This article is about the death of an Australian diver, Dave Shaw, and specifically about his attempt to recover the body of a diver from a cave in South Africa. It is primarily based on a book by Phillip Finch called Raising The Dead (see the book review). A better name for the book, in my view, would be Confirmation of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, as you will come to see.
David Shaw (or Dave as he seems to have been known to most divers) was an Australian who as a 17 year old became a pilot. He started flying crop dusters, aerial sprayers. He lived in South Australia and married young to Ann. They were very religious, with pastors as grandfather and father respectively.
Crop dusting is a very dangerous profession, with many pilots killed or badly injured every year. He had accidents, clipping a steel pole and crashing, hitting power lines and even worse apparently. I think that in some ways, his decision to become a crop duster shows a bit of recklessness or perhaps a need to get thrills. He purchased a yacht and planned to sail solo around the World and more. Again, this is a bit of a thrill-seeking proposal.
While his wife Ann was pregnant with their first child, he announced "God wants me to be fly with MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship)". As a bit of an atheist, I find this to be an incredible statement, especially for a person who was said to be intelligent and later in control of huge jet planes. Anyway, they moved to Papua New Guinea where the dare devil flying continued, this time flying in and out of remote mountaintop airfields.
From here they moved to Tanzania, Kenya, London and then back to Australia. In New South Wales, he did more pilot courses and applied for a position with the international airline, Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong. He was successful and Ann and he moved there in about 1989.
In 1996, his son Steven learnt to dive and in 1999 Dave decided to learn as well. On a holiday in the Philippines, he did his Open Water course. Later the same year he returned and did two Nitrox courses. A comment on page 34 of Raising The Dead is telling: "his logbooks tell the story of a man in a hurry". His 23rd dive was to 33 metres, a depth I did not reach till my 159th dive. Moreover, he was wearing twins with a bailout tank, something I did not do until I had done probably 421 dives. The use of twins, even on a shallow dive, is not something a new diver should be doing.
He was back in the Philippines two months later and did eight dives in three days. On one dive, he was buddied with two divers who only went to 18 metres and he went to 28 metres. This is not the sign of a good diver, abandoning his buddies and with less than 30 dives experience. On the same trip he did two dives to 52 metres and one to 54 metres. I did not reach these depths till 360 dives.
He was back again in three weeks, this time to the Coron area of the Palawan Islands where he did a wreck course and dived the sunken Japanese ships from World War II. The exploration of these apparently whetted his appetite, not for wrecks, but for cave diving.
It was three months before he dived again. While he got six weeks leave a year, he tried to spend half with his family and the other half diving. His job as a pilot with Cathay Pacific (by now a senior pilot), would presumably preclude him from diving 48 hours before flying (at least I hope airlines have such a strict policy). Therefore, most of his diving was done in short bursts with lots of non-diving time in between. In addition, virtually all of his diving was done in clear tropical ocean water or clean calm caves.
The lack of having to deal with conditions like currents, surge, waves and poor visibility can, in my view, produce a diver who lacks the ability to deal with problems that may arise during a dive. You only have to look at divers who are taught to dive in the calm tropics and who when they dive in places like Sydney or Melbourne, turn out mostly to be very poor divers - even if they have a relatively large number of dives.
In August 2000 he did six dives at Puerto Galera in the Philippines, three to 51 metres and one to 61 metres. This was in three days, meaning that on at least one of the days he did a double dive to over 51 metres. This is very, very dangerous and not something that I would ever contemplate. He had now completed 62 dives. Of these, the majority would have been training dives.
He then went to Florida and did 21 dives in 10 days. These were all part of cave diving courses with Bill Rennaker. Dive 85 was a cave penetration to a distance of 900 metres in Peacock Springs.
Over the next 18 months he went twice to Florida, averaging more than two dives a day. He then did several trips to the Philippines where he did a trimix course. He went to 100 metres on one of these dives. He had now been diving for less than three years and had been to 100 metres!
