Education, Enjoyment and Exploration…

Summertime Blues – NACD Journal 2nd Quarter, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cave Diving Certifications – NACD Journal 1st Quarter, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Courtesy – NACD Journal 4th Quarter, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons Why – NACD Journal 3rd Quarter, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internet – NACD Journal 2nd Quarter, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please take the time to sift through the information that you find out there in cyberland, and if in doubt, talk to an instructor or an experienced diver. As always try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Having Fun – NACD Journal 1st Quarter, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please take the time to refine your skills, don’t push too hard and try to treat others as you would want to be treated. We all know the golden rule of cave diving, but how many practice the golden rule of life, do unto others… As always try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

Perception of Experience – NACD Journal 4th Quarter, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, thanks for taking the time to read my viewpoint, please take the time to refine your skills, don’t push too hard and keep a close eye on your head! As always try to slow down and think a little bit before you act, keep your cave diving safe and please take good care of our underwater cathedrals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservation and Exploration – NACD Journal 2nd Quarter, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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