ASF CDG Logo Australian Cave Diving Pioneers since 1952

Formal organised caving in Australia began in the late 1940’s with the formation of the Tasmanian Caverneering Club (TCC) in Tasmania and then the Sydney University Speleological Society (SUSS) in New South Wales. Other caving clubs around Australia began forming in the 1950’s and 1960’s.The Australian Speleological Federation (ASF) was established in 1956 as the guiding national speleological body.

ASF cave divers have a long history of cave diving exploration in Australia and overseas. The first cave dives in Australia were conducted at Jenolan Caves, NSW in 1952 and 1953 by SUSS member Denis Burke, using primitive home-made surface supply equipment. While on his last dive using this primitive equipment, Denis was joined by fellow SUSS member Ben Nurse.

In 1954, the divers from SUSS joined the newly formed Sydney Speleological Society (SSS) and continued the diving exploration.The SSS cave diving expeditions led by Ben Nurse were the first to introduce SCUBA to cave diving in Australia (in 1954), and they pioneered many equipment advancements including underwater communications. In 1957 the ASF appointed Ben Nurse to oversee ASF cave diving.

In 1958, divers from the Victorian Sub Aqua Group (VSAG) were invited by The Victorian Cave Exploration Society (VCES) to explore a resurgence. This was Victoria’s first cave dive. The divers got together and formed the Sub Aqua Speleological Society (SASS) to continue their cave diving exploration. In 1961 reports of crystal-clear springs and sinkholes drew the SASS cave divers to the Mt Gambier region in South Australia which was dived for the first time.

The first cave dive in Tasmania was organised by TCC at Mole Creek in 1959.The divers penetrated 250m into a cold, turbid shallow sump. This dive was an Australian cave diving record until 1965. In 1972 and 1974, cave divers from the Cave Exploration Group South Australia (CEGSA) were the first to dive in the fantastic caves of the Nullarbor Plain.

ASF divers did most of the cave exploration in Australia until the Cave Divers Association of Australia (CDAA) was formed in 1973. Still there was no formal cave diver training in Australia, and cave divers would be introduced/assessed to the cave environment by experienced cave divers.

In 1983 the ASF decided it needed a Cave Diving Commission and Terry Reardon was appointed as the first Cave Diving Commissioner. Shortly after, in January 1985, Ron Allum took on the role. Ron realised that CDAA policies did not extend beyond the Mt Gambier region, were limited to sinkhole techniques only and did not cover the range of cave diving that existed throughout Australia. As such, Ron drafted the ASF Cave Diving Code of Practice in 1988 and the ASF Free Diving Code of Practice in 1989. Formal training for Australian cave divers began in 1989 when the CDAA introduced the current ratings system. However, this new training system still did not cover the cave conditions that the ASF cave divers were finding in other parts of the country.

First cave dive on Scuba in AUS

First Cave Dive in Australia using SCUBA equipment. Jenolan Caves, NSW 1954. Courtesy of Dave Roots Collection.
Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer, 1995 TDI course in Imperial Cave,
Jenolan Caves, NSW

As a result, SUSS organised for British cave diver Rob Palmer to come to Australia and conduct some training. The first Sump Diver course by the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD) was run in November 1993 with a second Sump Diver course by Technical Diving International (TDI) following in May 1995. Both courses were conducted at Jenolan Caves, New South Wales.

During the late 1990’s, the ASF decided to form a Special Interest Group (SIG) for their cave divers. ASF cave divers had been exploring, documenting, mapping and undertaking many other related activities within their respective caving clubs since the 1950’s. The new SIG was called the ASF-Cave Diving Group (ASF-CDG). It became official after it was ratified at the 2000 ASF Council meeting, after being initially approved at the 1998 ASF Council meeting. Tim Payne became the ASF Cave Diving Commissioner responsible for the CDG, with Peter Kraehenbuehl as his Co-Commissioner. In 2020 Rod OBrien took on the role as the ASF Cave Diving Commissioner.

The ASF-CDG has moved forward, and grown, since those early days. The group currently has members from across the country who undertake many joint projects aimed at extending knowledge of our water-filled subterranean world. Projects can take many forms including exploration, surveying and mapping, documenting, conservation and supporting many areas of the cave-related sciences.

ASF-CDG divers were the first divers to explore the Roe Plains in Western Australia, and they found extensive underwater cave systems. These discoveries included Olwolgin Cave and Burnabbie Cave, which were first dived in 2002-2003. After years of surveying, Burnabbie Cave has over 3km of submerged passage mapped. Olwolgin Cave currently has 15km of submerged passage mapped, making it the most extensive underwater cave system in Australia.

  Cockelbiddy, Nullarbor, by Liz Rogers

Cocklebiddy Cave, Nullarbor Plain, Western Australia, photo by Liz Rogers

ASF divers and speleologists have always worked closely together. Some of their co-projects have been exploring the underground river systems that have the potential to connect various caves.Together they have discovered cave master systems at Jenolan Caves and Cooleman Plain (NSW), Murrindal (VIC) and the Florentine Valley (TAS). Exploration continues across the tropical north of Australia which is starting to be hailed as the new “Nullarbor Plain”.

For decades, ASF divers have been visiting overseas cave diving sites and participating in cave diving expeditions to Europe, Alaska, America, Mexico, the Bahamas and the Caribbean, Vanuatu, Timor, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

Rescue training is one of our priorities. Many of our diving sites require hours of horizontal and vertical dry caving to access the divable sumps. As such, ASF divers participate in their caving club SRT and Rescue training programs. Some have trained with specialist rescue organisations such as the NSW Cave Rescue Squad and the Sump Orientation Rescue Program (SROP) put together by South Australian cave diver Richard Harris. Because of this experience, several members were heavily involved in the high-profile cave rescue at Tham Luang Cave, Thailand, in 2018.

The ASF-CDG is a collaborative and collegiate group. Mentoring new members is one of our core aims. Many of our trips are project based and we frequently invite and are joined by visiting overseas divers.

Title photos are left: Denis Burke (Australia's first cave diver), leading, and Ben Nurse, 1953, Imperial Cave Jenolan NSW, and the right side photo is of Russell Kippax (lead diver) with Michael Calluaud, 1954, Imperial Cave Jenolan NSW - the first cave dive in Australia using SCUBA.

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