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Mainland – 4/19/11

It all started when my friend, Henry posted on my Facebook wall that he was coming into town for a couple of days and did I know if anyone was available to dive? Henry’s a former student of mine so I was trying to rack my brain and then it clicks, wait a minute I have Wednesday off! I knew that he’d been playing a bit with his Gavin in the caves, but it’s more suited to the ocean, since it’s a short body, so I asked him if he wanted to use one of my UV-26’s instead. Of course unbeknownst to him, I don’t let people use my scooters (at least for no charge) without me coming along, so when he said he’d love to, I went ahead and gave him the bad news…. 🙂

I dropped Kaley off at O2B Kids early in the morning, then went and grabbed scooters and stages from my shed and threw them into the Green Machine. Quite loaded down, I made the ten minute trek to Cave East to meet Henry and gas up etc. We were discussing a dive plan and since Henry’s already mix certified and is used to handling bottles, I suggested a double stage scooter to Mainland with the caveat that if it was too big of a leap for him, then we could do something else. You should have seen his eyes light up!

A few minutes later we’re throwing scooters and bottles into the water at Devil’s and looking at Jeff’s wonderful map of the system, thanks Hancock, you rock! We decided our basic plan will be to motor to Stage Bottle Rock about 1800’ or so, drop a stage, get on another one and continue on to the jump to Mainland at 2900’ where we will switch to our back gas and git ‘er done! We discuss various contingencies, such as gas loss, scooter failure, stage drops etc and finally come up with a plan that both of us are more than comfortable with….

Henry, being a good little cave diver, has already laid the perfect line in the Ear the previous day, so we drop into the system and clip our O2 bottles off by our secondary tie-off. We get on stages and hit the trigger as we head on in to the system, as usual I’m amazed by the deco bottles thrown randomly on the floor, but we’re cruising now, so I relax and let the cool flow wash all my worries away…

Haven’t seen anybody and the dive’s going nice and smooth and we see Stage Bottle Rock approaching in the distance. We exchange okays, clip off the scooters and do a nice, efficient stage drop. Like normal, as we pull away and start to head further in, I marvel at how much less drag one stage is. Maybe next time, I’ll just breathe one on the left and butt clip the other(s) which is what I do when I scooter in side mount, I mean what the heck right!

We get to the jump to Mainland and I take out one of those new super sexy Light Monkey mini spools and run the line over to the jump, being careful to keep the line out of way. We clip our Silents off along with our last stage, make a quick no worries check and we’re off…. Mainland’s one of my favorite dives at Devil’s and I’m reveling in the fact that I get to show Henry this kick-ass place. We snake through the belly crawl and I’m busy showing Henry the noticeable jumps and the not so obvious ones! We ascend up into the shallower portion of the tunnel and things open up considerably. I glance back at Henry, no need to see if he’s okay, his light’s playing off the black goethite formations with this kind of awestruck look on his face and I grin to myself, cave diving is just so very cool! We pass the T at 3800’ or so and pretty soon after that we flip around and start our leisurely swim out. As we pass through the lower sections, I’m glad to see that our technique was stellar going in as there’s no silt in the water column and finally we’re up over the last hill and see our scooters and stages.

I pull our jump line, we load up the stages, exchange okays and hit the trigger. This is one of my favorite parts of the dive, putting the hammer down on the scooters with the flow behind us and whewee, the need for speed is satisfied! I must say though that I’ve seriously been eyeing one of those new Magnus scooters that Rod and Suzie recently came out with, now THOSE are fast!! Anyways, enough day dreaming on the scooters, we head up to the Ear, grab the O2 bottles off our primary line and I flip the scooter around and start reeling up. After a half hour or so of defizz time, we’re finally scootering up the run and after shucking bottles, surface by the steps at Little Devils. I look over at Henry and ask “so, waddya think?” He grins back at me and says “THAT was the best cave dive ever” which sums up the day ‘bout perfectly….. 🙂

New Beginnings…

Wow, I can’t believe it’s been a year since I updated my blog/website! My apologies to my friends who’ve kept asking me when I’m going to work on it, but it has been a hectic year to say the least. I’ve had some major lifestyle changes going on, but no worries, I’m still cave diving as much as I can….. 🙂

Couple of great things have happened this past year though, I’ve been having fun with sidemount cave diving and while I’m still doing a lot of back mounting, I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split these days. It’s opened up some really spectacular systems, plus a whole bunch of river caves and the redundancy for solo cave diving is just fantastic. I’ve threw an older pic up on here for y’all to enjoy.

I’d also promised myself that once I had the sidemount cave diving down, I was going to move on and try something new. Well, I finally broke down and bought an ISC Megalodon Rebreather which my friend Ted is attempting to educate me on. Guess I’m a bit of a “nose breather” and apparently my new nickname is “yo-yo”, don’t ask, I think you can get the general picture… 🙂 I must say though, that I love my new toy and can’t wait to start integrating it into my cave diving!

