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End of the Road – NACD Journal 4th Quarter, 2008

What a fantastic looking cave, the slime dripping off the walls and the reduced visibility give the system a very eerie, but cool feeling. A side passage looms ahead and I decide just to have a quick look, so I head on down the twisting tunnel. The silt in here is just unreal, vapid looking strands hanging from the ceiling and an extremely thick looking layer on the floor. As I gaze around in amazement, I think what a truly majestic place this is. The cave looks like it’s pinching off just ahead, so I decide to retrace my steps. I flip around; accidentally drop a fin and all of a sudden the passage is zeroed out. No biggie, I’ll just get on the line. Wait, where is the line? I’m feeling around in this silt soup and can’t find it anywhere, I make a mad dash into what I think is the right direction, smack my head straight into the wall and start thrashing around in my confusion. Was it this way, was it that way? Where’s the line, how do I find it again? Crap, I can’t remember, why am I here? I can’t see anything in this muddy hellhole, I just want out. I knew I shouldn’t have dived this cave, but I never thought this would happen to me! I’m breathing like a madman and can’t seem to get a handle on my breathing rate; I’m not trained for this…..HELP!

 I flail around for what seems like hours and I desperately try to see how much gas I have left. I can’t see anything in this goop and to make matters worse, if that’s possible, my regulator’s starting to get really hard to breathe! Deep down, in that ancient primeval part of us that never really goes away, the dragon awakens in my breast, kicking in the ancient fight or flight syndrome. The end comes quickly now as I start to hyperventilate and descend into full blown panic! Just before I take my first inhalation of water, visions flash before my eyes; my cave instructor telling me not to dive above my training, my kid sitting at home with my wife and I realize there’s so much left for me to do in life. This isn’t how I wanted to die, please God, just let me outta here, I’ll never be so stupid again and I don’t want to die! But the timeless cave doesn’t ever hear desperate pleas for mercy and after a while my struggling ceases and the cold, dark water lays all my hopes, dreams and fears to rest.

What causes this? I would think that most of us whether we admit it or not, cringe at the thought of drowning in a cave, taking that last breath and knowing you’re toast. Do you want to know what thoughts go through one’s head at a time like this, the certainty of death in a watery, dark tomb and no time to say or do anything that you wanted to do, let alone have a chance to say goodbye. I’ve come close once or twice, as some of you know, mostly due to some serious stupidity on my part! Luckily I’d had a decent amount of training and experience at the time and was able to work my way out of these situations by staying calm and working through the problems. Obviously, I changed my habits after these dives and they became learning experiences, rather than fatality reports.

Unfortunately, it’s those times that we have a fatality within our community that brings out both the best and the worst in people. On the one hand, we have folks involved in the recovery effort, who in most cases know the victims fairly well, and go do their job to the best of their ability. On the other hand, we have people finger pointing saying they died because of this or that and it was so and so’s fault etc. We get the usual blanket statements, we need to ban cave diving, more safety rules are needed, we need to start policing ourselves better etc whereas it simply comes down to a lack of personal responsibility. You and your buddy are the ones that make the decision to dive and only the both of you will know whether this particular dive you’re doing is over your head. Responsibility starts with knowing your limitations and not letting anyone talk you out of them, don’t give in to the peer pressure of doing a dive that you’re not ready for, the repercussions of your decisions may have far reaching effects that you may not realize at the time.

Every time I’m teaching a cavern class, I spend so much time on Accident Analysis, emphasizing safety guideline #1 which states that lack of training or exceeding one’s training is the number one reason why untrained divers die in caves. Why is this so hard to understand, do people think that the rules don’t apply to them? That they’re invincible, charmed, that these thirty or so years of gathering data on cave fatalities doesn’t count because they’re different from the others? People are telling you don’t do these dives for a reason, not because they dislike you! We’re your friends, we’re trying to look out for you, so please do us all a favor and ignore whatever other silly reason you’re going to come up with, just so you can justify blowing our well meaning advice off.

You have to understand that while you may be okay diving above your limitations and drowning in a cave, the rest of us are not! We don’t want to attend your funeral; we want to dive with you for a long time to come. A recovery team will have to put their lives on the line to get your body back, a family will be overwhelmed with grief, you run the possibility of getting a cave system closed, plus you’re just asking the government to get involved so they can protect us from ourselves…. This is why when we offer advice to you, please listen! We’re doing it not only for your sake, but for the rest of the community as well. So if you happen to read this article and think we’re talking about you, please don’t be so selfish and so caught up in your own little world, that you ignore our advice and tell us that we’re holding your back or other such nonsense. We’re doing it for you and also the good of the community as a whole!

Even if we don’t ignore our safety guidelines and act like we should, if you do this sport long enough, you will probably have a “come to Jesus” dive. What you do when that happens is what will define you as a cave diver. Some will sell all the gear and quit the sport, others will knuckle down and learn from the experience and become better cave divers because of it. You think I’m kidding you? Ask some of the people who’ve been doing this for a while, and they’ll confirm what I’ve said!

Anyways, I really want to hammer home a point here, we’ve had a number of senseless deaths this past year and if we don’t get a hold of ourselves, someone else will do it for us. We need to start talking to people who are known for unsafe diving practices and if they refuse to listen, maybe shunning from the community is called for. Whenever my student’s call me up and ask if so and so would be a good dive buddy, I tell them the truth and explain why. If they choose to ignore my advice so be it, but I can definitely sleep better at night knowing that I made an effort.