In August 2002 he went to South Africa to meet Don Shirley, a diver with well over 20 years experience and recognised as an excellent technical diver and instructor. Dave managed to get rostered onto a flight to Johannesburg with a layover of a few days. Don owned a dive operation at a place called Komati Springs. This was an old mine that had flooded once it was closed down. The aim was to check out and be checked out to do more cave diving training and rebreather training. He did a single dive here. He had done only 180 dives by this time, about 60% of which appear to me to have been training dives.
He did not dive for six weeks till he went to Florida for his fourth trip. He did 18 dives. On 7 November 2002 he went to South Africa again for work and spent one day diving. In very poor dive planning, he did a dive to 18 metres and then, after that, a dive to 51 metres. This is very irresponsible diving, endangering not only himself, but the passengers and crew on his return flight to Hong Kong.
During December 2002 and January 2003 Dave went to Puerto Galera a number of times where he did a rebreather course. He did 26 dives as part of this training. Around this time he purchased an Inspiration Rebreather. It may have been a few months later.
In March 2003 he went to Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to dive the canotes (a type of sinkhole). In one week he did 17 dives. This was very easy diving.
He did not dive for five weeks after this. From April 2003 he did 11 trips to South Africa in the next seven months. He dived Komati Springs exclusively over this time apart from a few days training in Puerto Galera.
On page 20 of the book about Shaw there is a statement by the author that "Extreme divers are not thrill seekers". This would have to be one of the most incorrect statements that I have ever read about diving. Every person I have met who does "extreme" diving has been ego driven. There is only one reason someone would dive to extreme depths inside otherwise barren caves and holes, to get a thrill.
At this stage I should comment about Inspiration rebreathers. In the two years after they were introduced, only 1000 had been sold. Over this time, an amazingly large number of divers, eight, had died while using them. By 2003 the number was 15. This is a simply amazing number. While there were little cases of gear failure, there are a number of probable reasons for the high attrition rate. One was that people were incorrectly setting up/maintaining their gear and the other was that people who were unsuited to deep diving or without much experience were able to dive much deeper than they should be. Even the book acknowledges this on page 76 - closed-circuit rebreathers worked too well "- they allowed divers to reach depths and run times that were beyond their ability and experience". Another statement is that "Open-circuit meant prudence, rebreathers denoted confidence". I think that "over confidence" is a more correct statement.
On 5 April 2003, Shaw did his first dive in over five months at Komati Springs. Not only was this his first rebreather dive out of a course, it was his first dive with a drysuit (at least with a rebreather), first solo dive with a rebreather, first time in a cave with a rebreather and his first proposed deep dive in the cave. Even though he seems to have acknowledged that it is unwise to have more than one "first" on a dive, he was doing five on the one dive. He decided to go to level six and 67 metres. On his descent, his buzzer went off denoting high oxygen levels but he kept going. Irresponsible! He ended up going to 69 metres and became alarmed that he did not have enough bailout gas should the rebreather fail.
In May, June and July he did four dives to 66+ metres, all solo. He also did one with Don Shirley to the same depth. This was dive 262 and his first with Shirley.
In August 2003, Shirley decided to explore Komati Springs to see where some of the mineshafts went. He assembled a group of six divers, including Shaw and Glenn Campbell. Over the first few dives they proceeded to take bailout tanks to various spots in the mine, the last ones being at 120 metres.
The first attempt to push past the known point was abandoned when Shaw had three gear failures before even entering the water. The next day, they started the dive but Shirley had gear failure and had to pull out before they even entered the shaft that dropped to the level where they were to start exploring.
Shaw and Campbell continued on and went to 148 metres. Soon after surfacing, Campbell complained of pain in a shoulder and elbow. He was bent and ended up in the recompression chamber.
Two days later, Shaw and Shirley went to 108 metres in a different section of the mine.
