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Back in the summer of 2001 I was diving with Francisco Ortigosa, a good friend of mine with whom I had just completed an advanced trimix course. Francisco is a geophysicist, and we were diving in the Ras Mohammed National Park when he suggested that there might be cave systems in deep water in the Jackfish Alley area on the eastern wall of the famous headland.


After several exploratory dives, I found a cave close to the old Jackfish Alley mooring, with an entrance at a depth of 65m. I explored the cave with Fran and my deep-diving buddy, Thomas Chabanne. We laid a guide line from the right-hand corner of the first chamber leading down a chimney to the second chamber.


After several dives in this cave, we established there was not a passable route leading to any further chambers. Thomas and I continued searching for more black holes close to the original 65m entry, and deeper along the wall we were rewarded with another cave entrance at 80m. We planned a deeper and longer dive to explore this cave. When we entered, we found ourselves on a sheer wall, dropping to what appeared to be well in excess of 100m. Spectacular stuff, but daunting. This was obviously one hell of a cave, and it was very tempting to continue exploring, but at that point I made the decision to halt further deep cave dives altogether until I acquired the requisite cave training.


For the next five years, I was kept busy with the Yolanda Wreck Project and running various technical courses. However, in early 2007 my Russian friend and fellow technical instructor Gennadiy 'Gena' Fursov asked me for information about these caves. I gave Gena the information that I had gathered during my dives, and over the next few weeks I was kept informed by Gena of his exploits inside the caves.


After he had reached 110m in the deeper of two systems, Gena asked me if I would like to put together a team and push deeper into the system. I agreed at once, but shortly afterwards I realised I was about to blunder into a highly dangerous situation without the proper preparation.


When I last visited those caves, I had promised myself I would stop diving caves altogether until I completed full cave training. Now, still with no such training, I had given a similarly untrained diver detailed information regarding the exact location of the caves. Even more stupidly, I had agreed to put a team together and lead them into these unknown caves. Maybe it was time to get formal cave training.


I got in touch with cave-diving instructor trainer and explorer Andreas Mattes, or Matt to his friends. Matt was responsible for much of the most extensive and logistically complicated cave exploration and surveying in the Yucatán from the early to mid 1990s, as well as being an active technical instructor trainer. He is an excellent instructor and after two weeks training with him in Mexico, the team and I felt well prepared for the challenges that lay ahead in Ras Mohammed.


Once back in Sharm El Sheikh, a team of eight cave divers was put together and a plan was formulated for the Jackfish Alley Cave Exploration Project. We wanted to find out if there might be a passable route between the shallower and deeper known caves, or indeed any connection to any other caves. In addition, we would explore the deeper cave and conduct a formal survey of the explored areas. It would also give us an opportunity to give the various passages and chambers suitably scary names!


Day 1: Reaper's Lair


The team met at Ocean Tec (the technical-diving filling station in Sharm), where gargantuan amounts of gas, countless dive crates and the decompression station were being prepared. Mohammed Salem, director of the Ras Mohammed National Park, had given us permission to use the old mooring at Jackfish Alley. It's not normally allowed, but the proximity to the site made general diving logistics much simpler and safer. Divers kitted up en route and once moored, the floating deco station was deployed, with EAN80 and oxygen staged.


The support divers, led by Gilly Healey and Suzy Coombs, laid a guide line from the bottom of the decompression station to the 65m cave entrance (with gothic indulgence, we called this one the Reaper's Lair) while the cave teams finalised their goals for the day. Gena and myself were the first in. We laid a survey line in the Reaper's Lair, and conducted a survey to the furthest explored point from the cave entrance. Valentina Cucchiara filmed the first chamber to the connecting passage, (Dead Man's Shoot), in the right-hand corner of the first chamber.


Team Two, (Jim Dowling, Jimmy Jewel and Dave 'The Cave' Summerfield), followed an hour later, counting knots on the line and recording depths at survey points, all the while drawing the contours of the cave. Team Three, consisting of Paul 'Doozer' Close and Neil Black, finished the first day by confirming depths at survey points. They also started measuring distances from survey points to the cave walls, ceiling and floor in the first room.


Day 2: Devil's Eye


Gena and I were focused on exploring the deeper of the two caves - Devil's Eye - leaving the other two cave teams to work towards a comprehensive survey of the Reaper's Lair.


Gena was using twin 20s and I had twin 18s on the back, plus five 12-litre cylinders required to complete the relatively long bottom time and the required four hours of decompression.


This was very much the day of the cylinders - we needed around 10,000 litres of gas to complete the 25-minute bottom time to explore between the 80m cave entrance and a planned 130m.


