Education, Enjoyment and Exploration…

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…

  1. Tim Owens Said,

    What sort of bottom time/run time/deco did you rack up?

  2. Rich Said,

    Tim, I’m not home right now, but I think it was just over 2 hrs bottom time with about 25 mins of deco. I’ll double check for you later! Safe diving, Rich

  3. Thomas Howard Said,

    I haven’t been back there since 2000, when my dive buddy and I scootered with stages. Your absolutely excellent description of the overlook from Rocky Horror into the courtyard brought back some great memories! That cave is truly gorgeous! I just wish that we had not agreed to de-rig some of the bailout bottles that had been in the cave awhile back for the dive shop owner! Carrying 1 stage was hard enough, but 2 going out that cave was brutal. To this day it is the longest penetration dive I have ever made (just over 6000′). Anyway, thanks for some great writing (great to see some divers out there using good prose instead of technical jargon) regarding the cave diving and stay safe!

  4. Rich Said,

    Thomas, thanks very much, I appreciate the comments! Drop me a line if you’d ever like to head back there again….. 🙂

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