I’ve been teaching an awful lot of classes this past year, but am still happy to say that my fun dives are outnumbering my teaching dives and if this was ever to reverse, I might have to do some serious reevaluation on my lifestyle choices! I’ll be updating this on a much more consistent basis now, I promise, so keep an eye on things and hopefully I can keep y’all amused with some cave diving tales.

I also just found out that I’m now a member of the Hart Springs Diving Advisory Board in Gilchrist County so I’ll be spending a lot of time trying to do more line maintenance down there and making the cave safer for the general public since it’s now open to unguided cave diving! As most of you know, I’m not a huge fan of guided systems, but I suppose it’s better than not being able to dive it at all, and the fact that the Little Hart entrance is now open to the general cave diving population, with the appropriate pre-reqs, is absolutely brilliant! In fact, if anyone ever wants to go diving there, just let me know and I’d be more than happy to accompany you. More info about the park itself can be found here…. http://hartsprings.com/

If anyone ever wants to chat about cave diving in person, you can usually find me at Cave Excursions East in High Springs on the weekends. As for the blog/website I’ll also start putting up some hints and tricks to make your cave diving kick ass, since I’ve had such a good response on the Scooter Rigging 101 article I put up on here last year.

Well, as usual, thanks for taking the time to read my random ramblings, be safe out there when you’re swimming or scootering through our unimaginably beautiful underwater rivers and please, try to keep your fins up, your stress level down and make sure the number of ascents equal the number of descents!

Manatee Springs – 4/20/10

Well here we are at gorgeous Manatee Springs for the last day of my buddy Dave’s scooter class. Allen is also with us, he completed his course last week and is just along for the ride so to speak… 🙂 Dave’s been here many times before, but Allen’s somewhat new to Manatee so on our way to Catfish Hotel, we stop and check out Friedman’s sink, the furthest entrance into the system. There’s a possibility we may come back here on Thursday and scooter, so this is a water level scouting mission also!

We hop in the vehicles and head down to Catfish Hotel. We run into TJ from Dayo Scuba who’s teaching a cavern class, so it looks like we’ll have the cave all to ourselves, sweet! Luckily, two of us have hand carts and yes, the one who forgot would be me. My faithful van died a couple of weeks back, so while it’s getting repaired I’m diving out of my Ford Explorer, which is taking a bit of getting used to! Anyways, the guys are nice enough to let me borrow a cart to haul the UV-26 down to the water and eventually we get all geared up. We covered all the needed drills apart from one yesterday at Devil’s, so today should just be a nice relaxing scooter ride to finish up the class.

Dave’s volunteered; okay read commandeered, to run the reel down to the gold braid, so after our pre dive checks and an S drill we drop down into the cavern area. I’m part of the team today, as I don’t really fancy scootering Manatee in the dark. This is my usual practice at Devil’s, but the ups and downs and dark walls here don’t lend themselves well to scootering by someone else’s light…. J Dave flips the scooter between his legs, the leash is still a tad too long but he’s cradling it nicely, and deftly ties in the primary and heads into the murkiness ahead. A little ways in, he puts in a very professional looking secondary tie off and soon enough ties us into the gold braid. The scooters get unclipped and we are out of here!

Vis is the usual 20’ to 30’ in the cave and the flow is it’s usual resilient self, but we knuckle down and motor off into the depths. Allen’s leading and he settles into a comfortable pace, but my eyes are on Dave just ahead of me who’s trimmed out just above the shroud and looking darn good! I know that he’s being having some ear issues lately and the ups and downs of Manatee are probably not helping any. We go by Sue’s Sink and I glance up, but nothing, the vis just isn’t good today. I’ve gone by here before and the sun has been shining down from a perfect round hole, but no such luck. We negotiate a couple steep up and downs and come across the T that leads up to Friedman’s. We stop and take a moment to admire the beautiful little cavern above us and then we’re back on the trigger and heading into power passage, I keep thinking I’m seeing Dave wince ahead of me and sure enough at one of the low points in the tunnel, he flashes Allen and gives us the hold sign and points to his ears. I feel bad, as we have to go back through all this stuff, and I’ve seen enough so I give him the thumb and back to Catfish we head.

I pull my last remaining drill a couple of hundred feet past Friedman’s on our return, the guys handle things just fine and pretty quickly we’re back at the primary reel. It looks like a placement has come off so I do my best to get entangled in our primary line and Allen gives me that yeah right look, swims over and untangles me staring me down as if to say, hey this isn’t my class!

After a little bit of deco we’re back at the steps, lifting our gear out, quite to the amusement of some tourists whom I believe thought we were quite insane! We take all the gear back to the parking lot, debrief, say “bye” to the rangers after collecting our C cards and head over to the BBQ joint back on the main drag for a late lunch. After reviewing the test, I congratulate Dave, we make plans for some future diving and head on our way after a great day of scooter diving, heads full of that after dive buzz which my friend calls “the mellows”….