Well, as always, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please have fun, be safe out there and please stay away from dives that are above your ability and comfort level when diving in the overhead. Listen to what others advise you about diving, try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Dark Thoughts

The hand reaches back, takes mine and puts it on the line. I can’t see anything in the pitch black, although I’m able to feel the constant flow of the water, but I know what he wants me to do. I adjust my buoyancy slightly and cross over the line, continuing on down the tunnel. I love this, a senseless, black abyss with only our breathing echoing in the still silence, feeling a line arrow slide through my hand, the void closing around us as we pursue our quest for the daylight. I grasp a primary, give it a quick feel to make sure it’s ours and we start ascending towards the cave entrance. The darkness gives way to a dusky gloom and then the ambient light comes into view. As always, a myriad of emotions plays on my mind, I hate to leave this all encompassing liquid world, but the sunlight beckons irresistibly, creating beautiful glimmers and reflections through the holes in the duckweed.

We complete our decompression uneventfully and I look over at my buddy and watch him knock out some valve drills, his trim is good, shutdowns are economical and thorough and I’m very happy with it all. After he finishes the manipulation, he looks over and realizes I have no gas. He gives me the long hose, sticks his backup in his mouth, and after eyeing me sternly, reaches back and rolls his left post back on, weird how that happens, huh! I return the long hose and take some line off a safety reel to tie his manifold up, then back fin quickly to observe. Reaching back, he unhooks himself from the man made entanglement and slowly we ascend together, breaking the surface on a beautifully calm summer afternoon. I congratulate him and watch relief cloud his eyes briefly, before he breaks out with an ear to ear grin.

After debriefing we head over to the local BBQ joint to grab a late lunch, finish up paperwork and talk about the wonderful world of cave diving! We chat all through lunch and eventually get down to the nitty gritty of it all. Looking across the table at this young man, who has the potential to be a world class cave diver, I sign off on his Full Cave certification and have this moment of wanting to reach across the table and tell him to be very careful out there! Of course I don’t and simply offer him some words of praise, warning and advice.

I’m often asked for my opinion about paths of progression in cave diving, should I take …., am I ready for …. I usually just offer simple words such as don’t dive above your head and to me this is the crux of it all. How comfortable are you? Are you having fun? Everyone’s comfort level is a little bit different and you should know yours! I think that the more comfortable you are in the water, when you decide to take an additional step in your training or mentoring, the more you will benefit from it since time will not have to be spent on what should already be known.

We’ve had a number of accidents lately and maybe that is why I’m thinking more about new cave divers and invincibility hats, I’m not sure. We have the toys and equipment to get us into a lot of trouble very quickly, but they are just tools for us to enjoy our beautiful caves. What causes people to go “too far, too fast”? Is it the instruction or lack of it? Is it a reflection of our society’s “want it now” syndrome? More and more these days, I hear stories of cave instructors failing or holding back a student. Unfortunately, with the new found proliferation of “cave instructors”, instead of going and working on their skills to become a better diver and then completing their course, they choose to go to one of the “giveaway” instructors who’ll pass them because they want everybody to be friends with them, get more students, increase their profits etc. Would you want to dive with someone who did that? Unless there was a serious personality conflict or a gear configuration disagreement, if I was failed by an instructor I’d want to go out and work on whatever it was that caused me to fail and then go back to the same person, rather than seeking the easy way to get a “cave card”. Does nobody want to be challenged anymore?

I just had a wonderful ten days of diving with my friend from Japan who comes over every year. He took an informal scooter course from me while he was here and of course this really opened up some new cave for him. He’s been diving a long time and is extremely comfortable in the water, so to him a scooter was just a tool to go and see some new cave and I was able to challenge him on the scooter during class as he as really rock solid on the basic skills. Who doesn’t want to do a graduation dive to 2900’ and then swim to the end of Mainland! Plus as a bonus, it was an absolute pleasure to teach him! Far different from attempting to teach those divers who barely meet the prerequisites, are just interested in going to the Hinkel because their friends are, cannot perform a simple S drill and are simply not ready for scooter instruction.

Anyways, enough of these dark thoughts already! To all the newer cave divers out there, take your time and have fun and just go diving. Don’t be in a hurry, you can’t purchase experience and in water time. If you cave dive frequently and work on making yourself a better diver, the cards will come. If you are in pursuit of a card and don’t care about your cave diving, I’d recommend taking up golf, since hooking a shot into the woods ‘cause you haven’t worked on your swing lately isn’t going to kill either you or your golf partner!

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint and have a great time out there in our glorious aquifer. Just dive your heart out and enjoy the experience, it’ll pay off in the future as you start pushing further into the blue holes we love so much. As always, try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Frustrations – NACD Journal 2nd Quarter, 2008

I look up and see my exhaust bubbles bouncing off the ceiling in front of me, giving the black rock an ethereal appearance. There’s a little bit of flow, not too much, just enough to give the water that crisp clarity which is such a wonder to behold. It’s been one of those dives where everything clicks, and I’m slowly working my back to the scooter, not really swimming, but slowly drifting in the timeless serenity of cave diving. I pick up my jump line and start reeling back to the ride. Exiting at a reasonable pace, my mind wanders off into cave mode and I just drink in all the wonders surrounding me. Hey, out of the corner of my eye, I see a flicker. I haven’t seen anybody yet on my dive, but up ahead I see lights in the distance. Cool, I drop into stealth mode, clip off the scooter, slide up into one of the domes, kill the primary and watch. I see two divers swimming, one desperately trying to communicate something to the other and finally the one beckons the other over and pulls out the wet notes. To my horror, I watch both of them sink slowly to their knees and this is not a rocky bottom but a silty muddy floor in wide open passage!