The idea was to use our large twin-sets solely for cave gas. We travelled to the cave entrance with an intermediate trimix, staging this alongside a hyperoxic trimix at the cave entrance. We laid 45m of survey line from the cave light zone vertically, to a little over 100m, before veering off to the left and following a passage leading to a major restriction in 108m. I tied the line off and followed Gena back up the main line to 95m and then, turning right over the Devil's Eye, explored another passage to a depth of 113m.


It was time to head back to the main line. As we approached a secondary tie-off at 100m, we noted the main vein of the cave appeared to run off to the right (facing the line), bearing north. Our torch beams disappeared into a narrow, seemingly endless void - more to explore tomorrow! As we exited the cave, our support divers Nina Presiner and Oxana Istratova were waiting with fresh gas to exchange for our intermediate mixes along the guide line system, which led to pure oxygen cylinders staged on the deco station.


The second team completed a 20-25-minute bottom time between the cave entrance and 90m, with two hours of decompression. Both teams made good progress pushing further with the detailed survey, obtaining compass bearings from survey points and measurements from the survey line. Meanwhile, Dave and Val went to get footage inside the Reaper's Lair, as well as removing my old guide line, which had been laid six years earlier.


Day 3: temple of doom


Dave and Neil were the first team in, taking measurements in the deeper chamber of the Reaper's Lair, which we had named the Temple of Doom. While there, they discovered a small sponge-like organism.


Gena and I entered the water next, heading for the Devil's Eye cave. We had the same mixes as the day before, and our plan was to follow the main line to the secondary tie off at 100m, then tie into this line with another line and explore what appeared to be the main vein, running north. After passing over the Devil's Eye boulder we explored the same passage as we had the day before, to a major restriction in 121m. We then reeled back out and continued north along the main vein, laying 45m of survey line, while depths ranged between 100m and 110m. We reached the end of the line with the open maw of the cave passage still demanding further exploration. When I looked for a place to tie off the line, I saw some bizarre worm casts in the rock wall. There was life in the cave.


Day 4: final push


The already outrageous quantity of gas ordered over the last three days doubled on Day Four, due to all cave teams planning an exploratory dive in the deep Devil's Eye cave. Chad, our sponsor and mixer, never even broke a sweat as Ocean Tec pumped dozens of manifolds and cylinders with an increasingly complicated order of gas.


Dave entered first, with Thomas in support and Val filming. Both used a twin 12-litre manifold, plus another 12-litre single of bottom mix. They followed the main line to the 100m tie-off, then made the jump left and followed the line for another 45m, before turning at the worm cast tie-off and starting the journey back to the light zone.


Gena and I entered the water an hour later, using the same volume of gas and mixes as the previous two days. Our plan was to hurry back to the worm cast tie-off and see how much further we could push into this unknown place. Once there, we tied on and laid 25m of line horizontally along a winding passage. After a while, the passage narrowed, but when I looked down I noticed the cave widening, so we dropped down to 130m before our line ran out.


I shone my torch down into the black void - there was no cave floor in sight, just a sinister darkness that seemed as if it could go on forever. With no time for sketching or taking notes, we made our turn, eager to match our entry speed on the way out to stay within our one-third reserve gas management rule. Due to the increase in depth, we had reached the absolute minimum safe gas reserve limit. For exploration beyond this point with open circuit, we would need to carry more cave gas and/or stages within the cave, or consider the option of rebreathers.


This is the first time such an extensive cave system has been discovered in this area, and it has already attracted the attention of the international caving elite, with prospects of a system as complex and rewarding as Wakulla in Florida. Its potential for further exploration and its attraction for serious technical cave divers seems almost unlimited. We must wait and see what future pushes will reveal, but it is my belief that the discoveries outlined in this feature will open a new era in technical cave diving. For now, the darkness beneath Ras Mohammed remains an unfathomed mystery.


VITAL SUPPORT


Our boat for the project was provided by our main sponsor, Ocean Tec, run by Chad the Gasman, who also provided 12 manifolds of trimix plus intermediates and hyperoxic trimix mixes, EANx, oxygen, as well as a fair few spares each day. Ehab, Ocean Tec's 'mix master', kept the blending team busy throughout the night until sunrise each day. Medical support was provided by Dr Adel Taher and Dr Ahmed Sakr from the local Sharm hyperbaric chamber. Further logistical support was provided by Hamdy Samy, director of the local Search and Rescue (SAR). The cave divers were split into three smaller teams, with Video Val swapping teams each day.


THANKS TO


The Jackfish Alley Exploration project would like to thank its main sponsors Ocean Tec (www.oceantechnical.com), O'Three (www.othree.co.uk), Green Force (www.greenforce.be) and Salvo (www.salvodiving.com).

