After you’ve been diving recreationally for a while, you may begin to wonder what else there is to see underwater. Sure, sharks and whales are great and reefs are always amazing to see. But, once you’ve seen this a handful of times, you may want to find something else. Thankfully, there are a variety of other activities that you can explore in scuba diving once you have the experience. You can do everything from wreck diving to technical diving and black water diving.
One other avenue popular with divers is cave diving. This is what we will be talking about today. We will examine what cave diving is, how you can get started, and what equipment you will need. Also, we will go over the best cave diving spots around the world.
What Is Cave Diving?
It is exactly what the name implies. Cave diving is the exploration of underwater caves. These caves are all around the world and are in both freshwater and saltwater locations. But, you need special training to access them.
Why would anyone want to go cave diving?
The sites in underwater cave systems can be quite amazing once you get into them. Many of the caves that you can explore are tens to hundreds of thousands of years old and even older. You can find huge chambers full of stalactites and stalagmites with an abundance of colors.
There are also archeological reasons for cave exploration. Though, this is outside the scope of recreational diving. Underwater caves around the world have yielded artifacts that have helped us to better understand human history. Even as recently as 2018, underwater caves in Mexico were being discovered with ancient Mayan artifacts and human remains.
For us normal divers not looking to be the next Indiana Jones, the photo worthy sights are the main attraction. But, cave diving is not without its own unique set of challenges. The hazards presented when cave diving can be quite severe. For this reason, it is only recommended that you get into cave diving when you have the proper training and experience.
How To Get Started Cave Diving?
Cave diving is a bit different than wreck diving. With wreck diving, you can begin diving some wrecks as a regular open water certified diver. As long as the wreck is within the depth range of no more than 18m (60ft), and so long as you don’t plan on penetrating the wreck, you will be fine.
With cave diving though, you need to make sure that you have the right training. This includes both cave diving training, as well as the training to handle the depth and length of the dive. Many cave dives require you to use mixed gasses, which you will need to be properly trained to use.
Some of the hazards which cave diving poses include:
- Running out of air
- Disorientation due to low visibility
- Decompression sickness in deeper caves
- Fatigue from strong currents
There are plenty of hazards in everyday recreational diving. But, the major difference is, if you experience difficulties when making a dive at normal depths, you only need to swim up and perform a short safety stop. When it comes to cave diving, you need to swim out of the cave back to the entrance. In some cases, the cave entrance may also be submerged, meaning you have to swim out and then up. This may mean you have to swim hundreds and thousands of feet out of the cave to get back to the entrance.
As you can see, there is a lot to take into consideration when getting into cave diving. Without proper experience, the consequences can be quite severe. There are a number of courses which you will need to take in order to get started with cave diving. When you first get started, you will be doing cavern diving instead of full-fledged cave diving. Cavern diving is where you only go as far as the light zone extends. This is usually no more than around 60m (200ft) or less.
It is important to start here as you will get the basics of cave diving down without as many of the hazards. You will be able to swim into the cave and begin practicing the procedures for cave diving that you need to know. But, if anything goes wrong, you won’t be too far in the cave where you will run into trouble. Within the light zone, you can still easily swim out of the cave and to the entrance or the surface.
Before you can take the Cavern Diver Specialty Course, you must be at least an advanced open water diver. So, if you are not currently at this level of experience, it is best to focus on improving your overall diving ability first. After you have obtained your Advanced Open Water Diver Certification, you can then take the Cavern Diver Specialty Course.
After you get some experience with cavern diving, you can start probing a bit deeper into cave diving. For this, you will need to take a full cave diving course. These are not available everywhere and are going to require significantly more experience than at the cavern diver level. There are a number of prerequisite courses which you must have before even beginning the full cave diver course, including:
The above two are both technical diving courses and will each require their own prerequisites before you can complete them. We recommend that before you even begin cave diving, you have some technical diving experience. You will be using different types of gas mixtures when cave diving and it is recommended that you are familiar with working with these mixes.
Also, you want to be comfortable with all of the different types of equipment necessary when using mixed gas. It is best to learn one new skill at a time. So, get the technical diving out of the way and then begin moving into more advanced cave diving when you are comfortable and competent.
As we said before, full cave diving courses are not offered everywhere in the world. You will have to find the dive center nearest you in order to take the course. It typically lasts around 8 to 10 days and will cover everything you need to know to safely make cave dives on your own. But, as with everything, practice makes perfect. You need to take things slowly and never go past your level of comfort.
It cannot be stressed enough but, cave diving doesn’t have to be dangerous. The number of hazards when cave diving is certainly more than normal recreational diving. But, for a diver with the right level of experience, and the right level of planning, these dangerous can be minimized.
To add to this point, most deaths from cave diving have one of a few things in common. Typically, the deceased diver or divers did not have the right level of experience to be making the dive. Also, another common factor, many deceased divers did not have the proper equipment to be making the dive.
