Can 12 Young Thai Boys be Taught Diving to Escape

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Despite being trapped in a cave for 9 days with no food and little light, the Thai footballers are in good spirits after being found (ThaiSEAL/Facebook)

With this morning's tragic announcement of the death of a Thai Navy Seal during preparations for the rescue of the Thai youth football team trapped in a Chiang Rai cave system, can 12 young boys, aged between 11 and 16, learn enough to dive their way out? We asked our resident instructor, Mark 'Crowley' Russell, for his thoughts on the subject.

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Divers preparing to enter the flooded cave system (ThaiSEAL/Facebook)

Is  it possible to teach non-swimming children how to dive through a cave?

The ability to swim is not as essential to diving as a person's level of comfort in the water. The swimming challenges for entry-level dive courses are more about familiarity with the environment than technical ability. PADI's Open Water course, for example, requires student divers to support themselves at the surface without swimming aids, for a distance of 200m. This is, of course, a completely different scenario to pottering around a pool on holiday, and it's unlikely that the children will need to swim unaided at the surface. as support divers will be present at all times, but getting them accustomed to being in the water will be a priority. They will need to learn how to propel themselves through the water wearing scuba gear, with fins. This training is, apparently, already underway.

How long will that take?

The fundamentals of diving, and getting people to relax in the water, can be taught in just a few hours, as any dive professional who has conducted 'intro dives' will know. There is a vast difference, however, between enjoying a shallow, sunlit reef for an hour with a nervous student, and what these kids will have to face in the dark, murky water. The only way to help in overcoming that is by spending as much time in the water as possible.  Their young ages will probably help: kids think they are invincible and it's often the case that junior divers are a lot less nervous than adults.

What do they need to know and be able to do?

If they are to be kitted out with some form of BCD, they will need to learn how to operate the inflator and deflator mechanisms. I doubt that learning how to maintain neutral buoyancy is a priority, as one assumes that a support diver will keep hold of them at all points where possible and operate the equipment for them, but they will need to know how to ascend and descend and how to maintain themselves at the surface if they become separated. The current theory is that they will be provided with full-face masks to minimise the possibility of a dislodged regulator, but I would imagine that dealing with a fully flooded, or absent mask, and switching to an alternate air source if necessary would be on the list of priorities. One assumes they will be taught how to equalise and, of course, to never hold their breath.

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Will they be attached to a line?

Guide lines have already been run through the cave system, with spare tanks distributed along the route, probably marked with lights or glow-sticks which would be fairly standard practice. The children will most likely be tethered to one support diver, with a second support diver in close proximity.

Do they have to go in single file?

Through the narrow passageways, yes, but I imagine that otherwise a support diver will maintain constant contact with each of the children.

What options do the rescue divers have to bring the children through the tight passages?

Some of the kids might be small enough that they can fit through the passage with a tank strapped to their back, but not all of them, and almost certainly not the coach. They might consider training some of the boys to use a sidemount-style slung tank, and hold it out in front of them through the tight passages, but a much better option might be to have the boys on a long-hose air source provided by one of the support divers, who can manage the tanks while the boy follows along behind. The long hose alternate air source is standard practice for cave divers in out-of-air situations. They boys would therefore always be linked to one of the support divers by both a tether and the long hose that is providing them with air.

What is going to be the most difficult thing for the children to cope with?

The tight passage as mentioned above. Regardless of how the equipment is configured in order to get them trough, this is not an easy task, even for experienced cave divers. The limited visibility and light may mean they lose sight of their support divers in the  narrow crawl space. This, perhaps without the comforting, immediate presence of a support diver will be the most horrendous part of the experience, I would imagine. Despite my years of experience, I would never do that deliberately. It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it, actually.

What happens if one loses control? Or loses consciousness?

In areas of more open water, a loss of control can be dealt with by the support divers. Should they lose consciousness, they need to get the child to the nearest medical facility as soon as possible. I know that medical personnel are already stationed with the boys in the area where they are trapped. If it's possible to do so, I imagine checkpoints will be stationed in dry areas of the cave, with a doctor, first aid and emergency oxygen on hand.

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Will buoyancy control be a problem?

I think the support divers will handle underwater buoyancy control for the children, wherever it might be necessary.

Full-face masks or regulators?

Full face masks eliminate the possibility of regulators being pulled out of the boys' mouths when navigating tight spaces, or if they are using a long hose air source from a support diver. Full face masks fitted with radios would be a very useful addition as it will allow the support divers to communicate with the boys at all times, especially important for keeping them calm.

How do you keep them calm during the dives?

Aside from the full-face mask radios, the best way to keep a nervous or panicking diver calm is to provide immediate, face-to-face contact and hold onto them. Lots of reassurance can be provided by body contact and gestures. If it's possible to surface then this will allow the boys to recover before continuing on.

At what age can you take up diving and cave diving?

The minimum age for recreational diving is eight years old, but is confined to a shallow pool. Open Water certification is possible from the age of 10 and above with mandatory requirements for in-water supervision by dive professionals and/or parents until the diver is 15 years of age. The minimum age for full cave diving is 18 years old, as it is even for the PADI Cavern Diver programme, which would not qualify a diver to undertake the journey that these kids will have to make. 




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