Eagles Nest – 4/6/10

I awaken groggily to the sound of the alarm, and roll out of bed soundlessly.  Quickly grabbing a handful of clothes, I check on my daughter, then pad out to the kitchen and blearily brew some coffee. A few minutes later I head outside to the shed, grab some last minute items and soon Allen’s truck pulls onto the property.  We throw some extra water bottles and O2 in the Tacoma and head out to the road. What a gorgeous morning, the sun’s traversing slowly over a clear blue sky and we’re heading south down to Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge for Allen’s first trip to the “Everest” of cave diving, that deep, dark labyrinth known as Eagles Nest.

After a couple of hours of serious hydration and a few rest stops we finally pull into the hunting camp, throw our cash in the iron ranger and begin the half hour drive down some winding dirt roads. Lots of deep ruts and potholes, but it hasn’t rained lately so at least everything’s dry. The scenery changes from scrub dirt and scattered trees to lush ferns forming a canopy over the road, looking remarkably like Costa Rica or Mexico and after a wild drive we pull into the parking lot. Cool, it looks like we have the place to ourselves, even though the sign in sheet says there was a fellow cave diver here much earlier in the day.
Eagles Nest offers the opportunity for some extremely deep cave diving with depths up to 310 feet. There is an excellent description of the site along with maps and other data on my friend Walter’s site and I encourage you to check it out for some great info on this world class cave system.

We’ve decided to dive the Lockwood tunnel today since it’s relatively shallow (225’) compared to the rest of the system. We start gearing up, taking deco bottles and stages to the waters edge and I can tell my buddy’s excited! Looking out at the surface pond we try to get an idea of what the vis will be, but as usual there’s no telling what it’s like after dropping through the solution tube.  Sooner rather than later, we’ve got all our bottles on and after some safety checks and drills we drop down into the bowels of the earth. I hang my O2 bottle around 25 ft, watch as Allen does the same and then we start dropping down the tube. My first thought is oh crap, this is terrible vis, but we’re committed now, so I drop down to the 70ft loops where we hang our 50% and spiral down into the all consuming void beneath us. The huge debris mound and sign come into view finally and seriously, this has to be the worst visibility I’ve seen here in years.  Oh well, I head downstream, staying close to the gold braid as I can only see five feet  and keeping a close eye on Allen’s light behind me. It’s a nice, steady beam and I flash him a quick okay to make sure all is good and he returns it. We drop our stages and continue on and it’s such an eerie feeling knowing how big this cave is and how confining the visibility is, trust me this is not the place you want to do a lost line drill! I’m watching the depth drop and finally we hit the jump and bear left into the Lockwood tunnel. I feel bad, ‘cause we can’t see a thing but we’re not at our turn time yet and gas is just fine so on we go, the cave feeling really oppressive. As the line starts to rise, my heart pumps up a beat, is that clear water ahead?

Sure enough a minute later about 400 ft in, we run into sparkling blue water and the visibility goes from 5-10 ft to as far as our lights will shine! I flip around, give Allen the “hell yeah’ sign and he’s hooting and hollering through his reg. Wow, finally we can see how big and cool this cave really is! The difference is amazing and we can get off the line and start poking around. Our HID’s play cool blue light off the massive boulders beneath us  and the immense rock walls to either side, this is what cave diving is all about, to have moments like these that just defy description. I’m on sensory overload, luckily our back gas is good, we have enough deco gas for a small extension of our planned bottom time, so we spend an extra few minutes enjoying the clear water, knowing we’ll have to pay for it on deco. Finally, discipline kicks in and reluctantly we turn and start our exit.

Once again, we’re back in the nothing vis and it still amazes me how benign this cave seems when you have good visibility and how dangerous it seems when you don’t. It’s always a relief to get back to the stages and the mind starts to relax a little bit, even though we have well over an hour of deco ahead of us. Usually exiting the Ballroom is a pleasure but we can’t even see a glow from the surface at 100’. I concentrate on the bottom timer and settle in for a long hang. Our gas switches go smoothly and finally we’re in the surface pool doing the longer stops.

After what seems like the usual eternity, we’re out of the water and blathering on about how cool that was. Allen’s stoked and we make plans to return here, but hopefully not until the visibility improves some! We’re driving home and decide to stop by Birds, unfortunately he’s out of town, but Marty’s there, so we chat and I introduce him to Allen. Of course I pick up one of Bird’s famous UDIE shirts and a little something for Kaley and eventually we’re on the long drive back home. Allen’s driving, we’re both acting a little goofy and I start chuckling inside and thinking, what a crazy bunch we are, spending a couple of hours in the water for maybe 10 minutes of being able to see something special! But then again if it’s what you love to do, maybe it’s not that crazy after all……:-)

If you’d like to see what Eagles Nest looks like when there’s good visibility, my friends Becky and Dave took some great video of the system (including the drive there!) and were kind enough to let me post it here. Please be sure to stop by their website at liquidproductions.com to see some more great cave diving videos.

Cave Diving Eagles Nest Sink Upstream & Downstream HD from Liquid Productions, LLC on Vimeo.