There are few cases of diver deaths among cave divers with industry-standard equipment and proper training. It certainly does happen as cave diving has a unique set of hazards. But, the chances of dying while cave diving when you have the right level of experience and quality equipment are significantly less.
What Equipment Do You Need For Cave Diving?
As you can guess from above, cave diving requires unique equipment that you wouldn’t normally use during recreational dives. It should be stated that this equipment is expensive. The number of technical divers and cave divers on this planet is quite small in proportion to regular recreational divers. Part of this is due to the higher level of experience needed when doing these sorts of dives.
But, the other reason so few people get into technical diving and cave diving is because of the cost. The equipment needed for cave diving and technical diving can run into the high thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for a complete setup. This is for quality equipment that is reliable. You can certainly go cheap and try to get second hand or knock-off equipment. But, we do not recommend this.
When it comes to your equipment, you want to know that it is going to work right every time. This means you need durable equipment from trusted manufacturers. The other upside to buying well known and trusted equipment is that it will be easier to service. Obscure brands are often harder to find parts for. Also, you may run into problems finding dive shops that have the expertise to service the brand. When buying equipment such as regulators and computers that need to be serviced, stick to trusted manufacturers.
So, let’s take a look at the equipment you will need for cave diving and some different choices for buying. We won’t be able to go into every piece of equipment you need. Often, the specific equipment you use for each dive will depend on different factors such as the depth and water temperature. Instead, we will look at the most common equipment. The specifics will be covered when you take the courses for technical diving and cave diving.
Cave Diving Regulator
The regulator you use is going to depend on the temperatures of the water you are diving in and whether you are using mixed gasses. If you are diving warm water caves and only going a few hundred feet in, you will be fine with a normal regulator. But, if you are diving in colder caves or mixed gas diving, you will need special regulators.
For cold water diving, you will need a regulator designed to prevent from freezing up. If your regulator freezes it is possible to go into freeflow and can empty your tank quickly. Potentially, before you have time to reach the surface. Even worse, you risk decompression sickness if you ascend too quickly on a deep dive.
When it comes to technical diving, you need different regulators for the different gas mixes you will be using. For oxygen-rich mixes, such as Nitrox or Heliox, you will want a regulator made from a high flashpoint material such as titanium. Each of your mixes will need its own regulator and will be dependent on the dive.
Two great recreational regulators that we recommend are:
Two great cold water regulators that we recommend are:
Cave Diving BCD
If you have been recreational diving for a while, you have probably become accustomed to the jacket style BCD. For cave diving though, you want a wing-style BCD. This will allow you to alternate the mount between a twin set, two tanks on your back, and a side mount, scuba cylinders mounted on either side of you.
The side mount is the most popular set-up when it comes to cave diving. This type of setup allows you to more easily unclip your tanks in order to squeeze through narrow spaces. With a twin set, this is not possible and you are therefore more limited in the spaces that you can fit through.
You will need to have experience when using a side mount. We encourage you to take the Side Mount Specialty Course which we spoke about above. This will cover all the information you need to set up the equipment for a side mount dive. Also, you will learn how to deal with common issues that come up when using a side mount. You will also learn how to manage your different gasses when using multiple cylinders.
Three great options to choose from for BCDs are:
- Hollis HTS 2 (This is the harness only. You will need to purchase the bladder separately, Option 1 and Option 2)
- Scubapro X-Tek Pure Tek (This is the harness only. You will need to purchase the bladder separately, Option 1 and Option 2)
- Dive Rite Nomad XT (Complete setup for side mount diving)
Cave Diving Fins
Split fins have become quite popular with recreational divers. Especially, divers who frequent tropical locations. But, when it comes to cave diving, you want to ditch those in favor of solid paddle fins.
The reason for this is because the split in the fin can make it harder to frog kick and helicopter kick. You will mostly be using this kicking technique to move around in order to avoid stirring up silt on the cave floor. The split in the fins does not give you as much thrust and is therefore not recommended for this type of diving.
Another issue with the split fins is that the split can more easily become tangled in the line. The last thing you want is to get your fin trapped in the guideline and pull it lose. Or, have part of the fin catch between rocks when fitting through a narrow passage. Instead of the split fins, try and stick to a solid paddle fin made from rubber.
Three good options we recommend for cave diving are:
Cave Diving Lite
The deeper you get into a cave, the less light you are going to have. Once you get past the light zone, there will be virtually no light at all. It is vital that you have a quality dive light and at least one backup in the event you experience issues with your primary light.
