Aquanauts Does ANDI Into to Cave Course for PADI Course Director, Koh Tao Tech Divers

Posted on 11/23/09 1 Comment

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Although Aquanauts may be based in Pattaya, we do cavern, cave and rebreather courses for divers all over Thailand, including for some of the country’s highest-certified and experienced PADI professionals. For the past couple of months, ANDI Instructor Trainer (and PADI CD) Roger M. Smith has been training PADI Course Director Jonas Samuelsson of Bans Divers and Peter McCarthy PADI Trimix Instructor of Master Divers and other Koh Tao-area students first in cavern and, now, cave diving.

Below is an diary from Aquanauts’ own Tec Rec Instructor Dan Beldon about the group’s Intro to Cave course in August at Khao Sok national park.

Khao Sok is the largest nature preserve on the Thai Peninsula featuring native thick rainforest with waterfalls, limestone cliffs, numerous rivers, secluded islands and shelters a huge variety of wildlife including wild elephant, gibbons, leopard, serow, banteng, guar, dusky langur, tiger Malayan sun bear and birds.

This 646 sq. km national park is in the western part of Surat Thani Province, off Route 401, less than three hours from Phuket.  Established in the early 80s, the lake is roughly 165km long winding its way through the mountain landscape.  The limestone outcrops protruding out the water are countless, some up to 1000m high, the amount of cave systems that could be here is really exciting. You can find more information on the Khao Sok website.

Day One

Travelling from Pattaya leaving around 10 a.m., loading up everything we needed for the remote diving experience. We were travelling to Chumphon, a little town an hour or two from where we wanted to be, which would be the Khao Sok Nature Reserve, Ram Dam.

groupWe arrived in Chomphon about seven hours later where we were meeting Pete, Craig and Victoria. Jonas was coming a little later due to his IDC obligations on Koh Tao. In this group we have Roger M. Smith, who is the instructor, myself and Pete ( IDC Staff and Trimix instuctors), Jonas who is a course director, Craig a Master Scuba Diver Trainer and Victoria a Divemaster and is recently DSAT Tec Deep certified.

By reading this experience I think no matter what training you have had in the past, cave training is enormous fun but not easy as we all found out. All the training and laughs have a very important point, they keep you alive! Plus also teach you about advancing your training from a wreck diver certification.

Leaving Chumphon 5 a.m. we arrived at Khao Sok Nature Reserve about 7 a.m. Now, on first impressions, this place from the pier is as beautiful as the pictures show. It turned out to be a major understatement.

So we loaded the gear up and headed out.  Now when I say it is beautiful from the pier, we headed out on the longtail and I thought without knowing much about the place big and beautiful, however I did notice one mistake: As we turned a corner this place is enormous and stunning wherever you look.  You have mountains on every side of you, stunning flat calm water with no current.

This place is so big it creates its own microclimate. Now don’t think to come here if you need every day mod cons, as this place is fairly basic, but to us lot that is the charm of the place. You wash in the lake, there is no fridge and electricity is turned off around midnight. No outside world signals unless you are lucky or have satellite signal. Back to basics, diving and extremely good food to fuel you’re diving.

The Course Begins

cave1The first day of the course we were at a place called Temple Cave. This thing is pretty big with passages at three different levels and some permanent lines are left in there.

For our first dive there were no real skills as such, but we had to work as a team to penetrate the cave using the reel and everything we had learnt on the caverns course came flooding back.  It was a good reminder of what skills we had learnt already.

Being the third person in the team I had to lead the team out.  Easy you say? Well yes it should have been However, if you came to a junction with three lines going off in different directions and hadn’t really seen it going in, would you know which one to choose? A friendly reminder to me that’s why we always have to be on the ball and why we carry line arrows!  Thankfully when I turned to Craig he confirmed my choice and we made it safely to the exit.

Dive 2 is an entanglement drill where you are tied up in the cave; the line wrapped around your manifold, then you have to free yourself by cutting the line and making your way out.  Now we thought this would be easy. Let’s just say even if you were going to untangle yourself, you would find yourself entangled again somehow. Thankfully we all managed this relatively easily and remembered to hold the correct side of the line to exit the cave.

More Prep

Staying on the floating villages is such a great experience.  The Thais are very good hosts and very friendly. They also tried to help us find some elders to ask about the mysterious 2km cave system, promised information for the next visit.

On this evening we also went through our knowledge from the cavern and Intro to Cave course.  The book you use for Intro has a massive amount of information in it, reviewing and building on what you already know from cavern.  The academics for the Intro to Cave course are quite straight forward. It is one exam and shouldn’t take you too long.  We all passed this part thankfully with a thorough review over all the questions in there. This worked really well as a group discussion as different points were brought up about what you could do/should do in emergency situations in caves.

Dive 3: Lost Line

inside03-smileDive 3 we were doing some lost-line drills. Now this sounds very easy and quite straight forward in theory. So we took it in turns to go with Roger while the other team stayed on the line. The fortunate one looking for the line is then taken to a place and told to turn their mask around to act as a blindfold.

If this wasn’t enough, Roger then spins you around so you have no clue which direction to go. Now you have to tie your finger real off to a good hold on the first wall you find.

Sounds easy? Well this can be tricky to find a decent tie off point.  Once tied off you have to reel out in a pattern trying to find the line, making sure you’re sweeping your free arm around so not to bang your head.  Problems we faced were sinking, ascending, tie-off coming loose, heading into a wall or stalactite and more. With no visual reference it is quite tricky to watch your buoyancy and get the right directions.  We all didn’t do so well on the first effort as nobody found the line. However redoing the skill on the next dive, we met with success which was a great confidence booster.  Not an easy skill to master.  Just goes to teach us how important the skills we are learning should save our lives in complete silt out, buoyancy and trim so important.

