The importance of progressive cave diving experience!!!

It was in January this year that my cave diving skills were put to the test for real. As an up and coming instructor, I explain and drive home all of the skills when I teach every part of the cave course. We ensure the students are taught the very best, the very latest techniques to keep them safe. But do they really listen? Do they really understand that what we are trying to teach them could save their lives if they ever make a mistake?
One such skill is the ‘lost line’ skill.

Every time I teach it, I always ask the question at the end of the lesson – “Do you think you will ever lose the line?” “No” is always the response I get back. Then after the lesson and dive, while we are packing up the truck and have a few minutes to spare, I tell them my story. As a caveat to this, I also tell them I too told my cave instructor “I will never lose the line, I’m too scared to” – it’s not always that simple I can tell you.

So, let me take you back to January this year. I had been diving in Tulum for some time and was lucky enough to be asked to dive a new cave that was being explored by a couple of guests from ProTec I was asked to look for some possible leads so they could come back and continue the search for virgin passages.
At the dive site I found a low, dry cave filled with mud, bat droppings, water and of course the obligatory million mosquitoes that decided they wanted my English blood! Still, it was pretty cool to be asked to look for them, so in I went. It’s a fairly low cave, around 6m deep mostly. Pretty white cave, I reported back to Kim and the primary explorers that I had had a fairly uneventful dive and made a note of a few possible leads! I also said that I’d go back to have another look as a couple of them were through one or two major restrictions.

The next day, I went to see Kim from ProTec Tulum and asked to borrow an exploration reel. I must add that this was my first ever ‘real’ exploration. Fairly easy I thought… I’m an instructor, I’m a sidemount cave diver who regularly dives some pretty big dives. I will be ok. I always follow protocol; never do anything that could be deemed dangerous.

Well, there was my first mistake!

I arrived at the new cenote, met with the land owner, said my greetings, smiled and started to unpack my truck. Everything was great, the sun was shining, all my equipment was working, my suit was on and I was walking into the overhead dry cave. Even crawling on my hands and knees in the bat droppings, mud and stinky water and being bitten to death by the flesh eating mosquitoes wasn’t too bad as I was excited to be exploring.
In the water I checked and rechecked my tank pressures, lights, everything and made my plan. I knew the route to the restriction I wanted to pass to enter the chamber on the other side. I was ready, so I started off. I made my way to the first T, placed my Marker to identify my exit and off I went, min 2 into the dive. I swam to the jump I wanted, again marking my direction, attaching my spool and making the continuous guideline to the surface where I was now at min 4.

I’m now a few mins from the restriction and start to enter the low bedding plane. ‘Finger pulling’ along as it’s super low and I’m outstretched like superman at this point. I see the hole. Now I formulate my plan of attack to enter and exit the restriction safely. Now please as were all cave divers, please keep the laughing to a low roar, as I tell you my plan:

The plan was to enter the restriction, exit it and then turn around, tie into the EOL and continue into the virgin waters beyond. I can hear you all now saying, “But Rob, you don’t have a continuous guideline to the surface if you do that.” And you would be correct. But in my mind my plan was simple – crawl though and tie in from the other side as there was more room.


Yep, you guessed it. Now, this restriction is small and I mean small. It’s about 1m in length, as wide as a sidemount tank and diver and as high as me – it was scraping the hell out of the stealth wing I can tell you. I have to grab the other side and literally pull myself through it, it’s that tight. See where this is heading now…?
It is milk and I mean zero viz. I get half way through, past the committed stage and my mind, my body and every ounce of my being is screaming to me “grab the line, grab the line”. I can’t go back as the tanks are passed so I’d never get back. I have no choice but to try to exit the restriction, turn around and try to grab the line. I exited the restriction, turned and… BOOM, not found the line; in fact I found nothing but cave wall – cave wall with zero viz and no line. This is min 9 now.

I was literally shouting at myself for being so stupid. Having spent nearly two decades in or around the military, and lose the line, stupid. I scrambled to the wall desperately searching for the tiny hole I crawled through – I know it’s the only hole in the wall, so I’m searching for the needle in the haystack right about now.

With each attempt I try to find the hole or the thin white line – try to find the only things that will keep me alive. In a cloud of zero viz I thought to myself, “crap I’m going to die in this cave”. So, exactly like I ask my students every day during the practice land drills, I ask myself… “Rob, tell me what you know and don’t know about this situation”. Ok, so firstly I know I was only one body length away from the restriction. Secondly, I have only turned 180 degrees, so I know the exit is somewhere in front of me, not just anywhere.

Ok, I now know what I need to do.

