Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Caverns & Caves in Khao Sok, Thailand

Halloween night, Raf and I met up with John and Craig, who respectively would be our cavern and intro to cave diving instructors for the next four days.  They showed up in Craig's pickup truck (which was fully loaded with all our dive gear, cylinders, and an air compressor) at the pier in their Halloween costumes.  Craig was wearing a head-to-toe neon orange morphsuit, and John wore a Mexican wrestler costume while his girlfriend SJ dressed as Alice in Wonderland.  Yikes!
Craig and John, our fearless instructors
John and SJ
The truck loaded with dive gear and the air compressor
After dinner we boarded the night ferry at 9pm, got into our bunk beds and slept through the night to arrive in Surat Thani at 5am.  We drove for about an hour and a half more to reach the pier on the lake in Khao Sok National Park.  30 years ago the river was dammed to make the lake and for hydroelectric power.  We drove across the dam to see steep limestone hills, spires, and cliffs covered with jungle foliage and shrouded in mist on one side and a lake bordered by the same steep limestone ridges on the other side.  Craig explained how we would be doing some fun diving (outside of the cave course dives) in the flooded valley which would have looked the same as the I unflooded side of the dam before it was filled with water.  Wow!  That's a lot of topography to dive around!  The trees still stand underwater on the flooded side but the leaves and vegetation have decomposed to make a thick silty layer over everything.  There are roads and even a school below the waters.

Mist shrouding the "dry side" of the dam
Park satellite image.  We stayed at Putawan Rafthouse

We unloaded all of our gear from the truck into a longtail boat and rode about 45 minutes to our accommodations, a lovely line of floating raft houses in a bay with waters as smooth as glass with amazing views across the lake to beautiful limestone cliffs.  We could dive right into the lake from our front steps for a swim or to get clean after a day of diving and take a short walk over wooden boards to reach the dining area and nearby toilets.

Raf, John, and Craig loading the compressor... oops... I should help ;)
Longtail boat and driver... lots of O2 bottles!

Putawan rafthouse
View from my rafthouse
Cave divers' Bario... the last four bungalows were all ours
back of the more rustic rafthouses
 We spent time the morning we arrived running line from a spool on land in order to learn the procedures to do the same underwater in a cavern environment so we always have a line to follow out of the cavern.  After breakfast we headed out to do our first two cavern dives.  On these dives Raf and I practiced running the spool, tying it off in the cavern at various points, we deployed and put on our backup masks, deployed our cutting tools, deployed our backup lights and practiced swimming in touch contact with eachother.  This is to simulate if we lost all vision in the cavern due to silt out.  If that were to occur one follows the other out at all times contacting the line we layed as well as holding the lead divers arm and each diver must shield their head from things they might run into if they couldn't see.  The next dive we built on these skills but actually had to take our masks off and spin them around on our faces so the mask strap acts as a blindfold.  The next days we built further on this by completing skills where we had to simulate complete loss of visibility (blindfold ouselves) and exit the cave but our instructor, John, would signal us at some point (by pinching our nose) that we were out of air.  We then had to signal our buddy with touch signals that we were out of air and the buddy had to deploy their 6' long regulator hose to the out of air diver and we had to continue to exit the cave while blindfolded and sharing air.  We repeated the drill both acting as air donor and air reciever from both lead and rear positions on the 4th and last dive and now Raf and I are both certified Cavern Divers!  It was challenging but very fun working as a team and a real sense of accomplishment knowing that I could do these seemingly complicated tasks underwater while blindfolded.  Sadly, at the end of the last dive I somehow lost my mask...I think I had it on my wrist and then I lost track of it when I took off my harness....this is why we always tell divers to keep their masks around their necks when the masks aren't on their faces.  If I had followed that advice I wouldn't have lost my brand new $80 mask which I bought specifically for this course so that I would have a backup mask!  Dumb!  ARGGGHHH!  (I'm still quite upset with myself).

Touch contact. - how to get out of a cavern or cave with your buddy if you can't see anything.
Dry run

John and Craig heading back to the rafthouse after a long day of diving
Go time.  That's me facing the camera and the back of Raf's head. START drill (predive safety check)

Cavern diving!

Sharing air with Raf (I'm on the left, Raf is on the right)

Raf and I goofing around

Raf and John's hands... enjoying a beer at the end of the day

Spectacular scenery at Khao Sok National Park
The next day, Nov 3rd, we started our introduction to cave diving course.  We went beyond the light zone, which defines a cave, as opposed to a cavern where you can still see some light coming from the entrance.  On Nov 3rd and 4th we built upon our cavern diving skills to enter the cavern, move in further, and we learned new skills including how to search for a lost diver and how to search for a lost line while blindfolded.   The course was very challenging!  I had a really hard time with some of the skills...especially finding a lost line in a cave while blindfolded.  I found this skill very frustrating and a little nerve-wracking being disoriented with only my sense of feel and a spool of line to try to execute a search patern without any visual references (eep).  I found it very difficult to know if I was moving up or down or straight ahead at the same depth because all you have for reference is the pressure you feel on your ears due to depth changes and the orientation of the line you are laying (is it flat, angled up or angled down) I tried for about 20 minutes and couldn't find the line, then I got a second chance and found it after about another 20 minutes trying...and I almost missed it that time too!  Since I had such a hard time with this skill, I barely passed the course.  You can be damn sure I will NEVER let go of the line if I'm ever caving and visibility decreases!  I don't want to test that skill again unless it's in a controlled environment and until I practice and I do NOT want to have to use that training in a real life-or-death situation.  Yikes!  Not for the faint of heart.

Craig showing us how to create a web for a lost diver to find their way out

A lost diver would be happy to find this light and arrow showing them the way out!

Raf and John contemplating the web

We also did two deep decompression dives (45m) for fun on the mornings of Nov 2nd and 3rd prior to our course dives.  These were great practice and an interesting, otherworldly experience.  We descended through green murky lake water to a thermocline where the water temperature dropped dramatically from 31C near the surface to 25C at depth.  Below the thermocline visibility was much better but it was nearly pitch black, like a night dive.  We used our torches to look at the bottom of the lake which was covered with old, dead, leafless jungle plants and trees and a thick layer of silt.  It made me think of a post-apocalyptic world where nothing survived and everything that was there when the valley was flooded was covered with a thick layer of silt.  Very spooky.  We saw some evidence of former inhabitants like chopped tree stumps but there was not much to see.

pretty low visibility!  Raf?  Is that you?

Khao Sok is a beautiful national park with some of the most dramatic cliffs and karst features I have ever seen.  We were serenaded daily by the whooping calls of gibbons and  we were lucky enough to see Gibbons leaping from tree to tree in the canopy beside where we tied up the boat for our last dives.  The last night we stayed in Khao Sok I woke in my raft house at 4am and went quietly outside.  The generator was off so there were no lights to be seen except the stars and the light from the moon and the reflections of the stars and moonlight on the lake.  I lay down on my back on the dewy wooden boards that form the walkway between raft houses to look at the stars.  They were crystal clear and bright and seemed to be held in a bowl formed with clouds surrounding the edges of the clear starry skies and the jungle surrounding that lower on the horizon.  All around me sounds harmonized; the soft splash of fish jumping, the buzz and trill of insects, and the croak of frogs.  It was really peaceful and made me very aware of how blessed and thankful I am to have this time immerse myself in nature and to see some of these beautiful places in the world.



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