Izvor Licanke is a man-made resurgence used to supply water for a hydro-electric power station in Fuzine, Croatia. The cave was explored originally by Frank Vasseur in 1996 who explored the 40m long first sump, 350m or so of huge dry passage before coming across the final sump. Frank pushed this to 140m distance at -36m depth. The cave sat alone for the next 19 years due to permissions being lost.
In 2015, whilst on a Project Morpheus expedition, Christine Grosart and Rich Walker attempted to explore the end but encountered more significant difficulties than expected.
They returned in 2016 with Rick Van Dijk and the exploration added another 42m of line at -42m. Convenient, eh? Vitalised by this a big push was planned for 2017 to total a team of Christine Grosart, Rich Walker, Mark Burkey, Rick Van Dijk and Ash Hiscock. A week of carrying and diving lead to 99m of new line in sump 2 at a depth of approximately -50m. Which leads to 2018…
Emboldened by the addition of Roberto Varesko, a local diver and triathlon athlete, an ambitious plan was hatched. A total of three rebreathers, ten large cylinders, various smaller cylinders, film quality camera gear and four more bags of clatch were to be transported to sump 2 on the first day. This would allow sump 2 to be used as an advance base and push dives to be conducted most days. Hence, the plan was for Christine and Rich to push dive on days 2, 3 and 4, before Ash and either Christine and Rich finished the push dives on day 5 and clean out the cave on day 6.
The carry in went exceedingly well, getting an early head start when Christine and Roberto dived all the equipment through sump 1 before the trip had even started properly.
(Mark in sump 1)
On day 1 the entire team entered the cave vitalised and ready to go. The rebreathers were quickly carried up to sump 2 before the entire team started to chain the multitude of bottles and cylinders through the cave. Starting with approximately 100m of out of depth lakes, the equipment was transferred across this by placing it on a raft and then quickly scootering through towing it. This obstacle was passed inside an hour.
(Christine in the Lakes with Ralph the raft)
This lead to the boulder choke. Starting with a nasty, but fortunately short, climb up, the boulder choke continues across numerous muddy, featureless, and exposed slopes. As can be expected, this was one of our least favourite parts of the carry. This lead to the typical boulder hopping, on steroids, down the opposite side of the choke which lead to the final bit of passage to sump 2. A nice easy streamway, the only challenges being some very loose boulders and extremely sharp rocks.
(Rick at start of boulder choke)
(Robbie stomping up the streamway to S2)
We passed all these obstacles with all the equipment inside a few hours and started setting up camp at sump 2 for the support divers to wait in whilst the push dives were happening. This camp was also useful for warming up the push divers with hot drinks and food after long divers in 7 degree cave water.
(Rick, Robbie and Ash at the S2 camp)
Following this Ash set off into sump 2 to replace the existing dive line in the shaft with SRT rope after Rich had a bit of an epic the year before when the dive line broke. Christine went in after to check that Ash had done this right. He hadn’t, and she fixed it.
Day two came around and everyone was excited for the push dive. Christine and Rich changed into drysuits outside and set off into the cave. Caving through dry cave, particularly one as sharp as Licanke, presents problems in a drysuit so the two push divers necessarily travelled slowly and carefully but found themselves at sump 2 and ready to dive in short order.
This excitement was somewhat abated when Rich, before diving, professed that maybe he had a suit leak, but it didn’t seem so bad. A suit leak in 7-degree water is a very serious concern, especially as the last hour or so of a dive will be spent entirely still and producing no heat. A plan was devised that Rich and Christine would dive as far as Rich felt possible with this minor suit leak. They set off into the cave and placed all the bailout cylinders incase the rebreathers they were using broke and then continued to the end of the existing line.
Unfortunately, Rich’s drysuit leak had continued to worsen and it was decided that turning around was the safer and smarter option. After a 90 minute dive Christine and a very cold Rich emerged from the sump to some sort of weird Croatian coffee/tea/hot-chocolate mix. It was later discovered that the reason that Rich’s drysuit had flooded was the suit inflate bottle which he had used was half full of water! Every time he tried to add gas to the suit, he was actually shooting in cold sea water!
