A story of cave diving in thailand told from the students perspective
by Phillip Moore
Koh Tao, Thailand
The wise old saying ‘don’t knock it before you’ve tried it’ sprang to my mind as I signed up for a cavern-diving course organised by James Thornton-Allan of Big Blue Tech in Thailand. Cave diving has been described as the most dangerous sport on the planet. So what motivates divers to explore the underworld? Was it just a case of testosterone-fuelled machismo? Or was there some higher purpose? The two-day Cavern course is basically a ‘taster’ for recreational scuba divers interested in cave diving. James explained: “There are three progressive courses, Cavern, Intro Cave and full Cave Diver. The Cavern course is the most popular, although there is about a 50 per cent fall out along the way to Cave Diver.”
I was starting to question my own motives for being on the course, but then again what else would I rather be doing on my birthday? James and Big Blue Tech run all of the courses from Koh Tao Island, in the south east of Thailand. This exotic little island set in the tropical landscape is conveniently located close to some of the best caves and caverns in Thailand. Big Blue Tech charges around £400 (20,000 THB) for the two-day course, which leads to a TDI-rated cavern-diving qualification. Attendees should be at least 18 years old and hold a minimum of a Advanced Open Water Diver certification with 20 logged dives.
James introduced us to his typical gear layout which included a canoeist’s safety helmet. He explained that the plastic helmets stop divers bashing their heads on overhead rocks, and believe me this is easily done in the pitch black. He said that the helmets were ideal for cave environments because they are light, robust and allow any trapped air to escape. The helmets were also the perfect place to attach dive lights. I hadn’t brought any torches with me, so ended up borrowing two from him .
Over the years, James has adapted his own equipment to suit the harsh conditions. His favourite items are bands of elastic and rubber Snoopy loops. The stretchy elastic bands are used to fix torches to helmets and act as arm straps for securing knives and other equipment. Snoopy loops are strips of rubber tyre inner tube used to secure guidelines and tie-down any loose equipment straps that could get snagged or entangled. Practical training was held at Temple Cave, near the Rachaprabha dam on the outskirts of the Khao Sok National Park. On day one we spent most of the afternoon swimming about in the Chiew Lan Lake focusing on line-laying/recovery and getting used to our new equipment configurations. James also wanted to check us out before going deep inside the cavern. There was quite a strong change in buoyancy going to fresh water, which made untying Snoopy loops while blindfolded a little tricky, but it also highlighted the fact that cave diving is a team effort.
We finished off the day’s lectures at the Prival Raft House, located just a 45 minute longtail drive from Temple Cave. I was looking forward to supping a few pints of Chang beer and celebrate my birthday, but this wasn’t to be – cave diving is a serious business, and by the time James had finished re-emphasising the morning’s presentations, it was past 10pm and time for bed. We would sleep on the floating raft house so at least i wouldn’t have to travel too far for sleep.
We had chosen the perfect time, with clear blue skies and sunshine. But it didn’t really matter to us. Day two of the course is spent deep inside the Nam Lek Cave (which means small water cave because of it’s narrow entrance). James had joked about a long boat ride to the entrance, but I wasn’t sure whether he was being serious. Next morning I realised he was being deadly serious. Nam Lek Cave is an awesome site for taking pictures of monkeys and exploring the far reaches of the park, but having to sit in a loud open top boat for over an hour was difficult on our ears. At least it was sunny, It would have been a complete nightmare taking this journey in the rain. I had been stuck behind a desk for far too long and was totally unprepared for any intense outdoor activity.
We arrived at the dive site in a shaded area covered by dense jungle and palm trees, i couldn’t resist jumping into the water for a quick swim. It felt like jumping off a sunbed and walking straight into a freezer.
One moment I was hot and sweaty and the next I was chilled to the bone. There was no sound whatsoever, no dripping water or chirping birds, just total stillness. We kitted on the boat at the entrance and then disappeared into the all-consuming blackness with only the natural light of the entrance visible. My watch thermometer only registered 20°C, but James assured me it was definitely 24°C. Either way, it definitely felt cold. Full length wetsuits and gloves are essential. We took it in turns to lay the guideline and tie off Snoopy loops along the way. Luckily, there were a few rocks and some old tree logs lying on the bottom to use as tie points. Although having the helmet lights meant I had both hands free, it was difficult not to blind my buddies when I looked in their direction. On the way back we had to turn off all our lights and just use the guideline to get out. This is a real mind-blowing scenario. Pitch black with only a slight source of light from the entrance, cocooned in solid rock with no direct access to the surface and just a guide line leading the way to safety – definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.
The cavern itself is a maze of columns, horizontal passageways and different levels. For training purposes we spent all of our time on the upper level at 6m. James said it dropped to around 20m at its deepest point. Underwater visibility averaged 20 metres, but we were all stirring up the bottom with our fins. On a good day it could be more than 30 metres. Our second dive took us in the opposite direction. We came across an old fishing trap which was the only distinctive feature I had seen. James begrudgingly allowed me some time to fire off a few photographs before ending the dive. Photography is not normally allowed during training. By the time I had transported all my kit on to the boat and and travel back to the car park, I was totally knackered, but relieved that I had survived the ordeal/training course in one piece. At least it had been a memorable birthday.
The Cavern course showed me the bare bones of cave-diving ethics and gear requirements. One of my buddies lapped up the course and has already signed up for an Intro Cave. Another buddy really enjoyed himself but won’t be going any further. As for me, I had a great experience and would definitely use some of the training skills that I learnt on future wreck-penetration dives. It’s a shame there had been no time to explore or just get used to being inside the darker sections of the caverns, but this course is designed as a ‘taster’ and you get more of this on the Intro Cave Diver course.