Exploring the Depths: The Tragedy of Bushman’s Hole – The Dave Shaw and Deon Dreyer Incident

Exploring the Depths: The Tragedy of Bushman’s Hole – The Dave Shaw and Deon Dreyer Incident
Incident LocationDiver Full Name
Northern Cape province of South Africa, Bushman’s HoleDeon Dreyer, Dave Shaw

Boesmansgat, also known as Bushman’s Hole, is a deep, submerged freshwater sinkhole in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. It is believed that Mike Rathbourne, who was then an amateur diver, was the first diver who explored the Bushman’s Hole in 1977. It is seen as a very challenging dive because of its altitude, which is more than 4,921 ft (1,500 m).

This means that the decompression time will be equal to the time spend when diving at 1,112 ft (339 m) below sea level. Several divers have dived deep into the Bushman’s Hole, among them Verna Van Schaik, a female diver; she had the deepest dive, reaching a depth of 725 ft (221 m), on November 24, 2004.

In 1993, Eben Leyden reached a depth of 197 ft (60 m), but became unconscious and was brought back to the surface by a diving buddy. He didn’t survive the accident. In 1994, Nuno Gomes led a diving team for dive training in preparation for the technical diving they planned to do in the week that followed.

Deon Dreyer was invited for this dive. By then, Deon was a 20-year-old recreational scuba diver from South Africa. He was raised in Vereeniging, which is some distance away from Johannesburg, by his father, Theo Dreyer, and mother, Marie Dreyer. He was an adventurer, and some of the things he was passionate about were diving, hunting, motorcycling, and racing a souped-up car.

The Tragic Incident

Deon Dreyer

Bushman’s Hole is a fascinating sinkhole that draws the attention of every youngster that has a flair for adventure, just like Deon. With only two years of cave diving experience, Deon received an invitation to join the South African Cave Diving Association as a support diver at Bushman’s Hole. He accepted the offer honorably, as that was his passion, and he was ready to go for it.

They set out for the training on December 17, 1994, at the Bushman’s Hole. As they made their dives into the deep water, everyone was enjoying their dives until something went wrong with one of them. It was Deon; he had gotten to a depth of about 164 ft (50 m) from the surface while ascending. The other divers noticed that his light was fading from their sight—Deon was sinking back into the abyss.

They tried to rescue him, but before they could lay hold of him, he had gone too far. His diving buddies assumed that he might have lost consciousness. When diving to such extreme depths, the partial pressure of oxygen rises to such a level that it becomes toxic to the central nervous system, also known as oxygen toxicity or oxygen poisoning.

It can cause various symptoms, such as breathing difficulties, dizziness, and seizures. Deon might have suffered from oxygen toxicity. Nobody fully grasps the mystery behind Deon’s sinking. But some locals believed that there used to be a particular serpent that fed on humans inside this sinkhole. However, it was believed that what could have caused his death was something other than the so-called serpent.

Deon might have breathed too heavily, resulting in carbon dioxide building up in his lungs, which later made him unconscious. Deon had his last dive in the Bushman’s hole. It was a tragic moment for everyone, as his body was lost in the water. However, two weeks after his death, Deon’s father, in his grief, hired a small, remotely operated sub used by the De Beers mining company.

A devastated father tried to get the body of his son out of the cold water. Unfortunately, only Deon’s dive helmet was found right on the center floor; his body was not seen. After this attempt at Deon’s body recovery, no one was able to recover his body from the Bushman’s hole. Some would say, “Soldiers go, soldiers come, but barracks remain.”

This was exactly the right word for the Bushman’s Hole; many divers died within the cave, yet many people are still intrigued by the extreme depths of Bushman’s Hole, pushing themselves beyond the limit. Years rolled in and out. It was now about ten years that Deon died in the Bushman’s Hole.

Dave Shaw’s Dive and Discovery

Everyone has almost forgotten about Deon Dreyer, whose body is yet to be recovered from the Bushman’s hole. But the plaque his father placed on a rock at the Bushman’s Hole kept reminding those that got to this site that Deon’s body remains in this sinkhole. In October 2004, Dave Shaw dove down the Bushman’s Hole.

Dave Shaw was an Australian scuba diver, technical diver, and airline pilot for Cathay Pacific from 1989. Before he started flying for Cathay Pacific, he had flown for the Missionary Aviation Fellowship in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. He had also flown agricultural aircraft in New South Wales and South Australia.

He was a passionate and very amiable man. He was devoted to the course of his career until his death. Dave’s goal of the Bushman’s Hole dive was to push the limit and set a new record. He reached about 900 ft (274 m). He spent a few minutes exploring the bottom of the sinkhole. It was an amazing experience for him.

Though he experienced some symptoms of narcosis at a depth of 800 ft (244 m), he was yet to push through. When he got to about 876 ft (267 m), he saw the floor of the sinkhole for the first time, and while exploring the newly discovered world in Bushman’s Hole, he stumbled on something—it was a dead body lying underground at his back.

It was the body of Deon Dreyer, who had dived into the cave ten years before. His mask was still in place, but some of his body parts no longer had a fleshy covering. Dave was not able to look too closely at his body because it was already hidden in the mud. He was unable to recover the body on that attempt.

The Failed Recovery Operation and Tragic Outcome

Dave returned to the surface after a 10-hour dive and told Deon’s parents, Theo and Marie, that he had found their son’s body. This was unbelievable for the couple at first, but Dave assured them he would return to recover the body from the Bushman’s Hole. Dave and Don Shirley, another diver, went for the recovery operation.

