Warning Signs at Tham Luang and Similar Caves: A Complex Issue

adsit80By John Adsit
Educational Consultant

(Response to Harry Keller’s “Three Most Important Takeaways from the Thai Cave Rescue,”19 July 2018, and the issue of warnings on caves. -Editor)

The entrance to the Tham Luang cave did indeed have a prominent warning sign, and the soccer team went past it when they entered. Most of the explored underwater caves in the world have strongly worded signs telling untrained divers to turn around. My guess is that 98% of the divers passing those signs do indeed have the proper qualifications, but a small percentage do not. That small percentage accounts for roughly half of the total cave diving fatalities worldwide in the last couple decades. For that small percentage, the posted danger appears to be more of a lure than a deterrent.

Photo from Marisa Chimprabha’s “Many Worry That Coach May Blame Himself for Ordeal” (The Nation, 5 July 2018).

Eagles Nest sink in Florida provides a couple good examples. The upper basin has 70 feet of (usually) murky water, with a tiny chimney only wide enough for a couple of people to pass at the bottom. That chimney takes you about 30 feet farther down to the huge cave complex below. Eagles Nest is often called the Mount Everest of cave diving, and you are not supposed to enter it without qualifications even beyond cave diving certification. Two days ago, a 20-year old man (boy?) died there freediving (no tanks–just mask and fins) deep into the bottom chamber. He told his companions he was going to set a personal record on that dive. As I write, diving social media are ablaze with comments on the sheer stupidity of that act.  

A few years ago a father and son took their brand new scuba equipment to Eagles Nest for a dive. The father had only introductory scuba certification. The 15-year old son had no scuba certification whatsoever. They passed a huge warning sign outside the site and the warning sign at the chimney entrance and attempted a major dive that demands years of training and far better equipment. Their deaths were all-too-predictable, but what happened after that is most telling for this issue.

When they died, their friends and relatives began a campaign to have that cave closed to everyone. Because their friends and relatives died performing an act for which they were totally unprepared, they argue, the cave itself must be too dangerous for anyone at any level of training. Their campaign continues to this day, and it is possible that all the fully trained and prepared divers who wish to go to that magnificent dive site will someday be prevented from doing so. You cannot respond to their argument by pointing out the utter stupidity of their actions because doing so is harshly construed as speaking ill of the dead: “How dare you blame our friends and family for their own deaths! The fault must lie with the cave itself!”

What is the solution? How do we prevent people from doing things beyond their ability while still allowing access to those with legitimate qualifications?

2 Responses

  1. How many people die each year from much more trivial misadventures? Simple signs such as “Slippery when wet” are ignored, and someone is injured or dies after ignoring that sign. You see “Danger, High Voltage” and think that you can open up the box because you are immune from being killed.

    I have twice come close to electrocution because I was careless. Once was using a transformer backwards to boost the voltage into the kilovolt range and zapping things. The stupid part? Using aluminum foil.

    Another time, I was working with 1,200-volt DC. Fortunately for me, the voltage across my chest contracted my muscles and jerked my hand away. I sat on the floor feeling as though someone had hit my chest with a sledgehammer.

    Both of these incidents occurred in my teen years. You are fortunate if you escape those years unharmed.

    I am making the point that no signs will ever deter everyone. I did not know about the cave being so prominently and clearly marked. The cave was dry when those people entered, ignoring the sign. The assistant coach was something like 25 years of age and should have known better, but 25 is still young and often in the “immortal” phase of life.

    John’s stories point up the fact that even older adults still haven’t learned the simplest lessons of life.

    It’s not just cave diving that has these problems. How many people lose their fingers to band saws and power mowers each year? Government regulations attempt to make us all safer at the cost of more expensive equipment, but you cannot eliminate all risk. Experienced and qualified divers lose their lives from time to time. So do very experienced small-plane pilots. Recently, someone I knew (barely, but he was the son of someone I know) had obtained a used Corvette and had fixed it up. He took it, at night, to a city street nearby that was empty at that time and decided to show off to his neighbor in the car just exactly what he had under the hood. He lost control, and both were killed. The car was unrecognizable from the crash and the ensuing fire. He was a very experienced driver.

    A few months ago, I broke my leg on a steep hillside while clearing brush on a parcel I had purchased. I now have four No Trespassing signs along its street side. Will No Trespassing prevent people from going on the property? I doubt it, but those signs will make it more difficult for them to sue if they are injured.

    Similarly, we cannot wall off every dangerous location in the world. We can only post clear warnings and hope that few people are after this year’s Darwin awards.

    • Harry, thanks for sharing the types of mishaps all of us have experienced because we, too, sometimes disregard warning signs. Unfortunately, we see it happening in Hawaii all too regularly: people disregarding signs about dangerous shorebreaks, riptides, mountain trails, and crime-infested areas. The idea that we’re somehow “immune,” exempt from the logical consequences of our careless actions, is difficult to understand. Does it have something to do with how we’re raised as children? Is it nature or nurture? Anyway, I’m overjoyed that the Thai players and their coach made it out alive. But the cost was staggering — the life of rescuer Saman Kunan. Perhaps one possibility is to add a photo or photos to the signs — photos of rescuers who have lost their lives or been severely injured to save those who have gotten into trouble.

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