‘The One Thing That Kills Divers More Than Anything Else Is Panic’


“Rescues are actually pretty rare.”

What Robert Laird, the cofounder of International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery, means is this: When cave divers get in serious trouble, they usually die. There is no one to rescue, just a body to recover.

In Thailand, an extraordinary rescue effort played out this week for 12 boys and their soccer coach, who managed to find high ground when floodwater trapped them in a cave. To get out, these boys had to dive through those same floodwaters.

It’s a perilous journey even for experienced divers, as underscored by the death of a Thai Navy SEAL in the cave last week. Cave diving is a different beast from diving in the open waters. The water can be so muddy that divers have to feel their way out. The passage can be so narrow that you have to take off your oxygen tank. And you cannot simply swim up to safety. By Tuesday morning, divers had miraculously guided all 12 of the boys and their coach out the cave under these conditions.

I spoke to Laird on Monday about underwater rescues and the unique dangers (as well rewards) of cave diving. Our conversation had been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sarah Zhang: What makes cave diving so dangerous?

Robert Laird: The one thing that kills divers more than anything else is panic. It can start with a small thing, like suddenly you see bubbles coming off a hose. That seems so trivial and minor but that can immediately put doubt in a mind because you’re in a cave. There’s no escape. There’s no quick way up. It tends to cascade.

When you’re panicked, there’s absolutely no logic. There’s no reasoning. There’s no logical method of thinking. I’ve seen panicked people underwater, and they do not behave normally. You can even point the way out to them and they look at like you’re crazy, and they’ve convinced themselves another way is the correct way. They may swim into the cave, rather out of the cave to safety.

Zhang: What do you have to do differently when diving in a cave?

Laird: I would say the most important thing is being able to maintain absolute neutral buoyancy, so you don’t drift up into the cave ceiling and you don’t drift down into a very, very silty bottom. If you hit the silt, you can end up in a “silt out,” which …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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