It was the deepest underwater recovery in history. The two divers made a complex dive plan for the recovery. But they needed up to nine divers to make the dive. They were worried about recovering a body that must have remained almost a skeleton, and the body could have fallen apart. So they decided to go with a bag to carry Deon’s body.

The recovery team prepared for the operation; they had all the equipment ready. Dave and Don were acquainted with most of the equipment they were about to use, save the helmet camera that Dave wanted to use. It was a new camera, and he had never used one before. The recovery team all gathered at Bushman’s Hole two days before the final dive.

They were all given their specific roles, and Dave was to go and get the body from the depths where it was lying. Dave instructed the team openly to be careful and not risk their own lives for the sake of getting a body out of the sinkhole in case anything went wrong during the dive. However, Dave and Don had a private agreement to signal with their flashlight in case they needed each other’s help in the deep.

Dave dove to a depth of 886 ft (270 m), the place where he had earlier found the body of Deon. He was supposed to carry the body into the bag and take it to a depth of 725 ft (221 m), where Don would be waiting to help bring it to the surface with a decompression of about 10 hours. The people outside the surface were waiting for them, but they could see no sign of anyone from the recovery team coming out with Deon’s body.

So, Van Schaik knew that something had gone differently from the planned dive, which had caused such a delay. But the exact situation that happened was still unknown to them, so they kept waiting. Don, who was waiting for Dave at a depth of 725 ft (221 m), also became concerned when Dave wasn’t showing up.

He noticed that no bubbles were coming from around the place where Dave had dived. By now, bubbles were supposed to have been coming from the ascent of Dave, but there was nothing. Then, he saw a light dimly far off but it wasn’t moving. They thought Dave might have been faced with serious narcotics because of the depth he had gone.

Narcosis affects one’s thinking ability, so when in such a condition, you need to be fully focused to get your mind to think and solve whatever challenges you are facing down there. After waiting for some time, Don decided to descend to the depth where Dave had dived to see what was happening and how he could help.

When he got to about 800 ft (271 m), he heard a very loud sound; it was Don’s regulator controller that burst. He had to turn from finding his friend to saving his own life. Don had to control his air supply manually as he tried returning to the support divers that were above him. So they managed to get back to the surface.

Then, Don told them that Dave couldn’t come up, and he had been left down there. A rescue operation started immediately. They got support from the authorities, but it took about 40 hours to get Dave’s body out from the bottom of Bushman’s Hole. He was already dead when they brought his body up.

Shaw’s Dive

0:00(0 mins 0 seconds) Shaw entered the water.
11:33Shaw reaches bottom. Follows line to body.
12:35Reaches body. Pulls out body bag.
13:25Pushes bag over Dreyer’s legs. Breathing is slightly heavy.
13:47Body floats free of the silt. (Comment: Shaw should have left then as it would have been a relatively simple task to haul the body up). He keeps trying to pull bag over the body. His breathing is heavier and rapid.
14:29Line is snagged on his light head. Breathing is heavier. Clears the line.
15:05Tries to open a pair of shears (sissors) but has problem. Probably affected by carbon dioxide now as he is fumbling. Rests his hand on Dreyer’s skull and does not seem to notice. Now only has 75 seconds before he is supposed to leave the bottom.
16:15Goes to leave but is caught on the line. Tries to untangle and then cut the line. His breathing is very hard and very rapid.
17:10He is one minute over time. He tries to move to shot line dragging the body with him. His breathing is now rapid and shallow.
20:41Breathing choked. Breathing stops.

The Legacy of Dave Shaw and Deon Dreyer

The tragedy of Dave Shaw’s death shocked the diving community around the world. Both Dave and Deon’s deaths served as a reminder of the risks and dangers involved in deep-water diving. Their legacy lives on as cautionary tales, reminding divers to prioritize safety and never underestimate the perils of the underwater world.

The story of the Bushman’s Hole tragedy continues to captivate and intrigue many people. It stands as a testament to the allure and danger of exploring the unknown depths of our planet, serving as a reminder of the fragility of life and the unforgiving nature of the underwater realm.

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What is Bushman’s Hole?

Bushman’s Hole, also known as Boesmansgat, is a deep, submerged freshwater sinkhole located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. It is renowned for its extreme depth and challenging diving conditions.

Who were the notable divers associated with Bushman’s Hole?

Mike Rathbourne, an amateur diver, is believed to be the first person to explore Bushman’s Hole in 1977. Verna Van Schaik holds the record for the deepest dive in the hole, reaching a depth of 725 ft (221 m) in 2004.

What happened to Deon Dreyer in Bushman’s Hole?

Deon Dreyer, a recreational scuba diver, tragically lost his life in Bushman’s Hole on December 17, 1994. While ascending from a depth of about 164 ft (50 m), Deon’s light faded, and he sank back into the abyss. The exact cause of his death remains unknown.

Who discovered Deon Dreyer’s body in Bushman’s Hole?

Australian scuba diver Dave Shaw discovered Deon Dreyer’s body in Bushman’s Hole during his dive in October 2004. Deon’s body was found lying on the floor of the sinkhole, and while Dave attempted to recover it, he was unable to do so.

What happened during the recovery operation for Deon Dreyer’s body?

Dave Shaw and Don Shirley embarked on a recovery operation to retrieve Deon Dreyer’s body from Bushman’s Hole. However, during the dive, Dave encountered difficulties and ultimately lost his life. Don Shirley survived but was unable to bring Dave back to the surface. It took a rescue operation 40 hours to recover Dave Shaw’s body from the depths of the sinkhole.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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