Typically a holiday in the Dominican Republic involves relaxing in swimming pools and sipping cocktails topped with tiny umbrellas. Not so for cave diver and explorer Patrick Widmann, however. The Austrian opts for a bit more unpredictability, preferring deep, dark underwater tunnels where anything could happen.
And on Sept. 23, 2015, "anything" turned into a new record for the country’s deepest cave when he dove 328 feet into a newly discovered cavern. He would have gone farther, but he hit the limit for the equipment he had with him, so you can bet he'll be going back. But we'll let him tell you about that.
In cave exploration, you don’t know what will happen in the next five seconds.
RedBull.com: Cave diving is fairly risky. Why are you hooked?
Patrick Wildmann: There is nothing as rewarding as being the first person to see something, especially in 2015. Even if you’re in outer space, satellite images let you know what to expect. In cave exploration, you don’t know what will happen in the next five seconds. You could find that the cave comes to an end, or that it opens up to the biggest room ever. It’s a roller coaster of emotion.
So how did this most recent expedition come about?
It’s quite funny. The cave is very close to where my cave exploration partner Phillip Lehman lives. As the head of the Dominican Republic Speleological Society, he has such a reputation, [so] people call him up if they hear anything about a possible new cave.
Is that how you learned of the cave Nascimento del Río Sonador?
Exactly. It was a tip from a local. The closest town is Puerto Plata. From there, you drive 30 minutes south, then hike 40 minutes into the jungle. We hiked and horses brought the gear.
If I were to head straight to the surface from depth, I wouldn’t survive.
What does the cave entry look like?
The cave has two sumps — a sump is a water-filled passage of a dry cave. You do a first dive and surface in a dry gas pocket. Then you take off your fins and walk through this waist-high river. It’s only about 65 feet long, but it takes 15 minutes to push through with a 100-pound rebreather on your back. It’s a full-fledged, heavy-current river.
What does your diving process look like?
Phillip swims first, laying the line, or rope. I swim behind him, surveying the line. I’m recording depth, distance and compass headings between all the tie-off points. We’re also staging what are called bailout cylinders — should anything go wrong, these are tanks filled with gas that I can breathe from to allow me to safely exit.
Most people, if they dreamed they were in my situation, would wake up drenched in sweat. But I have the biggest smile on my face.
What’s the danger factor?
On these cave dives, I was at considerable depth for a long time. If I were to head straight to the surface from depth, I wouldn’t survive. It’s like if you take a soda and shake it. If I were to ascend too quickly, nitrogen or helium bubbles would form in my bloodstream and cause the bends. Those bubbles could go to my brain or spinal cord, which is very dangerous. Instead, just like you open that soda slowly, you come up slowly. That time spent waiting for the nitrogen and helium to off-gas is called decompression. It’s insanely boring. You’re just stuck at one depth at a time.
So what does this record-setting cave look like?
It’s like a canyon where you often can’t see the bottom. You’re sandwiched between two walls of rock. I’ve had moments in similar caves where I think about the fact that most people, if they dreamed they were in my situation, would wake up drenched in sweat. But I have the biggest smile on my face.
Talk us through what you saw toward the end of your cave dive.
At one point, the ceiling drops. I realize that the only way to travel is straight down. I’m in a small tunnel, as wide as a car. Then I’m spat out into this big room. The floor again is gone. I’m swimming through what is essentially a giant crack. Beneath me, nothing but black.
I could have pushed the cave horizontally, to see how far it stretched in that direction. Instead, I decided to descend, to find out how deep the crack went. When I finally reached the bottom, I realized it was only the top of a beautiful slope. The feeling at that moment is similar to the high that mountain climbers feel when they see panoramas of summits.
What’s it like to descend into an abyss?
I am dropping to 280 feet, no floor. Then 310 feet — still no floor. I’m holding myself in what’s called flaring position. It’s like I’m skydiving — arms out, shoulders rolled back, knees bent — but I’m going much slower.
What happened next?
In that moment, as I see what I believe to be the cave floor, I scream in excitement and happiness. I scream most of the time when adrenaline and emotion become so much that I can’t contain myself.
At what point did you realize that cave set a depth record in the Dominican Republic?
When I reached 100 meters (328 feet). That became the new record.
That’s a pretty even number.
The max operating depth for the bailout gas I was carrying was 100 meters, so I had to stop.
So you’re saying whoever goes back will set a new record.
That’s where you’re wrong. It’s not whoever goes back, it’s when I go back.
And you’re slated to resume the expedition as early as March 2016. Why not sooner?
I could have kept going this past October, but I would have frozen my ass off.
Are you worried someone will beat you to it?
Nobody knows where it is. You’d have to know how to find the farmer whose land the cave is on. Plus, there aren’t a lot of people who do sub-100-meter cave exploration.
So what record do you think you might break next with this cave?
At this point, God knows. It could be 200 meters deep. It might be the deepest cave in the world. For a cave diver, the worst time is the in-between. You have no idea how much it hurts.
For more, see eight of the Earth's deepest places to explore.