New Zealand’s Pearse Resurgence 2008
The blue duck and two bob watch
by Richard Harris
Images by Richard Harris and Andrew Bowie
Twelve months ago I joined Dave Apperley, Craig Howell and Rick Stanton on the trip of a lifetime to explore the Pearse Resurgence in New Zealand’s South Island. For the team, that trip was a great success with Rick Stanton pushing the cave to the new Australian and New Zealand record depth of -177m. But on a personal level the adventure left me somewhat unfulfilled. My diving was plagued with problems; drysuit floods, a minor bout of DCS and other equipment issues. So I resolved to return to the Pearse to dive, explore and photograph the site to my satisfaction.
2008 and I finally left Australia again with two good mates: South Aussie cave divers Andrew Bowie and Grant Pearce. With the logistical nightmares of shipping hundreds of kilos of camping and diving gear overseas behind us, we arrived in Christchurch and stayed with friends whilst we sorted out the final details of a hire car and trailer, the decompression habitat and provisions for 10 days in the bush. Suddenly realizing none of us had a wristwatch, we bought a complement of three team digital watches for 15 dollars a piece! Top shelf! The eight hour drive north to Nelson brought us to the door of local cavers Oz Patterson and Debbie Cade who fixed us up with the few items we had overlooked and gave us a bed for the night. These Kiwis are very hospitable! Then three days after arriving in the country, we finally flew into the Pearse Valley in Syd Deakers trusty helo amid unseasonally heavy rain.
First impressions were of the resurgence in flood, and some very inclement weather. But on walking up to the cave opening I spotted the rare blue duck sitting in the entrance pool; locally recognised as a good omen! So I knew we’d be okay and sure enough the weather soon improved and the water levels began to drop. Thus followed a period of perfect South Island weather, which held up until our return to Australia.
The first task was to get the decompression habitat set up at six metres in the Nightmare Crescent, then to begin some familiarisation dives especially for Grant and Andrew who were new to the cave. The cold water (7ÂºC) and the dark granite walls of the cave make for an intimidating environment, and it takes a few days diving to feel settled in the site.
So we started by checking some of the original maps of the cave, adding some detail here and there, doing some still photography and video. Soon Grant and I began staging cylinders further down the cave in anticipation of some deeper dives later in the week. Grant was still suffering from the cold a bit and was trying some different equipment configurations, but gradually it was all coming together for him.
As the only rebreather diver in the group, I began to push further into the resurgence and the other guys moved to a support role. Transfers in and out of the habitat became more streamlined and rehearsed and we all developed a routine for the deeper dives. The question of how deep I planned to go was never far away in my mind. I felt that if all the buildup dives went faultlessly and I was coping with the cold, it was possible I would attempt to extend Rick Stanton’s line from 177m. As the days rolled past and my deeper buildup dives of 95, 111 and 123m all went very smoothly, I started to entertain the possibility of a dive to the known limits of the cave. Finally I decided on a dive to a maximum depth of 185m or 15 minutes bottom time, whichever came first.
By the time the big day dawned, I had staged eight cylinders of gas in the cave in addition to the two I would carry with me and the surface supplied oxygen for the habitat. Using a diluent of trimix 6/85 (6% oxygen and 85% helium), I planned to get to the bottom of the main shaft at 110m by five minutes. This would give me 10 minutes to scooter to the end of Rick Stantonâ€™s line and if possible explore beyond. By using a series of diluent flushes during ascent, I wanted to get back up to the habitat in the shortest possible time and then do an extended stop on 100% oxygen at six metres in relative warmth and comfort. Hot soup and my underwater mp3 player should take care of the rest!
As I geared up in the entrance pool with Grant in the water assisting me, the Blue Duck was fishing for crustaceans in the stream just 10m away. Definitely a good sign! With final checks complete, I turned my X scooter into the flowing water and powered down the Nightmare Crescent to the main shaft, the hard marble walls of the cave slipping quickly past. Everything felt good so I aimed straight downward and well ahead of schedule arrived at the shaftâ€™s base at 110m. As I approached the Needlebender, a squeeze developed in my right dry-glove which had been just below me holding the scooter. I pushed on further towards a rock where I could stop and relieve this minor annoyance, only to find that by then the squeeze had become so severe that my hand was fixed into a rock-like claw and I couldn’t flex my fingers at all. I ascended slightly to the ceiling and inflated my suit, the offending hand stretched up above me. But the seals were compressed so vigorously that no air would flow into the glove. I couldn’t believe that such a seemingly minor issue might spell the end of the dive! Suddenly some air started to move past the seal into the glove and my hand was released from its iron prison. But over two minutes had been wasted leaving me feeling somewhat flustered.
I decided to push on through the Needlebender and see how I felt by the time I reached the Big Room. All seemed well by then. Breathing back under control,
scooter mounted lights burning brightly and the rebreather
maintaining setpoint perfectly. I clicked the scooter’s speed up a notch and with the 6mm line laid by Apperley and Stanton running through my left hand, I continued my foray into this part of the cave I had never seen before. Down the Brooklyn Exit to 150m depth then the less steep 40 to over 170m. At 13 minutes, I had reached my destination; the end of the surveyed cave.
Ahead of me a tunnel continued at approximately 170m. Below me, a smaller hole with Rick’s line leading into it tempting me down. At the end of Rick Stanton’s final dive last year, he had been forced to turn due to the failure of his primary light. He had dropped the reel down this hole but had been unable to follow it. Now, the line was doubling back on itself towards me in the light water flow. I dropped down the hole and entered the virgin passage. Looking ahead, the tunnel marched on as big as ever. Behind me, the tunnel also disappeared. I scootered slowly forward for 20m at a depth of 182m as my VR3 let me know my 15 minutes was up. Ahead the cave passage was starting to rise towards a crest. Over the crest? Who knows! Perhaps the cave drops vertically again into the abyss! That question remains for the next adventurer to dive the mighty Pearse Resurgence!
Oh and the two-bob watch? My $15 supermarket chronometer tucked in my drysuit pocket happily counted down the hours until my safe return to the surface, and a well earned beer for the team!
Acknowledgements: The expedition would like to thank the following for their support or assistance: The Honeybone Family, Oz Patterson, Deb Cade and the NZSS, John Atkinson, Otter Drysuits, Seaoptics Adelaide, and BOC New Zealand.