Education, Enjoyment and Exploration…

The Ande – 8/29/09

Gearing up for the diveAs I’m leaving the house around 6am, I’m thinking to myself, this had better be worth it! After a number of hours on the turnpike, numerous cups of coffee and silly updates to Facebook via the iPhone, I finally pull into the dock. The first person I see is Mike Barnette and of course he looks at me and asks “what are you doing here?” I laugh, we shake hands and I have to go through the friendly banter of what is a cave diver doing diving in the ocean, you know there’s salt in the water, right and all the good natured ribbing that goes along with technical diving!

It all started when I met a couple of wreck divers a few years ago, they decided to take my Cave DPV course earlier this year and they managed to talk me into heading down to Wreckfest in Key Largo earlier in the year. I went along with it and as you probably noticed from previous blog entries, I had a great time and now have a new thing to do as well as cave dive!

I look up and David’s pulling in, so I flag him down and we start prepping our gear for the dive. The Ande sits in 190 ft of water so we’ve decided on 18/45 for the dive and we’re carrying 50% and O2 for deco. We’re using standard gases since both of us prefer using ratio deco in the ocean. David’s also brought his Gavin and I’ve got my SS ‘cause of the currents here. We’re humping all this gear onto the boat and I’m already missing my North Florida picnic tables!

We’re heading out today with Emerald charters and I like the size of the boat, plenty of room for divers with scooters and tech gear and it doesn’t seem crowded at all. We have a few divers on rebreathers and a few on open circuit which I’d imagine is fairly typical for the tech boats. It’s definitely a far cry from the cattle boats of the islands that I used to work on back in the 90’s!

Tim having a mischievous momentHeading out to the wreck, the typical South Florida squall breaks out, but the captain assures us it’ll blow over and after a few anxious moments we relax and get ready to go. This is my first “hot drop”, so I jump off the back of the slowly moving boat to the sounds of “dive, dive, dive” with my deco bottles attached and scooter under my arm, how cool is that! I quickly orient myself and catch a glimpse of David powering down to the bottom so I head off to join him.

We can’t see the boat yet, but my wonderful buddy remembered to bring his compass (yes, you can read that as I didn’t!) so I follow him North to where we think the wreck is. We’re scootering along and suddenly this huge behemoth appears out of the gloom ahead of us. I start hollering and whooping through my reg, it just looks so cool, this massive, intact wreck just sitting in the bottom inviting us to play….

We decide to circumnavigate the wreck once first, but like a typical cave diver, I see a huge hole on the stern and that’s that. We clip off our scooters, tie off a reel and start heading in. We’re almost immediately engulfed in huge clouds of silt, you can tell that nobody’s been on here in a while and hoping David can see something behind me. Like an idiot, I take a wrong turn and end up in a dead end passageway, so we flip around and start heading out. Of course on the way out, I see where we should have gone, but our precious bottom time is coming to a close and it’s time to start thinking about the ascent. As we’re heading back to the scooters I notice Mike pointing out the light holders which still have light bulbs in them and it’s all just so cool!

A bunch of happy wreck divers :)Finally we grab the scooters, clip them off, swim slowly up to about 130’ or so and David blows a bag since we decided I’d take care of the deco and he’d take care of the bag. Holy smoke, the bag’s almost going horizontal! There is a screaming current and I grab a hold of David so we don’t get separated and watch 400’ of line let out in about 20 seconds! I feel kind of bad for David since I know he’s going to have to reel it all back in, but I’m concentrating on our time and stops as we drift at a crazy pace through the depths of the ocean. We see other divers from our boat from time to time, but David’s busy with the bag and I’m busy with the deco schedule so we just focus on our team. After an uneventful and fun ride, we break the surface, start laughing and signal okay to the boat. We get picked up and everyone starts going on about the dive, the 100’+ vis and life is good!

We make plans to all go to “Bru’s” in Pompano, take the long ride out there and reminisce over some of the best wings I’ve ever had, and I think to myself I like this wreck diving stuff! Many thanks to David for being a great buddy, to Tim, who was kind enough to let me crash at his place after a cool day of diving and socializing and to Emerald charters for running a great operation…

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…

Northern Light – 8/7/09

Wreckfest Party!I’m wakened in the morning by this rude German banging on my door! I open up the door groggily and find David grinning at me. After blearily brewing a cup of coffee, we head out to the dock for another wonderful day of wreck diving with Silent World. I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to redeem myself today after my “silly cave diver” antics from the previous day. Today, we’ve decided to dive a wreck that’s dove fairly infrequently called the Northern Light that sits in about 190’ of water.