I’m furious at this point, but what to do? Aha, I slowly swim over ‘till I’m about ten feet above them, point my 21W HID right down on them and WHAM, the lights go on! Ever seen a deer in the headlights? Whewee, were they up and into trim quick, and swimming off down the passage like there was no tomorrow…. I thought about staying with them and lecturing them on the surface, but unfortunately I’d racked up a substantial amount of deco and had some stuff to take care of topside, so I left and seethed over the memory of it. If whoever it was is reading this you should feel so ashamed! You’re ruining the sport for those of us that love it; you’re betraying the trust your cave instructor had in you and you’re screwing up the cave on purpose. This is in my mind is no better than the guys carving their names in clay banks. We all have bad days once in a while, let a fin drop, dump too much gas, put a hand down where we shouldn’t but if you’re doing this deliberately you should be, well I’ll leave that one up to the masses….

A friend of mine made a statement on one of the boards a while back about “what happens in the cave stays in the cave”, and how people will walk around with their head held high and says, “Nope, wasn’t me”. Well, we as a community need to stop this and do a little bit of soul searching, I hope what I just wrote about made you mad, ‘cause it pissed me off enough to vent about it at the gas station for the next couple of weeks and to write about it, hopefully to effect some change! A friend of mine just passed away recently, I’m reading on the boards about digging, lowered visibility in the cave and all kinds of self righteous pronouncements. Well, what about these guys? Were they just being lazy and is it okay then? Or does someone need to smack the silt out of them? I don’t know, I don’t have the answers, but I will tell you this, we’re watching and we have video cameras. You think the 21 is bad, wait ‘till you get lit up by dual 35’s.….

I wish I knew what else to say at this point, the rant is over, now where can I go with this? I suppose that I could go on about taking pride in your cave diving, try to be the best you can be blah blah blah….. It’s just that it doesn’t seem to work, cave conservation seems to have taken a back seat to promoting one’s point of view on the internet. I’m diving in the caves at least five times a week if not more, and lately I’ve seen more than my fair share of the I’m perfect, it’s all about me, how far have you been in the cave types than I care to. These would be the people who ask for advice, then don’t listen and the ones who silt the cave up and then blame others.

Cave diving is a very simple sport, it doesn’t need to be made complicated by unending arguments about which mask strap is better, which reel will enable you to run the perfect line, spools or reels and which agency is better, I mean in the end does it all really matter? I know why I cave dive, do you? I was trying very hard not to preach in this viewpoint and I apologize if it comes off that way, it’s just that I find myself very frustrated these days with my observance of cave divers in the field so to speak.

As my fellow cave instructors will attest to, we’re always under the gun ‘cause we’re professionals and meant to set an example. Why shouldn’t this apply to everyone? I know if I’m diving with someone and they do something I disapprove of, I will let them know about it, but I shouldn’t have to. I love it when students are debriefing themselves after a training dive and I don’t have to add anything to their critique. That tells me I’m doing my job to the best of my ability and while I could nitpick all day long, we’re meant to be looking at the overall picture, right? Let’s apply the same thing to our cave diving here, as mentioned earlier everyone can have a bad day, but there’s a huge difference between an errant fin stroke and a conscious, deliberate act, and the fact is if we don’t start policing ourselves, someone else will be doing it for us!

Anyways, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, have fun, be safe out there and let’s do the best we can to keep our caves in a pristine state, after all we need to be the stewards of our caves, not some nameless, faceless outside entity. Try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Control – NACD Journal 1st Quarter, 2008

Wow, what a surreal feeling! I’m hovering motionless above some orange goop watching my friend and ongoing student/dive buddy do exactly the same. I love the way the orange goop drapes over the line making everything look ancient and for the hundredth or so time I wonder what this stuff actually is and why it stays here in the same part of the cave year after year. I gently move my hand above it and watch the goop mirror my hand stroke with ever increasing ripples as we watch in wonder. We grin at each other through our masks and I can’t help but think that this is how it’s all meant to be! A couple of good friends having the time of their lives, swimming around a room in an underwater cave, getting ready to scooter back to the entrance and enjoy a good feast at the local watering hole. Now, what’s so interesting about all this is that we’ve visited this place a number of times before, so what is it that made tonight so special? I know that it’s not just me either, as when we finally surface an hour or so later John looks at me and exclaims, “Now, that was a great dive!”

Well, we’d been out scootering at Manatee for the previous two days and while the visibility was fantastic past Friedman’s, it’s nice to get back to our “home cave”, but surely that can’t be the only reason. We head off to have our post dive fun with some other friends who were diving that night and talk about what was so cool about tonight’s dive. I suddenly think of a phrase that sticks in my mind, I don’t know if someone has told me recently or if I read it somewhere, but it goes something like, one must first have complete control before one is truly able to let go. My friend is currently going through some mix courses with me and while we had our fun scootering over the last couple of days, we’ve been practicing tech skill sets in the open water at various basins. Stuff like removing and replacing stages while following a line in a blacked out mask, riding and clipping the scooters off while towing another, running a line while dealing with multiple scooters, stages and leashes, blowing bags while dealing with a reg failure, blacked out air shares etc. Anyways I’m sure a lot of you know what I’m talking about!

Of course, while John and I are doing all these drills, we’re building muscle memory by repeating the skills until they become second nature and then when we need to apply them to our regular diving; it almost becomes an unconscious reaction. I think that’s why we’re having so much fun tonight, because everything has gone very smoothly, stage bottle drops were smooth and quick, line running with stages and scooters seemed very easy and the funny part is that we were never more than 2300’ from the entrance, compared to the 6000+’ we’d done at Manatee the previous days. I’m sure most of you have heard the sayings “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” or “keep the end in mind” but when you actually think about what these mean and start applying them to your diving habits, you’ll probably end up having a whole lot more fun.