Double Lines – 3/23/10

Sorry for the long hiatus folks, but we’ve had a hectic winter! Finally I have some time to sit down and write about some of the cave diving I’ve been doing…..

The most recent was a couple of days ago with my buddy Allen, a former student who moved here from the West Coast so he could cave dive as much as possible! Say “Hi” if you see him at Cave Excursions East, ’cause everybody needs to be a dive bum at some point in their lives!

Anyways, I digress, so let me get into the fun part! As you can see from the pics it was a gorgeous day at Devil’s Eye, the sun was shining and the water looked gin clear in the run so we were hoping for some good vis in the cave. We haul stages, deco bottles and scooters down to the water, take our time getting everything together and soon enough we’re motoring down the run. I notice with pride that Allen’s trimmed out perfectly, and we head on into the Ear, which has finally cleared of the tannic and into the underground merry go round that’s the Devil’s cave system. Since Allen’s in the process of learning the cave, tonight we’ve decided to take on the Double Lines circuit, a fun swim dive, but heck we got scooters you know what I mean and we’re not averse to doing less deco….

After dropping deco bottles, we exchange nods and head into the labyrinth. Yes, the visibility is almost limitless and we settle down into the flow. After a fun ride on the gold braid, we clip off the scooters, throw in the jump and soon enough we’re motoring up the Hill 400. Vis isn’t great, but Allen and I are crossing beams so we’re lighting things in front of us and on the sides. What the heck? Someone’s laid in a jump to the backside of the Wormhole and clearly forgot about common courtesy. The line cuts off the entire middle of the tunnel and I think to myself, would it have been that hard to hook it low and run the floor? I guess so, since we have to adeptly avoid the entanglement hazard, but no worries, pretty soon we’re at the Syphon jump. After clipping off the scooters and stages, we jump again and here we are, one of my fave tunnels, Double Lines. I’m leading as I want to show Allen various things on the circuit and I drop into the zone where everything seems sharper and more distinct, the tunnel unwinding ahead of me and life is good. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Allen’s light beam playing of the various formations and I grin, ’cause I remember my buddy Gary first taking me around here and I know the feeling very well, it’s all about swimming in our own little private nirvana.

After sharing some of the highlights of the circuit with my buddy and pointing out various jumps etc, we exit on the back side of Double Lines and begin the lazy drift back to scooters and stages. I show him a cool, little local shortcut and then we’re pulling the line and we’re out of there! It’s late and no one’s in the system so we put the hammer down on the SS’s ‘cause we’re feelin’ the need for speed and soon enough we’re decoing out in the cave entrance with big grins on our faces. We head back to the steps by Little Devil’s, clip off the extraneous gear and I pop up and ask “so what d’ya think?” And the babbling and crazy talk that goes on after a kick ass dive continues on for quite a while. Life is good…..

Day on the River – 10/20/09

Jerry showing the two river diving essentials, a shovel and a dry bag!What a beautiful morning! We’ve just recently had a “chilly” spell here in North Florida lately, Jerry and I had talked on the phone yesterday and we were both thinking it might not be a good river diving day, but no worries. The sky was blue, not much wind and the air was a comfortable 70 degrees. As usual, we met at CEE to get fills, had our usual joshing session before heading down to the boat ramp and I managed to talk Jerry into showing the world what the essentials of river diving are! As you can see from the picture, everyone had a cheery kind of autumn glow going on and it just seemed to be one of those awesome dive days. As we pulled out of the shop and headed off, little did we know that the adventures ahead of us that day would be interesting to say the least…..

The hope of things unexplored...Last week on our Rock Bluff outing, Jerry and I had espied a beautiful little potential lead, so our mission today was to go have a look see. We have some knotted line, but mainly we just want to see if it “goes”! We unload the canoe and my bud suddenly realizes that he’s spaced a dive computer, no big deal we have extras so we continue on packing the boat. I have a moment of “I know I’m forgetting something”, but it passes so we hop in and start heading up the river. As we paddle up the Suwannee, there’s a little cove that looks interesting so we head over to check it out, but we can’t see a boil so we continue on upstream on our adventure. Sooner rather than later, we arrive at the hole we’d seen the previous week so we anchor the canoe, get geared up and head over. I’d stuck my head in it last week and while tight, it looked like we could get in there, and it was such a pretty location. I try and take a photo of the entrance, but as you can see we stirred it up a little too much while donning tanks, but hopefully it’ll give you some idea of what it looked like. I tie off a primary and start wiggling down into the hole. Darn, I make it through the first restriction, but then it corkscrews down to the right and looks impassable. I push back out to let the more experienced guy make the call and tell him my thoughts. He grins, says “I’ll be back” and drops into the hole, I try to see what’s going on, but of course there are twigs, branches and all kinds of sediment pouring out of it, so I just surface and wait. Jerry pops back up and echoes my concerns; we “might” be able to make it through the second restriction upon closer inspection, but neither of us feel that there’s a place to turn around if we can’t, so we decide to bail on it and head elsewhere. There’s a moment of disappointment, but what the hell, “you don’t know, if you don’t go”….

