Tragic Cave Diving Incidents in Piccaninnie Ponds

Incident LocationDiver Names
Australia, Piccaninnie PondsLyle, Brian and Claudio, John and Barry

“The popular spring system at Piccaninnie Ponds holds great memories for many, but that is also tainted by some unpleasant experiences that have occurred there over the years. In this episode, we will examine three diving accidents that happened years apart in the Piccaninnie Ponds. What memories does Piccaninnie Pond hold for these divers? Let’s explore it.”

Piccaninnie Ponds Conservation Park

Previously known as the Piccaninnie Ponds National Park, the 2,130 acres (862 ha) is a protected area in southeast South Australia close to Mount Gambier on the continental coastline overlooking Discovery Bay. It is situated about 300 mi (490 km) southeast of Adelaide, the state’s capital, and 19 mi (30 km) southeast of Mount Gambier.

It is a breathtakingly beautiful spring system that draws numerous visitors each year. The area is a sprawling, swampy expanse of various ponds and small caves, but what makes it truly stand out is the main attraction: a 98 ft (30 m) long, 13 ft (4 m) wide vertical fissure. This fissure contains spectacularly clear water, allowing for a view of the picturesque aquatic flora and fauna beneath the surface.

Despite its popularity, the fissure has never been bottomed, which makes it all the more intriguing to visitors. Experienced divers have reported reaching depths of over 328 ft (100 m) in their attempts to explore the uncharted depths of this incredible natural wonder. Piccaninnie Ponds has a fascinating history. The spring system was first discovered in the early 1960s, and it has since become a conservation park, which ensures that it will be preserved for generations to come.

However, permission to dive is only granted to individuals who hold suitable cave diving qualifications, which helps to ensure the safety of visitors. The experience of diving in the Piccaninnie Ponds is truly unforgettable for many. As you descend into the water, you are surrounded by a vast array of aquatic life.

First accident

The first incident of this episode occurred on Saturday, the 29th of January 1972, at 4.30 p.m.

It involved 20-year-old Lyle and his friend Phillip, who came to visit from Victoria. It was supposed to be a fun getaway for them, just like swimming, but they never knew that cave diving involves much more than that. These friends did not have the experience or the technical training for this dive and didn’t know that caves can get silty, which would thereby reduce the visibility. So, off they went.

Geared with scuba cylinder tanks that were just a third full, they commenced their first dive. It was going well, and they explored the main chasm to a depth of 98 ft (30 m), and briefly looked into the cathedral, which is situated at the western end of the vertical fissure. It was a pleasurable dive for them.

While swimming back to the landing, they thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to quickly examine a small cave that was found on the floor of Turtle Pond, which is on the south side of the chasm. The pond had a depth of approximately 13 ft (4 m). At that point, their air pressure had dropped so low that Lyle had to pull his reserve lever just as they entered the mud-floored passage, which was 3 ft (1 m) high. Then begin their troubles.

Lyle grasped onto Phillip’s left foot as the once-clear water rapidly turned completely murky. They became aware that they were in danger as the water became more sullied, but as they turned to leave the tunnel, they were unable to see where they had come from. When they were still fumbling around in the pitch black, Lyle suddenly released Phillip’s foot and reached for his air switch. After that, Lyle let go entirely, and Phillip lost sight of him.

After a few more minutes of searching, he discovered daylight. Lyle wasn’t with him as he swam out, so he briefly went back into the fully silted cave to look for him. He left the area and returned to the landing to request assistance because Lyle was still nowhere to be found. Shocked, he called for help. And some hours later, a diver named Herman went into the water.

Without delay, he was quick to locate Lyle’s body just a few meters inside the tunnel. Sadly, at the scene, the body was lying with its head down on the silt and its feet raised against the roof. After examining him and his dive equipment, it was discovered that Lyle’s scuba cylinder had gone empty. Cave diving is never to be taken for fun.

The sad death of Lyle is a stark reminder of the dangers involved in this sport, especially for inexperienced divers. If they had been properly trained before venturing on this dive, they would have been aware of how silty caves can get and also known the importance of having enough air, as well as diving with safety lines.

