By Michael Thomas
The team of four is approaching our planned turn point in Owl Hole Cave Grand Bahamas. My Friend, Cristina Zenato, fellow cave instructor and our guide today is in the lead diver position. I rise slightly in the passage at the rear of the team to look at the diver in the second position. Cristina is showing him a particularly fine cave formation. The diver is in a good trim position and buoyancy is spot on, breathing rate slow and steady – he is very happy. This has been his most advanced ‘Intro to cave’ dive. I wait for the turn signal then make my way out of the cave enjoying the dive and contemplating what diver two has achieved to reach this point. Diver two is my son Robert Thomas, age 16.
“How can you let him do that?”
How many times have I heard “How can you let him do that?” or “I would never allow my son/daughter to do such dangerous things.” Well I come from a family of cave explorers, I grew up with caving and started diving age 14. Robert also grew up with the sport and has always just wanted to do it. He was never persuaded, never pushed but always wanted it. He started diving at age 10 in the year 2010 doing a single cylinder side-mount dive in 2m of water. Very quickly he was on his Junior Open Water and over the next few years completed his Junior Advanced Open Water and then worked his way up to Junior Rescue Diver. To slow him down and teach the value of experience I imposed a fifty-dive rule – he had to complete fifty dives between each course. Next came Nitrox and TDI Advanced Nitrox. All of a sudden someone that was not that interested in math and science at school was head down in nitrox manuals and completing the TDI Advanced Nitrox e-Learning course. The School reports came back as “we are not sure how it happened but Robert’s interest in math and science has improved greatly!”
For the first two years, all dives were kept very shallow, less than 12m, but we dived some great places from the UK to the Great lakes in Canada via the Red Sea and Malta. Instead of talking about doing drills on dives and being all formal I just made them fun, made it a bit of a game; problem was, a 12-year-old taking his mask off just for fun sometimes got a rapid reaction from the dive guides!
We started doing research and turned up some good things
We slowly got deeper diving lots of 20-25m wrecks in the UK. A dry suit was needed for this so an SDI dry suit course was completed and many dives followed on British Wrecks. What I noticed from Robert about wreck diving was an interest in the history of the wreck and who or what sank her. We started doing research and turned up some good things. Using the same dive boats on the English South Coast Robert soon got to know all the Skippers and started learning about the dive boat from them and also that English dive boat skippers can be a little blunt when talking to divers that don’t come up to standard!
In the sea diving season of Robert’s 15th year, with five years of diving behind him, we trained for and planned dives in the 30-35m range, mostly on shipwrecks. Now that I knew he was serious about the sport and continuing to greater things, I upped the training and skills refreshers. If Robert wanted to dive a 30m wreck with a 30-minute bottom time, then he had to produce the plan that we both agreed on. He was becoming a solid dive partner that was watching my back as much as I was watching out for him. The dives were extremely enjoyable and any problems we had like a jammed DSMB reel on one dive during deployment got dealt with calmly and without drama. I also watched his confidence grow in the water and also out of the water on the boats talking with other divers and the Skippers.
More Research followed and more diving
Robert has always been involved in dry caving so it was inevitable that he would want to visit underwater caves. This gave me some pause for thought and we had many conversations in regards to risk and reward and the need for full understanding of the training and cave environment. The TDI Cavern course was completed in the UK followed by several cavern dives and joining in on other cavern courses I was teaching. Being surface support for full cave courses and mine courses increased the knowledge base and understanding of what is involved. Young divers tend to like rules; if you say a maximum depth of 22m and go to 22.3m they will pull you up on it! The same goes with line laying; once they have seen what they are supposed to do then they will try to match your line and make theirs better. As adults, we sometimes loose this trait and substitute giving it everything we have to that will do! Robert’s Intro to Cave was completed in the UK with dives in several caves and mine sites. A trip to the Bahamas followed and Robert enjoyed some warm water diving in caves and shark dives on reefs and wrecks. All the skills learnt came together on this trip allowing some truly great dives to happen.
All the cave dives we have done together have all been on sidemount so it was a great pleasure, after consultation with TDI head office, to award Robert his sidemount certification. All divers young and old enjoy some recognition of the work they have put in.
The final words I will leave to Robert
There are many reasons why I love diving and especially the technical side of things, but the one that stands out to me the most is the fact it is so mentally intense, especially in a cave environment. I have always been taught to understand, diving to be low risk, high consequence, and for me personally I love the feeling of being in control of a potentially harmful situation, safe in the knowledge that if anything were to go wrong I would be able to sort it whilst remaining in control.
The other big attraction to technical diving is the physical challenge. Admittedly it’s not always enjoyable when you are carrying cylinders up steep muddy slopes in the rain, but when it’s done and you are preparing for a dive it’s a huge feeling of satisfaction. As well as the fact you still have the best part – the dive – to come.
As well as the sidemount diving I also get super psyched about the prospect of sea diving and in particular wreck diving. Over the last three years I’ve been lucky enough to do countless wreck dives off the south coast of the crystal clear English Channel, and enjoyed every one, even the slightly less relaxed ones. I have also had the opportunity to dive in the great lakes in Canada which was an amazing experience and hope to go back and dive some of the deeper more pristine wrecks. A long-term goal of mine is to dive wrecks such as the Britannic, and I am going to. Obviously, this is at least 10-15 years away from now and much training is needed before anything remotely close to this is even thought about. However, I am always looking to better myself when it comes to this sport, and I am very grateful for the support we have had from Dive Rite and the equipment they have supplied.
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