A bit of a wiggle....We decide to head to Rock Bluff again since its close by and we still have plenty of gas and I don’t think either of us will ever get bored of that high flow hellhole! Sure enough, there’s a good boil on the surface and I volunteer to go first and do “shovel duty” and run the line etc. We exchange a brief dive plan and down we go. It’s funny there, you don’t really notice the flow until you drop down under the overhang and all of a sudden, there’s fire hose strength water hitting you in the face and if you’re really lucky it’ll have shells and rocks in it. I knuckle down and start shoveling, I suck in a piece of shell, but cough it out and it’s gone. Finally, I’ve cleared enough of a hole and head in, there’s a neat trick to this entrance and soon enough I’m inside and out of the flow. I pull out a reel and go to tie off, when suddenly my reg starts free flowing like crazy, I cuss, switch regs and start shutting the offender down and then the other one starts to flow like some kind of crazy thing, so I just deal, letting gas blow out of my mouth and finally I get the other one cleaned out and back in my mouth. Ah, a moment of relief as I can actually get a real breath now, so I start shutting the other one down to get it cleaned out. Success! Finally I get all the crap out of there, give Jerry the okay, turn the tank back on and go to grab the reel again, but suddenly there’s an audible pop and my gauge starts to bubble like crazy from the spindle. AARRGGGHHH! I scream my frustrations through the reg, turn around, indicate to Jerry that I’m done and does he want to go on? He politely declines and we both turn to head out, we’re up in no time and I’m seriously pissed off, but it’s not that big of a deal until, if you can believe it, we realize that my spare sidemount reg is in my van and Jerry’s o-ring kit is in his truck. After we realize this, the day kind of takes a funny turn and we both start chuckling like some goofy idiots, I mean we kind of went diving…

Just a little leakWe decided to take a picture of the offending gauge and as you can see, it was really putting out a lot of gas! After a while of the usual storytelling, we take off the suits, reload the gear and start paddling back down the Suwannee. We run into a couple of fishermen who bemoan the lack of mullet, so we tell them to head up into the inlet as we’d just seen a ton. They thank us and we continue on and even though it’s been an interesting sort of day, it’s just good to be out on the water having a good time. We load the canoe up, go grab some burgers and over lunch start making plans for next week, which of course include having an extra reg, computers and an o-ring kit….

Rock Bluff – 10/13/2009

Jerry launching his canoe.It’s finally cooled off a little bit and after a beautiful paddle up the Suwannee, Jerry and I finally pull up to the spring. We can see the boil at Shotgun like a crazy thing and I wonder how hard it’ll be blowing out down below. Throwing the tanks in the water and getting dressed, we josh back and forth about the usual stuff, letting the cave bubble away silently behind us.

Finally we’ve said all there is to say and it’s time to go adjust some attitudes, so we grin, drop down and Jerry grabs the shovel and starts getting the worst of the rocks out of the way. I’m staying back just a bit, whack, obviously not far enough as a good size chunk of rock tags me so I decide to retreat a foot or so. My buddy slithers in like he’s done dozens of dives here, which of course he has and I grit my teeth and head into the tiny slit. My reg starts gushing so I wrap my lips around it trying to get a handhold and I’m wedged, finally! I take a moment to try and get my breathing under control and continue to push in. I wedge a fin up in the ceiling behind me, my elbow edges in, I get some leverage and sweet, I pop up and out of the flow. I look over and Jerry’s grinning at me having tied off the primary, but I need a second to recover, holy smokes I’m getting old! Finally we head off, I decide to switch regs, wham, and a free flow just starts kicking. Angrily I flash my buddy, take the offending reg apart, clean it out and hesitantly take a breath, cool we’re off….

Getting ready to paddle to the cave.Rock Bluff is a beautiful cave varying from gorgeous domes to wicked restrictions with two spring tunnels converging approximately 40 feet from the entrance. The North route, the bigger and siltier of the two, will be the second part of our dive today but first we’re off to explore the South route which is definitely the tighter of the two.

I drop into the steady rhythm of breathing and start to enjoy the small sidemount cave. Jerry’s doing the beautiful kick up in front of me and even though there’s silt, it’s acting relatively benign. I’m keeping a good eye on features and line positioning as we head in, since it seems like it’d be good knowledge to have on the exit! While things are small, it’s not uncomfortable by any means and the groove starts to find a nice rhythym. We turn a corner and finally I’m confronted by the first major restriction. Jerry negotiates it nicely, so while thinking to myself “oh, how bad could it be”, I flip onto my side and start wiggling. Luckily, it’s not too silty and after a couple of contortions, I pop through. Jerry glances at me, I give him the hang loose sign, he grins through the reg and we continue on.

Due to my antics at the entrance I hit turn pressure a tad prematurely, reluctantly flash Jerry and we flip around. The ride out is uneventful, although having the flow behind me while wiggling back through the restrictions, made me understand the whole cork in the champagne bottle thing.