Before I go on, I should add some things that the author raises about the Inspiration rebreather. The manual that comes with it says, amongst other things:
Despite this, many Inspiration rebreather owners flouted the 100 metre limit by the manufacturer, including Shaw and Shirley. This is crazy!
On 18 October 2003, Shaw arrived for a week of diving. On the first two days, Shaw did two dives with Lo Vingerling in which they took a number of tanks to stage points, the deepest one at 122 metres. On the third day Shaw did a solo dive to 68 metres. The next day, Shaw set off alone on the deep exploration. Shirley was to follow 15 minutes later to meet him at the bottom of the shaft as Shaw was returning. Within 20 minutes he had reached 148 metres where he had turned around in August. He tied off to the end of the line that he laid then and continued on.
He got to 160 metres and continued deeper, even though the manufacturer of the Inspiration warned that parts would implode deeper. He went past 170 and then 180 metres. He could see the end of the shaft and at 182 metres (not the exact end), he turned around after tieing off the line to a rock. He started ascending. He successfully met up with Shirley as planned and after five and a half hours, he left the water at the end of dive 283.
The next day was a rest day and the day after they planned to dive together to the end of the shaft. Shirley reached 186 metres, but when he turned around, Shaw was already gone. Shaw's rebreather master console had gone blank just before he reached the 180 metre mark and the backup was flashing. He got the master one going by turning it off and on but there was another problem, his buzzer had indeed imploded, so there was no high oxygen warning buzzer.
At 126 metres, Shirley caught up with Shaw and found that both Shaw's consoles had now gone blank. Now that the electronics were dead, he needed to manually control the rebreather for over three hours or use the bailout tanks. He decided to manually control it. This meant he had to take four breathes, dump the air out his mask via his nose and then manually adding oxygen.
All went well till he reached the narrow hatch which led back into the main shaft on level one. Half way through, he found he could not reach the button to inject oxygen into the rebreather. He fumbled for the regulator for one of the bailout tanks he was carrying and finally, he got it. Very close to drowning!
When he exited the water, he had an immediate pain in his shoulder. He was bent. They decided to do in-water recompression with oxygen. Shaw went back in to do two and a half hours of recompression. When he left the water the pain was gone so he went to bed breathing oxygen. Over the next hour the pain returned so Shirley drove Shaw three hours to the nearest recompression chamber at Pretoria.
For the next three days, Shaw did three treatments in the chamber.
Shaw bought a Biomarine Mark 15.5 rebreather. This was a rebreather built for the US Navy and sold second hand now. He modified it dramatically.
In June 2004 he went to Bushmans Hole in South Africa. This was a cave that started off with a narrow entry from a pool to an angled cave at about 45° till it reached 45 metres. Here there was another narrow section which then opened out into a huge cave that dropped to over 280 metres and was at least 400 metres in circumference at about 80 metres. There was a line that ran down from the surface to the 45 metre mark. Here it was suspended by a drum that caused the shotline to drop vertically to the floor.
It is possible that Shaw did not dive for the eight months from his incident in October 2003.
On his first dives here he went to 120 metres and dropped off various bailout tanks on the line. He had not been past 121 metres on the new rebreather but on a later dive on this trip he went to 213 metres. So much for gradually increasing your depth and testing out new equipment!
A comment on page 128 of Raising The Dead just about sums it all up, "depth for depth's sake".
Shaw did not dive for almost four months till October 2004 when he returned to Bushmans Hole. He was support to Verna van Schaik who was aiming to get the record for the deepest dive by a woman. She went to 221 metres.
A few days later, on 28 October 2004, Shaw went to 270 metres in Bushmans where he found the body of Deon Dreyer. Dreyer, was 20 years old on 17 December 1994 when he disappeared from sight when at 60 metres. He probably suffered from an oxygen toxicity hit. This was Shaw's 330th dive. Shaw reported that Dreyer's body was lying on its back, with his tanks stuck in the silt. He attempted to get the body free, but it was stuck hard. Shaw attached his reel to the gear and left it. The other end was tied off to the bottom of the shotline.
