I joined the Melbourne University Underwater Club in 2003; Ag was President that year. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was President, that I better understood and envied the natural talent she had for getting hungover students enthused about getting up early and going diving. In February 2005 we did our first cave course together.
In mid-2005 I headed off to England for 18 months. Back in the country in 2006 Dean, Ag and I were over in Mt Gambier every 2 to 3 weeks, practising for the third and final cave course. We were all still determinedly wearing our tanks on our backs at this point, removed by Ag on one notable occasion to facilitate an exit from the bottom of Mudhole Cave. Neither of her buddies was too impressed with the unscheduled and unpractised manoeuvre, but Ag was unfazed by what ifs – she was comfortable and under control.
On the Easter weekend in 2007 we set out on our Advanced Cave course, progressing through the training dives and stress test. The first site dive in Pines Cave saw Ag and I buddied together. With blindfolds applied down past the stop sign, we began to return to the surface, reaching the first of our jumps between the “permanent lines” laid for the course. After a few minutes of hanging on Ag’s arm, I realised we weren’t going anywhere, and moved her over so I could have a go.
By this point the spool was wrapped three times in each direction around the line, and definitely not coming off. Ag had another go at it, while I had a bright idea – to pass the dive, we needed to bring out the jumps – I should cut the knot! Not the brightest idea, as the end of the line attached to the surface slipped from my fingers. Blindfolds came off and we proceeded to the surface for a strict talking to, followed by drunken rationalisations that night at the Avalon.
Ag and I were both distraught at our failed attempt – maybe we weren’t meant to be cave divers? We had a lot of discussions about that dive, and why we were both so focused on “passing” the dive that we forgot the ultimate aim was to exit the cave. The lesson that stuck with me was that every learning experience you have with someone there to rescue you is one to be grateful for. I firmly believe that a regular reminder of the limits of your skills and decision-making abilities under stress is the best gift for every cave diver.
Later that year we had another go at the site dives, which went without mishap and we were free to explore. We were still heading to Mt Gambier every three weeks or so, clocking up pre-requisite dives for Tank Cave. Unfortunately for Ag this happened right as she headed off for a year in cave country, Florida, and she didn’t have the time to get into Tank. This was naturally accompanied by very little sympathy from any of us, and justifiably so as the email reports began to come home.
While in Florida Ag did over 200 cave dives, mostly in Ginnie Springs on her way home from work. Not being able to find buddies every evening, Ag began solo diving more frequently. This culminated in her doing solo exploration beyond the end of the gold line restriction at 4000ft from the entrance, and thus getting herself banned from the Ginnie Springs park for not having a DPV ticket shortly before myself and two cave diving friends turned up to visit her. The time we spent with Ag was punctuated by her answering the phone, a brief pause, then “Yeah, banned! Unbelievable, right??”
With her employer Dive Rite shutting down operations for two weeks over Christmas, and banned from her favourite dive site, Ag was forced to find something else to do. This turned out to be finding her way through a restriction in nearby Baptizing Cave, and two weeks of knotting exploration guideline, filling tanks, diving virgin cave and not much sleep. Nearly 2km of new passage put Ag in a fairly exclusive club among cave divers, and her write up of the cave is a very good read.
Following these exploits (and in no particular order), Ag joined Wes Skiles’s Bahamas project for the National Geographic, and talked her way into a job as a stunt double for Hollywood blockbuster Sanctum. She got herself trained on two different rebreathers, and came down to Tassie with us to put some more line in Tiger’s Eye Cave in 6 degree water. Ag finally got into Tank Cave, completed the 35 familiarisation dives and went on to find new passage off C tunnel. She joined Stu Macgregor’s trip to the Blue Holes in Queensland, and on a subsequent trip to Florida connected her 2km of new line in Baptizing Cave to the very popular Peacock Cave with James Toland.
With Jim Arundale she discovered over 1km of new passageway and 6 sumps in Elk River in Gippsland, the most significant find in Victoria in decades. Joining the Cocklebiddy push expedition, she surprised the rebreather boys by turning up at the end of the third sump on open circuit, well past Chris Brown’s line. She also dropped an underwater camera in another underwater cave for over six months. Surprisingly enough, it didn’t work when extracted, but she did talk Canon into replacing it for her under warranty. As those who’ve had to deal with the Canon warranty department will understand, this may be her most significant achievement.
Mixed in with all of this, Ag managed to do some naughty things on another Nullarbor trip by not having the appropriate cave access permits and got herself banned by the Cave Divers Association of Australia (CDAA) for a year. That ban expired last October, and in early February we drove over to Mt Gambier for a weekend of diving in Tank Cave. Capitalising on her underwater modeling skills acquired during her time with Wes Skiles, I got some excellent shots in F tunnel before helping her to map her new areas in C tunnel.
Two weeks later on Sunday February 27th, I was leaving Piccaninnie Ponds to return to Melbourne when we were contacted to say that Ag was late back from a Tank Cave dive. Over the following week, I was part of the team of CDAA divers who brought her body to the surface. The CDAA is blessed with little experience in this area, and the excellent co-operation and assistance of the Police made our grim task much easier.
The recovery team divers completed a short statement before leaving Mt Gambier, which was cleared with the SA Police. You may have seen this on various internet forums, and it is reprinted in the CDAA quarterly magazine Guidelines. With Ag’s death reported to the Coroner, this is all that can be said about Ag’s final dive at this time.
In the time since that week, I have done a lot of thinking about Ag, her diving, the body recovery exercise, and about my own diving.
A lot of people facilitated Ag’s journey to become the diver she was – she influenced, persuaded and convinced an impressive list of people to help her out, with a big smile and her winning personality. She made a lot of friends and put a lot of energy into communicating her passions to others.
Ag had natural talent in the water, both in her skills and in her mental approach. She put serious thought and effort into her training, skills and dive trip preparation, which was not always evident to those who saw the speed at which her diving was progressing. I never knew her to panic on a dive. The risks she took were rational and calculated, underpinned by her comfort underwater and her confidence in her own abilities.
When exploring new caves, cave divers balance the fear of things going horribly wrong against the excitement of what’s around the corner. The emotions at the time influence our attempts at the rational decision to continue or to turn back given gas supplies, gear configuration, physical and mental comfort and the cave environment. Without fear to influence the decision, that rational choice may be harder to find. Knowing when to be afraid is essential to cave exploration.
For my diving, it has been brought home to me that I never want one of my friends to have to stand with my mum as she cries next to a cave entrance. And so my exploration will be more considered, involve more redundancy, and a much greater willingness to call the dive. I would ask every technical diver to reconsider the risks you take, because they’re not just your risks. Should you die in a cave, your troubles are over. For the divers who will try to bring you out to your family, the difficulties are just beginning. Please, dive safe.
This post was first published in Guidelines, the quarterly CDAA magazine, in June 2011.