Perhaps the biggest hurdle of cave diving is knowing that something can, and will, go wrong.
Gus Gonzalez and Woody Alpern know the feeling well. They’ve explored brilliant underwater caves together, navigating through pitch-black darkness and tiny tunnels to access some of the most isolated places in the world. But doing so requires special technique and a steely mind — both of which were put to the test for the duo in Florida’s Peacock Springs where they squeezed into a one-way tunnel, only to get stuck.
“It was so small that either my chest was touching the bottom, or my rebreather was creeping the ceiling. There was no in-between,” Gonzalez tells me. “Going in, I already had no visibility. I was behind Woody and a friend of ours. But I’m just going in and going in and going in. I’m wondering when we’re finally going to get there, but when we get to a corner big enough for us to turn around, I see Woody’s hand signaling for me to do just that.”
As he turned around, he stared into a wall of murky, impossible silt that made it hard to see his hand in front of his face, let alone the exit. It’s a moment that would make most divers, even experienced ones, panic. But Gonzalez knew that losing control was deadly in caves. “There’s only one thing we can do. So my mind goes back to training: I’m checking my computer for air. I remember I saw an uninterrupted guide line on the way in. All we needed to do was follow that line all the way out, to the exit,” he explains.
The duo made it out safely, which Alpern doesn’t take for granted. There have been more than 160 deaths from cave diving in the U.S. in the last 40 years, mostly as a result of people getting disoriented, lost and drowning after running out of air. A majority of cases have been due to divers attempting to poke around caves without proper training. “Diving is deadly dangerous when you don’t know what you’re doing, right? But it’s unbelievably safe when you’re in those caves and you follow the protocols every single time,” Alpern reminds me.
Not just safe — but utterly fascinating, too. I’ve been hooked since stumbling onto a video of Gonzalez breaking down the myths and reality of cave diving in Jacob’s Well, a mesmerizing spring in Texas. And quickly, cave diving has become one of my most alluring bucket-list items — a long shot for someone who got scuba open-water certified at age 13 and never did much with it, but a bucket-list item nonetheless.
Alpern and Gonzalez explore cave diving and other underwater disciplines on their YouTube channel Dive Talk, which has grown exponentially since its launch in January and is nearing four million views. Alpern, 57, has been diving since the 1970s and has more than 6,000 dives under his belt, including 70 or so cave dives since 2018, when he got cave certification training. Gonzalez, 38, is his friend and mentee who picked up diving in 2018 and began instructing professionally in 2020, the same year he got cave certified.
To gain such traction while digging into a subject that 99 percent of YouTube viewers don’t understand is an impressive feat, but the duo does an amazing job of distilling the philosophy, energy and training around diving into something that’s technical, but approachable. It’s a desire many people can relate to — a curiosity of what beauty awaits beyond the light, and around the corner.
Blending with that curiosity is fear, reflected in all the fan comments that can basically be summarized as, “Cool, but nope.” When I think of cave diving, I think of the Grim Reaper sign that adorns the entrance to underwater caves, urging people to turn back unless they have proper training. It’s perhaps the ultimate phobia for those who fear drowning or large bodies of water. But for the people who love it, there’s literally nothing like it. “Cave diving is the closest you can get to what I call the black belt of scuba diving,” Gonzalez notes.
Some of Dive Talk’s most popular videos are breakdowns of what went wrong in cave-diving accidents and fatalities. Others simply enjoy the detailed gear breakdowns, commentary from a cast of expert guests and dreamlike footage of cave exploration. Grounding it all is Alpern and Gonzalez’s lively, approachable and oft-hilarious commentary, delivered with the rhythm of two friends who have spent a lot of time talking together.
“I think we’ve made it approachable, which is what the dive industry needs. There’s so much ego in diving. I don’t know where it came from. It’s not such a big deal to strap on air and go underwater,” Alpern says, shrugging. “We’re the same as you. You can do this, just like us. The only difference is we have the training.”
