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Old 7th March 2009, 16:15   #1
MarcLaukien
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Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

In the Realm of the Fangorn Forest

“He led the way in under the huge branches of the trees. Old beyond guessing, they seemed.”
-- J.R.R. Tolkien
No words could describe better the awe of “Fangorn Forest” in Dan’s Cave, as Brian leads us through this sunken wonder of eternal beauty.

It has been nearly two years since my last cave diving trip to Abaco, Bahamas. If you have ever visited the Bahamas before, you would never guess what a fantastic world lies below its surface. It was time for me to experience again the wonders of this hidden realm.

Together with John Katerenchuk and Howard Packer, we took a two day voyage on my slow but trusted vessel across the northern Straits of Florida to Little Bahama Bank, continuing into the Sea of Abaco, to arrive at our destination of Marsh Harbour. The boat packed with dive gear, including three different types of rebreathers, a high definition camera, video lights, photographic gear, and of course numerous dive tanks, we were greeted by Brian Kakuk, Founder and Director of the Bahamas Caves Research Foundation, and one of the world’s most famous cave explorers.

Just like with my previous trip report, I have nothing but praise for Brian. Rarely have I met another person in my life that is so hard working, so dedicated, and, most important of all, a man of true character. Being a world class diver and explorer, Brian stands out from the seemingly ever growing crowd of chest-thumping Internet cave explorers.

For the first two days of diving, we leave our camera in Brian’s shop--a wise choice, as our first dive holds a big “surprise” for John. The plan was to dive Dan’s Great Circuit, and then to continue on to Cascade Room and Crystal Palace. Brian leads the dive, followed by John, then Howard, and me going last.

Navigating through a restriction, I realize that something has gone wrong. It starts to get silty behind the restriction, and I hear John yelling through his breathing loop. Once I made it through, I see John on his open circuit bailout, and Brian indicates to terminate the dive immediately. It didn’t take us long to get back to the basin and to analyze the problem.

John has de-inverted his rebreather tanks, a method used by many other rebreather cave divers, since it improves trim, in particular with a wetsuit. However, when passing through the restriction, John must have rolled off his diluent valve, leaving him with a loop volume too small to breathe from. Switching to his on-board bailout valve didn’t help either with the diluent turned off. Thankfully, he reacted quickly, and switched to his off-board bailout regulator. Lesson learned: if you dive with de-inverted tanks, always check whether your diluent valve has rolled off after a tight restriction!

After a short surface interval, we continue the dive, leaving the circuit for another day, and instead going right to the Cascade Room and Crystal Palace. These places are just as beautiful as I remembered them from my last trip: highly decorated with stalagmites, stalactites, and columns, ranging from tiny to huge, translucent to opaque, and in the most wonderful colors.

We decided that we only want to do one long dive (two to three hours) per day, instead of two shorter ones. So on day two, we try the Big Circuit again, this time without any incident. The circuit presents us with a very different picture of Dan’s cave, not as decorated, but large tunnels with fantastic rock formations, and fossils everywhere I look. We round up the dive with another journey through Cascade Room.

On day three, we feel ready to do a really long dive, with a big high definition camera, two 50 Watt HID lights mounted on the camera, and a 200 Watt HMI light carried by Brian, our lead diver. Our destination is Fangorn Forest, and past that, Wrigley Field, a huge chamber about 3000 feet back in Dan’s cave. We try to move quickly to maximize our camera time in Fangorn Forest and Wrigley Field, which is not an easy undertaking given that we have to carry the big camera, two 80cf bailout tanks each, and navigate our way through several deep restrictions along the way.

The rewards definitely justify the efforts: Fangorn Forest is perhaps the most beautiful part of Dan’s Cave, even more amazing than Crystal Palace or Cascade Room, while Wrigley Field is just amazing for it’s sheer size alone. We don’t have much time, since we don’t want huge decompression obligations, and Brian dives a sidemount configuration with double stages (he flooded a handset of his rebreather, so he had to send it to the manufacturer for repair). Nevertheless, I think we got some great video footage of Fangorn Forest, which will be available for your viewing pleasure shortly. The 200 Watt HMI light really lit up this place.

Unfortunately, this is our first and only day of video with the 200 Watt HMI light. On our fourth day, we dove Lost Reel Cave. It is much darker, tighter, and siltier. “Gothic, like the entrance to hell” is how Brian describes it, and he couldn’t have said it any better. We take the camera with us, but the big HMI light refuses to turn on. We will have to send it in for repair once we return to Florida. We take the camera with us anyway, using only the camera-mounted HID lights. The result is not nearly as spectacular as the video of Fangorn Forest. Still, diving Lost Reel Cave was a wonderful experience, since it was so different from Dan’s cave. Being less traveled, it had a more “exploratory feeling” than Dan’s.

While I have some experience with cave video, my experience with cave still photography is very limited, especially when using slave strobes. “How hard could it be?” I thought naively, and we decided to do a dive in Dan’s Crystal Palace and Cascade Room, solely dedicated to taking pictures. We agreed on hand signals for aiming the slave strobes, and even did some dry exercises with our camera setup.

We were in for a big surprise. Taking underwater cave pictures is hard, very hard! Nothing worked as planned, the slave strobes wouldn’t fire at all, or not in the direction we wanted them to, the exposure was wrong, communications didn’t work as in our dry exercise, and the camera often refused to focus. We were buzzing around like the Three Stooges, desperately trying to communicate our intentions to the other divers by yelling inaudible commands into our rebreather loops, with wild hand gestures, and frequent cursing at the camera. As Brian described it so aptly after the dive, all that was missing to make our performance true slapstick was some circus music.