The second accident occurred in 1974

The person involved in the incident is Brian, a 27-year-old diver from Western Australia. Brian and Claudio planned on diving in the Piccaninnie Ponds, and a day before, they had already set up a buoy and vertical shotline in the Chasm. This was to prevent them from wasting time on the actual day of the dive. So, it will be a case of them getting to the dive site and going straight into business.

Now, Brian wasn’t new to this; he had two years’ worth of experience. So, naturally, one would expect him to be fully prepared before embarking on any dive, right? Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The dive at Piccaninnie Ponds was going to be the deepest he had embarked on, but sadly he was not adequately equipped.

He carried only a plastic non-divers waterproofed “Dolphin” torch and an open reel that contained a green shark-fishing line. On Monday, December 23, 1974, at exactly 8.30 a.m., Brian and Claudio got into their single scuba cylinders and other equipment and then swam out to the buoy.

After securing the buoy with the end of his thin guideline, Brian started to descend along the thicker shotline. At a depth of 29 ft (9 m), they came to a stop to attach a spare scuba cylinder with one regulator. Brian also took off his weight belt and attached it to the shotline. Claudio kept his weight belt on because, in contrast to Brian, who was using a simple CO2 vest, he had a buoyancy compensator.

At roughly 131 ft (40 m), they reached the bottom of the chasm after continuing down the shotline, and Claudio picked up the weight there. They then entered the small tunnel known as the “Dog Leg,” which left them and descended vertically to a depth of 196 ft (60 m). To get to their target, a small chamber at the bottom of the main Dog Leg passage at a depth of 196 ft (60 m), they had to swim past a formation known as the Saddle or the Bridge.

They had barely been there for a few minutes when Brian touched Claudio on the shoulder and motioned for him to climb up. They gave each other the OK signal, and as they began their ascent, Claudio turned on his reserve air because he was running low. As they rose, he gripped Brian’s left wrist with his right hand when he touched his left arm. Claudio began having problems breathing from his practically empty cylinder at 147 ft (45 m), and to his amazement, Brian abruptly stopped ascending.

Claudio attempted to lift him, but he was immobile. Realizing that he had likely become tangled in his guidelines, Claudio gave up on the attempt. Claudio was unable to free Brian in the tight space of the dog leg due to an unanticipated crisis and the fact that he had almost no air left. He was forced to abandon him.

As he finally emerged into the light and swam over to the spare cylinder, he realized that his friend had drowned in the pitch-black depths below him during the roughly 25 minutes it took him to decompress. Then he reappeared and ran for assistance. The following day, when the police divers pulled Brian’s body from a depth of 187 ft (57 m), they noticed that his facemask was loose and that his arms were extended as if he were screaming for assistance.

His lower body was twisted in his dark green guideline, and his knife was still in its scabbard. Surprisingly, there was still 700 psi of air in his dive tank. The local doctor examined Brian’s body after they had carried it outside and came to the conclusion that he had had significant decompression effects, which is highly improbable given the circumstances.

Also, it was believed that Brian might have been the accidental receiver of Claudio’s unintentional kick to the face during their ascent up the Dog Leg. It is also very possible that they were both significantly handicapped by the effects of nitrogen narcosis because neither of the divers was inclined to use a knife to cut Brian free.

Insufficient air reserves were also brought by both divers for such a deep dive. Yet again, another reason for every diver to be properly prepared when embarking on a cave diving adventure. The only control you have in the deep waters lies in the dive rules you adhere to and how equipped you are.

The last accident of this episode occurred in 1984.

It involved two divers named John, who was 28 years old, and Barry, who was 31 years old. The two divers had been great friends, and they had gone on several dive adventures together, including diving in several sinkholes. However, Barry did not have any cave diving qualifications because of work commitments.

But he had a basic scuba certificate, which he got in December 1981. On the other hand, 8 months before this dive in August 1983, John had been awarded his CDAA Category Two cave diving qualification. So, we have one certified cave diver and one certified scuba diver going on an adventure in a cave. The evening before the disaster, John told his wife that he would take a quick dive the following morning because he had an appointment at 10 a.m.

