Curiosity Causes a Life-Threatening Crisis in a Cavern

By Captain Richard P. Flynn

Curiosity Causes a Life-Threatening Crisis in a Cavern Curiosity Causes a Life-Threatening Crisis in a Cavern By Captain Richard P. Flynn It was around 12:30 pm on a beautiful Sunday; Key Largo, Florida, sported a clear blue sky and calm water. We were preparing for our second dive. My buddy Mark and I were the first to get into the water. Visibility was about 100 feet and the water temperature was 82°F. We were diving with some of our teammates from a college search and rescue team from Tampa Bay. The dive was shallow, about 35 feet, and there was an abundance of marine life.

Mark had heard there were many lobsters in the area, so we brought our lobster permits. We left the group, telling them what we were going to do, and began our expedition for "lobster por la stomach."

Although we searched and searched, we found only one small lobster, but we did see a lot of colorful sealife. There were Pinktip Anemones (Condylactis gigantes), an Arrowcrab (Stenorhychus seticornis), Brain Coral and even a moray eel that decided to swim between our legs. It was a fun dive, but we did not achieve our mission. When it was time to go back, we were empty handed.

That's when I saw a small opening that looked like a good hiding place for lobster. I decided to go in and investigate. The three foot diameter opening led to a cavern with a small exit on the other side. I signaled my buddy I was going in. It seemed safe to do so, I still had 1,800 psi. My buddy stayed outside, for safety reasons.

Just past the entrance, the cavern got bigger, so I kept swimming, but saw no signs of lobsters. Not wanting to go back to the boat empty handed, I kept going. I was at least 12 feet in when I noticed the tunnel was getting smaller. I decided to turn around and go back but, when I tried, I found I was stuck. When I tilted my head I could clearly see my buddy at the entrance. He could see I was stuck, so I gave him an OK signal. I took a couple of breaths to relax and thought about my next move. I tried to recall my search and rescue training. It had been conducted in a controlled environment to condition us to handle situations such as restricted maneuverability in a cavern or debris. We did it blindfolded in a pool to simulate low visibility. Even when you have trained for this type of emergency, there are many things for which you are not prepared physiologically and emotionally. Surprisingly, although I was scared, I felt totally relaxed and confident.

I tilted my head back and saw the other, smaller opening about eight feet away. The only way to get out through it, however, was to take all my equipment off. I managed to do this in the restricted space, but in the process I also managed to reduce visibility to less than three feet. I waited five minutes to let the water clear then began to squeeze through the opening. I would take a breath and make the "ooh" sound. I learned to do this in class during the buddy breathing exercises. It lets your buddy know you're exhaling and I do it out of habit. Finally, I took my regulator out of my mouth and squeezed through the rocks. Mark saw what I was doing and swam to the other opening. When I was out of the cavern, pulling my equipment behind me, Mark and I exchanged OK signals. Then he helped me away from the reef to the sand, where I put my gear back on before we ascended.

Back on the boat, I took a big breath and sat for some time to gather my thoughts and thank God I was alive. I imagined what would have happened if I had panicked: my breathing pattern would have increased, along with my air consumption rate, causing me to empty my tank faster; I would have wedged myself in deeper and my buddy might have gotten stuck trying to save me. I could have died.

I am glad I kept myself relaxed and under control. I am thankful my instructor taught me to feel comfortable and relaxed underwater. If it wasn't for him, I would not have been able to write this story. I know what I did was dumb, but curiosity drove me into the cavern and into that awful experience.

The points I am trying to make are these: you can get seriously injured diving. If you don't feel comfortable, relaxed and confident underwater, you should not dive without an instructor. Always discuss an emergency plan with your buddy and know how to communicate with him/her. I suggest reading articles about diving to prepare yourself for and learn more about it.

I LEARNED:
  • "If you don't feel comfortable, relaxed and confident U/W, don't dive without an instructor."
  • "Always discuss an emergency plan with your buddy and know how to communicate with him/her."
  • "Read articles about diving to prepare yourself for and learn more about it."