Solo Cavediving: a little counter-propaganda.
(Or, Buddies can be Liabilities)
In this short essay we attempt to counteract a lot of negative propaganda
about solo diving and detail some of the ways it can be pleasanter
and safer than with a buddy. All the points we wish to make are illustrated
either by personal anecdote, or by reference to the unfortunately long list of
diving accidents - i.e. fatalities - or near-accidents. This is specifically
about cavediving, but some of what's said applies to diving generally.
We begin with the negative but necessary task of debunking the
idea that having a buddy makes you incomparably safer than diving
solo. Various examples are given where the buddy makes your life
seriously more dangerous. Some of these were fatal when they occurred in real
Other examples are given where your life
is not immediately threatened, but nonetheless the buddy "needs
After that, we give a more positive account of the sheer joy and pleasure
of a good solo dive - provided that you realise at all times that "the
price of safety is eternal vigilance".
One of the problems with buddy diving is that humans are herd animals
who feel much safer with a buddy around. When cavediving, the consequent
lack of attention to detail can cost people their lives. Two examples.
Example 1.1. Little River, ca. a year ago.
Two divers trained to intro level entered the spring with scooters that they weren't trained to use. They went a huge distance back. Then one of them lost
control and hit a mudbank with his scooter prop. The resulting huge cloud of mud had nowhere to go so visibility was destroyed with a completeness you'd never get in open water. The buddy then panicked and exited the cave, taking all
reels with him. The victim, it seems, kept on trying to use his scooter to
get out in the blackness: at any rate, Little River ran pitch dark for many hours after the victim must have died.
- Question 1. If either diver had ben solo, would he have been
so crazily overconfident? Would he not have limited his dive to
somewhere closer to his level of ability and training?
- Question 2. If you had to fight your way out of a cave with
zero visibility, what would you think of a buddy who removed all the
reels so you no longer had a continuous guideline to the surface?
- Question 3. What do you think of a buddy who exits without you
at the first sign of trouble?
- Question 4. Don't you think that maybe those extra butterflies in your stomach when solo are WORTH something? Maybe, worth MORE than the kind of buddy
Example 1.2. Sak Actun, Mexico, circa 1987.
A group of no less than eight divers, split into 2 teams of 4,
entered the system thinking they would do
the Cuzan Nah circuit. Due to an error in navigation Team 2
ended up in the Paso
de Lagarta, which is not a circuit and does not lead to air. Not wanting to
appear wimpish in front of their buddies, none of the divers called thirds.
When they eventually turned around they were below halves. In the ensuing
desperate scramble for the exit, they were extremely lucky to lose
only one life out of the four that were on the line
(a spectacular rescue was achieved by the leader of Team 1,
who went to look for his overdue comrades and found one of them
desperately sucking air from a pocket in the cave ceiling.
Meanwhile the two
other eventual survivors were air sharing towards the exit, and ran out of
air during the final ascent to the surface).
- Q1. You don't like looking cowardly in front of your
friends, do you? You wouldn't want to spoil their pleasure by calling thirds
on a buddy team of (shock horror) FOUR? After all, that'd make YOU the worst
breather of FOUR people!! Better dead than safe!!
- Q2. The herd instinct is strong, isn't it! Strong enough to
destroy ALL that training about Thirds
(NB these were all full cave certified divers). But if you were solo, you'd
have enough confidence in the rules to be a little more CAREFUL.
- Q3. Three other divers can't all be wrong, can they? But, YOU can!
That's why you're safer when you're solo.
- Q4. The attitude that Thirds doesn't apply when going round a loop
should be treated with extreme caution. But of course, you can trust your
buddy, can't you?? Hmm......
- N.B. off topic of solo diving, but note how circuit dives
can be bad for your health. The temptation to cheat on thirds
around the half way mark so as to make it round, is strong. Resist.
Example 1.3. Hodge Close Quarry, UK, anytime.
