Until the year 2012 only four people in the world are known to have been successfully rescued after becoming lost SCUBA diving in underwater caves. That all changed when one very capable north Florida cave diving instructor saved four lives in one year in three separate rescues. This accomplishment has earned Edd Sorenson, owner of Cave Adventurers in Marianna, FL the gratitude of the entire SCUBA diving community and has brought him well deserved recognition.
This is the story of just one of those rescues and it’s an important story for all SCUBA divers to know because it involves experienced SCUBA divers who lacked cave or overhead training. Their overconfidence and lack of knowledge nearly cost them dearly. And if it weren’t for Edd Sorenson and a very fortunate set of circumstances the outcome would have been very different.
The crystal clear water and natural beauty of springs are alluring to divers, but their beauty often masks unseen risks that only trained and experienced cave divers fully understand. Entering any overhead environment while diving carries a large number of risks and should never be attempted by untrained and improperly equipped divers. The total blackness of a maze like cave is disorienting and confusing and the common presence of silt can turn the once clear water into a soup that almost instantly reduces the visibility to just inches. Caves are rugged and harsh environments that damage gear and equipment failures are common. Cave explorer Andy Pitkin recounts stories of the fine sand, rock, and shell particles often suspended in the rapidly flowing spring water finding their way into every crevice in his gear causing snaps, clips and fittings to jam, regulators to free flow, and BC dump valves to malfunction. Add to all this, line entanglement risks, light failures, and breathing gas management considerations and the challenges of diving in caves is daunting. Divers who wish to safely explore the wonder and beauty of caves must prepare by seeking proper training, acquiring the necessary specialized equipment, then gain experience before attempting cave dives. As has often been said, “There is nothing in a cave worth dying for.”
“Close Call at Twin Caves” was written by Richard Black and printed in the 1st Quarter 2013 NACD Journal. It is published here with permission of the National Association for Cave Diving.
All divers should take a moment to read this account for the lessons that are to be learned. SCUBA diving instructors can use this information to give new students a greater understanding of the risks and potential heartbreak cave diving accidents bring to the family and friends of the victims.
Close Call at Twin Caves
“If you don’t have proper training then stay out of the caves.” That’s the warning given time and again to newly certified SCUBA divers. It is repeated and explained by instructors, dive professionals, and other experienced divers every day all over the world. Most heed the warning and dive within the scope of their training. Many are intrigued and seek more information; eventually going on to acquire the training, skills, and equipment necessary to safely cave dive. Unfortunately, over the years, too many divers have ignored the warning and ultimately paid with their lives.
We all know the shock and sadness when we hear the stories or read the articles reporting the death of a diver in a water filled cave. We can imagine the panic, fear, and desperation these helpless individuals feel in their last moments. It is with deep regret that we read the stories and we wish there was a way to prevent these senseless tragedies.
On a hot summer day in a dark silted out cave with near zero visibility one experienced North Florida cave diver recently turned a story of tragedy to one of jubilation and felt the satisfaction of preventing the death of another human being.
Cave diving instructor Edd Sorenson is no stranger to the consequences involving untrained divers in Florida caves. An accomplished cave instructor and owner of Cave Adventurers, a well known Florida dive shop, Edd has been part of the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery Team for 15 years and has been involved in numerous recoveries and rescues. Because of his skill and experience he was called upon recently for a rescue and was able to prevent another death.
This is a story with a happy ending. A young woman owes her life to the swift reaction, cool response, and ability of a number of people. Some good fortune put the right people in the right place at the right time to save her from a tragic death in a dark water-filled cave. She owes her life to those people and we all can learn from the story.
Cave diver Andrea Rance was finishing her first dive at a site called Twin Caves located on Merritt’s Mill Pond near Marianna, Florida when this emergency unfolded before her. She and her group reacted quickly and set in motion the chain of events that ultimately led to a successful rescue of an openwater diver who had been led into a cave and had become hopelessly lost.
Andrea, her husband, and a dive buddy were finishing their safety stop at the end of their Twin Caves dive. Because of the commonly heavy silt on the bottom of this site she and her group were high up in the cave. A friend was awaiting them above in the pontoon boat rented from Cave Adventurers dive shop on the banks of the “Mill Pond.” Andrea saw the three openwater divers enter the cave but suspects they never saw her or her group, in spite of the fact that they had been warned there were cave divers who may be exiting.
This group consisted of a father who was an openwater SCUBA diving instructor with a “college age” son and daughter. They had also rented their pontoon boat from Cave Adventurers so they could spend the day diving on Merritt’s Mill pond. Frank, at the dive shop had given them advice on the dive sites that were suitable for openwater divers and had specifically warned that entering Twin Caves was for certified cave divers only because of the potential for silting. They chose to ignore the warning and it almost cost them dearly.
The young woman entered the cave in the lead with a single tank and carrying a pistol grip style dive light. Her father entered next and her brother was the last diver in. The openwater style flutter kicks of the three were stirring the silt and quickly bringing the visibility to near zero. Andrea and her group recognized the deteriorating situation and immediately made their way to “secure the line” as the trio passed them. By this time the visibility had been reduced to the need for touch contact to exit the cave. At the line she encountered one of the divers. Here is her description, “While I was on the line only a few feet from the keyhole exit, I felt the fins and arms of her brother and saw his light in my face. He felt me; I gave him the thumbs up to get out of the cave. There was a lot of fumbling; I could feel him in front of me for what felt like minutes and then I think he exited.” In what Andrea describes as “the chaos,” she found her reel tied into the gold line but was fearful that it had somehow come loose. Finally with visibility completely gone she felt the sleeve of her husband’s drysuit and they exited the cave together using touch contact with no way to know where their partner was.
