By Rochelle Mutton; Pics by Derek Hughes
Descending into the pure blackness of a 271m water cave in South Africa was enough to give Australian technical diver Dave Shaw a world record. But when he found a body at the bottom of Boesmansgat Cave, in the Northern Cape, he vowed to not only plumb the depths again but to retrieve the remains.
It was no less ambitious than scaling Mount Everest to fetch a corpse from the summit.
Shaw was a champion of excellence, extremes and altruism. His first record-breaking 271m descent down a shot-line to the cave floor was on 28 October last year. Defying fear from under a skyscraper-sized tower of water, he spent a few precarious minutes exploring the silt bottom.
He tied-off a thin cave-line to the base of the shot-line and, as fate would have it, stumbled across the decade-old remains of diver Deon Dreyer, a 20-year-old South African who had died on 17 December 1994. Shaw reeled off the cave-line onto Dreyer, then began the 12-hour ascent required for decompression. After making contact with Dreyerâs grieving parents, Shaw promised to return their son to them.
In the most extraordinary tragedy and twist, Shaw fatally lost consciousness when he returned to Boesmansgatâs floor on 8 January.
For four days he lay by Dreyerâs remains in the watery grave. Just as police divers and Shawâs devastated team were packing up the last of the equipment from the ill-fated mission, Shawâs body floated up to the roof of the cave, within 20m of the surface.
Suspended from Shawâs body by a tangle of cave line was a bag containing Dreyerâs remains.
It had cost more than he bargained for, but Shaw had kept his word.
Don Shirley, who was Shawâs number one diver on the mission, has been making a remarkable recovery from a severe bend in his middle ear that developed after he tried to rescue Shaw. âIâve still got a standing-on-jelly feeling in my head,â he quipped.
Shawâs plan had been to enter the water first and take 13 minutes to descend 271m, cut free the equipment on Dreyerâs remains and passed it in relay fashion from one diver up to the next, staggered along the shot-line.
During his descent to 220m, Shirley sensed that something was wrong. Shaw should have already have started his ascent past the 250m mark, causing a little air to rise from his rebreather. But his torchlight didnât pick up a single bubble.
âAt that point I though âOK, well, weâve got a problemâ,â he recalled. âI could actually see Daveâs light in the distance, bearing in mind weâre in a huge, cathedral-style cave thatâs as black as night but crystal clear water.
âAll I could see in the distance was a lone star â Daveâs torch â and it wasnât moving.
âThe plan was Iâd meet Dave at 220m. But if Dave was having problems, Iâd go to Dave to help out.
âI carried on going and heard a slight crack â like the way a windscreen cracks when a stone hits it. I carried on, then I heard a thud. The controller which was on my right wrist had imploded completely and thatâs the thing that controls the oxygen to my rebreather, so then I started to operate it manually.
âIf they fail, you must leave or you donât come back.â
The most dangerous aspect of deep diving is the specialised use of gas mixtures, according to Derek Hughes, a deep diver on the Boesmansgat mission who took the last photos of Shaw alive.
âAll three breathing gases â helium, nitrogen and oxygen â under pressure have negative effects on the body which we have to balance out by mixing them in appropriate ratios,â Hughes explained.
âOxygen is toxic and at certain levels will poison you and cause you to lose consciousness. Nitrogen is narcotic and gives you an affect that youâve had far too much to drink or can make you completely delirious and helium causes the shakes.â
Hughes explained that deep divers carried numerous back-ups of their equipment, in case of mechanical faults; Shaw had five sources of breathing gas, two of every computer and four lights.
âWhat we only have one of on a dive is our own body,â he said. âSo if any part of the body fails catastrophically – stroke, heart attack, unconsciousness, anything to do with the physiology or neurology of the body – thereâs no real back-up for that.â
Shirley was just 20m away from Shawâs motionless headlight, when the broken gauges forced him to ascend. But as he tried to manually adjust his gas mixtures according to the new depth, he added too much oxygen and started his own fight for survival.
