The most shameful aspect of my decision to take up cave diving was that I hadn’t even come up with it on my own, despite all the Sundays of my childhood I spent exploring caves with my Uncle Bill, and the year of studying abroad in Australia I spent scuba diving. My only excuse is that my brain was a fetid stew after five months of listlessly sweating on my parents’ couch, half-heartedly applying for other forensic accounting jobs while becoming increasingly sure I never wanted to work in an office again. As my father reminded me daily, I had to figure out something to do. They hadn’t spent the money to send me to a good school to only have me end up back in their house, recession or no recession. He only spoke for himself though, my mother was happy to have a child (using a liberal definition of “child” to include an anhedonic unemployed 24 year old) around again, even better that was willing to drink Bud Light Seltzer and watch reality TV with her every night.
I was pathetic and wallowing in the self-pity of failed early adulthood. Fortunately, one night after my mother had fallen asleep in her recliner, I scrolled through Disney Plus (the only streaming service I could still access, courtesy of my college ex-boyfriend’s older sister whose children I occasionally babysat and who apparently never changed her passwords) and came across a movie called The Rescue. It was about the successful effort to save a soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand. I vaguely remembered reading something favorable about it, so I started watching and was instantly enthralled. For a movie where everyone already knows the happy ending, it did a great job building suspense, but more importantly for me, it reminded me that cave diving existed. In contrast to the Thai soccer team, I would have to be anesthetized to stand on a lighthouse observation deck or a cliff edge (although who knows, maybe they were all afraid of heights too), but small spaces and deep dark water were no problem at all. To me watching the movie, it almost seemed like a shame that they had to sleep through their journey to freedom.
Once the cave diving idea was planted in my brain, I was alight. It wasn’t a paying job, but I had rediscovered motivation, which was enough to make me feel like a capable human and enough to get my father to stop nagging me for at least a week. I skipped the Cavern Diving course because it wasn’t a required prerequisite (and I had no income and my father’s patience with me mooching off of him was the only thing dwindling faster than my meager savings account) but I did watch a late 1990s cautionary tale on the National Speleological Society’s Cave Diving Section homepage called “A deceptively easy way to die”. I will just say that I had enough open water diving experience to understand the importance of training for specialty dive situations, and therefore could have done without the simulated drowning, but point taken. At that point an adventuresome death was more appealing to me than another few months on the couch.
Anyway, that was how I found myself in the stiff, head absorbing sausage casing of a wetsuit, standing 15 yards away from what looked like a picturesque shallow lake with Jill, the only female instructor I had been able to find in Florida. She was intimidating in the way females who thrived in traditionally male-dominated fields tended to be, she seemed appropriately determined to make sure I didn’t accidentally take the easy way out of the cave by dying like those arrogant morons in the introduction video. I was as efficient as possible with the gear check, eager to jump into the water and escape the mosquitos and the blazing midday sun because of course I didn’t wear sunscreen for my cave exploration outing. As a redhead who once burned the bow, tails and all, of a string bikini tie into my back, I should have known better. Once we had completed a full assessment of our own and each other’s dive gear, she reviewed the hand signals one final time, and we waddled over to the edge of the lake. My adrenaline surged for the first time since six months before, when I had told my troll of a boss in New York exactly why he would regret downsizing me. Hopefully the diving situation would end better for me.
Following Jill into the lake, I felt the weight of the gear lift off as the water deepened and we gained buoyancy. She pointed to the outcropping where she wanted me to secure the main line, and I obediently drifted over and tied it the way we had practiced on land. We didn’t plan to go more than 30 feet past the mouth of the cave for the first dive, but it was important to establish good safety habits from the beginning. After she checked my knot and found it secure, we turned on our primary and back up lights and slowly descended. At 8 feet below the surface, the mouth of the cave came into view. It took self-control I was not used to exercising to not just bolt towards it, but I took a controlled breath through the regulator and forced myself to wait, following her lead as she unspooled the line that would lead us back to the surface.
We hovered outside the entrance while she checked my dive computer and air supply, and I confirmed that I was ready to proceed with the hand signal for “okay”. I followed her slowly along the line, using the special kick we had reviewed in the pool the prior day to avoid stirring up silt from the bottom of the lake. As we progressed slowly forward into the wide-open void, I curled around towards the entrance to see the clear water above and behind us framed by the rocks at the cave entrance. Slowly straightening my body to continue, my light caught something white and bright blue against the rock to our left. Shining the light directly on it, I realized that it was the back of a limited-edition Lego x Adidas sneaker, smaller but otherwise identical to the pair sitting in my closet.
A moment later, I remembered a news report I had seen the week before in my catatonic state on the couch. An 8-year-old boy had was missing, and he had been wearing the same sneakers I owned. Since I didn’t know the diving hand signal for “evidence of missing person”, I tugged gently on Jill’s fin. When she turned back, I have the okay signal again before pointing to the sneaker with my finger and the light. She looked puzzled (not surprising, she struck me as more of a camouflage Crocs person than limited-edition sneaker person) before swimming towards it to investigate. I hovered, suspended along the safety line. Her body blocked my light and view of what she had seen, but when she swam back to me, she calmly gave the signal to surface.
It turned out we had found the boy’s body, sneakers still on his feet. He must have swum into the mouth of the cave, passed out or become disoriented from sediment in the water, and ended up trapped at the entrance by the current from the underwater spring. The police sent divers to the scene but because they weren’t formally trained in cave diving, Jill wouldn’t let them in the water. Although my first cave diving excursion was cut short, Jill was able to extricate his body and give his family closure. I went on to complete the course and while I haven’t decided if this bizarre form of diving is my final career path, I am sure I won’t go back to looking at Excel spreadsheets of other people’s money in an office all day.