When Andrea reached the surface she was relieved to find her dive buddy who had exited from the second opening to the cave. Her husband was ahead of her and he was already questioning the young man she had encountered in the cave. When they asked the young diver what he and his group were doing in the cave his reply was that it was okay because the other male diver in the group was his father and he was an Openwater Instructor. Soon the father emerged alone and there was no sign of his daughter. Speaking of the son, Andrea said at this point, “His demeanor and understanding of the situation was beginning to change.”
With an untrained diver missing in the cave the group attempted a search. They saw bubbles coming from an opening, but with the tremendous silt none had the experience with this cave or the ability to complete a search without the risk of becoming hopefully lost themselves. As they realized the gravity of the situation they instructed their friend in the boat to call Cave Adventurers for help. The father continued to frantically search for the entrance but without skill and training it was fruitless and he was finally convinced to stop stirring the silt and wait for a knowledgeable rescuer.
Good fortune was on the side of the diver lost in the cave that day. Edd Sorenson, one of the few people with the knowledge and ability to save her, was less than a half mile away preparing to teach a cave diving class at Jackson Blue Spring, also located on Merritt’s Mill Pond.
Frank Gonzales at Cave Adventurers got the call for help and he immediately called Edd Sorenson. According to Edd if the call had come just five minutes later it would have been unanswered because he would have been in the water with his class.
Jackson Blue is accessible by car but Twin Caves is not. There was no time to waste. Edd told Frank to “have the boat and quad running.” He informed his students that class was over for the day and hastily began to load his gear. He has expressed gratitude for all the help he got from his students who assisted in the speedy loading. Edd rushed back to the shop to transfer his gear into the four-wheeler so he could quickly get it to the dock and onto the already running boat. He said, “I dressed on the boat ride,” and when they arrived at Twin Caves he said, “I went over the side while the boat was still moving.” Andrea estimates that it was only 15 to 20 minutes between their call for help and the arrival of Frank and Edd. With teamwork and fast action, help had arrived quickly when seconds truly counted.
Edd says, “There was about a 60 foot circle of mud where Twin was supposed to be.” After being told the girl’s general location by her father, he started into Twin Caves. Because of his years of experience with diving this cave and diving in this type of conditions he was able to deploy his reel and make his way to the gold line in near zero visibility. It is here that the search began.
When Edd was recounting this story, some insight emerged that is often overlooked in the tale of a successful rescue like this. He opened with a terse statement that would have made Hemingway proud, “It’s been a busy year.” Then he went on to give some idea of the thoughts that go through his mind when he is attempting a rescue. He dives unhesitatingly into a water-filled hole in the ground where there is absolutely no light and the water has been so muddied that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, searching for a panic-stricken human being who has the potential of causing both of your deaths when you find them. He explained that you have to move quickly but cautiously, keeping in mind protocol he’s learned with years of experience. He says he moves, “as fast as humanly possible,” and doesn’t focus on the danger. His focus has to be on rescuing the missing diver, and although he is aware of what can go wrong, he keeps those thoughts out of his mind.
Moving quickly, with the safety of the young woman his main concern, he tied off his primary reel and deployed a safety reel to begin a “zig zag” search, which fortunately brought results quickly. He came upon the diver, “standing in the silt,” with her head in an air pocket at the top of the cave. The water level was just below her chin and her regulator was out of her mouth. She was breathing the gas in the pocket, which is generally considered dangerous. Edd speculates that, fortunately for her, it is likely that it was mostly exhaled Nitrox and 100% oxygen decompression gas so that the oxygen content was sufficient to sustain life.
Edd took a moment to reassure the girl, verified that she still had air in her tank and told her to hold onto his arm as he led her out of the cave. He said, “She had a death grip on my arm but was relatively calm,” as he brought her to safety. The two surfaced to a cheer from the group on the boats. The girl was cold and shaken but unharmed. Andrea estimates the rescue took less than ten minutes but it must have seemed like an eternity for the anxious family and divers.
For this confused and fearful diver the situation must have seemed hopeless. She was not equipped with thermal protection needed for long exposure to the cool spring water and she was becoming very cold. She later told her rescuers she was kicking and moving just to try to keep warm. She had left the safety of the air pocket twice in attempts to escape but was unable to see and returned. She had used well over two thirds of her breathing gas by the time Edd found her and she was probably only minutes away from drowning in the dark cold water. It was undoubtedly a lonely and desperate position she found herself in.
As we examine the events of this story there are many lessons and points to consider. The first is the deep expression of gratitude owed to Edd Sorenson and all the people involved in saving this young woman’s life. The entire diving community should be proud. Beyond this, we owe it to SCUBA divers everywhere to examine the facts and take away lessons that we all can act upon.
It is our responsibility as divers, no matter our level of training, to follow guidelines and stay within the limits of our training and experience. Divers who violate this simple rule endanger their own lives and the lives of others. They expose their families and loved ones to senseless tragedy and grief. A renewed awareness among instructors and experienced divers in all areas of diving is called for. Overhead environments, either in caves, wrecks, coral reef caves, or under ice carry dangers that require a special set of skills. Making all divers aware of the risks and dangers is something we should be constantly aware of in hopes that we can prevent the death of untrained and inexperienced divers.