It was like one of those “Find Ten Differences” puzzles in the kids’ magazines at the dentist office. Or those Magic Eye posters on every stoner’s bedroom wall in the 90s. I was looking at a familiar view from dozens upon dozens of times, but something was different. My brain noticed it before I did and stopped me from going through normal, practiced motions. I had been running a spool from a permanent, main guideline through a long, low, twisty area to a jump line some way away. A jump I’ve made many, many times before. I’ve got favourite tie-off points along the way which I’d hit, one after the other as normal. The jump line was where I’ve always known it to be. “So why, hands? Why are you stopping? What do you want?” It took only a second or two, but it was a long second or two of bewilderment of why things just felt wrong. The permanent arrow at the end of the jump line I was about to tie into. It was pointing in the wrong direction.
The permanent arrows are all supposed to point to the nearest usable/preferred exit… towards safety, towards the atmosphere. This one was pointing INTO the cave. AWAY from any and all exits. Someone had gone to the trouble of completely removing the marker from the line, reversing the direction, and locking it in place that way. Without meaning to sound melodramatic: this has killed people. Permanent system markers, pointed away from a safe exit, have confused divers. Causing fatalities. I kinda lost my shit for a moment. I was guiding some divers who saw me change the arrow to the correct direction (while screaming curses to myself through my reg and gesticulating wildly). We took a moment to confirm the correct direction of exit. Each diver on the team inspected the arrow and the tie in before we carried on. From there we had a great dive that was absolutely uneventful (other than the greatness of the dive). And that’s the end of this chapter of the story. But there are two more chapters… in my head, at least. A few weeks ago I came across a diver who had made a couple of blind jumps in a cave system that they could not possibly know well enough to make blind jumps in. “Wait, what?” I hear you saying, “If you know a cave well enough you can make blind jumps? Is that what Rog just said?” Well… sort of. That is, if you want to know the cave so well that you run the very real risk of dying there and your soul haunting it, your voice only a whisper in the flow, forever warning divers, “don’t make blind jumps, there’s no such thing as a safe blind jump, there’s only five rules to safe cave diving and having a continuous guideline to the surface is one of them and if you feel like running a jump spool is too hard then maybe you should take up something different, like video games, or competitive Cheeto sculpture, but for the love all things holy just run a fucking jump spool because it’s not that fucking hard.” Then, in that case, sure, make blind jumps. (I've heard that there are instructors who teach "The safe way to blind jump." It leads me to wonder if there are equestrians out there who teach, "The safe way to saddle a unicorn?" Or skiers who teach, "The safe way to snowboard an avalanche?" Which is all to say, "THERE IS NO SUCH MOTHERFUCKING THING!!!!!") If you’d rather do things the way that every cave diver on the planet is trained and in accordance with generally acknowledged safety protocols… run a jump. But I digress. Saw a diver make a couple of blind jumps. I lost my temper a little there, too, demanding of the diver both by hand signal and wet notes, “Where is your line?” They shrugged noncommittally and swam off. They made it “safely” out of the cave and that was the end of that chapter. The last chapter is the combination of those two things. It’s what I thought about through the rest of the dive this afternoon. What happens when a diver who thinks they know better, in a system they don’t know terribly well, finds something that they don’t expect? Especially in a high-stress situation? Especially if things have already started to go south? What happens when they are relying on the permanent system markers or lines which may have changed since last they’ve seen them, or seen them at all - whether that change is for the better or if those changes are, as I saw today, completely fucked and wrong? They probably die. That’s what happens. Chapter end. Book end. Story end. They die. The way I talk about system markers with my students is that they’re roadsigns. Useful. Memorable. Nice waypoints to gauge your direction and distance from home. But, in the end, not necessarily to be trusted. There are so many windows to the surface here in Mexico, that during a long dive those markers could change direction a bunch of times… so you look at them, you notice what is happening, you mentally record them so you’ll know what to expect on the way home. You don’t just blindly follow plastic chips in the hopes they’re going to lead you back to the car like ET following a trail of Reese’s Pieces. Use your own lines and markers. Trust your own lines and markers. If you see something that really doesn't make sense, ask someone later. If you're with a guide who you trust enough to watch them correct system markers or lines, then trust away. But if you see something that is completely confusing and you feel it is putting you or your team at risk, just turn around and go home. In the meantime, if we're diving together, don’t worry if you hear me occasionally yelling incomprehensible curses through my regulator underwater. You probably wouldn’t want to know what I was actually trying to say. I spent a lot of time listening to Richard Pryor albums when I was just a little kid; I know how to put together some really colorful ways of expressing how upset I am at times.