We prefer to have two backups, one as a backup to the primary, and a smaller light to put in our BCD pocket for emergency situations. When selecting the right dive light, there are a few things you need to take into consideration, this includes:
- Ability to attach the light to your body
- How bright the light is
- How long the battery lasts
- How deep you can take the light
Two great options we recommend for dive lights are:
Cave Diving Reel
Aside from your main dive setup, this is one of the most important pieces of equipment you will use when cave diving. A dive reel is pretty simple. It is a large amount of rope around a spool. But, for cave diving, it is your lifeline to the outside world.
When cave diving, you attach the end of the dive reel rope to a point outside. Often, divers will tie the rope off a second time at a point at the entrance to the cavern. This ensures that even if the rope becomes untied at one point, it stays put. The lead diver in a cave dive group will keep the reel with them during the dive. The idea is to keep the rope tense to avoid having it jam within the reel and to avoid line traps. You can read about proper line handling and protocol to find out proper procedure.
For sturdy dive reels, we recommend:
What Are The Best Cave Diving Sites In The World?
1. Dos Ojos
Dos Ojos is an underground cave system located in the Yucatan Peninsula on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. It is well known for being the longest underground cave system in the world.
This was discovered after a connecting passage was found between the Dos Ojos cave system and the Sac Actun cave system in early 2018. The Dos Ojos cave system officially became part of Sac Actun as is customary when two tunnels are found to be joined. The smaller tunnel takes the name of the larger.
Dos Ojos is popular with divers due to the extremely clear waters which run throughout the system. There are 28 known cenotes which provide entrance into the cave system. Cenotes are sinkholes where the limestone bedrock has collapsed. The name Dos Ojos comes from two of these cenotes which resemble giant eyes peering into the cave.
- Location: Near Tulum, Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula)
- Best Time to Dive: Year-round. October to April is considered the best time to visit Mexico. This is usually the most popular time for visiting due for beaches. For this reason, it is the most popular time of year for diving the cenotes. But, May through September is considered the best time for cenote diving due to having the best light conditions.
- Skill Level: Advanced Open Water and higher
Here is a great video of Dos Ojos so you can get a better idea of what to expect on your next dive.
2. Indian Springs
Many cave divers consider Indian Springs to be the best cave dive site in North America. Be warned though, you need to be an experienced technical diver before even attempting this site.
The cave is popular for the numerous giant chambers which divers can explore. It is recommended that you use a diver propulsion vehicle to reach many of these chambers due to their distance from the entrance. The cave is at a depth of between 37m (120ft) and 55m (180ft).
As we stated previously, this is not a dive for beginners. You need complete tech diving experience and the knowelege to comfortably handle mixed gasses. One of the basic requirements before making this dive is proof of at least 100 previous cave dives. So, this is one dive to put off until a bit later in your diving journey.
- Location: South of Tallahassee, Florida, United States (Near Wakulla Springs State Park)
- Best Time to Dive: As the cave is on private property, you must first obtain a permit to make this dive. Diving is only permitted during non-summer months as the property is owned by the YMCA and used as a summer camp retreat.
- Skill Level: Full Technical Diving Certification with Trimix Certification. Also, proof of 100 previous cave dives is required.
Here is a great video showing Indian Springs cave so you can get a better idea of what to expect if you make the dive.
3. Orda Cave
Images courtesy of Viktor Lyagushkin
This is one of the more unique caves on this list. It differs from many in that it is a gypsum cave instead of limestone. It is also the longest cave in the world of its kind.
The gypsum walls are white and create an almost surreal sight with the crystal clear waters. Another aspect of gypsum is that it erodes more easily than limestone. So, the cave is constantly changing.
One of the main things that attracts divers here, aside from the amazing sights, are the giant rooms which are spread throughout the cave. Much of the cave is as yet unexplored, which attracts more experienced cave divers from around the world. This is a good cave for beginner cave divers to attempt.
- Location: Western Ural Mountains, Orda, Russia
- Best Time to Dive: June to August
- Skill Level: Cavern Diver and higher
Here is a great video showing Orda cave and what you can expect when you make your next dive.
4. Elephants Cave
Images courtesy of Omega Divers
This is a truly fascinating cave for a variety of reasons. For one, it is the only known cave in Greece where elephant fossils were found. The fossils are for a unique and extinct species of elephant differing from contemporary elephants. There are also fossils from various species of deer around the main chamber of the cave.
If you’re more into living creatures than fossilized ones, the Elephant Cave is also a good place to spot the Mediterranean Seal. This is the rarest species of seal in the world and one of the top ten most endangered species on the planet. The cave is located off the northwest coast of the island of Crete.
- Located: Chania, Greece
- Best Time to Dive: Late May to Early September
- Skill Level: Cavern Diver and higher
Here is a great video showing the Elephant Cave and what you can expect when making the dive.
5. Emergence Du Russel
This cave, located in France, offers an experience slightly different than many other caves around the world. The Emergence Du Russel cave is popular due to the loop which divers can swim around.