I know that no one ever wants to practice these skill sets, myself included, but due to the nature of my job I’m kind of forced to. My friend and I like to cave dive most of all, so we’ve set up the most recent class he’s taking with me in more of a mentoring form than a formal class structure. That way we get to go cave dive and have fun as well as practice and reinforce those skill sets.

Anyways, as usual I’ve got the babbling/typing sickness again, so let me get back on track. I talked earlier about you must have control before you can truly let go, and I think I’m finally starting to understand what it means. I see a lot of people catch the cave diving bug and they get into it really hard for a couple of years and then they just seem to lose interest. I’ve never really understood this, as cave diving for me is one of the essential parts of life and I know I’d go through some serious withdrawals if it were ever taken away from me, but now I’m thinking it’s because they just got bored with it.

It seems like we’re about to lose a lot of our popular caves down here due to flooding, so now’s a good time of year to get out there and practice your control. Every move that your body makes underwater has an effect and if you learn to bring all aspects of your cave diving under control, you’ll be a much better diver and probably enjoy your dives a whole lot more. By all aspects of your cave diving, I mean things such as keeping your breathing rate under control at all times (whether you’re working or not, your SAC rate should remain constant!), having complete control of your buoyancy and trim, knowing your equipment back to front, what it can and cannot do and keeping things clean and tucked away at all times since there’s no place for sloppiness in this wonderful sport of ours. Start doing everything the same way, muscle memory works! Of course, this will not happen overnight, but experience can be built on over time, and the more you practice this stuff the more fun you’ll have.

Now, by now means am I suggesting to go out there and start drilling instead of diving, but when the dive’s over and you’ve had your fun, take a minute to practice some of the stuff you normally don’t, for example how quickly and smoothly can you get the scooter cradled between your legs after getting off the trigger, how smoothly can you deploy your back up lights, clip off your primary, shut down and switch valves. This is what makes up your “control package” and once you have this sort of stuff down pat, then you will really start to “see” the cave and enjoy the natural beauty of the cave, plus it also looks very cool!

Well, as usual, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please have fun, be safe out there and let’s see if we can nail down our control when we’re diving in the overhead. Try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Variety – NACD Journal 4th Quarter, 2007

It’s a crisp fall morning, the day after Thanksgiving and I’ve opened up the shop early to crank up the banks and get ready for a busy weekend. While putting a recent gear order out, a friend of mine shows up and we head outside to fill his tanks. Of course we’re chatting while his tanks are filling and talking about the usual stuff, how the doubles thing at Ginnie came up on the net again, the recent graffiti, the NACD seminar etc. As I remove a stage from the whip and switch banks, we get to talking about motivations. While we’re reminiscing, I suddenly realize that we have very similar thoughts on the matter so I decided to try to put down here what some of our thoughts were.

When I hear or read that divers will not dive a system because they find the flow intimidating or the visibility challenging I feel kind of bad. By sticking to no flow, good visibility cave, they’re cutting themselves off from so much. In my humble opinion, a cave diver should be able to hop into an underwater cave with decent conditions and enjoy their dive there. Let’s say we have two cave divers, one who dives the same passages because that’s where they’re most comfortable, the other seeks out new systems and passages to challenge themselves and improve their diving skill. Which one do you think will gain more skill and experience?

We all get caught in ruts at some point in our lives. What really counts is that we recognize it and do our best to fix the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against cave divers who dive the same tunnels again and again because that’s what they enjoy doing. Will that diver improve? Yes, of course they will because they’re gaining time and experience underwater, but it will be done slowly over a long period of time. Is that wrong? No, of course not, it just all depends on what you want out of your cave diving. If you want to improve consistently, you’re going to have to cave dive on a regular basis and in a variety of systems. Your skill level will almost certainly reflect the amount of time and effort you put into it and this is what a lot of new cave divers don’t realize. I know that after completing my formal cave training I thought I was done and finally a cave diver! In hindsight, I see how wrong I was, there is always more to learn…..

Of course, at that point in life I was running a catering business up north and I still remember the anticipation of cave diving trips, and the excitement when you arrived in cave country. Warm up for a few days at Peacock, and then head down to explore the Devil’s system. I always found Devil’s to be intimidating due to the flow and the depth, but it was such a gorgeous system that I just had to dive it. After a couple of years of doing this and exploring the other caves in the area, I was getting singularly frustrated as I’d get to a point at the end of the trip where everything was starting to come together and starting to click, and then we’d end up leaving and next time down I’d have to start up all over again! That, more than anything else, made me decide to move down here, so I could cave dive to my heart’s desire and not have to get my “cave head” back every few months. After spending some time here and doing nothing but cave diving pretty much daily, a friend of mine who I dove with on occasion said to me, “I wish you could have seen yourself when you first moved here and then again now”. Of course, I asked him why and he chuckled and replied that my skills had improved over the last few months. I didn’t understand it at the time, because I thought I was still diving the same way I always had, but I do understand what he meant now. I’d been spending a lot of time in the water and it showed.

My point is this, if you want to be the best you can be, you’re going to have to work at it and commit to it. For me, the new challenge is sidemount since this will open up a whole lot of new stuff, but I’m not going to attempt the new stuff until I have gained some level of proficiency! People ask me all the time, “do you sidemount” and invariably I grin and say, “Um, well I dive with tanks on my side, does that count?” but the real answer is no, because I have not yet reached any level that I would consider to be worthy of calling it sidemounting. Now of course, if all you want to do is swim around the no flow tunnels and enjoy the scenery, more power to you. Everybody has different motivations for doing what they do, but you have to be honest with yourself. If one day, you want to be hauling multiple scooters and stages in a deep cave somewhere, you need to be conscientious about your diving. Don’t make excuses, don’t settle for being satisfactory and don’t go for an easy swim in a passage you’ve done before if you have the opportunity to do something different. As it says in a number of old manuals, experience is the thing you get right after you really need it!

