The Pannikin Plains Expedition: Triumph and Tragedy in the Depths

The Pannikin Plains Expedition: Triumph and Tragedy in the Depths
Incident LocationDeceased Diver
Western Australia, Pannikin Plains CaveVicki Bonwick

While a group of world-class divers, scientists, and technicians were exploring the Pannikin Plains Cave System, torrential rain and cyclonic wind swept in and caused the entrance to collapse. This team was trapped underground, awaiting rescue, or they would all perish in the flooded cave.

The Null Arbor Plain and Pannikin Plains Cave

The Null Arbor Plain is a vast area of limestone that looks empty and stretches a long way. It’s a dry and treeless desert that’s very hot because of the sun. However, there is water underground, and it has one of the longest and deepest cave systems in the world.

Pannikin Plains Cave is located in the southeast part of Western Australia, about 600 miles east of Perth. This cave is in the Null Arbor Plain, which borders Western Australia and South Australia. But below the surface, some other underground caves and tunnels have some water in them. This water eventually flows into the Great Australian Bight.

The entrance to the cave is about 285 feet above sea level. The closest paved road to Pannikin Plains Cave is the IR Highway, which is 0.85 miles away. For cave divers, the Pannikin Plains system is very difficult and has been compared to climbing Mount Everest. It goes as deep as 3280 feet below the ground.

Andrew White and the Panicin Plains Cave Expedition of 1988

Andrew White, an expert cave diver, grew up on a family farm called Tarkwa near Harrow in Western Victoria. He went to Hamilton College as a boarding student from 1972 to 1977. During his time there, he developed an interest in caving by exploring the nearby Baidu caves, which are a network of lava caves. His chemistry teacher guided him, and he went with a few close friends from school.

In the Pannikin Plains Cave Expedition of 1988, Andrew and his team consisted of highly skilled cave divers, scientists, and technicians. The team included Andrew as the dive leader, Ron Allum, Vicki Bonwick, and push divers Chris Brown, Dr. Peter Rogers, Bill Prust, and Paul Arbon. Since the cave can only be accessed by experienced scuba divers, Andrew brought along an underwater camera crew led by Wes Skiles to join the expedition. They planned to capture breathtaking footage and sell it to cover some of their expenses.

The Importance of the Expedition

Dr. Julia, a senior lecturer in inorganic chemistry and an expert in cave minerals, atmospheres, and water, explained that scientists and cave explorers on the Null Arbor Plain have always had a close relationship, especially when exploring caves that are filled with air. However, for this expedition, they’re taking it a step further because, although the scientists can enter the air-filled caves to collect samples and specimens, they are unable to go underwater. This is a crucial aspect because these particular samples have never been collected before and hold valuable information about how the caves on the Null Arbor form. Dr. Julia considers this expedition to be like climbing Mount Everest in the field of cave diving. The team, as the first to venture so deeply into this geological site, will also conduct various scientific studies in collaboration with the University of Sydney.

Meticulous Planning and Potential Dangers

Before the dive, Andrew and his team devoted several months to meticulous planning, considering every possible situation they might encounter. The doctors had issued a stern warning, stating that it was highly likely that one of the divers would either lose their life or suffer from severe depression sickness, commonly known as the bends. This cautionary advice stemmed from the well-known risks associated with diving to such extreme depths, particularly considering the expedition took place a significant time ago when safety measures and understanding were not as advanced as they are today.

Exploration and Establishing Base Camp

Upon reaching the Pannikin Plains, the team embarked on a well-organized and systematic approach to their exploration. The initial three days were dedicated to establishing a campsite, strategically positioning their equipment, which weighed a substantial five tons, and gradually lowering it down from the cave entrance into the captivating Lake Room. The gear they brought along was designed to support their journey through the passage, potentially spanning a remarkable distance of up to 3.7 miles.

Progressing through the underwater expanse, the team journeyed over 0.6 miles, steadily making their way toward a significant landmark known as Concord Landing. This vast underground chamber resembled an immense air-filled cavity, towering up to four stories high and extending the length of multiple football fields. It was within this space that they chose to establish their final base camp, a central hub from which they would conduct their subsequent explorations. Here, the push divers would venture forth into the unexplored depths of ancient passageways, finding themselves gently drifting through serene landscapes untouched by human presence until that moment.

The Final Dive and the Collapse

After three weeks of relentless exploration and discoveries, the expedition team gathered for a crucial meeting on the surface. They collectively decided to embark on one final dive into the mysterious depths of Pannikin Plains, driven by their burning curiosity to determine whether the passage they had previously stumbled upon continued onward. Their efforts proved fruitful as they successfully navigated through the cave system, venturing deeper until they reached the very end. However, their progress was abruptly stopped by an imposing barrier of massive boulders obstructing their path forward. Realizing that they had reached the limits of their exploration, they reluctantly turned back, retracing their steps to return to the familiar Lake Room where they would regroup with the rest of the crew.

