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Five Basic Rules for Cave Diving Safety

Cave diving is a specialized form of diving that can be performed in both inland freshwater caves and oceanic “blue holes.” To scientists, caves offer new laboratories for research. In cave diving, the emphasis should be placed on developing the proper psychological attitude, training in specialized techniques and life-support systems, dive planning, and the selection of an appropriately trained buddy diver.

Warning: Only experienced and specially trained divers should undertake cave diving. Open water experience is not a substitute for cave diving training.

Cave diving introduces humans to a counter-intuitive environment with limited surface access, limited visibility, and confined space, all while under water. It is sobering to realize that over 350 fatalities have occurred in underwater caves across the U.S. since 1969 (Buzzacott et al. 2009). Examples of the special hazards that may be encountered in cave diving are:

  • Absence of a direct and immediate ascent route to the surface.
  • Instantaneous loss of visibility because of silting or failure of the diver’s light.
  • Entanglement and impact hazards associated with being in a confined, enclosed space.

These and other factors all have an effect on the psychological composure of divers and their ability to cope with stressful situations. Improperly trained divers, unaware of the hazards unique to cave diving, often panic and drown when they encounter situations that are in fact normal for the cave diving environment. It is imperative that divers develop the proper psychological attitude before they consider conducting a cave dive.

Completion of a standard scuba diving course does not prepare a diver for the special challenges faced in cave diving.

Five basic rules for cave diving safety that must be followed by every diver are:

  1. Always use a continuous guideline to the surface.
  2. Save two-thirds of the total air supply for returning to the surface.
  3. Carry at least three lights during the dive.
  4. Limit dive depth to that appropriate for the gas being breathed
  5. Be well trained in cave diving and mentally prepared for the dive.

These five rules are based on an evaluation of the cave diving fatalities mentioned above, called “accident analysis,” and have been shown to be effective in preventing most accidents in underwater caves (Zumrick et al. 1988).

References: Buzzacott P., E. Zeigler, P. Denoble, and R. Vann. 2009. American Cave Diving Fatalities 1969-2007. International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education. 3:162-77. Zumrick, J. 1985. A comparison of the insulating properties of two commercially available dry suit undergarment combinations. In: Webb, P., ed. Prolonged and Repeated Work in Cold Water. Undersea Medical Society Workshop Report No. 68. Bethesda, MD.: Undersea Medical Society.

(Source: NOAA Diving Manual: Diving for Science and Technology, 5th Edition; 2013, Best Publishing Company)


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NOAA Diving Manual, 5th Edition

Used by divers everwhere, the NOAA Diving Manual 5th Edition is the most comprehensive resource for learning about dive equipment, dive planning, decompression, and emergency medical care of an injured diver. Chapters also include more advanced concepts such as physics and physiology, mixed gas diving, surface-supplied diving, saturation diving, and the list goes on.

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