August 16, 2005


Raising the Dead: At the bottom of the biggest underwater cave in the world, diving deeper than almost anyone had ever gone, Dave Shaw found the body of a young man who had disappeared ten years earlier. What happened after Shaw promised to go back is nearly unbelievable—unless you believe in ghosts. (Tim Zimmermann, August 2005, Outside)

Ten minutes into his dive, Dave Shaw started to look for the bottom. Utter blackness pressed in on him from all sides, and he directed his high-intensity light downward, hoping for a flash of rock or mud. Shaw, a 50-year-old Aussie, was in an alien world, more than 800 feet below the surface pool that marks the entrance to Bushman's Hole, a remote sinkhole in the Northern Cape province of South Africa and the third-deepest freshwater cave known to man.

Shaw's stocky five-foot-ten body was encased in a black crushed-neoprene drysuit. On his back he carried a closed-circuit rebreather set, which, unlike traditional open-circuit scuba gear, was recycling the gas Shaw breathed, scrubbing out the carbon dioxide he exhaled and adding back oxygen. He carried six cylinders of gas, splayed alongside him like mutant appendages. On the surface, Shaw would barely have been able to move. But in the water, descending the shot line guiding him from the cave's entrance to the bottom, he was weightless and graceful, a black creature with just a flash of skin showing behind his mask, gliding downward without emitting a single bubble to disrupt the ethereal silence.

Only two divers had ever been to this depth in Bushman's before. One of them, a South African named Nuno Gomes, had claimed a world record in 1996 when he hit bottom, on open-circuit gear, at 927 feet. Gomes had turned immediately for the surface. But Shaw, a Cathay Pacific Airways pilot based in Hong Kong and a man who had become one of the most audacious explorers in cave diving, didn't strive for depth alone. He planned to bottom out Bushman's Hole at a depth that no rebreather had ever been taken, connect a light reel of cave line to the shot line, and then swim off to perform the sublime act of having a look around. At that moment late last October, cocooned in more than a billion gallons of water, Dave Shaw was a very happy man.

Shaw touched down on the cave's sloping bottom well up from where Gomes had landed, clipped off the cave reel, and started swimming. There was no time to waste. Every minute he spent on the bottom—his VR3 dive computer said he was now approaching 886 feet—would add more than an hour of decompression time on the way up. Still, Shaw felt remarkably relaxed, sweeping his light left and right, reveling in the fact that he was the first human ever to lay line at this depth. Suddenly, he stopped. About 50 feet to his left, perfectly illuminated in the gin-clear water, was a human body. It was on its back, the arms reaching toward the surface. Shaw knew immediately who it was: Deon Dreyer, a 20-year-old South African who had blacked out deep in Bushman's ten years earlier and disappeared. Divers had been keeping an eye out for him ever since.

Shaw turned immediately, unspooling cave line as he went. Up close, he could see that Deon's tanks and dive harness, snugged around a black-and-tan wetsuit, appeared to be intact. Deon's head and hands, exposed to the water, were skeletonized, but his mask was eerily in place on the skull. Thinking he should try to bring Deon back to the surface, Shaw wrapped his arms around the corpse and tried to lift. It didn't move. Shaw knelt down and heaved again. Nothing. Deon's air tanks and the battery pack for his light appeared to be firmly embedded in the mud underneath him, and Shaw was starting to pant from exertion.

This isn't wise, he chastised himself. I'm at 270 meters and working too hard. He was also already a minute over his planned bottom time. Shaw quickly tied the cave reel to Deon's tanks, so the body could be found again, and returned to the shot line to start his ascent.

Approaching 400 feet, almost an hour into the dive, Shaw met up with his close friend Don Shirley, a 48-year-old British expat who runs a technical-diving school in Badplaas, South Africa. After Shirley checked that Shaw was OK and retrieved some spare gas cylinders hanging on the shot line below, Shaw showed him an underwater slate on which he had written 270m, found body. Shirley's eyebrows shot up inside his mask, and he reached out to shake his friend's hand.

Shirley left Shaw, who had another eight hours and 40 minutes of decompression to complete. As Shirley ascended, it occurred to him that Shaw would not be able to resist coming back to try to recover Deon. Shirley would have been content to leave the body where it was, but Shaw was a man who dived to expand the limits of the possible. He had just hit a record depth on a rebreather, and now he had the opportunity to return a dead boy to his parents and, in the process, do something equally stunning: make the deepest body recovery in the history of diving.

"Dave felt very connected with Deon," Shirley says. "He had found him, so it was like a personal thing that he should bring him back."

When Shaw finally surfaced in the late-afternoon African sun, he removed his mask and said, "I want to try to take him out."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 16, 2005 4:38 PM

WHERE is the end of this incredible story? Is that it? No more? I was engrossed. It seems it should have said, "To be continued".

