Experiencing the Cave Diver Course – Part 1

Cave diver picking up a jump line in a cenote near Playa del Carmen

Written by  Frank Gutierrez

Next – Part 2 End – Part 3

What does it feel like to be a student in a cave diving course? 

I found this gem while looking through some old Facebook posts.  It is about my experience as a student during my cave diver course way back in 2009.

In 2009, I was still living and working as a dive instructor on what my brother Juicy calls “the rock that’s closest to Heaven” aka Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras. I was convinced by Utila Dive Center’s Andy Phillips to participate in Cave Diver training in Mexico. He said it was one of the best dive experiences of his life.  After months of planning and practicing some things on my own, I finally decided to book the course for December 2009. The plan was that my girlfriend at the time would join me for this incredible adventure in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

It was a strange time in my life.  I was 30 and had no idea the direction I wanted to go with anything.  I didn’t even know if diving was what I wanted to do.  Like everyone around me at the time, I enjoyed the island’s nightlife, probably more than I should have to maintain a healthy relationship with my girlfriend of 5 years.  About a month before the trip, she decided that we should split up (I deserved it). The breakup was one of the toughest things I had been through and almost made me cancel the course.  After some thought, I was determined to take on the challenge of becoming a cave diver, even if it meant I had to do it alone.

Who would have thought that challenge would lead to Blue Life being formed and all the happiness this life has brought me and all of the divers that love our little company so much.

Here is my account of what happened during the training, written at that time:

Day 0 |  November 28, 2009
Wrong Foot 

I drove for 16 hours from Guatemala City to Tulum for my friend Jerry’s wedding.  I am very happy to be here but it has been a long day.  He and Margaret seem like they’re going to be together for a long time.  Jerry is one of the best guys I know.  The wedding happens to be at the same hotel that my cave instructor owns so I got to meet him but am not sure if we’re going to be a good fit.  When we met, he threw 5 books at me and said “read!”.  I asked him if he could give me an approximate course schedule for the next few days and he answered that there was no way that he could know.  Not a great start but I’m tired so I guess I’ll sleep on it.

Day 1  |  November 29, 2009
Classroom and Equipment Setup

After another meeting with my instructor this morning I decided that I am going to change instructors.  I would not mind if it was just a day or two but I think we should be a good match if we’re going to spend 8-9 full days together.

A friend recommended a cave diving school in Playa del Carmen.  After meeting the owner, the available instructor -Nando, and the guy that is going to assist the course -Mauro, I am pretty happy I decided to change.  Nando is Mexican so we understand each other’s culture a little.  Mauro is Italian so I doubt anyone understands him.  We’ll see how things work out.

Today we talked about equipment and some theory but did not go into the water.  It was a very relaxed day once we got things going.

Day 2  |  November 30, 2009
Demonstration Dive and Zero Visibility Exit

Today was fucking hard! Nando had me practice a bunch of skills on land for about 4 hours. We were in the Mexican jungle and the mosquitos were the size of Cessnas. After killing a couple of thousand, we decided it was best to continue in the water.

In the open water section of the cave, Nando had me practice some of the things we did on land. We swam around for a few minutes following a line in a pretend cave. I was doing great until he told me to close my eyes. I tried to imagine where I was along the lines but it was impossible to know without more experience. My head still hurts from hitting it against a million rocks.


“…Even in deep trimix diving, there is not as much going on as in the cave…”


After we completed the open water part, we went for a “fun” dive about 50 meters into a cave/cavern. It was AMAZING!! The rock formations were incredible and there was some life inside which I did not expect. Just after our turn around point Nando decided to play a trick on me while I had my eyes closed, but I showed him!! He let me follow some erroneous directional markers (the things that show you the way out) into the cavern for 12 minutes until I realized I was going the wrong way (I was actually just going in circles). EVERYTHING inside the cave looks/feels exactly the same making it extremely difficult to navigate. Lets just say he skipped the “I really liked the way you……” part of the debrief.

Cave Diving Arrow
Cave Diving Arrow Marker – Shows direction to an exit (not necessarily your exit).

Even in deep trimix diving, there is not as much going on as in the cave. This makes it very hard to focus which I guess will come with more dives. So far, I love it. It is by far the most challenging thing I have done in my diving career.

Nando said that tomorrow I should pay very close attention to the way into the cave since I wont see it on the way out because our lights will be off for the second half of all 3 dives. He’s nuts! I’ll let you know how it goes!

