Story transcripts

In Too Deep

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Nick Greenaway

You're deep underwater. It's ice cold, pitch black and the walls are closing in on you.

It sounds nightmarish.

But believe it or not, for some, this is a sport; a very dangerous one.

Cave diving offers the thrill of exploration, discovering places that no other person has ever seen.

That is certainly what attracted Agnes Milowka. But in this remote world, any mistake can be deadly.

Read Allison's blog on this story and have your say

PHOTOS: Allison Landgdon and Nick Greenaway cave diving in Mount Gambier

Story contacts:

A trust fund has been set up in Agnes's name – the trust fund aims to help students interested in environmental sciences, for more information visit:

www.agnesmilowka.com

Full transcript:

ALLISON LANGDON: At first, you have absolutely no idea want you’re in for. In Picanninnie Ponds near Mount Gambier, South Australia the water is as clear as gin and soon its mysteries start to be revealed. A limestone chasm formed by freshwater bubbling to the surface over millions of years. Descend this and you enter The Cathedral. It’ so spectacular, so supernatural, you must remember the first rule of diving, keep breathing.

LIZ ROGERS: For me, it’s a sense of flying of being in crystal clear water and being able to move through the cave and hover in the middle like you’re hanging in space.

ALLISON LANGDON: My guide through this hidden wonder is cave diver and explorer Liz Rogers.

LIZ ROGERS: It’s about finding out what’s around the next corner because you really don’t know and if you come off the end of the tunnel and you know maybe there’s a low section there and you find your way through and then it opens out into a massive chamber on the other side, that feeling is just amazing.

ALLISON LANGDON: But all this thrilling beauty can come at a price. Underwater caves are very unforgiving places. Not everyone who enters finds their way back out.

AGNES MILOWKA: My name is Agnes Milowka and I’m an explorer and I am going to take you on a series of adventures that you will never forget.

ALLISON LANGDON: 29-year-old Melbourne woman Agnes Milowka was a shining star in this dark world. Tragically earlier this year, she died whilst exploring the famous Tank Cave near Mount Gambier. Extensively mapped over 40 years, all its easy secrets have been revealed but Agnes instinctively felt there was more to discover, despite the dangers.

AGNES MILOWKA: I guess especially in virgin exploration there is always a danger because you don’t where your going or what’s ahead of you and anything could happen. I mean, your bubbles could dislodge an avalanche. If you are lucky you will make it out. If you don’t, you won’t.

ALLISON LANGDON: On Sunday, February 27th Agnes, didn’t make it out. Diving alone, she became disoriented, and ran out of air.

LIZ ROGERS: We knew why she was there. She was there because of who she was and diving was what she did and cave exploration was what she was good at.

ALLISON LANGDON: She always knew that death was a risk?

LIZ ROGERS: Mmm, and that’s something you consider in cave diving when you consider your equipment configuration and how you’re going to do the dive and what decompression schedule you might be using, so she knew the risks she was taking.

ALLISON LANGDON: Agnes died more than half a kilometre underground, and it took divers three days to bring her body back to the surface. Liz Rogers was in the rescue team. What will you miss most?

LIZ ROGERS: I miss having my dive buddy back.

ALLISON LANGDON: How hard was it for you when her parents turned up?

LIS ROGERS: What can you say to people?

CHRIS MILOWKA: We are parents that lost their child. It will take a long time to recover I think. Maybe we never recover

ALLISON LANGDON: Agnes was Chris Milowka’s only child. He is shattered of course, but is also proud that his daughter had the courage and conviction to enter such an alien world.

ALLISON LANGDON: Agnes was never happy to go to the end of the line and stop, was she?

CHRIS MILOWKA: No. She was always wondering what is there, what more could be done and there was nothing that could stop her.

ALLISON LANGDON: Would she have listened if you told her to stop?

CHRIS MILOWKA: There’s the point. She would probably ignore it. You do not own children

ALLISON LANGDON: They say there are two types of cave divers, there’s the weekend tourists that are happy to follow the guidelines laid down by others. Then you’ve got the explorers like Agnes, who get to the end of the line and keep going.

AGNES MILOWKA: I'm willing to take it to the next level, to push harder through the smallest of restrictions. To go where no-one’s been before.

ALLISON LANGDON: Before the accident, Agnes was on the cutting edge of exploration. In one cave system in Florida, she discovered a massive three kilometres of new terrain never before seen by man or woman.

ANDREW WHYTE: She was becoming a grand master as an underwater cave explorer. You would’ve loved Ag. I mean, she was just so full of life, and look, she’d have you sitting here with story after story after story. Some would have your hair standing on end and you’d think my God you’re a gutsy woman! And she absolutely was.

