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Published Oct. 2, 2005

(ran NORTH SUNCOAST edition)

Scuba diving is a lot like skating on thin ice; you don't realize there's a problem until you hear a crack, and by then, it usually is too late.

No amount of open-water scuba diving can prepare a diver for the hazards he will encounter inside a cave.

The most obvious one is a ceiling of rock. If a diver encounters a problem 40 feet down in the Gulf of Mexico, he can surface. But cave divers don't have that luxury.

Cave divers also must contend with darkness. On land, the night often can be scary and at times dangerous. Underwater, with a ceiling overhead, darkness can be deadly.

Silt, fine particles of sand, mud or clay that coat most cave or cavern floors easily can be stirred up by an errant flipper and render the most expensive diving light useless in a matter of seconds.

Currents, caused by the powerful flow of underground springs, can send the unprepared cave diver bouncing off the walls. Trained cave divers use specialized equipment and diving techniques to protect themselves against these natural hazards. But ocean divers continue to enter these freshwater systems and wind up as statistics.

Since 1972, more than 400 people have died diving in caves. Fatalities peaked in the mid 1970s, but the numbers have dropped since cave training has become widely available.

The Cave Diving Section of the National Speleogical Society (NSS-CDS) offers a four-stage training program.

The first level is the cavern course, which offers an excellent opportunity for open-water divers to increase their water skills. A cavern is the portion of the cave illuminated by daylight.

Trained divers may enter this zone with a minimum amount of specialized training and equipment. The course, which takes two days, provides a good introduction into the allure of cave diving.

Divers who wish to continue their training can take the Introduction to Cave Diving course. This class takes two days and involves four limited-penetration dives at two locations.

The next step is the Apprentice Cave Diving course, which takes two days and involves four dives.

In the Full Cave Diver course, students complete four dives at three sites.

Each course also involves class work.

To learn more, contact the NSS-CDS, P.O. Box 950, Branford, FL 32008.