Monday, July 9, 2018

Underwater Cave Rescue with Kera Rolsen

ThrillWriting is pleased to welcome Kera Rolsen to talk about underwater cave rescues. This article was developed with Kera's permission from her Twitter thread during the Thai Cave rescue summer of 2018. Her information was edited and organized for this article. You can follow Kera @Where_is_Puff.
Kera - 
I’m a cave/cavern/tech/Nitrox/tri mix/wreck cert’d diver. In the summer of 2001, I worked at a dive equipment manufacturer and was part of the only team in all central Florida.

Buckle up, we’re talking rescue.

First off, let’s acknowledge that open water scuba is a chump sport now. Sorry Mom and Dad (who both learned from retired/sadistic SEALS), it’s all computers. No one drown proofs you, and most idiots can learn to dive. They don’t call it “Put Another Dummy In” for nothing kids.

Cave diving is a monster. 

Open water: bright, well lit ocean floor, low current, pretty fish, low risk of death.
If you experience a problem, gently ascend and go to your boat. 

Cave diving: dark, muddy tunnels, medium to high current. You are kicking and breathing so hard you get headaches

Cave diving is 30-90’ of overhead. 
  • You F up you gas calculations? You die. 
  • You have a catastrophic gear failure? You die. 
  • You go in untrained? Guess who gets to pull you bloated corpse out. Our worst days were when we’d get calls from the Alachua Co. Sheriff’s office.

It takes a lot to train a cave diver:
  • Open water certification
  • Usually 50 dives in open water. 
  • Then cavern
  • Then cave. 

I certified at 18 with 4 open dives because my father is a cave instructor and a moron. In retrospect I’m not sure how I never died, I had no business in caves that early. But I digress...

So, to be a cave diver and get rescue certified is a lot of work. Think about the Thai SEAL who died, that man has more time and skill in a cave than 99% over divers alive Let that sink in Now you are asking if terrified, starving young men to enter the scariest environment possible.

Have you seen someone panic? Genuine, gut shaking, lose you f*ing mind panic? 

I have, and it’s uncontrollable. As a lifeguard, one learns that a drowning person is likely to try to kill you in their panic. It’s the same for rescue diving.

Now, put boys, weak from starvation, on the verge of panic from the pressure of life and death, THEN flood that cave. That’s what they did - taught the Thai boys to scuba, follow a thin gold line on minimal training and hope they don’t kill their rescuers

Every young man that emerges from that cave alive is a testament to the indomitable human spirit. The ability to overcome the more extreme of circumstances. The will to survive.

If nothing else, I hope two fact puts things in perspective for you. 

  1. Three of my friends have died cave diving. 
  2. I’ve never successfully pulled a live human from the water (scuba, lifeguarding another matter)

I hope this all lays out the magnitude of what happened in Thailand. 

More information: 
  • You are wearing half your bodyweight in gear. I'm about a buck twenty in the photo and my whole rig weighed about 60lbs. It's gotten lighter but its no joke

Photos: Harry Averill of
  • It's COLD! You are looking at 68F/20C in central FL and Thailand. Not too terrible in open air but it will rob you of body heat in minutes. 
  • They are probably in drysuits which are bulky, unwieldy, and can easily blowout neck/wrist seals.
  • I don't know what the boys are in but even a 7mm wetsuit gets cold after 45 minutes. 3-5 hours, when already depleted and weak will literally be a fight for life.

This is a Mexican cavern, circa 2003. Clear, bright, low flow. Best diving in the world.

Photos: Harry Averill of

This is that cave: 
  • 300' 
  • Dark, narrowing, & high flow. 
  • Looking at the sketches of the Thai caves, its smaller, darker, &d muddier. Again, I hope this put things in perspective. Think about following that tiny line, with a terrified boy, half the space, and 10% the visibility

Photos: Harry Averill of 

  • Standard mask. 
  • NO SNORKLES, they get caught in lines/ceilings/etc. 
  • The fins are stiffer than OW. 
  • Drysuit or thick (7mm or more) for cold water but you can get away with 5mm in Mexico
  • Standard regulators. 
  • Your tank set up varies: single for short dives, double with dual manifold (seen in the first pic) for long dives. However, there’s been a movement in the last decade for side mounts, single tanks under each arm
  • The line they use is essentially 550 cord. It starts at one end, goes to the other. It is you life line. In black water conditions, that is all that brings you back. Hope you never get entangled and have to cut yourself free because you might not find your way out again.
What's in the tank?
One varies the type of gas mix based on depth and duration. 
  • For central FL, most people use Nitrox. 
  • Mexico was usually air. 
  • Not knowing the Thai caves, I couldn’t guess at what they’d use. That said, they need lots, and lots of tanks for dives that long.
What about the depth of the water?

I’m hoping it’s shallow to cut down on decompression time and speed up the process. Otherwise you’ve got high(er) risk of injury/death and likely a long trip to the nearest chamber.

Fiona - 
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise, Kera!

You can listen to Kera talking about this on her interview with 1370 WSPD (WSPD-AM) 

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