Shaw decided that he was going to recover the body. His aim was to take down a body bag (which his wife Ann would later make) and put the body in the bag and bring it back up with him.
Here I think was the biggest mistake made. I do not, for the life of me, understand why you would think that you could do something like this at 270 metres and not have a problem. Even the mixture that Shaw was planning to breath at this depth was similar to diving on air at over 45 metres. Anyone who has dived to this depth would realise the problems that you could get into doing extremely hard work, with nitrogen narcosis becoming far worse with hard work. A dive buddy of mine (one of NSW's most experienced deep divers) used to be a NSW Police diver. He said that he would not even think of trying to do this in shallow water, let alone 40 metres or more.
A far simpler, and safer, idea would have been to take down a rope and attached it to the body. This could have then been hauled up with a lift bag. Even if this did not work, it would have been worth a try. Sometimes, the simple and straightforward solutions are the best (in fact, most of the time I reckon). Later in the book, the author quotes a diving physician who investigated the death of Shaw as saying "If you are deep diving, don't make it complicated".
In early January 2005, Shaw returned to South Africa with the aim of recovering Dreyer's body. A huge team was put together. This included Police divers (only able to dive to 20 metres!!), mine rescue team, recompression chamber and a documentary maker.
Lead up dives were done to position bailout tanks. Finally, on Saturday 8 January 2005, Shaw entered the cave on the body recovery dive. He was wearing a helmet with an attached camera to record the dive for the documentary. He was diving alone (another fatal flaw of most technical divers) and 13 minutes later, Shirley entered the water. They were supposed to meet at 220 metres when Shaw was on his way up.
As Shirley approached 220 metres (which was 40 metres deeper than he had ever been before - why do this on such a dive?), he saw no bubbles coming from below as he should have. As rebreathers give off a small amount of excess air when ascending, there should have been some bubbles. He noticed a light below him and off to the side. It was not moving.
Shirley went down to 250 metres (remember, he was using an Inspiration and it had severe limits well above this). At 250 metres his Hammerhead rebreather console imploded. This meant that he then had to manually control the oxygen flow into the rebreather. He decided that Shaw was already dead. In fact, we now know that he was already dead for at least two or three minutes.
Shirley decided to ascend. He manually injected oxygen into the rebreather loop but put too much and the level spiked. He had to quickly switch to one of his bailout tanks. He went up and realised that one of his VR3 computers was also flooded. At 200 metres he went back onto the rebreather as it had stablised. He still had to manually inject oxygen. He could see two divers above at 150 metres. They left before he got there as he was now running late.
At 118 metres, Shirley met a diver and then at 81 metres, another. He wrote "Dave not coming back" on a slate and gave it to him to take up. He took it to the surface. Another diver bought down a spare VR3 in response to another message. At 46 metres, Shirley was okay. After a diver left him, Shirley thought that he was about to pass out. He had forgotten to add oxygen to the loop. He switched to his bailout tank. Immediately, he was dizzy. He swirled around and around. He was out of control. He vomited numerous times. Desperately, he grabbed hold of the dropline as he saw it "pass" him. He held on as tight as he could.
This was inner ear decompression sickness. As I had something similar happen to me on a trip to Chuuk Lagoon in 2004 (albeit at the surface), I am aware how bad this can be. My incident turned out to be not decompression sickness, as inner ear DCS is caused by helium. Shirley found himself now at 35 metres when he composed himself enough to look at his computer. He dropped back to 46 metres.
It is not clear, but closing his eyes should have made the dizziness subside, but perhaps he did not think of this. He had to stay on the bailout tank as he could not possibly manually control the rebreather in this state. At 40 metres, another diver came and found him. Shirley managed to pass him a message. From here, a diver was with him all the way to the surface.
