Diving into Darkness

A True Story of Death and Survival

Phillip Finch

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

On an afternoon in November 2004, David Shaw climbed a steep path up a mountainside that rose above Clearwater Bay in the New Territories of Hong Kong. His pace – hard, unflinching, non-stop – was typical of Shaw, a driven man who did everything with a purpose.

Shaw was fifty years old, a training captain with Cathay Pacific airline who helped to oversee the flight fitness of other Cathay pilots while flying the line’s long-haul routes. He and his wife, Ann, both Australian, had recently celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary. With their two children at universities in Australia, the Shaws lived alone in the home that they owned, overlooking Clearwater Bay. They were prosperous, stable, settled: apparently typical of their circle of acquaintances in Hong Kong’s English-speaking expatriate community.

Recently, however, those people had begun to understand that Dave Shaw was not like anyone they had ever known.

In October, he had gone on a diving trip to South Africa. In the past five years, after he learned to scuba dive during a family holiday in the Philippines, Shaw often flew around the world to dive, taking advantage of an airline pilot’s flight benefits. Shaw’s acquaintances imagined him at beach resorts, spending languid days on bright ocean reefs, swimming with tropical fish.

Harry (a pseudonym), one of Shaw’s close friends in Hong Kong and director of a large Hong Kong business, had first met Shaw fifteen years earlier, when the Shaws had moved to Hong Kong and joined a small Christian congregation that included Harry and his family. He admired Shaw’s intelligence and quiet confidence. Shaw spoke little, bragged not at all and accomplished much.

Shortly after Shaw returned from South Africa, Harry asked him whether he had enjoyed the trip. Shaw’s answer was curious.

‘I did,’ he said. ‘I went quite deep.’

Shaw referred Harry to a website address. As soon as Harry returned home, he opened the web page.

Welcome to deepcave.com, a website created by Dave Shaw, the opening page read. Written in the third person, the text described how Shaw had quickly moved from recreational scuba to more challenging, and more risky, pursuits:

Dave was introduced to diving by his son and immediately knew that technical diving was his area of interest. Following some penetration wreck dives in the Philippines, Dave decided cave diving was worth exploring. Once completing the cave course in Florida, it has only really been cave diving that has been of interest since…

He is primarily interested in exploring. To be where no other man has explored before is the ultimate in his opinion. It seems that to achieve that goal, greater depths are becoming a must.

Another page on the site linked to reports of Shaw’s notable dives. To anyone with any knowledge of diving, the dives were beyond extraordinary. They bordered on the unreal.

In October 2003 he accomplished two dives past 180 metres at Komati Springs, South Africa, including a critical equipment failure and what Shaw described as a ‘near-death experience’.

In June 2004 he dived to 213 metres in one of the world’s deepest underwater caves: Boesmansgat – Bushman’s Hole – in South Africa.

During the trip just completed, Shaw had become the third diver in history to return from the bottom of Bush-man’s. His depth of 270 metres was a world record for the diving apparatus known as a rebreather.

During that dive, as he swam along the bottom, Shaw found the body of a young man who had disappeared ten years earlier while diving in the hole. Shaw had briefly tried to lift the body with the thought of bringing it to the surface, but he had become over-exerted. With his allotted time on the bottom running out, he was forced to leave the corpse behind.

His online dive report described the incident:

I was headed for what appeared to be a deeper section of the cave and was laying line as I swam. This was cave diving at its best. I scanned the floor as I went, taking in the scenery. It appeared the cave would not go much deeper. I sweeped right and left with my HID light as I moved forward…

I was relaxed and could almost not believe where I was. I was slowly descending and reached a depth of 270m… I swept left with my HID light, at an angle of about 30 degrees, and 15 m away I saw a body, as plain as day. This had to be the body of Deon Dreyer, who died on the 17th Dec 1994. Even following extensive searches his body had never been found.

He was lying on his back, arms in the air and legs outstretched. There was no shock on my part, but rather a decision-making process of what to do. Do I continue for depth or go to the body? The decision was easy really. I turned and was soon next to him. I needed to try and make a recovery of the body.

Time was critical. I was within seconds of my turn time and I needed to make a decision. I tried to lift him, but to no avail. I knelt next to him and tried harder. I was now puffing and panting with the exertion. This was not wise I told myself. I am at 270m and working too hard… Time to go; I was one minute over my maximum bottom time already. I tied off my reel to him so that he could be found again, not even wasting time cutting the reel free. I followed my line back to the shot line and started my ascent.

