Tarheel Divers

Myth of the Cave by Helena Bell

    Band-Aids and medical tape hung loosely from my fingertips. My nails ached from tugging at the seven millimeters of neoprene rubber, which clung to my sweating skin. Wisps of hair peeked from beneath my hood as I pulled at the collar to allow a few gulps of air to enter my lungs. With barely bending arms and legs, I waddled to the back of the family van, and using whatever limited flexibility I had over my movements, I twisted and contorted my body into the Trans-Pac harness. After I secured all straps, reels, lights, and clips, I rolled off the bumper of the van supporting all 110 pounds of equipment on my back. Slowly, I managed to stumble towards the spring’s entrance, grabbing my mask and fins on the way. Before reaching the bottom step, I filled my wings with air and made all final preparations. Finally, with the grace and agility of a floundering beached whale, I allowed myself to fall into the icy water.

    The first rush of cool water refreshed me; but I knew  that two hours later the shivering and chattering of teeth would begin. Beneath the surface I heard only the sound of rhythmic breathing through my regulator. All movements slowed and developed grace and fluidity. All light and vivid colors disappeared inside the cavern and I grew increasingly dependent on my ten pound primary light. Eventually, as we reached the entrance to the cave, the cavern narrowed and right before the permanent guideline, our lifeline to the surface, stood a sign, "Dangerous cave. Do not enter. Divers have died here."

    We swam past it.

    The cave opened into a large room which our instructors had told us to observe closely since it would be the location of our "lost and off the line drill." The floor beneath varied; sand dunes, valleys, smooth rock plateaus, all bearing the craters and gouges of careless divers. Sometimes I ascended only to meet the rough protrusions of the ceiling, sending an avalanche of small particles crumbling to the floor, obscuring the vision for the poor soul behind me. Sometimes I hovered and allowed the gentle flow of the cave guide me in the direction it chose. Sometimes I crashed to the floor, into a wall, or into the feet of the person in front of me, ruining my brief moments of poetry underwater.

    Past this room, the ceiling dropped dramatically and it was impossible for me to lift my head without bumping into a rock. We penetrated to three hundred feet before turning around to complete the goal of the dive, the line search drill. As we came back into the room I quickly glanced around for one final look. Large boulders were scattered about the room. The walls protruded with rocks and jagged edges. This would be the room in which I would be lost, alone, and in the dark. Away from the line I would be forced to decipher my location through the terrain of the area around me.

    I waited my turn on a large, smooth boulder known as the altar. Once I turned off my light I clung to its sides, shivering in the complete darkness. I blinked my eyes several times, not sure if they were open or closed. The silence increased as I slowed my breathing in anticipation. I imagined the walls of the cave closing in on me. The darkness and the solitude confined me in the infinite space of my imagination. Scenarios of faulty tank valves, losing vision, and separation from the group flashed through my mind with every breath I took. I wondered what I was doing here, why did I find myself under the surface, beneath the real world? And in that moment the cave became the real world. The stress of civilization melted as my life did not become dependent on grades, traffic jams, and phone calls. In my mind I saw the secrets of the cave. But as soon as I began to think of how I would describe it to others, to allow them to experience what I had experienced, the words slipped through my mind like a sieve, retaining only the fearful thought of drowning. I imagined the flow of the water carrying my practiced speech, filled with wisdom and understanding, through the cave, bouncing against the walls, through tunnels unexplored and exits unimagined. There it would stay at the end of the cave, waiting to be found.

    Without the comforting words of reason, my thoughts turned to the cold reality of the situation. While hovering in the cold water, I began to lose my sense of touch. Slowly I waved my hands back and forth trying to sense the flow of the cave. I bent each of my fingers and purposely scraped my knuckles against the hard surface of the boulder and I treasured the simplest feeling of contact against another surface. Slowly, as I became accustomed to the darkness, silence, and cold my muscles relaxed and I counted the moments, clinging desperately to each one as I lived.

    After a short while, my instructor retrieved me from my position and proceeded to turn me, flip me, drag me, and guide me all about the room. Already tired and dulled from the cold water, my sense of disorientation was acute. The dizziness only increased as he attempted to ensure that I had no idea where he placed me. When he finally stopped, I sank on my knees into the soft sandy bottom. Blindly, I reached out to find the wall of the cave.

    With child-like wonder, I gripped and groped the wall’s rough surface. To my delight, I found a small hole which begged for the opportunity to be my anchor. With sore fingers, I unclipped my safety reel and proceeded to loop the nylon line through the hole and around the reel.

    Slowly, abandoning all attempts at swimming, I began to search for the line. First I examined the wall, trying to find a point which would be parallel to the permanent line. Remembering something another cave diver had told me, I scooped up a handful of sand. Slowly I allowed the rough grains to slip through my fingers while I cupped my other hand around. Since this particular cave was a siphon, the flow of the cave would push the sand into my hand, if I were facing the line. Then, using this primitive compass, I would be able to swim straight with arms outstretched to embrace the awaiting line. However, the flow of the cave did not push the sand anywhere and I imagined in my blindness the sand falling mockingly to the ground.

    Breathing slowly the words of my cave instructor echoed in my ears, "If you can breathe, you’re ok." I quickly recalled pages from the cave diving manual and remembered a section on finding the line using increasing arcs. Ever so slowly, I let out more line from the reel and created increasingly larger semi-circles. I used the reel as an anchor from which to swing with my arms spread wide. I gripped around with my hands searching for rocks, ceilings, and walls. I explored each new surface as I encountered it. Using only my mind and my sense of touch, I created a virtual map of the room in my head. Though I knew my method was time consuming, I also knew that I would find the line with a little bit of patience.

    Around the sixth arc, I felt my fins brush against something. As my breath caught in my throat I reached back and... the line. As I curled my fingers around its sweet edges, I took my regulator out of my mouth and smiled. Feelings of joy, relief, and self-confidence swirled through my head as I began the second part of the drill, choosing which direction to follow. I started swimming to the right and stopped after a few moments. Hovering in the chilly water, I slowly began to sense the gentle flow of the cave. Turning around, I started in the other direction only to be stopped by my instructor holding his primary light. I opened my eyes, he shook my hand, and then he hugged me. There is something to be said for underwater hugs. As I reeled in my line, my hands were shaking. I glanced about the room one final time, but I did not see the protruding rocks, the orange coloring, or the silty water. I saw the feeling of gritty sand, a small hole, and the rough sweet edges of a guideline.

    Many of my friends and family members told me that I was crazy for risking my life in a cave though it seemed perfectly natural to me. In a conversation I had with a skydiver later that summer I realized why I could penetrate a cave underwater but not jump out of an airplane. The simplicity of the caves taught me that if I can breathe, I can think, and I can find a solution. I could not argue with a cave and plead with my life. The hard rocks would not be moved, the soft bottom would not comfort, and the murky water would not guide me. But no matter how uncomfortable a situation makes me, I can figure it out. The grim reality of the caves would confine but not constrain me. They allowed me to explore as they took away all other factors and led me to one overwhelming question as I went and made my visit. Am I breathing? Am I living? My brother once joked that all cave diving related deaths could trace back to one fundamental cause: lack of air. Even if I am lost, until that final moment when I take my last breath, I am still breathing, still thinking, and still determined to live.