The backup dive vehicles :-)We hit the primary reel, wait for a moment for the silt to go by, recalculate gas and confirm our line to the North route. This is almost a different cave, billowing silt piles instead of tight rock squeezes, but still gorgeous to behold. We head up and down, following the twisting tunnel through the confines of the rock and life is good, another kickass day of diving. All too soon, Jerry gives me the turnaround and we slowly work our way back through the puffy clouds of nebulous silt that flutter everywhere. My hand idly traces the line in case we lose vis, but it’s all good as I look down, see rock, look up and see our reel.

Finally I head back to the entrance with Jerry behind me and scoot out through the small entrance hole in a cloud of sand and shells. As we pop out of the fissure crack I’m laughing through my reg as I head up to the daylight and yes, another day has been exemplified by a great cave dive. I start babbling away at Jerry and don’t even notice the elderly gentleman and his wife behind us on their boat. He asks “y’all were in that cave?” We reply “yes sir” and he just shakes his head……

Morgan Spring – 9/15/2009

Brian gearing up at Morgan SpringI pull into Bill’s shop, Cave Excursions in Luraville and head on in to chat with Linda. My buddy, Brian shows up a couple of minutes later and starts getting his tanks filled. We mill around and talk about the usual sort of things, eventually we grab some directions from Bill and head in the general direction of Morgan. After driving through some woods and dirt roads, we finally arrive at Don’s property where Morgan spring is located, just off the Suwannee.

The first thing that you notice is the elaborate two story deck that crosses over the big sinkhole, then you notice the dark hole on the right and the pulse starts to quicken! Sweet, this is my first time here and Brian has kindly offered to be my escort as he’s been here before.

I ask him what to expect and he just sort of laughs and says “You’ll see”. We haul our deco bottles down to the water and hang them off the looped lines attached to the steps, Morgan’s a deeper dive and we decided to use a couple of deco gases. Finally, we’re all geared up, in the water and ready to drop.

Brian at Morgan SpringWe head down to a hole in about 20ft of water, covered by dead tree limbs and other assorted debris. Gingerly picking our way through, we come upon a crack that drops straight down into the bowels of the earth. Descending down headfirst, we try to keep from touching the walls as thick piles of silt lay on the rocks, just waiting for an errant fin kick. The crack finally bottoms out and I find myself looking at some extremely pretty ongoing tunnel. There seems to be no downstream here and after adjusting buoyancy and getting settled, Brian and I kick off into the mild flow. It’s so nice to be in a cave where everything seems to be untouched and the only sign of divers before us is the #24 line snaking off into the distance. Morgan reminds me of parts of Peacock or some of the further reaches of Telford, with really pretty high ceilings above us and dome rooms stretching out off of the sides of the mainline. I’m looking around and cackling through my reg in glee as we traverse the fairly silty passage. The vis is not spectacular but definitely good enough for the two of us! This would be a good place to run a scooter due to the depth, but you would definitely need to know what you were doing. Unfortunately, we hit our turn pressures all too soon and have to start our exit. I start swimming through some of the rooms off to the side on the way out, playing my light off the pristine formations that surround me and just marveling at it all. I glance over at Brian and he has the same look on his face that I do, how cool is this cave!

Morgan Spring BasinAfter a while, we arrive back at the up line and start the first of our deep stops on our journey back to the surface. I love shielding my light and watching the water shine down from above and this, along with other creative experiments, helps pass our deco time. We surface to the crystalline sun shining down through the trees surrounding the sink and I can’t help but think how wonderful cave diving is and how lucky we all are to have friends to share it with. Brian’s grinning from ear to ear, when we reach the steps and of course we discuss how we’re going to have to come back here again soon. We head up the steps, back to the vehicles and continue to chat about our cave dive, but eventually the afternoon just fades into a richness of life that’s hard to describe to those who have not ventured into our underground labyrinths…

Hart – 09/10/09

Jerry at HartI pull into Cave Excursions East and meet up with Jerry, who’s getting some fills for our dives today. Jerry’s the head guide at Hart Springs, a beautiful cave system located in Gilchrist County and he’s asked me to come along and help him see if the visibility has improved enough to up the guide ratio from 1:1 and also install some line arrows marking the distance from the entrance on the gold line that starts at Little Hart.

There are now two entrances to the Hart Springs cave system, Black Lagoon (the traditional entrance) and Little Hart, which was unusable until a couple of years ago when some serious flooding moved the sand that had been blocking the entrance. Due to the pristine nature of the system, this is a guided dive with guests required to have at least one hundred dives after Full Cave certification. It’s also one of the prettiest cave dives around and if you have the chance to come here and meet the prerequisites, I’d highly recommend it!

After jawing with Jim, the tank monkey of the day at Cave East, Jerry grabs his tanks and we drive on down to Hart Springs. Our first dive is going to be in Black Lagoon, so we get dressed and make the long walk down the dirt track. This is where the LP85’s are really nice! The mosquitoes aren’t nearly as bad as usual, so we take our time in the water before we drop, after making sure there are no gators nearby!