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint and have a great time out there in our subsurface nirvana. Set some goals of where you’d like to be or what kind of diver you want to be in a few years, work towards that and don’t settle for second best. As always, try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Diving The Cave – NACD Journal 3rd Quarter, 2007

“What a gorgeous dive!” I find myself saying that more and more these days as the summer heat’s upon us. Of course, during the summer I teach less and fun dive more so maybe that has something to do with it! By the time you read this, hopefully it will have cooled down a little bit and the danger of heat exhaustion and hydration issues will have dropped off. Anyways, for the last couple of weeks I’d been diving with some friends from Japan and it was really nice just to be able to kick back and take pleasure in the cave diving. Seeing the expressions on their faces as we surfaced told me that we were having a great time, and being able to show accomplished cave divers new systems and/or new passage is one of the things I love to do. Last night I went diving with a former student, as I do every Friday, and while it wasn’t a “big dive” we both had an absolute blast. There’s nothing like a simple swim on back gas as a great cure all for a busy day at work!

While diving with my friends from Japan I was very impressed with their speed (or lack of it!) in the cave and the way they took note of different passages and really took the time to look around. A friend of mine who’s also a cave instructor wrote an article a while back about guiding people and what to expect both from the guide and the people being guided. He made some really good points, no trust me dives, visuals, everybody needs to be responsible for themselves etc. The nice thing about diving with this couple was that while I did a detailed dive briefing using maps, photos and other materials before every dive, they still took the time to “learn the cave” for themselves. This in itself made our diving together that much more fun because everything was nice and relaxed, and they weren’t just following me around the cave!

As you get more relaxed in your cave diving and gain more experience, you’ll come to find pleasure in even the routine stuff. I probably dive at Devil’s between two and three hundred times a year, but I’m always seeing something new. The water clarity last night was amazing and if you slow down and take the time to swim off the line a little bit and poke your head into some holes, you’ll find it to be really rewarding as you’ll come across lots of little swim throughs and neat looking formations. If you can remember back to your cave training, I’m sure your instructor talked about diving the cave, not the line. After all this is a visual sport for most of us.

Something I’ve been hearing a lot of lately is there always seems to be talk about which line is where and how it should be moved to here, but does it really matter? As long as we maintain our continuous guideline to the surface and avoid line traps does it really matter where the line is? You’ve all been taught how to do a lost line drill. As I tell my students, the lines are there in case of an inconvenience such as a loss of light or zero visibility due to sediment agitation and we need to quit relying on the lines for navigation and start visual referencing, looking for landmarks or my personal favorite “learning the cave”. Me, I like looking at the cave, not the line. As my cave instructor told me time and time again, line, light and cave, line, light and cave. Know where they are and keep your awareness of those three things sharp. That does not mean stay on the line and do not deviate! Now if you take the time and learn the systems that you dive slowly and thoroughly and some kind of mishap happens for whatever reason, your head will be in a lot better shape than if you were just following a line!

How many of you have taken the time to play and explore in the big room off to the left where the Peanut tunnel starts? Things are really untouched back there and there are some really nice formations. How many have seen both sides of the sidemount line connecting Waterhole and the Peanut tunnel? I get a lot of questions from people such as “where’s that line go?” and if I know I’ll usually tell them or warn them off! But you won’t know unless you go and see for yourself. How many people have jumped off onto the lines off the jump line heading to the Godzilla circuit? There is a lot of pretty cave out there, but unfortunately I see a lot of people swimming right past it.

To improve one’s cave diving skills you have to try and expand your horizons and not get caught in the rut of doing the same dive that you always do, because “it’s really pretty”. Believe me, there is a whole lot of really neat cave diving to be done, so next time you swim past a jump and think, “Hmm, I wonder where that line goes?” pull out a spool or reel and go have a look see! Please make sure you leave yourself an out though, just in case it turns out to be a “tightie” or something along those lines. By learning the cave slowly and on a progressive basis, you’ll acquire a mental map of the system in your head. The nice thing about this is you’ll know roughly where you’re at all times and your stress level will be much less if something unforeseen occurs……

As we all know cave diving is a mental sport and the better your head is, the better your dive will be. Stay away from “trust-me” dives (unless line protocols etc are followed) and don’t let others push you beyond what you’re comfortable doing. The caves aren’t going anywhere and there will always be another day to come back and push it a little bit further.

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, and please have fun out there, as always tempering that with safety. Go ahead and try some new passage, just please be sure to use baby steps and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Summertime Blues – NACD Journal 2nd Quarter, 2007

No problem, Mon! It’s amazing what a couple of weeks away will do for one’s mental well being, and especially getting in some cave diving as an added bonus. The simplicity of the Bahamas makes them an easy place to relax and unwind, a great place just to cave dive and chill out.

This seems to be the norm in my cave diving these days, just trying to stay chilled and enjoy the diving. As the hot season in Florida is starting, I’ve decided to back off the teaching for the summer months just so I can go out and get some play time, ‘cause as the T shirt says “so many caves, so little time….” Besides, I still crave summer vacation as mush as the next person.

I think that all of us unconsciously look forward to summer time. It’s probably a throw back to when were kids and the school year seemed to be so long. I remember being let out of school on the last day of the year and the summer ahead just seemed so endless, not a whiff of school anywhere! Well nothing changes, at least here on my end of things. The cave diving in the summer always seems to be so much fun, the sites aren’t as crowded, the days are long and the surface intervals seem to stretch on forever. Most of the state parks are open later and grabbing a couple of sets of doubles and heading out to your favorite cave site makes for a nice long easy day, I tend to bring my wife and little girl along for the days during the summer as there is plenty of sun to be had, and lots of enjoyment to be had both in and out of the water.