There is one cave on Abaco that is even more decorated and beautiful than Dan’s Cave. Everyone who has ever visited Ralph’s Cave agrees with Brian that it is a must-see for all cave divers. There is just one problem: the entrance is small, too small for back-mounted rebreathers. It is a sidemount-only cave system. Driven by the desire to see this place, John and I take a sidemount course with Brian on day six and seven.

Sidemount diving is Brian’s specialty. He wrote the textbook for IANTD, and has done literally thousands of exploration dives using independent tanks in a sidemount configuration. I highly recommend reading his article “Side Mount Cave Diving for the Independent Diver” in Jill Heinerth and Bill Oigarden’s new Cave Diving book. I strongly believe in using the right tool for the job, and while rebreathers are often the best choice, the advantages of sidemount diving for certain kinds of dives cannot be disputed.

On day six, we spend most of the day configuring our sidemount harness, discussing theory, and then do one dive to practice various drills. Most of them were very specific to diving in a sidemount configuration, but some of them were also useful for all types of diving. Have you ever cleared your mask while standing on your head? If not, try it, it’s not as easy as it sounds!

When we come back to Brian’s shop, I realize that there is one other huge advantage to sidemount diving that he did not mention in his article: we are done with cleaning our gear in a matter of minutes, compared to the hour or so it usually takes us to break down and clean our rebreathers. While I will probably never go back to open circuit back-mounted manifolded tanks, I really start to see the appeal of sidemount diving, even in systems that are large enough for back-mounted tanks.

After more sidemount training on day seven, we conclude our dive trip on day eight with a dive in famous Ralph’s Cave. Ralph’s Cave is such a surreal place, it is hard to put in words. “Highly Decorated” would be a strong understatement. “Made entirely out of Crystal” would be a better description. The whole cave appears translucent, with crystal pools on the floor and crystals hanging from the ceiling. Some of them have the shape of soda straws, others are much thicker, yet other crystals look like flowers growing out of the ceiling. There are millions of them, and you have to watch your every move to avoid breaking something in this wondrous place.

Clearly, this cave absolutely, positively, is for sidemount divers only. A backmounted rebreather diver would not only get stuck in some of the tight restrictions, he would also leave a trail of destruction behind him. Being freshly minted sidemount divers, Brian told us after the dive that we did well and didn’t damage anything, but clearly the time to take a camera with us into this cave will require many more sidemount practice dives. The skill level required to navigate through this system carrying bulky camera gear is very high.

This grand finale of a dive concludes our eight days of cave diving. We have a last dinner together with Brian, sharing stories, and reliving our adventures from the past week, before we sail home early the following morning.

Marc Laukien, March 2009

Last edited by MarcLaukien; 7th March 2009 at 16:30..
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Old 7th March 2009, 18:29   #2
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Nice Report ...thanks for sharing... great read.
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Old 8th March 2009, 01:00   #3
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Having dove in Florida, Mexico, Thailand and now Bahamas caves I can say Abaco caves will not disappoint any cave diver that has been to the other popular locations and should be on your must dive list. Decorations at least equal Mexico and the level of crystalized formations in Ralph's Cave stands on it own and is truly a jaw dropping site. The geological and enviromental evidence of the long history of these caves is apparent all around for you to see. Fossilized Coral and Sea Shells within the rocks and walls, Bat skeletons embedded within the crystal structures and long extinct bones of crocodiles are all celarly visiable and mixed within the incredible highly decorated structures.

Brian is finding new caves and surveying new passages on a ongoing basis. He takes his guiding of these systems very seriously and you will not see the large vacation cave diving groups and resulting damage to the cave system that are evident in Florida and Mexico. These are pristene sites and all dives are conducted to prevent damage by limiting locations to the divers ability and a maximum 3 divers plus Brian.

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Old 8th March 2009, 01:46   #4
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Very nice! Thanks for the report......
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Old 8th March 2009, 05:34   #5
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Sounds like you had a great time! Howard, I am looking forward to meeting you when you get here.

We had an awesome day at The Pit. We met all our objectives and are prepared to train safety procedures tomorrow. Rock'n Roll....

Hans
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Old 8th March 2009, 08:32   #6
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Quote: (Originally Posted by luxrok) View Original Post
Howard, I am looking forward to meeting you when you get here.
I arrive May 2. The Abaco caves will be hard to beat, but I am going to have a look around just to make sure. :D
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Old 8th March 2009, 21:10   #7
MarcLaukien
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

The video is now available. Enjoy!
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Old 9th March 2009, 01:44   #8
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Quote: (Originally Posted by MarcLaukien) View Original Post
The video is now available. Enjoy!
Marc, Wow!! That was a real treat, Thank you!! Absolutely gorgeous. Can we get any still shots of your camera setup?

Thanks again,

Keyth
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Old 9th March 2009, 20:58   #9
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Quote: (Originally Posted by MarcLaukien) View Original Post
The video is now available. Enjoy!
I have been toying with the idea of going to the Bahamas for some cave ccr, you just pushed me to stop thinking about it and set it up! Is there ccr support (sorb/ cannisters etc) there or should we bring every thing but fills??
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Old 9th March 2009, 21:04   #10
MarcLaukien
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Re: Cave Diving with Bahamas Underground

Quote: (Originally Posted by Mr Personality) View Original Post
I have been toying with the idea of going to the Bahamas for some cave ccr, you just pushed me to stop thinking about it and set it up! Is there ccr support (sorb/ cannisters etc) there or should we bring every thing but fills??
You can get everything from Bahamas Underground. Note that many of the caves are sidemount-only, but Dan's Cave (shown in the video) is fine with a CCR.
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