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The Thin Gold Line

I wish there were no such thing as cavern tours.

I also wish there were no such thing as DSDs.

I wish we lived in the sort of world that the additional risk of simply the underwater environment or certainly the compounded risk of the overhead environment was more recognized and respected.

Safety, education, proficiency could (almost certainly would) each be far more buttressed by a community in which all industry professionals appreciated, demonstrated, and explained the value of proper training and qualification rather than acted as tour guides charged with (whether the people on the tour know it or not) keeping as many people as standards allow alive through the tour.

I wish the community would stand shoulder-to-shoulder representing the importance - even requirement - of proper certification before such dives. And, following the community's expert guidance, divers would aspire to proper certification before choosing to perform them.

I also wish there was no war, famine, poverty, or reality TV. But, alas, this is the world in which we live.

There is a market - driven by people who don't know what they don't know. And where there is a market, there are forces which will exploit that market.

As such, and as responsible dive professionals, we have a mandate to do the very best we can to organize our sport in such a way as to create an environment and a culture where if the system is going to occasionally fail (which it will) it will fail safely.

I myself only came to diving after going through a DSD program twice. (One, now years later and on reflection, I realize was run incredibly responsibly - the other... not so much.)

I also do guide cavern tours. People are excited and interested in the pretty pictures of the Mexican caves they see on social media (which I am, of course, just as guilty as anyone for posting lots of). Those people don't always know if the "extreme sport" of cave diving is for them, though. So I am very happy to share this sport and this environment I so love with them. As much as I have some moral squabble with their existence, I almost always find myself really enjoying cavern guiding, offering people a safe way to sample the experiences around which I have constructed my entire life.

I tend to run my cavern tours as something of a mini-cavern class. No skills, no certification, but a lot of assessment before going anywhere even remotely challenging and as much coaching as people are receptive to.

Sometimes, after a few days together and with a bit of coaching, I've had people whose skills were refined enough I was comfortable taking them to some places that are commonly called caverns here... but an argument has to be presented on behalf of that appellation. I have seen guides bring people they've never been in the water with before to these places, but I consider them rarities only for divers who are up to it with more comprehensive briefings and more discussion of emergency protocols. Black diamond caverns, perhaps?

Sometimes, even after a few days, I have to explain, "No, we aren't going to that place your friend told you all about and that some other operation would bring you on day one. Not until you can keep your knees up, anyway."

I also like to use cavern tours as an educational experience about geology, archeology, hydrology, biology, ecology... all the interconnected sciences that make the underwater caves as fascinating as they are.

Several of the people I've given tours have decided it was interesting, fun, challenging, and whateverelse enough for them to pursue proper cave certification. Some have decided that technical diving is still not for them. But despite the fact that my cavern tours might be a little more didactic than others I have yet to have anyone, even among those few who were just along with their friends somewhat reluctantly, come back saying, "Well that was just awful." Nor, certainly, have I ever had anyone freak out or do anything patently unsafe.

A great lot of this is thanks to more than a decade of working as a dive pro at various levels and being able to match sites to my guests appropriately. I also have the enviable luxury of working independently and personally talking to all my guests before they even get here. As opposed to showing up in the morning, day after day, to meet a new bus full of strangers my boss has booked me to show a good time.

With all that as background, I was delighted the other day when Lanny Vogel, one of the arbiters of a newly formed line committee* in the area, asked if I would be interested in coming along to help put in place a cavern tour line at Casa Cenote.

Casa is one of the most frequently dived cenotes in the area for a great many reasons. Among them, there is a great, big open water area where training at all levels takes place. There is also a bit of an "easy" cavern that is both geologically and ecologically interesting. Personally, I always go there on the first day of a set of cavern tours so I can see what people are capable of and then tailor their dives accordingly. But there was no permanent cavern tour line; it has always been left to the guide to do their best... which frequently translated to... well... ... yeah.

I was definitely interested.

So at 9AM we met at Casa and over the course of a few hours we got a cavern tour line in place. Even among four experienced cave instructors (two of them prolific explorers in the area) laying a line for this function is harder work than you'd think. We thought and rethought and then talked and then reviewed then bickered. Then we went back to wrestling with the large spool of gold kernmantle which behaves much like you'd imagine an annoyed octopus in a shopping bag might, all while trying to find tie-offs that would be friendly to such unfriendly line. Then we swam along pretending to be the worst cavern divers in the whole world trying our best to ruin our own work.

In the end of it all we afixed signage and line marking. What we wound up with is pretty, damn good line.

All this in an effort to make the experience a little more controlled and a little safer for a community that - as much as we might wish it would - is not always going to act in its own best interests.

Hopefully, the time and energy we spent there will ensure that other people will have a good day. At the very least we have ensured the safest possible route for such a tour to take. Perhaps they'll recognize the effort? Perhaps they'll recognize the seriousness of the endeavor? It should give the guides the freedom to concentrate all of their attention to the safety of their clients. Perhaps some of those clients enjoy their tour enough that they do decide to become cave divers themselves, to go on to make their own contributions to a culture of safety?

With any of that as even a remote possible outcome, I can't help but believe with our work we made a positive impact.

We also got to hang out with Panchito, the local alligator, for a while when he hauled out of the water onto some rocks to bask and to gape (lay there happily in the sun with his mouth wide open) right in front of us. That was pretty cool.

Even if I don't believe in DSDs or cavern tours myself, they do exist; and this day was a part of my making my peace with that.

It was a fun day.

*The newly formed Line Committee is another whole topic of discussion.

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