It’s funny how things tend to work as you get more laid back (or as my wife would say “you get older!”). Back when I first got into cave diving, every chance I had I’d be in the water at first light trying to get as many dives in as possible during the day, now I find myself sleeping in a little bit, and doing either one long dive or maybe two if I’m feeling really adventurous!

I think a lot of this is due to the progression we have made during our time that we’ve been cave diving. Our skills get better, we penetrate further leading to more of a decompression obligation, with experience our SAC rate is dropping giving us more time to play, plus we are becoming much more attuned to our surroundings thereby enjoying our dives more than ever before.

I actually made a dive at Devil’s early this morning and didn’t see a soul! It was very different to be in there after spending the previous couple of weeks in some very pristine, but technically challenging cave passage and I really appreciated the chance to ease off the mental grip a bit and relax. Spending a couple of weeks back in the islands made me appreciate how lucky we have it here, plenty of wide open cave, smaller, more technical passages upon demand, the availability of Trimix, Nitrox and deco gasses at high pressures, the comfort of having picnic benches to set up gear on and being able to walk up and down steps into the water. I can tell you I would not have wanted to haul my scooter out to the cave system we were in last week!

While it was a mini piece of heaven out in the tropics and my first experience with a vadose cave system, it was really good to get back to North Florida and get into my “home” system. I hadn’t dived there in over two weeks which seemed like a really long time and it was great to see old familiar landmarks and of course enjoy the crystal clear clarity of the water. Another nice bonus was to be able to drink the water while diving, a mistake I only made once in the Old Freetown system!

It was just a nice easy dive, kind of a scooter around, check out various passages, maybe take a swim or two, but I found myself really into things within the overhead, noticing subtleties in the cave that I hadn’t noticed before. I had a sense of peace within me that was really comforting and I found myself not wanting to exit! Ah, but all good things must come to an end, so I finally headed out and luckily it was still early enough that the Ear was clear of swimmers and tubers so I had a long, relaxing deco thinking of the day to come.

The summer’s that time of year when you invite your good friends down to go cave diving and get out and reacquaint yourselves with some of the lesser known systems. We’ve had no rain lately, and while we do need it, take advantage of the dry spell, Emerald’s looking fantastic, Jackson’s open year round, the river caves are clear, flow seems to be down just about everywhere so there really are no excuses! The opportunity to spend quality time in the water as the days grow longer and the chance to catch up with people over a cold beverage should not be passed up lightly……

Well, as usual, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, and please have fun and make smart decisions in the overhead. While it may be getting really hot out, this is the time to go cave diving and escape those sweltering summer days. Pack a picnic, have some fun and relax with good buddies. As always try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Cave Diving Certifications – NACD Journal 1st Quarter, 2007

There are various reasons why I cave dive, but cave diving in itself has always been a challenge to me, in so much as one must always be trying to better oneself. There are a number of ways to do this, we can be mentored by others or simply strive to dive with more experienced people in a less formal mentoring process. Another option is to go the route of continuing education such as taking a scooter class where we will learn towing strategies, out of air scenarios and gas planning or a mixed gas class where we will learn how to plan our dives better, pick up our stages with less fuss. The list is endless, but we should always be trying to improve our techniques.

Some friends and I have been talking about the recent cave diving phenomenon for lack of a better word, where cave diving classes are being discussed on recreational diving boards and it seems to be the new cool thing to do. Comments such as, “I’m going to get my cave certification next month” from someone who’s never even seen a set of doubles are proliferating more and more throughout the recreational community.

Of course, I see both some good trends and bad trends coming out of this. On one hand, some of the entry level students I’m seeing have received excellent mentoring from friends who are already in cave programs, and are well versed in what is to be expected from them in a Cavern/Intro class. On the other hand, I’m also seeing people who are woefully unprepared, have no basic buoyancy skills, are a threat to both themselves and others, but at least they end up understanding why they are being failed and will not be allowed to continue on with an Intro class. As a cave instructor, while I think that a Cavern course should be something that should be taken by everyone (especially if they live in an area with a lot of caves) in no way or form do I encourage people to take any form of training beyond a Cavern class. It is unethical, cave diving is not for everybody and part of my job is to discourage those who I feel are not cut out for this type of diving.

As cave divers, we have a responsibility to the community and that is not to promote or encourage people to cave dive. We can see the signs everywhere of bad buoyancy control, the inability to run a line into the cave, the proliferation of new cave divers thumping their proverbial chests and buying equipment that far exceeds their capabilities and as a result the community and the caves as a whole are suffering.

As one of the Regional Safety Officers for the NACD, I was talking to a college dive club last night about the differences between open water diving and cave diving. Of course, this was a local college in cave country and some of the members are already cave divers and others are going through training. As educated individuals they realize the dangers involved with it and the difference between recreational diving and cave diving. I just wish more people would realize that there is a world of difference between a recreational cavern dive and even a basic Intro level cave dive. We leave behind the comfort of the sunlight and head on back into the black arteries underneath the earth!

We have warning signs installed at cave entrances warning open water divers to stay out but on the flip side, at times it seems that we are encouraging these same divers to get cave certified. The other night, some friends and I moved the gold line off the floor at Devil’s and put it back on the right wall, where it has traditionally been since it was pulled out from the Lips/Keyhole area. Why did we do this? Here are some of the reasons why…..