Installing Line ArrowNormally the drop down to the cave system is through black water, but today we can actually see something and I marvel at the way this pristine crack into the earth looks, after all these years of negotiating it by feel. We drop onto the gold and immediately jump left into a pristine, but silty tunnel. The visibility is fantastic and the mounds of wobbling silt almost dare you to mess up a kick. Jerry’s modifying like a maniac in front of me and I appreciate the nice technique as I have an opportunity to look around and really study the cave. We hit a T and veer right, head through a beautiful duckunder and right again at another T. Pretty soon, we’re back on the gold line and heading deeper into the cave. There’s particulate in the water from the flow and it’s not as clear as the side passage, but it’s still better than a month or so ago. We head on for a while and then knowing we have a second dive to do, we turn and head back, riding the gold braid back to the entrance and start our ascent.

We sit on the surface a while and talk about the dive, we’re both just loving the remoteness of the dive, the quiet atmosphere, the anticipation of a second dive this afternoon and almost regretfully we start the walk back to the vehicles.

We’ve decided to sidemount for the second dive, since we’ll be working with tape, lines and arrows and the possibility of separation, so after switching out gear and tanks we head over to Little Hart. No one’s been in here for a while, so the first part of the dive is spent pulling the line up out of the sand, removing tree limbs, checking tieoffs and making sure the gold braid is still intact. We kick up a storm while doing this but luckily the flow is high and it all sails out behind us. Finally things are where they need to be, and we start our task of installing line arrows.

So, guess who gets to be the dummy? That’s right; it’s me, kind of appropriate huh! For those who’ve never done any surveying, the “dummy” is the person who gets to hold the end of the tape and if they get bored, hold onto the end of the tape tighter… Meanwhile the dive buddy takes measurements, azimuth headings etc. In this case, Jerry’s going to run out with the tape and measure 100ft lengths off the gold line and install the arrows, while I get to be the dummy, hence the use of the sidemount tanks. In hardly any time, we’ve got a bunch of new arrows installed (and they’re even facing the right way!) and move onto our next project.

Jerry’s heard about a line that’s off to our right somewhere that he feels might be suitable for guests, so off we head with a reel in search of it. We tie into a line and start following it, the silt is coming off the ceiling and the floor and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We hit a T, Jerry marks it and we continue off to the right, Jerry has stellar technique but due to the nature of the tunnel I’m zeroed within a couple of kicks, but no biggie, I have the line and all is good. I enter a horizontal fracture and I can’t seem to fit up high so I’m feeling my way around since I can’t see and it seems a little bigger down low so I start to wiggle through. Of course, just at that moment I see the glow of Jerry’s light heading towards me and I’m thinking to myself, oh sure, make me turn around here why don’t you. I verify with Jerry that we are turning around, an interesting thing to do when neither of us can see more than an inch or two, but we get it worked out and somehow I managed to get flipped around and we head on out, albeit slowly. We return to the T and the vis has improved to at least six inches now, so I relax a little bit and start moving a bit faster. Soon enough, we’re back at the reel, I grab the tape I clipped off (a good idea in hindsight) and we exit the system with just a minimal decompression obligation. It’s good to see the daylight again, but we both break the surface with those big grins going and start babbling on about how cool the dive was, as cave divers are inclined to do in moments like this.

Wearily we exit, remove our gear, hop into the vehicles and head up to that wonderful BBQ place in Bell (that shall remain nameless for it’s own protection) to trade stories, lies, innuendos and all that other stuff that goes on after some kick ass cave diving.…

Madison Blue – 8/16/09

Madison BlueAh, what a gorgeous day as we pull into Madison, the sky is blue, it’s not too hot yet and it looks like we’re going to have the cave to ourselves! This is extremely cool as we’re planning on hitting the Courtyard and were really hoping that no one else had beaten us to it!

I’m with my friend Hitoshi from Japan, who’s spent a couple of weeks every summer for the last four years with me, diving the caves in North Florida. He’s an excellent diver and today, we’re going to try a three stage push out into the nether regions of the Courtyard. For those of you who are not familiar with Madison, to reach the Courtyard one has to swim over a thousand feet down the mainline into the flow, jump right into the Mount offshoot, then work your way through a couple of hundred feet of narrow, extremely silty passage called Potter’s Delight (due to the white clay everywhere) and then negotiate another couple hundred feet of extremely small body tube aptly named Rocky Horror. After it opens up again (not much!) you swim another couple hundred feet to where the passage opens into a huge room that drops off into an upstream and a downstream tunnel. The upstream is known as the Courtyard and just goes and goes…

Unfortunately, one is currently not allowed to use scooters at Madison, hence our planning the big swim dive. A couple of the bottles we’re carrying are filled with 30/30 which gives the stages superior buoyancy characteristics (gotta love helium!) and this’ll decrease our drag through the water and hopefully extend our penetration.