Nearly all recreational diving takes places at depths above 40 metres. Many divers never exceed 30 metres. With his dive in October, Shaw had become the fifth sports diver in history to exceed 700 feet (213 metres) and survive; more men have walked on the moon. In five years of part-time diving, he had gone from rank beginner to one of the world’s most accomplished and ambitious divers.

And he had done it without ever mentioning his feats to anyone in Hong Kong. Even Ann had had only a vague idea that he was going far beyond the norm.

Now, as Shaw crested the ridge at the end of his long climb, he encountered Harry, who had taken a more leisurely path to the top. The two men stood chatting for a few minutes, taking in the spectacular view of the bay.

Harry remarked on Shaw’s strenuous push up the hill. Shaw explained that he was trying to stay fit for his next big dive. He said that he would be returning to South Africa soon, back to the bottom of Bushman’s Hole.

Harry was surprised and dismayed. He was not a diver, but he knew that cave diving was among the world’s most hazardous sports, and he guessed that Shaw’s extreme cave diving must be unimaginably dangerous and challenging.

He knew, for sure, that Shaw had much to lose, a truly enviable life with a devoted wife, good health, all the money that he would need.

‘What’s the point?’ Harry said. ‘You’ve already done that.’

‘Not like this,’ Shaw said. ‘Nobody has ever done anything like this. I’m going back to get the body.’

* * *

Bushman’s Hole is about 500 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg, between the towns of Kuruman and Danielskuil, in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. It lies within the 34,000-acre Mount Carmel Game Farm, in the semi-arid ‘green Kalahari’, a region of scrub brush, sere grass and a rolling, rocky terrain.

From the lodge at the game farm, it is a drive of about fifteen minutes along a dirt track. The land rises and falls in gentle swells. You are upon the spot almost before you know you are there: it is, literally, a hole in the ground that seems to open up during the last few paces as you approach the rim.

Bushman’s is a sinkhole. Like most sinkholes, Bushman’s was created by the gradual dissolution of soluble dolomite in underground water. But Bushman’s is a sinkhole in the way St Peter’s Basilica is a church. It is huge and magnificent and almost without equal. The hole is roughly horseshoe-shaped, about 300 feet across at the top. Sheer walls of grey dolomite, topped with banded ironstone and streaked a rusty brown, fall nearly 75 metres straight down. The calls of birds waft up eerily from the chasm.

A steep rubble pile descends from the west end of the hole. The path down is rough, nearly hand-over-hand in places. The final step down is to the edge of a teardrop-shaped pool, about 10 by 15 metres. Most times, the surface of the water is covered by a green skim of duckweed, shockingly green. A slab-sided boulder, larger than an automobile, sits exposed in the middle of the pool. The spot is idyllic, cool, tranquil and hushed, and there is absolutely no hint of what lies below.

The large boulder sits atop an open seam in the floor of the pool. It partly obstructs the crevice – imagine a child’s alphabet block sitting out of kilter in a bathtub drain – but below the surface of the water, at a depth of about three metres, are three openings. Two are large enough for a diver in full gear to enter without wriggling.

Immediately below the massive boulder is a rock-walled passage, tight at first but gradually opening up. Overhead, sunlight streams through the gaps. Below is utter darkness and nothingness. This is a twilight zone, and as you descend, the darkness closes in. The sense that you are leaving behind the world of light and life is reflexive and overwhelming. It requires no imagination.

This is the upper part of a bell-shaped chamber, one of the largest freshwater caverns on earth. From the surface of the pool to the deepest part of the sloping floor is about 280 metres. The circumference of the chamber has never been accurately measured, but a football field would fit at the bottom. In 2002 a team of divers tried to install a line around the wall at the 90 metre level. They brought 350 metres of line, and when they reached the end of their last spool, they still hadn’t got back around to where they started, and they were forced to go back the way they came.

Any underwater cave is essentially a dead zone. The absence of light and air stifles most life (the exceptions are some micro-organisms and a few species of blind cave fish). For divers, the hazards increase with depth, so that the deeper reaches of Bushman’s is one of the most perilous and inhospitable places on earth.

This would not have surprised the original inhabitants of the Kalahari, the !Kung-speaking Bushmen.

