Out Of the Light Zone: Part II

Cave divers dive in certain formations, adhere to certain rules and communicate the way we do because in an overhead environment there is no direct access to the surface.

By Katy Fraser

After completing my Intro to Cave course, I’ve been diving a lot on the intro cave lines, which are continuous and don’t feature complex navigation, i.e. jumping off the line and connecting to another cave line. After building up my confidence and familiarity with these lines, I ventured just outside the cavern zone for the first time with my camera.

On our first dive, I didn’t take my camera; instead we laid the line to the cave line and during the dive I calculated my surface air consumption (SAC) rate. I also made notes of the places I’d like to stop and take some film and photos. Diving this way allows me to confirm the cave’s layout in my own mind, to choose shots and areas I know I want to film, to note the times I reach those spots, and during the break between dives, to discuss and plan the filming accordingly.

The camera joined us on our second dive, where we repeated some safety drills and agreed on the importance of dropping the camera in the unlikely event of an emergency. My air consumption came out the same with or without my camera, which was interesting. I think repeating the first dive played a large role in this, as I would have expected my SAC to be much higher. I was working more, but I was also stopping and preparing a shot before filming as opposed to swimming and filming. I had also dived this line a few times previously, so I was quite familiar with the cave. We also weren’t very deep into the cave and I was completely in my comfort zone on the dive. We happily spent 50 minutes in some of the first rooms containing a halocline and stalactites.

The dive went very smoothly; I would signal at points I had noted to take shots and my buddy Markus Teupe placed arrows on the line pointing towards the exit. It was quite educational to see how communication could be lost with large video lights like mine. If we had been diving in a normal formation when we reached our turnaround point, wherein positions are reversed and I would lead the way out, any signal Markus would have tried to send me with his light would have been eclipsed. This was one of the reasons we planned the points where I was going to film on the first dive, so I didn’t need to have my lights on all the time.

Responsibility also extends to the buddy, and Markus had to make sure he was in my view or very close by when I made the shots, which requires strong communication back and forth. Cave divers dive in certain formations, adhere to certain rules and communicate the way we do because in an overhead environment there is no direct access to the surface. The last thing you want is to become disoriented in the cave or get separated from your buddy, as they could be your redundant gas supply in the event of a catastrophic failure. These rules should never be broken, but could be very easily when taking a camera. Loss of communication, buddy separation and losing the line would be almost certain if you applied open-water videography practices to a cave environment. It became apparent that filming cave dives could never really be fun dives, as logistically there is so much to take into consideration. I’m interested to see just how complex navigation becomes and how I can apply all the new procedures at this next level during my full-cave course. The difference between diving in caves and caverns is large and I plan to take my time on this transition, especially when taking the camera. At the moment, diving just outside of the light zone is good enough for me; you needn’t penetrate deeply into these caves to capture some of their amazing sights

 Meanwhile I’ve spent weeks diving different cavern lines, on cenote tours and with friends, both to start building up stock footage for this cavern video and to get more practice filming caves. I’ve been getting used to my camera settings in the limited-light environment, and learning how to use my video lights in conjunction with divers’ lights and the ambient light from the cenotes to achieve some depth in my shots. I have been experimenting with where best to place myself to get the best angles on the dives, and find that I must dive the sites a few times before I get an idea of where I want to shoot, otherwise it ends up in a mad rush with me finning everywhere, trying to get front shots to avoid a viewfinder full of fins. All in all, I’ve found that the dives must be organized, which also requires me to be on a twin set of tanks, as I’m effectively diving independent of the group. This also involves learning the dive site and communicating with the guide about places I need to stop or slow down to shoot. The main thing I need is time to set up the shots, more difficult to achieve on a tour, as the video and photos revolve around the dive. Often I ended up shooting on the fly, which resulted in some useable stuff. But there was a marked difference when I went with friends or colleagues and the dive could be oriented around the camera.

Here is the cavern video I produced over several different dives in different cenotes. It was difficult to decide when to call the video finished, as there’s naturally been quite a steep progression in the quality of film I’m shooting as I become more familiar with the environment. I chose to draw a line and work with what I had, bearing in mind that there is nothing stopping me from creating a second, third, or fourth video in the future. With the huge variety among the cenotes here in Mexico, that won’t be a problem.