Deep Cavern course

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After returning to Melbourne I didn’t have much time to settle down. After just a few days in Melbourne I was off to Portsea for  my CDAA deep cavern course. This was something I had been looking forward to for quite a while. The course ended up being a pretty challenging experience but very rewarding and fun too!

There’s quite a bit of theory and skill training included in the course and as a result it is split over two weekends. Usually only the second part of the course is in actual cavern/sinkhole environments in Mt Gambier.  The deep cavern course is the first level of cave training and qualifies one to dive in caverns and sinkholes with a maximum linear penetration of 60 meters from the surface. This means you can enter overhead environments, but there must always be a clear line of sight to the exit. Almost all the cave diving in Australia is in freshwater limestone caves. The closest sites to Melbourne are in Mt Gambier region just across South Australia border.

On Saturday the 13th October we got started with the theory and land drills for the course at the IDC Scuba in Portsea. I was doing the course with just one other student so we were able to take things slow and easy. Most of the gear was new for Michael so it took him a while to get used to it. We were also both suffering from a minor cold, which made things little harder than they normally would have been. But apart from that things went smoothly enough, theory-wise there wasn’t really that much new stuff for me anyway. Most of the subject matter had already been covered in various other courses. Skill-wise there was a lot more new stuff, particularly all the reel work and the handling of silt-outs and other low visibility situations.

After a pleasant enough night down on the coast we got started with the real meat of the course and actually got in the water on Sunday. The in-water training is done in a freshwater environment to get familiar with the different buoyancy, we did ours in Rosebud pool. There were quite a few things to practice, including all the reel work from the previous day and also quite a few air sharing exercises. We also spent a lot of time without our masks to simulate loss of visibility from silt-outs. It was hard work and by the end of it Michael was feeling quite exhausted as he was still getting used to the new gear. Apart from that we both were doing fine. After the pool training we headed back to IDC shop and finished up with the theory and final exam for the course. So far so good, I was really looking forward to the next weekend in Mt Gambier.

On next Thursday I met up with Michael again and we started to drive down towards Mt Gambier. It’s a pleasant enough trip through small country towns and apart from few bumps on the road and a near-hit with a wallaby near the end we got to the Pine Tank Dive Lodge in Mt Gambier with no incidents. The accommodation was really nice with all the basic facilities and they had their own compressor as well. And we had the place almost completely to ourselves, too. To be fair there were a few unwelcome visitors of the arachnid variety. In particular there was one truly massive spider in one of the bedrooms! With the help of the owner we got rid of the squatters and were able to enjoy the rest of our stay there in peace and quiet.

On Friday we started with the actual dives of the course. Our first training site was Goulden’s Hole. This cavern site is not particularly interesting, the visibility was quite poor and the bottom was quite silty. Of course, this also means it’s a great training site! As with most sites in Mt Gambier getting to water takes some effort too, climbing up and down the stairs with 12 liter twins on my back was a lot of heavy work.

We started out pretty easy and just practiced the various skills during the first two dives. This included reel-work, valve drills and gear removal underwater. My buddy Michael had lots of trouble reaching his valves and by the start of the second dive he was getting totally exhausted physically. He simply couldn’t continue and had to drop out. Unfortunately this also meant he couldn’t finish his course during that weekend, CDAA has strict rules on maximum number of training dives per day (only two) and the order the various dives and skills have to completed. I did feel pretty bad for him, Michael is a cool guy who was doing pretty well up to that point despite the fact that he was still getting familiar with twins and his brand new Transpac.

With Michael dropping out I was missing a buddy. Luckily we had a third student joining us on Saturday morning onwards. Graeme had started his deep cavern course earlier but due to some problems with his buoyancy and trim he had to come back for few extra dives in Mt Gambier to finish his course. For the first dive of the day we headed to Little Blue Lake, a sinkhole site that’s a lot more interesting than Gouldens Hole. The site is quite bit deeper and has a lot of interesting junk down on the bottom. Visibility was better too, and as we weren’t doing that many skills I was able to focus on enjoying the dive.

