Education, Enjoyment and Exploration…


The Internet – NACD Journal 2nd Quarter, 2006

So here you are, a somewhat accomplished open water or even a fledgling technical diver, gazing down into the ominous opening of The Ear, looking into the maw of the Devil’s Cave System, about to enter an environment you’ve heard about from friends, maybe read about on the Internet and all of a sudden, a moment of self-doubt hits, a gut reaction that screams “No Way”. Finally, purpose calmly sets in and all the memory from your cavern course comes flooding back, “Ok, that’s where I’ll make my primary tie-off”……

The flow kicking out of the hole is tremendous, you manage to place your loop around an outcropping, give it a couple of security wraps and pull on into the system. Once you’re in and finally out of the flow you make your secondary tie-off, verifying it with your teammates, angle the line using placements to your advantage and finally you are at the “gold” line. You tie into the mainline, again verifying the transition with your teammates, get up high out of the flow and finally settle down taking some time to look around this gorgeous system.

This is kind of how I felt when I first went through the Cavern/Intro program in 1994. I had an experienced cave instructor who warned me about the perils of flow and all the fun stuff that goes along with it. Of course, needless to say his advice worked for me going in, but the exit was a completely different matter as I remember getting flipped upside down and wedged, and to this day I vividly remember the instructor laughing through his regulator!!

It seems that things have changed a lot these days, people seem to already know how to do everything and classes are perceived to be “something I have to do to get the card”. I see divers with a Full Cave certification bitching about the fact that they’re not allowed to scooter without a specialty card, or Intro to Cave divers whining about the fact that they’re not allowed to do jumps. I asked a newer diver the other day why he wished to purchase a scooter, and was told that he needed to get to the Hinkel. I then asked him why he needed to, and if it was so important why didn’t he just swim it? His reply was that all of his friends were going there and he felt left out. What I try to do in situations such as this, is explain that there are plenty of very pretty tunnels that are within swimming distance, you just have to find them or have a mentor show them to you. Unfortunately these days, everybody seems to be on the fast track and instead of slowly building up experience, just wants to get a scooter and blow by the closer parts of the cave.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a student that had his harness and regs configured in a certain manner, when I asked him why he had it configured so, I was informed that he was told to do it this way on the Internet. My next question was why did he think he should do it this way and he had no clue. Fortunately, I was able to explain to the individual concerned that this might not be the best manner for him to configure his gear, explained my thoughts on the matter and the various reasons behind my thinking and he ended up taking my advice. However, this seems to be the exception rather than the normal state of events. My wife has recently been babysitting a three year old, and whenever she asks him anything, he asks “Why?” Is there a reason that he is comfortable asking that and we are not? It seems like the older we get, the more we accept, and are less inclined to ask “Why”, which in my opinion leads us down a very dangerous path, that of accepting without rationalization.

Frankly, I think the internet is killing us as a community! Everybody posts from afar, you never know who is actually posting as people hide behind their “handles” so a lot of the technical discussions actually end up being soap boxes for people to blather on about their various agendas. I was just this afternoon, speaking to a very accomplished technical diver, who’s looking forward to being one of the first on the Oriskany when it goes down and we were ruminating on the fact that no one wants to dive any more, they’d rather talk about it on “the net”. While this is obviously not true in all cases, I definitely don’t see much good coming out of the Internet these days. It didn’t use to be like this, in the early days of TDS and CDF there was a lot of very valuable information being passed around, but then we start hearing from people who two months after they’ve been asking about a cavern class, are telling people how to cave dive! Ah well, another example of the progress of civilization at it’s finest….

The other day I remember reading a post from a gentleman who had a “discretionary apprentice” and wanted to know how to do decompression, conveniently ignoring the fact that it says on his discretionary card “No decompression diving”. Would you want to learn about deco on the internet? Maybe take Joe Blows advice, who has 1000’s of posts, but no actual decompression dives? Or how about the nameless soul who posted that “my cave instructor told me that every time I pass a line arrow that doesn’t point to my exit I should drop a conflicting line arrow next to it”….HUH? I have yet to find a cave instructor that is teaching this and I’m extremely doubtful that I will !