At 21 metres he thought he changed to a tank of 50% oxygen he had just collected. Luckily, the diver with him noticed that it was a 4% bailout tank. With such a low percentage of oxygen, he would have passed out within minutes. At six metres, he felt a pain in his left knee. It was decided that he would miss the three metre stop. Instead, he was to be taken from the water and placed in the recompression chamber.
As soon as he surfaced, he was placed in a litter and hauled to the top of the hole and placed in the chamber. This took 24 minutes. He was in the chamber for almost eight hours before being released. He was still very dizzy, with his head tilted to the left and his eyes crossed. He did two more treatments on the Sunday and more on Monday and Tuesday. He showed some improvement after each treatment, but still could not walk unaided.
On Sunday, some of the shallow tanks were removed and on Monday, Peter Herbst went to 50 metres to collect nine tanks. This left four at 80 metres, three at 95 metres and three at 150 metres to be collected.
Shirley advised Herbst to attach a lift bag to the shotline at 100 metres to lift the line and the tanks at 150 metres to about 100 metres where they could be removed. This has Herbst worried as when he removed the nine tanks on the Monday, the shotline had become slack and it got tangled around his equipment. He could not remove the line and in the end, he had to thread it through where it was caught as he ascended. Finally, at 20 metres he attracted the attention of a Police diver who removed it from him.
On the Wednesday, Herbst and Petrus Roux went to collect the remaining tanks. Both were diving deeper than they had ever dived before. They collect the tanks at the 80 and 95 metre marks. At 100 metres, they attached the lift bag and inflated it. It started rising and rapidly sped up. Above, two Police divers were threading the line up through the narrow gap and above water, another was hauling it in.
The tanks came up and they were collected. They then saw a white braided line hanging down from above. They did not understand where this had come from.
As they were leaving the water, Gert Nel (apparently one of the Police divers feeding the line through the gap) came to Herbst and whispered "We saw them". "You saw what?" asked Herbst. "We saw Dave and it looks like someone under him, floating against the roof" replied Nel.
The bodies were at 30 metres. It appears that the lifting of the shotline was enough to free the bodies from the silt at the bottom and float them to the top of the cave. The bodies must have went past Herbst and Roux as they were collecting the 150 metre tanks.
Herbst and Roux decided that they would have to dive again that day to collect the bodies in case they sank back overnight. However, they would have to wait three to four hours before re-entering the water. Finally, late in the afternoon they entered the water.
As they approached 30 metres, they saw that the line was wrapped twice around the head of Shaw's torch head which hung down from his side (it was a canister type torch, with separate battery pack connected by a cable to the light head). The line was the reel that Shaw had attached to the bottom of the shotline and then to Dreyer's body in October.
Why, oh why, did not Shaw just decide to attach a new line to Dreyer's equipment and haul him up? What a waste of a life!
Roux attached a lift bag to Dreyer's tank valve. Herbst was badly affected at this time, probably in some sort of shock, and just swam away, leaving Roux alone. Roux inflated the bag and then cut away the line. He took the body back to the 20 metre level where the Police took it from him. Herbst ended up taking Dreyer to the surface. He was not a skeleton like it was thought he would be. His body, deprived of oxygen in the depths of the water and with the absence of organisms to eat the flesh, had basically turned to soap. He was complete, except for his head which had fallen off before Shaw found him.
Roux returned to Shaw's body. He was so buoyant, even dumping all the air from his wings, drysuit and rebreather still had him stuck to the ceiling of the cave. He removed the four bailout tanks which, with 80% helium inside, were very buoyant. He did not want to lose the helmet with its attached camera as this would be very important in trying to ascertain the cause of the accident.
After a lot of effort, he managed to haul him shallower where he was met by Herbst who had composed himself. They got the body to a spot under the opening and let it go. It shot to the surface.
After surfacing, Herbst and Roux catalogued Shaw's equipment as it was recorded by a Police evidence technician. All his equipment was in place, with all switches and valves as they should be. I presume that he also still had oxygen in his cylinder. Even the rebreather's mouthpiece was still in Shaw's lips. This was all videoed by Gordon Hiles who was documenting the original body recovery dive.
