Unlike other caves in the area, Engelbrechts Cave is located in the middle of Mt Gambier and the system runs under several streets and houses. There are two different water filled entrances, known as Engelbrechts East and Engelbrechts West. As you travel closer towards Mt Gambier, the water level is further below the ground. This means that while caves like Pines and Tank Cave only require a few steps down a 5m drop to access the water, Engelbrechts has significantly more stairs. When combined with 50kg of dive gear, the stairs present a bit of a challenge and these caves don’t get dived as often as they otherwise might.
Visitors are also able to go on tours of the dry sections of cave, and there’s information on cave diving and the history of the cave. It can be a tricky thing to manage politely interested questions as you lump heavy gear up the stairs….I’d love to stop and chat, but not just now. Gearing up with an audience can also be an interesting exercise, although having lights installed in the cave to facilitate the process is a great compensation.
Engelbrechts West is a shallow cave with a short first sump through to an air chamber. While cave divers were once able to swim around the rockpile and descend again into the tunnels on the other side, water levels in the area have dropped. Last time I dived in Engelbrecht’s West, we had to climb out of the water and over the rockpile to reach the far side. With the rain over last summer the water has risen slightly, and we were hopeful of not having to clamber across the rocks with dive gear on.
Having made the effort to climb down all of the stairs with camera gear, I spent the dive attempting both stills and video. Recent rain had led to slightly milky visibility in the first sump, and divers a few days earlier had left silt as they moved through the shallow water around the air chamber. We also discovered that while the water level had come up slightly, swimming across the shallow area was still out of the question, and it was an exercise in crawling in full scuba gear.
The interior chamber here is sizeable and can only be reached by cave divers via the first sump. On this occasion we decided to stay in the water rather than getting out to explore the rockpile, and this shot shows both the underwater and dry cave areas.
Split shots are a speciality technique for underwater photographers, and a good way to provide context in your scene. They come with their own special difficulties including water drops on the top half of the photo, different focal lengths above and below the surface and balancing the water line through the middle of your shot. Having an 8″ dome makes split shots easier, but I’d found with taking photos in the daylight that my camera was able to focus on the central water line across the picture, meaning that nothing else was in focus. In a cave, there’s no sunlight to light up the water line, and the focus points are restricted to areas illuminated by our diver lights.
Despite the milkiness of the water caused by divers travelling through the shallow water, the off camera strobe that Grant is holding has lit the background of the shot. I’ve lifted one of the two on camera strobes out of the water to light to dry section of the picture, and using one strobe above and one strobe below has allowed shadows on the subject. This shot was the best of a series, as I moved around to achieve the composition that I wanted. Split shots can be hit and miss with the droplets you can see here on the second shot…dipping the port repeatedly in the water and taking lots of shots is my best tip so far for getting keepers.