The sinkhole was one of the major features in this part of their range, a rare and inexhaustible source of water. The pool sustained them but it probably also terrified them. The Bush-men believed that waterholes were portals to an underworld of darkness and danger. In some Bushman rock art, death is represented by a human figure submerged in water. The Bush-men would have understood that to go beneath the surface of the pool was to enter another world: the realm of the dead.

* * *

On 8 January 2005, Dave Shaw returned to the bottom of Bushman’s Hole and to the body of Deon Dreyer.

Shaw’s day began with a 4 am wakeup in the room that he shared with his friend, Don Shirley, at the Mount Carmel lodge. After he had showered, Shaw called his wife, Ann, in Hong Kong. They spoke with their usual affection. Neither of them mentioned the dive that he was about to attempt. Ann didn’t know – didn’t want to know – the specific day he planned to dive.

‘I’m going down to the dive site now,’ he told her before they said goodbye.

Shaw joined Shirley for a light breakfast in the dining room of the lodge and then the two of them climbed into Shirley’s pickup truck. Shirley pulled away from the lodge, heading east toward the hole. As he drove, Shirley punched up the volume on an iPod that was a gift from Shaw, who had loaded it with music including playlists that Shaw called DeepCave1 and DeepCave2. As Shirley drove through the desert, headlights piercing the darkness, the song that blasted through the truck’s speakers was Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’.

The men had met about two years earlier, when Shaw first came to dive at Komati Springs, the flooded mine where Shirley taught courses in technical diving. Shirley was 47, a quiet and thoughtful Englishman who had moved to South Africa in 1997 after a career in the British Army. He was married to a South African and was about to become a South African citizen. The country beguiled him. He found it beautiful and vivid, a land where life seemed to burn brighter than any place he had known.

Shirley was one of South Africa’s finest divers and was the country’s foremost instructor in tech diving. His log books showed thousands of serious dives. He had taught advanced techniques to hundreds of students, nearly all of whom revered him. In many ways he was a more accomplished diver than Shaw – certainly more experienced, though not as driven to push deeper and further. Shirley considered himself a facilitator, giving others the chance to accomplish what might otherwise have been beyond their grasp. That was how he approached his advanced teaching, and it was what he had done for Shaw. Shirley had organized all of Shaw’s major dives in South Africa and had been his main support diver during Shaw’s two previous visits to Bushman’s. He was one of the few divers in the world qualified to follow Shaw to the depths that Shaw wanted to dive, and he would do it again today.

During the past two months Shirley had conceived an intricate plan for Shaw’s dive to recover the body. The plan included eight support divers and a separate team of police divers, all entering the water at precise intervals after Shaw began his dive. Shirley and his wife, Andr é, had organized all the details and logistics of the event, including a mobile recompression chamber, medics, and an on-site diving physician. All of this had come together while Shaw remained in Hong Kong.

Most dives – even the most thrilling and dangerous – are conducted in perfect obscurity. This one would be different. Reporters from South African TV, radio and newspapers, stringers for international news organizations, and a documentary film crew were all on site. The discovery of the body had been national news, and the plan to recover it had become a major national story. Only the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia had received as much attention in the local press. The attempt seemed to affect people viscerally. The brave man who leaves his comfortable life to perform a hazardous task is a staple of myth in many cultures. And in bringing out a body that had lain so deep, for so long, Shaw would be retaking a prize that the cave had long since claimed as its own. In a real sense, he was trying to cheat death.

So perhaps the story tapped into the power of myth and imagination. Or perhaps the interest from the media was just by chance. For whatever reason, this would be, by far, the best-documented dive in history.

Bushman’s is usually a place of silence and stillness. But today the place was alive as Shirley crested a low hill and dropped down toward the hole. Several large tents, and some smaller ones, were clumped between the dirt track and the edge of the hole. Dozens of people stood around the rim, many with electric torches. Others sat around campfires. A generator thrummed. Shirley parked near the rim. This was the limit of cellphone reception – no signal reached down into the hole – and when he left the truck, Shirley paused to call his own wife, André, who was at their home in the hills of Mpumalanga province, about 1100 kilometres east. Unlike Ann Shaw, André knew exactly what the two men planned to do today and exactly when they planned to do it.

Excerpted from Dividing Into Darkness by Phillip Finch.

Copyright © 2006, 2008 by Phillip Finch.

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.