Diving in the DarkInspiration
Cave Diving With Natalie Gibb
Photography by Natalie Gibb // Under The Jungle
‘My aspiration in life has always been to be an explorer. I became a diver through happenstance, during a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Florida Keys. But my first open-water dive changed everything. I had no idea how far it would take me.’ – Natalie Gibb
Natalie Gibb is a cave diver and explorer extraordinaire. With her diving partner, she has charted over 20 new cave systems and surveyed more than 80km of previously undiscovered cave passageways. We spoke to Natalie to hear more about her life underwater.
For me, discovering a cave is like nothing else. When I am exploring a new cave, I experience a dissolution of ego – I feel as part of the cave, with it leading me forward, calling me around the next bend. It’s spiritual. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, thinking ‘Curiouser and curiouser. I don’t mind if I do,’ as she eats the cookies with no idea what will happen next. I love the feeling of uncertainty. It leaves me completely open to the experience. To watch a new cave unfolding in front of me is probably the best sensation in the world.
Before I discovered cave diving, I considered many careers that would allow me to indulge my curiosity for the world, including science. To me, scientific discovery has always been a very real type of exploration. One of the proudest moments of my career was when a scientist used one of our cave surveys to argue for sustainable development in an area. She could prove there was a cave and and aquifer below where construction was planned. As I understand it, the project was moved off the cave system – and in part due to my discovery. This is so important because people don’t realise that these caves exist, and few have the opportunity to see them. But caves are teeming with important microbial life that needs to be protected.
Pandora and its sister caves in the Yucatan Peninsula are some of the most fascinating caves I’ve ever visited. These places are full of hydrogen sulphide, and I never would have expected to find extremophiles living there. The microbes form colonies that hang from the cave ceiling in long, soft stalactites that sway in the current, and form webs on other surfaces. What looks like rock isn’t. It’s alive!
I feel very lucky, living and working in the Yucatan Peninsula, that I am able to dive the caves every day, taking students down and letting them explore and discover them for themselves. The diving community in Mexico is inclusive and friendly. Most of the cave divers here operate from a perspective of conservation and respect for the environment. I would say the majority of the divers here frown upon adrenaline junkies and machismo due to the safety risks – we want people to be safe, enjoy the caves, and respect the environment.
Part of my job is to take scuba divers into the caverns and cenotes for their first time. The reaction varies between divers. Some people enjoy it, but are happy with the one experience; some people love it and want to keep diving cenotes recreationally with a guide; and a few are instantly hooked, like I was. It’s obvious when someone gets it. They come out of their first cavern dive with a new light in their eyes and a sense of wonder. I live for those moments! There’s no specific type of person who gets hooked, and you don’t need to be an extreme sports guru to get into cave diving. I have had bank executives, software engineers, stay-at-home mums, and tradespeople all get hooked. I think it’s more about curiosity and a sense of adventure than anything else.
Many things that might appear dangerous can occur in an underwater cave, although I believe that only a physically blocked exit would be truly dangerous for a well-trained cave diver. Anything else that can happen has a solution.
Gear failures occur – it’s a fact of cave diving. However, we carry backups of all our vital life-support equipment, including two tanks, two scuba regulators, backup lights, reels, line cutters, anything we need. We train to switch to the backups and leave immediately. No single gear failure should be stressful or endanger a diver’s life.
The same goes for loss of visibility in murky water, broken guidelines, and most other situations. These have all happened to me, but it’s part of basic cave training to manage these situations. Even total loss of breathing gas in a tank should not be life-threatening. The diver can switch to his other tank and still get out, and additionally his teammates have enough gas to donate to him for a safe exit. It’s all about preparation in both gear and training.
I enjoy documenting my dives through photographs. I have a photo of one of my former students, Hana Cho, swimming close to the surface of a cenote (see below). A calcite crust forms on the surface of cenotes when the water is still and the deposits are left untouched. As she swims below the surface, you can see where her bubbles have disturbed the pristine calcite in a series of rings. That image captures something about the tiny diver starting a dive into the unknown, the emotion of the unexplored, and the peacefulness of the moment. It’s the beginning of a dive with all that potential still ahead.
Even though she isn’t technically in the cave yet, it might be my favourite image. It sums up my experience of cave diving. Flooded caves are amazing – not scary or dangerous if you learn to be meticulous and maintain mental control. Like mountaineering, rock climbing, and other extreme sports, you have to train, and there is physical and mental challenge. It’s rewarding to improve your skills and accomplish difficult projects. However, what makes cave diving sweetest is not the personal accomplishment but the moment you lose yourself in the endeavour and find that sense of awe that is so lacking in modern life. It never gets old, and this planet never ceases to amaze.
To read more about Natalie’s experiences cave diving, click here.
Photography ©Natalie Gibb // Under The Jungle