Not many divers are able to complete this. But, the challenge nonetheless draws experienced cave divers from around the world who attempt to complete it. The loop totals 4km (2.5mi) and is located at a depth of between 9m (30ft) and 18m (60ft).
- Location: Dordogne Region, France
- Best Time to Dive: April to October
- Skill Level: Cavern Diver and higher
Here is a great video showing the loop around Emergence Du Russel so you get an idea of what to expect on your next dive.
6. Nereo Cave
This is one of the best caves in the world for new cave divers. It is both simple to navigate and within recreational depth limits. There are many different entrances to the cave.
Most divers though will begin at the largest entrance, around 30m (100ft). From here, it is possible to navigate through the tunnels to an exit point. The exit sits at 18m (60ft) and is easy to reach the surface from.
The cave isn’t the only interesting thing about this dive. It is located in the Mediterranean and full of marine life. You can expect to see schools of barracuda, red snappers, lobsters, and moray eels. There are also many different species of coral throughout the cave making it a great spot for underwater photographers.
Location: Alghero, Sardinia, Italy
Best Time to Dive: Late April to Early October
Skill Level: Cavern Diver and higher
Here is a great video showing Nereo Cave and what you can expect to see when making your next dive.
Cave Diving Tips
Stay within your skill level
We’ve mentioned this a few times now but it bears repeating. Cave diving is regarded by many as one of the most dangerous extreme sports in the world. But, it doesn’t have to be.
Ask any experienced cave diver and they will tell you that it is only as safe as the person doing the dive. This is true for any type of diving whether technical diving or regular recreational diving. But, the extra hazards from cave diving present more opportunity for things going wrong.
Anytime you are diving in an overhead environment, it is important to plan everything and stick to the plan. This goes for both wreck diving, ice diving, and cave diving.
If something goes wrong in an overhead environment you can’t just swim up to safety. Instead, you have to swim out and then up. With cave diving especially this can be a huge challenge if you are hundreds of meters inside of a cave.
Cave divers die every year from issues like running out of gas. But, the cave diving agencies which monitor these statistics will tell you most of these deaths were preventable. In the vast majority of cave deaths, the primary reason for the fatality was inexperience on the part of the diver or not having proper equipment.
Do not become one of those statistics. No cave is worth dying in. If you want to make a dive, always make sure you have the experience, equipment, and proper planning to safely do it.
Do not go cheap with the equipment
By the time you get to cave diving, you should already be pretty far into your diving career. It’s fine to go a little cheaper when you are buying your first set of dive gear for a training class. You don’t need to buy the most expensive goggles or a super expensive computer. By the time you get to cave diving though, it is time to break out the wallet and get yourself some good equipment.
This, along with the learning curve, is one of the things that keeps many people from getting into cave diving. You are looking at a few thousand dollars minimum to get your first cave diving set up. As you start getting more and more technical, this number can grow rapidly.
Cave diving and technical diving equipment is expensive. The air mixes you will be using on more advanced cave dives are expensive. Also, the training you need to safely perform these types of dives is expensive. But, these are all expenses that will keep you safe and provide you with the ability to fully execute a cave dive.
Going cheap on any of these can yield disastrous results. So, always make sure to purchase industry-standard equipment, even if it is expensive. The last thing you want is to have equipment fail when you are a few hundred meters into a cave because you bought knock-off equipment.
Take things slow
Once you get into cave diving and technical diving, you may want to push things as far as you can as fast as you can. But, that is the last thing you want to do. Instead, the best thing you can do is take things slowly. Don’t try to go from a few cave dives to diving sites like Indian Springs and Jacobs Well. It is best to take things in steps.
Go through the Cavern Diver Specialty Course, then do dives at that level until you begin to feel comfortable. Only then should you begin to progress with the training. This ties into what we said in tip number one, but the number one reason people die cave diving is due to lack of experience.
So, take things slowly. Go through each level of training only when you are ready. Also, always make sure you have plenty of dives at each training level to ensure you are fully prepared for the next level.
Always be honest with your abilities
This last one is simple but it ties in well with tip number two and three. Always be honest with where you currently are and what you are comfortable with. For example, if you are an advanced open water diver but only have twenty logged dives, you should get more experience before cave diving.
Or, if you know you have claustrophobia and aren’t comfortable in tight spaces, don’t go cave diving. The last place you want to be when you realize your in over your head is in a cave. At this point, it may already be too late. Don’t ever over exaggerate your abilities and don’t downplay any conditions that might affect your ability to safely perform a dive.
Think your ready for the challenge of cave diving? It’s not for everyone as you can probably figure out. But, if you do decide to take the plunge you are in for an experience that very few people on this planet will experience.
Are you an experienced cave diver? Or, maybe you are thinking about getting started with cave diving? Let us know in the comments section. We love to hear from divers of all skill levels. Also, if you have any other tips for cave diving, make sure to tell us. You never know how your experiences can help your fellow divers.