ALLISON LANGDON: Andrew Whyte is one of Australia’s most famous cave explorers. In 1988, he led the Pannikin Plains expedition in the Nullabor which almost ended in catastrophe after half of his team was caught by a cave collapse.

ANDREW: Well, you know, to the uninitiated it seems crazy, I must admit. You’re going in there? It’s dark, it’s wet, it’s cold and you might die and you think that’s fun? but it’s very seductive and enticing, because it’s like Pandora’s Box – you go around one corner, you open up another door, yet another door, and suddenly you’re drawn into this environment.

ALLISON LANGDON: Andrew first met Agnes on the set of his cave diving epic ‘Sanctum’ which he produced last year. She played the stunt double for Judes, the female lead in the movie. In a pivotal scene, Judes and her dive buddy leave behind their spare tanks to force their way through a tight passage, what divers call ‘a squeeze’. Finally, they make it through, but then disaster. Judes dies after rupturing her airline. She had no backup air supply. While no one yet knows exactly what happened to Agnes in Tank Cave, she too left behind her spare air tank to push on.

ANDREW: So the decision to leave behind your spare air and continue exploration for, you know, that thrill of being able to be the first person to see something that no-one’s ever seen before, that’s exactly what Agnes was doing when she was exploring at Mt. Gambier.

ALLISON LANGDON: There’s been some criticism that she was reckless in what she was doing. Is that fair?

ANDREW: She wouldn’t have deliberately stuffed herself into the back of a cave to kill herself. Anyone that’s a high achiever is going to push themselves and unfortunately the consequences are, you know, are not great in an underwater cave.

ALLISON LANGDON: A mistake means death.

ANDREW: Well, I mean, people think I’m trivialising, but I often say there are no accidents in cave diving, just fatalities and the gravity of that is really meant to sort of shock newcomers to the sport into what they’re really dealing with.

ALLISON LANGDON: Despite all the risks, there have been only four cave diving fatalities in Australia over the past 25 years. It’s a credit to the training regime all divers must undertake before they can tackle what lies beneath.

LIZ: Beautiful. How do you feel?

ALLISON LANGDON: Too exhausted to get in the water. It’s challenging, but then so too is the environment I’m about to enter.

JOHN: At that point of time what’s going to happen is that one of you will lose an air supply, I’m not going to tell you which one and at that some time both of you will lose your masks as well, so you are going to lose visibility and air supply. The only way out is that line.

ALLISON LANGDON: OK. So don’t drop this. With Liz Rogers as my dive buddy, John Dalla Zuanna is my trainer.

JOHN: It’s called a stress test. OK? Good?

ALLISON LANGDON: It’s a good name for it. The water in Gouldens sink hole is cold and murky and without warning my stress test begins. My regulator is taken from me and while I’m going for my backup air supply, my mask removed. The number one rule here is never let go of the guide line. In caves it’s so easy to kick up silt. You can very quickly lose all visibility. Your guideline is your lifeline.

JOHN: OK, great, excellent. You knew exactly what was going on. You were really in tune with what you were doing.

ALLISON LANGDON: I realise why they call it a stress test, though.

JOHN: Do you?

ALLISON LANGDON: I didn’t realise you were going to do it to us so quickly. It’s like ‘no, I’m not ready to give up my air yet’. Thanks to this training, deaths in Australia are the exception not the rule and it’s impossible to imagine what it would have been like for Agnes, running out of air, all alone, lost hundreds of metres from the surface. Would she have known at the end there what was going to happen?

ANDREW: Oh yeah, yeah. You know, she was very, you know, she knew the ins and outs of cave diving very intimately and it’s not a mystery, it’s just a matter of how long it takes.

CHRIS: I believe something terrible happened that she couldn’t control and she couldn’t predict.

ALLISON LANGDON: Is it hard looking at these pics?

CHRIS: It is a reminder that she was very happy and doing things that she loves.

ALLISON LANGDON: That must touch you.

CHRIS: Sometimes it’s heartbreaking.

AGNES: It would be criminal for me to say there are no risks associated with cave diving. The sport of cave diving can see you become a dead diver. There’s no gentle way of putting that.

ALLISON LANGDON: Agnes leaves behind a stunning archive of her exploits, and it’s only when you’ve cave dived yourself you begin to realise why people like Agnes, and Andrew, and Liz, do it in the first place. The euphoria of discovery is mixed with the thrill of survival. It’s an adrenaline rush. That is the most amazing thing I reckon I’ve ever seen.

LIZ: It’s pretty cool down there. Come in the back of the cave with the sunlight coming in through the weeds and the blue water, it’s really gorgeous.

ALLISON LANGDON: That’s why you do it.

LIZ: It’s a good reason.

ALLISON LANGDON: I want to go again.

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