Having had a strict diet of no shellfish the night before supplanted with a couple of happy drinks, I’m feeling great and ready to try this wreck diving thing again. We meet up with Les at the dock, as we’ll be diving as a loose team of four on this dive and pack all the scooters, deco bottles and doubles onto the dive boat, which over the ten years that I’ve spent away from it, has turned into some kind of cave diver hating machine! We’ve got a pretty full boat today, but as usual there’s plenty of room for all. We motor out to the site, while I enjoy some spectacular views of the Keys. We go through our predive checks before we hop in and finally we’re descending down into the gorgeous blue of the open ocean. The current is howling and I’m glad that we have the scooters, as are a couple of swimmers that we end up “helping” to the wreck and what a spectacular one it is. It’s sort of folded in half with one half lying on top of the other, and it’s nice to drop into the “shade” of the wreck and get out of the current.

David and Ron aka "the Germans" :)Immediately I notice a couple of big bull sharks swimming around and for a second I think of the shark free overhead I’m used to at home, but then I start getting this kick ass diving buzz. The bulls continue dozily on their way and I start noticing the soft corals everywhere, the little feather dusters and all the small stuff you don’t normally pay attention to and I marvel about how a little wreck like this in the middle of a barren ocean floor can harbor so much life. We do a little bit of penetration, but not too much, as the gas goes quick at these depths, swim once around the wreck and all too quickly decide to head back to the boat.

I pair off with Ron for the deco, David goes with Les and we start drifting at the whim of the current. Once in a while, AJ runs the boat close by so we know he’s watching the bag and just a little while later we’re climbing into the back of the boat, removing gear and starting the story telling. We’re going to dive the Vandenburg tomorrow and my buddy Dave is giving a presentation tonight on it at the official Wreckfest party so we start coming up with crazy dive plans and ideas. Eventually we make it back to the dock, and while we’re unloading gear I suddenly realize that I’m really starting to like this crazy, boat diving stuff…

USCG Duane – 8/6/09

Our "quiet" getaway.As I steady myself before hitting the water, I wonder how on earth I found myself lurching around on a boat in full tech gear with two deco bottles and a scooter. Well, it all starts with a couple of wreck diving buddies of mine whom I’ve known  for a while, that decided to take a DPV cave course from me earlier in the year. As we went through the course, they kept telling me that I had to come down south and do some “real diving” as David so aptly puts it with his German accent!

I was informed that Silent World in Key Largo puts on what they call “Wreckfest” every year and while my buddies David and Ron have been going since it started, they decided to drag me along on their tomfoolery this time. I decided to sort of turn the week into a quiet get away with my daughter/wreck diving vacation, so I booked myself and Kaley into a beautiful little place on the beach just down the road from Silent World. Little did I know that “the Germans” were staying there also, so the quiet father/daughter thing immediately flew out the window…

Ah well, one thing led to another and I find myself stumbling around this boat with all this gear on feeling like an inebriated, neoprene clad buffoon. Finally I giant stride off the back of the boat, (what the heck, this water’s salty!) and find myself scootering down to this magnificent looking wreck, the USCG Duane, which sits upright in about 130 ft of water off Key Largo. After leaving that weird thing they call a dive boat, I felt much better and dropped back into my usual diving groove. The first thing I notice is that I forgot to add weight to my scooter for the salt water, so I’m trying to go down and my UV-18’s trying to go up, not the best of combinations I must say!

Drinking the koolaid!We’ve cruised around the wreck a couple of times and I look at David as if to say, well, now what? And, aha, he pulls out a reel; finally it’s a piece of equipment I know how to use! We drop the scooters, he ties off and all three of us head inside this gorgeous steel cave. I’m trying to keep the line tight and well-placed behind him, but instead of these little knobs of rock, we have to use these sharp, corroded old pieces of metal, but I’m still enjoying myself, even in this sodium chloride infested water.

We continue on, turn a couple of corners, head down a deck or two and all of a sudden I see light pouring in another hole. Cool, this is like a little mini cave and I’m really starting to get my groove on now. We play around on this gorgeous wreck for just over an hour, pick up the scooters and starting heading up to finish our deco obligation. After the switch at 20’, I suddenly find myself throwing up through my reg, the fish like it and swarm avidly around me, but I’m definitely not digging it! After the dive, I found out a very valuable piece of information, apparently one should never eat shellfish in a month that doesn’t have an “r” in it. It would have been nicer if I’d found this out the night before but it’s too late now!

Our Dive Boat!I finish out my deco, and am suddenly confronted by the thought of how the heck am I going to get all this gear back on the boat? Luckily, Silent World has some great crews who made life really easy on this wayward cave diver and getting back on the boat was much easier than I thought it would be.

Of course, on the way back to the dock, I’m hurling off the downwind side of the boat (hey, I did learn something!) and having to endure the regular’s comments of silly cave diver, miss your drive up sites now and all that other rubbish. I try to protest but to no avail, they’re having way too much fun with me so I just suck it up and think back to how cool that wreck was. After some more friendly jawing at the dock, I leave all pumped up and ready to do it again tomorrow…

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.