Despite some minor issues things had gone pretty smoothly for me so far, obviously I was struggling a little with some of the new skills but that was to be expected. Sadly the fourth dive didn’t go nearly as well. This dive is the skill assessment dive or “the stress test”. The test is done in buddy pairs and simulates a serious emergency situation. I was on the front and handling the reel, Graeme was behind me. First, to simulate a bad silt-out both of us had our masks removed and we had to quickly locate the guideline and lock the reel. Shortly afterwards one of us had a simulated out-of-air incident and we had start air-sharing while keeping contact on the line at all times. After all this we were supposed to follow the line back to the secondary tie-off at the depth of 5 meters and signal a safety stop. Quite a bit of stuff to do when you can’t really see anything and have to do all the communication by tactile signals!

Obviously a big part of the test is to see how you react when you are pushed to your limits and beyond. I did manage with this part pretty well, obviously I was little anxious but I never felt even close to panic. Unfortunately small stuff kept going wrong and we ended attempting the test quite a few times without getting it right. Either we messed up the air sharing and didn’t quite manage to get the long hose regulator to the buddy who was out of air. On the best attempt we got almost back to the secondary tie-off, but then my long-hose got tangled and I couldn’t figure out how to free it. I hadn’t clipped the hose on properly when switching to my buddy’s reg and eventually my regulator got really badly tangled on the line behind us. I spent quite a while trying to figure out the problem, but in the end couldn’t fix it without my mask. After all this fooling around I was under quite a bit of extra stress and things weren’t really progressing anymore. My buddy was using smaller tanks and eventually we had call the dive as he was getting low on air.

This posed a serious problem for me, normally I would have had to come back to Mt Gambier for another weekend to finish up my course. Luckily my instructor felt I had done a pretty good job on all the previous dive and decided to give me another chance to finish the course. We were both free on Monday so we were able to reschedule things a bit so I could continue on the course.

On Sunday morning we headed back to Gouldens to redo my stress test. It wasn’t quite perfect this time either, but at least things went lot better and I was able to pass the test. I was quite relieved and after that I was able to fully enjoy the diving and training again. I still felt pretty disappointed in myself for messing up things the first time around, but at least I got it sorted out eventually.

The second dive on Sunday was at Piccaninnie Ponds. This was definitely the highlight of the course and the one I had really been looking forward to. This site is one of the prettiest and most interesting sites you can dive at deep cavern level in Mt Gambier. I had already visited the site during our Portland trip last winter for a quick look from above the surface and I was extremely keen to do the actual dive, too. The site didn’t disappoint either, the water was crystal clear and the route we took was quite interesting. From the entry platform there’s a short surface swim in shallow water until the bottom drops off to the Chasm with a maximum depth of over 100 meters (which is off-limits)! After passing over the chasm there’s a cavern called the Cathedral. This overhead environment has a maximum depth of around 40 meters and has several entrances at various depths.

The view from inside the Cathedral is simply amazing, with the crystal clear water you can see the sun shining through the entrances resulting in some awesome sights. The conditions during our dive were not quite perfect, it was little cloudy and all the skill training we did meant that the place got silted out a little. Still, getting to dive there was an amazing experience and one of the top dives I have ever done! I just can’t wait to get back there with my camera for some great shots.

After Piccaninnie Ponds Graeme was done with his course and headed back to Melbourne. My instructor Steve and I stayed for one extra night and then did the final dive of my course in Little Blue Lake on Monday morning. This time around we went bit deeper and explored the bottom of the lake. There are some interesting artifacts down there, including various road signs and an old car. We also practiced quite a few different skills, including some more air sharing and reel work. Early in the dive I lost the locking screw for the instructor’s reel but apart from that everything went smoothly. I had finally passed the course and it was time to head back to Melbourne!

Despite the few setbacks the course was an amazing experience for me. Certainly quite challenging, but also lots of fun. Now all I need is a dive trip to Mt Gambier!

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