 

Part 1

Part 2


Back in the summer of 2001 I was diving with Francisco Ortigosa, a good friend of mine with whom I had just completed an advanced trimix course. Francisco is a geophysicist, and we were diving in the Ras Mohammed National Park when he suggested that there might be cave systems in deep water in the Jackfish Alley area on the eastern wall of the famous headland.


After several exploratory dives, I found a cave close to the old Jackfish Alley mooring, with an entrance at a depth of 65m. I explored the cave with Fran and my deep-diving buddy, Thomas Chabanne. We laid a guide line from the right-hand corner of the first chamber leading down a chimney to the second chamber.


After several dives in this cave, we established there was not a passable route leading to any further chambers. Thomas and I continued searching for more black holes close to the original 65m entry, and deeper along the wall we were rewarded with another cave entrance at 80m. We planned a deeper and longer dive to explore this cave. When we entered, we found ourselves on a sheer wall, dropping to what appeared to be well in excess of 100m. Spectacular stuff, but daunting. This was obviously one hell of a cave, and it was very tempting to continue exploring, but at that point I made the decision to halt further deep cave dives altogether until I acquired the requisite cave training.


For the next five years, I was kept busy with the Yolanda Wreck Project and running various technical courses. However, in early 2007 my Russian friend and fellow technical instructor Gennadiy 'Gena' Fursov asked me for information about these caves. I gave Gena the information that I had gathered during my dives, and over the next few weeks I was kept informed by Gena of his exploits inside the caves.


After he had reached 110m in the deeper of two systems, Gena asked me if I would like to put together a team and push deeper into the system. I agreed at once, but shortly afterwards I realised I was about to blunder into a highly dangerous situation without the proper preparation.


When I last visited those caves, I had promised myself I would stop diving caves altogether until I completed full cave training. Now, still with no such training, I had given a similarly untrained diver detailed information regarding the exact location of the caves. Even more stupidly, I had agreed to put a team together and lead them into these unknown caves. Maybe it was time to get formal cave training.


I got in touch with cave-diving instructor trainer and explorer Andreas Mattes, or Matt to his friends. Matt was responsible for much of the most extensive and logistically complicated cave exploration and surveying in the Yucatán from the early to mid 1990s, as well as being an active technical instructor trainer. He is an excellent instructor and after two weeks training with him in Mexico, the team and I felt well prepared for the challenges that lay ahead in Ras Mohammed.


Once back in Sharm El Sheikh, a team of eight cave divers was put together and a plan was formulated for the Jackfish Alley Cave Exploration Project. We wanted to find out if there might be a passable route between the shallower and deeper known caves, or indeed any connection to any other caves. In addition, we would explore the deeper cave and conduct a formal survey of the explored areas. It would also give us an opportunity to give the various passages and chambers suitably scary names!


Day 1: Reaper's Lair


The team met at Ocean Tec (the technical-diving filling station in Sharm), where gargantuan amounts of gas, countless dive crates and the decompression station were being prepared. Mohammed Salem, director of the Ras Mohammed National Park, had given us permission to use the old mooring at Jackfish Alley. It's not normally allowed, but the proximity to the site made general diving logistics much simpler and safer. Divers kitted up en route and once moored, the floating deco station was deployed, with EAN80 and oxygen staged.


The support divers, led by Gilly Healey and Suzy Coombs, laid a guide line from the bottom of the decompression station to the 65m cave entrance (with gothic indulgence, we called this one the Reaper's Lair) while the cave teams finalised their goals for the day. Gena and myself were the first in. We laid a survey line in the Reaper's Lair, and conducted a survey to the furthest explored point from the cave entrance. Valentina Cucchiara filmed the first chamber to the connecting passage, (Dead Man's Shoot), in the right-hand corner of the first chamber.


Team Two, (Jim Dowling, Jimmy Jewel and Dave 'The Cave' Summerfield), followed an hour later, counting knots on the line and recording depths at survey points, all the while drawing the contours of the cave. Team Three, consisting of Paul 'Doozer' Close and Neil Black, finished the first day by confirming depths at survey points. They also started measuring distances from survey points to the cave walls, ceiling and floor in the first room.


Day 2: Devil's Eye


Gena and I were focused on exploring the deeper of the two caves - Devil's Eye - leaving the other two cave teams to work towards a comprehensive survey of the Reaper's Lair.


Gena was using twin 20s and I had twin 18s on the back, plus five 12-litre cylinders required to complete the relatively long bottom time and the required four hours of decompression.


This was very much the day of the cylinders - we needed around 10,000 litres of gas to complete the 25-minute bottom time to explore between the 80m cave entrance and a planned 130m.


