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  • Christine Grosart

Bambi on Ice

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

My feet keep sinking!” Mark protested as he spluttered out another mouth full of chlorinated pool water. “I’ll never get the hang of this”.

A chilly, dark, damp evening at a swimming pool in Bristol was to be the first of Mark Burkey’s cave diving lessons. Well, not strictly true. 15 years ago he undertook a PADI open water course on his honeymoon…immediately followed by his Advanced open water course. He had not dived since and admitted to never feeling completely safe with the training he had been given or the experience he’d had. He instructed me to treat him as a complete beginner and that matched my plan entirely.

His first job was to join the Cave Diving Group. Never an easy thing and neither should it be. Qualified divers mentor new members and trainees in all aspects of cave diving in British sumps, which are usually small, cold and miserable. The CDG dive sidemount for this reason and the group has been doing it for a very long time, decades before the commercial sidemount courses emerged.

Training is free, as the group is an amateur organisation, but it takes several years as there is a lot to cover, much experience to be gained and success is solely reliant on the motivation and time constraints of both mentor and trainee. I once pointed out to a group AGM that training in the CDG was not indeed free. It costs me several hundreds of pounds a year to train a new diver… Mark, being well known as a thoroughly decent bloke, active caver and phenomenal cave photographer, plus being proposed by me, had no difficulty in being elected unanimously. The deal was that I would train him in back mounted gear (as appropriate for this particular cave) and we would write a specific training programme for him around that. He would join specifically for the trip to Croatia and then once the job was done, let his membership lapse. If he suddenly fell in love with cave diving and wanted to continue, he would become my responsibility and trainee. Mark felt this was highly unlikely.

With a little time around the CDG meeting, I introduced Mark to the diving gear he would be using. It was a twinset and wing set up, GUE style and identical to mine. I walked him through gas analysis, how manifolds work, different types of cylinders, how to switch regulators and where all the inflators and deflators were. We did some dry skill runs and Mark got the opportunity to build and strip down his equipment.

Roll on a week and Mark had driven a long way for the first of his diving lessons, so we made the most of it and arrived at the pool a little early to join the public swim before my scuba club arrived. The idea that he needed to be a decent swimmer had escaped him and the first job was to fix his comfort in the water. He was not a natural waterbaby. Legs waved around everywhere, sinking occasionally happened and effort was overriding finesse and efficiency; All of which needed to be fixed before we even put our fins on. The hour swimming lesson resulted in a steep improvement and I began to realise that Mark takes education very seriously, likes getting better at things and more often than not, gets new stuff right first time. I was beginning to think I could definitely work with this guy.

The scuba club began to arrive so I popped outside to bring in Mark’s gear as well as my own. My friend Jayme, a solid GUE diver and all round great helper of all things, accompanied us to help out and shot some video to help with the feedback. The biggest surprise to Mark was the difference in how ‘We’ do things as opposed to how ‘He’ had been taught in Lanzarote on his honeymoon. We don’t wag our legs up and down, dragging up the silt. Rather, we frog kick and glide. We don’t do our skills resting on the bottom. We establish neutral buoyancy and the ability to hover in a horizontal trim, completely still; no matter how long that takes. Then the skills are just monkey see, monkey do.

The initial dives were like bambi on ice. Establishing stability in mid water is tricky when you have been taught to do your skills kneeling down and at lift off, keep swimming to stay off the bottom…while doubtlessly over-weighted and negative. By the end of the hour in the water Mark knew what was expected of him and the penny was dropping. After another pool dive, we were ready to get hold of a 7mm semi dry and move into open water. Caving in a drysuit sucks. You either overheat or damage the suit and there is really nothing pleasant about it at all.

We were very fortunate to have been in contact with Apeks, who were very happy to support Mark for the expedition with a complete set comprising wing, backplate, harness and regulators. This meant that we did not have to worry about borrowing equipment and could simply get on with the task in hand. In Licanke, there are several hundred metres of sharp, bouldery caving so it made sense, owing to the short first sump, to cave in wetsuits. Only Rich and I would be forced to do two journeys in drysuits, to cope with the cold on the exploration dive.

Mark was put through the ringer. But he seemed to be enjoying it. He was following cave line blindfolded, doing lost line searches, emergency valve drills, S-Drills, mask removal, gas failures, more fin kick finesse….It seemed like overkill for such a short sump but we could not afford to have anyone on the expedition who was a risk. He would have to pass the sump a minimum of 8 times and although he would be chaperoned by either Rich or myself, we wanted him to have enough stability and know what to do should anything go wrong.

Mark took it all in his stride and soaked it up like a sponge. It was not long before he began to look like a cave diver. This short film shows his progress after 2 pool dives and 7 open water training days.

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