It’s all really about perspective and while this is obviously not directed at the more experienced cave divers among us, it is directed to the newer cave divers, who fortunately for them have not had the equipment failures and the “Come to Jesus” dives that those of us who have been cave diving for a while are familiar with.

Please do not try to learn how to dive off of the internet! While the technical forums are very good reference points, they should be treated as such and not as a place to learn to dive. Just my opinion, but there is no substitute in sitting down and talking in person with an accomplished technical and/or cave diver, when they can actually show you or talk about real life examples, rather than reading the innuendo and hearsay that seems to be a daily part of the internet boards.

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please take the time to sift through the information that you find out there in cyberland, and if in doubt, talk to an instructor or an experienced diver. 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.

Having Fun – NACD Journal 1st Quarter, 2006

An interesting thing happened to me the other night, I was scootering into the Ear after work and noticed that a line had been tied off on the log, run down to the right hand side, where a secondary tie off had been made, still in open water, and then immediately run left, in essence cutting off the entrance twice. I could see lights, so I hung out for about five minutes waiting for the divers to exit. Finally I decided to enter and after I’d dropped off my O2 bottle in the alcove to the left I saw three people milling around. Upon exiting the cave later I approached them and asked them if they’d had a good dive. After chatting with them for a while and joking around, I mentioned that they might want to make their primary tie off a little lower, keep their line out of the entrance etc. We ended up parting on great terms and they thanked me for the advice.

We all have the ability to excel as cave divers, but we must be honest with ourselves and others and never forget that it’s our responsibility to be ambassadors for our sport. Unfortunately, a scene I see played out all too often these days, are cave divers yelling at other divers (open water, technical or cave) for whatever reason, instead of taking the time to be tactful and offer helpful advice. We must remember that everyone has received different training at different times and they may not realize that what may have been “kosher” back in the 80’s or 90’s may not be the most effective application today.

I wrote an essay about a year and a half ago about people taking cave diving too seriously and posted it on an online “tech diving” forum. It was very interesting reading some of the responses, and hearing viewpoints from other people. If you can excuse me, here’s a little excerpt from that essay….

”Do I take cave diving seriously? Hell no!! Do I practice it in a serious manner? Hell yes!! Having done a couple of hundred cave dives since moving down here, it’s my not so humble opinion that people take cave diving way too seriously, and forget how kick ass it is. The best cave diver in the world is the one that’s having the most fun…period! How you find your fun, be it laying line, pushing “doable” holes, leisurely swimming, scootering big passage or pushing a no viz sidemount tunnel “heck yeah, ’cause I’m going to break out into some passage” is entirely up to you, but make sure you’re having a good time doing it!!  While we spend our days arguing about gear configuration, agencies, what brand to use, how to route your hoses, are you DIR or not etc the fact is that we have the underwater equivalent of Nirvana in our back yards…..yes, no matter what agency you’re certified by, I know that we’ve all felt that same awe and reverence swimming through these cathedrals…….or rabbit holes”

Let me take you back, do you remember the first time you looked into an underwater cave or cavern. I’d imagine that at the time you were probably humbled by the experience, I know I was!! So what happened to that feeling, do you still have it? Are you still trying to be the best you can be? Please try to remember that others are also, so don’t snap at some one because you’re having a bad day. We need to pull together as a community, not let egos, money or disagreements get in the way of that, and we have the responsibility to try and pass on what we’ve learned to others.

Diving with the same set of people day in and day out can be a wonder unto itself, but if you try and dive with a wide range of people you’ll end up broadening your mind, due simply to the major varieties of diving style and equipment configuration. Because of the work I do, I end up diving with a ton of different people and seeing all sorts of different styles and very unique configurations. I try and approach everything with an open mind, and not judge diving skill by how someone is configured! Unfortunately it’s a reflection of the changing society that we’re living in, that it’s considered okay to put down other people as a way of building oneself up. A sad statement, but very true! Anyways, as usual I digress…..

