From Here There Be Dragons

I spent the two days after Ag’s service being hosted by John Dalla-Zuanna and his family.  They live on the edge of a reserve and that reserve had kangaroos in it.  Being from elsewhere, that was pretty cool.  I am savvy enough to know that Australians do not usually have kangaroos in their backyard, but John does.  Cute looking, but I knew if I got too close I would get my butt kicked.

Turns out John has been cave diving for a very long time.  So, it was fun to get to hear some of the old stories about his pilgrimages from Australia to Florida to dive back in the day.  Evenings were filled with stories of Sheck, Woody, Wes, and countless other founders of the Florida cave diving scene.  His first trip went long enough for him to buy a car that Sheck set him up with.  Only problem was that he needed a US license to get the car insured.  Adventures at the DMV were almost as rich as the cave diving.

John has not stopped doing big dives since.  He has continued to work and push some of the biggest projects in history both in cave diving and wreck diving.  He was part of the dives on the RMS Niagara.  He also has dived deeper into a cave than almost any anyone as part of the dives at the Pearse Resurgence.

He is also one of those engineer types that gets an idea and will actually build it.  He is also quite a cartographer.  With some of the coolest computer aided cave mapping I have ever seen.  It was good times to get to know him better.  Our paths had almost crossed over a decade ago when it looked like I was supposed to go to Australia to run some training.  That course never happened.  But, we finally met at the last OZTek in 2009.

We talked late into the evening sharing stories and comparing notes.  I have to thank John for the hospitality he and his family provided me.  It made the trip better.

It got me thinking about why we cave dive.  That was brought up a lot at Ag’s service.  Why would someone do such a thing?  The reason is individual and no one answer will due.  It is for each explorer their own motives that drives them to push forward or not.  It is something very different than most people experience.  For me, it is cool to see or be where no one has been before.  But, that is not the main thing.  It is really where I go in myself when I am doing it that is the thing.  Those moments that are hard to explain except to say it is just you and your own decisions.  Where the journey takes you inside is almost more important than where you go on the journey.

In 2000, I was diving as part of the Cambrian Foundation expedition where we found a system we named Sistema Camilo.  We named it after an elderly gentleman that owned the land across the street.  He was well into his 80s when he joined us in the jungle to help us find a hole in the ground. With machete in hand, no less.  He has since passed away.

Map of Sistema_Camilo

Daily Project Updates from all years.

2004 coverage on

After a particularly eventful day of diving on the 2000 expedition, I wrote the following piece.  In the moment, it was where my mind was and part of why I cave dive and explore.

Moments of Discovery

It is moments like this when those who live it can only understand what is experienced.  But, I shall try to make it come to life here.

So few are lucky enough to be friends with people where you literally place your life in their hands.  As cave divers we have that privilege.  As with any privilege, there is a cost.  The reverse holds true.  For if my life is in another’s hands, their life rests squarely in mine.  Someone else’s mistake can kill me, but just as easily mine can kill both of us.  A tangled web that binds people together like so few other experiences can.  I have heard that going to war can bring about similar circumstances.  Not that cave diving can compare on the strategic level.  However, I think on an emotional one the two are very comparable.

For some, the cave diving as war mentality holds truer than seems clear.  They lay siege to the cave.  Doing battle with every inch of passage.  Fighting to gain ground and retreating to gain advantage or reassess plans and perspectives.  This may work for some, but it seems to counter the deeper connection that comes from this baptism by water.

The earth is open.  Passage laid down by water tens of thousands of years ago, decorated and sculpted.  Now packaged under a veil of the very water that created it.  The passage is not an enemy to be concurred or seized.  Rather, the passage is given to us by the very earth and water that created it.

The gift is not given freely.  Almost as if the gift itself grants permission to the receiver.  The cave makes the terms of the exchange.  Really, the cave could care less.  As humans we have a need, an almost habitual obsession to attribute human character to things we find hard to understand.  We cannot grasp the totality of something where changes occur in thousands of years rather than in months.  The cave does not have an emotional attachment to the outcome of exploration.  It, the cave, simply is.  The cave continues to do what it does.  Uninterrupted and unnoticing of our activity.

We, humans, are the ones with emotional attachments to the outcome of exploration.  In our emotional state we do receive great joys and great heartaches at the hands of a very unemotional master.

Many choose to avoid such mind-bending thoughts by simply staying home.  This forms an artificial world by which people can introduce an element of control into their life.  A cocoon of sorts.  But by hiding from the world are we really living or truly successful in life?  We try to feel powerful.  When faced by something (the cave) that literally carves holes in solid rock and decorates it in the process, most people lose any false sense of power they may have.  We are powerless on that level.  Oh sure we can drill, dig, carve and blow holes into the ground, but we will never be able to match this splendor.

When faced with such an awesome perspective, you can put forth the delusion that you have a hope to lay siege to such a creation.  But when we do we build a glass house.  The magnitude of the truth overwhelms us.  The true nature of the gift is not in the cave, rather it is in what it allows us to experience in ourselves.  The gift is perspective, appreciation, the freezing of time, scope of the universe and our short time here.

Do you think a fruit fly would worry about whether it would get a vacation next year (assuming, of course, a fruit fly was able to think)?  Probably not.  They only live for about a month.  In terms of the cave, we do not even match the life of a fruit fly.

In sharing with us this experience of the cave, we get a rare glimpse into time itself.  We are here for such a very short time.  The gift is that realization.  You do not have to cave dive to receive that gift.  It lives in all of us.  Just paying attention is the only price.  As cave divers we just get reminded more often.

I guess perspective is not easily molded.  Advertisers would have a much easier time of it if it were.  But, this crazy activity would not be possible without other people.  The exploration process requires people.  From talking to local landowners, to searching through jungle, to huffing equipment in for a dive, to diving in teams, to plotting data, to publishing the map, it all requires the cooperation of many people.

We miss human connection in the modern world.  In fact, we are really bad at it.  That is why most marriages end in divorce.  When we place so much into the hands of so many we learn how to make it work.  The prize for all involved and all gain equally is a connection with other people.

I think that is what makes this and war so powerful for so many.  Because by its nature, they both force us to relate and connect with other people from a gut level.  Which only issues of survival seem to instill in people.

Connected to all of these benefits is one that is connected to the cave.  That is the water.  For us water is life.  While, we are not adapted to breathe it, water is necessary for our existence.  With that necessity comes a certain excitement with trying to figure out where it wants to go.  That path is critical to our continued access to this necessity for our life.

Having the privilege to try to chase that is an awesome one.  Because the chase can be so exciting.  The discovery is nice but the process of reaching it so much sweeter.  For it is not the final connection, it is the passage we swim to get there.

That passage is laid out before us.  Often times we make many wrong turns before we find the right one.  That connection simply leads to more passage.  Perspective of how it all fits together is helpful, but the strongest joy lies in that moment.  The moment of connection or discovery or both.  When it all comes together, it can only be called magic.


Like the explorers of old, we do not know what will come next.  There was a time when the map stopped and beyond what was known was filled with ideas of fanciful creatures.

From here there be dragons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s