The camera from Shaw's helmet was given to Hiles and he opened the housing. The camera was dry. He replaced the battery and rewound the one hour tape. He then decided to duplicate the tape and using gear he had there, they watched the tape as it was copied. I have viewed the tape and it is truely disturbing. A summary follows.
|(0 mins 0 seconds) Shaw entered the water.
|Shaw reaches bottom. Follows line to body.
| Reaches body. Pulls out body bag.
|Pushes bag over Dreyer's legs. Breathing is slightly heavy.
|Body floats free of the silt. (Comment: Shaw should have left then as it would have been a relatively simple task to haul the body up). He keeps trying to pull bag over the body. His breathing is heavier and rapid.
|Line is snagged on his light head. Breathing is heavier. Clears the line.
|Tries to open a pair of shears (sissors) but has problem. Probably affected by carbon dioxide now as he is fumbling. Rests his hand on Dreyer's skull and does not seem to notice. Now only has 75 seconds before he is supposed to leave the bottom.
|Goes to leave but is caught on the line. Tries to untangle and then cut the line. His breathing is very hard and very rapid.
|He is one minute over time. He tries to move to shot line dragging the body with him. His breathing is now rapid and shallow.
|Breathing choked. Breathing stops.
This was Shaw' 333rd dive.
Later it was found that Shaw was taking 36 breathes per minute just before he died. Later, Shirley copied his breathing while listening to the video and he almost passed out at this stage. This was without even doing any work or being stressed.
It appears to be commonly accepted by all that Shaw died of carbon dioxide poisoning. His rebreather did not fail, but it seems that he made some mistakes. I have been told (it is not in the book) that Shaw did not receive any instruction on the Mark 15.5 and he only did at the most less than 50 dives with it before his death. Simon Mitchell, a New Zealand diving physician and deep technical diver stated that he believed that the fine grained scrubber absorbent used, together with his method of packing and using a felt pad above made this rebreather much harder to breath than a normal rebreather. This would have led to problems as unlike open circuit scuba, the breathing gas in a rebreather is not provided to you at pressure, rather you need to pump it around the loop with your lungs. This takes effort.
Later, Frans Cronje, a DAN (Divers Alert Network) physician, Simon Mitchell and Herman Britz, a South African diving physician, published a paper on the death. They stated "there are physiological limitations that must be understood and considered in planning extreme dives". They agreed that it was carbon dioxide poisoning.
The number of people who dive to 250 metres and survive without injuries is about 10%! At least 50% have died!!
After a week long series of recompressions in Pretoria, Don Shirley was still unbalanced in his left ear. Four months after the accident, he went diving for the first time at Komati Springs. He actually was more in control in the water than he had been out of the water. Above water, he progressed slowly.
Over Easter 2005, Ann Shaw went to South Africa and visited Komati Springs and Bushmans Hole. She met Dreyers family.
This is a death that should not have happened. The rapid move from novice diver to "expert" technical diver is typical of what has seemed to be a recent trend (since late 1990s) when technical diving became a "fad". These divers seem to be skipping the routine of doing normal dives and gradually building up their diving experience. As such, they do not get the experience of having minor problems at shallow depths where they can attend to the problem and safely "escape" but which at depth are deadly. They also do not get experience in a range of conditions (note that Shaw had only ever dived in warm tropical calm clear conditions or calm clear caves). They also get almost all of their "experience" under controlled conditions while doing course after course after course.
My Summary of Why Shaw Died
Finally, remember that so many of the divers that technical divers considered to be icons have died while doing extreme deep diving. Rob Palmer, Sheck Exley, John Bennett, Conan O'Brien and Carl Spencer, all gurus of deep technical diving, all died doing deep technical dives. Why did they die? Because this type of diving is dangerous.