Adventure, Tragedy and Cave Diving We follow the adventurous, and tragic, story of a recovery effort in the world's largest freshwater cave.
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Adventure, Tragedy and Cave Diving

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Adventure, Tragedy and Cave Diving

Adventure, Tragedy and Cave Diving

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In the rolling South African veld, under the scummy surface of a rock-sized pool, lies the world's largest freshwater cave, and its third deepest, Bushman's Hole. For years it's proved an irresistible lure to some of the most extreme of extreme sportsmen--deep-water divers. As the scene of great risk, it's also the home of tragedy. In 1994, a 20-year-old South African dived the Hole and never resurfaced alive. The story of his death and the recovery mission to bring back his body appears in the August issue of Outside magazine. Here to tell us the story is Outside correspondent Tim Zimmerman. He's with us here in Studio 3A.

It's good of you to come in today.

Mr. TIM ZIMMERMAN (Outside Magazine Correspondent): It's great to be here.

CONAN: Did you dive in Bushman's Hole for this story?

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: I did. I'm not a very experienced diver but I decided if I was going to write about divers going into deep caves, I better at least poke my head under the surface. And so I got a couple of the divers who had participated in the recovery to take me down to about 70 feet. That may sound deep for people who don't know much about diving, but these guys are used to going about 500 to 700 feet. So it really was just below the surface for me, but I got a feeling for it.

CONAN: Well, the picture of the cave that's in the magazine, there's a chamber on top and then something called the chimney that opens up into this giant hole underneath. Did you go down through the chimney?

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: I went down through the chimney and that probably is the most difficult part. You're quite claustrophobic. Every time you turn you're banging your equipment against something. And for me, at least, I couldn't forget that there was about a 1,000 feet of dark water underneath me. Once you get down to about 150 feet, which was a little too deep for me to go, you open up into an enormous chamber which all the divers love to get into because they liken it to spacewalking.

CONAN: There is some comparisons to space, space travel, as well, and obviously the suits you have to wear to protect yourself, and the amount of preparation and care that goes into this, and the risk.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: That's right, and you're weightless, as well. You're in a pitch-black environment. And the interesting thing is that these guys, there are only seven people who have gone below 820 feet diving and these guys like to say that that's fewer people than have walked on the surface of the moon. So that's how they make a comparison about how extreme their sport is.

CONAN: Your story, I guess, in a way, begins with the young South African we mentioned, Deon Dreyer.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Deon Dreyer was a young, very lively sportsman. He raced cars, he loved to hunt, and he discovered diving at about the age of 17. And he threw himself into it. Did a lot of cave diving, and was invited along to go into Bushman's Hole. And it wasn't at a time, in 1994, where people knew that much about Bushman's Hole. That had really only been a cave that people had dived a lot in just a few years earlier.

Anyways, Deon Dreyer went down to about 200 feet. He was really a little bit unprepared for the dive. He didn't have the right equipment. And on the way back up, the guys with him saw a light below them and they did a quick count and realized one of their divers was missing. They started to swim down after him, but his light was sinking too fast and they realized it would be a suicide mission. So he disappeared into the depths of Bushman's Hole.

His parents resigned themselves to the fact that he would be there at the bottom, which is about 927 feet below the surface, and they put a plaque up to commemorate him, and all the divers who ever dive there knew about him and it wasn't until 2004 and a guy named Dave Shaw that someone came along and discovered the body and said to the parents, `I'm going to go try to get your boy back for you.'

CONAN: So Dave Shaw was a deep diver but also a man who wanted to experiment with a different kind of equipment and we're sort of used to the--you know, the Lloyd Bridges' "Sea Hunt" scuba gear with lots of bubbles. He was using equipment called a rebreather.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Right, Dave Shaw was a very interesting guy. He was an airline pilot so he wasn't really a risk-taker so much as a risk-manager. He loved to do things that were difficult to do and he loved to do them because he liked to break the risks down and then succeed. And he was--he liked to be at the cutting edge of the technology and so he did use a piece of equipment called a rebreather which allows divers to go deeper for longer, and do less decompression and take on a certain amount of less risk. And so Dave Shaw was, in a way, a test pilot for these rebreathers. The one problem with them is they've never been taken very deep before and so he built, or modified, his own rebreather, and started diving it deeper and deeper. And it was when he set a world record at the bottom of Bushman's Hole on his rebreather that he discovered the body of Deon Dreyer.

CONAN: We're talking with Tim Zimmerman, a correspondent for Outside magazine, about the adventure and tragedy of deep-cave diving. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And you said when Shaw found the body, one thought popped into his head.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Well, when Shaw found the body--actually, what's interesting, I couldn't go in--Shaw was an explorer. He didn't really dive to set world records. He dove to explore. He liked to go places where he could think to himself `I'm the only human who's ever been in this place.' And when he was swimming along the bottom of Bushman's, exploring, and having a great time doing it, he swept his light along the bottom, and he saw Deon Dreyer, and actually his first thought was `Darn, there's the end of my exploration dive,' but he knew what he had to do.