What I’m trying to say here relates back to the opening paragraph, we should really try as a community to not take potshots at each other, but attempt to approach people in a constructive manner, as they may not know any better. A friend of mine, who’s also a cave instructor is very fond of saying “You can’t teach people what they don’t know!” On an even more disturbing note, it also doesn’t seem to be confined to other cave divers. Lately, I’ve seen cave divers being very intolerant of other people whether it’s tubers taking up spots on the steps at Devil’s, locals jumping from the overhang at Little River or sunbathers at Madison. We must remember that these people have just as much right as us, if not more, to be there. All it takes is the wrong comment to the wrong person at the wrong time and we could end up having a site closed due to the stupidity of one arrogant jackass.

I would also like to congratulate some of the newer cave divers out there who at least in my opinion seem to be very aware of conservation practices. That reflects well on the whole cave community, as well as the instructors who are currently out there teaching. It brought a huge grin to my face to hear a neophyte cave diver apologizing to his buddy for “touching” one time and just the other night I smiled into my reg when I was exiting the Eye with some friends and had some obviously newer cave divers beckoning me on to exit. We can make a difference, and just because others choose not to, don’t compromise your principles and beliefs.

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please take the time to refine your skills, don’t push too hard and try to treat others as you would want to be treated. We all know the golden rule of cave diving, but how many practice the golden rule of life, do unto others… 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.

Perception of Experience – NACD Journal 4th Quarter, 2005

A few weeks back, we were swimming in a narrow, low tunnel way back in a system, just having jumped into a very tight passage. I’m enjoying the remoteness of it; the rusty black colored goethite coating the walls and ceiling, the beauty of the silt smothered rocks off to the side in tiny domes, the ripples in the clay, when suddenly we turn a corner and come across a very nasty little restriction. It happens to be our first time here and of course, the line’s running straight along the ceiling, meaning the danger of entangling my manifold is very real. I’m probably also going to “wedge out” proceeding through, but things are progressing well on the dive. We make a quick pressure check and everything looks good, so we make the conscious decision to push into it. Al, being the skinny one, is out in front and makes it through just about cleanly. For a second I stop, pinned, enclosed on all four sides, give a desperate wiggle, then I’m through and the thought creeps into my head “Should I be back here?” It was just a brief moment in time, then I got back into my usual mind set, but I remember it quite distinctly.

One of the things I find myself learning is that every once in a while you have to step back, evaluate your skills and ask yourself if you’re progressing. Dare I ask if you’re getting complacent? Are you content with your cave diving skills? When I mention progressing, I’m not talking about diving new tunnels or systems; we are all well aware how awesome that can be! What I mean is, are your buoyancy skills improving? Is your SAC rate dropping? Is the overall enjoyment you’re getting from your cave diving on the increase? If you’ve reached a certain level, why remain there? Take the time to challenge yourself to be better! These days, I find myself doing back gas swims to places I only used to be able to stage to, tunnels I used to have difficulty with are now swam without a second thought. On the other hand, you have to balance this desire to improve with a sensible mind set. You want to make sure that you’re not pushing things too fast, or diving over your head.

Unfortunately, for all the training that we receive and all the classes available for continuing education there is no substitute for experience.  For the newer cave divers among us, it’s a very common thought that having your Full Cave certification makes you a cave diver. To the more experienced among us, this is somewhat silly. I know, I know, you worked hard for that cave certification. Everyone in our little community has been where you’re at, experienced the frustrations of class, felt that moment of bliss when you finally earned your cave card. But you can also look at it another way. A cave instructor has basically told you only this, that in their opinion you are able to penetrate into the underwater cave environment using at most, a third of your available gas, and survive the experience.

