Thailand Cave Rescue via Diving Is a Daunting Challenge

adsit80By John Adsit
Educational Consultant

As a certified cave diver, I have followed the ordeal of the Thai soccer club with great interest. As I type, the rescuers are trying to determine the best way to bring them to the surface. No one has an answer at this time, but I have been asked to write about the options from the perspective of a cave diver, an educator in general, and a diving instructor in particular. What I hope to convey to an audience unfamiliar with cave diving is how truly daunting it will be if the decision is made to have the team escape by diving. If the team is going to make an exit by diving, they will need to undergo immediate and intensive training.

Personnel and equipment in the entrance chamber of Tham Luang cave during rescue operations during 26–27 June 2018. Screen capture from NBT news report.

When I teach new divers, I ask about their swimming and snorkeling experiences. What I am looking for is the degree to which they feel comfortable in the water. The greatest enemy to a diver is panic. Students who are accustomed to the normal mishaps of swimming, like accidentally getting water in the mouth or eyes, will usually have no trouble, but for people with little swimming experience, such a minor event can lead to irrational panic. Most of the Thai team members are non-swimmers, and the culture there has a common belief that swimming is extremely dangerous. That starts any training in a serious deficit.  

For most people, learning to dive is not too much of a challenge, and people with only basic scuba certification visit diving vacation destinations (including Thailand) by the thousands each year, and diving accidents are very rare. Such diving, however, is not remotely like the diving these children will face. Normal cave diving requires skills that go beyond what 99% of the world’s divers have ever seen, which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves. The diving required in this cave, however, is not normal cave diving, and the rescuers are not normal cave divers.  

One of the most important things you learn in cave training is humility. When most people start cave training, they do so under the notion that they are pretty darned good divers. They can usually say with complete truth that they are among the best divers they have ever seen. When they start cave training, though, they are introduced to a world they have never seen, and they are introduced to divers navigating that world using skills they have never seen. The cave divers who found this team are among the best in the world, and I think you need to be a cave diver to know what that means. In a recent social media discussion of this incident, someone suggested one of the participants, a cave instructor, could have helped them. He replied, “I am not qualified to bring those divers their coffee.”

Those super divers struggled to find those boys. This was no simple exploration of an open cave filled with water. They were fighting visibility, flow, and restrictions that most cave divers rarely see. When they exit, the boys on the team will need to reverse the path their rescuers took, and they will need to deal with that visibility, flow, and restrictions.

  • They will not be able to see anything. I was once involved with a cave exploration in which we had near zero visibility for a while. At one point, I could see the light from the dive computer on another diver’s wrist. It was inches from my face, but I could not see the arm to which it was attached. I believe the visibility in this cave is worse than that.
  • As they dived, the rescuers were essentially in a river. They could not make any headway by kicking against that current. They had to use a “pull and glide” technique by grabbing whatever they could hold onto on the walls of the cave and pulling themselves along. A current like that can pull your mask off.
  • The path is not always wide and open. There are places where it will be necessary to squeeze through. Given enough time, rescue teams can widen those passages, and that will be necessary if the boys are to be accompanied by divers on their exit.

If the team is going to exit that cave by reversing the route their rescuers took to find them, the rescuers will have to take a group of non-swimmers and instruct them to the point that they can be led through such a challenging environment without panicking. It may well be the only way to bring them out, but if it is, it will require an educational effort to equal the diving effort needed to find them.
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Related article by Adsit: Thai Cave Rescue Media Coverage: Notable for the Most Part

10 Responses

  1. […] have ever seen, which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” he wrote in an educational journal this morning. “The diving required in this cave, however, is not normal cave diving, and the rescuers are not […]

  2. […] have ever seen, which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” he wrote in an educational journal this morning. “The diving required in this cave, however, is not normal cave diving, and the rescuers are not […]

  3. […] have ever seen, which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” he wrote in an educational journal this morning. “The diving required in this cave, however, is not normal cave diving, and the rescuers are not […]

  4. […] have ever seen, which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” he wrote in an educational journal this morning. “The diving required in this cave, however, is not normal cave diving, and the rescuers are not […]

  5. […] which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” John Adsit wrote in an educational journal this morning. “The diving required in this cave, however, is not normal cave diving, and the rescuers are […]

  6. […] is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” John Adsit wrote in an Educational Technology & Change Journal on […]

  7. […] which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” John Adsit wrote in an Educational Technology & Change Journal on […]

  8. […] which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” John Adsit wrote in an Educational Technology & Change Journal on […]

  9. […] which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” John Adsit wrote in an Educational Technology & Change Journal on […]

  10. John, that’s an incredibly clear piece on what these divers and club members face. Someone really must get supplies to them for them to have time for any training necessary. I think that amateurs should stay away from caves.

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