I am astonished that the prevailing attitude among British divers
is that this dive is great fun and you don't need any special
training for it "provided you're careful". It is a slate quarry that
filled with water to 100 feet or more when the quarrying exposed an
and people go and dive the submerged
It has killed about 30 of them so far, hardly surprising since
people go in to an overhead environment with no training nor
even knowledge of the basic rules for such an environment.
I was down there practising skills that I prefer to use in warmer climes,
and one buddy team came and soberly warned me about the dangers of solo diving
there. They didn't seem to know they were supposed to have three
lights each. They were going to go in without a guideline to air.
I didn't check, but they probably didn't know the Thirds air supply
rule either, or if they had heard of it, were probably laid back about
They were also going in after dark, which slightly increases the
danger associated with not having enough lights between them. I
cannot begin to express how much more danger they were in than I.
That, folks, is prevailing opinion in the UK.
Toddle in if you feel like it.
I don't recommend that
you follow the herd in this case either.
The chance that you neglect obvious safety precautions is multiplied
if you are trying to impress someone.
Example 2.1. A genius blinks
Many people feel that Richard Pyle is a diving genius. The one
time he got seriously bent is detailed in his magnificently honest
account in Confessions of a Mortal Diver. Is it coincidence,
I ask, that when he got bent he was in the company of (quote) the eminent Dr. John "Jack" Randall, one of the world's leading authorities on coral reef
fishes (unquote), and he wanted to do just one extra dive (quote) I was anxious
to take him there, and we decided to go
July 14th - the day before his departure (unquote).
He insisted in doing an extra dive to 200 feet after he had
already been bent the same day. He nearly died of a CNS DCI,
but mercifully recovered to dive again.
But the recovery experience included
such undesirable features as
Learning to Walk Again. Months of Convalescence. And partly, because he had a
truly eminent buddy that he WANTED TO IMPRESS (note how it being the last
day with this buddy would have made the desire to dive even stronger).
- Q1. If he had done the same things solo, would he not have
killed himself outright? My guess is, indeed yes.
- Q2. But WOULD HE have done the same things without a buddy
he really liked and wanted to please? PROBABLY NOT.
- Q3. So in spite of the "greater danger" of diving solo,
the actual result of having
a buddy was months of convalescence in this case? Because if solo,
he'd have probably GOT OUT OF THE WATER after his earlier, joint bend,
which would have been fixed without the horrors of paralysis etc.
- Q4. Who do you want to impress? Are you going diving with them soon?
Example 2.2: Read makes Idiot of himself at Devil's Ear
On this occasion I was diving with my cavediving instructor, and of course
I was anxious to impress him. So I jolly well decided I was going to do the
entrance passage in fine style, as indeed I did - in a sense!
By trying to do it too fast against the strong current
I wasted a huge volume of air from my tanks and
ended up absolutely exhausted, hyperventilating uncontrollably, at the
"Lips". Now when solo I might waste air in various ways, but never
quite so spectacularly as that. Put simply, I was trying to impress -
Note that the business of "hyperventilating uncontrollably" is not
quite as funny as it sounds, because it is a widely held theory
that that is the cause of death (hyperventilation causing
CO2 buildup (hypercapnia) causing unconsciousness
(carbon dioxide narcosis) causing drowning) in a number
of mysterious cases where the victim was found with air still left in his
Example 2.3: Another attempt at impressing ones Instructor.
This happened to a friend of mine who normally is very thoughtful
and safe. He was training for his stage bottle speciality and
was returning to the entrance of Devil's ear, where he tried to
switch from his doubles to an oxygen bottle for deco.
The bottle was either not switched on or nonfunctional for
more serious reasons. He couldn't get it to work.
Trying to go back to breathing off
his doubles, my friend was hindered by the fact that, joyful at
arriving at the end of the dive, he had thrown away the doubles'
main regulator with a suitably expansive gesture
and it was now hidden somewhere behind his back. Somehow he couldn't
find his doubles' backup regulator either, in the heat of the moment,
though it should have been fastened to his right tit.
And then, quite simply, he panicked.