Don’t let yourself get talked into dives that you’re not comfortable with. If you think you’re diving above your head, you probably are! Obviously we’re all influenced by others, but when you’re planning a cave dive take a moment to consider that just because you’re comfy with that dive, somebody else maybe not be. Don’t be afraid to dive with diver’s who have less experience than you; it’s a great chance to work on the basics. If you’re an experienced cave diver, remember that you’re an example to the rest of us. One of the most infuriating things, at least in my book, is when I ask people if they’d like to dive with me after work and they reply something along the lines of “Well, are you sure? I don’t want to hold you back”. The sad thing is that it’s not that person’s fault at all, but really the community’s, as we need to be more receptive to diving with people that have lesser skills and experience than us. My answer is usually “Hold me back from what? Having fun? Fat chance!”

Hopefully you’ll come to find out that there can be just as much satisfaction found by laying a good line into Orange Grove, as can be had marveling at the clay banks in the Harper Tunnel, if you take the time to appreciate and take pride in what you’re doing. For me, it’s a great feeling to return to your primary on a busy day in a popular system and still be able to follow the line out, noting that all your placements are still there, your line is taut, hasn’t fallen into any line traps and that if needed, you could easily follow your line out with an encircled thumb and forefinger in zero visibility.

If you’re in the habit of diving with the same group of people, try not to let the same person always lead, run the lines or make the dive plan. Be a leader, not a follower! If you watch the more experienced cave divers among us, you’ll notice their grace in the water, the effortlessness of their movement, the solidarity of their tie offs and security of their guideline. What you won’t see is them pulling and gliding through the Eye at the speed of light, leaving loose line behind them, ignoring placements, all so that they can tie into the guideline as fast as possible to extend their penetration.

I’m lucky enough to be able to dive with a wide range of people, be it exploring the Catacombs with an Intro diver or riding to the Last Room with friends, but the one common denominator is that every dive is only going to be as much fun as you make it. Cave diving should be fun, and what makes it so, at least for me, is the repetition of skills, the satisfaction found in improving one’s buoyancy, the ability to hover effortlessly while laying a jump. A simple pleasure can be found by working on these basic things and trying to become the best cave diver you can be. At what point does a dive stop being fun? Fun, in itself, can mean a lot of different things to people. For some folks it’s squirming through small sumps, for others it’s motoring in big tunnel. I find that if you set out with simple objectives and start taking pleasure in accomplishing the small things well, then you’re heading in the right direction.

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please take the time to refine your skills, don’t push too hard and keep a close eye on your head! 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.

Analyzing and Checking Gases – NACD Journal 3rd Quarter, 2005

You know the feeling of pleasure that comes when you fin over a low silty clay bottom, look back and it’s as clean as a whistle. That moment when everything falls into place during a cave dive, the little inward grin of satisfaction that comes after you lay in that “perfect” jump reel, the post-dive buzz after visiting somewhere you haven’t been before. These, at least to me, are some of the more important of the various reasons that motivate me to cave dive, apart from the fact that it’s just plain fun!

I’ll always remember swimming Peacock 3 for the first time, gliding over the “sand slide restriction”, marveling at the darkness of the walls, the organic growth hanging from the ceiling, jump lines appearing out of nowhere, a dive very different from the clear waters of Ginnie but definitely one of the better dives I’ve done in my short cave diving career. It was awesome to finally take the jump over to Hendley’s Castle and drop down, gently scull through the bedding plane at 130 feet or so. I remember my Nitek He beeping as I crossed over the 1.4 ppO2 threshold so, as my buddy and I had discussed previously, we turned around at the end of the bedding plane and headed back up. The drop after the bedding plane looked incredibly tempting but we didn’t have the mix for it, after all the cave will still be there tomorrow, the next week and long after we have all moved on. A couple of weeks ago I was hovering above and looking into “The Pit” at D2 and literally felt my jaw drop at the clarity of the water. It was an indescribable feeling to be surrounded by such wondrous formations, to be completely overwhelmed by the prettiness of such a cool tunnel dropping out of sight at the very bottom of such a massive cave. We were well above thirds but due to the limitations of our END (Equivalent Narcotic Depth) the guide and I decided (as per our pre dive plan) to leave it for another day. The point here is that while we all work our way up to, and enjoy doing these types of dives, one must always be aware of the limitations of what one is breathing. There is no place for complacency and self satisfaction in cave diving and this is even more pronounced when it comes to our breathing mixes.