Day 3  |  December 1, 2009
Zero Visibility Exit and Lost Line

I am so exhausted I could barely drive home from the dive shop. It’s not that demanding physically but I am suffering from an adrenaline crash. I thought yesterday was hard. Today was not as long but much more tiring. We did 2 dives in Taj Ma Ha’ Cave System.

It took us forever to get started today since there was a lot of diver traffic at the cenote we chose. Once we went into the water, Nando asked me to lead the first dive including the briefing. Remembering all the points to the briefing was much harder than Tec because in Tec, I had 5 or 6 easy dives to slowly get all the points down. Here you are expected to know the points from the start.

We went down and I tied of my reel to a small rock in the open water area. After that I had to make several ties on the way to the cave’s main line which is about 100 meters from the open water area. It is extremely difficult to find since it is hidden to keep recreational divers out. Since I didn’t know the cave, it took me ages (9 minutes) just to find it. The line that I put down is supposed to be in a straight line, but I realized later that it looked like a spider web.

Once we got on the main line it was easy sailing. All I had to do was swim along it while keeping visual contact with my teammate.

This image shows a beautiful cave formation in a cenote near Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Beautiful cave formation in a cenote near Tulum.

The cave decorations in this cenote are beautiful. There are huge boulders and stalactites everywhere. We swam at a faster pace than I am used to so I missed some of the small formations inside. When we got to our turnaround point, I quickly wrote down some dive info when I felt something moving close to my right hip. Before I could look down to see what it was, my light went out. I realized that Nando was drilling me by turning all the lights off. I quickly grabbed the main line which only about 20 cm from my left arm.

There are no words to describe the darkness. Imagine the blackest black, then multiply that by a million and it doesn’t even come close. I opened and closed my eyes repeatedly, and for a second, I thought they were stuck shut. It made no difference. I then clipped my dive light onto my harness since it was now useless to carry it. Then I felt a strong jerk on my arm which I recognized as the signal from my teammate telling me “let’s get out of here”. He led the way out as I tucked in just under his armpit to avoid the rocks. We were swimming out of the cave at full speed and I didn’t hit too many rocks today. I did forget to tuck away the cable on my light allowing it to dangle freely on my right side.


Losing the cave’s guideline sucks.


About 2 minutes after we started swimming out, I was quickly stopped by something pulling on my hip. I realized I WAS STUCK! I could feel my breathing rate getting faster as I got more nervous. It only took me a few seconds to figure out what was wrong but it felt eternal. Since I left it dangling, the light’s cable had wrapped around a sharp rock trapping me. I was able to free it pretty easily but it definitely shook me.  Just as I pulled myself together to start my journey out again, I felt a strong jerk on the guideline which was leading me out.  I was not holding it properly because of everything that was going on and the jerk pulled the line out of my hand. Now I have no line to lead me out and all I can see is black!  The only comparison I can think of is imagine getting blindfolded while having your hands and feet bound by metal cuffs.  Now imagine getting dropped in the middle of a football field and someone tell you the key to the cuffs is hidden somewhere in the grass.  Then imagine a clock ticking down from 40 minutes until you can’t breath.  Then add a crazy person (Nando) who is fucking with you the entire time. Nice feeling huh?

So many things were running through my mind at that point. Luckily I felt my fin hit something after a couple of seconds which turned out to be the cave’s line that leads out (or further in?!?!). After a few more minutes of swimming at full speed and bashing into rocks, DAYLIGHT!

All we had to do now was a safety stop and a valve shutdown drill. The drill was pretty easy thanks to hours of “Tarp Time” with my Tec Diving buddy, Carlos Arias at UDC.

If Nando was a PADI instructor his positive reinforcement after the dive would have probably been “I really liked the way you didn’t die” but since he is not, he just reminded of all the stupid shit I did during the dive.

The second dive went much better except for finding the caves main line (again). This time it took me a little bit longer. We practiced the same lights out drill again, but I was able to get from the deepest part of the cave (300 meters from open water) to daylight in 9 minutes with no mistakes. I needed the ego boost. I got my first compliment from Nando during the debrief.

Tomorrow we will be doing similar skills except this time I have to get out of the cave with my light off while sharing air with another diver… I hope it doesn’t run out!

Next – Part 2 End – Part 3

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