From this state he was rescued by his instructor; I didn't hear
the instructor's comments afterwards but I'm sure they weren't entirely
favourable. Because my friend is normally so safe, I think this
must be another example of the strange consequences of diving with someone you
want to impress. Which brings me to.....
Be aware of the possibility that your wonderful buddy, who increases your
safety margin from zero to infinity (?) may PANIC under stresses that you
may think insignificant, or not even notice.
A panicked diver will convince himself he isn't getting enough air out of
his regulator and fight you for yours. Your mask and other equipment
may go flying. In a cave, he is more than likely to zero the visibility,
leaving you struggling in the dark with a lunatic. This is not a reason
for not having a buddy so much as for choosing him carefully and keeping a
sharp eye on him if his stress level appears to be rising. Indeed,
an overly stressed buddy is, like an overly stressed self, full
and sufficient reason for terminating the dive - on your own if need be.
See example 3.1 below.
Examples of Panicked Buddies.
You can read about two cases in Sheck Exley's autobiography. Example 1.1
above is probably another, fatal, example - if the buddy had kept cool and
tied off to the guideline and used his safety reel, the victim might
perhaps have been found, and be alive
Example 3.1. The Vortex Spring Incident:
A Unilateral Decision to dive Solo.
Four divers, including a frind of mine, went diving at VS.
Two cavedivers and 2 open water divers. Open water divers
promised faithfully not to go into the cave after the
cavedivers, and as seems to be customary they broke their promise.
Deep in the cave system, the second open water diver became
very scared and exited without his buddy. This action,
which normally would be frowned on, probably saved his life.
The buddy came to a passage too narrow to pass wearing his tank.
He thought he would be cool and remove his cylinder. He had not
read the fine print which says that this manoevre "is much easier if
tank and diver are BOTH neutrally buoyant" (I quote from Martyn Farr's
"The Darkness Beckons". I think Martyn is indulging in a
characteristically British understatement).
His tank and BC hit the ceiling, and he hit the floor.
The lead cavediver returned up the narrow passage to find the
open water diver desperately sucking air from a regulator
connected to a tank that was on the
ceiling. As soon as he saw him, the o/w diver panicked and fought the
(my friend), knocking off his mask and of course totalling
the visibility in the
confined space. When his panicked brain registered again the presence of
the guideline, he tried to haul himself along it, raising in my friend's
mind the hideous possibility that he would break it and lose them all
My friend somehow got past the o/w diver in the confined space and
tried to defend the guideline. He exited. Somehow his buddy did the same
thing. And finally, SOMEHOW, the idiot whose fault it was managed to get out
too. So no fatality.
But, if the second o/w diver had not exited solo and there'd been TWO
desperate divers down there --- what then??? If a buddy is foolish enough,
there are times when it's right to leave him behind. (why not just call
the dive? I'm not sure, maybe either (a) the first o/w diver ignored
whatever signal was given or (b) he was known to be much too macho
to respond to mere signals or (c) maybe the second o/w diver,
though rightly scared to death, was still too shy to call the dive
or (d) maybe the distance between them had increased to where
communication was impossible - this can happen with better divers than those
This will probably not be fatal to you, though it may be to them;
but buddies with poor sense of direction
do exist, and if you have one you should study where you're going twice
as hard as if you were solo - once so that YOU know where you are,
and once so you can convince HIM, if necessary, at a moment of crisis.
Example 4.1: Little River
Everyone knows how to get into Little River. You go down the entrance shaft,
round the corner, along the passage and then down the chimney to the
lower, 95 foot level. Once, I and my buddy were larking around in the
room at the top of the chimney before going down, and I signalled him
to lead on. To my astonishment he started to go back along the passage
towards the entrance from which we'd just come: just a few seconds
of hey-isn't-this-cute at the top of the chimney had been enough to scramble
his sense of direction, though he'd been there MANY times before.
Example 4.2: Fatality at Orange Grove Sink
[This incident was reported to me as an anecdote so I'm not
as certain of the details as with the others. But it sounds
sadly rather plausible.]