(Rich warming up after his dive in S2)
So, with a suit bottle to empty of water, and an undersuit to empty, it was decided that Christine and Ash should push to dive the next day, day 3. The team headed into the cave, minus a recovering Rich. Unfortunately, during the testing process, Christine discovered a problem with her rebreather, it was next to impossible for her to add oxygen. I don’t mean to teach anyone how to suck eggs, but oxygen is necessary for breathing. At this point Ash decided he was going to go for a little tourist dive to the end of the line, the same as the day before. But Christine said he should go and look at what the cave did.
Ash set off into the sump and quickly reached the end of the existing line, he continued laying line for approximately 17 minutes from the end of this line and laid 207m, approximately half at an average of -40m and half at an average of -30m which was centreline surveyed on return. The cave continued extremely large, but exactly how large the diver could not say, visibility being in the 3-4m range. This made the numerous large ramps heading from -46m depth to -25m depth super exciting, as the diver truly believed he would surface…but then it dropped down again.
(Ash post-dive in S2)
Ash exited the water after 101minutes relatively warm and gave the news to the rest of the team who were excited at the prospect of the cave generally trending shallower. But first, it was necessary for the team to have a day off, with numerous equipment problems to sort. So, day 4 was spent with most of the team going touristing nearby!
Day 5 a determined team set off underground to reach the preplanned limit of exploration (you can only take so much gas after all). After a fly through trip to the end of the cave the divers arrived at sump 2 and Christine and Rich geared up to dive. Unfortunately, during this process there appeared to be a problem with the oxygen addition on Christine’s rebreather again, but we fixed it quick time. Christine and Rich set off into the sump happy and smiling.
They swam along, reaching the end of Ash’s new line and got out their line reel and continued to explore, unfortunately, the cave continued to drop to a deeper level and they soon found themselves back at 40+ metres depth. They continued to lay out line but Christine’s rebreather wasn’t liking the depth much and continued to add too much oxygen, a situation that could lead to her having a seizure underwater and subsequently drowning. To counteract this she kept adding a diluent to bring the oxygen percentage down, but then the diluent ran out. She had to bailout; not a nice situation for anyone, especially several hundred metres from home on an exploratory dive!
She bailed out and Rich quickly tied off the line before continued to swim home together, at a bit of speed. They picked up all staged bailout bottles until they met their decompression bailout bottles at -24m. Here they left all the deep gas and Christine and Rich continued up the shaft decompressing, thankful for the thick SRT line in the low visibility to reduce the stress in this already stressful situation. At this point, Ash started to swim into sump 2 to pick up their deep decompression bottles, and thought something was off with the way they were acting, but with limited methods of communication and without seeing a definite problem, could do very little to identify it so continued, as planned, to pick up all the deep bailout bottles from -24m.
Christine exited the water after 152 minutes relieved at how she’d handled the situation with the bailout and the ensuing problems it brings. Rich exited the water not long after, having also bailed out because his oxygen was empty due to an electronics failure on his rebreather. Fortunately, he bailed out only a few minutes from the end of his dive.
The question we all wanted to know was how much line had they laid with all these problems? Fortunately, because they were diving as a pair, they could survey on the way in. One laying the line and one surveying. 36m of new passage was the answer! An incredible achievement considering the problems, bringing the total length of new cave this year to 243m! Not far off the preplanned limit of bailout at 250m of new cave! The bailout situation cannot have been nice, but the team accomplished almost exactly what they set out to! An elated team left the cave, making jokes about the bailout couple.
The final day of the trip was to be a strip out of all the staged diving equipment from sump 2. Unfortunately (for those apart from Robbie and Ash), Robbie and Ash had been seconded by the hydro-electric plant to replace filters on the intake pipes in the resurgence pool, so wouldn’t be able to help carry stuff out at the beginning of the day. What a shame! After approximately 2 hours sitting nearly still, underwater, doing up bolts in the 7-degree water Robbie and Ash were starting to wonder if they were the unfortunate ones.
(Robbie and the filters to fit)
They quickly warmed up heading into the cave to go and help finish carrying the gear. They found the rest of the team at the home side of the boulder choke chaining all the equipment. They quickly got involved in the chaining and everything and everyone was out the cave, heading home by 3pm for some well deserved beer and food.
(The 2018 team, Ash, Robbie, Rich, Christine, Rick, Mark)
All images by Mark Burkey and Christine Grosart.