“On March 22, 1964, I was concerned with the cave dive made by the Trinidad branch of the British Sub Aqua Club which resulted in the sad death of two young members of the club. I have a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and other documentation about this event and have often wondered whether the brass plaque which I erected at the cave was still in place. My occasional emails to hiking groups inquiring whether the plaque was still in place were only once responded to.
On March 28, 2014, my wife found a reference in the Newsday newspaper on line to “The Cumaca Cave tragedy of 1964” and drew my attention to it. I was most interested to find a full account of the event from the point of view of a non-diver and I made contact with the author - Hans Boos of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists Club (TT FNC). He directed me to the website, where I was able to locate his article “Retrospective on Cumaca Cave” which he published in March 2011. Clearly this was the foundation for the Newsday article and it is accompanied by a few rather blurred black and white photographs, which evoke strong memories, especially as the first picture includes my car, a Sunbeam-Talbot 90 Mk.III! Hans Boos was kind enough to suggest that I should write more about this sad event, but to do so in detail or to reproduce the official report which I made to the British Sub Aqua club would really add little to the facts which were explained so well. Perhaps my own reactions to the events as they unfolded may be of interest.
Diving challenge While it is true that the Sub Aqua club had been diving on the Spanish galleons at Gasparee (and I had found a cask of Stockholm tar which must have sunk before it burnt) there was no question of diving in the confined space of a wreck – something which I have always been disinclined to attempt. So the attempt to dive in the Cumaca cave was something new for the club and presented a challenge we thought we could deal with.
We hoped that we should find a further, unexplored, open cave through which this underground river ran.
We had heard that a Royal Navy team had dived there some years before, although this was never substantiated, and so we planned our expedition carefully.
We anticipated that divers passing through this narrow channel would stir up silt and make visibility difficult and felt that to drag a rope behind the divers would exacerbate the disturbance.
We therefore decided that the divers should pay out a line as they went down so the line would lie on the floor of the cave. This had the disadvantage in that as the line would not be held taut between diver and handler on the surface, it could not be used for exchanging signals.
But we did not expect that this would be a problem.
Cave obstacles The line that was used was provided by Adam Richards and I remember examining it with him. It was a reel of half-inch nylon tape and I still have a sample which was tested to a bursting strain of 550 pounds. What I did not know was that there was a joint in the tape, which was not in fact a measuring tape but had been intended to be used for making wristwatch straps, and this joint was merely strong enough to allow the tape to pass through the machine making the straps so that when stress was put on it, it gave way.
We devised a reel which the divers would carry between them and the tape would pay off as they went down, letting the reel rotate, so there should be a minimum disturbance to the silt. In the event, we found the track from where we had parked our cars to the cave to be quite a task, burdened as we were with aqualung cylinders, weight belts and so on, but we succeeded in reaching the mouth of the cave and then we had to find our way through a quarter mile of cave, through which the river flowed, with Guacharo birds and bats flying overhead in the cave, and cockroaches and droppings all over the floor, which was far from even, so that we stumbled our way through to where the roof came down to within about six inches of the water surface.
We had not expected to find this obstacle, but found that by ducking under the obstruction, we could emerge into a final chamber which was full of air but had a pool at its end from which the river flowed. This was where our dive took place. We had the usual setup of surface cover, in this case a diver standing over the pool and holding the tape, as well as a standby diver suited up and ready to put on his aqualung and go to the diver’s assistance in case of need.
I was the surface cover holding the tape.
End of the line I have a clear visual memory of Victor Abraham shortly before he dived, holding a plastic bag in which he had caught a couple of the blind fish which lived in this river. I did not know that he was a member of the Field Naturalists’ Club, about which I knew very little, but it seems likely that he intended to take them home and try to keep them in an aquarium. But both he and Adam Richards put on their gear, took the reel between them and went down in the water.
Everything seemed to be going as planned but of course there was no communication between the divers and the surface. We were not even seeing bubbles from their aqualung exhaust, and no doubt these were accumulating under the roof of the underground river.
We had planned on a half hour dive, at the most, with sufficient air in the diver’s tanks for this and a safety margin. We all stood there watching the pool waiting to see them come back up, but time went by and after 20 minutes I was starting to feel some concern that they were staying so long. I thought I would see if I could feel any movement on the line so I pulled gently on it. There was some resistance but the line started to come to me and I remember turning to the others and saying, “they must be coming up!” and I continued to pull the line gently towards me, thinking that I was taking up the slack.
I was absolutely horrified when instead of the divers, the end of the line appeared with just a piece of white adhesive tape stuck on the end. Clearly it had come apart and we were seeing no sign of the divers.
I immediately told the standby diver to go down and see if he could find them and he did, using a rope which we held and which was securely tied to his equipment.
By this time the turbidity of the water had increased with the movement of the divers going down and the standby diver going down, and after a quite a short time the standby diver came up and told us that he could see nothing down there. I immediately took over, put on the aqualung, weight belt, mask and with a rope tied to my equipment and handheld on the surface I went down.
No alternative We had equipped ourselves with underwater flashlights, which worked reasonably well. But the silt had been disturbed to such an extent that it was like swimming in milk; the flashlight illuminated a cloud of water and it wasn’t until you came up against an obstacle that, when it was quite close, you could see what it was.
I have another strong visual recollection of a tooth of rock emerging through the milky haze and of trying to swim around it, but encountering it whichever way I turned. Then I found that I was being held back and could go no further, so that I was left with no alternative but to return to the surface.
It seemed that I had reached the end of the rope which we had, and of course the people on the surface were not prepared to let me go.
It was now clear that our divers were about to run out of air and we had no further air supply with us, so two of our members set off in search of further aqualungs from our cars. There was nothing further that we could do at that time, except perhaps search the mountain above the cave to see whether there was any opening which might disclose a pool into which the divers could have surfaced, and some of our members did this.
Blur of horror The rest of that day is a blur of horror at what had happened and at the need to go into the cave and bring out the bodies. As Hans Boos says, only one could be recovered, that of Victor Abraham. We had then to set about the sad things which one must do after a death.
We attended the inquest, we called on the families of the two boys to express our condolences and share their grief. We had a plaque made and I found a place on the rock flat enough to accept it, and secured it in place with square copper nails hammered into holes drilled in the rock. Adam Richard’s father, a consulting engineer, wrote to me at length to explain just what must have happened, showing me how the bubbles from the aqualung exhaust collecting in the roof of the tunnel displaced the water and took away support from the mountain which fell in on them.
It was only in reading Hans Boos’ account that I realised that it was he who made the connection with Malcolm Browne, the professional diver who brought out Victor’s body. I had thought that our members who went out to the police station had made the contact, but we shall always be grateful that he was able to bring in Malcolm Browne, who we knew of as a competent professional diver.
Two days later, back at work I sat in my office, tried to work but found it impossible to concentrate.
The loss of these two strong, active young men was something I could not accept. I lived with the memory, which brings back the events of that day, for many years and even today, 50 years later, the reactions are perhaps muted, but the story arouses the same feelings.
I did not stop diving and I later lost another friend, who drowned in Staubles Bay while diving on a mooring. But I would never again dive in a confined space, not even in a shipwreck. Even though a shipwreck can be one of the most fascinating things to dive on, it can also be full of dangers not all of which can be anticipated.
Today’s feature was originally published in our Quarterly Bulletin (1) of 2014. For more info on our natural environment, contact the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ttfnc.org and our Facebook or YouTube pages. The club’s next monthly meeting will be today at St Mary’s College, Port-of-Spain.
Lecture: “Amphibians of the Aripo Savanna” by Renoir Auguste.