By Don Shirley

Image by Steff Viljoen

Technical cave divers rely on the expertise of their team members when embarking on the venturesome journey to Dragon’s Breath, the world’s largest underground lake.

Our adventure comprised the perfect mix of cave trimix divers equipped with closed-circuit rebreathers (CCR), open-circuit back mounts, side mounts and rebreathers which were rigged with gases for a depth of up to 150m. Now, add a relatively-unexplored cave, a 60m climb underground and serious cave rope work. Just to spice it up, throw in a remote location which is a two-day drive from home and the fact that you have to move 1.5 tonnes of gear in and out of the cave by hand and rope with a lot of hard team work and enthusiasm. Combine all of these elements and you have the 2015 Dragon’s Breath expedition which can best be described as hard-core fun that went like clockwork.

With technical diving it is all about teamwork. There are several teams that work together in one place: one team above the water that will move the gear around, a second team that executes the dives below the water, and a third team that covers the other divers  in case of an emergency. For this trip, we took the team bond to the next level with several well-practised diving teams which all worked together. Due to the fact that I trained each diver, I was able to ensure that everyone used a similar technique with common equipment and mindsets. In the process of training these divers, I became accustomed to their responses to situations and how each team would work together as a larger, hard-core unit.

A technical diving team is normally made up of three people who work closely together and know each other well. In this sphere of diving, we talk about a team of solo divers since each individual diver  is 100% capable of diving solo even though he or she is teamed with other divers. These divers bond with the other team members to enjoy the experience and to assist when needed. They function primarily as extra sets of eyes and spare gas resources. This is a safety net second to none. If you take this to the extreme, it can be compared to an elite army unit where team members train, eat, sleep and work together and also know each other like a tight family. Each team member is thus able to accomplish a mission on their own, while the other team members provide back-up. Ramp this up by joining several teams as back-up to each other; add team dynamics and it makes for a great time.

Dragon’s Breath was first discovered in 1986 and since then it has been explored by various teams. The first team was the military, who placed a plaque in the cave. On my initial visit in 2011 (see the SUBMERGE August/September 2011 edition) the plaque was above water, however, it is now underwater due to the rising water level. The only piece of ground which was once above water is now submerged. For us, this meant that all diving had to be conducted from small boats or rafts.

All of the dives were completed within previously-conducted ranges as this trip was not about breaking personal limits, but rather about using the combined experience to truly explore the bottom of the cave. The diving teams, as previously mentioned, were equipped to dive to a depth of 150m in terms of gases and equipment. All bailout equipment was cross-compatible amongst the deep divers and this made for great flexibility. The more serious dives were five hours long with a maximum depth of 131m at an altitude of 1 640m and 60m underground. We explored the bottom for 10 to 15 minutes at those depths. This was after a very serious exercise to get ourselves and our equipment to the water. After each dive, we had a mandatory three-hour rest period before we would embark on the climb back out.

This type of diving made for long days because after breakfast at 07:30 and departure at 08:00 from the farm house where we would spend the evenings, we would normally start our climb down at around 09:00. In general, it would take two hours to get our daily gear down to the water, which consisted of sorb canisters, three-litre cylinders, food and water. Diving would normally start in the early afternoon, which meant that the last divers would exit the cave as late as 23:00. These long days seemed to pass quickly, though.

Overall, the team clocked over 80 hours underwater and 800 hours underground, with five days of active diving and three days of rigging and derigging. Most of the in-water time was achieved with the use of rebreathers. The open-circuit divers carried out a lot of work in the 10m to 60m depth zone, some of which was done solo.

In terms of safety, we had highly-qualified first aid and rope rescuers within the team. What is unique was that 90% of the divers were in-water recompression (IWR) trained. The IWR rig was deployed at the start of the trip in case of any decompression problems. This added a whole new level of risk management and the immediacy of available care in these harsh conditions. Everything could be dealt with at the water, as the team was strong enough to deal with their own emergencies and able to assist with any decompression problems for on-site recompression. I often say that during a dive, the surface is not an option. This is especially true for this trip where the earth’s surface was not an option, meaning that any problem had to be dealt with underground.

In cave diving, your life depends on a line that you can follow out. Here, you are also dependent on a 10mm-thick climbing line which you follow to get out with your gear. The excursion also depended on each individual’s personal training and fitness, and team work. Without these, the team could not function. They say in team- building exercises that there is no “I” in team, which is certainly the case here. The goal of exploration was all a hard-core team effort. That said, the “I” in team was very proud to be part of this team.

This was only the start of our exploration into Dragon’s Breath. We returned with many empty reels and laid new lines in the virgin cave, which is every cave diver’s dream, but next year, we will return with scooters to push further into what we now know to be a vast open cave. Like many of Africa’s deep caves, very little has been explored and we have only just scraped the underground surface.