Participants at the dive rescue course don full rescue gear to recover a victim with a broken leg. (ABC News: Jemima Burt )
Just days after being named South Australian of the year, Adelaide anaesthetist Dr Richard “Harry” Harris is back in the water, teaching other cave divers how to rescue.
The Sump Rescue Course, run this past weekend at Pines Cave near Millicent in South Australia’s south-east, is an initiative of the Cave Divers Association of Australia (CDAA).
Dr Harris is the association’s search and rescue officer, and one of the leaders of the course which simulates the steps a rescue team need to take to recover a victim from a cave system.
“There’s only been three times in the world that people have been required to have been rescued through a sump or a water-filled part of a cave, so it’s extraordinarily rare,” he said.
“But there’s actually a reasonable possibility of it happening in Australia.”
The recovery of a junior soccer team in Thailand earlier this year was one of those rare events.
Mr Harris said part of the purpose of the training was to give divers an understanding of how unpleasant such a rescue would be.
“By running through this kind of scenario, it’s more about making them aware of how difficult it would be and how frightening it would be to be injured in the wrong part of a cave,” he said.
“It’s really about preventative measures, so the more worried they are, the more careful they’ll be. And hopefully they won’t get themselves into that situation in the beginning.”
This time the victims are only imaginary, part of an elaborate search and rescue training exercise. (ABC News: Jemima Burt)
Knowledge into practice
The Adelaide based diver was thrown into the international spotlight earlier this year as one of the cave divers who rescued the 12 boys and their soccer coach out of a flooded Thai cave in July.
Dr Harris was the last person to leave the cave during the operation, and was in charge of giving the medical all-clear for each evacuation.
Dr Harris says though he wouldn’t want a repeat of the Thai rescue, he thinks the coverage showed cave diving in a positive light. (ABC News: Jemima Burt)
“I was very frightened for the boys, that was the big worry for us,” he said.
“The cave was moderately challenging but not anything out of the ordinary compared to some of the stuff we normally do.
“So I never really feared for my own life in there, but the thought of the risk to those boys weighed pretty heavily. There were a few sleepless nights.”
Dr Harris says though he would not want a repeat of the event, he thinks the coverage showed cave diving in a positive light.
“Cave divers are essentially the front of the rescue massive, with support obviously from all the Navy and military and police divers,” he said.
“The Australian Federal Police divers were also there supporting us, so it was a huge, huge team of people. But the cave divers were the only ones who were safe to be far into that cave.
“Without that group of people I don’t think the rescue could have happened.
The boys were guided through the cave by the experienced international cave rescue team. (AP: Tham Luang Rescue Operation Centre)
“I think that’s got to speak volumes for the sport and justifies my spending all this money over all these years,” he said lightheartedly.
Not-for-profit course attracts divers Australia-wide
Divers travelled from across Australia to take part in the not-for-profit CDAA course near Millicent.
Brendon Moore drove from Wagga Wagga to cave dive on the Nullarbor and became “the victim” of the sump rescue course. (ABC News: Jemima Burt)
Brendan Moore is a professional trombonist who travelled from Wagga Wagga, via the Nullarbor, to play the victim in the simulation.
“It’s about a 600 kilometre round trip for me,” Mr Moore said.
It is only usually run once a year, but this year it is running twice for Cave and Advanced Cave divers — the two highest levels of CDAA accreditation.
Comparable private courses can cost hundreds of dollars, but the ten divers who participated this weekend paid just $50 each.
The attitude of the organisers is that diving is safer if more people are able to rescue each other.
The association itself was originally formed in 1973 to improve safety, following a series of deaths in caves and sinkholes.
A life underwater
Divers were split into groups for the mock recovery, tasked with assessing the patient and bringing them to the surface. (ABC News: Jemima Burt)
Dr Harris went for his first cave dive in a nearby south-east South Australian sinkhole about 33 years ago.
He said he was never into team sports but enjoyed diving for the peace.
“I’ve been diving for over 30 years now and I’ve had thousands of dives, and each one is special in a way,” he said.
He said he brought the same attention to detail in diving to what he does in his day job.
“Anaesthesia and cave diving both lend themselves to being a bit OCD,” he said.
“Prior preparation prevents poor performance, as you know, so attention to detail keeps you out of strife in both anaesthesia and cave diving.
“Once you’re involved in it, it takes on a life of its own.”