Working as a professional gas blender, (okay, okay being a tank monkey!!) I talk to a lot of cave divers with varying skill and experience levels and one of the more common questions I get asked is “What are you blowing today?” Even though I know we have our usual 32% on tap, I always give my standard answer “Oh I don’t know, I guess somewhere between 21% and 40%”. The reason I say this is I want people to check their gas, I see too many people fill out our gas log and “presume” we’re giving them 32%. I’ve also been asked “What’s the MOD (Maximum Operating Depth) of 32%?” One time I told a gentleman “198 feet” and he wrote it down in my log book!! Needless to say we had a little chat about MODs…..

People, I work at the gas station and I always check my Nitrox percentage every time I fill my tanks, whether they’re back gas, stage bottles or deco bottles.  A good cave dive begins with good planning and if you don’t know what’s in your tanks how can you plan your dive? I’ve shown up at a deep site and watched someone swear they had 32% as their deco gas, but after analyzing it, due to some insistence on a friend’s part, it turned out to be 42%! Considering that it’s an accepted practice during decompression to get on our deco gas with our ppO2 at 1.6, if you work through the math, 42% at 130 ft gives one a ppO2 of 2.1! Maybe you’re comfy with that, but I’m definitely not….

Anyways, here’s a quick refresher for those who’ve forgotten…..MOD = ((Desired PPo2/Fo2) – 1) x 34 (or 33 in salt water) as in ((1.4/.32) -1) x 34 = 114. Got it? If not, swing by my shop and I’ll explain it better. While we’re on the subject, we all know cave diving’s an expensive sport, so please take the time to drop the $25 to $1000 that it takes to buy/build your own gas analyzer. This is just my opinion, but if you’re diving nitrox you really should own a nitrox analyzer, and if you’re diving trimix you should invest in a helium analyzer, and the key here is to know how to use and calibrate it. How many people reading this know that if you calibrate your sensor on a hot muggy North Florida summer day (90deg/80%humidity) and are not using an air bottle, you will want to calibrate your O2 to 20.1% instead of 20.9%? I constantly try and explain this to people as they wave our shop analyzer around in the air. Think about this for a moment, would you cave dive without a safety reel? Would you let someone else check your valves in water? Would you want me to tell you what kind of gas you’re diving today? Do you trust the tank monkey with your life?

I don’t mean to go on about this, but it’s very basic stuff that should have been covered in your cave and gas courses. Sure we all get a little bit lazy at times, but knowing your gas percentage and how to analyze it is extremely critical stuff. For example, on a recent dual fatality, the divers involved had an END of over 150 ft, which had to only compound whatever problems they were already trying to deal with. Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please make sure you know what gas you’re diving and hopefully I won’t have to keep re-calibrating our shop analyzer all the time!! Anyways, 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.

Conservation and Exploration – NACD Journal 2nd Quarter, 2005

I’d just finished up on one of my regular work days filling tanks, selling equipment, helping people with their gear and chatting about diving, and as usual was heading off cave diving to relax and unwind. It happened to be one of those perfect North Florida evenings, the river flowing gently by, the sun heading down for the night, the weather was just plain comfortable and they’re weren’t even any mosquitoes around! After saying “Hi” to the usual suspects, I started to gear up, threw my stage and O2 bottles in the water and then walked back up to the ambulance to grab my scooter. Slipping into the water, I pulled my mask down and let the cool 72 degree water wash away my troubles. Scootering down the run, the usual sense of calm descended over me, and I barrel rolled down into the cave, dropped my O2 at the sign, locked in the cruise control and headed into the system.

