risk: What Cave Diving Taught Me

Kathleen Byars | October 23, 2016

Cave diving involves risk.

The magnitude of risk is quite high for those who lack preparation. Those who enter a cave without the necessary training are more likely to get lost, panic, and fail. If they’re lucky, they still get out alive.

However, those who plan properly, develop the requisite mindset, and consistently follow their training, mitigate the risk. These divers enjoy a lifetime of breathtaking dives.

I must say it is truly magnificent to float among million year old fossils forever cemented inside majestic cave walls.

Risk weighed heavily on my mind as I began my introductory cave diving course in 2003. Working in a high-stress, corporate environment I had gravitated to scuba diving for recreation. I found that the focus and concentration required underwater released me from the pressures I faced above the surface.

My instructor was recommended by a dive shop in Ponce de Leon, Florida. For those of you who have never been to North Florida it is nothing like what you see on Miami Vice re-runs. North Florida is wooded, becomes relatively cold in the winter, and sits atop a plateau of porous limestone karst.

Telford Springs Florida

North Florida is also riddled with world-class caves. Visitors travel here from all over the world to dive them.

Most cave diving begins from the back of a truck, instead of a boat. You drive to a wooded dive site, unpack your gear on the truck tailgate, suit up and carry a minimum of 88lbs (40kg) of gear on your back to a fresh water hole. Unlike ocean dives, cave diving isn’t pretty until you get inside.

As I embarked on my first cave dive, I realized there were no guarantees. Many an experienced technical diver balk at being inside a cave. And while I had an instructor to guide me, the responsibility for my fate was still my own.

There was no way for me to know if I would be successful until I gave it a try.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

-T.S. Elliot

Prior to entering the water, my instructor tried everything he could to confuse me. He was testing my mindset to make sure I stayed focused and followed my training.

He suggested we switch cave systems at the last minute. I didn’t go for it. He changed up our dive plan and demanded we take another underwater route. I told him no way. He then looked me in the eye and told me this might be the last breath of fresh air I ever take. Was I prepared for the risk I was about to take?

His last question rattled me good. Somehow, I managed to return his gaze and spat back, “While that may be true, there is only one way to find out.”

In truth, I didn’t feel so self-assured.

When a diver returns from a dive it’s customary to ask how the dive was. In cave diving, we say that every dive you return from is a good dive.

As I geared up for what I hoped would be the first of many “good” cave dives, we received word that a diver was missing. He had entered a cave system the night before and never returned. His wife had called the sheriff and by 8AM an experienced team of divers were gearing up to retrieve his body.

It was a tragic and horribly sad reminder of exactly the risk I was about to take.

Hands shaking, I began to gear up. Focus, Kate, focus. I put my light on upside down. Damn. Stop. Take a deep breath. Re-attach light. My mask kept fogging. I tried and tried to spit on the lens to clear it, but my mouth was too dry. I lost my dive fins. With 88lbs of gear on my back I began rummaging around the truck.

My instructor stood nearby, resting his gear on a picnic table. He calmly watched as I tried to pull it together.

Cave diving gear

Today, the entry to Wes Skiles Peacock State Park cave system boasts a handsome wooden boardwalk. Back when I was a cave diving trainee, the walk from the parking lot to the cave system consisted of a muddy trail. I lumbered down the path, careful to step over tree roots. I did not want to trip and fall. One misstep and I would be lying on my back like a helpless turtle, unable to extricate myself from my gear.

We reached the water’s edge and waited somewhat impatiently for exiting divers. Sweat trickled down my face. Mosquitos nipped at my exposed skin. I was burning up inside my 7mil wetsuit. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to having major second thoughts.

Finally, I took a giant stride into the cool spring water. I pulled open the neck of my wetsuit to allow water inside. I was anything but comfortable.

My first task was to confirm the dive plan. Next, we performed gear checks at the surface and a safety drill. I then sank below the water’s surface and tied off my primary reel to a rock. I made a secondary tie-off just inside the cave and then searched for the main line. Anytime you enter a cave system, you do so with a guide reel and tie the line from your guide reel to a permanent line that runs throughout the system. The permanent line serves as a visual guide to help divers navigate safely in and out of the cave.