The main and overriding concern was that of safety. If an open water diver enters the Ear and sees the sign, then they will also see the gold line attached to it. In my opinion, this encourages them to penetrate further into the overhead and with the line up on the right wall it will not be noticed by the average open water diver.

Another reason is that we’ve seen far too many students doing lights out air shares down the gold line and as they feel their way around a placement simply drop to their knees or in the worst cases simply crawl along the floor! The placement of the line on the wall means that students will have to maintain control of their buoyancy while following the line in the dark. It will also test diver’s abilities to run a line, as they will now have to use a tie-off or run the line under a rock to come up the wall and then tie in to the gold line while hovering in mid water. Two days after we did this, I mentioned to another cave instructor about what we’d done and he laughed and said, “Thanks for doing that, I’ve spent too much time lifting people’s knees up off the floor as they’re tying into the line!” Something else to consider is that the best path down the Gallery while entering is up high and it has been pointed out to me by a couple of cave instructors that a lot of times, students do not like to be that far away from the gold line so they end up using a less optimum path of travel.

I realize that a few reading this will think I’m being an elitist, but is there really anything wrong with raising the proverbial bar a bit? Do we want divers who have no buoyancy control in our caves? I like swimming through clear water myself, not a haze that’s been stirred up by someone who doesn’t know the difference between a flutter kick and a modified shuffle or frog kick! I just wish people would slow down a little bit, believe me I understand that this is partly a product of our society, as everything is available almost instantly but cave training should be a journey, not a destination. It should never end with a Full Cave card, that is really when you start to learn about cave diving! I liken it to when you first get your driver’s license and have your hands at “ten to two” on the steering wheel, you’re constantly checking your mirrors, and as you do it more and more often, your awareness of surrounding traffic patterns heightens. As someone said a while back “five seconds ago, you weren’t in trouble!”

Well, as usual, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, and please have fun and make good decisions out there. Please don’t encourage people to cave dive, it should be a personal decision made by someone for themselves as things can go south very quickly for the mentally unprepared. As always try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Common Courtesy – NACD Journal 4th Quarter, 2006

Ah, it’s one of those wonderful, cold crisp Florida mornings, and you’ve been anticipating this dive for a while. After getting geared up and heading down to the water, you’re finally at the cave entrance. Wow, look at all those reels!! You finally figure out where you’re going to lay your primary, and now you’re heading into the cave looking for an appropriate secondary tie-off, using placements to keep your line low. It seems like everywhere you’ve used before is already taken so you decide to run your line a little further in…..ah, there’s a great little nub, so you use that and head towards the main line to tie in. You’re going to have to cross somebody else’s line and you think back to cave class, hmm was that over or under the line? Hopefully you’ll remember your line protocols and realize that you take your line under some one else’s and your body over it. This time of year, there tends to be a larger than normal amount of cave diver traffic, forcing meetings at the entrance, other times in restricted passages so I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some stuff that we don’t always seem or want to remember, common courtesy.

I’m hovering in the dark watching a student do a lost line drill as part of a Full Cave class, when suddenly we’re overrun by lights. I’m immediately blinded as I turn around to see what’s going on. We’re over to the right of a big room, and the divers pass within a couple of feet of us, shining their lights on us the whole time. Next day, we’re at a different cave system, completing another skill set and as we were passed by other divers, lights were shielded and care was taken to stay away from us. Who was right here, who was wrong? Well, I don’t think anybody was wrong, but when the caves are busy with diver traffic, it can make one’s cave diving experience a whole lot better when teams are courteous to each other.

Believe me, I can relate to the diver who gets frustrated while waiting for five or six people to exit the Eye, divers getting annoyed by the amount of people they see in the system, but we have to realize that our beloved sport is becoming more popular day by day.  I don’t really have any solutions for you, but I can suggest to you that you use this excess traffic to your advantage! Instead of just waiting for teams to exit while holding yourself on a log, practice your hovering skills, back kick or helicopter turn. Try running your reel different ways from where you have before, you’ll be amazed at the amount of tie offs, little nubs of rock available to use that you’ve never noticed.

If you are one of the first in the system, run your reel knowing that others will be coming behind you, and give them room to work. Take pride in the way you run your line and use it as an example to other cave divers as to how they should run their reel. Become an original thinker, try to get in the habit of never using the same tie offs; it will improve your cave diving skills and also help you the first time you enter a new system. Don’t be afraid to swim into the cave a little bit before tying off to the mainline, and try to avoid high tie offs whenever possible.

While in the cave, if you don’t want to see other divers, try exploring passages that you haven’t been in before, making sure you temper that with safety, conservation and mature judgement. Go and visit one of the less popular caves and take your time exploring new passages and “learning the cave”. The sign of a knowledgeable cave diver is one who does not need to rely on the lines to exit, but has a feel for the cave, where the most effective path of travel is, the ability to anticipate buoyancy changes before they occur, passages to avoid when diving with newer divers and that sort of thing. Another option is to improve your skills, take a sidemount class which will open up new cave, or enroll in a trimix course so you can explore some of the less traveled deeper stuff.

Cave diving is a team sport and part of that is being courteous when you see others in the cave, giving exiting teams the right of way, as well as pointing your lights down when passing other divers. People in the dark with shielded lights usually mean there’s some kind of class drill going on and flashing a quick okay if in doubt is usually a better idea than bathing them in your megawatt HID! This is a very popular time of year for people to learn cave diving and also to participate in it, as those of you who have been out diving the last couple of months can attest to! Some of these people have never been diving in our caves before, so offer advice on choice of sites or passages, be friendly and open to other opinions and just because some of us get to dive the caves on a regular basis, remember that there are plenty out there who do not.