Posted by: dlmeadows at August 16, 2005 5:17 PM

Click on the link to the article. It tells the story to the end.

Reading about exploits like this makes it so clear that most of us live pretty tame lives.

Posted by: erp at August 16, 2005 6:17 PM

Wow. Makes Shadow Divers read like a Sunday stroll in the park.

Posted by: Rick T. at August 16, 2005 6:33 PM

Fascinating story. I stayed after work reading the story.

Posted by: pchuck at August 16, 2005 7:08 PM

Let me be the skunk at the wedding party in this one. This is self induldgent nonsense on the scale of "Man sails around the world in balloon". This is a classic parody of rich folk indulging themselves divorced from any reasonable description of reality.

If you want to live a life "on the edge" try managing a weekly rental hotel while keeping a civil environment for the tenants.
Take it from someone who knows, the "thrils and spills" are endless.

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at August 16, 2005 10:18 PM

Earl, both stories can be interesting.

Posted by: pchuck at August 16, 2005 11:35 PM

A very compelling tale, but I agree completely with Earl Sutherland.

One thing that struck me was the total lack of commo.
Perhaps they couldn't use mics, but radios and Morse, or even a simple tap code, would have been really useful.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 17, 2005 5:03 AM

It's worth reading just for this gem:

"Ten days after Bushman's Hole gave the bodies back, Theo and Marie Dreyer went to see their son....Marie wasn't sure what to expect. When she saw a fully fleshed-out body, her tears stopped, and she felt happy. There was no head, but lying in front of her was her boy. "

Of course they're a bunch of rich, selfish nutters with no sense of reality - but there's room enough in the world for a few rich, selfish nutters, and it would be a duller place without them.

Besides, your tale has also been well told.

Posted by: Brit at August 17, 2005 5:59 AM

Yes, we should never tell stories like this, they aren't important. No stories ever again of men and women who push themselves to their limits and beyond, who dream of something greater than their next hot meal.

No, those are just a bunch of nutters who should be ignored. /sarcasm off/

Earl, people want to hear about the Lindberghs and the Rutans and the Cousteaus and the Shaws. Perhaps they don't want to hear stories about real life because they live it everyday.
You really need to get over it.

Posted by: Mikey at August 17, 2005 8:25 AM


Not ignored, turned into object lessons. Imagine having a life so empty?

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2005 8:52 AM

Lindbergh's flight was important in a way that changed people's lives. Cousteau intially did some very important work (but turned into a parody of himself in later life.)

These people seem to me self indulgent in the same sense that "Thirteen year old girl pilots jet actoss continent" is.

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at August 17, 2005 9:32 AM


This wasn't the story of intrepid adventurers, it was the story of daredevils; not Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong, but Evel Knievel and people who go over Niagra Falls in a barrel.

None of them wanted to explore the wonderous cave, they were just interested in setting records for being immersed in water, records that, as the article implied, would be of interest to only a hundred or so people worldwide.

They may amuse themselves in any way that they like, but I remain unimpressed.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 17, 2005 10:09 AM

Amen, Michael. After reading the whole article, I was saddened as much by Dave Shaw's selfishness as I was about his horrible death.

Posted by: Dave W. at August 17, 2005 10:17 AM

The story perfectly illustrates the perils of violating the time zone rule, state border rule, the area code rule, and dare I say, the lesser known (leaving the) house rule.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at August 17, 2005 11:03 AM



Posted by: oj at August 17, 2005 11:11 AM

Yep, never try, even if it's for the mere joy of trying. Never dare. Never dream. Never reach just for the foolish, selfish, joy of reaching.

Nope, that's a bad thing. It's selfish. Because Cousteau and Lindbergh received no satisfaction out of their challenges. It always must have some benefit to someone else.

No personal dreams allowed.

Posted by: Mikey at August 17, 2005 12:54 PM

Mikey, you miss the point.

All of what you write is allowed.

We just don't imbue the story of some self-indulgent nutter needlessly killing himself through carelessness with any importance.

As the article stated, a submersible vehicle was available, and had been previously used in that exact location.
That vehicle could have been used to retrieve the remains - but then Dave Shaw couldn't have performed a daring and gallant dive, to the absolute limits of human endurance and of his experimental equipment, to recover the remains of some other daredevil who had rolled the dice for no real purpose or end, and came up snake-eyes.

However, if you've been inspired, that's wonderful.
There's no need to convince anyone else, for that feeling to be valid.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 17, 2005 1:50 PM


No, try. We need object lessons.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2005 3:37 PM

Earl, how did Lindbergh's flight change anybody's life, other than Lindbergh?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 18, 2005 1:05 PM

Harry's almost right. While his capturibng the public imagination was hugely useful, it wasn't the flight itself but Lindbergh's proselytizing for flight, organization of companies and work for our military that was truly revolutionary.

Posted by: oj at August 18, 2005 1:09 PM