John made a thorough dive plan for the deep dive, and early on April 7, 1984, he and his friend Barry set off for the pond to go diving. At about 9 a.m., two Victorian cave divers named Gordon and Roger showed up at the parking lot and set up to dive themselves. There was another car there, so they walked out to the landing and looked for bubbles but couldn’t find any.

They prepared their equipment and dove in shortly after, at around 10.15 a.m. They dived to the 118 ft (36 m) depth at the beginning of the Dog Leg and were shocked to see a scuba cylinder fastened by a rope to a wall projection. It had two regulators and a 3 mm white guideline that dropped into the pitch-black tunnel’s chimney-like opening.

As the Dog Leg’s vertical guideline was rigid and no bubbles were coming to the surface, Gordon and Roger got a terrible impression that the divers below had drowned. They cautiously descended to a depth of approximately 147 ft (45 m) before realizing the guideline had been attached to another projection before descending through the narrow region known as the saddle.

They could make out a few faint stationary light sources, like reflected torch beams or luminous gauges, in the darkness 49 ft (15 m) below, and the complete lack of movement or rising bubbles verified their suspicions that the divers below had died. After completing the necessary decompression, they surfaced once more and dialed 911.

The remains were eventually found by the Police Underwater Recovery Squad, but it seemed to be a challenge given the depth and the amount of loose line that was tangled up everywhere. It was determined very quickly that John and Barry had become irretrievably tangled up in their safety line. They had twisted themselves up in the line so badly that it had been wrapped right around their bodies several times and had also become tangled in devices like an open “snap-clip,” which Barry had been wearing on his weight belt and was extremely dangerous in underwater caves. Despite their situation, one of the divers had the foresight to attempt to collect the loose rope by hand. They had descended more than 98 ft (30 m) deeper than the maximum permissible depth at this site, as shown by the Maximum Depth Indicator on one gauge, to a depth of 223 ft (68 m). As they were almost certainly suffering from severe nitrogen narcosis, they had little chance of solving the problem before their single cylinders ran out of air.

It is most likely that they had managed to turn around and start their ascent before they got trapped in the silty environs at the bottom of the Dog Leg. This tragic incident generated a lot of media attention. The news media dug up some of the past incidents and made it seem as though the “killer caves” were once again responsible, even though their deaths were the first freshwater fatalities in almost 10 years.

Powerful individuals once more angrily demanded that all cave diving activities be stopped, but thankfully logic triumphed and this did not happen. The glaring fact remains that “cave diving is a forever dangerous sport.” So, dear divers, on your future explorations, ensure you are experienced, fully trained, and certified before embarking on any cave diving adventures.


What is Piccaninnie Ponds?

Piccaninnie Ponds is a protected area in southeast South Australia known for its breathtaking spring system. It is a conservation park with various ponds, small caves, and a 98 ft (30 m) long vertical fissure containing clear water.

Are cave diving qualifications required at Piccaninnie Ponds?

Yes, cave diving qualifications are required to dive at Piccaninnie Ponds. Only individuals with suitable cave diving training and certifications are granted permission to dive in order to ensure visitor safety.

What happened in the first diving accident at Piccaninnie Ponds?

The first accident occurred in 1972 and involved two inexperienced divers, Lyle and Phillip. They entered a small cave without proper training and ran out of air. Lyle’s body was later found inside the silted cave.

What caused the second diving accident at Piccaninnie Ponds?

The second accident occurred in 1974 and involved Brian and Claudio. Brian was not adequately equipped for the deep dive, and both divers had insufficient air reserves. Brian became entangled in guidelines and drowned while Claudio ran out of air during the ascent.

What happened in the last diving accident at Piccaninnie Ponds?

The last accident occurred in 1984 and involved two divers, John and Barry. John was a certified cave diver, while Barry only had a basic scuba certificate. They descended beyond the permissible depth, became tangled in safety lines, and ran out of air. Their bodies were recovered by the Police Underwater Recovery Squad.

Rebecca Penrose
Rebecca, an experienced blogger, delves into the world of diving accidents, sharing insights, stories, and valuable lessons learned. Dive in and explore the depths of underwater safety.
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