Out comes my safety spool. I dump all my gas, drop to the floor and I make a primary tie off, I don’t move, I look for a secondary tie off. Ok, I tell myself now turn and start your search pattern. I move along the wall trying to poke my head into anything that I feel is the restriction but each time no luck. However, with each attack down comes more silt not making the situation any better.

As I write this, I clearly remember thinking that I was never going to be able to tell my son I love him one more time. I started to panic, my breathing rate increased so I decided to move away from the tie off points and wait to see if the viz would clear. I made myself neutral and held the cave wall for what seemed like an eternity – in reality it was less than 10 seconds, ha ha ha but no laughing matter then I can tell you.

We are now at min 20 of lost line drills for real. I bring my arm up to my mask and press my shearwater to the lenses, I can make out 6m in depth and time was starting to creep up. I kept my breathing to a rhythmic pattern; all that time in the gym is starting to pay off about now I can tell you.
I moved back to the tie off point and started to attack the cave wall again. 20mins turned into 30mins. Again my mind starts to wander and imagine I’m going to die. After everything I’ve done in my life, it’s here in Tulum that it’s going to end!

30mins turns into 40mins and by now I’m starting to worry about being OOG. Only this time there is no-one to donate, so I start to conserve my air by slowing down my breathing. It is still zero viz, I can’t see anything except percolation coming down from the ceiling, ‘milk’ in the water, creating this white zero viz mess. 45mins now and I’m really trying to suppress that morbid voice in the back of my mind and concentrate on the task at hand. I tell myself, this is it, and I WILL find that line. Min 46, I move against the wall on my knees and I starfish both arms outright trying to find the opening in the wall, no luck. I hold my breath as I’m working with the reel and as I start to rise, as I lie flat on the ceiling and I can see a glorious dark colour slowly starting to appear. It was silt settling near one side of the wall. As I move towards the darkness, I barely make out the thin white line.
I grasp this line with both hands and I let out a huge sigh of relief.

I crawl as fast as I can out of the restriction, down the lines to the jump, to the T and out into open water. I breathe fresh air, pee myself and kneel down in the open for 5mins. I look at my computer and work out that for 49 minutes I was well and truly ‘lost’.

I head to the truck, pack away my gear, sit in the driver’s seat, pull out my phone and call my son in the UK. Typically, he is playing with his friends so doesn’t want to speak to his dad. So I just tell him I love him, he gets embarrassed and we say goodbye, ha ha.

I drive home, all my gear still muddy in my truck. On arrival, I go straight upstairs, make a brew (English for cup of tea) and sit on my sofa for 3 hours not doing anything.
I then make up my mind that I have to ‘get back in the saddle’ as it were. I drive to the same cave, park in the same spot, get kitted-up and formulate my plan and go below water. I head to the restriction, tie in to the EOL and crawl through the restriction once more. I remain neutral for a few minutes, calm my nerves and start to reel in my line in the still milky clouds looming in the cave.

Once conquered, I surface, pack up all my kit and head to ProTec to unpack and drop off my gear. It is then, at a ProTec BBQ I decide to tell Kim and the rest of the guys about my stupid mistake. We all feel very strongly about sharing not only our positive but also our negative experiences with each other and our students so we can all learn from them and become better divers.

So what is the lesson learnt from this? That I can tell my students to ensure they do not make the same mistake I did. I tell them to take their time with progressive penetration, progressive cave diving and for them to adhere to the cave diving protocols. Be mentally prepared to handle stressful situations … plan for the worst and hope for the best.
This experience has humbled me and I feel has made me a much better instructor and diver.


1 andrea { 11.07.14 at 5:06 pm }

I am impressed by the story. You told us the story in Tulum and now, I read it with bated breath. Respect, thanks for sharing,
Andrea (together with Tjibbe and Kim we explored this cave)

2 Jörg Caenen { 11.07.14 at 5:21 pm }

Hey Rob,
Thanks for sharing this experience.
You’ve just proven that those skills saved your life…
Dive safe
Jörg from Belgium

3 Oliver J. Albrecht { 11.07.14 at 8:50 pm }

I applaud you for coming forward and letting us all learn from your experience. Thank you so much!

4 Barbara Dwyer { 11.23.14 at 12:06 am }

Thanks, Rob. That had to be a life-changing event for you. I had chest pain just reading it. I hope that many people see it and are able to learn from your experience. ‘Glad you are okay.

5 Ethan Yang { 11.14.15 at 5:30 pm }

Impressed story, thanks for sharing Rob!

6 wendy peach { 03.06.17 at 6:54 pm }

Rob it was an honor to dive with you. Toro told me for 10 days to read this and it is only now, after i am back in the states 4 days, that i have had the mental energy to let your story in. Thank you for helping me to be a better diver, a safer diver and to slow down

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