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Diving big caves

Written by Agnes Milowka   
Tuesday, 14 December 2010 00:00

Diving big cavesDiving inside big caves is an awe-inspiring experience. By big caves I mean caves with big rooms and large open spaces. Rooms big enough to fit several jumbo jets into, comfortably. As you swim through these huge spaces a vast expanse of blackness seems to surround and envelop you. Often these big caves feel even bigger than they are, as no matter how good the visibility is you cannot take it all in at once and you cannot see wall to wall.

The light a typical diver carries, no matter how bright and powerful it feels in other caves, pales into insignificance and feels more like a candle when you enter a truly big cave. The diver is forced to stick close to a wall just to keep their bearings and you have to put together a complete image of the cave in your head, piece by little piece. Diving solo in a big cave, well, it can be a pretty lonely experience. I remember doing a bunch of solo dives at Eagle's Nest, a big and deep cave in Florida, and I think it is true to say that I have never felt so insignificant and small.

On the other hand one of the most incredible experiences I've had underwater was while diving in Azure Blue, a cave located on private property in Florida. We did the dive with a whole film crew, as Wes Skiles and the Karst Productions team were shooting stills of the cave. It had been twenty years since their last visit and this time they were shooting the cave using digital technology. We had plenty of lights and these lights were very powerful.

Lamar Hires and I were the models so our job was simple, swim around and look pretty. The cave has two huge rooms separated by much smaller connecting tunnels. When those big bright lights came on once we entered that first chamber, well, it was the single best moment of my life. All these powerful lights went on and lit up this vast expanse. Suddenly I could see every corner of this huge room and it was spectacular. To see a place so big all at once, to see it as a whole, well, it was the kind of moment that stays with you forever.

You really do need a lot of light and they do need to be quite intense to get this kind of 'wow' moment. In some caves it is enough to have a few 50W lights and you do get to feel the sense of scale and scope just fine. Other places are too big it seems to take it all in at once.

The Shaft, a huge sinkhole in Mt Gambier, Australia is a good example of a cave that is just too big to handle all at once. We went in there with a film crew and a 200W HMI light, my job was once again to float around and look pretty. All the extra lights did make a world of difference and gave me the opportunity to see the cave like never before. Nonetheless, when it came to the video the Shaft and it's big tunnels eluded capture. It seems that despite the best efforts of Richard Harris and the team, the vast blackness continued to envelop us.

It is no surprise however when you consider just how large the main chamber of this sinkhole is. The oval shaped room is about 80m (264ft) by 150m (495ft)! The sides of the sinkhole then drop off to great depths, in one direction all the way down to 125m (412ft). Little wonder a diver, even teams of divers get lost in this vast expanse.

But why keep coming back if you can't see anything. Well, you can see bits and it is awe inspiring to be in a place so big and so grand. The Shaft has a special little bonus too, during the summer months a shaft of sunlight gushes through the small entrance hole and pierces beams of light down into the depths of the cave. This is a sight to behold and most certainly takes one's breath away.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of diving the Shaft however is actually getting to the water's edge. The gateway to this breathtaking sinkhole is a small hole in the middle of an otherwise normal and flat cow paddock. The hole is only about a meter wide and means that a diver has to be lowered down to the water's edge, 8m (26ft) below them. An A frame is needed for the exercise and each diver and each piece of gear has to then be lowered one by one to the water level. Only then can the dive begin... and what a dive! But don't forget to bring some powerful lights!