âI spiked at 2bar pO2,â he said.â You donât say âIâm going to die,â but rather âwhat do I need to do nowâ.â
Instead of Dreyerâs remains being passed up the line, Shirleyâs slate become the baton, first passed to Peter Herbst at 120m with the words: âDaveâs not coming back.â
Shirley said he didnât take as many cylinders off the shot-line as he should have but left some extra for Shaw, in the hope he would still fight his way out of trouble.
âWhen I got to 50 metres, thatâs when my world started to go pear-shaped,â Shirley recalled. âI started to pass-out at 40m. As I learned later I had a decompression illness (bends) in my middle ear.
âIâm spinning like a top. I donât know which way is up, down, sideways or anything. I literally spun to 36 metres and thatâs when I became conscious enough to read my gauges.
âThe computer was now saying I had to go back to 46m. As I go down I get more ill and start to vomit and the world is spinning still.â
For the first few hours of a marathon 13 hours underwater waiting for decompression, Shirley was on his own and had to clip cylinders on and off, manually monitor his gas mixes and read tables. Every movement made him feel worse.
âBy the time I got near the surface I had to literally purge hard to force the air into my lungs,â he said. âI spent some hours doing that.â
In the final stages, doctors joined him at 6m. By the time he got to the final 3m decompression stop, his legs were aching and he was ready to be rushed into the nearby portable decompression unit, where he spent the next eight hours.
In the following days, repeated 90-minutes sessions in a decompression unit got him standing, then walking again.
âAt no time did I think I wasnât coming out (of the cave),â Shirley said. âDave would have been exactly the same mindset. He would have been determined to carry on until he couldnât carry on anymore.â
Video footage retrieved from Shawâs camera shows how the operation went wrong. Shaw had been expecting to cut Dreyer free from his tanks, embedded in the silt. But instead it was all sitting loosely and as Shaw tried to cut off the tanks, he got tangled in the cave-line. He was ascending, nevertheless, when he passed out.
Peter Herbst was present during the grim recovery of Shawâs body and video. âIf you over-exert yourself at those depths you start to get oxygen toxicity. It hits you very, very fast,â he said.
âOn the tape you can actually hear him breathing harder and harder and harder and harder – then thereâs silence.â
As part of formalities to end the tragic dive mission, police divers attached lift bags at the 100m mark on the shot-line.
Never would they have guessed the tangle at the cave floor. As the lift bags rose to the surface, Shawâs body and the bag were jolted off the silt bottom. As the body became shallower, the internal, expanding air caused Shawâs body to float up to the cave roof, towing Dreyerâs remains.
Herbst said the tangled cave-line kept the two bodies together. âThe only thing holding them together was this piece of line between Daveâs torch and Deonâs body,â he said.
Boesmansgat is the third deepest cave in the world with an entrance just one metre by three, plunging down a 40m chimney of dolomite that then expands into a cavern of nothingness.
Hughes explained its enchanting underwater appeal: âYou can see a diverâs lights 100m away, if not further. You have a complete sense of weightlessness, in a true void. The walls are so far away, the roof is so far away, youâre in the middle of nowhere. People dive in the sea because itâs full of colour and movement. People dive in caves for the quiet peace, the aloneness, the darkness.â
By Michelle Mutton
An embrace between diving families who lost loved ones was the defining moment
of Australian diver Dave Shawâs memorial service.
Steven Shaw, 23, from Melbourne, walked out of the Pretoria chapel with teary eyes and hugged Marie Dreyer, who had lost her son in a diving accident 10 years ago.
It was her son Deonâs remains that Dave Shaw, 50, died while trying to recover from the bottom of a 271m lake cave in South Africaâs Northern Cape, on January 8.
âIâm happy that Dad was able to successfully connect the (cave) line to the body so their son could be brought up and bring closure for them,â Steven said, outside the chapel.
âIâm pleased he died doing something he loved doing and was helping a family in the process.â
Shawâs close friend and family pastor Michael Vickers flew in from Hong Kong to hold the service.