As we’re carrying bottles down to the water, I glance at Hitoshi and he just looks happy as a clam, echoing my own thoughts. After we each put our three stages and O2 bottles in the water, we take a moment and start discussing our dive plan. Normally, I’d be scootering this type of dive and using a leash for the stages but this time I decide to clip my nitrox bottle on normally, but nose clip my two 30/30 bottles to the rear d ring where they’ll lay out nicely behind me and not catch on anything. Hitoshi likes this idea and decides to do the same thing. We don our exposure suits and head down to the water. It takes a few minutes to get everything clipped on but soon we’re heading down to the Rabbit Hole, where I tie off a primary, hang my O2 bottle on it, get an okay from Hitoshi and we’re off!

The minute we enter the cavern zone and head across it, I know we’ve made the right call with the stages. It feels just like a normal stage dive (gotta love helium!), so I tie into the gold braid, exchange okays and settle into the groove for the long swim ahead of us. Being first in has its advantages and today is no exception. The cave is crystal clear and as we pass the jump to the Godzilla room, I check gas and we’re kicking ass, awesome, this is going to be a sweet dive! As per our plan, we drop the first stage on the downstream side of the Half Hitch restriction, switch to our second and continue on, the cave is opening up before us and this is one of those dives where everything is just starting to click. After some really pretty passage, I tie in the jump to the Mount offshoot and we continue on our journey. After some more swimming we reach the slate, where we drop our second stage and thankfully it’s marked “out.

Due to the restrictive nature of Potters Delight and Rocky Horror, there is only one team allowed in at a time, that way no one has to back out three hundred feet! I change the slate to read “in” and per our plan, hop on the last stage and “superman” it. By this I mean undoing the bottom clip while leaving the top one on and pushing the bottle ahead of you as we figure this is the best way to pass through these tight passages without disturbing the silt or banging up the cave. Potters Delight is gloriously white and I look back between my legs to make sure I’m not silting it up for Hitoshi. Water’s clear behind me and I see Hitoshi grinning at me through his reg. This is where the 30/30 starts kicking ass, as the bottle lays out almost perfectly neutral in front of me. We wiggle through the entrance to Rocky Horror and start working our way through this twisty, winding body tube. I thought this would be a big deal but with the neutral bottle in front of me, it’s not half bad! I almost laugh out loud as we pass Wayne’s “happy face” as it describes my mood perfectly and then we’re through Rocky Horror, pass a line on the right (David’s Fork?) and soon enough we pop out into the Courtyard.

Even though I’ve been here numerous times, it never fails to take my breath away! Imagine peeking out of a small hole high up on a wall and looking down into a huge boulder strewn room filled with crystal clear water, and you will maybe have an idea of what this beautiful area of cave looks like. For those of you who have been there, it looks like a mini version of Diepolder 3! We leave our last stages on the line, floating by the window at the top of the room, get on back gas finally and we’re out of here!

Unfortunately, the cave will now stay between 100’ and 130’ for the rest of the way and our deco will start racking up from here on out. Such is the price we pay I guess, but I’m toasty in my drysuit and not concerned about deco in the least, the passage is to breathtaking to think of anything else! As we swim over huge boulders and pass gorgeous, jagged formations on the wall I roll over onto my back and shine my HID up into the huge domes that appear above us. There are jump lines popping up all over the place, but unfortunately we’ll have to leave those temptations for another day. This is truly cave diving at its finest, I can hear Hitoshi’s camera and see his flash going off behind me and a sense of awe fills me as we continue on with the ups and downs that characterize the first part of the Courtyard. A little further on, the passage settles down into huge bore tunnel that reminds me of Peacock except much bigger! There are tantalizing, untouched formations of goethite everywhere and much as I’m tempted to pull and glide against the flow, I cannot in good conscience touch anything back here, so we settle into a nice froggy groove and continue. 

After about twenty minutes, I pass my previous best in here and now I’m in uncharted territory, at least for me! Hitoshi’s light is steady behind me and I know that this is exactly where I want to be, thousands of feet back in a achingly beautiful cave with a good friend having the time of my life! A little bit further on we hit our turn pressures, so we place cookies, take a reluctant last look at the going tunnel ahead of us and reluctantly spin around to head back the way we came…… 

The ride out is uneventful, more of the same visual overload and we really take our time poking around in various holes, since we have the flow at our backs. I make a mental note of which jump lines look promising for our next time back here and let the flow sweep me along. Far too soon, we’re back at the stage bottles and heading out of the Courtyard and I actually take a moment to wave goodbye; who’s a silly cave diver… 

As we squeeze back out of the Rabbit Hole and pick up our O2 bottles, I look around and the basin is ours, then suddenly a bikini clad woman flies into the water above me from the diving platform. Back to business as usual I guess, so we complete our long decompression picking up glass from the bottom and watching the locals swim around in what is to me, one of my all time favorite caves, the stunning Madison Blue…