Dives 4-5: Lost Buddy Drills

Dive 4 and 5 were lost buddies, a little careless probably but we did find them.  Three of us entered the cave and at some point Roger would tell us that our buddy was not there.  At which point the two team members that are left will do a methodical search of the area.

inside01The first thing you have to do is place a line arrow as your starting point, then with your finger spool rise up to the highest point you can and cover your light, hopefully you can see your buddy then as they should never be without a light since you carry a minimum of three (primary, backup, redundancy).  We had no luck so we returned to the line moved the placement further back and repeated the skill.

We also had to make sure we didn’t break our rule of thirds so at this point we left our main line in the cave in case our buddy was still in there and exited the cave.  We did find our buddy; he was sitting next to the boat having exited the cave.  In reality that wouldn’t happen as you would leave a message on the main line telling your buddies that you had a problem and exited the cave; if you didn’t exit with them that is.  These drills really did show us just how quickly things can go from running perfectly to a missing diver, something I hope I never have to do for real!

Dive 6: Lights Out

We moved onto Dive 6 and the light failure.  We entered the cave and penetrated fairly far in. Then we got the signal that our primary light has failed and to switch it off.  At this point everything goes pitch black.  Maintaining contact with the line you have to switch to your backup light.  Now this should be easy, but doing this skill I think a few of us decided to locate our torches in different places for ease of getting to with both hands and no visibility.  Once we had secured our backup and made sure the team was all ready we exited the cave.

Moving onto Dives 7 & 8 dives we went to Padang which is a stunning cavern with some really big monster fish inside.  In the low light you will see lots of stalactites and dark areas to peer into.  The big catfish in there come very close to you and when you’re in the dark and see something big move out the corner of your eye it can be a little unnerving until you shine your torch that way.  In one case this catfish was a good metre long or bigger.  We all thought this dive was fantastic even though only a cavern so we did another dive there as well.  We did find another area which leads into another two rooms as well, one with an air pocket in there.

In Search Of…

To the fourth day, when Jonas and Pete were doing their course, Craig, Victoria and I thought about going for an expedition to try and find some new stuff.  We did manage to get in a fun exploratory dive on a wall where there is supposed to be a 2km cave from another lake, which we are told that before the place was dammed up and turned into the reservoir that people used to walk through it.

fishHowever, two dives around the area did not turn out to be fruitful all be it extremely good dives.  At the surface you’re in a nice 30 degrees C pass through the thermocline at 6m the temperature drops to 28 degrees then keep going there is a haze layer where visibility drops to about 1m then below that at the 30m+ level it is pitch black and 27 degrees but crystal clear.  Just watch out for those trees and any nets that might be down there which could be a real hazard for the unwary diver.  I learned that I need a better wetsuit at least a 5mm and hood, it can get a little chilly.

We were all staying in the floating village that is located on the lake itself.  Very basic accommodation but huge fun just don’t expect too much.  I thought it was fantastic, especially when the lights go out and you can just look up at the stars.  Jonas and Pete went off for their course.  The A team went off to Peter’s cave which is a very small cave and 25 minutes exploring had seen everything there was in there.  Nice cave but small.  Then we decided to have another explore on a rock face we had passed previously.

We descended and headed left to find an amazing cavern that no line is needed to swim around, with a huge air pocket in there.  We had a good swim around it as it bends around the corner and drops about 20m from the surface.  Coming out of that one we were all hyper but decided to follow the wall along to the right.  On this side there is another small cave.  So we reeled in there and had a good look around.  It turns a corner as soon as you enter which means it is very dark and you can’t see any daylight.  It rises to within metres of the surface. It was very interesting cave with lots of fish life.  After this dive time was up so back onto the longtail.

We did find a few new spots to go and explore at the next available opportunity.  With a whole host of new experience and skills, two new caverns, four new caves, great food and people both the Thai’s and the guys on the course, this trip was excellent.  I for one can’t wait to go back and find some more caves, explore the caves we found and further my training to full cave.

To Cave or Not…

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From the course I know Victoria, Craig, Pete, Jonas, Dan are in total agreement that these skills are essential to keeping you alive.  When the visibility drops suddenly while your inside, lights fail, buddies go missing, lines snap, you lose the line, you come to a junction and anything else that could very easily go wrong essential skills are needed.   This course has taught us a lot about our skill level, our own mind inside the caves, as well as teaching us invaluable skills that will save your life.

We are all very clear in our heads the main essentials;

  • Training – Don’t exceed your level of experience and training
  • Guidelines – Always use a continuous line that leads out of the cave
  • Air – Never break your rule of thirds
  • Depth – Don’t go too far without the necessary training, very easy to do in a cave system
  • Lights – Primary, Backup, Redundancy – 3 is a Minimum

If you don’t want to stick to the above or don’t like the dark then you might not want to try cave diving.  However, if you like the idea of seeing rock formations and fish life that only a handful of people may ever see then give the course a go.  I can’t wait to do my full cave course and I know Victoria is going to complete it soon with a trip to Mexico as she is off home (Canada) to study, Craig, Pete and Jonas from Koh Tao are hopefully going to come up north with us on the next return trip to Thong Pha Phom near Kanchanaburi.

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