Lessons learned - dive safety

Big lessons learned, almost the hard way. 

An underwater photographer's close call diving the Chandelier Caves, Palau


By our nature, underwater photographers are thrill seekers and perhaps more adventurous than the average tourist. We will often almost forget that we are in a hostile, potentially lethal environment, while in pursuit of new experiences and that next great photograph. My wife and I were diving with friends on a multi-day liveaboard in Palau a number of years ago, when we participated in a nearly catastrophic dive. We learned a number of things that day.


Introducing the Dive


Chandelier Caves is a very interesting, “intermediate” level cave dive. Following a very long, 1-1/2-2 hour third dive at “Mandarin Lake” for underwater photography, our very experienced, self-assured dive guide told us that he could show us a really great dive that was an easy way to see an underwater cave system with large, air-filled rooms and stalactites. Our guide was so sure of the ease and safety of the dive, he thought we didn’t even need to refill our partially empty tanks. Fortunately, we all demanded full tanks and got them. The caves are entered through a large opening at about 15- 20’ that leads to a very large room.


An enjoyable start taking underwater photos


We surfaced and took photos of the stalactites and then proceeded to the next smaller, but more spectacular second room. Each room is connected to the  large tunnel, starting at the entrance and continuing at about 15 to 25 feet deep to include 4 rooms, each one smaller than the last.  After enjoying the amazing place we found ourselves in, we continued on to the third room, smaller still and ultimately to a fourth room, which was very small and humid; maybe 20’ x 20’. 


underwater photographer safety at the sea caves in Palau

Rocky island shoreline, nearby the entrance of the Chandelier caves in Palau


Risky Adventures


Our guide then challenged us to ditch our SCUBA gear and go spelunking in another cave system above the water line. After removing our dive gear and leaving it with my wife and one other friend, three of us followed our guide into a very slippery, hot, humid room filled with stalactites and many ways to slip and fall and break a leg. Should any of us had fallen and gotten injured, climbing back, gearing back up and SCUBA diving back out could have been very difficult, if not impossible. 


When we returned to the fourth room, legs intact, my wife and one friend who remained with the gear were obviously ready to go. We struggled to get in our gear…remember, this is in a pitch black, small, claustrophobic space and we had been exerting all day, especially after just finishing a tricky climb through the muddy cave system. Our guide got tangled in his BC and gear hose and I dropped my mask into the shallow, but murky pool. By the time we were geared up, we were also a little keyed up to get out, to say the least.


Our guide dropped down and we followed his dive light. After a number of minutes of swimming we surfaced into the third room. It was obvious that our guide was uncomfortable. The problem was that he was used to navigating by the light coming in from the entrance. You literally were looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. 


We had entered the cave system much later in the day than was usual; we had spent a long time taking pictures and the spelunking add-on put us in the caves well after sunset. Once again we dropped down and swam for what seemed like a long time only to resurface in the third room again. 


diving underwater in the chandelier caves, palau

After diving underwater in the Chandelier Caves


The Big Problem


Now it was getting “interesting”. Once again, our guide dropped down to get his bearings. We decided to stay put and conserve our dwindling air supply (and to calm down). When he returned he said to follow him and “hurry”, which didn’t make me feel any better. We swam for at least 10 minutes, frantically kicking as hard as we could to stay within sight our our fast swimming, nervous guide.I started thinking that this is how accidents happen and made a big effort to control my breathing as I started to think about alternate ways to approach our problem, should our guide lose us in his hurry to get out. 


When we resurfaced, we found ourselves in the second room. Progress! After a very brief wait, we again dropped down and swam for a long time. Expecting to surface in the first room, you can imagine our feelings when we popped up in the tiny fourth room again.


Now it was obvious that we had a big problem. We all started talking and everyone had a sick look on his face.


