Their experience has already been harrowing, but the youth soccer team found in a Thailand cave after being stuck there for over a week may face its most dangerous challenge in the days to come: escaping the cave by diving through its water-filled tunnels.
Though accessible during the dry season, the cave often fills with water during Thailand’s rainy season (usually from July to October). Because monsoon rains cause water levels to rise suddenly, the young team quickly became trapped as they moved into the cave to avoid the rising water.
Emergency crews attempted to pump water out to clear the way for an escape, but they were unsuccessful. Currently, the only way to move between the outside world and the small cavity where the twelve children and one adult coach are waiting is diving through the cave’s flooded, sometimes narrow, passages.
The group was found alive after being stuck deep inside Thailand’s Tham Luang cave for over a week and a half. Teams from several countries, including the U.S., had been working with the Thai Navy to scour the area where the children were believed to be trapped. They were eventually discovered three miles into the cave by British divers.
Now that the group has been found, conversations about how to best rescue them are beginning. Two plausible options: teach the children about cave diving and have them swim out with a rescuer or ask them to stay put for the next four months, until monsoon season ends and the waters recede.
Both choices present serious challenges.
If the children stay put, even with a light source and food, they risk infections, injuries, and psychological damage, according to the New York Times.
If they attempt to cave dive, the unexperienced and fatigued children may be unable to complete the journey safely. The first challenge will be getting the right equipment to the children and their coach. The next will be preparing the group for the difficulties of the journey.
Carsten Peter, a National Geographic photographer with cave diving experience, says the activity is difficult in the best of circumstances, but low visibility and the narrowing of the cave’s passages will make it particularly dangerous in this case. Rescuers might be able to push or tow each child through the caves, but Peter says this method may run the risk of a child panicking if they cannot see the rescuer who is helping them because of visibility problems.
Because many of the passages are extremely narrow, it’s likely the group won’t be able to take the trip together. Rescuers may have to go back and forth, ferrying children to safety alone or in small groups. This further complicates matters, since each trip through the tunnels will kick up sediment and decrease visibility—a problem common for cave divers.
On top of the issues with visibility, mobility will be a concern. In these enclosed areas, divers cannot surface easily and may have to wriggle through tight spots that sometimes require them to remove their oxygen tank and push it ahead or pull it from behind.
Additionally, the children’s physical conditions may impact how well they cope with a rescue. “What I have heard is also that the kids are very weak,” says Peter. “They have not eaten for nine or ten days. They are mentally still there, but very, very weak, and almost unable to stand.”
Managing their emotional and mental states will be equally important as their physical health. Fear could take over as the children navigate the water-filled caves, and their panic could endanger themselves and their rescuers.
“Part of the team is not experienced—they are not even swimmers,” Peter says. “I think it's very much a mental thing. If you are familiar with diving and you have trust in the system, its maybe less of a big deal. If you are frightened by water, panic could be a huge issue, and with the panic you breathe much more. The lasting of the oxygen tanks would be minimized, and also panic could cause a danger for the rescuers.”
And time is of the essence: Peter says more rain has been predicted for the area where the cave is located over the coming days, meaning it may fill with more water during the rescue.
“I don’t know if they have to dive upstream or downstream,” he says. “That could be a big issue, especially if there's more rain.”