At this time of year there are usually a lot of cave divers here in North Florida from out of state and out of the country, and part of being a cave diver is taking the time to be an ambassador for our sport and lifestyle. These people have generally devoted a great deal of time and effort to make this cave diving trip and the least we can do is be polite, friendly and help them integrate into cave country culture for the short time that they are here.

When I’m out cave diving with friends, or for that matter teaching students, I’m always talking to people, and if possible I’ll try to find out where they have are planning on diving within the cave system and modify our plans accordingly. This eases the pressure on some of the more popular passages and allows various teams to dive within the system while never running into each other. Another thing that can help is staggering starting times, so we don’t have multiple teams trying to enter at the same time.

There is still so much beautiful passage out there that’s not to far away from the mainline in the more popular systems, so why not take some extra time and look for some of the more obscure passages you’ve maybe heard about or seen on the latest map. There are plenty of them if you slow down to take a look, and don’t get caught up in the whole “how far can I get into the system” syndrome!

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, and please have fun out there. When you see other cave divers at the various parks and sites around cave country, please try and be polite and courteous. Remember that they are there for the same reason as us; to enjoy the experience of swimming through these wondrous underwater halls of geological time. As always try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Reasons Why – NACD Journal 3rd Quarter, 2006

After tying into the gold line and rising up to the top of the passage, I gently start to work my way down the Gallery at a nice relaxing pace. I’m trying out some new LP 85 tanks and the difference between diving them and my normal 108’s is startling to stay the least, much less drag through the water and I feel much more “maneuverable”! I settle into my normal comfortable rhythm and start to relax. It’s my first “fun” dive in a while as I’d been busy teaching and guiding on my days off from the regular job. I almost can’t describe how nice it is to finally be able to unwind, and get back to what I absolutely love doing, swimming silently through these wondrous underwater halls and letting my mind drift. A lot has been on my mind lately, my wife and I have a wonderful baby girl, so I’ve been trying to spend as much time with her as possible. A recent promotion at work has kept me really busy, stocking inventory, networking, putting together orders and staying late to get the business to where I’d like it to be and this was really the first chance I’d had to just get away from it all and lose myself (not literally!) in my favorite underwater maze.

I notice my planned jump approaching, so I grab a spool and “connect the dots”. Swimming up the passageway and peering into nooks and crannies, it feels like the cool flow is washing away all my worries, so I grab another couple of spools, put in a couple of jumps and head into a lower, siltier section. Unclipping my SPG, I give it a quick glance, seems like I’m hardly breathing so just as a precaution I reach up and check my left post, nope the post’s on, cool, I’m in “the zone”. It’s so peaceful down here, there were no cars in either parking lot when I showed up, and so I know it’s just the cave and me down here in this ethereal world of beauty.

I head off onto another jump line, marveling at some of the really pretty rock formations and the noticeable lack of traffic back here and I approach the T, drop a clothes pin and head down the left branch into some pretty, but tighter tunnel. I’ve been beyond here, but I don’t have the appropriate configuration to continue so I flip around and head back the way I came. Ah, life is good, I’m swimming back through clear water to collect one of my jump reels and we’re back at the secondary line. Hanging a left, I continue on in without a care in the world. I’ve been here many times and the buoyancy adjustments are almost automatic at this point.

The passage opens up into a big room and while there’s a jump to my left, due to gas considerations I decide just to continue on around the circuit. Looking to the side, the deep layers of undisturbed silt beckon enticingly, it’s obvious no one’s been swimming in that direction recently. The cave passage makes a quick zigzag and once again another tempting jump line appears on my right. Ah, the beauty of this sport overwhelms me, I know I’ll be back here again tomorrow night with some extra gas and plenty of new passage to play in. The ability to explore an alien environment that few on earth will ever see and understand, let alone being able to frolic in the veins of the earth, is what draws me back here night after night.

Approaching a right angle turn in the line, I start grinning through my regulator as I’m reminded of an old Scubapro poster sitting in my office that’s been with me since 1993. It says “Down here there are no stop lights. No junk mail. No TV game shows or shopping malls. There are no screaming bosses or billboards or telemarketers. Knowing this to be true, what are you still doing up there?” Of course, it’s a little outdated these days but the principle still applies. As a friend of mine puts on his signature at The Deco Stop, “diving is better than talking about diving”. With the furor lately that’s been circulating around the cave community, the internet boards and the local dive shops about various issues such as diving doubles at the Intro level, cave conservation and student divers, down here four atmospheres below the topside antics, none of it seems to matter one bit.

I really hope that those of you reading this still remember how fun this stuff really is and why it is that we do it. It’s not about who’s been the furthest, who’s got the brightest light or the fastest scooter, which is the “best” gear configuration, but rather about the need for isolation, peace and quiet that we cannot seem to approach in the crazy world above the water. Cave diving is a way to escape from the stresses and concerns of daily life, an uncompromising and immediate environment insulated from the needs of tomorrow and the concerns of yesterday. Think of all the other reasons why we all enjoy our shared passion so much, the constant fiddling with gear, comradeship, spending time with close friends in a common activity while sharing stories and events, trying to do things just a little bit better and every day finding something new, another reason to indulge in a sport that we’re so devoted to anyways.

In closing, I would like to dedicate this article to a good friend of mine that lives in Gainesville who, when I first moved to cave country, was instrumental in developing me mentally as a cave diver and was nice enough to take me under his wing and show me the ropes. He’s been having a rough time of things lately with a reoccurrence of an illness and I wanted to wish him and his long time girlfriend all the best for a speedy recovery. His words (and posts!) are what has inspired a lot of the thoughts within this article and also the way I approach cave diving in general.

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, and please have fun out there. Remember, that it’ll only be as much fun as you make it! As always try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.