A boy/girlfriend pair entered upper Orange Grove
went along to the junction half way towards Challenge Sink, and
turned right, then jumped off left again at the Martz Offshoot.
When they returned to the jumpoff the girl was totally confused
about which way was out and wanted to turn LEFT instead of right,
which does not lead to air. The boy argued with her in divers' sign
language but she was perhaps panic stricken, and certainly
not about to turn RIGHT unless physically forced to.
They went their separate ways. He survived, she died.
She must have gone "against" one or two line arrows,
but was not persuaded to turn around until it was too late.
There are not huge numbers of line arrows in that passage..
Example 4.3: Orange Grove again: More confusion.
Another small incident at the junction half way from
Orange Grove to Challenge. I was with my buddy, the buddy in front,
and I noticed she'd gone past the jump,
which we had planned to take. Signalling, I swam up and to the right
to the jumpoff line, which is not at all far.
Pointing at the new line - which was just out of sight from my buddy -
I did NOT manage to get my message across.
Trying to signal more clearly, I incautiously stirred up a cloud of silt.
So she got out her safety reel
on the grounds that I was just disappearing out of sight of the
guideline into a cloud of silt, and was clearly lost.
Glad to see a reel coming at me
I tried to get her to put it on the jumpoff line but she wouldn't -
it being her absolute policy that "that ain't what safety reels are for".
That confused me a bit because I hadn't noticed it was a safety reel
not a jump reel.
After a few seconds of this standoff I got out a jump reel of my own
and ran it from the jump back to the main line.
Wrong way round but still, a continuous guideline back to air.
My buddy wound up her safety
reel. Off we went and enjoyed the side passage.
But on returning to the jumpoff, my buddy had been sufficiently
confused by the earlier nonsense that she thought "out"
was to the right not the left. [This illusion is consistent
with the line arrows because you've got "out" arrows pointing
both ways at that point,
being exactly half way from Orange Grove to Challenge.]
Unknown to me, as I swam back out of the side passage
and turned to the left ahead of her,
my action in turning left not right provoked a sudden surprise, and
presently a change of orientation as she realised I was right.
We discussed this afterwards - I was surprised at how much confusion
had been happening without my being aware of it - and basically put
it down to experience. But in terms of what I learned,
it was to trust a buddy's sense of direction a NEGATIVE amount -
assume things will be THREE times as confused as when solo
unless you're very,
The experience of arriving by mistake, confused but alive,
at Challenge Sink due to navigation errors, is one I do not
wish to have. Though I know at least one diver who has done it,
coming from the other (Olson) directon.
It is axiomatic that if you really need help from a buddy, he
will be somewhere around the next corner where you can't see him.
This is especially true when the buddy swims three times as fast as you do
and disappears from sight within five minutes of the start of the dive.
(It may also be true of a very SLOW buddy, though really you should solve
that by putting him in front, or just spotting the problem and slowing down).
But returning to the fast, or Vanishing, buddy,
obviously one tries to signal to
him to slow down before he disappears. Success rate varies with this approach.
An alternative strategy is to make sure you are diving in a manner that
would not alarm you were you solo, and if you become solo due to amazing
speed of your buddy - no problem! You'll probably catch him up in about half
an hour's time! He'll pretend to be apologetic!
I have had several such buddies, being a relatively slow swimmer.
The main problem with signalling to them is, you get fed up with it!
It is dangerous to accelerate to vast speeds in order to catch up.
Apart from consuming lots of air, you may fail to pay attention to other
aspects of your dive, - such as the way out.. More than one life has
lost because a buddy team jumped across a gap without noticing the
lack of a continuous guideline, and then went the wrong way
when they came to the unfamiliar junction on return. We will never know for
sure, but I picture such divers going in fast, trying to penetrate
further on a finite air supply, and thereby failing to keep a sufficiently
sharp eye on the guideline. Excess speed and exuberance can be very
dangerous indeed; but of course, when solo, you set your own pace.
