"You scared the sh!t out of me!"
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
It was an early start in the Licanke house.
Anton and I didn’t mess about getting changed and heading into the cave, arriving in plenty of time to dive sump 2.
Anton elected to follow me as he had never dived this sump and it was milky visibility. Fortunately one of my back up lights has a mind of its own and often decides to turn itself on at depth. This gave Anton a welcome ‘lighthouse’ to follow in the gloom as we crossed the sump and we soon met our scooter drop, somewhat prematurely, and swam to the surface to de-kit.
Christine and Anton set off into sump 2. Video: Mark Burkey
As I surfaced, the dive line felt a bit flimsy in my hand. I grabbed onto it so as not to de-rig Anton and at that moment, it snapped just above the water’s edge.
That was lucky.
I waited for Anton to get out of his gear. He could see what had happened and in silence I repaired the line and we started moving our gear through the dry cave.
After a few journeys to sump 3, we had a brief chat before setting off through the sump. It only takes 4 minutes to cross sump 3. Anton was on a mission and had got all his gear to sump 4 before I had even exited the water.
He got into sump 4 first and reached up for his bailout bottle, which was lying on a ledge just above the water. The bottle seemed to catch on something and as he pulled it towards him, it nose-dived violently straight onto a sharp flake of rock. A loud hiss and puff of gas was followed by silence.
The rock had taken a chunk out of Anton’s regulator hose.
I stared at it in disbelief. This cave had bitten just about everyone in one way or another and now even Anton had not escaped its clutches.
Anton declared he could fix the hose back at sump 2, but could not dive any further into the cave.
It was down to me now.
As before, there was nobody who could come and get me in the event of a problem.
I got into sump 4, clipped off my line reel ready for deployment and set off. I knew that the line went about 100 metres distance, dipping to 28m depth, before it ended at about 10m. After that, who knew what it would do?
Anton follows Christine in the 'foggy' sump 2. Video: Anton Van Rosmalen / Paralenz
It took a while to get to the end of the well-laid line. I was taking it steady and trying to get a feel for this sump. It was much like the other sumps; sandy, undulating floor with the occasional jagged rock here and there. I found the end of line with some of it bundled neatly under a big rock. It was safe and secure, so I tied into it, feeling huge relief that finally we were getting somewhere.
The cave gradually undulated shallower and I was laying line at about 10m depth through easy going, large passage when I suddenly hit a huge, vertical wall. Looking left and right, I could see no ongoing passage - the only way was up.
Laying line up a sheer wall on a manual rebreather is tricky. I took my time, making small tie offs wherever the opportunity arose and there weren’t many of them. As I got to about 4m depth I started looking up and sure enough, there was the glistening ripples of air surface. I bobbed to the surface only to crack my helmet on a roof projection.
Moving away slightly to the side, I was now floating in a perfectly round, turquoise pool.
Where the hell was the way on?
Just across the pool was a large flake of rock slicing across my view of the otherwise circular sump pool. That must be it.
Swimming carefully on the surface over to the rock flake, I stuck my nose around the corner.
There lay a perfect de-kitting ramp, a flat stream passage with cream, orange and black walls and a ledge which looked like a perfect de-kitting bench!
I de-kitted, turned off all my bottles and wandered down the brand new stream passage. The roof was about 30 metres high, the passage was a couple of metres wide, bigger in places and the stream flowed gently towards me under my feet.
It was beautiful and for that moment, it was all mine. My own piece of planet earth that nobody else had ever seen. It had never seen light, never been walked on and I had no clue how long this would last.
As I walked down the easy going passage, stopping to have a good look up into the tall roof, I let out a “Woo Hoooooo!!” of delight. At this point, I realised I had left my Paralenz dive camera clipped off to the nose cone of my scooter in sump 2.
I didn’t actually mind at this stage and concentrated on not tripping over and hurting myself, or putting a hole in my drysuit.
It was far too soon but some 70 metres later, I came across another perfectly round pool of turquoise water.
I walked straight into it to check if it was a lake, a duck or a sump.
It was a sump.
This was the cave that kept on giving. I had found sump 5.