Getting Out


Instead of trying to reassure us that all was okay, our now obviously clueless guide said “Shit! I’m disoriented. I can’t believe how disoriented I am.”1 He started down again, when we stopped him and tried to calm him down. Fortunately, I thought of our compasses and asked him if he knew the heading out. Duh! He said yeah and we then slowly, anxiously worked our way back to the first room. I can remember, like it was yesterday, the sight of the boat’s dive ladder and a nearly full moon in the sky as we exited the mouth of the cave system and indeed found the light at the end of the tunnel.


Lessons learned for underwater photographers


There are many lessons to be learned from this:


First, do not put all your faith in anyone else to keep you safe during a dive. We literally put our lives in the hands of an eager, but incompetent dive guide2, who very nearly led us to disaster.


Second, don’t put yourself in any situation that you cannot safely get yourself out of. 


Third, always stay calm and take the time to find a solution to your problem.


Fourth: think twice about pushing the envelope to get that really great shot or experience that really great thing. Plan your dive and dive your plan, as they say.




1The quotes come from my wife’s dive log. She’s one of those meticulous divers who has actually logged every dive she’s made.
2Our guide was a 40-something American living in Palau. I didn’t want to give you the idea the local dive guides there were incompetent. They were uniformly excellent.



About the Author


This is the first of a series of monthly columns written by  Underwater Photography Guide field editor Randy Harwood.  Visit Randy's website or email him.




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I have been to these caves at

I have been to these caves at the beginning of 2012 - in our case the dive master wanted to make it more attractive: back in the first cave at the end of the dive she asked us to switch off our torches, observe the light at the end of the tunnel and swim towards it. Sounded easy so everybody agreed.
I was the last one to go in the group (we had to go one by one due to space contraints). The dive master went first to show us the way. By the time I started diving the sediments were already up, the sun was already much down as it was getting late and as a result I could see no light at all. I went in the direction, the others took or at least I thought so. With no light I got completely disoriented and after a while I hit the wall with my head. I immediately switched the light back on and realized that I was at the depth of 13 meters instead of 4... Having enough air for another hour or so at shallow depth I calmed down the initial panic and started ascending slowly. Then I noticed the light above. It was my buddy. Only when we met, we understood that we shared the same problem: the buddy was equally disoriented and did not know either where the exit was. She thought, I returned to the cave to save her :-). It was just luck that the direction we took was the correct one. In less than a minute we were outside where the rest of the party together with the dive master were happily searching for the mandarin fishes in the coral rubble. The dive master did not seem to notice that we were late from the cave.

Lessons learned:
1) Do not switch off the lights there. It's just dangerous.
2) There is nothing romantic in underwater darkness inside a cave.
3) The dive master mustn't look for elusive mandarins unless 100% sure that everyone is out from the cave
4) Although the cave system is simple there, a rope to follow to the exit could save life one day. The heart attack triggered by the panic is easy to imagine.
5) Hitting the rock with the forehead hurts...

Well said above! The two most

Well said above!

The two most important things in any cave dive would be to 1 - use a guideline and 2 - never depend on someone else to keep you safe, the second should really be the case for each and every dive!

It sounds like the dive described was a cavern rather than a cave as navigation was through natural light, however going into even a cavern without a guideline is not safe as a serious silt-out will be much worst than loosing daylight!

The key lesson here is don't go into a cave, or even a cavern unless you have the right training and ability to get out again by yourself. Getting our using a compass is a minor miracle as very few caves are straight!

No pictures are worth risking the above for - I'm sure you know that now! the pictures you did get would be great to see though ;-)

Scary....just curious..were

Scary....just curious..were any of you cave certified? That can make a HUGE difference....as I'm sure you are aware, they offer certifications for different diving environments for a reason. Plus, you never mentioned laying a reel once in the article...this alone could have kept you from becoming lost in the first place. It's a good thing you got out alive! This is why you should ALWAYS seek out proper training before ever attempting a technical dive such as this! Small mistakes in a cave can easily cost you your life.