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Training Fundamentals: Dangerous Dive Sites

Scuba accidents are thankfully relatively rare. However, some places have reputations as dangerous dive sites. Why? Should we be diving them?

Modern dive training is very well-regulated compared to the early days of the sport. Training systems began developing in the late 1960s and, subsequently, have evolved to the point that students must meet specific criteria to pass introductory training. Most major training agencies also offer training courses that provide a foundation in specialty areas of diving, whether it be deep, wreck, cave, or technical diving. That said, so-called dangerous dive sites do exist. Why do some places have a reputation for danger, and should we dive there?

Statistically, diving is very safe. Divers Alert Network (DAN) releases statistics and has made it their mission to promote dive safety through research, education, products and diving services. However, despite a wealth of knowledge and training available, accidents still occur.

Particular dive sites have a reputation for diving accidents — sometimes deserved, sometimes not. Spend even a short time on an internet search and you’ll undoubtedly discover a short list of these places. Here are four of the most commonly considered dangerous dive sites.

The Blue Hole, Dahab, Egypt

Located on the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula next to Dahab, The Blue Hole itself is a circular hole in the reef, approximately 463 feet (130 m) deep. The infamy of this dive site within the diving community (alongside its namesake in Belize) has earned it the title of “World’s Most Dangerous Dive Site.” Famously, this dive site features “the Arch,” a gap in the reef wall that divers can swim through from inside the Blue Hole and into open water. However, at 184 feet (56 m) deep, it lies well beyond recreational diving limits. Divers typically get into trouble here when they exceed the limits of their training in an attempt to reach the Arch despite being unqualified to do so. If you visit, stay within your depth rating and do not attempt a technical dive without the proper training, even if one is offered to you.

The Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Divers of a certain age have imprinted in their mind images of Jacques Cousteau’s pioneering dives at this site. Cousteau and his team threaded their legendary vessel, the Calypso, close to the reef so that his team could explore this fascinating site. Similar to the Blue Hole in Dahab, this dive site is deep and alluring, with the bottom at 407 feet (125 m). Millions of years of geology have sculpted the site, with stalactites hanging like giant, jagged teeth from the limestone walls. The sheer beauty of this site and the temptation to see what lies just a little bit deeper sometimes lead to misjudgment and incident. Typically, however, divers who visit this site will be part of a guided dive that does not — or very briefly — exceeds recreational limits. If you visit, please pay attention to your guide and dive within the limits they set.

Devil’s Caves, Ginnie Springs, Florida, United States

The name alone sounds slightly portentous, and the Devil’s Springs cave system in Ginnie Springs, Florida definitely lives up to its reputation as dangerous. These springs are quite popular among cave divers and only certified cave and cavern divers are allowed to enter the water with dive lights to help deter the uncertified from entering overhead environments. This intricate cave system northwest of Gainsville, Florida comprises ‘Little Devil,’ ‘Devil’s Eye’ and ‘Devil’s Ear.’ Each presents unique challenges, and, in some areas, the systems are known to have shifting spring waters acting like currents. Even certified cave divers have perished here, so we cannot stress enough that you must have proper training.

Cenote Esqueleto, The Temple of Doom, Tulum, Mexico

Also in possession of a sinister nickname, the ‘Temple of Doom’ dive site lies within the world-famous cenotes in Mexico. Similar to the Ginnie Springs sites, the cenotes were formed over millions of years of geological change, as limestone bedrock collapsed to reveal crystalline water beneath. At the cenotes, diving can vary from more-exposed cavern diving to intricate cave systems, such as this example. Dark passageways, limited space and limited visibility — and light — mean that when divers make mistakes, the consequences are usually severe.

These are just four examples. Other potentially dangerous dive sites that sometimes appear on the news include the SS Andrea Doria in Massachusetts, the Shaft Sinkhole in Australia, Jacob’s Well in Texas, Scapa Flow in Scotland and the HMHS Britannic in Greece.

What makes these sites “dangerous”?

Looking at these dive sites in isolation, there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about them. However, common to all these sites are unique challenges that require special consideration, training, equipment, and preparation. Most dive incidents occur through diver error.

Both blue holes feature the temptation for deeper diving. The cave and cenote systems require the skills to safely dive in an overhead environment. Wreck dives such as the SS Andrea Doria and the wrecks of Scapa Flow may be at depth, in more challenging conditions and, if penetrating the wreck, require wreck-diver training.

Should we dive these sites?

Diving accidents can occur for a variety of reasons. In many cases, the risks are easily mitigated. Taking care of yourself and diving within your limits, staying fit, minding your mental health, keeping your equipment serviced and in good condition, and taking the necessary equipment for the task are all good practice in normal diving. However, at more-challenging dive sites where the stakes are higher and the penalty greater for error, they’re vital.

Should we dive these sites at all if there are increased risks? Yes, with the caveat that you should only dive these sites with the proper training, experience, equipment and preparation. If you’re planning to visit any of these sites, stay within the parameters of your training, even if that means missing some of the site. It’s perfectly safe to dive either blue hole as an open-water diver, provided you plan and execute a no-stop dive with a 60-foot (18 m) depth limit.

Training agencies set the parameters for various training qualifications on the basis of test data and constantly-evolving educational systems. Engaging only in diving activities consistent with your training and experience means you’re much more likely to have a safe and enjoyable dive. And, the excuse that ‘I was just following the divemaster’ does not mitigate your as a qualified diver to make the final decision as to whether you have the skills to make the dive. If you feel uncomfortable, skip the dive. If you want to go deeper, enter a cave system or penetrate wrecks, get the proper training first. Bravado is no substitute for the proper skill set.

Preparing for more-challenging dives

Build up to challenging dives incrementally. Beware of the false confidence of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Take advice from those divers more qualified and experienced in that speciality area. Much like running a marathon, more-challenging dives are not something you simply ‘do’ – they are something you work toward. If you want to dive the Arch in Dahab, you begin with deep-diver training, understanding the risks and planning inherent in a deeper recreational dive. Then, you would move on to technical-diver training to gather an understanding of tech planning and skills, slowly increasing your logged dives and depths until you have a clear understanding of how to safely execute the dive. Then, and only then, would it be wise to undertake a dive to 180 feet (56 m).

While we cannot deny that some dive sites are more demanding than others, the dangerous reputation of some sites is no reason to avoid them, provided you have the proper training and undertake proper risk management. Research the area and the dive sites; find out what training you need; and be sure that you have the preparation, training, equipment and experience to safely execute the dive. In doing so, dangerous dive sites become simply challenging.