With only one bailout bottle (again) I didn’t chance it. I wouldn’t have enough gas to make any meaningful progress and bail out if I needed to.
I took a compass bearing of the passage, counted my paces back to sump 4 and kitted up to dive back to a waiting Anton.
As I surfaced, excited to tell him the news, my BOV (bailout valve) started to free-flow and we had quite a job turning it off. I lost quite a lot of diluent gas and this was a concern as I still had two sumps to dive home.
As we were sorting out the problem, I felt something strange by my right hip. I reached behind to locate my line reel and found it had unclipped itself and rolled back down the slope, underwater.
With a lack of diluent I figured it would have to stay there, it was not worth diving back into the sump to find it.
Anton and I dived back through sump 3 and embarked on the painstaking carry back and forth to sump 2. Once all our gear was safely stashed, we unpacked the mini dry tube and began a grade 5 survey of the passage between sump 2 and sump 3. This was a relaxing affair and felt like a serious achievement to finally get this done and dusted.
It was finally time to dive home. I dispatched Anton into the sump first as there wasn’t much kitting up space for two people. As I turned on my rebreather, I realised I barely had 10 bar of diluent left. This was not good. Scratching my head, I worked out a way of plumbing in my bailout bottle to my rebreather and this worked remarkably well. The partial pressure of oxygen was easy to manage and it was a surprisingly comfortable dive home.
Anton surfaces first and spills the beans. Video: Mark Burkey
I surfaced to a very concerned team. Mark was particularly upset.
Anton did not know that I had needed to rectify a rebreather problem and of course, this took time. When he surfaced, he told the team I was a few minutes behind. In fact, I was an hour or so behind.
I had not even started kitting up when he’d left and the team were getting more and more concerned.
Anton did not have enough battery remaining on his scooter to come back looking for me easily, so they waited and waited, getting more and more worried as time passed.
They were pleased to see me, but much like when a child runs out into the road, you greet them with a bollocking.
Chris limps home from her exploration of Licanke. Video: Mark Burkey
It was dark when we finally surfaced from sump 1. The guys had sorted pizza for us and beer. I was almost too tired to eat it.
We had been underground for 14 hours and underwater for 124 minutes. Sump 4 had been passed, new cave discovered and sump 5 was there, just waiting to be dived.
After a day off and an evening at our favourite ‘Bear’ restaurant, we headed back into the cave to recover all the equipment. Possibly due to familiarity or maybe just motivation to get the job done, the gear all came out in half the time it took to go in.
The 'Bear' restaurant is an opportunity never to be missed...
As usual, I was bringing up the rear and did a final ‘idiot check’ beyond sump one to make sure all items had been taken out of the cave. I kitted up into my twinset to dive home.
“Where’s my hood?”
Vaguely remembering that I had packed a hood for safe keeping in a pot - which had doubtless headed out of the cave in someone’s bag - I looked dejectedly at the Santi woollen beanie that was lying on a slab of rock.
That would have to do.
I made a hasty exit from the 7 degree sump, wondering why I couldn’t have chosen a different hobby.
I cannot thank the team enough for all their hard work and support on this project, members both past and present. Also, we must thank the staff and friends from Krnica dive centre; those who arranged permits to dive the cave, loaned us cylinders and sorted our gas.
We also wish to thank various diving and caving outfits who have assisted in some way, along the way:
Team Izvor Licanke Expedition 2021. Left to right: Richard Walker, Christine Grosart, Mark Burkey, Fred Nunn (front), Louise McMahon, Anton Van Rosmalen.
About the author
Christine Grosart is a Paramedic, working offshore mainly on diving vessels.
She started beach cleans around 2011 and has gone on to be a trustee, secretary, instructor and underwater photographer for the charity Ghost Fishing UK.
She wrote the first training course for scuba divers to remove lost ghost nets, in the world.
In 2009 she visited the far reaches of Wookey Hole cave and still holds the British female cave diving depth record.
In 2020 she became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society for her work with Ghost Fishing UK as well as her cave diving exploration.
In the same year she was included in the BBC Radio 4 Women's Hour Power List.