Bad News From Santa Rosa Blue Hole

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Jax

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They are highly qualified to make that statement. I've seen the entrance from the barrier at ~24 meters, it's a fairly narrow (single file only) nearly vertical passage that disappears of out sight, I guess it just gets worse.

I have no idea how the cave they found was described so differently 40 years ago, or how the NMSP dive team got the bodes out way back then diving air.

The stories I heard was the big chamber was at 200-250' so I assume there was some collapse in the cave passage at one time. Either that or the SP divers were so narked that they had no idea what/where they were.

But from what I saw of the cave it was going to be very tight.

1976, two open water scuba divers went in the cave and died. The cave was filled and the opening sealed.

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The history of diving at Santa Rosa Blue Hole is storied and tragic. Every year, over 3,000 students do open water check out dives at the Blue Hole. However, in 1976, two University of Oklahoma State students drowned shortly after straying from their open water class and entering the labyrinth of passages deep inside the Blue Hole cave system.

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Although one diver’s body was recovered quickly, the New Mexico State Police were on site for 6 weeks before recovering the second missing diver’s body. At that point, the City of Santa Rosa and the New Mexico State Police sealed the entrance to the cave system with a large steel grate and subsequently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped at least 2 dump trucks full of rocks on the top of the grate to ensure that no other divers would venture into the vast corridors below.

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New Mexico State Police divers reported that the largest room found was about 17’ tall. However, they stated that the room later collapsed while conducting recovery operations. The maximum depth, reached by the divers in 1976, was reported to be 225’. This number would be closer to 190’ as the divers were not using depth gauges that were adjusted for altitude.

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Describing the size of the cave below Santa Rosa Blue Hole, one of the recovery divers Jim Syling, said “I hung off a cliff; I had a 200,000 candle power flashlight and couldn’t see the bottom or the other side. The water was clear but it must be a big cavern, like Carlsbad Caverns”.
Santa Rosa Blue Hole Expedition
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My understanding was that they were going to move rocks, and clear out the cave. It sounds like they tried to make it through the debris, instead.

Does anyone know?
 
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mdb

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1976, two open water scuba divers went in the cave and died. The cave was filled and the opening sealed.

*******************************
tab.png
The history of diving at Santa Rosa Blue Hole is storied and tragic. Every year, over 3,000 students do open water check out dives at the Blue Hole. However, in 1976, two University of Oklahoma State students drowned shortly after straying from their open water class and entering the labyrinth of passages deep inside the Blue Hole cave system.

tab.png
Although one diver’s body was recovered quickly, the New Mexico State Police were on site for 6 weeks before recovering the second missing diver’s body. At that point, the City of Santa Rosa and the New Mexico State Police sealed the entrance to the cave system with a large steel grate and subsequently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped at least 2 dump trucks full of rocks on the top of the grate to ensure that no other divers would venture into the vast corridors below.

tab.png
New Mexico State Police divers reported that the largest room found was about 17’ tall. However, they stated that the room later collapsed while conducting recovery operations. The maximum depth, reached by the divers in 1976, was reported to be 225’. This number would be closer to 190’ as the divers were not using depth gauges that were adjusted for altitude.

tab.png
Describing the size of the cave below Santa Rosa Blue Hole, one of the recovery divers Jim Syling, said “I hung off a cliff; I had a 200,000 candle power flashlight and couldn’t see the bottom or the other side. The water was clear but it must be a big cavern, like Carlsbad Caverns”.
Santa Rosa Blue Hole Expedition
*********************************************

My understanding was that they were going to move rocks, and clear out the cave. It sounds like they tried to make it through the debris, instead.

Does anyone know?

Seems like a ambitious project with very qualified divers undertaking the task. A brave explorer dead. Very sad indeed.
 

Maxpcf

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Shane was behind him. It would not be accurate to say there was a "loss of visibility" because they did not have it from the start. They were working in very tight passages with restrictions few divers in the world would be able to pass, and although there is not a lot of silt, it stirs easily. It was a zero visibility task from the start, and they knew before hand that it would be that way. They were comfortable with that.

Problems arose on the exit, with both of them sometimes sharing spaces where there was not room for both of them. Some tie-offs came loose, and the line sometimes went into line traps. They were both off the line on occasion, but they got back. Ultimately, finding the line and finding the way out was not the real problem. The real problem was getting through the restrictions.

Both were intentionally doing extremely difficult work well beyond the skills of most certified and experienced cave divers. I was in awe.

Sounds like an absolute nightmare scenario.

I can imagine how problem after problem in those conditions could lead to panic even in a seasoned diver.

Shame, my thoughts go out to his family.
 

DandyDon

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I've been silently following this thread without comment, but came across two news stories - and I have to wonder how true some of the news claims are? We know news stories often lack true facts, and too often include wild claims for attention.

Excerpting from San Diego scuba diver dies in New Mexico underwater cave accident
Diver Mike Young told investigators that he and Thompson were looking for passageways when he ventured through a narrow obstruction into a small chamber and Thompson followed.

