Joseph Bicanic’s regular trips to the Nullarbor are not due to its famed highway, big skies and arid landscape.
- The Nullarbor region in Western Australia is popular among cave divers
- Interest in cave diving is believed to have gone up after the 2018 Thai cave rescue
- But it is also believed interest in scuba diving in Australia is falling
But his eyes light up when you mention what lies beneath its sun-baked surface.
In his opinion, the Nullarbor is home to “the best cave diving in Australia and possibly the world”.
“People think that if they go to the Bahamas or if they’re in the ocean on a good day and they’ve got 30-40 metre visibility, they think that that’s great,” he said.
“[But the water in the caves below the Nullarbor] has been recognised as the clearest water anywhere in the world.
Thai rescue puts cave-diving on the map
According to the Cave Divers Association of Australia, the Nullarbor’s Cocklebiddy cave was first dived in 1961, and it has since attracted cave divers from all over the world.
Other major cave-diving spots in Australia include the Mount Gambier region of South Australia and near Yass, Aberdeen and Wellington in New South Wales.
But the sport probably never gained as much attention as it did in 2018 — when cave divers came together to save a Thai soccer team.
At the time Perth based cave-diving instructor Mr Bicanic was doing a diving course in Bali, and remembered listening out for news and updates whenever he could.
“Not being there myself and knowing how every cave varies so much, I did not want to speculate as to how it was going to end up,” he said.
But against the expectations of even those at the frontline of the rescue, they did pull it off, and the cave divers became national heroes — with Richard Harris and Craig Challen named Australians of the Year in 2019 for their efforts.
A rise in popularity
But what impact did all that attention have on the sport of cave diving?
A cave diver in Mount Gambier told the ABC he saw a 5-to-10 per cent uptake in the sport, mostly from former cave divers returning to the sport.
Mr Bicanic also said interest in cave diving certainly rose in the aftermath of the rescue.
But the sport is hugely technical — and that proved a challenge in translating rising interest in the sport to a rise in the number of qualified cave divers.
The Cave Diving Association of Australia (CDAA) requires divers to have had an open scuba-diving qualification for at least a year and an advanced scuba-diving qualification, as well as at least 50 logged dives totalling at least 25 hours, two night dives and five dives deeper than 25 metres, before they can even take part in their basic cave-diving program.
However there is good reason for this — prior to 1973 the sport was unregulated and there were a number of fatalities.
Although there have been deaths since then, the formation of the CDAA in 1973 hugely improved safety and training standards.
Scuba diving losing appeal?
Some believe scuba diving — the gateway to cave diving — is dropping in popularity in Australia.
“[Interest has fallen] just massively. If we just did diving we wouldn’t be in business anymore,” Esperance dive shop owner, Jaimen Hudson, said.
There are a lot of theories as to why interest in scuba has fallen — Mr Bicanic suggested people were switching to skindiving, in which the diver is equipped with just a mask and aqualung or snorkel.
Others in the industry told the ABC that people were becoming increasingly concerned about shark attacks, were left uninspired by coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef or were simply choosing to only scuba-dive in cheaper places overseas.
Danny Dwyer, from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Australia, spoke to the ABC before the coronavirus pandemic, and said even then there were fewer people taking scuba courses in Australia.
But he said the same number of Australians were taking courses worldwide.
And he countered the claims that scuba diving was going out of fashion — saying that according to figures from PADI, which operates diving-skill courses around the globe, more people around the world took scuba-diving courses in 2018 than ever before.
Mr Bicanic said there was also now a greater proportion of scuba divers getting technical and cave diving qualifications.
“If you went back say 20 years ago, of the 100 per cent of divers, 10 per cent might become technical divers and 10 per cent of those might become cave divers,” he said.
“But now the number of technical divers has risen, to say 20–25 per cent, and the number of cave divers has also increased slightly.”
But once cave divers become qualified, planning a single cave diving trip can be an onerous process.
Mr Bicanic had just come back from 17 days cave diving on the Nullarbor when he spoke to the ABC, and described the approvals process he went through beforehand.
“You have to fill out an application form, you’ve got to provide proof of insurance, you’ve got to provide proof of qualification as well,” he said.
“And then it usually takes about two weeks for that to get approved, you get the letter, and then you’re allowed to go out there.”
No ‘big bitey things’ in a cave
So why cave dive when you could just stick with scuba diving?
Mr Bicanic had a simple answer — there are very few sharks in caves.
“Once [while scuba diving] I got circled by a big bitey thing and I wasn’t too happy about that.
“And if you’re diving in the ocean and you’ve got mandatory decompression obligations — where you may have to be sitting there for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, two hours etcetera — you’re out in the blue, so you’re quite exposed.
“Now if you’re in a cave — there’s no ‘big bitey things’ in a cave — so that’s one of the biggest appeals.”