The idea was to use our large twin-sets solely for cave gas. We travelled to the cave entrance with an intermediate trimix, staging this alongside a hyperoxic trimix at the cave entrance. We laid 45m of survey line from the cave light zone vertically, to a little over 100m, before veering off to the left and following a passage leading to a major restriction in 108m. I tied the line off and followed Gena back up the main line to 95m and then, turning right over the Devil's Eye, explored another passage to a depth of 113m.


It was time to head back to the main line. As we approached a secondary tie-off at 100m, we noted the main vein of the cave appeared to run off to the right (facing the line), bearing north. Our torch beams disappeared into a narrow, seemingly endless void - more to explore tomorrow! As we exited the cave, our support divers Nina Presiner and Oxana Istratova were waiting with fresh gas to exchange for our intermediate mixes along the guide line system, which led to pure oxygen cylinders staged on the deco station.


The second team completed a 20-25-minute bottom time between the cave entrance and 90m, with two hours of decompression. Both teams made good progress pushing further with the detailed survey, obtaining compass bearings from survey points and measurements from the survey line. Meanwhile, Dave and Val went to get footage inside the Reaper's Lair, as well as removing my old guide line, which had been laid six years earlier.


Day 3: temple of doom


Dave and Neil were the first team in, taking measurements in the deeper chamber of the Reaper's Lair, which we had named the Temple of Doom. While there, they discovered a small sponge-like organism.


Gena and I entered the water next, heading for the Devil's Eye cave. We had the same mixes as the day before, and our plan was to follow the main line to the secondary tie off at 100m, then tie into this line with another line and explore what appeared to be the main vein, running north. After passing over the Devil's Eye boulder we explored the same passage as we had the day before, to a major restriction in 121m. We then reeled back out and continued north along the main vein, laying 45m of survey line, while depths ranged between 100m and 110m. We reached the end of the line with the open maw of the cave passage still demanding further exploration. When I looked for a place to tie off the line, I saw some bizarre worm casts in the rock wall. There was life in the cave.


Day 4: final push


The already outrageous quantity of gas ordered over the last three days doubled on Day Four, due to all cave teams planning an exploratory dive in the deep Devil's Eye cave. Chad, our sponsor and mixer, never even broke a sweat as Ocean Tec pumped dozens of manifolds and cylinders with an increasingly complicated order of gas.


Dave entered first, with Thomas in support and Val filming. Both used a twin 12-litre manifold, plus another 12-litre single of bottom mix. They followed the main line to the 100m tie-off, then made the jump left and followed the line for another 45m, before turning at the worm cast tie-off and starting the journey back to the light zone.


Gena and I entered the water an hour later, using the same volume of gas and mixes as the previous two days. Our plan was to hurry back to the worm cast tie-off and see how much further we could push into this unknown place. Once there, we tied on and laid 25m of line horizontally along a winding passage. After a while, the passage narrowed, but when I looked down I noticed the cave widening, so we dropped down to 130m before our line ran out.


I shone my torch down into the black void - there was no cave floor in sight, just a sinister darkness that seemed as if it could go on forever. With no time for sketching or taking notes, we made our turn, eager to match our entry speed on the way out to stay within our one-third reserve gas management rule. Due to the increase in depth, we had reached the absolute minimum safe gas reserve limit. For exploration beyond this point with open circuit, we would need to carry more cave gas and/or stages within the cave, or consider the option of rebreathers.


This is the first time such an extensive cave system has been discovered in this area, and it has already attracted the attention of the international caving elite, with prospects of a system as complex and rewarding as Wakulla in Florida. Its potential for further exploration and its attraction for serious technical cave divers seems almost unlimited. We must wait and see what future pushes will reveal, but it is my belief that the discoveries outlined in this feature will open a new era in technical cave diving. For now, the darkness beneath Ras Mohammed remains an unfathomed mystery.


VITAL SUPPORT


Our boat for the project was provided by our main sponsor, Ocean Tec, run by Chad the Gasman, who also provided 12 manifolds of trimix plus intermediates and hyperoxic trimix mixes, EANx, oxygen, as well as a fair few spares each day. Ehab, Ocean Tec's 'mix master', kept the blending team busy throughout the night until sunrise each day. Medical support was provided by Dr Adel Taher and Dr Ahmed Sakr from the local Sharm hyperbaric chamber. Further logistical support was provided by Hamdy Samy, director of the local Search and Rescue (SAR). The cave divers were split into three smaller teams, with Video Val swapping teams each day.


THANKS TO


The Jackfish Alley Exploration project would like to thank its main sponsors Ocean Tec (www.oceantechnical.com), O'Three (www.othree.co.uk), Green Force (www.greenforce.be) and Salvo (www.salvodiving.com).

Copyright © Neil Black of DeepDives.co.uk 2007-2009 all rights reserved. Reproduction of any images or articles within the web-site in any form is not permitted without the prior permission from Neil Black of DeepDives.co.uk