“Shane was supposed to stay out, and for whatever reason entered the cave,” Santa Rosa Police Officer Mike Gauna told the newspaper. “At that point, that’s where everything went terribly wrong.”

Young tried to exit the area but both divers became wedged in a narrow passage. After freeing themselves, Thompson took a wrong turn and became trapped in what was described as an unmapped area that led nowhere, Gauna said.

By the time Young found Thompson, he had died. His body was recovered the next day.

Excerpting from Veteran scuba diver dies in underwater cave accident in New Mexico
Thompson dove into Blue Pool on March 26 with another experienced diver, Mike Young, Gallegos said. They planned to have Young enter part of the cave system while Thompson stayed outside in a safety role.

Instead of staying outside, Thompson entered, Gallegos said. “Apparently something went horribly wrong, and he started to panic,” the chief said.

The divers were about 160 feet below the surface when the incident happened.

It still was unclear Thursday what went wrong. It could be weeks before preliminary autopsy results are available, the state Office of the Medical Investigator said.

Also from that last story is a repeat of old stories from the 70s. It sounds like the system below has changed a lot, if the old stories were retold correctly...
The caves have been sealed off since 1976, when two divers in training died after getting separated from their classmates. New Mexico State Police divers quickly found one of the bodies, but it took several weeks to find the other. In the process, police divers made a crude map of some of the unexplored passageways.

At that time, one of the divers descended close to 200 feet and found himself at the edge of an underwater cliff. His powerful flashlight wasn’t enough to see the cave wall across from him or the bottom, sparking only more curiosity.
 

KevinNM

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Death investigations and autopsies in NM are public records, so I may go over to OMI tomorrow and see what they are willing to say. I have no idea what their plans are for investigating this. They are pretty competent (they do all the death investigations and autopsies for the entire state) but it's not like we have a lot of diving accidents here, much less CCR dive accidents.

Lab tests can take forever to get back unless the case is urgent enough to send out to a private lab instead of the state labs that are horribly backlogged, which is probably why they give the "weeks" figure.


And I agree, the system they explored doesn't sound like the system the State Police dive team described after their body recovery operation way back when. Did it partially collapse and close off access or was the description just the product of someone totally narked?
 
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scagrotto

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How is this different from any other cave/overhead environment?

I'm not sure if you're asking for specifics about this cave, or if you expect one cave to be fairly similar to the next in terms of challenge but caves have quite a wide range of characteristics. I'm not a cave diver and I don't know much about this particular cave beyond what's been reported in this thread, but I do have over 40 years of experience as a dry caver. Figuring that most people don't know much about them I'll offer a bit of information about caves in general.

Those who are familiar with caves only from touring a commercial cave or seeing pictures of the caves in Florida or the Yucatan may tend to think of caves as being relatively spacious, and having water that remains crystal clear unless a diver stirs up the silt. The reality is that caves have a vast range of sizes, from huge rooms and enormous passage to constrictions or entire passages that an average sized person can't fit through. Big or small, those passages often have irregular shapes, so that the available space isn't as big as nominal dimensions suggest. Just because a passage has nominal dimensions of 3 by 4' doesn't mean you'll actually fit through it. The nature of a particular cave is largely a result of the local geology. In some places there are many extensive caves that have large passages, and in others all of the caves are relatively short, with small passages. New Mexico has some very large stuff, such as Carlsbad Caverns, but Santa Rosa is almost 200 miles away and may have very different geology.

Filling a cave with water obviously makes it more challenging to explore, but it's still far easier to explore some of the mostly large caves in Florida and the Yucatan than small caves. When you're exploring a cave rather than just going on a sightseeing trip it can be even more challenging, since you've got much more reason to try and continue despite obstacles that would stop most people. John alludes to this in his post. Nobody has the skill to swim through a really tight passage without stirring up whatever silt is there, and (parts of) the passage may physically impede movement through the passage. Here in the northeast it's common for cave divers to use the rule of sixths instead of thirds since small passages with lousy viz are common. The diving they're doing is almost entirely for the purpose of finding out where the cave goes, and hoping that they'll find more air-filled passage; it's not something that many people would consider a form of recreation.

Here's a brief list of various difficulties you may encounter. Tight bends that can only be negotiated in one orientation, because your knees only bend one way. Tight bends that are difficult or painful in any orientation, and impossible for those with longer legs. Places where your back drags against one side while your chest drags against the other side of the passage. Body-tight constrictions you can only get through facing L, R, up or down. Scalloped walls (from water flow) that act like ratchets, making it far more difficult to go in one direction than the other. Passages that are a bit bigger than your body, but have a narrow fissure in the floor that will happily trap you if you don't hold yourself above it (clear advantage to neutral buoyancy for that). Passages that are easily big enough for crawling (hands & knees or on your belly) but go on for hundreds of yards. There's one in Mammoth Cave (Kentucky) that goes for 7000' without a place to stand up. My personal record is about 1600' before being able to stand up. That same caves has a passage that's 50' tall, straight as an arrow for 2000', and mostly narrow enough that you squeeze through sideways.

