60 Minutes blog

Allison Langdon: In Too Deep

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Agnes Milowka is someone I would love to have known. She was a real adventurer, who pushed the boundaries and saw parts of our world that no-one else has laid eyes on. She was only 29 when she died.

Agnes was a cave diver and an extremely good one. In fact, she’d made a name for herself internationally as a rising star in the dangerous, yet exhilarating world of cave diving - discovering kilometres of underwater systems in Florida and here in Australia. To be honest, until I met Agnes’ family and friends, I really didn’t know much about the sport at all. I do now.

You must be brave to cave dive. Well, certainly to do the sort of cave diving that Agnes was doing. You dive alone, often with only one tank of air, so you can squeeze through tight spots. Your slightest movement kicks up silt. so visibility is lost. But you keep going, in the hope that, just around the next bend, or through the next tight passage, you’ll discover something magical. As Agnes always said, cave diving is the last frontier of exploration.

In Australia, underground, freshwater caves have formed over millions of years and often they’re in the most unlikely of places…paddocks full of sheep and cattle, or beneath the Nullabor Plain. Every cave is a potential Pandora’s box.

But in February, something went horribly wrong for Agnes. She was diving alone in the Tank Cave, an intricate system of underwater caves near Mount Gambier, South Australia, when she got into trouble. It was a cave she’d dived countless times before.

The details of just how she came to run out of air 500 metres from the surface remain a mystery, but everyone who knew Agnes - especially her close friends who had the distressing task of finding her and recovering the body – agree on one thing: she would have known she was going to die in those last moments and she would not have panicked.

To do Agnes’ memory justice, producer Nick Greenaway and I decided I had to learn to cave dive myself, so I could understand what it is about this sport that had Agnes addicted. As a scuba diver myself, I love being in the water, but I like the water to be warm-ish. I want to see marine life and wrecks. I didn’t understand the appeal of diving in the pitch black with only a torch for light, in freezing cold water and where - if you get into trouble - it’s not as simple as making an emergency ascent.

The training was vigorous, hours of theory and exams first, then practical training in a swimming pool, getting used to the dry suit that you dive in. Since the water in these caves is around 12 -14 degrees, the dry suit is a necessity, but it’s tricky. You pump air into it for buoyancy but, as I found time after time, the air would fill the bottom of my suit and I’d float to the top, feet first.

The next training ground was Gouldens Sink Hole. Here, I learnt to lay a guideline, running a bright-coloured line, so if you lose all visibility, you have something to follow back to the surface. I was also put through the dreaded “stress test”, where my mask and regulator were taken from me. I had to find my way back out using the guideline, while buddy breathing with my partner, Liz Rogers , one of Agnes’ closest friends.

But no amount of training can prepare you for the real thing. My first cave dive was in Piccaninnie Ponds.

Wow!! It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. From the surface, it’s a beautiful little pond in the middle of a coastal wetland with a few ducks and swans swimming around. But once you enter the water, it really is a whole other world. Have a look at the pictures we’ve posted, I honestly don’t think words can adequately describe what I saw. It was breathtaking!

We dropped down what they call “The Chasm”, swam through a small opening and emerged into “The Cathedral”, a grand underwater cave that’s just magical. I won’t deny my heart was beating rather quickly! I’m not sure if it was the excitement of seeing something so truly magnificent, or knowing that you’re underground and when you look directly up you don’t see sunlight – perhaps a little of both.

I know I only got a tiny glimpse at the world that mesmerised Agnes, but I reckon it was just enough to understand why she did it. Why she loved it so much. I could never be as brave as Agnes, but I think for this story, I was a little bit brave!

User comments
Gary, That is a terribly ignorant thing to say.
"garry" comments are a little insensitive. I know, the coroners' investigation is still going. How do you know already what happened? Actually, we may never know, as number of the known facts is quite limited. She was alone, there is no "flight data recorder" to check out her last minutes. In this case, in my view, assumptions need to be made based on the well known history and her past interactions with the diving partners. Most will say - she was good and well prepared for the challenge. Agnes survived over 500 dives in the caves - that is simple not available for a "dumb" person - try it -)
one will always wonder why someone so knowing of the rules of cave diving or in fact any diving went without a buddy and did not obey the one third air in ,one third for return, and one third as safety ,to let go of the safety line for any reason was a death sentence in itself,dumb and dumber. she was not as smart as one would expect, shame she died but you must obey the rules to the letter,no mistake can be made with your choices.
There is no option for me to write about Carls story anywhere else so Ill do it here. First of all showing footage of dead babies who have been murdered is child abuse material and I found it offensive. Showing Child abiuse material is an offence and the fact that you still showed it reveales the lack of preparation and research to suppirt this 'story'. Also Carls story on the alleged "innocent murderer behind bars" really demonstrated Carls lack of knowledge about criminal proceedings and it was a shame that you managed to convince the poor retired forensic specialist to come on your show, it was poor form to pick on a retired elderly man who has obviously lost some of his faculties. Its called a circumstantial brief....look it up
To all involved in the segment, thanks. You showed a good mate of all of ours in a good light. She had an amazing smile, and was an amazing diver. Better than most of us could ever dream of being. Liz, you did unbelievably well too. I can't imagine how hard that must have been for you.
I thought the segment was done well and a useful perspective from someone new to cave diving. I must congratulate Allison on taking the time, energy and trouble to make it through the Deep Cavern course - well done. Since this unfortunate incident the cave divers association has taken steps to avoid the glare of publicity. There is another side to the cave diving association not discussed - in how it is run and the politics within are renowned seen from within. Like any story there is a limit of what can be publically presented.
Cave divers must control any urge to break records and later justify it as "advancing mans knowledge". They have a responsibility to their families and other cave divers that enjoy the sport , to dive within their abilities, observe the rules and not compromise future site access for everyone or bring the sport into disrepute.
I only met Agnes while attending my cave course. An exceptional diver & full of energy. An inspiration to many divers. Wish I had the chance to see the full show. Thanks for presenting it. Gregs & crew.
What an insight into a world the majority of us will never know. How many people can claim a passion they know can be so unforgiving? Jurgen, you mentioned that Alison Langdon should "continue and finish her Deep Cavern course". I thought she was doing a cave course. What else does she have to do to be qualified as a cave diver?
As a close friend of Agnes', I want to thank you, Allison, for telling her story with great care. I salute you for taking a cave diving course so you could understand her passion for her underwater realm. It was Agnes' dream to bring cave diving to the mainstream and in a very real way, last night's airing of the documenatry achieved that goal. She would have been very proud and I am quite sure she would have approved of how the story was told. Always modest, despite her phenomenal achievements, she wasn't one for sentimentality. I think you struck the right tone with your presentation of what is understand about the tragedy of her final moments. Many will remember her for her irrepressible passion and thirst for adventure. But above all, we'll remember her great humour and warmth, and as a friend who inspred us all.

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