It’s a great time of day to be diving, most of the daytime divers have already left, the night guys aren’t here yet and of course the water’s crystal clear. Usually I just go with the flow, so it’s definitely going to be a different evening for me, as I actually have a specific destination in mind…tonight I’m going to check out one of the more pristine rooms I’ve found, since I know that some divers had been digging around back there, but no worries ‘cause I’m thinking to myself how bad could it be? I reach my distance, make the jump, hang the SS on the jump line to keep it off the floor and start off on a peaceful swim. I reach somewhere near the midpoint of the line and make another jump and almost spit out my regulator in disbelief…..I’ve been here quite a few times before and I’m expecting to see a really pretty little room with a PVC stake in the middle of the floor that is usually covered with lots of bacterial growth (or “orange snot” to the locals!) but instead I’m greeted by huge gashes in the floor and walls, destroyed clay banks, some scattered, very sparse remnants of bacterial growth, chipped rocks and a general feeling of mayhem and destruction. How could this have happened?

In these government-controlled regulatory times, one of the more peaceful places I like to escape to is some of the more “off the beaten track” rooms and tunnels in one of my favorite underwater caves. As someone who dives the caves daily, I see more of the signs of divers’ presence in our underwater churches than maybe most, the occasional new markings in the soft floor, brilliant white rock chips laying around that weren’t there a week ago and that sort of thing, but on a general basis it’s within the first 1500ft of cave. To reach the previously mentioned room, one must scooter back 1900 ft, jump off the mainline, swim up a line and take a jump, in other words a dive that is not within the scope of your average “recreational” cave diver.

This of course brings us to the question of who would do something like this, and while I do know the people involved, that’s outside the scope of this article. What I do know is that these experienced cave divers were back there digging out a beautiful, pristine room thinking they’d found “going tunnel” and in doing so lowered the visibility dramatically in the front half of a very popular system on a weekend, as well as destroying one of the more beautiful rooms in the system!! The real tragedy here is unfortunately after it had all been done, the “lead” was discovered to be false! It’s not my place to judge as the parties involved have far more experience than I do, but it does bring up a number of questions in my mind such as…When is it okay to dig? Is it ever? Should you consult with others?  As this was in a “public” cave, is it okay to do what you want?

All I know is how I felt when I saw that room. I almost wanted to cry, and I remember being overwhelmed by a feeling of despair that something so pretty could have been abused like that, which slowly turned into a feeling of anger, quietly seeping into rage. Thinking about it later, I also find it disheartening that one of the more untouched rooms in the system has been ruined for others to enjoy in the future. We’ve had incidents of vandalism over the years, and while I understand that there may have been a lead, the after effects were the same as that of deliberate vandalism. I hope that reading about this gets to you as much as it got to me, and hopefully people will realize that it is up to each individual cave diver to make a responsible decision about how their actions within a system will affect it and also other divers.

It is one thing to complain about something, but something entirely different to act upon it. We were all taught about cave conservation in class, but too many times I’ve seen stages sitting on a soft, silty floor, empty stages clipped off on a waist ring and left to hang straight up banging into the cave ceiling, scooter shroud imprints in the clay, people breaking off rocks while pulling and gliding or just plowing through passages they could easily do cleanly if they’d just taken the time to work on their technique. So please, next time you’re out cave diving, take a moment to place your stages properly, take the time to hang your scooter where is does not impact the cave and most importantly, realize that everything you do in the cave has an impact on others and the cave environment itself. Remember that what you might enjoy doing for whatever reason could just be what others might consider to be environmental cave terrorism.

In conclusion, thank you for taking the time to read this and hopefully if you see things like this occurring, you’ll take a moment to chat with the people involved. I doubt too many people reading this would walk into a church and spit on the floor or carve their name in the walls!! Please be aware that you don’t have to be abrasive about it, a lot of times people are just not aware of their actions, they don’t realize that it’s not okay to leave your scooter lying on a rock or the floor when there’s an option of hanging it on a line, simply because they’ve seen other cave divers doing it and have assumed that it’s kosher. Anyways, 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.