Trapped Under Bermuda

by Michael Zinsley

A few years ago, while working as a diving instructor in Bermuda, I had an experience that reshaped my attitudes towards diving safety dramatically. Bermuda’s limestone land mass is riddled with caves, many of which have been explored by divers. I had read many stories about cave diving, and the idea of swimming through those underground tunnels was irresistible to me.

Across the street from our dive shop was a woodland that contained several appealing cave entrances. The one that caught my eye as the most diveable was a gaping cavern. From the water’s edge, a string could be seen, tied off underwater on a ten foot deep stalagmite, leading northwest. Someone had been through there, and I wondered how far they had gone. I knew what was on the other side of the ridge, and faced with the prospect of a fantastic adventure, I spent an afternoon sweating and thrashing through the jungle, compass in hand, to confirm my suspicions. The string pointed directly at the tourist cave on the other side of the hill.

I laid awake that night, daydreaming a personal fantasy scene in the tourist cave: Fat kids eating candy clutch their mothers’ hands with sticky fingers. The parents, sporting new knee length Bermuda shorts are locked in a permanent stoop from the weight of the cameras around their necks. The tour guide drones about geology with a Bermudian accent, "Rahnd a million years ago…" Suddenly, a bubble breaks the surface at the base of the colorfully lit flowstone. The guide whirls in amazement. More bubbles appear as a form moves under the surface. It’s alive. Kids mash sugar into Daddy’s polyester thigh as they cling for security. A hooded form appears. Mommy screams. A mass stampede breaks the wooden walkways as the drones flee to the safety of the tour bus.

I stand alone in the cave.

I am proud.

I didn’t have to pay the seven dollar entrance fee.

To accompany me on this quest, I recruited Chris, another instructor that I worked with. Neither of us had any formal training in cave diving, but felt we’d read enough on the subject to be safe. After all, weren’t we highly experienced divers with thousands of logged dives between us? Using a nautical chart, we carefully plotted a quarter mile course from the overhang cave to Tourist Central. In case of emergency, we would each carry an extra steel 72 tank with regulator attached. After putting fresh batteries in our lights and back up lights, we were ready for the assault.

The next day, we started our dive. The string led down past narrowing gaps in the stalactites. Before losing view of the last light behind us, I gave it a tug to make sure it wouldn’t break. Fifty feet later, we were squeezing through a narrow tunnel, churning up clay marl, and inching our way along the string in zero visibility. Finally, the passage opened, showing black water ahead. My light showed my bubbles tumbling fifty feet up a wall to distant ripples above - an air pocket.

We surfaced and inflated our BCs. Forty feet above, a domed planetarium-like ceiling topped the circular underground room. Drops of groundwater shimmered in the dark where stars should have been in the reflections of our light beams. An inverted V opening on the opposite wall beckoned. We referenced our compasses and swam over to it. The room on the other side was the size of an indoor sports stadium. Huge collapsed slabs in the middle formed a limestone island of glass-smooth ramps. We took our gear off and clambered up.

"Cool." Chris’s voice was dampened by the dripping white walls. A myriad of small passages led north. However, none contained any string.

Back in the planetarium room, we dropped back underwater and followed the fifty foot contour to where we thought we came in. Nothing. No string. No tunnel. We searched all over the wall, but couldn’t find the hole. We were trapped in the middle of Bermuda with the image of slowly dying of hunger on a limestone mound in the back of our minds. Friends knew where we went, but we could hardly sit in the dark hoping they could find us. We still had plenty of air and two extra tanks, so we kept looking.

Fruitlessly our search expanded to areas we knew couldn’t possibly hold the exit. On the eastern side of the slab room, we stumbled across another string heading southeast. Although dangerous, it appeared to be our best option. I give Chris a "shall we?" shrug. He nodded and followed me along it. Five minutes later, we saw a glimmer of light ahead. Miraculously, we had passed through a different tunnel and surfaced on the opposite end of the overhang cave. Plain old ordinary trees never looked so good. Their lively contrast to the dark dead zone behind brought us to a realization: There is nothing in underwater passages that can’t be found in caves above sea level. We never went back. Fun is one thing. Stupidity is another. Our lesson was fourfold: Don’t let years of experience lead to a feeling of invulnerability. Don’t dive in caves without proper training. Realize that the appeal of a great adventure can override common sense during decision making. Sealed caves are dangerous dive sites and should be avoided.