Once I tied off my reel, I began the dive. The dark cave enveloped me as my 10W Halogen canister light struggled to light the surrounding blackness. Our dive plan was to enter Peanut tunnel, a shallow, narrow tunnel with depths from 20 to 60 feet. At approximately 500 feet penetration we would end the dive and head back to the surface. My job was to lead the way and remember to turn the dive at our agreed-upon penetration.

As we swam deeper into the cave system, I waited for my instructor to haze me. Typically, the skills required for a first cave dive are dive planning, safety drills, hand signals and reel tie-offs. The more advanced drills such as lights out, lost diver, and lost line aren’t presented until later.

Yet, my instructor loved hazing his students. I had watched as he tormented students in previous classes where I was just an observer.

Would my instructor swim up behind me and remove a fin? Would he shut one of my tank valves and prevent me from getting air to imitate a failure? Would he rip my mask and render me blind as I fumbled for my spare mask?

My heart was racing as I worried about what lie ahead. Kick, glide, worry. Kick, glide, worry. I was unable to enjoy the dive. I waited and waited and waited to fail.

Finally, we reached the 500 feet mark. Yes! As I signaled to my instructor to turn the dive, he swam up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. He shined his dive light onto his hands and then formed his fingers into the shape of a triangle. Puzzled, I looked blankly back at him. I could not recall this hand signal from my training. My instructor chuckled and repeated the gesture, this time shining his light along the cave wall. Clueless and frustrated, I gave him the thumbs up signal and called the dive.

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When a diver gives the thumbs up signal you don’t discuss it. You end the dive. My instructor turned around and began leading us out. I suffered the entire journey back to the surface. What had the hand signal meant? Why didn’t I remember this from my training? Rattled and unsure of myself, I was certain I must have failed.

At the cave entrance I picked up my primary reel and slowly surfaced. Unable to control the mental strain any longer, I blurted out, “What in the heck was that strange hand signal for?” Surprised at my agitation, my instructor smiled. “It was nothing. I was just trying to point out a beautiful fossil encrusted in the cave wall. I wanted your first dive to be truly memorable.”

Damn.

Here I was pushing past the boundaries of anything I ever imagined I would do. I was learning the mindset required to embrace risk, yet rather than congratulate myself on my progress, I was beating myself up for the one small mistake I assumed I had made.

And in the process, I had missed out on experiencing what was surely a beautiful dive.

Everything you want is on the other side of fear. – Jack Canfield

Fortunately, life isn’t a one-chance ride. We get lots of opportunities for do-overs. And that’s exactly what I did. I survived, literally and figuratively, the hazing of my first cave instructor and earned my introductory cave diving certification. I then moved to the BVIs.

And in the process, I began to understand what it takes to create a life worth living.

Risk is terrifying. It’s uncomfortable. And when faced with risk the easiest path is to hide and run away. It would have been much easier for me to stay home and continue with my life as it was. Yet facing fear, and overcoming discomfort, is exactly what leads to an extraordinary life.

It would take me some years to dial in this process, but once I understood there is a process, it was only a matter of time before I honed it to achieve the life I wanted.

And although a life with less risk is certainly a life with less pain, it is also a life with less joy. Less passion. Less meaning.

I believe passionately in the words of Jack Canfield. Building an extraordinary life isn’t about playing it safe. Instead, we must face our fears.

PS: Cave diving is perceived as one of the most deadly sports in the world. Yet, the vast majority of divers who have lost their lives in caves have either not undergone specialized training or failed to follow the strict training guidelines. It is believed that the diver who lost his life the morning of my dive had changed medications and suffered an epileptic seizure underwater. A placard was placed in his memory inside the park. I always look for it and think of him whenever I return to the site of my very first cave dive.


I believe we all have a bit of trailblazer inside us, don’t you? It’s my passion to help others create change. I’ve always found that disrupting the status quo leads to an amazing life where nothing is impossible.

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