During a rescue I made two trips into a particularly difficult NY cave, where it took an hour to get 250' from the entrance to our patient because most of the route was either low enough or narrow enough that you barely fit. At 5'10" and 160 pounds I was one of the largest people who could fit. It sounds like the section of Santa Rosa where this incident happened was somewhat similar to that cave, plus filled with opaque water.


I have no idea how the cave they found was described so differently 40 years ago
People who aren't really cavers often tell amazing stories about caves they've gone into that don't match the reality experienced by real cavers. There's a modest cave that's about 700' long a couple of miles from my house. It's been very thoroughly explored by numerous cavers over the years, and what extremely small chance there is of finding unexplored cave would require digging out glacial sediment. Despite that apparent reality I've met somebody who claims his brother went in years ago and "walked for hours", and another guy who said it "went all the way back to City Hall", which is about a mile away. Another cave a bit further away is 1.6 miles long, but has a N/S extent of about 800'. I've encountered multiple people who believe it's the same cave as a separate one almost 2 miles south. Some are probably just assuming, but I've heard multiple claims of somebody going in the entrance of one and coming out the other. Cavers hear stories of that sort fairly frequently. Overestimating distance is also very common, such as looking down a 15' pit and thinking it's 30 to 50' deep, although it does seem a bit less likely from a rescue diver who claims he couldn't even see the other side.

I assume there was some collapse in the cave passage at one time.

Caves are usually fairly stable, and a good rule of thumb is that if a rock falls on you it's probably because you or somebody in your group dislodged it. Of course such rules always have exceptions, and some caves aren't very stable at all. Caves are formed by flowing water (there are other mechanisms too), so it's normal for a cave that still has flowing water in it to change over time. Obviously that will happen over geologic time periods, but it can happen in very short periods of time, too. Flooding in particular can result in rapid changes. I discovered a room in New York's Knox Cave in 1995, and on a return trip in 2000 another caver and I discovered a second room and some stream passage. We're fairly certain that the connection between the two rooms was (re)opened as a result of flooding sometime between the two trips.

passages that had reportedly been seen 40 years before. (They don't exist.)
Despite what I said above about people commonly reporting things that don't exist I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility. I gather that there are multiple passages, and many may still be blocked by fill that was dumped in the past. 3000 GPM is 375 CF per second, which is enough for a modest creek ( I can't find a picture of drainage from Santa Rosa, but something like this: http://www.americanwhitewater.org/photos/archive/medium/42597.jpg). In what I presume is a fairly arid region I'd expect that to result from either a large aquifer or a fairly extensive drainage area. That suggests that whatever is there is fairly extensive, at least from in terms of the hydrology.

Of course none of that guarantees that there's anything but small and miserable passage or that a risk/reward analysis means people should continue to search.
 

DandyDon

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3000 GPM is 375 CF per second, which is enough for a modest creek ( I can't find a picture of drainage from Santa Rosa, but something like this: http://www.americanwhitewater.org/photos/archive/medium/42597.jpg).
Oh no, maybe one-tenth as much as in the photo. I don't know how accurate the 3000 GPM claims are, but the creek leaving the Hole is tiny. The Blue Hole is well marked on Google Earth and Google Maps if you first search for Santa Rosa NM, and you can see the little creek between the parking lot and the new building there. I've been down in it to rinse a tarp, and while it has been several years - I think the creek runs about 10 feet wide and ankle deep.

In what I presume is a fairly arid region I'd expect that to result from either a large aquifer or a fairly extensive drainage area.
I don't know much about the geology or the aquifer, but I'd call the area desert terrain. Average rainfall is 16" a year, with rocky soil that won't grow much away from creeks and springs. There are several spring fed lakes around the town, hence the town's nickname "City of Lakes," but none of significant outflow other than the Hole, I don't think. The Pecos river runs thru town, less than a mile from the Hole - but it's mostly a dry bed with many dams along its route.
 

fnfalman

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It's so sad to know that a person (Mr. Thompson) that I've met in passing while on one of the diving excursions down in San Diego had died in my home state's dive spot.
 

scagrotto

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you can see the little creek
I looked yesterday, but the drainage is so unobvious that I missed it.

I also had a significant brain fart. As a whitewater kayaker (that's my photo I linked to) I'm used to water flow being measured as volume (commonly CF) per second. As a result I just converted gallons to CF, missing the very important per minute to per second part. The correct conversion makes it 6.25 CFS, which would require much less recharge.

Cave hydrology can be very complex, and the current outflow at the blue hole may not represent all current inflow and outflow of the system, and paleoflow was quite likely different. Still, the correct flow calculation shifts the risk/reward analysis further towards not worth it.
 
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