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The Deepest Scuba Dive - Part 2

Boesmansgat Woman’s Record Attempt: The Dive

In the days preceding the record attempt, the dive team firstly placed the stage shot line in the cave and over a number of dives, to different depths, placed stage cylinders with a variety of gas mixtures that would be needed for the record attempt dive on this line, with the deepest stage cylinders being placed at 110m.

Once measured and verified by the impartial witnesses, the record line, with the necessary depth tags, was placed in the water and no further diving was allowed before the main record attempt dive. The tags were placed on the line by one of the impartial witnesses and the event was filmed.

The record dive was planned for 25 March 2021, however during the evening prior I fell ill with a stomach bug and had to postpone the record dive attempt. I rested for the entire day and was feeling better that evening and the next morning was in better health and ready for the big dive.

The women’s depth record attempt dive therefore took place on the 26th March 2021 in the Boesmansgat Cave, Mount Carmel Safaris Farm, Northern Cape, South Africa. The whole team had an early start, waking up at about 4am that morning in order that the dive could start as early as possible. This meant that the team descended down the hole to the waters’ edge whilst a beautiful dawn was breaking over the rim of the hole. The atmosphere was tense yet quiet while everyone went about kitting up and getting ready for the dive.

In terms of the team, although not a hard-and-fast rule, the general premise was that only those busy with diving operations at any particular time, were next to hole, else they generally moved off to higher ground. On the record dive day however, the Surface Coordinator, Jan Vorster ran a tight ship and only those people who absolutely needed to be at the water’s edge were permitted there, else they had to move off, until called upon by him.

Although Francois Bain acted as expedition leader, on the record attempt day, the reigns were handed over to our fastidious and stern surface coordinator, Jan Vorster, who made sure that each diver entered the water on time, and that information received from the support divers as they surfaced, was processed and relayed to DAN Head Quarters via Whatsapp. Since there was no cellphone reception at the water’s edge, a set of two-way radios were used to relay the message to a surface support team member (Quintin van der Walt) who then forwarded the information to DAN SA via Whatsapp.  Any feedback from DAN SA would then similarly be returned via the same route, but in reverse, to the Surface Coordinator.

All divers had to be searched by an Impartial witness before entering the water, including myself, to ensure that no one was harboring any fake tags or any other items that may be able to be used to cheat on the attempt.
Once fully kitted and in the water, I took a few moments to gather my thoughts before starting my descent. The intention was to start the dive at 6.30am, but it eventually got underway with my descent starting at 7.10am that morning with Peter Reid, the deepest support diver, following a few minutes later. As soon as I stared my descent the nerves disappeared, and my sole focus was on the dive and the task at hand.

I descended to 30m where I switched gases and then continued to 110m where I again switched gases and dropped off stage cylinders. After switching gases at 110m I finned over from the stage line to the record line and began my descent to 236m. On my descent I passed the first 2 tags (226m and 231m) and upon reaching the 236m tag I hesitated briefly considering if I should continue to the next tag but decided to stop at the 3rd tag of 236m. I clipped the 236m tag off the line and onto a d-ring attached to my dive computer strap for this purpose and then proceeded to inflate my buoyancy compensating wings to start my ascent.
However, when I inflated my wings, nothing happened, I was not starting to ascend, something was not right. I then started to fin, trying to assist my ascent by swimming upwards and by pulling myself up on the record line. I started to slowly ascend. However, exerting oneself at that depth is not a good idea, due to the density of the gas, developing hypercapnia will occur very quickly with exertion. The exertion of finning and pulling myself up on the line did cause me to become out-of-breath and I struggled to catch my breath again. I kept telling myself “you need to slow your breathing, slow deep breaths”, but my body was not responding, and I was hyperventilating. To make matters worse, whilst pulling myself up along the line, I got snagged on the 226m tag which I had to unclip and drop to free myself. I was ascending but slowly, way too slowly! When I reached 211m I briefly stopped and it was then that I felt the tug on one of my legs. It was at this point that I realized that my legs and fins had become tangled in what looked like polypropylene line that was attached to something at the bottom of the cave. I managed to shake off the line and was then able to continue my ascent. Now that I was free from whatever was holding me down, I was ascending much too quickly and it took me some time to deflate my wings and gain control on my ascent. My first support diver, Peter Reid, was waiting at 200m and he later reported that he clearly saw me take the tag at 236m but did not see the loose polypropylene line until I had ascended back to 211m. We concluded that I must have become tangled in the line at 236m and then dragged it up with me to 211m.

Once back at 110m, I finned over to the stage shot line where I picked up additional cylinders and did my first gas switch for the ascent. I also met 2 additional support divers at 110m (Don Hauman and Michael Partridge), the support divers monitored my gas switch to ensure no signs of isobaric counter diffusion developed and took some of the stage cylinders no longer required from me.  I then continued to ascend to the 80m mark where I picked up additional stage cylinders. It was here where Don reached out and squeezed my arm, my nerves still on high alert from the events that had unfolded, and I turned and looked at him with a “what now” look, but there was no problem, it was just a “you got this” squeeze on my arm.

 At 60m I met another 2 support divers (Jakob Iten and Atish Dayal). First to meet me at 60m was Jakob to monitor my gas switch and check on the status of all the deep divers before making his way to the surface to deliver the first news back to the surface team. This was followed by the arrival of Atish who would stay with me for the next 1.5hrs or so until I reached 30m. At 30m I again met up with 2 support divers, firstly Joseph Birtles to monitor my gas switch and check on the status of all the divers in the water before ascending to provide an update to the surface team. This was followed by the arrival of Francois Bain who would stay with me for the next 1.5 hours or so until I reached 18m. From 30m upwards, the support divers started bringing me warm fluids to keep hydrated and warm. At this point I realized that one of my dive computers had started malfunctioning and had started giving inaccurate depth readings – at just shallower than 30m it was reading a depth of 1.7m and then started jumping to different depths and then back to the correct depth and then back to 1.7m. I made a decision to disregard to the information that this dive computer was giving me and completed the dive using my other dive computer. At 18m I met additional support divers. First Hani Williams and then later Louis Henrico

The total dive time was 7hrs and 18mins of which the first 15 minutes was spent on descent to the maximum achieved depth. Once I had safety reached 3m, I was relieved, the dive was almost over and I was safe, there had been no signs of decompression illness that had developed up to this point and anything that did happen now would be much more easily managed by the support team. The last two hours of the dive spent at 3m, were very challenging and went by very slowly!

I was cold, hungry, my feet were numb from the squeeze in my drysuit and the bright sunlight surface was just above me. However, you know that you can, under no circumstances, surface until the full decompression obligation has been met.
On surfacing I handed the 236m depth tag to an impartial witness, Theo van Eeden. This was also witnessed by both Frank Slabbert and Kevin Dolphin of CMAS South Africa who were also impartial witnesses. I was tired, but overall felt pretty good considering I had just done a dive to 236m and spent over 7hrs in the water. It felt unreal, with the support and assistance of an amazing team, I had achieved an almost lifelong goal, which at times had seemed impossible. It has been an incredibly rewarding journey of self-discovery and personal development and I have had the opportunity to meet some amazing people and develop life-long friendships along the way.

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