He knew it was Deon Dreyer and he went over and he tried to pick him up to see if he could bring him back to the surface. But he started to breathe very hard because Deon Dreyer seemed to be stuck in the mud, and he said to himself, `Look, I'm going to kill myself if I do this. I better prepare.' He tied a line to Deon Dreyer and he went back to the surface, and he and his best diving partner, best diving buddy, a guy named Don Shirley, came up with a plan to return a few months later to try to recover the body, which would be the deepest body recovery ever in the history of diving.

CONAN: And this was no simple operation. You're talking--you said he returned to the surface. That isn't a simple operation either. It involves many stops for hours along the way to decompress to avoid the bends and other affects of the pressure of those depths and recovery from the pressure of those depths. So this is a major logistical enterprise to set up the equipment for this dive.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: It's an extraordinary thing to go to almost 900 feet and to try to do some work. Commercial divers would never do it. And no one until Dave Shaw had proposed doing it. Anyone who's ever been that deep, they basically go down to get a record, and then they bounce right back up to the surface. It goes take extraordinary amount of time to decompress from all the gases that get pushed into your tissues and just doing anything that deep, particularly when you're at the bottom of a dark cave and anything can go wrong, is just an extraordinarily risky thing to do.

CONAN: And when Dave Shaw got back to the bottom of Bushman's Hole, things went wrong.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: When Dave Shaw went back to the bottom, they had a whole plan where Dave Shaw would go to the bottom, he would put Deon Dreyer into a body bag. He wasn't sure what kind of condition Deon Dreyer's body was in. He had seen on his October dive that the head and the hands were basically just bone but he didn't know whether it was bone inside his wet suit and he decided he better bring him out in a body bag because it seemed silly to risk his life and then have pieces of Deon Dreyer fall apart as he tried to bring him up. And when he got to Deon Dreyer, he pulled his body bag out and he started to roll it over Deon Dreyer's body, and then a very unexpected thing happened. The body, which he was certain had been stuck in the mud, suddenly came lose, and was floating in front of him and it became very difficult for him to put the bag around Deon Dreyer.

CONAN: And when you're that deep you describe the effect of being that deep as about seven martinis.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, the--one of the great difficulties of diving deep and trying to do anything is that you get an effect called narcosis. It's called rapture of the deep. But, basically, it means that when you breathe nitrogen, which these guys are breathing at such deep depths, it's as if you're drinking martinis, one after the other. And for Dave Shaw at that time, it was probably as if he had had seven martinis. And so here he was at the bottom of this cave trying to put a floating rolling body into a body bag and he's essentially drunk.

And it's very hard to kind of adapt to a situation or to try to change your plan and to try to act in a mentally flexible way and so he continued to try to do--to put the body in the bag which probably he shouldn't have done, probably should have just turned around and left the body. And eventually he got tangled up in the line that he had originally left tied to Deon Dreyer and eventually that caused him to die because as he tried to leave the body, it was dragging it with him, he was breathing way too hard, and eventually he passed out from carbon dioxide buildup in his lungs.

CONAN: You can read the full story of what happened and there are subsequent events, we don't have time to get into, in Tim Zimmerman's article Raising the Dead in this month's Outside magazine. But I did want to ask you, Tim. You talked to these divers. You tried this a bit yourself. Did you get a sense of why they do it?

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: It's very interesting. I mean, if you--you mentioned earlier how long it takes to surface. It takes these guys about 10 minutes, 15 minutes to get to the bottom of the cave and it takes them about 10 hours to get back up. And I thought of that as being incredibly tedious. I mean, you have to be remarkably patient, you have to wear a diaper, I mean, it's quite bizarre, and then I went diving in the cave, and when I first was going into the chimney I felt very claustrophobic, I was breathing very rapidly, but as I got down to about 60, 70 feet, suddenly I started to relax, we started to look around at the cave, I could see that it was beautiful.

And when I first came out, I said to the other divers, `You guys are crazy.' But about a day later, I thought, `Well, you know, maybe they aren't so crazy. Maybe I could go to 100 feet in that cave.' And I started to get a sense of what pulls them in. You go to a certain depth, it's a depth that tests you. You come out alive, you think, `Well, that was an accomplishment,' and then you think `I'd like to go back and I'd like to go a little deeper.' And that's what these guys do. They just keep going deeper and deeper. And sometimes they die.

CONAN: They--yeah. And eventually you wonder `Well, there's a bottom down there. I want to find it.'

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: That's right. And that's what Dave Shaw wanted to do. His whole purpose in diving there in October was he wanted to explore the bottom of Bushman's Hole.

CONAN: Tim Zimmerman, wonderful story. Thanks very much for coming in to speak with us today.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Tim Zimmerman's article is in the current issue of this month's Outside magazine. He was nice enough to join us here today in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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