The time had come to pack up their equipment and make preparations for their journey home. Unknown to them, a raging storm of extraordinary magnitude had been brewing above the cave, a rare occurrence that happens only once every decade. This tempest unleashed a massive rain upon the arid desert, a downpour equivalent to two years’ worth of rain accompanied by hailstones the size of golf balls and ferocious winds reaching speeds of 62 miles per hour. The overwhelming volume of water, estimated at a staggering 79 million gallons, began cascading down the entrance of the cave, saturating the surroundings and gradually destabilizing the rocks. As nature’s forces raced above, the cave entrance took a massive hit, gradually collapsing and sealing off their escape route with a deafening rumble.

The Harrowing Escape

With time running out, the team found themselves caught halfway up the cave mouth. While they desperately tried to run to safety, they hastily retreated into the depths of the cave. The exit had now transformed into an impenetrable barrier, shutting them off from the outside world. Vicki Bonwick and Andrew were the farthest ahead among their team of divers. They found themselves in a risky situation, perched on a ledge as small as a small kitchen table. They watched in terror as the cave roof started to move downward. The cave structure had shifted, leaving them trapped between the forceful water and a narrowing gap between the roof and themselves.

They faced a difficult choice: either stay where they were and hope for rescue before the roof collapsed, or try to escape. The only way out was to climb a rope through the pile of rocks blocking the entrance. However, there was a real danger of being crushed by shifting rocks as the water rushed in. After five long hours, Andrew made a brave decision. He decided to take his chances and make a run for it. Vicki was overcome with shock and accepted their impending fate. But Andrew was more determined. He believed that risking getting hit by a boulder while making their escape was a better option than waiting for the roof to collapse on them.

They swam, climbed, and wriggled their way to freedom, overcoming obstacles until they finally reached safety. Upon reaching the surface, Andrew immediately called for assistance from a dedicated rescue team. He played the lead role in the rescue efforts, utilizing his expertise to ensure a coordinated and effective operation. The team’s priority was to establish communication with the 13 cavers who were trapped underground. Fortunately, Ron had constructed a two-way radio capable of transmitting signals through solid rock, allowing them to establish contact with the stranded individuals.

With communication established, the rescue team embarked on a plan to guide the trapped cavers to safety. Despite being buried deep underground, they were brave and optimistic, having wisely rationed their limited food and water supplies until help came. For 27 hours, the rescue team worked tirelessly to locate and extract each member of the expedition, methodically one by one. The trapped individuals were carefully guided through the dangerous terrain, maneuvering through hundreds of meters, even as they were faced with the ever-present threat of falling rocks. Eventually, the entire team emerged alive.

Aftermath and Future Endeavors

Before embarking on the expedition, Andrew had made arrangements for a cameraman named Wes Skiles to film the Pannikin Plains expedition. This strange turn of events eventually shaped his life because at the time, Andrew was working for an agricultural company. He simply thought that selling the documentary could help cover the expensive costs of the expedition. The resulting footage captured the collapse and thrilling rescue, which later became a captivating documentary called “Null Arbor Dreaming.”

The documentary’s success propelled Andrew into a career as a film and television producer, specializing in nature and ocean documentaries. Eventually, he collaborated with James Cameron on his 3D ocean documentaries “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep,” and their friendship led to Andrew co-writing the popular 2011 film “Sanctum,” loosely based on the Pannikin Plains expedition.

In conclusion, the Pannikin Plains cave diving expedition was a thrilling and harrowing journey for a team of world-class divers, scientists, and technicians. Their exploration of the cave system was filled with remarkable discoveries and unforeseen challenges. The collapse of the cave entrance and their subsequent escape showcased their courage and determination. The expedition’s impact extended beyond the exploration itself, shaping the lives of those involved and leaving a lasting legacy in the form of a captivating documentary and subsequent career opportunities.


Where is the Pannikin Plains Cave located?

The Pannikin Plains Cave is located in the southeast part of Western Australia, approximately 600 miles east of Perth.

What makes the Pannikin Plains Cave unique?

The Pannikin Plains Cave is known for being one of the deepest cave systems in the world, reaching depths of up to 3,280 feet below the ground.

Who were the divers involved in the Pannikin Plains Cave expedition?

The divers involved in the Pannikin Plains Cave expedition included Andrew White, Ron Allum, Vicki Bonwick, Chris Brown, Dr. Peter Rogers, Bill Prust, and Paul Arbon.

What led to the collapse of the cave entrance?

The collapse of the cave entrance was caused by a combination of torrential rain, cyclonic winds, and the immense pressure of water cascading down into the cave during a rare storm.

Can anyone visit the Pannikin Plains Cave?

Yes, the cave is open to the public and anyone can visit it.

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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