2000-08 Never Take Cave Diving Lightly

By Bert Kilbride

2000-08 Never Take Cave Diving Lightly 2000-08 Never Take Cave Diving Lightly Bert Kilbride Sometime in the early 1970s my then wife Jackie and I went to Anthony’s Key in Honduras for a vacation. This was so long ago, Peter Hughes was working there as a divemaster! Diving conditions were ideal, and we were having a great time.

One day Jackie and I dove on a wall that goes down 1,000 feet, and the water was so crystal clear and there was so much to see that we just kept descending and ended up doing a bounce dive to 300 feet! It was an awesome dive, and I even found a 100-year-old bottle while we were cruising around at 20 feet decompressing. We came up with plenty of air, and it seemed like nothing could go wrong.

We came back to the same reef a few days later and found a cave 25 feet below that had a round opening about six feet in diameter and went back 125 feet. I assumed it would be an easy in, easy out, so Jackie and I swam into what looked like a single tunnel. We went in a little way and saw bright red spots in front of us, the eyes of tiny shrimp, and crabs crawling along the walls, and it was so fascinating we kept going in deeper. The tunnel eventually opened into a room, about 12 feet square with a 10-foot high ceiling, filled with cowrie shells, probably a den for an octopus.

Well, I think the bubbles from our tanks loosened dust that came down from the ceiling, because within five minutes the water went from crystal clear to coffee brown! Jackie and I made trilling noises to each other, our private signal that we’re out of time, and I had her grab my fin. I had a light but no line, so I started feeling my way along the walls. I thought I was doing fine, but at some point, I discovered Jackie had lost her hold on my fin and had disappeared. I discovered I’d stumbled into a blind tunnel.

I wasn’t worried about Jackie, she was an experienced diver who didn’t panic. So I just kept signaling, and when Jackie didn’t answer, I turned back and went a little farther to look for her. Within 40 feet, the water was clear again, and I thought I was back in the original tunnel, but once again I’d gone down a blind shaft. I signaled again but we were too far apart to hear each other. I went down four different dead ends but couldn’t find Jackie.

Although I had lots of air left, I remember thinking, Well, I got myself into this, if I don’t get out it’s my own damn fault. Finally I heard a pounding overhead, and then I heard Jackie and I knew she was close, but I couldn’t tell where. I answered her, turned around and went back into the tunnel.

Jackie had found her way out of one of the branches and swam around until she saw my bubbles coming up through the coral. She was trilling, tapping on top of the coral and leading me out. I finally got into a clear tunnel and broke free. We went around to where we’d first gone in, and by then the water was nice and clear again.

That afternoon we went back down, and this time we brought a line with us. Jackie went in first and I stayed outside until she gave three tugs on the line, then I followed her in. When we turned around to leave we discovered that there were side tunnels that ran off the main tube, like branches on a tree, but because of the way they angled back our lights went right past them when we first went in.

I’ve always wanted to share this story because sometimes it’s the most experienced divers who do stupid things and get into trouble. I learned that you shouldn’t go 10 feet into a cave without a line, no matter how clear the water looks. So many potential problems can happen in a cave even if you’re experienced and well-equipped. Lights can fail, tidal changes occur and water can silt up, your line could break. Thirty years ago we were pioneers, doing the best we could, taking chances and learning as we went, but today any diver who’s interested in cave diving should take a specialty course, no matter how much open water experience they have.