Of course the rules for cavediving constantly emphasise that you should
set your own pace anyway - that a buddy team should go at the pace of the
slowest diver, and turn round when the least efficient diver hits thirds.
But with everyone trying to be macho down there, it doesn't always happen.
Most of the problems with buddy diving can be avoided by steadfastly
refusing to be macho.
And if you cease to be macho, you'll discover one of the great secrets
of cavediving, frequently known only to solo divers - it's really
beautiful down there. It can be a really wonderful,
really peaceful experience. In short,
there are other reasons
for cavediving than measuring your cojones against those of others.
The DIR school of diving holds that you should not dive with any diver
who does not conform rigidly to the Hogarthian gear configuration,
and indeed, the Hogarthian/DIR attitude
to diving generally. The given reason for
this is that unless you know your buddy's gear as well as your own,
things may go wrong when you need to use it in a moment of crisis;
and in any case, there's "only one right way" of doing anything.
Now the second proposition - there's "only one right way" of doing anything -
is clearly false, e.g. in my own subject of mathematics there frequently
are two valid proofs of the same Theorem, and furthermore both may be
interesting and worth knowing - it's not always true that one
is merely an inefficient version of the other. And yes, lives sometimes
depend on getting the mathematics right. And yes, there are circumstances
where DIR gear configuration is entirely inappropriate, e.g. nearly
any British cavedive, which will be narrow enough that backmounted cylinders
will not fit in the cave.
But the first proposition, that unless you know your buddy's gear as
well as your own,
things may go wrong when you need to use it, has a certain amount to be
said for it. And yet, it is restrictive - am I really my buddy's keeper?
Now if you're terrified of solo cavediving, I think there's no escaping the
fact that you must know absolutely everything about your buddy and stick
closer to him than a leech. Because if you should happen to lose him,
the resulting stress may cause you to panic, which will most likely
cause your death. But if you are comfortable diving solo, there are
alternatives, and here are a few.
Read's Buddy Postulates
- Proposition 1. You may decide that you WILL NOT do any dive
with a buddy that you would not be perfectly happy to do solo, and with the
same gear configuration .
This presumably implies that you will either
take a buddy
bottle or fully independent doubles when cavediving, so that you - on your
own - have full 100% redundancy in your air supply. You must also make sure
that the buddy bottle is not too small - it must be able to get you out of
there, on its own, at all times. Ideally it should be the same size as one of
your doubles cylinders. Proposition 1
also implies a certain caution about the ambitious
choice of dive plans - am I happy to do the Titanic solo? If not, why am I
doing it with a buddy?
- Proposition 2. Compromising a little, you may decide that
you will sometimes do dives with a buddy that you would be unhappy
doing solo, but in that case you will be CAUTIOUS - perhaps (esp. if
you think he's a MACHO buddy - that's the worst sign of impending
danger), even as
rigidly cautious as the DIR diver - in choosing the buddy .
In particular, if you are going to abandon 100% redundancy and dive wearing
linked manifold doubles alone, you must NOT have a Vanishing Buddy, because you
may need him in a hurry if you have a serious first stage freeflow.
You can NOT rely on closing the manifold off quickly enough - indeed,
Murphy's Law states clearly that the emergency will occur in a restriction,
where you may not be able to reach the manifold anyway. There are
places where reaching over your head and behind your neck involves
going through six inches of rock, because your elbow sticks up much higher
than the tanks themselves, and out to the side, during that manoevre.
- Proposition 3. Or you may decide that the possibility of
handling things solo-style is too terrible to contemplate, so
you MUST have a buddy that "sticketh closer than a brother";
he neds to be very reliable, and though
his gear configuration need not be your own, you surely
need to be familiar with it. That's getting close to the DIR line, though
of course the choice(s) of gear configuration need not be Hogarthian.
And what do you do, Prof. Read? Well, about half my dives are solo,
either with independent sidemounted doubles or independent backmounted
doubles or linked doubles plus buddy bottle. The other half are done
according to Propositions 1 or 2.