That training requires learning how to manage air, depth, body positioning and decompression protocols when ascending, as well as notching multiple dives in caverns (which still have natural light) before ever entering a cave (which do not). Alpern was lucky enough to learn from cave-diving legend Brian Kakuk, who guided him into the caves of Abaco Island in the Bahamas for a grueling, 11-day crash course.
“I was humbled every day. And it was hard to dive in these crystal caves because they get more and more fragile. I’m looking up at these tiny little soda straws, all above my head, and I’m just thinking, Don’t move your hand, don’t breathe, stay perfectly trim,” Alpern says with a laugh. “But if you get through that, he rewards you with seeing some of the most spectacular sites in the world. I cried when I got to Fangorn Forest. He points the sign out, and I can’t believe my eyes because it’s amazing that these cave formations exist. It’s emotional. I know how hard it was for him to trust me and bring me there.”
Gonzalez, meanwhile, took on cave diving more piecemeal, learning and gaining his certification in stages. His motivation was a little different, too: The appeal was less about the unique high of seeing glorious underwater caves, and more about how the extreme environment tests your ability to follow procedures and skills. “I wanted to be able to face the whole idea of, What do you do if you’re in a place and you cannot go straight up to the surface and you can’t see? What happens if the person you’re diving with runs out of air?” he notes.
Daydreaming of cave-diving scratches that perfectionistic trait in me that wants to analyze and execute in high-pressure situations, and there is so much to get right. One obvious, critical facet is carrying the right amount of air to make it through a cave and back out, with enough air left over to ascend slowly and avoid decompression sickness, which occurs when the body undergoes rapid changes in pressure. The gas mix for those air tanks are critical, too, because the wrong blend could give you nitrogen narcosis at depth, making you disoriented and irrational in the one environment you can’t afford to be. You need to ensure that you know where the guideline is at all times, whether it’s already installed in the cave or whether you’re tying it. You need backups for your air system, computers and lights as well as an ability to replace and repair on-the-fly in zero visibility. You have to swim, kick and float with advanced technique, because accidentally kicking the floor or wall means swirling up silt and losing vision. Even something as essential as navigating a cave map requires experience.
“If you go 2,000 feet into a cave, how long will it take you to come out? How much of the current is flowing into the cave versus out?” Gonzalez continues. “There’s different kinds of silt — how long can you wait for it to settle so you have visibility? Some caves, it’s 10 minutes. Others, it’s two weeks.”
It’s high-stress stuff, but when combined with the awe-inspiring vistas and the adrenaline rush of exploration, the experience of cave diving leaves indelible marks on everyone who pursues it. In particular, Alpern and Gonzalez say there’s something special about being able to trust your dive partner fully. This relationship is partly why the dive community is so tight, and also why the Dive Talk duo take ethics and safety (including the “Five Rules of Cave Diving”) so seriously. “We’ve stayed away from being the YouTube School of Cave Diving. We’ve received hundreds of requests for a video on setting lines in caves. We know that if we recorded that, or ‘Ten Tips to Safely Dive in Caves and Caverns,’ we’d get a million views on it,” Gonzalez says. “But we don’t do that, because people will literally use that information in the wrong way. We tell people, ‘Go get certified.’”
This integrity is a big reason why I gravitate toward the duo, and they prove it by setting aside their egos and going out of their way to correct any inaccuracies they share. They’ve also genuinely inspired me to pursue diving in full in the near future, with the hopes of one day logging enough hours to end up in a cave, probably a little terrified.
Such is the call of the cave, and it’s emboldening to hear that the stresses of cave diving have taught the Dive Talk duo something about life aboveground, too. Gonzalez notes that the discipline is, in a way, a distillation of an important life lesson: Control everything you can, and try not to worry about the unpredictable. Alpern goes further, comparing the sensation of floating through stalagmites in crystal-blue water to a spiritual experience.
“It feels like someone saying, ‘Woody, you are privileged to have the money, the mind and the physical ability to see parts of the world that one-tenth of one percent of the world will see.’ It’s opened up a different level of overall appreciation of the world. And for me, it makes me believe in spirituality — a higher power, whatever you make of that,” Alpern explains. “Whatever higher power there may be, I think they’re showing off with the caves.”