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Cave Diving: A Neurosurgeon’s Exotic Sport

Cave diving is spectacular, but it is also risky, and the training is long. Like neurosurgery itself, few are up for the task.

Our own Dr. Christopher Winfree from the Pain and Peripheral Nerve Centers is among a very small group of divers who pursue this exotic sport.

He says, “People who cave dive have a similar personality. They fall into the same group as pilots, mountain climbers, race car drivers, and neurosurgeons. The one thing that ties all these activities together is the desire to use technology and skill to manage risk.”

“In neurosurgery you have to be good with your hands but you also have to use instruments, and things like stereotactic navigation and MRI scans. It’s the technology and the skill that together can enable you to do something that not a lot of people can do. That is sort of the philosophy that we bring to cave diving.”

Cave diving was invented in the mid 20th century by dry cave explorers who encountered parts of the cave that disappeared under water. The only way to get from one air pocket to the next was to scuba dive. In the beginning it was particularly hazardous, because they didn’t know how to plan for the many hazards. Technology has come a long way, as has cave diving instruction.

Today, becoming a cave diver is a long process of certification that starts with basic open-water scuba diving.  It takes hundreds of hours and often years to complete. “There are probably ten total certifications,” says Winfree.

He started scuba diving in 1986 and got his final cave diving certification in 2000. He says, “I have always liked being in tight spots. When scuba diving I would like to crawl into holes. It was just more interesting.”

Today, Winfree is more accurately described as a cave explorer. “My brother and I go by plane and discover new caves by air. We see cave holes and some months later we take the boat over and dive those holes. Some turn out to be great caves and some don’t. We survey them. We lay permanent line in there. We publish the maps that enable other people to dive these caves too.”

He has spent the last decade working on a massive cave system called Lucy’s Cave. It was discovered in the early 80’s by Robert Palmer who dove a couple hundred feet in. Winfree says, “We’ve now pushed 3 or 4 miles of line in there. We have the second deepest penetration of any cave in the Bahamas. We keep discovering new tunnels.”

Winfree hopes to finish in the next year, “We are basically pushing that cave out as far as we can,” he says, “given the technology that is available.” Once we get a mile in, we are basically done. Then we’ll move onto another project. There are so many.”

patient journey

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