What we can learn from Thai cave rescue

How the cave dive rescue unfolded in Thailand

Thai rescue diagram

Photo credit: South China Morning Post

In Thailand, a heroic rescue was done to help 12 young boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in a cave for nearly two weeks. On June 23, 2018, the Wild Boars football team together with their coach ventured in a cave during an excursion but a sudden onslaught of rain flooded the area and held them captive in the chamber.  When the kids failed to go home from their trip, the parents reported them missing. Fear enveloped their families as days went by without a word from the kids nor their coach.

A group of British rescue divers was the first on the scene. They found the missing individuals after 10 days, huddled together on a rock shelf in a small chamber around 2.5 miles from the mouth of the cave. News of the kids and their coach still alive prompted Thai and international divers to push forward with the rescue efforts. Food, thermal blankets, oxygen, and medical assistance were sent to the trapped victims but there was a growing concern about the depleting oxygen level in the chamber. To make matters worse, heavy monsoon rains and the possibility of further flooding put the kids, aged 11 to 16 (some of whom do not know how to swim) and their 25-year old coach in greater danger.

Racing against time, Thailand’s Navy Seal commander knew that there was no choice but to use the limited window of opportunity to rescue the kids. International divers collaborated with Thai Navy Seals for the perilous mission.

Thai cave rescueSadly, tragedy struck when Saman Kunan, 38, a former Thai Navy Seal who volunteered in the rescue ran out of oxygen on his way back to the surface after putting air tanks along the two-mile route to the trapped boys. His dive buddy tried to revive him but was unsuccessful. Former Petty Officer First Class Kunan died around 2 am on July 6, 2018. Tributes were paid to Kunan for his exemplary courage to help rescue the boys.

The death of Kunan was not in vain as local and international rescuers bravely beat the odds. Finally, on July 9, 2018, eight out of 12 boys were extracted safely from the cave. The rescue divers completed the complex rescue mission on July 10, 2018, when they successfully brought out the remaining four boys and their coach.

Not all underwater caves are perilous

In the light of this recent event that garnered global attention, some might come to the conclusion that cave diving is perilous in every aspect.  Yes, there are some dangerous underwater caves that are not recommended for divers but there are many underwater caverns and cenotes that are safe, fun, and exciting to explore with the right training, proper equipment, and experience.  

Needless to say, cavern diving requires prior diving experience and should not be attempted by novice divers.  It’s easy for a new diver to all get fired up in exploring a cavern or cave but it’s a mistake to think that a neophyte diver can pull it off as long as he/she is with someone with more advanced training.  Be aware that most accidents occur when a diver does not have the proper training, experience, and the right equipment for the conditions of the dive.

Exploring underwater chamberThere are no training shortcuts to speed up one’s readiness for cavern diving. The best way to learn cavern diving is to begin with an Advanced Open Water Diver Certification or higher. By accumulating open water diving experience and going through the proper training, a diver learns the basics of safe cave diving and gains the necessary skills to prepare himself/herself for the cavern exploration. These essential skills include buoyancy control, finning techniques, gas planning, adequate lighting, marking the trail, and knowing the maximum depth.  Without these skills, knowledge, and experience, a novice diver may bump against cave structures, stir up silt, feel disoriented, lose his/her way, panic in the dark, or run out of air.

Take note that some caverns and sinkholes may be more extreme than others and require a certain minimum number of logged dives before a diver could join. The reason for this is that seasoned divers understand cavern geology, are aware of the hazards of diving in overhead environments and are more equipped to deal with emergencies.  

Extending your stay underwater

It’s terribly sad and somehow ironic that the former Petty Officer Saman Kunan delivered oxygen to rescuees but did not have enough air for himself to make it out of the cave alive.

To prevent the risk of running out of oxygen during a dive, some trained divers use Nitrox or oxygen-enriched air to safely lengthen their time underwater.  The Nitrox Course is a special training and certification course that enables a diver to descend with 22% – 40% enriched oxygen, therefore extending no-decompression limits, shortening surface intervals especially during repetitive scuba dives, and adding safety buffer for decompression sickness when it comes to certain diving circumstances.

Diving within your skill level

Cave diving means embarking along a path less trodden where there is no sunlight.  Exciting as it may seem, plunging into this dark overhead environment has risks. Therefore, it is vital to get the proper training and experience before attempting cavern diving.  Progress cautiously and gradually gain the necessary experience to prepare you for an underwater adventure that you’ll never forget.

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