He read a letter from Shawâs daughter Lisa, 21, from Melbourne.
âHe approached the world with the wisdom of a 50-year-old but the desires of a 20-year-old, always striving to learn new skills and discover new thingsâ she wrote. âHe did not dive for the recognition, he dived so that he could go where no man had explored before.
âThe recognition, much to his embarrassment, just seemed to come with it.
âI am at peace because I know having faced death before that, my father was unafraid with the prospect.
âLetâs be honest, my Dad was not the sort of person who was going to take old age gracefully.â
Pastor Vickers spoke about a different Shaw to the raw adventurer. âFor David to be brave and for David to be heroic, which he was, he would choose love,â he said.
âLove was more than a feeling â it was a choice, a way to live. And to do that he never shut down or closed anyone out. He was always painfully open and vulnerable to all his family and friends.â
Much has been written in the lay press regarding the death of David Shaw on 8 January 2005 in Bushmanâs Gat near Danielskuil in the Northern Cape, South Africa. There has been much speculation on the cause and the accuracy of reporting has been highly variable.
In the interest of dispelling myths, providing closure and doing justice to the memory and dignity of the deceased, we have reviewed all the evidence and prepared this report. Our objective is to provide an evidence-based answer to the cause of Davidâs death. While the forensic investigation has not been concluded, and some uncertainties remain, our conclusions â based on facts and materials that are already in the public domain â are unlikely to yield significantly to the admission of further evidence. We have examined the actual diving equipment; analyzed the gas mixtures used; critically reviewed the video footage from Davidâs camera; re-enacted the breathing patterns on the Mark 15.5 rebreather to capture the last 10 minutes of Davidâs life; and re-enacted the orientation of the deceased in relation to the body and the associated equipment. These are our conclusions:
David successfully reached his objective, but was unable to recover the body of Deon Dreyer at the bottom of Bushmanâs Gat due to a number of unforeseen practical factors. He appropriately aborted the attempt at 6 minutes â as planned â but subsequently became entangled in the line previously used to mark the body. In the ensuing effort to free himself he succumbed to the combined effects of carbon dioxide build-up and nitrogen narcosis. It is certain that David died due to drowning after a loss of consciousness underwater, approximately 22 minutes after leaving the surface, at a depth of 264 metres. As he had enough gas reserves, the question is â why? The evidence suggests that David suffocated. Overfilling of his rebreather appears to have prevented him from exhaling properly. To illustrate this mechanism, imagine someone breathing out into a full bag of fresh air. Irrespective of the fact that the equipment (the bag) is fully functional and the gas (fresh air in this example) is safe, the inability to effectively breathe out results in a rise in carbon dioxide. The breathing impairment, combined with the increased activity of recovering the body, led to a critical build-up of carbon dioxide over a period of 10 minutes. This is sometimes called âdeep water black-outâ. David became increasingly incapacitated, eventually lost consciousness and ultimately drowned. While relatively swift, the duration of the process favours carbon dioxide build-up as a cause rather than a lack of oxygen. Nitrogen narcosis may have significantly interfered with his ability to solve the problem before it was too late. Calculations suggest that he may have experienced the narcotic equivalent of a 44 metre dive on air, but that this would have been compounded significantly as the carbon dioxide levels rose. Once he lost consciousness, drowning became inevitable. This tragic event is unlikely to stop deep cave and technical divers from pursuing the call for extreme exploration. Unfortunately, not only does diving become extremely hazardous at these depths, but also the effects of even simple problems are rapidly compounded as illustrated here. We hope that this may encourage such divers to be sensible and realistic about their ambitions for depth. Even David, who was a highly trained and experienced technical diver, was not immune to the dangers.
Frans J. CronjÃ©, MBChB(Pret), BSc(Hons) Aerosp Med; Hermie Britz, MBChB(Pret), BSc(Hons) Aerosp Med; Jack Meintjes, MBChB(Pret)
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